Qualia as causes

It took me a very long time to learn to blow bubbles with gum. I still have no idea what it has to feel like in order to whistle loudly with your fingers in your mouth, and as I look at other people do it I’m reminded of the impenetrable barrier I once had to blowing a bubble before I just “got it”. I might, for all I know, someday whistle like this by accident, but doing it intentionally involves just getting it – that is, getting the experience of what-it’s-like to whistle like that.

Note that even if we could “download knowledge” in the manner that happens in the Matrix movies it could only, at best, give us the ability to perform feats that look like the feats done by adepts and experts. We would still have to learn how to do them for ourselves. If I downloaded the whistle program, then I could at first only make the sound by letting the program execute the motions of the activity. I could not execute them from an awareness of what it felt like to do it. Said another way, the downloadable knowledge might be able to teach me what to do, but it could not be the very knowledge which empowers one to act according to knowing what it is like to act. Again, if I really had no skill at all for learning algebra, then downloading the algebra program would only empower me to let the the program execute an operation, even if the platform it used to execute it happened to be my own nervous system. Without the qualia of what it is to manipulate the symbols, then I’m simply doing algebra subconsciously – watching my hands move around and make marks that others might determine to be the correct answer.


  1. Wade McKenzie said,

    May 12, 2014 at 9:56 am

    Downloadable knowledge–would the theme of your post apply as well to things like faith or wisdom? Could faith or wisdom be downloaded–or, like knowledge, would it be a case of going through the motions?

    In the second chapter of Acts, as you know, the Holy Spirit descends on the apostles and a formerly ineffective band of disciples is transformed into a dynamic group of worldchangers. A wag might say they “downloaded” faith, wisdom and courage.

    How does that case differ?

    • May 12, 2014 at 10:14 am

      The question is really Augustine’s question of who can be a teacher, where by “teacher” he seems to mean one that generates knowledge immediately in another. According to Augustine, no human teacher or created tool can do this in a person, and so he concludes that persons must be taught by God himself. Created tools, so he argued, can only teach in the sense of leading the horse to water, but we require a kind of teaching that is more than this.

      Thomas modified this position but still preserved a sense in which God is necessary to “getting it”.

      • Wade McKenzie said,

        May 12, 2014 at 10:06 pm

        Thus, while it might appear to an unphilosophic or irreligious observer that the apostles on Pentecost had “downloaded” faith, etc. a la the Matrix, it is the involvement of God the Holy Spirit that negates that possibility and ensures that the event, though miraculous, was an impartation of authentic understandings.

        And the same applies to all learning–such as, to cite your examples, whistling and algebra.

        There is a similarity here with your previous post on revelation and intelligent design. There, the idea that God would intervene in the causal nexus of the material universe, rather than create the universe in such a way that those interventions were unnecessary, was objectionable.

        But here, albeit in the domain of mind, God must intervene and all “persons must be taught by God himself.”

        If one were to object that this doesn’t seem fitting, just as mutatis mutandis it doesn’t seem fitting for God to intervene in cosmic or natural history, how would you answer him?

      • D.S. Thorne said,

        May 15, 2014 at 11:12 am

        Plato (Phaedrus, Seventh Letter) however was adamant that a living teacher would pass on the spark much much better than a created tool (i.e. piece of writing)

  2. davidus said,

    May 13, 2014 at 8:15 pm

    The idea that qualia are causes in the situations you mention, is an attractive one. I think I could do with some more convincing though. To me it seems that practical knowledge enables us to do things, and practical knowledge (‘know-how’) just seems distinct from qualia. Consider J, a professional guitar player who gets amnesia and is unable to recall any memories of having played guitar. However, one day, upon picking up a guitar he surprisingly finds that he’s able to play a variety of tunes. It seems that J’s practical knowledge is the cause of his playing, but that practical knowledge does not consist in “knowing what it feels like” – after all, J doesn’t consciously remember what it feels like, nor did he need to in order to be able to play.

  3. D.S. Thorne said,

    May 15, 2014 at 11:08 am

    The active appropriation of knowledge is a necessary part of knowing — because for us no bit of knowledge is ever isolated. To know x is to organically situate it amidst the total ecosystem of your knowledge, to let it take up residence there. This, I submit, is the hidden meaning behind Plato’s choice of dialogue form. And why it will never really “work” to implant chips in our brains, if the hope is that this will help us bypass learning. An abstruse article on physics won’t be anymore accessible to me if its on a chip in my brain than on a written page before me…

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