Epiphenomenal Qualia Essay

Frank Johnson, an Australian philosopher, was born in 1943. His philosophical works have been primarily focused on meta-physics, epistemology, meta-ethics and philosophy of the mind. He is best known for the knowledge argument, which is presented against physicalism (a philosophical viewpoint which asserts that each and every object in existence does not exceed its constituent physical properties) through an avid experiment: Mary’s room. However, Jackson has since rejected some of his arguments against physicalism including the knowledge argument. Nonetheless, various philosophers and researchers are in support of this argument despite the fact that they are not in agreement on where the knowledge argument goes awry. Jackson’s argument has attracted a wide body of research and voluminous literature, and presents in-depth insights on knowledge, consciousness, physicalism and its nature, and third-person science and its inherent limits.

Qualia is a Latin word which means ‘what sort’ of an object/item something is. In psychology, it describes ones consciousness and in-depth, ‘raw feels.’ It provides a materialist approach to the mind-body debate. Frank Jackson's Epiphenomenal Qualia is a paper that presents a detailed argument (the knowledge argument) which aims to provide an alternative view which is against the widely-held views about physicalism. It seeks to establish that conscious experience is not limited to physical properties. Rather, it involves non-physical properties as well. It is based on the idea that the fact that a conscious person has complete and absolute physical knowledge about another human being, who is conscious as well, does not imply that the former has the knowledge about how the latter feels after undergoing his or her experiences. Hence, we can only know about how others feel but we cannot be them.

The knowledge argument poses one of the greatest challenges towards physicalism. It establishes a doctrine that the world, and all its objects, is entirely physical. Frank presents the argument that there are valid truths about consciousness which the complete physical truth cannot define. Thus, such truths cannot be deduced nor understood through the world’s viewpoint on complete and absolute physical truth. Therefore, it presents an argument contrary to physicalism and negates the view that complete physical truth is absolute and whole. Jackson establishes that the physical truth fails to metaphysically necessitate or determine that it is the absolute truth in its entirety. This paper shall seek to evaluate Jackson’s work on epiphenomenal Qualia and establish how his philosophical argument differs from those described under this doctrine. It shall cover his work through a section-by-section analysis and shall establish the basic arguments presented there in.

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In his introduction, Jackson reveals that he is a ‘Qualia freak.’ He feels that there is always a remainder even in the most complete physical truths. This is well exemplified by his statement in which he describes such actions as ‘the hurtfulness of pains, the itchiness of itches, pangs of jealousy, tasting a lemon, smelling a rose, hearing a loud noise or seeing the sky.’ This negates the absolution in the physical truth.  The validity of physicalism as an absolute argument is rendered false by its inadequacy to cover such basic attributes. He presents an alternative argument for those who do not believe in the complete physical truth.

I. Frank Jackson’s ‘Knowledge Argument for Qualia

In this section, Jackson first presents his argument through Fred who has the ability to discern world colours in a unique way. In his supposed experiment, Fred can separate a group of tomatoes, which are red and ripe, and sort them into two distinct groups. However, only he can consistently separate the tomatoes unlike the rest of us who can only see one colour: red. Asked how he manages to do that, even when blindfolded, Fred states that his high-level colour vision enables him to identify the tomatoes as having red1 and red2. Whereas the rest of us see a single colour, red, he can distinguish between the two shades with the precision of green and white. Despite his efforts to educate us on the two shades of colours, Fred fails in making us ‘see’ these two different shades. Additional information is not forthcoming from an analysis of Fred’s brain or optical capabilities. Hence, we are forced to admit that Fred has the ability to ‘see’ an extra colour than the rest of us. Therefore, physicalism is not absolute or complete. There is always something that does not fit its descriptions or its details are beyond those that have been laid down.

Secondly, Jackson presents his argument through Mary, a brilliant scientist. Jackson presents Mary’s room as one that has no non-physical truths. She learns all truths about consciousness from a black and white television monitor. Jackson presents Mary as a ‘super scientist’ who is highly skilled in neuroscience of colour and has perfect knowledge about human perception of colour wavelength and the distinction of colour into various shades. However, despite knowing all about colour, she has never experienced it. Jackson poses the question as to whether Mary will learn anything new upon her release from her monochrome room. This supposition shows that a person can have all physical information needed despite having no prior contact with a particular phenomenon in order to gain absolute information.

When she leaves her room, she learns new phenomenal truths and gains an actual experience on colours such as red. Thus, Mary’s case presents a three-pronged approach to knowledge intuition. First, when Mary was living in the monochrome room, she had a complete knowledge claim whereby she experienced complete physical truth. Therefore, she possessed absolute physical knowledge on human colour vision prior to her release. Secondly, there is a learning claim. When Mary leaves the monochrome room, she immediately starts learning and obtaining new knowledge. Finally, there is a non-deducibility claim. What Mary learns upon leaving the room cannot be placed as having been deduced from reason alone from the absolute and complete physical truth (priori) without any conduct of an empirical investigation if the first two claims are true. Therefore, she did not have absolute knowledge during her stay in the black-and-white room. Rather, she possessed absolute physical knowledge whose scope does not entirely cover all knowledge.

However, this supposed experiment can only hold water if we were to consider several assumptions. First, physicalism is a coherent notion. It is a substantive doctrine which does not entail trivial content. This must be assumed because the notion and the existence of the complete physical truth have not been verified beyond any reasonable doubt.

Secondly, Mary has unlimited access to the complete physical truth prior to her release. This assumption faces two criticisms. First, Mary, before her release, is not in a position to know all complete physical truths due to the fact that high-level complete physical truths are not deducible through priori-based techniques from low-level complete physical truths. Secondly, Mary, before her release, is not completely knowledgeable about all physical truths due to the fact that intrinsic properties about any physical phenomena cannot be learnt discursively.

Thirdly, Mary actually learns something upon her release. This assumption faces three criticisms. First, by assuming that she learns something, we are rendered blind to the implications of having absolute knowledge about all physical truths. Secondly, the assumption that Mary learns something renders us blind to the fact that phenomenal properties are only representative of a certain object, issue or item. Thirdly, she only gains beliefs that are yet to be justified.

In addition, upon her release Mary acquires informational knowledge in contrast to ability or acquaintance knowledge. This assumption faces criticism in the sense that it is not possible to deduce some phenomenal truths from physicalism due to the fact that some relevant concepts, such as phenomenal redness, are absent.

Moreover, upon leaving the black-and-white room, she gains factual/propositional information. Thus, the knowledge gained is informative and truthful. This assumption faces three criticisms. First, she gains abilities only. Secondly, she gains acquaintance knowledge. Thirdly, she gains crucial non-propositional knowledge which cannot be classified in any folk category.

Furthermore, it must be assumed that she gained new information and not old information offered in a new way. However, this faces criticism in the sense that she learns about truths that she already knew but have been represented in a new, phenomenal way.

Additionally, if there are any phenomenal truths which are priori deducible from the absolute and complete physical truth, then such phenomenal truths are not necessarily metaphysically initiated by the complete truth. This assumption faces criticism from the fact that physicalism is compatible with claims which stipulate that phenomenal truths cannot be deduced from absolute and complete physical truths.

Finally, epiphenomenalism and the knowledge argument are distinctly consistent. However, the knowledge-gained argument negates the principle of epiphenomenalism.

II. ‘The Modal Argument’

In this section, Jackson explains that despite one having absolute physical information about someone else, it does not bring us into a logical conclusion that the person is either conscious or has similar feelings to those possessed by those who actually underwent the experience. These presents a possibility that agents which behave in a similar manner to others may exist without feeling or being conscious about those being mimicked. Since these agents are equal to those being mimicked in all possible attributes, they cannot be said to possess extra physical attributes (ex hypothesi). Hence, they are not bound within the customary physical limits. Jackson establishes that whereas we are physically identical, these agents fail to have a conscious mental life. This negates physicalism, implying that physicalism is not valid.

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III. ‘The What it is Like to be Argument’

In this section, Jackson bases his argument on Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?” Nagel states that it is very difficult to understand bats and other similar creatures due to the fact that they are very different from human beings. Therefore, Jackson presents his argument on the basis that whereas we are in a position to gain a substantial amount of information from those around us, we cannot really know what it is like to be them. He notes that this argument does not negate the knowledge argument due to the fact that in trying to understand Fred and his ability to distinguish colour, we learn of his unique ability. We do not learn about what it is like to be him for we do not gain the ability to distinguish colours like him. Rather, we learn that there is an aspect of him that is beyond our perception. The fact that bats are different from human beings serves to create a new dimension that can only be left to our imagination. Hence, Jackson establishes that the knowledge argument is limited. However, it presents the fact that if physicalism was complete and absolute, we would be in a position to find out about Fred’s and Mary’s experiences with colour. Similarly, we would establish bats’ conscious states. However, this is not the case as we are forced into collecting information about an object’s attributes rather than understanding their experiences.

IV. ‘The Bogey of Epiphenomenalism’

In this section, Jackson argues that there is no conflict presented in Qualia having contributory powers to the complete physical world. However, he views epiphenomenalism as the main obstacle that leads the world into believing in Qualia. The belief that Qualia can cause various things to happen in the physical world makes people defect from the belief that Qualia can possess non-physical entities. If people were to regard them as so, they would be embarrassed because it would be similar to believing in fairies. He presents three arguments for this argument and proves that they have no influence whatsoever.

First, no matter how much B follows A, whereby the two actions are highly correlated, anything can follow anything. He argues that there is always a possibility that A’s causation powers can be cancelled out despite their correlation. For instance, if Quale (the hurtfulness of pain) was said to be partly responsible for causing pain-deterring behaviour, then people would always avoid such activities. However, the fact that we follow Hume despite how often B follows A, the causative powers which link B to A are rejected by ‘an overarching theory which shows the two are distinct features of a common causal process.’ Therefore, a causative factor, X, can be said to have caused both A and B simultaneously.

Secondly, the principle of evolution generates traits that are beneficial for the physical survival of various species. Hence, if Qualia must have evolved, it is bound to favor survival. However, if it evolved, it must have made significant impacts on the physical world. By Darwin’s theory of Evolution, all traits deemed to have evolved are either bent on survival or are resultant from the by-products of traits bent on survival. For instance, for polar bears to survive in the cold arctic zones, they need warm coats. However, these can only be achieved through large deposits of fat in the subcutaneous layer below the skin. This has the undesirable effect of increasing weight, which negates the principle of survival. Nonetheless, it does not disapprove Darwin’s theory. Rather, it shows that evolution leads to phenomenal features. This leads to the conclusion that Qualia is indeed a by-product of a trait bent on survival.

Finally, Jackson presents the argument that we can learn about others’ mental states from their physical behavior. Behavior is a direct result of Qualia, just as a footprint in the sand is a direct outcome of one’s foot. However, an alternative view can be taken which bases Qualia on cause rather than effect. Whereas Qualia, which are effects of brain events, are non-physical, they are triggered by physical events. Therefore, it is possible to backtrack from physical behavior to Qualia by evaluating the cause of a particular behavior in one’s brain and the effect on Qualia.

In conclusion, Jackson acknowledges the existence of epiphenomenal Qualia since there is no irrefutable argument that rules out their existence. However, he feels that they do not explain anything in particular.  In addition, we are not in a position to understand the cause and effects because it is not beneficial for our survival. He illustrates this by comparing humans to highly intelligent sea slugs living in a highly restrictive environment. Whereas the tough-minded slugs are of the opinion that science covers everything in its scope, the soft-minded slugs feel that it is not absolute in its entirety. They receive a lot of criticism from the tough-minded slugs who seek to affirm that science holds the key to all intrigues. Life is part of nature and it is human to conceive things that are beyond our scope and understanding. His philosophical perspective, despite having various outstanding assumptions, clearly illustrates that complete physical truths, despite their existence, do not define our environment entirely.

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