Less Than ‘Zero Qualia’: Or Why Getting Rid of Qualia Allows us to Recover Experience (A Reply to Keith Frankish)

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Here, it turns out, is so bloody small that even experience finds itself evicted and housed over there.


From Philosophy TV:

Richard Brown: And you know there is a–I don’t want to say growing movement–but there is a disturbing undercurrent [laughs] of philosophers who are out and saying that they are in fact zombies. So I don’t know if you are aware of this or not but…

Keith Frankish: I’m… [laughs] Not phenomenally.

Richard Brown: Okay… [laughs]

Keith Frankish: [laughs] Yes, I might align myself with this ‘disturbing undercurrent.’


I think philosophy of mind–as an institution–is caught in a great dilemma: either they accept the parochial, heuristic nature of intentional cognition, or they condemn themselves to never understanding human consciousness. This was the basis of my interpretation of Frank Jackson’s Mary argument as a ‘heuristic scope of application detector,’ a way to make the limits of human environmental cognition known. Why does it seem possible for Mary to know everything about red without every having experienced red? Why does the additional information provided by experiencing red not obviously count as ‘knowledge’?  In other words, why the conflict of intuitions?

The problem, in a nutshell, has to do with informatic neglect (see my previous post for more detail). Heuristic cognition leverages computational efficiencies by ignoring information. Intentional cognition, in particular, systematically neglects all the neurofunctional information pertaining to our environmental tracking. In a sense, this is all that ‘transparency’ is: blindness to the mechanisms responsible for environmental cognition. Given the functional independence of our environments, neglecting this information pays real computational dividends. Given reliable tracking systems, information regarding those systems is not necessary to cognize systems tracked, but only so long as those systems tracked are not ‘functionally entangled’ with the systems tracking. You can puzzle through a small engine repair because the systems doing the tracking in no way interfere with the system tracked. What you might call the medial causal relations that enable you to repair small engines in no way impinge on the lateral causal relations that make engines breakdown or run.

This is why intentional cognition is almost environmentally universal, simply because the environmental systems tracked are almost universally functionally independent of our cognition. I say ‘almost,’ of course, because on the microscopic level this functional independence breaks down as the lateral systems tracked become sensitive to ‘interference’ from medial systems tracking: if photons leave small engines untouched, they have dramatic effects on subatomic particles. This is also why intentional cognition can only get consciousness wrong. When we attempt to cognize conscious experience, we have an instance of a cognitive system that systematically neglects medial causal relationships attempting to track a functionally entangled system as if it were independent. The lateral and the medial are one and the same in these instances of attempted cognition, which quite simply means that neither can be cognized or ‘intuited.’

And this, on the Blind Brain Theory (BBT), is the primary hook from which the ‘mind/body’ problem hangs. What we ‘cognize’ when we draw conscious experience into deliberative cognition is quite literally analogous to Anton’s Syndrome: we think we see everything there is to be seen, and yet we really don’t see anything at all. Consciousness, as it appears to us, is a kind of ‘forced perspective’ illusion. Given that we are brainbound, or functionally entangled, and given the environmental orientation of our cognitive systems, we have no way to ‘intuit’ consciousness absent gross distortions. As such, consciousness as it appears is literally inexplicable, period, let alone in natural terms. It can only be explained away, leaving a remainder, consciousness as it is, as the only thing science need concern itself with.

In this post, I want to consider a recent ‘radical position’ in the philosophy of mind, that belonging to Keith Frankish, and show 1) the facility with which his argument can be recapitulated, even explained, in BBT terms; and 2) how it is nowhere near radical enough.

In his “Quining Diet Qualia,” Frankish notes that defences of what he terms ‘classic qualia,’ understood as “introspectable qualitative properties of experience that are intrinsic, ineffable, and subjective” (1-2) have largely vanished from the literature, primarily because ‘intrinsic properties’ resist explanation in either functional or representational terms. Instead, theorists have opted for a ‘watered-down conception’ of qualia in terms of “phenomenal character, subjective feel, raw feel, or ‘what-is-it-likeness’” (2), what Frankish calls ‘diet qualia.’ The idea behind talking about qualia in these terms makes them palatable to both dualists and physicalists, or ‘theory-neutral,’ as Frankish puts it, since everyone assumes that qualia, in this restricted sense, at least, are real.

But Frankish doubts that qualia make sense in even this minimal sense. To illustrate his suspicion, he introduces the concept of ‘zero qualia,’ which he defines as those “properties of experiences that dispose us to judge that experiences have introspectable qualitative properties that are intrinsic, ineffable, and subjective” (4). His strategy will be to use zero qualia to show that diet qualia don’t differ from classic qualia in any meaningful sense.

Now, one of the things that caught my eye in this paper was the striking resemblance between zero qualia and my phenophage thought experiment from several weeks back:

Imagine a viscous, gelatinous alien species that crawls into human ear canals as they sleep, then over the course of the night infiltrates the conscious subsystems of the brain. Called phenophages, these creatures literally feed on the ‘what-likeness’ of conscious experience. They twine about the global broadcasting architecture of the thalamocortical system, shunting and devouring what would have been conscious phenomenal inputs. In order to escape detection, they disconnect any system that could alert its host to the absence of phenomenal experience. More insidiously still, they feed-forward any information the missing phenomenal experience would have provided the cognitive systems of its host, so that humans hosting phenophages comport themselves as if they possessed phenomenal experience in all ways. They drive through rush hour traffic, complain about the sun in their eyes, compliment their spouses’ choice of clothing, ponder the difference between perfumes, extol the gustatory virtues of their favourite restaurant, and so on. (TPB 21/09/2012)

By defining zero qualia in terms of their cognitive effects, Frankish has essentially generated a phenophagic concept of qualia–which is to say, qualia that aren’t qualitative at all. I-know-I-know, but before you let that squint get the better or you, consider the way this conceptualization recontextualizes the supposedly minimal commitment belonging to diet qualia. By detaching the supposed cognitive effects of phenomenality from phenomenality, zero qualia raise the question of just what this supposedly neutral ‘phenomenal character’ is. As Frankish puts it, “What could a phenomenal character be, if not a classical quale? How could a phenomenal residue remain when intrinsicality, ineffability, and subjectivity have been stripped away?” (4). Zero qualia, in other words, have the effect of showing that diet qualia, despite the label, are packed with classic calories:

The worry can be put another way. There are competing pressures on the concept of diet qualia. On the one hand, it needs to be weak enough to distinguish it from that of classic qualia, so that functional or representational theories of consciousness are not ruled out a priori. On the other hand, it needs to be strong enough to distinguish it from the concept of zero qualia, so that belief in diet qualia counts as realism about phenomenal consciousness. My suggestion is that there is no coherent concept that fits this bill. In short, I understand what classic qualia are, and I understand what zero qualia are, but I don’t understand what diet qualia are; I suspect the concept has no distinctive content. (4-5)

Frankish then continues to show why he thinks various attempts to save the concept are doomed to failure. The dilemma is structured so that either the proponent of diet qualia takes the further step of defining ‘phenomenal character,’ a conceptual banana peel that sends them skidding back into the arms of classic qualia, or they explain why dispositions aren’t what they really meant all along.

Now on the BBT account, qualia need to be rethought within a consciousness and cognition structured and fissured by informatic neglect. The heuristic nature of intentional cognition means that medial neurofunctionality is always neglected. And as I said above, this means deliberative reflection on conscious experience constitutes a clear cut ‘scope violation,’ an instance of using a heuristic to solve a problem it never evolved to tackle. Introspective intentional cognition, on this account, is akin to climbing trees with flippers.

Of course it doesn’t seem this way–quite the opposite in fact–and for reasons that BBT predicts. Like medial neurofunctionality, the limits of intentional cognition are also lost to neglect. Short of learning those limits, the scope of applicability of intentional cognition, universality is bound to be the default assumption. So our intentional cognitive systems make sense of what they can oblivious of their incapacity. The ease with which they conjure worlds out of pixels and paint, for instance, demonstrates their power and automaticity. BBT suggests that something analogous happens when intentional cognition is fed metacognitive information: the information is organized in a manner amenable to intentional, environmental cognition.

As asserted above, the point of the intentional heuristic is to isolate and troubleshoot lateral environmental relations (normative or causal) against a horizon of variable information access. Thus it ‘lateralizes,’ you could say, the first-person, turns it into little environment. The problem is that this ‘phenomenal environment’ literally possesses no horizon of variable access (cognition is functionally entangled, or ‘brainbound,’ with reference to experience) and, thanks to the interference of the medial neurofunctionality neglected, no lateral causal relationships. Like Plato’s cave-dwellers, intentional cognition is quite simply stuck with information it cannot cognize. ‘Phenomenal character’ becomes a round peg in a world of cognitive squares: as it has to be on the BBT account.

By making the move to ‘cognitive dispositions,’ zero qualia bank on our scientific knowledge of the otherwise neglected axis of medial neurofunctionality. The challenge, for the diet qualia advocate, is to explain how phenomenal character anchors this medial neurofunctionality (understood as cognitive dispositions), to explain, in other words, what role ‘phenomenal character’ plays–if any. But of course, thanks to the heuristic short-circuit described above, this is precisely what the diet qualia advocate cannot do. The question then becomes, of course, one of what ‘diet’ amounts to. Either one moves inside the black box and embraces classic qualia or one moves outside it and settles for zero qualia.

But of course, neither of these options are tenable either. Dispositional accounts, though epistemologically circumspect, have a tendency to be empirically inert: the job of science is to explain dispositions, which is to say, use theory to crack open black boxes. Epistemological modesty isn’t always a virtue. And besides, there remains the fact that we actually do have these experiences!

Frankish’s real point, of course, is that philosophy of mind has made no progress whatsoever in the move to diet qualia, that phenomenality remains as impervious as ever to functional or representational explanation and understanding. But he remains as mystified as everyone else about the origins and dynamics of the problem. I would append, ‘only more honestly so,’ were it not for claims like, “I think everyone agrees that zero qualia exist,” in the interview referenced above. I certainly don’t, and for reasons that I think should be quite clear.

For one, consider how his ‘cognitive dispositions’ only run one way, which is to say, from the black box of phenomenality, when the medial neurofunctionality occluded by metacognitive deliberation almost certainly runs back and forth, or in other words, is exceedingly tangled. And this underscores the artificiality of zero qualia, the way they can only do their intuitive work by submitting to what is a thoroughly distorted understanding of conscious experience in the first place. The very notion that phenomenal character can be ‘boxed,’ cleanly parsed from its cognitive consequences, is an obvious artifact of neurofunctional informatic neglect, the way, intentional cognition automatically organizes information for troubleshooting.

On the BBT account, the problem lies in the assumption that intentional cognition is universal when it is clearly heuristic, which is to say, an information neglecting problem-solving device adapted to specific problem-solving contexts. The ‘qualia’ that everyone has been busily arguing about and pondering in consciousness research and the philosophy of mind are simply the artifacts of a clear (once you know what to look for) heuristic scope violation. There are no such things, be they classic, diet, or zero.

Now given that the universality of intentional cognition is the default assumption of nearly every soul reading this, I’m certain that what I’m about to say will sound thoroughly preposterous, but I assure it possesses its own, counterintuitive yet compelling logic (once you grasp the gestalt, that is!). I want to suggest that it makes no more sense to speak of qualia ‘existing’ than it does to speak of individual letters ‘meaning.’ Qualia are subexistential in the same way that phonemes are ‘subsemantic.’

But they must be something! your intuitions cry–and so they must, given that intentional cognition is blind to its heuristic limits, to the very possibility that it might be parochial. It has no other choice but to treat the first-person as a variant of the third, to organize it for the kinds of environmental troubleshooting it is adapted to do. After all, it works everywhere else: Why not here? Well, as we have seen, because qualia are neurofunctionally integral to the effective functioning of intentional cognition, they are a medial phenomenon, and as such are utterly inaccessible to intentional cognition, given the structure of informatic neglect that characterizes it.

But this doesn’t mean we can’t understand them, that McGinn and the Mysterians are correct. McGinn, you could say, glimpsed the way phenomenality might exceed the reach of intentional cognition while still assuming that the latter was humanly universal, that we couldn’t gerrymander ways to see around our intuitions, as we have, for example, with general relativity or quantum mechanics.

Consciousness presents us with precisely the same dilemma: cling to heuristic intuitions that simply do not apply, or forge ahead and make what sense of these things as we can. If the concept ‘existence’ belongs to some heuristic apparatus, then the notion that qualia are subexistential is merely counterintuitive. Otherwise, relieved of the need to force them into a heuristic never designed to accommodate them, we can make very clear sense of them as phenomemes, the combinatorial building blocks of ‘existence,’ the way phonemes are the combinatorial building blocks of ‘meaning.’ They do not ‘exist’ the way apples, say, exist in intentional cognition, simply because they belong to a different format. ‘What is redness?’ makes no sense if we ask it in the same intuitive way we ask, ‘What are apples?’ The key, again, is to avoid tripping over our heuristics. Though redness eludes the gross, categorical granularity of intentional cognition, we can nevertheless talk apples and rednesses together in terms of nonsemantic information–which is just to say, in terms belonging to what the life sciences take us to be: evolved, environmentally-embedded, information processing systems.

Because of course, the flip side of all this confusion regarding qualia is the question of how a mere machine can presume to ‘know truth,’ as opposed to happening to stand in certain informatic relationships with its environments, some effective, others not. When it comes to conundrums involving intentionality, qualia are by no means lonely.