Monday, October 13, 2014

Qualia, Artificiality, and Fractals: A Solution to the Hard Problem

What is consciousness? The philosopher David Chalmers distinguishes between the Hard Problem and the Easy Problems of explaining consciousness. The latter are those of discovering mechanisms that can carry out mental functions. So one aspect of consciousness is that it has certain effects and scientists can explain how those effects are physically achieved. But according to many philosophers, we won’t understand everything about what it is to have a subjective point of view even after we’ve mapped all of those causal roles of how an organism categorizes its environment, accesses its internal states, controls its behaviour, and so forth. The Hard Problem, then, is to explain the nature of what are called qualia, which are the facts that mental states feel a certain way—so that the philosopher Thomas Nagel can ask what it’s like to be a bat and we can intuit that that question is meaningful, because even were the mental states of the members of all species to have similar evolutionary functions, the qualitative aspect of those states should differ. Thus, it would be redundant to speculate about aliens from another world, because for millions of years ours has been proliferated with animals that have alien viewpoints.   

In short, the relatively Easy Problem is to explain the neural mechanisms that carry out the work done by a conscious being in so far as that being is conscious, whereas the Hard Problem is to understand where consciousness in general fits into the mostly unconscious universe. The former problem takes for granted the scientific context of reducing phenomena to causal relations between sums of material elements. The latter problem requires you to hold in mind the qualitative essence of consciousness itself, not just the physical causes and effects of subjectivity, while simultaneously realizing that the anomaly of consciousness somehow belongs in a manifestly unaware and indifferent cosmos. What consciousness does is different from what it is. The former question is scientific, while the latter one is philosophical since what consciousness seems to be—namely the qualia, the having of a private viewpoint filled with meaningful mental contents that are felt to be such by the mind of a living creature—is in fact an anomaly that calls into question the completeness of the scientist’s world picture. Science explains by quantifying and objectifying, whereas consciousness seems to be the antithesis of anything that could be explained in those ways. Consciousness is perfectly subjective, so an objective account of it would miss the point. Moreover, scientific methods of explanation have the social function of empowering modern societies, since scientific theories are applied by industries to exploit natural processes. Conscious beings, however, seem to have moral rights which any such exploitation would violate. Thus, again, the Hard Problem is suited more to (relatively powerless) philosophy than to science.

The Strangeness of Life and Consciousness

The Hard Problem of understanding consciousness is similar to that of understanding life in general, since the existence of organisms on the outskirts of a lifeless galaxy is likewise bizarre. How consciousness emerges from unconscious processes is currently as baffling as how life emerges from nonlife. In either case there’s a discontinuity that makes for the anomaly’s weirdness. The concept of consciousness or of life is incommensurate with that of physical things as such. Granted, after Darwin and Watson and Crick, biologists understand organisms better than psychologists do consciousness, but even as we come to piece together how biological processes developed, such as by studying viruses and other borderline biological phenomena, life’s rarity, its divergence from almost all of the absurdly vast universe makes it strange and that strangeness makes for a hard problem indeed: even if the organic somehow mechanically or non-miraculously evolved from the inorganic, there remains the question of life’s potential as understood against the backgrounds of that natural origin and that alienated position. What are living things in so far as they’re natural anomalies? One event accidentally followed another, perhaps made probable by certain natural regularities, and so life came on the scene—and with life, the evolution of consciousness. But that’s only the history of how we got here. With that knowledge we can understand the mechanical side of ourselves, which empowers us to change our nature just as we tinker with our technology. Yet that technoscientific knowledge won’t encompass life’s weirdness in this, mostly lifeless universe or dictate what living things should do with themselves in light of that existential mystery.

Scientists will say there is no objective purpose of life or that to speak of why life evolved, as opposed to how it mechanically did so, is to speak gobbledygook, but this incomprehension is quite consistent with the foregoing thesis. Science deals with causal relations and with the empowerment of modern societies. Meanwhile, there’s a philosophical branch of knowledge called aesthetics in which is registered the existentialist’s sense that nature’s creation of life is patently a strange thing to have happened. The fact that life was made inevitable because of some mechanism or other only infects that mechanism, as it were, with life’s strangeness. Ultimately, the existential question is about the nature of a universe that could itself be so profoundly deserted and indeed lethal to life, but that could nevertheless be the source, haunted abode, and final resting place of living things. By trying to forestall their death, animals set themselves in opposition to the blind forces of the frugal, heartless ecosystem. Throughout the universe there’s a flow, as effects inexorably proceed once certain conditions are met, but with the emergence of life there’s the satanic will to undo and to remake the environment. Again, in so far as they seek to preserve themselves despite their finitude, organisms are inherently opposed to the realities of nature, and so they effectively distract themselves from the grotesque fact that life came to exist at all in such a world. So just as living things generally are revolted by the aesthetic status of their existential predicament, scientists may pretend there’s no nonscientific knowledge. That is, as living things aim to alleviate their angst by replacing the lifeless wilderness with an extended phenotype, with a microcosm made in their image in which they can forget their creator’s undeadness, modernists may cope with life’s strangeness by denying the validity of those fields of inquiry that lack the utopian promise of technoscience.

In any case, there’s this insusceptibility of either consciousness or of life to be groked unless we ignore the fact that each is conditioned by its antithesis, which relationship makes for an existential mystery and thus for a Hard Problem of philosophical understanding. If we confine ourselves to mechanistic questions of how certain natural work is carried out, if we focus on biological issues of how organs or individuals function to preserve their genes, we can pretend there are no such Hard Problems. We would be thinking in instrumental terms, trying to gain the upper hand and losing our sensitivity to the aesthetic status of any created thing, including life or consciousness. Art makes sense when human artists paint or sculpt or write plays in a culture that fixes our expectations, and physical effects make sense in the scientific theory that always explains by way of objectification. But the emergence of life and of consciousness is both uncanny and sinister. Again, even when the mechanisms and the history are understood, the aesthetic status of the system that creates those forlorn ephemera by those means remains to be evaluated, and the value in question is plainly negative.

It’s not just that life and consciousness are wildly improbable as a matter of measurable fact, since their rarity has ethical and aesthetic implications. Once living things are made, their creator should be held accountable for the horrors that animals are forced to endure and to perpetrate, but there’s obviously no such accountability. The world in which these conflicts are bound to occur is—for that reason—a fundamentally ugly place and the inexplicability in question is itself abhorrent rather than just peculiar, because the naturalness of life and of consciousness ensures the lack of atonement for the suffering of animals in general and for the angst of enlightened individuals. In effect, natural forces and elements are immune to our Job-like calls for justice in response to the alienation of the more intelligent creatures—not just because nature is merely undead, but precisely because there’s no point to the creation of those anomalies and thus no satisfying philosophical reason for them. Whereas God might at least have a hidden purpose that’s beyond our comprehension, naturalists lack that assurance. Ultimately, then, the Hard Problem is that while we can understand simplified versions of subjectivity and of vitality that take into account only their mechanical underpinning, their aesthetic and existential status is appalling and there’s no remedy for that impression.

Fractals and the View from Nowhere

Like life, then, consciousness is anomalous, meaning that at a minimum hardly anything in the universe has that attribute. There’s surely a tortured history in which life evolves from nonlife and certain species become especially sophisticated in their perceptions and in organizing their mental maps. As to why consciousness evolved, in terms of what conscious beings should do, given that they’re merely bizarre third wheels rather than treasured masterpieces of a deity, there’s no satisfying answer—which makes for the Hard Problem. Granted, nothing in the universe has any objective purpose, but the difference is that most natural phenomena are clichéd, aesthetically speaking, rather than virtually unnatural in their uniqueness. If stars could think, they’d feel at home in the cosmos rather than alienated in it. Organisms and especially highly-conscious, authentic rather than delusional beings suffer from knowing that alienation is their lot, because of the divergence between the undeadness of natural reality and the freakishness of certain byproducts of cosmic decay.

However, consciousness does have a natural role besides the local, mechanical and evolutionary ones posited by scientists. In fact, the existential aspect of the Hard Problem—the bizarreness and pointlessness of qualia in nature, owing to the discontinuity between conscious beings and everything else, to the difference between semantic and causal relations, and so forth—helps to solve it. Again, the Easy Problem would be to explain how consciousness functions in light of biology or psychology. The Hard Problem is to explain how qualia fit into nature and the difficulty is that qualia are uncanny, which is to say they’re practically unnatural compared to the physical objects that drift through the undead universe. But this abyss between subject and object, which makes for the former’s alienation from the latter, offers a clue to what consciousness is doing in nature in general. Instead of reducing consciousness to its animalistic roles, we can take the strangeness of qualia as a primitive fact and see how nature uses discontinuities in some of its undead processes.

Nature is undead in that it’s not guided by any mind, but nor is it inert. Nature is energetic and it organizes more and more complex forms on the basis of unknowing material elements and blind and indifferent forces. One of these processes which thus only simulate intelligent direction is the sowing of the fractal dimension. A fractal is a pattern in which parts resemble the whole they form, where the resemblance is detailed and it reoccurs no matter what the scale of magnification so that the parts of those parts likewise resemble the wholes they form, and so on. Fractals thus repeat some pattern over and over, and it’s that maddening repetitiveness in much of nature which tips us off to the world’s quasi-childishness, to its lack of forethought and to its imbecilic building on itself by its reuse of simple methods. When a child asks for her parent to read the same story over and over, the adult finds this mind-numbing. But natural phenomena like trees, mountain ranges, frost crystals, or waves grow by a similar sort of recurrence. Note that the mathematical concept of fractals includes the idealization of infinite repetition, but nature is finite and other processes typically interfere with the growth of natural fractals, so their self-similarity is only approximate.

The most famous fractal is the Mandelbrot set, in which highly complex structures are produced by applying a simple rule ad infinitum to a complex number and treating the result as a set of image coordinates. The Mandelbrot set is actually governed by an equation that combines all of the Julia sets that chaotically iterate a function, and so the Mandelbrot fractal maps out all of those sets; like the universal Turing machine that can simulate all Turing machines, the Mandelbrot fractal is the fractal of fractals. For my purpose, what’s intriguing about the Mandelbrot fractal is how it emphasizes the iterative nature of the pattern by its bulb structure in which bulbs that contain more and more detail sprout in a mathematically tangential fashion. This means that many of the components touch each other at a single point. Now the question arises as to what happens in that stage of a fractal’s growth that occurs between the iterations, when the pattern is about to reoccur but hasn’t yet done so. Every time a part copies the structure of the whole it helps to form, there’s a small space or interval between it and the part from which it emerges. To simplify, suppose you repeatedly count to ten. When you move from one number to the next within each set of the ten numbers, there’s an arithmetic rule that determines the next number. But that rule—which says, for example, that six follows five—doesn’t force you to repeatedly count to ten. When you choose to repeat the sequence, there’s a discontinuity between ten and one, a point of decision, in this case, that’s not contained by the set of the first ten numbers. Likewise, in the Mandelbrot set the parts grow from and within each other by a process of iteration, and there’s a gap between many of those parts, a mere tangential point of contact. In a sense, that point, called the alpha-fixed point, lies outside the fractal structure, although it too is repeated throughout the fractal. Technically, the alpha-fixed point helps to generate the recurring pattern by bifurcating the bulbs or other shapes, repelling a cycle with another, attractive cycle, and growing another structure by that clash. But if you zoom in on the alpha-fixed point itself, on that point which lies on the tangent between parts, you won’t discover any detailed pattern within it, because that’s the fixed, unchanging point between the repetitions of the process that produce the patterns. Although infinite details sprout all around those fixed points, the points themselves are the patterns’ points of origin, not parts of those patterns.

Now, consciousness is very like the alpha-fixed point. Qualia and all other meaningful states of consciousness are discontinuous with their outer contents, in that they’re confined to a private, subjective sphere that’s apparently removed from the field of physical interactions. You can explain a physical phenomenon without reference to what anyone feels about the mechanism at work. This is another way of saying that a theory of consciousness is autonomous and irreducible to a broader theory of nature. Qualia indicate that the totality of conscious beings isn’t exhausted by their bodily manifestation. Just as fractals are patterns in fractional, or only partially present dimensions, so too a conscious being has emergent mental properties which manifest themselves in approximations of the physically perceived world. We redo nature through linguistic signs, through mental models including cultures, religious myths, philosophical worldviews, and scientific theories, and through extensions and simulations such as clothing, vehicles, cities, and so on. Consciousness is the alienated origin of a host of artificial microcosms that interpret and approximate the pre-existing wilderness of undead nature. Creations spiral out from us at every turn, whenever we think or speak or use technology, but those creations are all inspired or provoked by nature, even those programmed for cyberspace. Artificiality, the domain of creations by living creatures, is thus a fractal-like elaboration of nature by the limbo of consciousness. The rules that govern the behaviour of conscious beings—be they biological, sociological, or anything between—determine how nature looks when it’s translated by the fixed point of consciousness. Inversely, the artificial world is consciousness breaking through to nature, a fractal dimension of the physical world that attests to the conscious masters who obsessively make imperfect copies of undead phenomena to comfort or flatter themselves.

For example, politics is an artificial world of human interaction that’s governed by Machiavellian anti-rules, such as the taboo on gaffes, or on the sin of telling the unvarnished, unpopular truth in a political campaign. The truth is always horrendous when compared with the egoistic delusions of the unenlightened masses, and so our ludicrous ideals and pretensions are protected by the cynical elites. However, this political game of the modern citizen’s domestication is only a creative retelling, as it were, of the more animalistic story of the preservation of a dominance hierarchy’s structure, albeit by more subtle means. And that relatively natural pattern of alpha males ruling over the lower classes made an impression on our ancient ancestors who projected that pattern onto the cosmos, interpreting the stars, planets, and natural forces as gods ruling over them. Modern democracy, in turn, preserves the ancient social form of the oligarchy by instituting techniques of domestication, or “public relations.” For example, negative liberty is lauded and a plethora of products are made available for mass consumption, while positive liberty is forgotten and so consumers are infantilized. Thus, the modern political theater recapitulates both animalistic behaviour and the indifference of physical processes as the latter appeared to childishly-creative, mythopoeic humans. There’s a fractal spiral of creativity at work here, self-similarity by way of approximations based on reinterpretation that’s spread across history, steered by the ghosts of conscious minds which are nowhere themselves physically visible, but which are fractionally present in their creations, including in their religious interpretations of nature and in their bodies' civilized versions of more brutish behaviour. Modern democracy is a variation on a prehistoric theme, the rationalist’s nominal enthronement of Everyman, which arrangement nevertheless inevitably reverts to the default social order in which the masses are ruled by a corrupted, sociopathic minority.

Societies rework natural systems so that surveying that evolution is like zooming in on the Mandelbrot fractal—with bewildered, deluded, or otherwise alienated minds acting as fixed origins of detailed subworlds that approximate more common ones. Like the alpha-fixed point, isolated consciousness is a precondition of the iterations that make up our artificial outpourings. We are the hidden gods overseeing our created worlds, removed from both them and from the undead behemoth that contains all things, just as the Mandelbrot fractal encompasses all Julia sets; we’re detached by the qualitative, subjective nature of consciousness, which phases us out of the world of physical quantities. That latter world is relatively desiccated and undirected, but still horrifically animated. Natural fractals and other patterns are monstrous in their lifeless creativity, and conscious beings witness that horror show from the sidelines of their thoughts and feelings which drive us to our private fantasies, hells, or transcendent breakthroughs.

Recall that the Hard Problem of understanding consciousness is to explain the virtually supernatural status of qualia. What could nature be if blind and indifferent forces can cobble together subjective beings who are preoccupied by inner worlds that only they can experience? Consciousness has no objective purpose, because objects as such are pointless: they are flecks of undead cosmic flesh, monstrous foreshadows of true artificiality. But consciousness is no object. Objects form patterns, including fractal-like ones. Everything physically perceivable by the body falls in line according to natural laws, but the viewpoint of a sentient creature is nowhere among those armadas of natural forms. The alienated descendent of countless organisms that struggled against their fate with every breath, cursed by rational understanding and having tunneled through introspection to a secret interior vantage point, the conscious self is effectively discontinuous with undead nature. We’re occupied with furthering the fractal flow of nature, but that work depends on there being something outside that flow, a fixed point, a view from nowhere from which the cycle can be repeated and potentially infinite versions of preexisting patterns can be spun out. Qualia are the invisible walls that separate our innermost selves from the cosmic behemoth; they are the feelings of having an experience, of standing under phenomena, of being apart from them and being intentionally rather than just causally related to them. Qualia are nodes within the ultra-fractal that reflects the deserts and jungles and outer wastelands in their artificial counterparts. Qualia are hard to understand because they’re what divide us from everything that’s understood; they’re the edges of nature from which the undead flow is redoubled.

But qualia aren’t magical or metaphysically supernatural, since nature includes edges. In particular, the event horizon of a black hole is the edge of space and time, and black holes exist throughout the universe, including in the center of our galaxy. Consciousness is like the singularity that lies beyond the event horizon, in that both are unalterably disconnected from the natural order. Indeed, some physicists think that whole universes are born from those singularities and that our universe may be sheltered by the event horizon of a black hole in a parent universe. In that case, the analogy could be pressed further: both the black hole singularity and consciousness would be sufficiently removed to provide the potential for the creation of subworlds.

In any case, the Hard Problem is tamed when we reflect on the nature of both nature and consciousness. The disconnection between the two is what makes for the problem. Nature is physical, objective, public, lifeless, but magnificently ordered—in short, undead. Much of that undeadness is due to fractal dimensions and geometry: simple rules are followed repeatedly and dumbly by robotic functionaries from atoms up to galaxies, creating untold levels of complexity without the benefits of motivation or foresight. Qualia are mental, subjective, private, vital, and alienated from nature—as is plain from everything from our religious longings for transcendence, to our attempts to distract ourselves from existential matters with the business of our artificial habitats that increasingly replace the primary source of our anxiety. Just as there must be a lacuna in the ultimate fractal, a zero which stands for the act of reiterating the set or cycle that develops the pattern and that’s made explicit in the Mandelbrot set’s alpha-fixed point, we might expect that the super-fractal of nature’s relation to artificiality would be steered by quintessential outsiders.

As for life’s relation to consciousness, we have here a fallenness that’s again comparable to a star’s collapse into a singularity. Instead of falling from spacetime, undead molecules build edifices that become more and more autonomous and thus anomalous and weird. Qualia mark the strangest, most existentially-afflicted organisms as the most distant from the world of clichéd, robotic interactions. Contrary to the Christian whitewash, our fallenness has nothing to do with sin since there’s no objective moral order. Instead, there’s the aesthetic dimension that confines all objectified phenomena, since the more impersonal the scientific explanation, the more the universe resembles a colossal art exhibit. Discontinuities like conscious minds and black holes become especially original products of nature’s creativity. Organic evolution is a stream of complexification; eventually, certain creatures become self-aware and pass beyond the boundary of undeadness, imprisoned by qualia and tormented with a godlike overview. But while the relation of consciousness to the undead plenum is subject to such speculation, the existential aspect of the Hard Problem remains: there is no escape from our strangeness.


  1. I have nothing to say on the content of this article, other than it made me realise some things that should have seemed obvious to me. It really gave me some "how did I not see this before?" moments.

    Also, some of your sentences are just pure poetry. I love your writing style.

  2. I have come across a Richard Dawkins video talking of nature, consciousness and all, and then suddenly coming to fractals. It comes across as a brainwave at first, but then, whatever. I'll post a link soon.

    I was more impressed by your other posts.

    1. I'd like to see that video. I like how the fractal idea ties together my thoughts on technology, creativity, and angst (strangeness of consciousness). I see philosophy as mainly myth- and art-making, so the standards are more aesthetic than scientific. The question shouldn't be whether a philosophical speculation is factually/objectively true or empowering, as with technoscience, but whether it's affecting or mind-expanding as with poetry. At least, that's so with regard to constructive philosophy. Destructive philosophy, as in the kind that tears down sham belief systems, is more protoscientific in that it's concerned with logic and evidence.

  3. I love the 'alpha point' metaphor, but the questions is whether it's anything more than a metaphor. Throughout the post, you tacitly acknowledge that the problem of phenomenality is a problem of perspective, primarily, the way your perspective on your own experiences (qua phenomenality) is the only perspective on those phenomenality.

    My question is simple: Where in life, should we trust any one perspective on something complicated? Seems pretty clear to me that we shouldn't, that the kinds of intuitions driving your argument are precisely the kinds of intuitions that cognitive science is shouting at us to abandon. I can back this up with endless examples, if you want. In other words, I can build a powerful, empirically informed case that the problem with qualia has nothing to do with qualia, but the radically blinkered perspective we have on it.

    What is the contrary case? Why should we presume any metacognitive capacity to intuit the radical nature of qualia?

    1. Hi Scott. You seem to find my cog sci-related posts awfully quickly.

      It's not just that I "acknowledge" the privacy of subjective experience. I take it for granted without trying to prove it in this article. I ask whether there's a naturalistic account of discontinuities to account for qualia, given that the latter are anomalous, which is indeed how they seem.

      You say we shouldn't trust intuition about complicated things. Someone might argue on the contrary that holistic and unconscious thinking, as about to the serial, logical, conscious kind has proven itself trustworthy on pragmatic grounds, if not on scientific ones. It's kept us alive for millennia before science. Then the question would be whether making sense of anything, including qualia, is entirely a scientific matter.

      But I'd argue instead that qualia aren't complicated. The brain is complicated, but phenomenology isn't. Folk psychology is the easiest thing in the world. The causes of subjective experience may be fiendishly tricky, but the experience itself, which is the inner world that divides each of us, is more open to understanding than literally anything else in the universe. I'm talking here about subjectivity itself, the appearing or seeming of things, not their neurological underpinnings or evolutionary history. If you identify the two, you'll have to tell me why the brain doesn't taste like fried chicken or sound like a leaf blower when someone has those qualia.

      Science isn't driving us to abandon the impression that there's an inner, private mental world; rather, powerful corporations, especially those that produce mobile gadgets and the internet, are driving us to ignore that fact, to depersonalize and infantilize us, to exacerbate the modern kind of human domestication that turns us into cattle-like consumers, into inauthentic beings with no worthwhile inner life. Introverts will be less likely to fall for such distractions than will extroverts.

      You say we're "blinkered" about qualia and that the Hard Problem about qualia is really about the brain's blindness to its real mechanisms. So you're saying we suffer from a misperception. I'd like to know how you state that criticism without implying the existence of qualia. What's your nonsemantic, strictly mechanistic account of misperception? How is it that we *seem* to have qualia even though we really don't, when qualia are supposed to be nothing but how things merely seem?

      Finally, you suggest that the fractal idea may be just a metaphor. That would be OK since this is philosophy, which has more in common with art and poetry than with science. But what would you add to metaphors to make them respectable? Not truth surely. And not value. So is it just the raw power that comes with science that makes cog sci better than the manifest image which takes qualia for granted?

  4. Just dumb luck on my blog surfing! I always enjoy these kinds of posts...

    So, to answer your questions:

    Qualia appear radically discontinuous because of neglect. Human cognition quite simply did not evolve the capacity to track and specify 'inner realities' (and how could it?), but rather a variety of ways to pluck the kind of information it needed to solve for specific problems - a capacity that philosophy has attempted to use to solve for 'inner realities,' even though it is (obviously, I would say, given the millennia of philosophical failure to resolve any of its core issues) hopeless ill-equipped to do so. Rather than blame its tools, however, it prefers to ascribe extraordinary properties to its subject matter (which happily makes the philosopher something extraordinary).

    Given that this is the more epistemically and ontologically modest take on the issue, the burden lies with you: How could humans have evolved such an extraordinary capacity to explain such an extraordinary corner of nature? The amount of evidence coming out of cognitive neuroscience on metacognition really is quite amazing, and it all pretty clearly points to a single answer: We didn't evolve any such capacity. Our cognitive relation to ourselves is radically fractionate and heuristic. As a result, it seems to safe to assume the apparently extraordinary nature of qualia is simply a product of our incapacity.

    I'd say the corporate world is continually urging us to fetishize our experiences if anything, and likewise conditioning us to neglect the technical apparatuses that enable them to condition our behaviour.

    If by 'misperception' you mean some kind of failure of correspondence between a physical state of affairs and some mental entity, then I would say you're letting your heuristics get the better of you. If by misperception you mean some kind of misalignment between otherwise aligned environmental and neural systems, then I would ask you what that has to do with qualia. If you ask me what distinguishes misalignment from alignment, I would say the capacity to intervene in environments in reinforcing ways.

    Something's more than a mere metaphor when applied to a problem when it somehow, by hook or by crook, contributes to the solution of that problem.

    1. When you say in your reply’s first big paragraph that “Qualia appear,” I want to know how you’re not presupposing the existence of qualia as precisely how things merely appear. You’re saying there’s this appearance of discontinuity, but it’s really a matter of ignorance and “misalignment.” So there’s the reality of the neural mechanisms that are either aligned or misaligned with an environment, and then there’s the illusion that a misalignment can give rise to. But qualia live right there in the illusion.

      As for your point about what we’ve evolved to do, by that same logic we shouldn’t trust science since we didn’t evolve to do science in the modern sense. Why trust our explanations of galaxies, gravity, and quantum mechanics when the brain clearly evolved to fulfill much humbler purposes? Again, there’s exaptation. What’s useless in one context can become useful and even fitness-enhancing in another. What’s a misalignment in one period can produce an entire order of being, complete with emergent regularities or “reinforcing” capacities. What’s an “incapacity” relative to some future development--such as the eye in its inchoate form in simple organisms--can be the turning point towards the exploitation of a hitherto unfathomed niche. Qualia can be just like that: misleading illusions from a purely cognitive scientific viewpoint, but utterly indispensible and revelatory from the perspective of every culture. If qualia were entirely unreal, would you consent to turning off the illusion in your case were a technique for doing so made available to you? Would you forgo the experience of how things seem to Scott Bakker? The subjective feel of a sunset, the taste of beer, and so on and so forth? Illusions are real! They add to the furniture of the universe.

      And whether we evolved to understand them is neither here nor there. I’m not trying to explain them in scientific terms. My speculation about fractals and so on is philosophical. Are poetry and all the other arts worthless because they don’t scientifically explain things? But you’ll say the issue isn’t what’s worthwhile in general, but what’s of cognitive value. Does poetry or philosophical speculation generate knowledge? We’ve been over this many times before, but I still don’t know how you avoid giving a pragmatic account of science, knowledge, and truth, given your eliminativism. So as long as poetry and philosophical speculation have certain reliable effects, I fail to see how you can dismiss them without trying to have it both ways.

      I agree that corporations fetishize certain experiences. But depersonalization pertains to the diminishment of autonomy due to the constraining of choices to those that are economically recognized. Infantilization pertains to the alleged link between having the desired experiences and buying certain products. So we fail to reach our potential when we become cultural materialists, when we assume that our ultimate goals are satisfied when we consume certain products.

    2. Regarding metaphors, you say they may not suffice to “solve a problem.” If the problem is obtaining scientific knowledge of how the brain’s mechanisms work, I don’t suppose the fractal metaphor addresses that problem—although it could be turned into a scientific hypothesis. Anyway, that’s not the only problem confronting us. Another is how to think of qualia given both that they’re psychologically indispensible and that scientific objectification nevertheless discounts them. So the issue is what sort of philosophy should we adopt that encompasses both the mechanistic account of the self and the fact that we’re forced to see ourselves as more than mechanisms, because the mechanisms interrelate to produce a complex, emergent field of experience (subjectivity, personhood, etc).

      My blog goes after that issue, whereas you keep saying that everything falls before mighty science. But science addresses only questions of knowledge, whereas here we’re talking about social practice, about what should be done in light of the conflict between the scientific and the folk/manifest images. As I see it, some third perspective is needed to settle that conflict and that’s where philosophy and art (aesthetics) come in. Again, the issue isn’t just what’s real or factual; it’s also what we should do, how we should live, and so on.

    3. Your science 'counter-example' kind of says it all. What theoretical problems has intentional philosophy decisively resolved? My account actually explains the dramatic cognitive difference between science and philosophy quite well, don't you think? In the meantime, you haven't said the first thing about how such an 'inner reality detector' could be empirically possible.

      Otherwise you're misinterpreting my view. I'm not saying there's no experience, only that one misunderstands what they are as a biological being if they think experience *as it appears to metacognition* (call it M-experience) is another thing in the inventory of nature. There's no such thing as M-experience, and again, it's hard to imagine how there possibly could be given all the structural obstacles and developmental constraints that need to be overcome.

      Does poetry generate theoretical knowledge? Of course not. But then we don't expect or want as much. The issue here is *whether your theoretical claims should be believed.* And on this issue I think it's painfully obvious that science poses a very big problem, indeed. If my account of metacognition is confirmed (and there's a small mountain of evidence to that effect already) then we have no reason to take our metacognitive intuitions regarding the nature of any intentional phenomena seriously. That's a huge problem, and it's yours, and it's just around the research corner.

      You continually accuse me of idealizing science, but truth is I think it's going to cut all our throats. I think its messy, mistake prone, and far and away the most powerful claim-making institution in the history of the human race. I'm not so much pro-science as I am skeptical of philosophical discourses on the nature of experience and intentionality. I think intelligence and creativity as obvious as yours is better aimed at our freaky future, at coming up with something radically new, rather than falling into the 'science taming mode' that has characterized philosophy for so long.

      You make it sound

    4. You’ve moved the goalpost from the need to solve a problem to the need to solve a “theoretical” one. We’ve been over this before. Your use of that word in this context is dangerously misleading. It looks as though you’re scientistically begging the question against philosophy, by implying that because philosophy fails on theoretical grounds, where a theory here is just what science as such does, philosophy fails in general. But I know you wouldn’t resort to that sort of word game.

      Anyway, philosophy has solved many problems of human interaction, which would be recognized as praiseworthy from a pragmatic viewpoint. Again, I don’t understand how you can define “theoretical problem” without yourself resorting to such a viewpoint, given that you discount the correspondence theory of truth. So if you praise scientific knowledge on pragmatic grounds (i.e. science empowers us to use natural processes, whereas otherwise we’d be mostly used by them), you should be praising philosophy and the manifest image on the same grounds (i.e. the assumption of our subjectivity gives us dignity and makes us want to keep living rather than commit suicide on the first hearing of naturalistic discourse).

      Why would I need to appeal to an inner reality detector? I don’t assume my fractal speculation is true. I evaluate it on aesthetic grounds, being that I consider it a work of art made of ideas. Again, you should be sympathetic to that sort of deflationary view of ideas, given that you discount semantic relations. What matters to me in philosophy is whether the speculation is cool, mind-expanding, emotionally stirring, and in line with the tragic aspect of naturalism and of the scientific picture of life. Just as I don’t treat poetry as scientific, I don’t ask philosophers to tighten up their “theories” or to let empirical facts dictate everything that’s said. Poetry that sticks to the facts wouldn’t be particularly creative, right? Creativity and originality are what matter in art. You keep using scientific criteria in your judgments of philosophy. It would be one thing if you granted semantics and the correspondence relation of truth, since then you could say that philosophy may have artistic value, but it lacks the cognitive kind where the latter is due to the greater reliability of science in that semantic sense. But you’re an eliminativist, so you can’t make that distinction. I submit that however you distinguish between art and science, in terms of coordination with the environment or whatever, your account will be sufficiently pragmatic to make room for the equal dignity of philosophy and the manifest image as art and as strategy for social interaction.

      You say the issue is whether my theoretical claims should be believed. But because my claims here are philosophical, they’re too out-there to be testable by empirical methods. We’re left merely to wonder what the ultimate facts of the matter are, where “ultimate” means “Who knows?, given that our ability to answer certain questions is currently quite limited.” You’ll say that cognitive science is leaving less and less room for such speculation, but that’s not so, because a nonreductive account of qualia and of intentional phenomena is consistent with the positing of neural mechanisms. I’d say that the brain’s blindness to its mechanistic underpinnings is a means by which personhood is created as an emergent phenomenon in the accidental, bumbling fashion that’s typical of the creative course of evolution.

    5. I don’t believe I’m taming science. On the contrary, I work hard to ensure that my philosophy is consistent with science. It’s naturalism that makes for the existential crisis, to which my philosophy is a response. Our mechanistic foundations make untenable the theological speculations, while leaving just enough room for the philosophical ones about the self, and the latter in turn posit a self that can be angst-ridden about our animalistic, mechanistic basis. So it’s a perfect storm in that we lack the refuge of theism, but we get to keep the manifest image which allows us to pose the existential problem but not to find an obvious solution to it. That’s why our situation is tragic. If we had no personal selves, we wouldn’t be so troubled by the findings of cognitive science.

  5. Ben,

    I think an issue is that in your 'explaining' of qualia, you are kind of rushing past the hard details of the matter. Instead you're getting onto your interpretation and where you are emotionally invested - the thing is, getting onto it so quickly might make other people your interpretation and emotional investement isn't an intepretation but fact and emotional investment not emotional and instead some quality of the universe.

    They should really have their own chance to take the facts and cook up their own interpretation and investment. Sure one can pitch ones own interpretation to them, but shouldn't they be given time to consider their own, rather than rushed and in being rushed, treat interpretation as fact?

    1. I'm not clear on your point here, Callan, but you seem to be saying that the emotional motivation of my philosophy is showing. I'm not even sure that's an objection, though. Haven't I been upfront on my blog that I mean to address the existential crisis, which is the crisis of feeling horror in response to naturalistic enlightenment?

      Now, if you mean to reduce the value of my philosophy to its emotional source, I'd say you're committing the genetic fallacy. I posit an emergent aesthetic level of an idea's evaluation. So even if a piece of writing derives from certain emotions, where those emotions might be considered weak by certain extroverted folks, the writing itself can still succeed in independent, aesthetic terms. Thus, I don't see the problem you're raising, assuming I've interpreted your comment right.

  6. I'm not worried about showing an emotional motivation. I'm worried about ONLY showing an emotional motivation, as if it's the entire thing.

    I think you should describe the facts, sans, as best as you can manage, any emotions. Then pitch your emotion/interpretation after that.

    Give the facts so as to let someone else derive their own aesthetic interpretation if they are inclined to. Do you think your own interpretation is the only one possible?

    Otherwise you seem to be treating your own emotional reaction as if it is a fact.

    Which wouldn't be grasping any sort of existential crisis at all.

    1. So you want a report of just the facts? That's what science and journalism are for. This is philosophy, so interpretation is a must. That said, I do try to explain the Hard Problem and the nature of fractals in a neutral way, prior to interpreting them or assimilating them to my worldview. You might want to have a look, though, at my "Humanization and Objectification: Why the World doesn't Speak for Itself." You can substitute "facts" for "world" in that subtitle.

      I think that when it comes to philosophical questions certainly, and perhaps even to some scientific ones, the facts don't speak for themselves. The questions and the answers are value- and theory-laden, as they say. That's why the aesthetic perspective is needed, because we're dealing here with art made out of ideas. It's not just a matter of prudent map-making. Philosophies of life are largely matters of taste and they're justified not just by logic and empirical evidence, but by rendering an ethical judgment of the type of character that tends to support the worldview. I know analytic philosophers try to be as rigorous as possible, and that's fine--although that's the reason philosophy is so unpopular or unknown. Science has tangible applications in addition to its impenetrable abstractions and quantification. Philosophy has applications too, but they're psychological and they compete with those of the self-help, psychiatric, and economics industries.

      Anyway, when you look at a work of art, do you think the facts of the matter are crucial? How the object looks and so on? Not how it makes you feel and what it prompts you to do about it? Why would you think philosophy has to be as objective and neutral as science? What do you think the difference is between science and philosophy?

    2. Anyway, when you look at a work of art, do you think the facts of the matter are crucial?

      Yes, at the first stage - just as much as the first stage of enjoying a magicians performance is to either think 'magic isn't happening' or atleast 'I'm pretty dang sure magic isn't happening'. I've talked with too many table top RPG players who really couldn't distinguish reality and fiction (they think if they speak the fiction 'I get the can of peaches' somehow that has a cause and effect and get angry (ironically) if someone doesn't comply with that).

      Why would you think philosophy has to be as objective and neutral as science?

      I think you've done a lazy read, as if I'd said 'You only give the facts' rather than 'You give the facts first, then your interpretation'

      In regards to the latter, yes, philosophy aught to be objective (BEFORE it gets to its cultural interpretation) or it's the practice of shyters and conmen. Just as much as the magician who tries to act as if he is genuinely practicing magic is.

      If you want to read me as saying 'only speak facts', then you're going for a strawman.

      What do you think the difference is between science and philosophy?

      Philosophy has made fewer mobile phones and fewer revivals from the legally dead than science has.

  7. A very nice article, glad I've found your blog.