What are qualia? December 10, 2015

You are forgiven if you’ve never run across the term “qualia” – merely a sign you’ve successfully avoided extensive training in philosophy. The term apparently first appeared in 1929, and the topic has provided ceaseless entertainment for philosophers ever since. Qualia are “individual instances of subjective, conscious experience,” according to its Wikipedia page, which goes on to offer far more than I am interested in knowing. Daniel Dennett’s characterization of qualia is straightforward: “the way things seem to us.”

In common parlance, qualia are said to be private experiences that cannot be reduced to physical features, but this is still too broad a reference for weighty discussion. Qualia are said to be the “raw feel” of perception itself, not considering any effect of that experience on behavior. Dennett proposes that they cannot be detected except by private experience, nor communicated in any way.

The perception of color is often used in these discussions. A person with normal sight who is seeing a color is said to be having an experience that cannot be communicated as such to someone else who lacks experience with color. Even two normally sighted people cannot share their unique perceptions of the same color. In other words, qualia are the experiences themselves, not the physical dimensions of the things experienced.

Would it surprise you to learn that there seems to have been an ongoing debate among philosophers about the status of qualia, never mind their details? The Wikipedia page showcases a baker’s dozen worth of proponents and critics, and even a few minutes of trying to make sense of their arguments is “mind-numbing.” Of course, this is the fundamental problem – we are talking about philosophical arguments here after all. The debate involves some pretty heavy-duty mentalism, and it is entirely unencumbered by any understanding of operant behavior.

What are they really talking about?

You may already know where this is going. After all, behavior analysts understand the behavioral underpinnings of the everyday dialect of perception. That is, we understand the science describing the orderly processes by which behavioral repertoires develop. We extend these research findings to all of the nooks and crannies of behavior, including those not yet fully investigated. The result is a comprehensive, internally consistent, science-based picture of behavior, however tentative in some areas. This science drives and is guided by a philosophy – radical behaviorism – that is fully consistent with other natural sciences in that our subject matter is entirely physical in nature. In other words, we don’t do mentalism. So when we discuss perception, we do so without slipping into the bottomless morass of speculations about phenomena that have no physical dimensions, which saves lots of headaches.

What behavior analysts understand is how self-descriptive repertoires develop. We know the role that verbal behavior plays, and how verbal communities teach these skills. We know that sensing is more than physiological processes, that it also involves a behavioral component (see the post titled, The mind’s eye and the voice in our head, Dec. 18, 2014). We understand that awareness is one aspect of a self-descriptive repertoire, that when we are aware of or perceive something we are merely engaging in a learned skill of self-observation, a skill that involves our verbal repertoire.

As described in Chapter 4, to perceive something is to be aware of it in some way. This usually means we can offer some kind of verbal description of it, even if that reaction is private. In other words, simply being aware of a sensation involves tacting it, however vaguely at times. Merely recognizing that we are experiencing something relies on our verbal repertoire, even if we might sometimes fall short of clearly identifying or describing the experience to ourselves, let alone to others, because there are no contingencies encouraging us to do so. Absent that verbal repertoire, we would experience things but have no way to be aware that we are engaging in the behavior of experiencing/perceiving/sensing. We must learn to engage in self-descriptive behavior, and the necessary instructional contingencies can only be arranged by a verbal community.

So far as I can make out from the philosophical debate about qualia, the term references no more than this behavior – engaging in a form of self-descriptive, private tacting of an experience or sensation. Qualia seem to be moments of awareness that we are engaging in the behavior of experiencing or sensing, as opposed to all those moments in which we are sensing physiologically but not behaviorally and are therefore unaware of it.

Taking the example of experiencing colors often used in the qualia literature – perhaps enjoying a beautiful sunset – our awareness that we are seeing the colors of the evening sky is uniquely human in that the perception depends on having learned to identify (usually without distinctly appreciating that we are doing so) our behavior of tacting (in everyday terms, recognizing) the fact that we are engaged in the act of seeing. It is necessarily a private experience, thus seeming to lend it a special quality apart from other learned behavior. The only thing special about it is that we are tacting events – our seeing behavior – that are private, as opposed to tacting events that others can see as well. On the other hand, we all do this all the time.

A parsimonious tactical agenda

Note what it takes to break out of the mentalistic muddle of the qualia literature. We start by discussing the topic within the confines of a scientific literature that focuses on behavior as a purely physical phenomenon. We further benefit from considering these scientific findings from the perspective of a scientific philosophy that is consistent with the science and that resists supplementing them with any form of mentalism. Finally, these speculations are falsifiable. In principle, they can be tested experimentally, although some creativity will be required to deal with the challenges of controlling variables and measuring outcomes.

We are admittedly out on a limb here in a discussion of perception and awareness because we cannot point to an adequate scientific exploration of this topic consistent with sound behavioral research methods. We are therefore limited to extending the implications of a mature experimental literature in a way that does not violate its associated philosophy of the science. It’s only fair that we recognize that this is an all too familiar situation. Many of the arguments we propose and tentatively assume to be true about the way particular aspects of behavior work lack the reassurance of an explicit experimental literature that clearly supports our positions.

On the other hand, what are the alternatives? Failing to propose a comprehensive interpretation of all features of behavior, including those we have not yet directly investigated, hinders not only our own discipline, but our ability to persuade others to consider our point of view. What we offer is in the best tradition of natural science – a parsimonious and testable interpretation of physical events and processes that is constrained by our scientific literature.

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Jim Johnston

Dr. Johnston received his doctorate from the University of Florida in 1970 and held faculty positions at Georgia State University, the University of Florida, and Auburn University. He has published both laboratory and field research with both human and non-human species on a variety of topics. He has longstanding interests in the area of developmental disabilities and founded the Master’s Program in Applied Behavior Analysis in Developmental Disabilities at Auburn University. He has served as editor of The Behavior Analyst and on the editorial boards of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, among others. He has served as president of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, as well as for the Florida, Alabama, and Southeastern behavior analysis organizations, and was the first president of the Behavior Analysis Certification Board and the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts.

What are qualia? December 10, 2015


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