Flame-Grilled Fillet of Quale
So the last few posts have taken swings at universals and objects, and out of that I've found myself fucking around with an idea of narrative as how we ideate sensation into entity -- which begs the question of just what sensation is. I guess that puts qualia next in the firing line, these hypothetical hoojamaflips in which the physicalist philosophy (where there are no kinds of things other than physical things -- or as I'd put it, where existence is actual instantiation, duh,) is challenged by the mystery of our mentalese. There's a distinctly queer quality to the experience of the colour red, if you think about it, to all such framework features of our inner modelling of the world. I can never see your red. You can never see mine. We can't describe them to each other. So we encapsulate the pure subjectivity of the stuff we call sensation in the notion of qualia, characterised (c.f. Dennett) as ineffable, intrinsic, private and directly experienced.
I'll freely admit to the mindfuckery of sensing a colour and being entirely unable to say for sure if my experience of that is identical to yours, but I'm not sure these qualia are as much of a problem for a physicalist view as they're made out to be. Do we assume they're entirely isolated from the cause-effect chain of shit-going-on we call substantia -- mere epiphenomena -- or do we imagine them participants in it in some way? If we're assuming they're pure epiphenomena, the thing is, that makes them strange but irrelevant, simply a weird virtual after-image of the flux of activity. No big deal. And if we're assuming they're participants...
Well, that latter view seems more of a piece with how most would cast these hypothetical hoojamflips called qualia. So I reckon it's worth interrogating.
As I see it, this is to assume: 1) that the sensation/ideation experiences are composed of qualia; 2) that these are affected by physical action, reception processes within body being read by mind; 3) that they affect physical action in turn, inception processes within body being written by mind. If this is what you mean by qualia though, I'm definitely not worried about this being a problem for a physicalist view because the quale is physical, simply not materially detectable. If the qualia-structure -- the sensation/ideation as construct of qualia -- is causally connective to the brain activity, I mean, this is physicality whether or not the intermediating activity is materially evident.
Let's break it down:
Brain, Mind and Nous
What we have in this notion of qualia is (1) the brain-state as a system modelling reality, and (2) the mind as some sort of alterior covert/remote system, engaged with this so as to (a) translate that brain-state into qualia, (b) perform sensation and ideation, (c) translate ideation back into brain-state to instigate action. If we cannot detect the mind's engagement in terms of matter or energy, we must assume it carries out read/write operations via (3) an entirely unknown medium that is not discernible as either -- call it nous.
There are two scenarios of mind here: (A) a "covert" system where the sensation and ideation operations intermediate between reading and writing brain-state are also carried out in that medium, meaning nous and qualia are identical; (B) a "remote" system where nous is an interface, passing brain-state readings back to mind for them to be modelled in qualia, and enacting modifications of brain-state as decided by the mind, in order to instigate behaviour. In neither of these, I should specify, am I making any assumptions about how the mind processes sensation into ideation. The word operation is not meant to imply something computational. The only assertion here is nous as mind's read/write interface to brain-state.
Whether mind is covert or remote doesn't really matter. In both scenarios, the assumption of a wholly undetectable nous leaves us with a material brain-state modelling reality, and a discrete immaterial mind eavesdropping on it, doing the sensation and ideation via hidden qualia, and whispering instructions for actions that appear spontaneous because the cause is beyond our ken. Either way, we get the properties assigned to qualia -- ineffable, intrinsic, private and directly experienced.
While the result is basically the same then, the separate functions of the system -- external interfacing and internal processing -- are best dealt with separately, so as to not muddle them. So let's take the latter scenario, treating the nous as distinct from a remote mind, the hypothetical hoojamaflips of sensation and ideation entirely isolated from the material state of the brain. We should bear in mind that the messenger and administrator could just as easily be the same thing here, but we'll keep them distinct for the sake of clarity.
X-Rays and Microwaves
As with an x-ray then, we can imagine nous being sorta fired through the brain, being somehow imprinted by its passage such that it returns a reading of the brain-state, which is modelled in qualia by the remote mind. In this theory, the mind then processes sensation into ideation, and fires back signals which imprint changes in the brain-state so as to produce action -- like the microwaves feared by wearers of tinfoil hats, only in this form of thought-control it's your mindthoughts controlling the meat-puppet.
X-rays and microwaves then, is what we've got, but in the non-physical form of a hypothetical nous.
Now, we can posit that the brain-state is entirely unaffected by the read operation in terms of matter and/or energy, or at least that no effect is detectable because the nous is not just an entirely unknown medium of interaction but one which has no effect in those terms, not in this sort of process. However, in so far as we're hypothesising the transcription of brain-state into nous-state, we are positing a physical process. And with the nous performing a write operation on the brain-state, it doesn't matter if the medium/mechanism is not discernible as matter or energy. Regardless of the cause of sudden change in the system being unknown, by casting that change as effect we are most assuredly positing this also as a physical process.
The crucial fact here is that while we can imagine reception and inception being mediated by nous (and mind) activity outside the effect horizon of the brain, and while we can imagine this interfacing nous to be practically undetectable and theoretically unimagined in our current paradigm, we are still describing an entirely physical system by definition. In establishing an effect horizon to the material brain-state, we've established an effect horizon for the nous. We can't see it pushing the buttons, but in so far as we're positing that the buttons are being pushed by something other than the brain's own dynamics of button-pushing-causing-button-pushing, we are positing a system acting upon it physically.
Further, as a remote/covert system isolated from us by the fact that its mechanism of causal input and output connectivity is this unknown nous, (and working under the presumption that we can't otherwise detect the mind any more than we can the nous,) that mind becomes a black box system to us, but it is no less physical for that. We are establishing an effect horizon here too, circumscribing this conceit of a thing which is affected by the nous and which affects it in turn. It's a completely enigmatic physical system, but it's still a physical system. Since we're treating mind as distinct from nous, we're essentially positing a fourth medium in which the activity of mind we call qualia occur -- let's call it aether -- but with this, as much as with nous, we're saying that it is physical the moment we have it interacting with nous.
The hypothesis of qualia does not challenge a physicalist philosophy then, only extends it by positing additional physical media of interactivity -- nous and aether -- which are undetectable because they're neither matter nor energy. You can imagine your mind to be that remote black box operator working the meat-puppet over psychic wifi, but this only asserts as yet undiscovered physical forces that are no more evident to us than x-rays and microwaves to a caveman.
Operating on a physicalist philosophy, I simply shrug. I find your hypothesis implausible, but I have no problem believing that there are physical forces we haven't learned to detect yet.
Entirely Effable Energy
In fact, in so far as energy can be considered the ability of a physical system to do work on other physical systems, the nous being posited is not even a new physical medium but is actually an unknown form of energy. It's not electromagnetic, not kinetic, not potential or what have you, so it's not detectable as such. But if we have brain-state changes being externally caused, then we have work being done on that system, and where we have work we have energy. On the off-chance that such an actuality is discovered, I hereby dub it noetic energy.
This is where the qualia argument against physicalism only really causes problems for itself. The actual thesis under consideration is that a noetic energy as undetectable to us now as x-rays and microwaves once were can be used to take readings from brain-state; that this is done by a similarly undetectable system which translates these into qualia; that the system performs sensation and ideation with these qualia, and then uses noetic signals to write brain-state, translating thought into action.
Since the mind is a system doing work on the noetic interface, interacting causally with it, the hypothetical aether must also be considered fully physical in this way. Which is to say, if the qualia-structures are not themselves substantiated in patterns of noetic energy, they are substantiated in whatever aetheric substance the noetic energy is interacting with. This is to say that the hypothetical aether as conceived is a type of matter, weirder than dark matter or anti-matter for sure, but matter nonetheless. If the anti-physicalist should claim nous and aether to be non-physical on the basis of their elusiveness, we need only point them at the tachyon.
I suspect many hardline materialists would dismiss these fancies of noetic energy and aetheric matter out of hand as the pseudo-science used to sell snake-oil, but my own skepticism is willing to entertain the fancy long enough to make a point: if true, this model of qualia simply means the physical processes involved are not evident to us at this time, not practically detectable; theoretically, we're dealing with entirely effable energy.
Since the brain is essentially a noetic energy detector in this theory, we have the beginnings -- if only that -- of a method of empirical investigation, indeed. If it interacts with the physical world, we can study it. And if it's theoretically possible to discover the properties of this mysterious noetic energy just as we discovered those of x-rays and microwaves, who's to say the mysterious aetheric matter of mind is not equally discoverable? There's eminent testability here. If you can crosswire the noetic connections between my mind and brain and yours, a good part of your theory will be proven to me by the fact I'm walking around in your body. If the two of us can meld the aetheric matter of our minds, we can compare qualia directly.
Go on. You show me yours, I'll show you mine.
The Return of Pixie Farts
Theoretically, of course, one could insist that these hypothetical physical systems -- noetic energy and aetheric matter -- are essentially undiscoverable despite their interactivity with the currently observable physical system of the brain. But in so far as such blank refusals of the possibility of observation rest on the systems being non-physical, this is simply the return of pixie farts. The wholly hypothetical physical effects with no discernible cause are fancies of unevidenced actuality. The alterior physical system imagined to be interacting to cause those fancies is a pure phantasm of noetic energy and aetheric matter. In the incoherent denial that such a physical system is in fact a physical system, that noetic energy and aetheric matter becomes pixie farts.
Pixie farts are detectable in a notion, by the way, by the bootstrapping circularity of non-physical existence claimed on the basis of elusiveness, elusiveness claimed on the basis of non-physical existence.
We can flense some of philosophical blubber here with Occam's Razor, try and get a coherent model. We can drop the aether out of the equation by collapsing the remote mind to the covert mind. We can rationalise the silliness of a meat-puppet remote-controlled by microwave mindthoughts by imagining the mind a system directly interfaced with the brain hosting it, reading its state via qualia-structures made of noetic energies, performing its sensation and ideation in that medium, firing its commands back in the same medium. Still, unless we have an agenda in denying physicality -- e.g. in order to assert the eternal life of spirituality -- there is nothing about qualia that conflicts with a physicalist philosophy. Rather, any presumption of interaction with the material brain-state renders the anti-physicalist position self-contradictory, a mumbo jumbo of a noetic force that isn't noetic energy. A little Zen paradox may be useful for grappling with the complexity of existence, but this is just simplistic spiritualism sustained by disregard of inherent contradiction and implicit motivation.
The Arcane Singularity of Aesthemes
Having laid bare the physicalist view implicit in the hypothesis, we're left with a crux question: In so far as the coherent notion of noetic energy renders the ineffable and private nature of qualia simply a product of our current inability to detect and manipulate such energy, is there even any reason to hypothesize an additional physical force if the existing physical system is sufficient to produce the same ineffable and private qualities in and of itself?
With any virtual reality-modelling system substantiated in the brain activity, the phase-spatial framework would most likely be intrinsic (or mostly so.) Setting an effect horizon between the virtuality and the entity hosting it, instantiated virtual objects in such a framework would not be so much directly experienced as they would be direct experience itself. Such a virtual construct would necessarily be private. All that's left is the ineffability, and that seems little more than the inscrutability of alphabetic figurae without any obvious connection to the phonemes they represent.
In other words, the qualia are indistinguishable from semes in an entity's virtuality.
The framework of perceptual colourspace is a good example of why any virtual phase-space might have this ineffable quality. As our vision translates the stimuli sent from rods and cones into a simulation of physical space, what it does is code each position in that phasespace with a semic qualia derived from another phasespace. The latter, colourspace, is constructed from opponent processes -- red-green, blue-yellow, black-white -- the oppositional nature of each pairing rendering that phasespace three-dimensional. Which is to say, stimuli in an opponent process are mutually inhibiting, this being why it's normally impossible to see a reddish-green or a bluish-yellow (unless the mutual inhibition of opponent processes is artificially switched off.)
Essentially, your vision translates mixes of light wavelengths into tensions between the opponent processes, degrees of displacement up or down (whiteward or blackward,) to or fro (redward or greenward,) and this way or that (blueward or yellowward.) The point is that, in sensing a shade, your nifty little faculty of visual modelling is just reckoning a position in that phasespace. To render any set of co-ordinates in the model, all it needs is six semiotic benchmarks of orientation that can be dialled up or down to signify how far to go in that direction. Since this is a 3D modelling of a 2D system (wavelength and intensity,) with none of the dimensions mapped one-to-one, this can only be achieved with semes that are non-representational, symbols rather than icons. And it seems to me they need to be what one might term discretely rendering.
What does that mean? Imagine a six-figurae alphabet -- L, D, R, G, B, Y. Every word is formed of three letters -- L or D, R or G, B or Y. In each word, each letter is inked to a degree of intensity between so faint as to be imperceptible and as bold as bold can be. The shape of figurae is irrelevant; all that matters is the boldness and combination of letters. That's how a shade is rendered as a position in colourspace. Or rather it would be if not for the fact such figurae would also render shape as shape -- and that would be a problem. A letter L would render a right-angle as much as the L-value. A letter Y would render a fork as much as the Y value.
It's not just that the shapes of the figurae are irrelevant because they render nothing, only need to be distinct. Actually, to abstract the letter-shape, treat it as pure structure, the structure of these figura can't even be a shape, because it has to be completely irrelevant. If relevance is the applicability of a rendering, the structure of a figura has to be wholly inapplicable as a rendering of a spatial construct, shape. It can't be applicable as a rendering of any construct in other framework.
Switch to another sense, scent, switch the six-figurae above for a single O. We can imagine this inked to a degree of intensity to render a sound's pitch, but again that structure would be a problem, any letter of such shape rendering a spatial construct, a circle. Ultimately, we can't use an existing construct in any other framework. We can't take the structure of an ammonia aroma and use the intensity to render a sound's pitch, or we have a figurae which is meant to be rendering sound's pitch rendering the olfactory construct, the smell of ammonia.
This is what it means then to say that each symbol is discretely rendering. It is a figura assigned to one dimension in one phase-space where, in the simplest situation, the "inking" of that figura's structure renders a real-world magnitude. That structure must not applicable as a rendering of a construct in another phase-space, whether it be the spatial construct of a shape or whatever. Turning it the other way about, as a result, the structures of all figurae are not simply unique but irreducible: any articulation of symbols in any framework is necessarily incapable of replicating by composition one of these fundamental semic structures -- which I hereby dub aesthemes.
Take a system modelling its environs in its own internal state, with schematic rather than directly mimetic renderings, wholly symbolic frameworks like the red-green opponent process evolving to model the world -- to make sense of actuality, one might say, with virtuality. Allow for a focal recursiveness in the virtuality, a modelling of the modelling the model -- sounds like a sense of sensing sensation, like a sentience, no? And how does that entity circumscribed by a self-imposed effect horizon of self react when it focuses in on its own fundamental semic structures? How does it make sense of those? Isn't that entity faced with exactly the arcane singularity of aesthemes that we call ineffability in qualia?
Such a wholly physicalist model doesn't find that ineffability a problem, I'd say. If anything, it predicts it, offers a coherent and comprehensive of how a material system might, via virtuality, produce all those features some would claim are "problems" for this approach... even as they themselves resort to fancies of noetic non-energy and etheric-non-matter in their spiritualist non-explanations.