Wednesday, June 25, 2008

On Epiphenomenal Qualia and Lacrosse

Justin asks,

I'm trying to figure out how to phrase this. I recall talking in one of my philosophy courses that if someone makes a sudden movement, apparently the neurons the cause the muscle movements fire before the ones in our brain that allow us to be mentally aware of the movement. Some have argued that this is evidence for "epiphenomenal qualia". I remember reading some criticisms of this argument, but I can't for the life of me remember them. Do you know what they are or if there are any legitimate ones?
Let's first explain this wonderful term "epiphenominal qualia."

Qualia is the easy one, it's just the content of our experiences -- the redness we actual sense, the pain we feel, the ticklishness of the tickle. There are brain states associated with all of our experiences, but the qualia are not that, they are the actual lived sensations.

Epiphenomalism comes for an old debate in philosophy concerning the nature of reality. Humans were held by many to be composed of two parts: (2) a non-material body or soul that served as the seat of reason and volition, that transcended after death to be judged for the decisions it made, and (2) a material body that decomposed back into the earth after death, but had all the fun first. This view that reality had material and non-material elements is called dualism.

A concern for the dualist is the problem of interaction. We know how material things are affected, they are pushed on by other material things -- that's what the laws of physics describe. The non-material entities are ideas or forms of some sort, so they interact with each other according to laws of logic or psychology. But how do they interact with each other? If minds are non-material, but could causes the body to move that would violate the laws of physics. Further, by what mechanism could it possibly happen? And the same in the other direction, how could a body on body interaction cause a change in mental states? If these things are completely different sorts of stuff, they shouldn't be able to affect each other.

There were four options: (1) avoid the question by surrendering dualism and say everything is matter or everything is mind, (2) come up with some explanatory mechanism, Descartes tried (3) claim that the two happen on parallel tracks and look like they interact but don't -- Leibniz's pre-established harmony, and (4) epiphenomenalism, they view that the body can affect the mind, but that the mind does not affect the body thus allowing sensation without violating the laws of physics.

From this classical sense, Frank Jackson, starts this discussion in his famous paper "Epiphenomenal Qualia" in which he openly declares himself "a qualia freak" proving once again that philosophers have the world's most boring fetishes (I've always had the image of Jackson at the moment of ecstasy shouting "Red, here, now. Red, here, now. No mere protocol sentence could contain this!) argues that mind states and brain states are different (the functioning of the nerves and the pain section of the brain is different from the "Ouch!"), that brain states give rise to mind states (the pain receptors and the brain are needed to cause the "Ouch!"), but that mind states do not affect brain states (the "Ouch" can't cause anything, it is merely experienced)-- hence, epiphenomenal qualia.

So, now let's finally get to Justin's question. It is true that the startle reflex and many other bodily functions operate the the pre-conscious level, that is they cause action before the signal has reached and been processed by the rational parts of the brain. When I was a lacrosse goalie, for example, I would routinely (o.k., occassionally) stop shots going around 100 miles an hour from not all that far away. I was watching and I would move my body and hands in a very specific fashion, but it was not a conscious decision. It was such a bang-bang event that i would never have had time to process what needed to be done. Does this stand as a supporting instance of Jackson's epiphenomenal qualia? Since it happens faster than the conscious mind can process the sensation, analyze it, make a decision about it, and then sense out the signal to the body about what to do, it seems epiphenominal, that is, the experience doesn't cause the bodily motion.

Jackson is not arguing that all qualia are epiphenominal, just some which is all he needs to undermine the physicalists' claim that minds do not exist and everything is material responding to physical laws.

The strongest objections seems to me is to hold that it wasn't me who stopped the shot, that is, I (me, the conscious Steve with a mind) didn't move my hands, my hands were moved my body independent of me and my will, hence it was a conditioned reflex, just a plain old body/body interaction. Coaches always tell athletes not to think (which, for most lacrosse players, is their natural state), that thinking only screws up performance. Everything must happen on the precognitive level and this is why we train, so that the body simply takes over.

Indeed, this was one of the things I loved most about playing. It was a time when my brain was off, yet (and this seems to speak in favor of Jackson) I was hyper-aware. At the same time, the awareness was not exactly what I would call sensual (or sensuous, for that matter). That is, I felt myself a part of the game, but didn't really feel the sensations. So, (and this would be a point for the anti-epiphenominalists) where were the qualia?

More questions tomorrow.