why the "Hard Problem" is a myth


An Honors Thesis


Submitted by

Marcus Arvan












May 1998







1. Making a "Hard Problem" Easy


In the years since the publication of Gilbert Ryle’s Concept of Mind, dualism has declined into almost universal disrepute in the philosophy of mind. Ryle, of course, essentially set this trend in motion by arguing that "when we describe people as exercising qualities of mind, we are not referring to occult episodes of which their overt acts are effects; we are referring to those overt acts and utterances themselves." (Ryle, 25) "Intelligence", "sadness", "thinking"; Ryle held that all of these concepts essentially refer to certain types of overt behavior and "behavioral dispositions"—and this certainly seems right: people act differently in different moods, they show us when they are in pain by groaning or wincing, and the way people perform on tests in school gives us a good indication of how intelligent they are. Contrariwise, Ryle held, what we manifestly don’t do is use our terms to refer to occult mental processes; the view that "mental terms" refer to occult processes is nonsensical: "certain sorts of operations with the concepts of mental powers are breaches of logical rules." (Ryle, 8)

But although Concept of Mind has had an undeniable impact on philosophy, the extent to which Ryle’s arguments actually succeed is debatable. The prevailing wisdom, in fact, seems to be that Ryle’s arguments fall short of his goal not in detail, but in principle. For, it is thought, even if Ryle’s arguments do demonstrate (and it is debatable that they do) that our mental terms essentially refer to behaviors and behavioral dispositions, his conclusion that the mind as a whole is nothing more than behaviors and dispositions just does not follow; it seems quite certain that he has left out and failed to explain conscious experience itself. Are we really supposed to believe that the actual subjective experience of pain, or of red, is just a behavior or a behavioral disposition? Of course not. Nothing, it seems, could be less like behavior than subjective experience.

The prevailing wisdom today is materialism, the view that the mind is the brain. Unfortunately, materialism, like behaviorism, seems to be at a total loss when it comes to explaining subjective experience. How, for instance, could we conceivably describe what yellow looks like in terms of neuron firings in the brain? This problem, the problem of explaining consciousness in ‘external’--i.e., behavioral or physical--terms, has been called the hard problem of consciousness, and to date no theory appears to have solved it. In fact, some philosophers, most notably Thomas Nagel, have even been inclined to believe that the hard problem of consciousness has no solution:


The subjective features of conscious mental processes--as opposed to their physical causes and effects--cannot be captured by the purified form of thought suitable for dealing with the physical world that underlies appearances." (Nagel, in Dennett, 1991, p. 372)


The admonitions of skeptics like Nagel, however, have not stopped materialists from trying, and one of the more influential materialist theories of consciousness of recent time is Daniel C. Dennett’s Consciousness Explained.

In Consciousness Explained, Dennett argues that consciousness is nothing more than complexes of reactive dispositions in the brain. Unfortunately, as we will see in greater depth later on in this essay, Dennett’s account, like other existing materialist accounts, appears to fall short of explaining subjective experience. At the very least, many people remain unconvinced, as Robert Van Gulick points out in a recent essay: "As Dennett is aware, many critics believe it leaves out and fails to explain the most difficult aspects of consciousness. How, for example, could phenomenal seeming involve nothing more than judging?" (Van Gulick, 445) The basic problem, Van Gulick and others have pointed out, is simply that colors, for instance, don’t look like reactive dispositions; we just see the color yellow, we want to say, not our physiological reactive dispositions to it. In fact, it really seems that we do not even ordinarily know what most of our physiological reactive dispositions are. Can you say what your reactive dispositions to yellow are? Neither can I. And how can we be said to be conscious of them when we cannot even say what they are? Dennett’s error, in short, seems to be that he attempts to explain consciousness in terms of brain phenomena of which we are, for the most part, not conscious--which, of course, certainly seems like quite a self-defeating way to go about explaining consciousness. Hence, it seems, Dennett does not appear to have solved the hard problem.

I intend to show in this paper that, for the reasons just given, Consciousness Explained does in fact fail to explain consciousness. However, I also aim to show that Dennett is not as far off as many of his critics suppose. As we have just seen, Dennett’s attempt to account for the hard-to-grasp subjective phenomena of consciousness in terms of reactive dispositions is what has his critics up in arms. In my view, Dennett is wrong, but so are his critics. For what I intend to show that there is nothing about the subjective phenomena of consciousness that is even remotely hard-to-grasp, and that Dennett’s mistake is just that he (like many others) tries to explain hard-to-grasp phenomena. That is to say, I will hold that Dennett’s error is not that he fails to solve the hard problem; rather, it is that he takes the hard problem seriously when it doesn’t even really exist. Of course Dennett is bound to fail, I concede; the problem is nonsense in the first place.

The purpose of this paper, then, is to show that the hard problem of consciousness is nothing more than an alluring myth. As I will show in greater depth in Part 2 of this essay, the hard problem of consciousness essentially hinges on the notion of qualia. Qualia, of course, are the supposedly hard-to-grasp phenomena in question; they are supposed to be the ‘phenomenal qualities’ of our subjective experiences; they are the smell of grass, the taste of cauliflower, the feeling of pain, and so on--and they are supposed to be those properties of consciousness that transcend any behavioral or physical explanation in principle.

In Part 3, I will briefly show why Dennett has already shown the notion of qualia to be nonsensical. Dennett, I will argue, has powerful arguments to support his conclusion that we cannot make sense of "the way things look, sound, feel, taste, smell to various individuals at various times, independently of how they are subsequently disposed to behave or believe." (Dennett, 1988, p. 45)

In Part 4, I will discuss and reject Dennett’s attempt to account for consciousness in terms of reactive dispositions in Consciousness Explained. To do so, I will focus primarily on Dennett’s treatment of the well known "Mary the Super Color-Scientist" thought experiment, where Dennett argues that a person who had never seen the color yellow could learn what yellow looks like by merely learning which neurophysiological color-related reactive dispositions she would have to the color yellow. As I mentioned earlier, we will see that the problem with this account is we are for the most part not conscious of the kind of neurophysical reactive dispositions Dennett discusses. Dennett’s error, I will argue, is that he claims that consciousness just is reactive dispositions is that he fails to see that there are different kinds of reactive dispositions, only some of which are actually conscious and specific to individual colors. Dennett, I will hold, not only fails to distinguish between these different kinds reactive dispositions, he basically he tries to account for subjective experience in terms of the non-conscious and non-color-specific kinds of reactive dispositions. Hence, I will hold, Dennett’s critics are right; he leaves out conscious experience.

But, I will hold, what Dennett’s error also does is reveal the correct alternative. As I have said, Dennett essentially claims that "’Qualia’ have been replaced by complex dispositional states of the brain." (Dennett, 1991, p. 431) For reasons I have already alluded to, we will see why this account just doesn’t work; many of the brain states Dennett refers to are simply not conscious or not specific to the ‘qualia’ in question. What I intend to show, on the contrary, is that only some of our dispositions are conscious and specific to our ‘qualia’, and that these dispositions explain subjective experience. These conscious, experience-specific dispositions, I will hold, are "primary judgments"; the ones to which Dennett mostly refers are "secondary dispositions." Primary judgments, I will argue, are just our dispositions to judge an experience as one thing and not another. To judge a banana as yellow, I will hold, is a primary judgment. This, I will hold, completely explains (for instance) what yellow is: namely, the ineffable, intrinsic, directly apprehensible experience that Dennett’s critics claim his theory leaves out and fails to explain. But, I will argue (and attempt to prove in Part 5), the crucial thing is that these dispositions (our primary judgments) are not private; we can explain, in physical terms, why a person judges a banana to be yellow perfectly well: his yellow neurons are ‘on’, and they tell him ‘this is yellow’. Critics, I assume, will object that my account fails to explain the content of those ineffable, intrinsic, directly apprehensible experiences. What I intend to prove in Part 5 is that no such content exists. Yellow, I will hold, is just one thing and not another; it is not red, not green, etc.; that is all the intrinsic, ineffable, directly apprehensible (but not private) subjective content it has.

In Part 5, I will argue that Ludwig Wittgenstein proves in his Philosophical Investigations that consciousness is not beyond the scope of science in the least. What Wittgenstein has proved, I aim to show, is that subjective experience is not even beyond ordinary third-person description, let alone science. That is to say, I will argue that Wittgenstein has shown that the content of subjectivity, in its entirety, can be described not just in language, but also in terms of behavior and physiology; we will see why, as Wittgenstein put it, "the human body is the best picture of the human soul": consciousness has no content that is known subjectively, "from the inside", that is not also ordinarily known objectively, or "from the outside". (Wittgenstein, 1958, p. 200) This I will accomplish by demonstrating that Wittgenstein’s famous Private Language Argument proves the notion of private language to be nonsensical, and hence, that all meaning is public. In short, I will hold that Wittgenstein shows that "any explanation which I can give myself I give to him too"--that is, that whatever we know about our own subjective experience, we also know about the subjective experiences of others. (ibid.). Hence, I will claim to have shown that when we talk about our ‘internal’ experiences of pain, anger, and so on, we say all that there is to know about those things subjectively for all people, not just our own first-person experiences. For instance, I will affirm that we all know full well what a "shooting pain" feels like; it is an intense, horrible, localized, split-second sensation--for, Wittgenstein’s argument shows, that is just how we use the word. Accordingly, I will argue that a person who had never felt a shooting pain before but who was given such a description could justifiably say, upon feeling a shooting pain for the first time, "Yes, that is exactly what I expected", and couldn’t justifiably say, "Hey, there is more to it than I thought." Moreover, I will argue that a scientific explanation of "shooting pain" could (in principle) be complete, insofar as it seems quite certain that an analysis of nerve impulses and brain reactions--a sophisticated brain-scan, for instance--could tell us that a person just felt an intense, localized, split-second pain in the temple (which again, I hold, exhaustively explains the subjective content of shooting pain).

Finally, in Part 6, I will explain the supposedly most difficult and hard-to-grasp subjective phenomena, the final respite for skeptics and defenders of the hard problem of consciousness; I will account for all the subjective content of colors. In a nutshell, I will hold that we cannot explain what orange looks like, for instance, not because there is hidden subjective color-content beyond the reach of science, but because orange in fact has very little subjective content. Colors, I will hold, have no special, private subjective content beyond that which we can describe; colors are just labels with which our brains code certain light wavelengths: red is one label, yellow is another, green another, and so on. And so here’s the rub: can’t science explain all of these facts? Of course it can; in fact, it is well-known how the rods and cones in the eye code certain wavelengths as colors, how certain neural pathways mix different amounts of "red" and "yellow" signals to make orange, how our neural pathways cannot mix "red" and "green", and it seems quite possible that we could one day explain how the brain uses.

Once I have shown all this, however, I will to deal with one well worn objection--the apparently unverifiable possibility that we all see different subjective colors, even though we make the same judgments and call colors by the same names. That is, I will aim to debunk the inverted spectrum hypothesis. How will I tackle this problem? As I have said, I will argue that colors are essentially "visual labels": red is one label, orange another, and so on. That being said, I will conclude that insofar as we all have essentially the same brain mechanisms--and insofar as we all call the same things red, green, etc.--it follows that we do in fact see exactly the same thing when we see a color. This, I hold, clearly follows from the impossibility of dualism and the nonsensicality of qualia; we have ruled out magical, private entities: therefore, identical physical mechanisms result in identical conscious experiences. And what if our brain mechanisms differ? Well, then science could in fact confirm that two people see different colors. For instance, I will argue that if Tom’s neurons code blue as 57 firings in area 13 whereas Jane’s neurons code blue as 55 neurons in area 14, then it follows that they see different representations of blue! This would of course be a totally banal discovery and, I will argue, it just goes to show that the inverted spectrum hypothesis, too, is utterly pointless. Ergo, I will conclude, there is no subjective content that materialism leaves out or fails to explain.




  1. Alluring, Elusive Qualia


    Modern science--so goes the standard story--has removed the color from the physical world, replacing it with colorless electromagnetic radiation of various wavelengths, bouncing off surfaces that variably reflect and absorb that radiation. It may look as if the color is out there, but it isn’t. It’s in here--

    (Dennett, 1991, p. 370)



    It is often said that science describes a colorless, odorless, tasteless, emotionless world--a world devoid of conscious experience. Indeed, it is commonly thought by laypeople and philosophers alike that "the subjective features of conscious mental processes--as opposed to their physical causes and effects--cannot be captured by the purified form of thought suitable for dealing with the physical world that underlies the appearances." (ibid., 372) Conscious experience really does appear to be beyond the scope of science; it seems just self-evident that subjective experience--for instance, what red looks like--can be known only "from the inside", to the particular person experiencing it, and that "nothing could be less like an electron, or a molecule, or a neuron, than the way the sunset looks to me now--or so it seems." (ibid., 65) Only I, it seems, can really know what my pain feels like, or what red looks like to me. And it seems that science cannot grasp these things. Science seems perfectly capable of revealing that one is in pain, of course, but not what one’s pain feels like. As Einstein supposedly pointed out, science appears to be at a total loss when it comes to describing the taste of the soup. (Dennett, 1988, p. 48) Philosophers, as I have said, have a name for these seemingly elusive, yet familiar, contents of consciousness; they call them qualia.


    ‘Qualia’ is an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us. As is so often the case with philosophical jargon, it is easier to give examples than to give a definition of the term. Look at a glass of milk at sunset; the way it looks to you--the particular, personal, subjective visual quality of milk is the quale of your visual experience at the moment. The way the milk tastes to you then is another, gustatory quale, and how it sounds to you as you swallow is an auditory quale. (ibid., 42)


    The notion of qualia, then, is supposed to distinguish ‘internal’ experience of consciousness itself from the ‘external’ aspects, such as behavior and physiology. And, of course, there does appear to be a real and significant difference between the ‘inner world’ of subjective experience and the ‘external world’ of behavior of physiology. After all, can’t a person feel pain without showing it? This is, of course, true; however, it is not the essential point of qualia. The point of qualia is that subjective experience is beyond any physical explanation in principle. But how could that be?

    We can see why qualia appear to be beyond physical explanation if we ask this question: what are qualia supposed to be, exactly? Well, it seems that we just can’t say what they are. And here’s the rub: it seems that if we cannot describe subjective experience, neither can science. Yellow, it seems, just looks like yellow; we really have no other way to talk about it. The same goes for pain; we can say "pain is bad", of course, but we can’t get much farther than that. Accordingly, qualia are supposed to be ineffable qualities of consciousness. But if qualia are ineffable, then it also seems that they must be more or less intrinsic, "which seems to imply inter alia that they are somehow atomic and unanalysable." (ibid., 46) After all, if we cannot describe them, it must be at least partly because they are ‘simple’ or ‘homogeneous’--which is, of course, how our subjective experiences do seem to be. Furthermore, qualia also appear to be essentially private, known only to the person experiencing them, insofar as it seems that we could never really know whether other people have the same qualia that we ourselves do. Couldn’t it be that we all have entirely different color experiences? Well, can’t we imagine it? We can do something like this on any computer screen; we can invert the color scheme so that reds are blues, blues are yellows, and so on. The hypothesis seems eminently possible and systematically unverifiable; since we all learn color words by being shown public colored objects, it seems that our verbal behavior could match even if we actually experience entirely different subjective colors. Could we ever know the truth? As we will later see, Dennett shows in "Quining Qualia" that science could not (in principle) give us an answer: "no intersubjective comparison of qualia is possible, even with perfect technology." (ibid., 50) Finally, insofar as qualia are properties of consciousness, it also seems that they must be directly or immediately accessible; when we are in pain, we know--we are directly and immediately aware of it. Hence, in short, qualia seem to have a fourfold essence; they are supposed to be private, intrinsic, ineffable, and directly apprehensible phenomena of consciousness. It does, of course, seem like an accurate portrayal of subjective experience, doesn’t it?

    This is, at any rate, the traditional way of looking at the notion of qualia. It also reveals the basic reasons why science is supposed to be unable to grasp them. After all, if qualia are truly atomic and unanalyzable, if they are private and directly apprehensible, and if they cannot be described in any way, then it really does seem quite certain that no functionalist, materialist, or any purely ‘third-person’ account of reality can grasp subjectivity. Yet, although the view of qualia I just laid out seems like a perfectly good one, one that accounts for our general intuitions about subjective experience, there are people "who ask, in effect: ‘Who said qualia are ineffable, intrinsic, private, directly apprehensible ways things seem to one?’" (ibid., 47) Indeed, as Dennett points out, some theorists seem to think that this conception of qualia is outrageous; "they think they have a much blander and hence less vulnerable notion of qualia to begin with" (ibid., 47):


    Since my suggested fourfold essence of qualia may strike many readers as tendentious, it may seem instructive to consider, briefly, an apparently milder alternative: qualia are simply ‘the qualitative or phenomenal features of sense experience[s], in virtue of which they resemble and differ from each other, qualitatively, in the ways they do’ (Shoemaker, 1982, p.367) (ibid., 47)


    The basic idea of this milder alternative, which appears to be the only other possibility, is that the quale of chicken soup is just whatever makes it taste like chicken soup, as opposed to chocolate or strawberries; or, the quale of red is just that which makes it red and not any other color. This too seems like a plausible way to imagine qualia. However, as Dennett points out, if this is our conception of qualia, we are in fact not really imagining qualia at all--for these ‘qualia’ wouldn’t be beyond the scope of science, not by a long shot. For, if the only thing that makes a ‘red’ quale a red quale is the fact that it has features which make it distinctly not blue, green, yellow, or any other quale, then it seems that science can tell us perfectly well what a ‘red’ quale is: it is just these waves of light, these cones in the retina, and these neurons firing which constitute something between seen as red and not yellow:


    . . . it all depends on what ‘qualitative or phenomenal’ comes down to. Shoemaker contrasts qualitative similarity and difference with ‘intentional’ similarity and difference--similarity and difference of the properties an experience represents or is ‘of’. That is clear enough, but what then of ‘phenomenal’? Among the non-intentional (and hence qualitative?) properties of my visual states are their physiological properties. Might these very properties be the qualia Shoemaker speaks of? It is supposed to be obvious, I take it, that these sorts of features are ruled out, because they are not ‘accessible to introspection’ (S. Shoemaker, personal communication). These are features of my visual state, perhaps, but not of my visual experience. They are not phenomenal properties. (ibid., 47)


    Indeed, as Dennett points out, the ‘mild’ definition of ‘qualia’ advocated by Shoemaker are not qualia at all; qualia are supposed to be beyond science, and Shoemaker’s ‘qualia’ are certainly not. Shoemaker, however, has held that Dennett’s point is misguided. Shoemaker holds that his ‘mild’ qualia are not physiological states; ‘mild’ qualia, he has held, are ‘phenomenal properties’ which are ‘accessible by introspection’, whereas physiological states are (apparently) not. (ibid., 48) What are we to make of this? Does this preserve Shoemaker’s ‘mild’ conception of qualia? No, for as Dennett points out Shoemaker’s response "means nothing obvious and untendentious" and in fact really "looks suspiciously like a gesture in the direction leading back to ineffable, private, directly apprehensible ways things seem to one." (ibid., 48) For, Shoemaker’s notion that these ‘mild’ qualia are ‘phenomenal’ properties that are essentially beyond science yet accessible by introspection logically implies that they are indeed something beyond description or comparison. And this can only mean that these ‘phenomenal properties’ are ineffable, private, intrinsic, and directly apprehensible--which, of course, only brings us back to our original idea of qualia. Thus, any way we look at Shoemaker’s ‘mild’ conception of qualia, it fails to accomplish what it is intended to: either Shoemaker’s qualia aren’t really qualia--i.e., they are not private or ineffable--or they are just the same four-fold notion we had to start with in the first place. So, in conclusion, there can be no ‘mild’ conception of qualia; the four-fold essence of the qualia is the only notion with which we have to deal.

    If we are to take the notion of qualia seriously, this is the conception we have to address: "qualia are supposed to be properties of a subject’s mental states that are (1) ineffable (2) intrinsic (3) private (4) directly or immediately apprehensible in consciousness." (ibid., 47) As we have already seen, qualia, so defined, are not just beyond scientific inquiry; insofar as they are ineffable and unanalyzable, they are by definition, supposedly beyond any inquiry imaginable in principle.


    Thus are qualia introduced onto the philosophical stage. They have seemed to be very significant properties to some theorists because they have seemed to provide an insurmountable and unavoidable stumbling block to functionalism or, more broadly, to materialism or, more broadly still, to any purely ‘third-person’ objective viewpoint or approach to the world. (ibid., 47)


    However, if we grant that consciousness has qualia, we also commit ourselves to quite a serious problem; for, if we accept that science can grasp everything physical and we hold that qualia are properties which are beyond science, we implicitly assume (logically) that qualia must be non-physical properties: in short, we commit ourselves to some kind of dualism, a theory of mind that appears to be both logically and physically impossible, and which (as a result) is "deservedly in disrepute today". (Dennett, 1991, p. 33) It seems, then, that we are in a kind of quandary: on the one hand, materialism seems to leave out subjective experience, on the other hand, dualism seems obviously absurd, In short, it seems that we are stuck with choosing between materialism and dualism, neither of which seems quite right. What gives?

    Some theorists may disagree with my lumping qualia together with dualism. Some theorists who consider themselves antireductionists, for instance, merely hold that any "biological account of pain and pain-behavior leaves out the painfulness . . . " (ibid., 64) This is, indeed, a standard objection: "All you’ve explained is the attendant behavior and the mechanisms, but you’ve left out the thing in itself, which is the pain in all its awfulness." (ibid., 64) Stances along these lines appear to be trying to leave open the possibility that qualia might be somehow physical, yet unexplainable in physical terms. This seems just absurd, of course, and in fact it is an obvious contradiction; if something is physical, there is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to explain it in physical terms. Fortunately, even if it somehow were that qualia are physical but unexplainable physically, this would have no implications for the discussion at hand. Even if we take that view seriously, the problem raised by the notion of qualia remains essentially the same. For, the point of qualia in the first place was just to deny that consciousness can be explained in physical terms; the point of the anti-reductionism viewpoint is exactly the same. In short, even if we deny that qualia are necessarily tied to dualism, we cannot deny that qualia and dualism inherently have something very important in common; they both presume the same picture of the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ that Ryle discredited so famously in Concept of Mind--that is, the notion that conscious experience is essentially an ‘inner’, occult mental world removed from the ‘external’ world of physical things and behaviors.

    No one, however, not even the qualophile, denies that science can show, at least in a sense, that another person is in pain, or that his/her pain is horrible. Although people sometimes will fake pain, most of the time we can tell quite easily that someone else is in horrible pain merely by seeing him/her wince, cower, howl, scream, cry, and so on. These kinds of behaviors not only show us that pain is bad--we might say that the behaviors themselves are horrible--we agree that pain is a bad sensation. If someone were to ask what pain is like, for instance, we would of course be inclined to say that it is "a bad sensation". Furthermore, no one denies science is capable (at least in principle) of telling us, for instance, exactly how flesh wound causes particular nerve impulses to be sent to the brain, and how these impulses cause an ‘alarm’ in the brain which consists in a vast array of discriminative brain states which lead to the aforementioned kinds of pain-behavior. But, according to the qualophile, the behaviors and physiology of pain are only the ‘external’ aspect of pain: what science cannot grasp, the qualophile holds, is the special ‘internal’ aspect, or qualia, of pain--the "special "intrinsic" properties, the subjective, private, ineffable, properties that constitute the way things look to us (sound to us, smell to us)". (ibid., 373)

    It is this particular picture of the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’, in short, that is the source of our basic dilemma in the philosophy of mind: the supposed ‘explanatory gap’ between science and consciousness, which the notion of qualia is invoked to explain, is the logical result of this paradigm. That is to say, this very paradigm inherently underlies the altogether natural intuition held among many people that science is forever in principle removed from grasping the mind in its entire subjective splendor. Hence, in order to undermine the notion of qualia and, more generally, the ‘explanatory gap’, it must be shown that this particular picture of the ‘inner’ as a hidden, private realm behind (as it were) the ‘outer’ external world must be proven false. But how are we to do that?

    Proving such a long-standing, deep-seated human intuition false requires nothing less than extraordinary proof; what must be conquered is not merely the intellect, but the human will itself. Hence, formally repudiating or undermining the notion of qualia alone will not suffice. Even if we were to so that, people would still want to know how science can account for the kinds of experiences that qualia are supposed to be, i.e. the ways things seem. Therefore, in order to explode completely and convincingly, we must accomplish two things: (1) We must undermine the notion of qualia; and (2) We must shows that science can in fact account for everything there is to consciousness--that is, that science leaves nothing out.






  3. . . . And Why We Can’t Have ‘em


Philosophers are often like little children who scribble a jumble of lines on a piece of paper and then ask grown-ups ‘what is that?’--This is how it happens. Adults have often drawn something for the child and said: ‘That is a man’, ‘That is a house’ and so on. So now the child draws lines and asks: ‘What’s that?’ (Wittgenstein, in Kenny, 276)


Don’t put the phenomenon in the wrong drawer. There it looks ghostly, intangible, uncanny. Looking at it rightly, we no more think of its intangibility than we do when we hear: "It’s time for dinner." (Disquiet from an ill-fitting classification). (Wittgenstein, Vol. 1, 380)



In my opinion, Daniel Dennett has given pretty much the same knock down repudiation of qualia not once, but twice--in Consciousness Explained and ‘Quining Qualia’. Dennett, I believe, has clearly demonstrated that conscious experience has none of the special properties that qualia supposedly are. In the last section, we saw that qualia are supposed to be ineffable, intrinsic, private, and directly or immediately apprehensible phenomena in consciousness. Dennett has many strong arguments against qualia, of course, but one argument in particular effectively repudiates the notion. Specifically, in his discussion of the well known intrapersonal inverted spectrum thought experiment, Dennett shows that there would be no subjective difference between an inversion of one’s supposed qualia and an inversion of one’s reactive dispositions, and therefore, that we cannot conceivably isolate the way things look, sound, feel, taste, and smell independently of how we are supposed to behave.

The intrapersonal inverted spectrum thought experiment considers the possibility of a neurosurgical prank that would invert a person’s color perceptions. According to the thought experiment, evil neuroscientists have switched the wires in your brain (or perhaps even your optic nerve) such that "you wake up one morning to find that the grass has turned red, the sky yellow, and so forth." (Dennett, 1988, p. 50) Dennett, however, holds that there are two ways that this color "qualia" inversion could be achieved neurologically:


1. Invert one of the ‘early’ qualia-producing channels, e.g. in the optic nerve, so that all relevant neural events ‘downstream’ are the ‘opposite’ of their original and normal values. Ex hypothesi this inverts your qualia.


2. Leave all those early pathways intact and simply invert certain memory-access links--whatever it is that accomplishes your tacit (and even unconscious) comparison of today’s hues with those of yore. Ex hypothesi this does not invert your qualia at all, but just your memory-anchored dispositions to react to them.


(ibid., 50, 51)


Dennett’s point is that in both cases you think that your qualia were inverted--the sky would seem yellow, bananas would seem blue--even though ex hypothesi only one of the surgical procedures switches your qualia. What this means, Dennett avers, is that there is no subjective difference between "qualia" and reactive dispositions; therefore, ‘qualia’ are reactive dispositions. But if ‘qualia’ just are reactive dispositions--which, of course, can be explained scientifically--then our ‘qualia’ are not private, ineffable, intrinsic, or directly or immediately apprehensible. Ergo, Dennett has undermined the notion of qualia.

It might be suggested that the above argument rests on a dubious assumption: namely, that we can locate qualia in the brain. In fact, it seems that this is exactly what qualophiles deny; according to them, we can’t just assume that the qualia would be switched by the former surgical invasion as opposed to the latter--for perhaps the memory-inverting surgery inverts the qualia! However, although this seems like a valid objection--one that completely undermines Dennett’s argument--it is in fact misguided for the following reason: almost everybody accepts that dualism is false. Why is this so important? Well, if we assume that dualism is false, then it follows that qualia are in fact somewhere in the brain. Hence, the average qualophile presupposes that qualia are somewhere in the brain; his claim, then, is only that we can’t describe them (recall anti-reductionism). However, as Dennett points out, "what the qualophile needs is a thought experiment that demonstrates that the-way-things-look can be independent of all these reactive dispositions." (Dennett, 1991, p. 391-392) Why? Well, because we can explain reactive dispositions--so they can’t be the qualia we’re after. And, the point is, it seems to follow that the only place qualia could be is somewhere in the brain before the reactive dispositions set in--which, of course, is exactly where Dennett imagines the first surgical invasion taking place--therefore justifying Dennett’s premises. Thus, as long as we’re not out and out dualists--do you really want to beat a dead horse?--Dennett’s argument stands.

But what if someone does want to hold the hard line (i.e., as a dualist)? Fortunately, there is a reply to the dualist, too: Suppose two dualists debate whether the so-called memory-inverting operation really inverts the qualia. One says yes, the other no. How is it to be decided? The subject himself cannot be consulted to any effect; he can’t justifiably say whether or not the operation inverts his qualia or his dispositions; when asked whether his qualia were constant or shifted (or shifting), all the subject could justifiably say, it seems, is, "I haven’t the faintest idea." Indeed, these qualia would be beyond access from any point of view--even from the point of view of the person who supposedly has them. How can the subject be said to have private, ineffable, intrinsic, directly apprehensible qualia when he doesn’t have any access to them (i.e., when he can’t even tell whether they are shifted or shifting)? So even the dualist cannot save the notion of qualia. Once again, as we found before, the only thing the subject knows is exactly what we know and can explain: namely, that his reactive dispositions have changed.





4. Why Consciousness Hasn’t Been Explained . . .


[Dennett] replies that the supposedly missing elements of consciousness they seek are nonexistent and illusory; he dismisses their demands for a more robust and phenomenally realist account of consciousness as just a reflection of their residual if unacknowledged Cartesian intuitions. He sees his job as that of a philosophical therapist; he aims to use examples, thought experiments, and arguments to free us of our illusions. Like many therapists he believes that if he can get us to recognize the true source of our difficulties, the battle will be largely won; once we see our perplexities and our thirst for further explanation arise from implicit Cartesian commitments, our resistance to the MDM [Multiple Drafts Model] should vanish. Or at least that’s what’s supposed to happen. (Van Gulick, 445)




  1. Mary the Super Color-Scientist

    Demonstrating that the notion of qualia is nonsensical, however, only accomplishes half the materialist battle; we still have to give an account of what we thought were qualia. The problem, however, is that Dennett’s materialist account, like other existing accounts, seems to fall far short of explaining these conscious phenomena. As I mentioned in the Introduction, I am not the only one to notice this; many people (including my mother) remain unconvinced. My task in this section is to show why Dennett’s account seems to leave out and fail to explain conscious experience, and then, to suggest my alternative account, which I will attempt to prove correct in Part 5.

    Dennett’s error, in my opinion, comes to the surface most clearly in his treatment of the famous case of Mary the Super Color-Scientist in Consciousness Explained. As Dennett points out, the point of this thought experiment "is immediately evident even to the uninitiated"; it is supposed to demonstrate that materialism is incomplete in principle (Dennett, 1991, p. 398):


    Mary is a brilliant color scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black-and-white room via a black-and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like red, blue, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence "The sky is blue." . . . What will happen when Mary is released from her black-and-white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then it is inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more than that, and Physicalism is false. . . . (ibid., 398)


    The conclusion, of course, seems just obvious and quite true; we can in fact "vividly imagine her, seeing a red rose for the first time, exclaiming, "So that’s what a red rose looks like."" (ibid., 399) Dennett, however, points out that this is a "bad thought experiment, an intuition pump that actually encourages us to misunderstand its premises." (ibid., 398)


    The image is wrong: if that is the way you imagine the case, you are simply not following directions! The reason no one follows directions is because what they ask you is so preposterously immense, you can’t even try. The crucial premise is that "She has all the physical information." That is not readily imaginable, so no one bothers. They just imagine that she knows lots and lots--perhaps they imagine that she knows everything that anyone knows today about the neurophysiology of color vision. But that’s just a drop in the bucket, and it’s not surprising that Mary would learn something if that were all she knew. (ibid., 399)


    Dennett’s point here is two-fold: First, he means to draw attention to the fact that we really have no idea how to take seriously the premise that Mary knows all the physical information; hence, "it doesn’t prove anything: it simply pumps the intuition that she does (‘it just seems obvious’) by lulling you into imagining something other than what the premises require." (ibid., 400) Second, Dennett means to point out that it is imaginable that Mary’s immense knowledge of the physical world just might explain everything about the subjective experience of red:


    And so, one day, Mary’s captors decided it was time for her to see colors. As a trick, they prepared a bright blue banana to present as her first color experience ever. Mary took one look as it and said "Hey! You tried to trick me! Bananas are yellow, but this one is blue!" Her captors were dumbfounded. How did she do it? "Simple," she replied. "You have to remember that I know everything--absolutely everything--that could ever be known about the physical causes and effects of color vision. So of course before you brought the banana in, I had already written down, in exquisite detail, exactly what physical impression a yellow object or a blue object (or a green object, etc.) would make on my nervous system. So I already knew exactly what thoughts I would have (because, after all, the "mere disposition" to think about this or that is not one of your famous qualia, is it?). I was not in the slightest surprised by my experience of blue (what surprised me was that you would try such a second-rate trick on me). I realize it is hard for you to imagine that I could know so much about my reactive dispositions that the way blue affected me came as no surprise. Of course it’s hard for you to imagine. It’s hard for anyone to imagine the consequences of someone knowing absolutely everything physical about anything!" (ibid., 399-400)


    Dennett makes this clear: "my point is not that my way of telling the story proves that Mary doesn’t learn anything, but that the usual way of imagining the story doesn’t prove that she does." (ibid. 400) Fair enough. However, after he finishes telling the above story, Dennett makes a telling concession: "surely I’ve cheated, you think. I must be hiding behind the veil of Mary’s remarks." (ibid, 400) Well, surely we do think Dennett has cheated; as he himself admits, his way of telling the story doesn’t prove anything, either! Hence, Dennett’s first problem is that he offers no proof that he right. His other problem, however, is even more serious; his way of telling the rest of the story seems obviously false. Indeed, it is quite easy to see why so many people remain unpersuaded by Dennett’s account. The way he describes Mary detecting colors--via her thoughts and reactive dispositions--seems more than a bit peculiar; it seems just false. Is that how we recognize colors? Isn’t it that we just see them? Dennett may have imagined a few (semi-)plausible ways in which Mary could learn to recognize colors, it still seems just obvious that she would still learn something new: namely, what colors look like. For colors, we want to say, don’t look like a thought, and they don’t look like a reactive disposition; recognizing a color by our physiological reactions to it is no more actually seeing the color, we want to say, than recognizing a distinctive knock on the door is actually seeing the person standing there. But, how can I be so sure (one might object) that Mary wouldn’t be doing what we do when we perceive color? Well, let me ask you a question: can you tell me what your thoughts and reactive dispositions are to, say, yellow? I am certain that you cannot. Indeed, it seems that we are not even ordinarily conscious of at least some of our physiological reactive dispositions.

    Moreover, it also seems that the reactive dispositions that we are conscious of seem essentially non-specific for--or, inessential to--particular subjective color experiences. For example, perhaps you want to say (after some deliberation, I might add) that your reactive disposition to yellow is this; you say, "I find yellow appealing. Look, I find yellow bananas appealing, but not green and brown ones." However, the first problem is that one can have the very same reactive disposition to many things that just aren’t yellow. Among other things, for instance, I also find the sound of guitars appealing--but that of course doesn’t make that sound the color yellow, does it? Moreover, it seems to me that I often times find green appealing, too, especially when it comes to green grapes. Why is it that I have my "salient and specific reaction for yellow" to a dozen other things? Even worse, it also seems to that I only find yellow appealing sometimes. What about yellow urine!? So "appealing" cannot be my salient and specific reaction for yellow. And now the question is, if it is not that reactive disposition, which one is it? How do we decide? Dennett never says. Hence, the first general problem seems to be that there aren’t any such reactive dispositions that one has only for yellow, or for any other experience (for that matter).

    Dennett appears to recognize these questions, as he concedes that reactive dispositions can be somewhat "ambiguous": "Humphrey points out that red is always used to alert, the ultimate color-coding color, but for that reason ambiguous: the red fruit may be good to eat, but the red snake or insect is probably advertising that it is poisonous." (Dennett, 1991, p. 385) But, Dennett holds, red nevertheless does have "affective or emotional properties" that all primates, including human beings, share; perhaps they just aren’t well-known ones. And indeed, such "visceral" responses do exist, physiologically and behaviorally; it is quite true that "if your factory workers are lounging too long in the rest rooms, painting the walls of the rest rooms red will solve that problem"; Dennett even goes on to point out that these kinds of responses "are not restricted to colors." (ibid., 385) None of this, however, staves off my objection. First, while Dennett suggests that humans grow agitated in red light, the same seems true of high heat, and so too of the sound of a rattlesnake’s tail. But, according to Dennett, Mary’s brain has a "salient and specific reaction . . . only for yellow or only for red." (ibid.) We have a right, of course, to demand an explanation of these salient and specific reactions. What is the salient and specific reaction for red? Dennett’s only answer, we have seen, is that "red is an alarm." But, as we have seen, this "alarm" reaction is not specific for red; it may also be the reaction to a rattlesnake, to high heat, to a loud buzzer, and so on.

    Dennett, I suspect, would challenge this last point; perhaps he would make empirical appeals. Perhaps, he might want to say, there is a real difference--albeit a small and hard-to-decipher one--between our agitation to rattlesnakes and our agitation to red; that is, that truly there are salient and specific physiological reactions for red. But this I do not deny. My only point is that while this may be quite true physiologically, it is not true for consciousness--for we cannot with ease say what our reactive dispositions are, whereas we can quite easily recognize a color. Insofar as we do not need to be aware of these dispositions in order to recognize a color, I hold that this entails that there is something else to subjective color experience besides reactive dispositions. It is this ‘something else’, I hold, that Dennett has ignored and failed to explain. And since this ‘something else’ is what we normally experience when we recognize colors, I hold that it follows that this ‘something else’ is how colors look.

    And if Dennett really wants to dig in his heals and press this last issue--holding that there really are small, hard-to-decipher dispositions in consciousness--he runs into this problem: there are, for instance, lots of different shades of red. There are, of course, literally thousands; you can show yourself this on any "paint" program on any computer. What’s the difference between two shades of red one pixel apart? Is it that you have 81 agitated neurons as opposed to 82? And now we’re supposed to tell this difference subjectively? The idea is just absurd. One could of course say, "Hm . . . I am feeling a little more agitated, so it must be dark red", but in order to know which shade of dark red (once again, there are lots) one would have be able to know exactly how agitated one is--as though you could measure your agitation with something analogous to a subjective ruler or tape-measure!

    Dennett, I realize, might want to object that here I am mistaking a lack of imagination for an insight into necessity; I presume that he might want to say that if we’re not imagining hard enough--we’re not really imagining Mary having all possible scientific knowledge. Indeed, Dennett would want to say that, with enough training, Mary could recognize colors at a first glance, just as do we--but that this is just too hard to imagine. Indeed, how can we be so sure that Mary doesn’t do what we do? Maybe we’re just real experts at doing what she does. After all, haven’t we already undermined, in our earlier discussion of qualia, the idea of direct or immediate apprehension of our subjective experiences? I am willing to give Dennett all the leverage he wants here. Yes, it seems that his Mary could recognize colors, in principle, if she knew everything physical. Yet, but this actually seems to entail a serious problem for Dennett’s account, for a reason that he himself gives: we currently have no idea what it would be like to know everything physical. When will we know everything physical? When will we know enough to tell Mary what blue looks like, let alone what chicken soup tastes like, and what will it take (scientifically) to do so? Dennett has no answers for these questions; he just asserts that we could (in principle) provide a scientific explanation of the subjective experience of blue. Hence, to me, his approach also seems be giving up, as well--which seems to me reason enough to reject his view.

    All that Dennett has really accomplished is a promissory note, one that (for reasons given) seems misbegotten. As he himself concedes, he has not proven that his story is the correct one; he leaves it up to science to find out the truth someday. And indeed, what I have in store next is a proof that Dennett’s story is wrong, as well as an alternate story, one which puts subjective experience within the grasp of science today. Then, in Part 5, I will aim to prove the alternative story true.



  3. The Intrapersonal Inverted Spectrum Revisited


We have just seen that there really seems to be ‘something else’ to subjective color experience above and beyond ‘visceral’ reactive dispositions and thoughts. Our proof lies in the thought experiment we discussed in Part 3: the Intrapersonal Inverted Spectrum. Remember, according to this experiment, an evil neuroscientist switched the color-perception wires--the neurons--in your brain such that "you wake up one morning to find that the grass has turned red, the sky yellow, and so forth." (ibid., 391) The initial intent of this thought experiment, of course, was to preserve the notion of qualia as a coherent concept by showing that "the way things look"--one’s qualia--could be switched, and hence, "that qualia are acceptable properties after all, because propositions about them can be justifiably asserted, empirically verified, and even explained." (Dennett, 1988, p. 50) For, it was thought, this thought experiment shows that a person’s subjective color experiences themselves could be inverted without inverting his/her behaviors and behavioral dispositions--insofar as this person could conceivably go on calling the sky blue even though it ‘really’ now looks yellow. But, as we have already seen, Dennett shows that this thought experiment fails insofar as two different neurosurgical procedures ex hypothesi would have the same subjective effects, while only one of them inverts the qualia.

In the first case, remember, the neurological switch is made ‘early’--perhaps in the optic nerve--such that everything ‘downstream’ is switched as well; ex hypothesi this would achieve qualia inversion. In the second case, however, we saw that the scientist could merely switch your memory-anchored dispositions to color perceptions; ex hypothesi this does not invert your qualia, only your memory of colors. Either way, remember, you would wake up thinking "the grass has turned red, the sky yellow, and so on." But since you couldn’t possibly tell by introspection which one--your qualia or your memory--had been switched, we saw, this only means that ex hypothesi the two procedures have exactly the same introspective effects. According to this thought experiment, then, reactive dispositions and ‘qualia’ are the very same subjective phenomena. Hence, as we have already seen, this thought experiment undermines the notion of qualia.

Therefore, Dennett justifiably concludes that "what the qualophile needs is a thought experiment that demonstrates that the-way-things-look can be independent of all these reactive dispositions." (Dennett, 1991, p. 391-392) He asks for us to consider such a thought experiment that, he says, won’t work:


One night while you sleep, evil neurosurgeons switch all the wires from the cone cells (just as before), and then, later the same busy night, another team of neurosurgeons, the B team, comes along and performs a complementary rewiring a little farther up on the optic nerve. (ibid.)


Of course, Dennett holds, this "restores all the old reactive dispositions (we can presume), but, alas, it also restores the old qualia." (ibid.) Hence, according to Dennett, "we’ll have to tell the story differently, with the second switcheroo happening later, after the inverted qualia have taken their bow in consciousness, but before any of the inverted reactions to them can set in." (ibid.) However, Dennett argues, this is just not possible. It would make sense, he concedes, if there were a Cartesian Theater--but as we all know, everything in philosophy and neurophysiology (especially) points against this; as Marcel Kinsbourne (1988) points out, "rather than suggesting the existence of what James (1890) ironically termed a ‘pontifical neuron’ that knows and determines all, the evidence points to a quite different model, of parallel representation (Merzenich and Kaas 1980)" (Kinsbourne, 241) And, Dennett holds, it certainly wouldn’t make any sense according to the Multiple Drafts model, insofar as "there is no line that can be drawn across the causal "chain" from eyeball through consciousness to subsequent behavior such that all reactions to x happen after it and consciousness of x does not happen before it." (Dennett, 1991, p. 392)

But Dennett, I hold, has not exhausted all the possibilities. For, it seems that some of our color-related reactive dispositions can in fact be inverted without inverting our subjective color-experience. As we have already seen, some of our color-related reactive dispositions are not specific or essential to any particular color. And indeed, doesn’t it seem that the neuroscientists could invert, for instance, one’s "visceral" responses to color without inverting one’s "primary judgments"? Think about the edginess response to red to which Dennett refers. Couldn’t we imagine one suddenly beginning to always react to blue that way, instead of red? Well, it seems that it happens all the time. Dennett himself even gives a realistic example of how that might happen, which I will now partly (and graciously) lift from him.


Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that your "visceral" responses to red and blue are (something to the effect of) anxiety and calmness, respectively. However, one day you get into a car crash in a blue car, and henceforth, blue always reminds you (and your nervous system) of that event. Hence, blue no longer makes you feel calm; it makes you really agitated--just like when you see red. Now you have the same visceral responses to red and blue: does this mean you can no longer tell red from blue?


This thought experiment certainly possible; Dennett’s own example of blue (or is it yellow?) evoking anxiety, because of a collision you once had with a blue car, is a perfect example of how this might happen; so is my nausea to chili, as a result of food poisoning as a child. Now, the first thing this thought experiment shows is that these visceral reactions are not intrinsic aspects of colors; blue does not become red the moment blue began to make me anxious. Second, it also shows that it is quite possible that we could have the very same reactions to two colors, which really appears to undermine Dennett’s claim that Mary could tell what red looks like by virtue of these reactions: perhaps it was really blue! We can even add a little more to the story to make it even more interesting:


It really bothers you that you now have such strong anxious reactions to both red and blue. You decide that you can’t stand the anxiety any longer, and you decide to try therapy. You start with red. For a few weeks or months you use perhaps a biofeedback program to reduce your agitation. Perhaps you use meditation and imagine calming things when looking at blue. After some amount of time, it works; you have totally exorcised your agitation to red; now, it even makes you calm!


So now your visceral reactions to red and blue are the complete inverse of what they were at the outset, when red made you agitated and blue made you calm; now red makes you calm, whereas blue makes you agitated. Perhaps this switch has changed other responses, as well. Perhaps you used to like blue things, because they made you calm, but hated red things because they made you anxious--but that now you like red things and hate blue things. Have your color experiences switched? That seems just absurd. Your color-related reactions may have switched, but there is no reason to think that you wouldn’t go on calling the sky blue. Hence, certain dispositions (and thoughts) are not salient or specific to particular colors. Something, however, must have stayed constant, in order for you to still be able to say that the sky is blue; what is it? Well, the only thing that has stayed constant (so far as I can see) is just that: your basic color judgments. Indeed, it seems that we could only justifiably say that your experiences are inverted if you suddenly started to call blue things "red" and red things "blue". Hence, I hold, there are essentially two distinct types of dispositions: primary judgments and secondary dispositions. What’s the essential difference between the two? Well, I hold, primary judgments are specific to certain experiences--"if I say falsely that something is red, then, for all that, it isn’t red"--whereas secondary dispositions are not specific to any experiences--for, as we have seen, your color preferences can be inverted without inverting your color experiences. (Wittgenstein, 1958, 429) Hence, in my view, subjective color-experience consists of primary judgments; each color has its own unique primary judgments. After all, by what criteria do we judge whether someone sees colors? Our criteria, of course, is the person’s ability to make certain judgments; after all, if a person can’t tell the difference between a red light and a green one, don’t we call them color blind?

So, am I saying that a person knows everything there is to the color orange just in case one can "pick out" orange things? Close, but not quite. I think it is just obvious that a person who cannot "pick out" orange things doesn’t see orange. We say this of color blind people, do we not? Indeed, we say that they don’t see red and green (but rather, one "muddy" color) because they can’t tell green from red. But this is not all. Even if a person picks out orange things and correctly calls them "orange", there are still certain things about orange that one must experience in order to see the color orange: namely, the logical color-facts of the color. After all, what would we say of a person who always correctly picked out orange objects, and always called orange things "orange", but who claimed that orange is darker than red? Well, presumably we would say that either the person didn’t know what "darker" meant, or that he didn’t really see orange, but rather some other color (once again, as we do with color blindness). We could find out the truth with a color wheel. If the person correctly picked out the orange section and said it was darker than the red section, we could ask him if black is darker than brown. If he said, "brown is darker than black"--and consistently got the same answer with more tests--we could justifiably say that he’s conflated "darker" and "lighter". However, if he said that black is indeed darker than brown, we could justifiably say that he’s not seeing orange--for orange, as everyone else sees it, is lighter than red and darker than yellow. In that case, we should say that he’s seeing some other color that he calls orange. However, what’s important is that this fact would not be private, known only to him; we could know full well that he’s not seeing what we’re seeing. But what is it that he is seeing, then? Aren’t we at a loss to explain it? Not at all. As we will now see, to explain his experience of this color, all we have to do is reductively explain how his brain judges certain signals from the optic nerve as "orange" but "darker than red"; this, I hold, explains the subjective content of orange exactly; it leaves out and fails to explain nothing.

In my view, the content of any subjective color experience consists of a small series of primary color-judgments, which are perfectly within the scope of ordinary public description. What is orange? Well, it is the color of this basketball; it is lighter than red and darker than yellow, a mixture of the two. These primary judgments, I hold, explain all the subjective content of the color orange. And here’s the rub: science can explain all this content. Once again, as I pointed out in the introduction, we already know how the cones in the retina are sensitive to particular wavelengths of light, how these cones send their outputs to be "summed through excitatory cross-connections and differenced through inhibitory cross-connections to yield the red-green (R-G) and yellow-blue (Y-B) opponent chromatic channels and a nonopponent achromatic (black-white) channel," how "positive activity in the R-G channel codes redness, and negative activity codes greenness", how "the light entering someone’s eyes produces relative activity of +.60 in her R-G opponent channel and relative activity of -.40 in her Y-B opponent channel, then one can predict that she has an experience of a 60% red and 40% blue red-blue (i.e., a purple)," and so on. (Pautz, 74) So we already have the scientific knowledge to explain orange; we know exactly how the brain gets different codes for different colors, how orange (to the brain, as well to us) is a mixture of red and yellow, and we could (in principle) know how the brain interprets yellow as being "lighter" than red. So, what’s left over, unexplained and unaccounted for? Nothing. And in Part 5 I aim to prove it; colors have no intrinsic content.

Now, I realize, this might seem quite false. Of course colors have qualitative content; we can like them, love them, hate them, and so on. However, as we have seen, these kinds of qualitative judgments are not salient or specific to particular color experiences. I can like red one minute and hate it the next; we attach qualitative content to colors. This, I think, is quite clear—and, of course, it has a purpose: color-coding (labeling). Yellow bananas taste good; green ones don’t. The green apples we eat, on the other hand, are good. The examples one can give are endless, but the important point is that how we react to particular colors varies contextually; the content we ascribe to colors are not intrinsic qualities of colors. Hence, I hold, all we have to do to explain color experience is explain how they function as labels—and, as I have already suggested, we can conceivably do this; just show how the brain takes certain inputs and codes them as "yellow" and you’ve explained subjective yellow-experience.

Contrast this to pain; pain is a bad sensation—the "badness" is intrinsic to it. Hence, I hold, pain has real qualitative content that we have to explain; colors don’t. So things get a bit more complicated when it comes to other kinds of subjective experiences, such as pain. In my view, we can make the very same distinction between primary judgments and secondary dispositions we just made for subjective experiences in general. Indeed, for seeing, hearing, feeling, etc., there seem to be both primary judgments and secondary dispositions. Consider pain: what kinds of reactions are our secondary pain-dispositions? They are, here again, whatever reactions we have that are not salient or specific to pain. Here is one example: general physiological arousal. Don’t we all know the rapid heartbeat, the perspiration, and (perhaps) the panic that can be associated with pain? And how about our pain-related psychological and behavioral reactions, which include fear, panic, wincing, screaming, and so on? Are all of these reactions added together pain itself? It certainly doesn’t seem to be the case; rapid heartbeat, perspiration, panic--don’t all of these reactions also accompany fear, too? And what about strenuous exercise? Indeed, as we will now see, none of these "visceral" reactions are sufficient or necessary for pain; pain is something else entirely.

Consider another Super-Scientist: Paul the Super Pain-Scientist. Imagine that Paul has never felt pain as a result of some congenital disorder, and that he undergoes a procedure that finally allows him to feel pain after all these years. Now suppose that Paul knew to expect central nervous system (CNS) arousal (increased heart rate, perspiration, etc.), certain behavioral and psychological reactions to pain (wincing, panic, etc.), and certain thoughts (such as, "this feels terrible!"). And, of course, Paul would know that pain is a sensation he has never felt before. Now suppose we take Paul to the dentist and, unbeknownst to him, give him a local anesthetic. Many people, of course, hate going to the dentist. Most of the time, it doesn’t hurt, of course, but having someone scrape at your teeth can get you pretty worked up. Suppose this is the case with Paul. Now Paul knows that some people hate going to the dentist, and he knows that dental work can hurt. So there he is, starting to perspire; his heart is racing; he’s getting real nervous feeling the dentist scraping around in his mouth. Then comes the drill. Then Paul sees some blood. Wow, now he’s really on edge. If these visceral reactions were all Paul had to inform him what pain feels like, it seems to follow that he would have to say, "This must be pain!" But of course he would be wrong. "Visceral" reactions aren’t enough to differentiate pain from really intense fear, for example; they are only accompaniments to pain.

What would it take for Paul to be able to say, "Aha, this isn’t pain! I’m having all sorts of physiological pain-reactions, but the pain itself is missing!" Well, he would only have to know all about the one thing that is salient and specific to pain: pain itself. But how could he ever know that? Simple; he’d just have to ask:


Paul asked me what pain feels like. First, I told him there are many kinds of pain; there are burning pains, shooting pains, dull pains, roaring pains, stabbing pains, and many more I couldn’t remember. From there, I went on to tell him everything I knew about pain myself. ‘Well,’ I told him, ‘pain is: (1) a sensation, that (2) you feel, like other sensations, in a particular part of the body (or the mind or soul), that (3) feels really bad, that is often localized to sites of injury (e.g., pain is what you feel when pricked with a pin), that (4) can vary greatly in terms of severity, that (5) may compel you behave in certain ways (e.g., cringe, wince, scream, etc.). . . .’


Haven’t I explained exactly what pain feels like? It seems so. If I were really clever, perhaps my description would be even more precise. But, one might want to object, couldn’t that very same description also be interpreted as describing an itch? After all, one wants to say, an itch is a really unpleasant, often temporary sensation that can differ in severity and make one want to shudder and even scream (if one is prevented from itching it). Aha, but the objection kills itself; as you yourself added, an itch is different from a pain in that it "wants to be scratched". Surely, if I were to describe an itch, the very first thing I would say is that an itch is an unpleasant sensation that begs to be scratched! What is important about these descriptions, of course, is that they appear to be fine accounts of the subjective natures of these experiences. Doesn’t pain feel bad? Doesn’t an itch "want to be scratched"? What more do you know about these sensations that you cannot describe? In my view: nothing.

In my view, the above description of pain--and the description of an itch--are just those primary judgments of our experiences; they describe those aspects that are essential and specific to certain subjective experiences. If a person routinely fails to make any of these judgments, I hold, then he fails to experience the phenomena in question. Once again, consider pain: What if a person claimed that his pain isn’t a sensation? What if a person claimed that his pain isn’t felt anywhere in the body (or soul), but in basketballs? What if a person claimed that his pain "feels great"? What if a person claimed that great injuries don’t cause him to wince, etc.? Would we say that any of these people feel pain? I think not. In none of these cases could we justifiably say, "He knows what pain feels like." No, these people would be thoroughly confused, and so would we.

In fact, there are people who don’t feel pain. How do we know that they don’t feel pain? Well, not only do they tell us; they don’t exhibit pain behavior:


There are people, fortunately quite rare, who are congenitally insensitive to pain. Before you start to envy them, you should know that since they don’t make these postural corrections during sleep (or while they are awake!), they soon become cripples, their joints ruined by continual abuse which no alarm bells curtail. They also burn themselves, cut themselves, and in other ways shorten their unhappy lives by inappropriately deferred maintenance. (Cohen et al., 1955; Kirman et al., 1968) (Dennett, 1991, p. 61)


As the above passage points out, people who don’t feel pain behave in markedly different ways than do the rest of us who do feel pain; they don’t make what I should like to call "primary pain-judgments"--that is, they don’t exhibit "pain behavior." But, couldn’t we teach them to make such judgments--that is, to behave as though they are in pain even though they still don’t feel it? Couldn’t we teach them to know that injuries are painful, and teach them to say "I am in pain" whenever we do? Perhaps, but even so, if we asked these people to tell us the truth, presumably they would still say that they don’t feel pain: verbal self-reports exhibit pain (or lack of it), too.

My point is this: the difference between feeling pain and not feeling it is in every way publicly demonstrable. Pain, I hold, consists of series of related primary judgments that we can describe. What is pain? It is (1) a sensation that (2) feels very bad, that (3) afflicts a part of the body (or soul), that (4) has a particular degree of severity, and so on. If Paul the Super Scientist knows all of these things, I hold, he knows exactly what pain feels like, even though he has never felt it himself. As Wittgenstein put it, "what interests us is not just a single characteristic, but rather many . . . any one of them may yield us special information quite different from all the rest." (Wittgenstein, Vol. 1, 286) This account of pain, of course, contrasts with my earlier account of colors only in the number of primary judgments involved, and this is on account of the fact that there is more subjective content to pain than there is to colors. Accordingly, as with colors, I hold that an exhaustive description of pain consists merely is an exhaustive neurophysiological explanation of these primary judgments--which could certainly, at least in principle, be accomplished. After all, can’t we (conceivably) explain in neurophysiological terms what makes pain "bad"? Of course; we could explain, in neurophysiological terms, how the brain interprets certain nerve stimuli as "bad", and so on. Therefore, I hold, materialism is true.

I believe that I have shown that Dennett’s mistake is that he tries to explain subjective experience in terms of secondary dispositions. As we have seen, our secondary dispositions are sometimes not even conscious, and they are always neither salient nor specific to our experiences--insofar as they could be inverted without inverting our primary judgments. This is why, I have argued, Dennett’s critics are right; he purports to explain consciousness in terms that simply don’t do the job. However, I have argued, Dennett’s error has shown us the right path to take; primary judgments are salient and specific to particular colors and to pain; moreover, they are the conscious, overt, public judgments we make (i.e., "this is horrible!"). But now, of course, I presume that skeptics will raise the same objections for my account as they have for Dennett’s; that is, they will claim that judgments simply can’t be subjective experience; they will argue that my account leaves the same old explanatory gap, and hence, fails to solve the hard problem of consciousness. But what I now intend to show is that it is logically true that the external content of a color just is its subjective content, and therefore, that it is irrefutably true that science (in principle) can explain everything there is to consciousness--and hence, that materialism is true.




5. . . . And Why It Doesn’t Need to Be Explained



We must get clear about how the metaphor of revealing (outside and inside) is actually applied by us; otherwise we shall be tempted to look for an inside behind that which in our metaphor is the inside. (Wittgenstein, in Kenny, 159)


Our feeling of helplessness must rest upon a false picture. Because what we want to be able to describe is something that we are able to describe. (ibid., 275; emphasis added)



Thus far we have seen that Dennett’s negative arguments against the notion of qualia are powerful, but that his positive arguments--in which he attempts to provide a materialist account of subjective experience--leave us wondering if qualia really were a good idea after all. However, I have suggested an alternative; all there is to subjective experience are primary judgments--the ordinary public proclamations and descriptions we make concerning our subjective experiences--which are explainable both behaviorally and physiologically. And, we have also seen that the skeptic rejects this move by intuition; judgments don’t seem to explain everything. However, I am now going to contest this kind of skepticism outright.

With all of the arguments for and against materialism and the hard problem of consciousness, I have yet to see anyone ask the most important question: what must materialism explain in order to explain consciousness? Most often, it seems, philosophers fall back on their strongest intuitions: materialism, they say, must explain subjective experience--but what does that assertion entail? More importantly, what is its justification? So far as I see, it has none. Philosophers, I hold, have merely assumed the hard problem of consciousness without any hard arguments to back it up. In fact, I hold that nobody has as of yet clearly shown what materialism must show in order to be true. What is the content of consciousness? We clearly need an answer. But how do we begin? Well, we are conscious of a great many things, but two of our experiences, of course, are of the sensation pain and the color yellow. Thus, in order to get clear about consciousness, we have to first get clear as to what "pain" and "yellow" mean; only when we get this clear will we know what we have to explain. But what I now intend to show is these concepts--in fact, all "consciousness concepts"--have no content that cannot be explained in neurophysiological terms. Hence, I will conclude, the hard problem of consciousness is really a myth and our intuitions are false: materialism is true.



Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument


According to Wittgenstein, the hard problem of consciousness is not a genuine philosophical problem but a puzzle which can be "dissolved" through a better understanding of language. In the preface to his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein declares that the Investigations "could be seen in the right light only by contrast with and against the background of my old way of thinking" in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. (Wittgenstein, 1958, p. vi) In the Tractatus, of course, Wittgenstein presented a particular conception of language. In the Investigations, however, he rejects that earlier view of language as fundamentally wrong. According to Wittgenstein, the hard problem of consciousness rests on the fundamental mistake he made in the Tractatus: we falsely suppose that the essential nature of words is to name, and of sentences to describe. What is so important about that notion? Well, Wittgenstein holds, in that view words are connected to an underlying reality, and it is their job to describe that reality. And this idea, of course, essentially presupposes that there are (or could be) real content beyond that which can be described in language. Hence, according to this view of language, there could be real objects in consciousness, for instance, that are beyond description to any other person for one reason or another--that is, there might be qualia. Although this view of language seems entirely natural, Wittgenstein repudiates this view; words are not essentially names for a language-transcendent reality; hence, there is no reality beyond that which can be expressed in language: there are no qualia. In fact, I believe his famous Private Language Argument proves it; everything can be expressed; our words omit nothing about subjective conscious experience (or anything else for that matter); hence, science can explain consciousness.

The best place to begin discussing the Private Language Argument is at the beginning--at the beginning of the Investigations, that is. The first passage in the Investigations is a quotation from St. Augustine’s biography, and it describes in layman’s terms the particular picture of language Wittgenstein is out to undermine in the Private Language Argument, which he calls "Augustine’s picture of language":


When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and I grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shewn by their bodily movements, as it were the natural language of all peoples: the expression of the face, the play of the eyes, the movement of other parts of the body, and the tone of voice which expresses our state of mind in seeking, having, rejecting, or avoiding something. Thus, as I hear words repeatedly used in various sentences, I gradually learnt to understand what objects they signified; and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires. (ibid., 1)


As I have said, this is (roughly) the picture of language Wittgenstein presented in his earlier work, the Tractatus; according to this picture, the function of words is to name objects in reality. In more concrete terms, Augustine’s picture of language is essentially this: "table" means this material thing, "pain" means this sensation, and so on and so forth. I presume that this picture of language seems altogether natural to most any reader, since it really seems just obvious, intuitively at least, that the words of our language mean objects in reality. At any rate, however, philosophers have always been drawn to this kind of picture: "In the philosophy of language, it was generally accepted that words and sentences represent what they represent in virtue of their connection with reality." (Hacker, 100) However, as I have said, Wittgenstein points out that Augustine’s picture of language contains an implicit assumption: "It is this: the individual words in language name objects--sentences are combinations of such names." (ibid.) What is so crucial about this notion? Well, Wittgenstein points out, it in turn presupposes certain premises; "In this picture of language we find the roots of the following idea: Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands." (Wittgenstein, 1958, p. 1) Wittgenstein’s point here is that if words mean objects in reality, as Augustine’s picture of language presupposes, then word and meaning are distinct; a word only gets meaning in virtue of some object, which the word names. But if words essentially get their meanings by naming particular objects, Wittgenstein points out, then there must be some process that connects, or relates, words to objects as names--and, of course, "accordingly, an explanation of how that connection is established or determined is requisite." (Hacker, 23) There were of course many competing theories of this process. In fact, Wittgenstein himself even had a theory of his own:


Frege invokes his apparatus of senses of expressions (conceived as abstract entities that are modes of presentation of meanings) to explain the connection between words and world, between proper names and objects, and between concept-words and concepts in the realm of meanings (Bedeutungen). Russell invoked acquaintance. The Tractatus was coy on the matter. The meaning of a simple name is the object in reality for which it stands. How that connection is effected was left obscure. But it is evident from the Notebooks 1914-16 and from his later criticisms of his earlier views that he thought that the connections between names and their meanings was effected by mental acts or processes of meaning this object by such-and-such a name. . . . (Hacker, 23)


This passage makes two things clear. First, each and every one of these explanations presupposes that the connection or relation in question must occur in people. And, of course, this seems quite reasonable; where else could the process connecting (or relating) word and object occur? On Mars? And second, it is clear that the process would have to be some kind of a mental process in people; what else could it be--perhaps a magical process in people? Of course not. Hence, it was generally thought that meaning is an ‘inner’ mental process; the only remaining question seemed to be what kind of inner mental process it might be. In the final passage of the Investigations, however, Wittgenstein asserts that this view is just false: "nothing is more wrong-headed than calling meaning a mental activity!" (Wittgenstein, 1958, p. 693) What’s the problem? Well, it is quite complicated--and it is the focus of the Private Language Argument.

The first thing we have to realize is that if meaning consisted in an inner mental process of naming, meaning would have to be private--i.e. known only to the person making the connection--insofar as all we know is our own experiences. For, if words are essentially names, then each of us would have to use the word "pain" to name "this sensation that only I feel". We can see the problem clearly: if each of us names private objects in our own subjective experiences--which nobody but ourselves experience--then we all mean different things by our words. In short, Augustine’s picture of language presupposes that each person has a private language--a language nobody else could understand in principle:


But could we also imagine a language in which a person could write down or give expression to his inner experiences--his feelings, moods, and the rest--for his private use?--Well, can’t we do so in our ordinary language?--But that is not what I mean. The words of his language are to refer to what can only be known to the person speaking; to his immediate private sensations. So another person cannot understand the language. (ibid., 243)


The purpose of the Private Language Argument is to deny that any such act of private naming can take place. In fact, Wittgenstein undermines the notion of private language by killing it before it can even get off the ground; he asks the concrete question whether someone could undertake to name a sensation ‘pain’ in the future.


"But I can (inwardly) undertake to call THIS ‘pain’ in the future."--But is it certain that you have undertaken it? Are you sure that it was enough to concentrate you attention on your feeling?"--A queer question.-- (ibid., 263)


What, however, is so ‘queer’ about the notion of private ostensive definition, according to Wittgenstein? Can’t we name our sensations? Indeed, it seems like we do it all the time. Wittgenstein asks if you are certain that you have undertaken calling THIS ‘pain’ in the future, but so what if you are not certain--who ever said we need demand certainty here? Indeed, just because we may not be able to be certain doesn’t necessarily mean that it cannot be done. Or does it? Wittgenstein himself admits that "there doesn’t seem to be any problem here; don’t we talk about sensations every day, and give them names?" (ibid., 244) Indeed, don’t we each do it all the time? Right now, for example, I am certain that as I look at this red and black suitcase; I can ‘pick out’ the red and the black: It seems that I can point with my mind at the red, now at the black, now back to the red again, and so on. Wittgenstein, however, does not deny that I can make this demonstration--"the flashing of an aspect seems half visual experience and half thought." (ibid., 197e) What he does deny is that this demonstration is private in the relevant sense. Of course, it is private in one sense--since one can do it in one’s mind without anyone knowing--but it is clear that in the relevant sense it is not private. For we have to remember what "private" means in this case; a private language is one that cannot (in principle) be understood by another person. But the above demonstration could be understood by another person; I take my finger and now point at the red part of the suitcase, and now at the black part, telling someone "red", "black", "red", "black"--anyone could conceivably understand what I mean (as we do understand when someone points to red and black things and says "red" and "black" accordingly). Indeed, as Wittgenstein makes explicit, any demonstration--and therefore any language--that can be replicated publicly, e.g. in terms of overt behavior, is not private:


Now what about the language which describes my inner experiences and which only I myself understand? How do I use words to stand for my sensations?--As we ordinarily do? Then are my words for sensations tied up with my natural expressions of sensation? In that case my language is not a ‘private’ one. Someone else might understand it as well as I. (ibid., 256)


Wittgenstein would say that the case of me picking out different colored parts of the suitcase is an example of public ostensive definition, which I may perform "privately" in my mind--but that insofar as I could make myself understood to someone else, this demonstration is not truly private, for the reasons just given. The kind of demonstration Wittgenstein is questioning the possibility of is not this kind of public ostensive definition, but private ostensive definition--which, he holds, is impossible: "The centre-piece of the private language arguments is the demonstration of the incoherence of the idea of private ostensive definition." (Hacker, 132) But, what is private ostensive definition, exactly? Private ostensive definition is, as Wittgenstein has stipulated, a definition that cannot be understood by anyone except its speaker in principle. But how could one conceivably make a definition that nobody else could conceivably understand or translate? Simple: a private ostensive definition would be one that had no connection whatsoever to publicly observable phenomena. For, insofar as this definition would lack any connection to the external world, nothing could clue anyone else in to the word’s meaning; it would be untranslatable, in principle.

Hence, in order to construct a private language, the privateer (our hypothetical private language builder) would have to name objects of his experience without ever referring to publicly observable phenomena, including the behavior and physiology of himself and of others. Some people, however, have not adequately grasped this; indeed, it is worth noting here that some philosophers have mistakenly supposed that it would be possible to create a private language with the help of behavior. In order to stave off any lingering misunderstandings, I will begin by showing the error in this way of thinking.

In his "Could Language Be Invented by a Robinson Crusoe," A.J. Ayer holds that a private language is possible insofar as it is logically possible that a person in total physical isolation could create a language of his/her own. The line of argument is simple: Humans can learn to ‘get around’ consistently in the world without language; indeed, humans (and animals!) can obviously know pain; they consistently avoid fires, try to soothe their injured limbs and cower in pain, and so on. And, since we can certainly learn to act consistently in these situations, it seems that we could begin to use the consistency of our behaviors as our criterion for private ostensive definition. However, Wittgenstein anticipates Ayer’s sort of objection and, in typical fashion, raises it himself in order to undermine it:


Let us now imagine a use for the entry of the sign ‘S’ in my diary. I discover that whenever I have a particular sensation a manometer shews that my blood pressure rises. So I shall be able to say that my blood pressure is rising without any apparatus. This is a useful result. And now it seems quite indifferent whether I have recognized the sensation right or not. Let us suppose that I regularly identify it wrong, it does not matter in the least. And that alone shews that the hypothesis that I make a mistake is mere show. (We as it were turned a knob which looked as if it could be used to turn on some part of the machine; but it were a mere ornament, not connected with the mechanism at all.)

And what is our reason for calling "S" the name of a sensation here? Perhaps the kind of way this sign is employed in this language-game.--And why a "particular sensation," that is, the same one every time? Well, aren’t we supposing that we write "S" every time? (Wittgenstein, 1958, p. 270)


Wittgenstein’s point here is that as soon as we try to justify names for our ‘internal’ sensations by appealing to ‘external’ criteria, the language is no longer a ‘private’ one. But, why not? After all, I did develop it all alone! Well, not exactly. The problem here is that my justification--the manometer reading--is available to everyone; it is quite possible that others could see the connection that I make between ‘S’ and the manometer and correctly translate the meaning of the word ‘S’ (this is basically how we translate foreign languages). Indeed, anyone could know what ‘S’ is; it is the sensation that tells me my blood pressure is rising. And this only means it becomes quite indifferent whether I recognize the sensation; one can always check the manometer! Hence, a language developed in this way is not private; it is public: anyone could understand it.


Now, what about the language which describes my inner experiences and which only I myself understand? How do I use words to stand for my sensations?--As we ordinarily do? Then are my words for sensations tied up with my natural expressions of sensation? In that case my language is not a ‘private’ one. Someone else might understand it as well as I. (ibid., 236)


But now suppose we play the devil’s advocate: suppose there is agreement between the manometer and my sensations for days, even weeks, and then one day a disagreement occurs. As it turns out, I find that the manometer has been left on its side, and that whenever it is left on its side for a few hours, this mismatch occurs; otherwise, its readings and my ‘S’ match up perfectly. Now doesn’t this provide me grounds for asserting that my memory is a better foundation for naming my sensations than the manometer? This intuition is tempting, but false. The basic mistake with the objection at hand is that I have already used the manometer to name a particular sensation ‘S’--it has already served as the criterion I needed to use ‘S’ consistently--and hence, I really don’t need the manometer at all. The easiest way to look at the manometer is like ‘training wheels’ for a young bicycle rider; if you never use them at all, you can’t learn to ride--but once you’ve used them to master the technique, you need them no longer. The same goes for the manometer; it sets the criterion of correctness, but once you’ve learned that criterion, you no longer need the manometer--but it is the manometer in the first case that sets the criterion, not some private phenomenon: hence, a language constructed using "external help" like a manometer is not a private language.

Hence, a private language has absolutely no ties to the external world. But, what would one (presumably) have to do in order to construct a language without any reference to external criteria? Well, the only candidate seems to be private ostensive definition, which is essentially ‘pointing’ at an experience with one’s ‘mind’s eye’:


--But suppose I didn’t have any natural expression for the sensation, but only had the sensation? And now I simply associate names with sensations and use these names in descriptions.-- (ibid., 236)


However, Wittgenstein holds, private ostensive definition is impossible. In the following passage, Wittgenstein shows why private ostensive definition fails to establish a word as a name:


Let us imagine the following case. I want to keep a diary about the recurrence of a certain sensation. To this end I associate it with the sign "S" and write this sign in a calendar for every day on which I have the sensation.--I will remark first of all that the definition of the sign cannot be formulated.--But still I can give myself a kind of ostensive definition.--How? Can I point to the sensation? Not in the ordinary sense. But I speak, or write the sign down, and at the same time I concentrate my attention on the sensation--and so, as it were, point at it inwardly.--But what is this ceremony for? for that is all that it seems to be! A definition surely serves to establish the meaning of a sign.--Well, that is done precisely by the concentration of my attention; for in this way "I impress it on myself" can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the connection right in the future. But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘right’. (ibid., 258; emphasis added)


Indeed, Wittgenstein points out that without any appeal to external criteria, the privateer’s only criterion of correctness is his very own opinion, which is really no criterion at all: "that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘right’." (ibid.)

There seems to be room for a few objections here, however. The first is this: do we really have to concentrate upon our sensations--i.e., ostensively define them privately--in order to name them? On the contrary, it seems self-evident that we don’t normally focus on our sensations at all; rather, it seems that they impress themselves upon us! Think, for instance, about the sensation of pain: you don’t, of course, cut your finger and then focus on the pain--you just are in pain (and it is excruciating!). Indeed, although most of us would presumably wish that it was possible to just turn one’s attention away from one’s pain, this is of course simply not the case; sensations have a way of forcing themselves upon us--they are, in a very real sense, it seems, impressions. What now of Wittgenstein’s claims? Are we really to suppose that I wouldn’t be able to privately recognize pain and name it ‘pain’? It seems just obvious that I could; pain is quite distinctive. The second objection I can think of is related: couldn’t the privateer just arbitrarily name something--whatever merely seems to impress itself upon him as pain--and then correctly use that arbitrary criterion as his criterion for future use of the word? No, as Wittgenstein points out in the next section, both objections hold no water:


Let us imagine a table (something like a dictionary) that exists only in our imagination. A dictionary can be used to justify the translation of a word X by a word Y. But are we to call it a justification if such a table is looked up only in the imagination?--"Well, yes; then it is a subjective justification."--But justification consists in appealing to something independent. -- "But surely I can appeal from one memory to another. For example, I don’t know if I have remembered the time of departure of a train right and to check it I call to mind how a page of the timetable looked. Isn’t it the same here?"--No; for this process has got to produce a memory which is actually correct. If the mental image of the timetable could not itself be tested for correctness, how could it confirm the correctness of the first memory? (ibid., 265; emphasis added)


Wittgenstein’s point here is that even if sensations do leave impressions, attaching a note ‘S’ to any of them could not function as a name insofar as one would still have no criterion for future use of the word. One would have one’s memory of the first event--of the actual moment one named the sensation ‘S’--but that memory could not function as a criterion for future use, since (once again) whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘right’." (ibid., 258) Insofar as I could never know whether I was using ‘S’ right in the future, ‘S’ wouldn’t have a use as a note at all.


Are the rules of the private language impressions of rules?--The balance on which impressions are weighed is not the impression of a balance. (ibid., 259)


"Well, I believe that this is sensation S again."--Perhaps you believe that you believe it! (ibid., 260)


Before we move on, however, I would like to address the possible objection that Wittgenstein’s argument here may rest on an implausible account of memory. First, when Wittgenstein imagines the private language builder remembering how to use ‘S’ in future cases, he imagines that he would (have to?) to call up a vision of the schedule (X) and then check it against memory Y. Given this particular conception of memory, Wittgenstein’s conclusion seems quite correct--the private language builder could have no criterion of correctness, insofar as "whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about ‘right’." (ibid., 258) This conception of memory, however, seems far from how we usually remember things. It’s not that Wittgenstein’s conception of memory is wrong, per se--it just seems to be too narrow of a conception. For, although we can check one memory by another memory--I could try to visualize my work calendar if I had trouble remembering if I was scheduled to work today--we certainly don’t do this all of the time, or even most of the time. Indeed, how did I remember that I had to be at work at nine in the morning today? I should like to say that I ‘just remembered’--that is, that I just went to work without even thinking, as it were by habit. Indeed, it seems that I didn’t have to resort to checking memory X by memory Y because my memory of X was just that good all on its own. In short, it seems that memory ordinarily needs no criteria. It just seemed to me that I had to go to work today. By what criteria did I test this memory? None. Rather, I just went to work, and fortunately, was right; I did have to go to work today. And nothing about this seems the least bit remarkable; I’ve correctly remembered to go to work every day for the past few years, using this method. I just don’t need any criteria, or justification, to test the correctness of my memories; my memory is just that good. And, in fact, isn’t our memory generally reliable? How could we even get around in the world--or understand this paper--if our memory was as shabby as Wittgenstein’s arguments seem to suppose?

What are we to make of this kind of objection? Is Wittgenstein’s argument merely a dud? Hardly. For, there is still an essential difference between the way that we rely on our memories, and the way the private language builder would have to rely on his memories in order to name something ‘S’ and remember the connection right in the future. Suppose we consider an automatic orange-sorter, one that puts each orange in a long stream of oranges in either one of two bins: the left bin or the right bin. On what criterion? Those that seem to the device to belong on the left, it puts on the left--it labels these ‘S’; all others it puts on the right. This orange-sorter, it seems, ‘remembers’ perfectly well, regardless of the veracity of its ‘memory’. But what does it ‘remember’? It seems that its ‘memory’ would have no function at all.


Don’t consider it a matter of course that a person is making a note of something when he makes a mark--say in a calendar. For a note has a function, and this "S" so far has none. (ibid., 260)


Why can’t my right hand give my left hand money?--My right hand can put it into my left hand. My right hand can write a deed of gift and my left hand a receipt.--But the further practical consequences would not be those of a gift. When the left hand has taken the money from the right, etc., we shall ask: "Well, and what of it?" And the same could be asked if a person had given himself a private definition of a word; I mean, if he has said the word to himself and at the same time has directed his attention to a sensation. (ibid., 268)


Indeed, if the orange-sorter separated the oranges in the aforementioned way, it would really have no criterion at all--not yet at least. It’s ‘S’ would mean nothing; the orange sorter couldn’t even make sense of this ‘S’ itself. In fact, we can readily imagine giving the orange-sorter the same oranges again--with some already labeled ‘S’ from the last go around--and the orange-sorter labeling different oranges ‘S’ than before. The point here is, unless there is some real difference between ‘S’ oranges and other oranges, ‘S’ means nothing at all. ‘S’ would only be a criterion if it in fact separated the oranges according to some kind of rule; it would only really serve a purpose if all the oranges in the right bin were actually different in some way--i.e. heavier, or larger, etc.--from those in the left. Otherwise, if there was no discernible difference between the bins of oranges, we could rightly say that the orange-sorter in fact used no real criterion at all: It might as well have dropped them all into one big basket--for it would not really ‘separate’ oranges at all, even if it thought it did: no matter what ‘decision’ this machine makes, it really makes no decision at all--and ‘S’ means nothing. For, although we want to say that the privateer could name something ‘S’ and later remember this connection right in the future, we still have not defined what ‘this connection’ is! Indeed, what would ‘S’ name? What would it mean? Even the privateer himself has no idea what ‘S’ signifies:


"What would it be like if human beings shewed no outward signs of pain (did not groan, grimace, etc.)? Then it would be impossible to teach a child the use of ‘tooth-ache’."--Well, let’s assume that the child is a genius and itself invents a name for a sensation.--But then, of course, he couldn’t make himself understood when he used the word.--So does he understand the name, without being able to explain its meaning to anyone?--But what does it mean to say that he has ‘named his pain’?--How has he done this naming of pain? And whatever he did, what was its purpose? (ibid., 257; emphasis added)


Why can’t my right hand give my left hand money?--My right hand can put it into my left hand. My right hand can write a deed of gift and my left hand a receipt.--But the further practical consequences would not be those of a gift. When the left hand has taken the money from the right, etc., we shall ask: "Well, and what of it?" And the same could be asked if a person had given himself a private definition of a word; I mean, if he has said the word to himself and at the same time directed his attention to a sensation. (ibid., 268)


Indeed, the same goes for the privateer’s memory impressions as goes for the orange-sorter: whatever ‘decision’ the privateer makes, he really makes no decision at all--unless he refers to some real difference in sensations. But what would a ‘real difference’ consist in? Well, the same thing it did for the orange-sorter--a describable difference: a public one. Indeed, if the orange-sorter labeled heavier oranges ‘S’, we could very well describe the difference ourselves. The same goes for sensations; if the privateer did use a criterion to name his sensations, there would have to be some describable difference between ‘S’ sensations and other sensations. Hence, if there were any ‘private’ difference between ‘S’ sensations and other sensations, the privateer ought to be able to tell us. "Well," he might say, "One sensation I named ‘S’ because it feels unpleasant; all other ones feel pleasant." But if he could describe ‘S’ to us in this way, then ‘S’ wouldn’t be a private word; we could very well understand what he means--he’s just told us! Indeed, he would be doing exactly what we do, for instance, when we can say use the word pain is (’it is a horrible sensation!’) as opposed to what pleasure is (’it is a pleasing sensation’); Hence, his "S" would be a not be of a private language, but a public one.

For this reason, any attempt to build a private language, therefore, is self-defeating; private meaning is impossible. For this is what we have shown: (1) A private criterion would have to be indescribable; otherwise it would be a public criterion. (2) An indescribable criterion would be no criterion at all, insofar it would have no meaning. (3) Any criterion would be describable. The privateer is lost in a self-defeating circle; either his ‘S’ can have no meaning at all, even for him, or it can have a public meaning: either way, he hasn’t created a private language. So the notion of private language is nonsensical; the notion itself is self-defeating; words can only have public meaning. But now, the question is how words get their public meanings.

Since private ostensive definition is impossible, public ostensive definition seems to be the obvious candidate for giving words meaning; we name objects in the external world. This is, of course, how Augustine imagined it: "When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out." (ibid., 1) But even public ostensive definition, Wittgenstein argues, cannot be the beginning of language, insofar as any public ostensive definition can be variously interpreted. Wittgenstein shows why this is a problem clearly in the following passage:


Now one can ostensively define a proper name, the name of a colour, the name of a material, a numeral, the name of a point of the compass and so on. The definition of the number two, "That is called ‘two’"--pointing to two nuts--is perfectly exact.--But how can two be defined like that? The person one gives the definition to doesn’t know what one wants to call "two"; he will suppose that "two" is the name given to this group of nuts!--He may suppose this; but perhaps he does not. He might make the opposite mistake; when I want to assign a name to this group of nuts, he might understand it as a numeral. And he might equally take the name of a person, of which I give an ostensive definition, as that of a colour, of a race, or even of a point of the compass. (ibid., 28)


Wittgenstein’s point is clear; nothing about any ostensive definition singles out the correct interpretation; "an ostensive definition can be variously interpreted in every case." (ibid.) How, then, can we establish the correct interpretation of an ostensive definition? According to Wittgenstein, it is all in how one subsequently behaves:


. . . if anyone said "I do not know if what I have got is a pain or something else", we should think something like, he does not know what the English word "pain" means; and we should explain it to him.--How? Perhaps by means of gestures, or by pricking him with a pin and saying: "See, that’s what pain is!" This explanation, like any other, he might understand right, wrong, or not at all. And he will show which he does by his use of the word, in this as in other cases. (ibid,, 288; emphasis added)


Our external criteria, then, are not manometers or any other kind of equipment; as the above example suggests, other people are our external criteria—they teach us how to use a word. As Wittgenstein asserts, "any explanation has its foundation in training." (Wittgenstein, Vol. 2, 327) Ostensive definition does not give the privateer the use of the word; he only knows whether he understands the ostensive definition right by the responses of others; it is as if we "show somebody a list of the trips or errands he is supposed to run for me. . . . We do not prescribe what the other is to do if he is to understand the list; and whether he really understood is determined from what he does later, or from an explanation we might ask him to give." (Wittgenstein, Vol. 2, 209) For instance, if we show a person a yellow banana and say "yellow" and he misunderstands the concept to mean "banana"--that is, he only uses "yellow" to refer to bananas--then we shall show him something else yellow (perhaps a yellow shirt), and continue the process until he finally understands the use of the word (namely, that yellow is a particular color). Once again, the crucial idea here is that understanding a word cannot consist merely in public ostensive definition, but in the ability to appropriately employ the word and concept through overt behavior. In this regard, Wittgenstein points out, learning the use of a word is much like learning mathematics: knowing the rule is being able to go on (using the word, or function, right in the future). If someone knows how to use the word "yellow" correctly, he will be satisfied with his use of it just as a mathematics teacher is satisfied when the correct answer is given. And what is so important about this is that all language arises as a product of human agreement. But, Wittgenstein points out, this "is not agreement in opinions but in form of life." (Wittgenstein, 1958, p. 241)

But what does this mysterious phrase "form of life" mean? Much has been made of it, and its meaning is hardly agreed upon. The best way to understand it, simply, is to consider an obviously different form of life: Martians.


Imagine you were abducted by an alien race as a young child, and that you were raised on their planet. Their planet is remarkably similar to ours; they have trains, planes, and automobiles, and they even look just like us. Hence, you learn their language--which is just like English--quite naturally. However, there is one difference; these aliens don’t see yellow, but rather, two colors wherever humans (you included) normally see yellow--because of a slight eye/brain difference. Accordingly, they call these colors "mellow" and "hellow". To them, of course, you are color-blind; they cannot teach you how to distinguish between the two--and hence, they cannot teach you how to properly identify these colors by name: you simply cannot use the words "hellow" and "mellow" meaningfully in the same way they do.


Indeed, what Wittgenstein really seems to be getting at is that "there must be agreement not only in definitions but also . . . in judgments." (Wittgenstein, 1958, p. 242) That is to say, Wittgenstein’s point is that language hinges on "the common behavior of mankind." (ibid., 206) Hence, Wittgenstein points out, if we did not agree in our perceptions--and therefore our behaviors--we could never develop language at all:


Suppose I were to come to a country where the colour of things--as I would say--changed constantly, say because of a peculiarity of the atmosphere. The inhabitants never see unchanging colors. Their grass looks green one moment, red at the next, etc. Could these people teach their children the words for colours?--First of all, it might be that their language lacked words for colours. And if we found this out we might explain it by saying that they had little or no use for certain language-games. (Wittgenstein, Vol. 2, 198)


If people were (suddenly) to stop agreeing with each other in their judgments and tastes--would I still say: At any rate, one knows what taste he’s having?--Wouldn’t it then be clear that this is nonsense? (ibid., 347)


Does the fact that language development hinges on behavior and agreement in judgments entail behaviorism? It seems like it. For, if understanding an ostensive definition essentially consists in overt behaviors, then where is subjective experience?

But we have not denied subjective experience; we have merely undermined the idea that subjective experience alone--completely isolated from behavior--suffices to endow a word with meaning; Wittgenstein makes this clear: "what we deny is that the picture of the inner process gives us the correct idea of the use of the word . . . We say that this picture with its ramifications stands in the way of our seeing the use of the word as it is." (Wittgenstein, 1958, p. 305) Wittgenstein does admit, on the other hand, that "now it looks as if we had denied mental processes. And naturally we don’t want to deny them." (ibid., 308) How do we now account for subjective experiences? Well, as Wittgenstein points out in the following passages, certain words (i.e., mental terms) clearly do not merely refer to behavior--in fact, he says, the fact that such words refer at once to behavior and to subjective experience is given by how they are used:


Did I define: ‘Toothache is such and such a behavior?’ This obviously contradicts entirely the normal use of the word!" (Wittgenstein, in Kenny, 165)


But isn’t it absurd to say of a body that is has pain? . . . What sort of issue is: Is it the body that feels pain?--How is it to be decided? What makes it plausible to say that it is not in the body? Well, something like this: if someone has a pain in his hand, then the hand does not say so (unless it writes it) and one does not comfort the hand, but the sufferer: one looks into his face. (ibid., 286)


Indeed, Wittgenstein’s point is that words like "toothache" do not essentially refer to behaviors; they refer at once to both behavior and to subjective experience. Rather, "I just teach him the word under particular circumstances." (Wittgenstein, Vol. 2, p. 207) But what circumstances?

Think of how we teach someone to use the word tooth-ache. Of course, we teach the person to say it when he is wincing when he eats, when he is clutching at his mouth--that is, when he expresses a particular subjective experience.


Suppose someone explains the teaching of the word "pain" in this way: when a child behaves in such-and-such a way on particular occasions, I think it feels what I feel, and if I am not mistaken in this, then the child associates the word with the feeling and uses the word when the feeling reappears.--

This sort of explanation is correct enough; but what does it explain? Or: what sort of ignorance does it remove?--It tells us, e.g., that the person does not associate the word with a behavior or an ‘occasion’. So if anyone did not know whether the word "pain" names a feeling or a behaviour, the explanation would be instructive to him. It also says that the word is not used now for this feeling now for that--as of course might also be the case. (Wittgenstein, Vol. 1, 146)


The explanation says that I use the word wrong if I use it later for a different feeling. A whole cloud of philosophy condensed into a droplet of symbolic practice. (ibid., 147)


In short, Wittgenstein’s claim is that we learn to use words to refer to subjective sensations via external behavior. The reason we can do this, Wittgenstein holds, is just that subjective phenomena have corresponding behaviors--e.g., when someone is in pain, he/she winces, screams, and so on: "If someone behaves in such-and-such a way under such-and-such circumstances, we say that he is sad. (We say it of a dog too.) To this extent it cannot be said that the behavior is the cause of the sadness; it is its symptom." (Wittgenstein, Vol. 2, p. 324) Is this true? Well, consider the following case:


We may say that a blind man doesn’t see anything. But not only do we say so but he too says that he does not see. I don’t mean ‘he agrees with us that he does not see--he doesn’t dispute it,’ but rather: he too describes the facts in this way, having learned the same language as we have. Now whom shall we call blind? What is our criterion for blindness? A certain kind of behavior. And if the person behaves in a particular way, we not only call him blind but teach him to call himself blind. And in this sense his behavior also determines the meaning of blindness for him. But now you will say: ‘Surely blindness isn’t a behavior; it’s clear that a man can behave like a blind man and not be blind. Therefore blindness means something different; his behavior only helps him to understand what we mean by ‘blindness’. The outward circumstances are what both he and we know. Whenever he behaves in a certain way, we say that he sees nothing; but he notices that a certain private experience of his coincides with all these cases and so concludes that we mean this experience of his by saying that he sees nothing. (Kenny, 161; emphasis added)


Wittgenstein’s point, of course, is just that we use the word "blind" to refer to someone who cannot see. The meaning of word "blind"--i.e., cannot see--Wittgenstein points out, is manifest both behaviorally and subjectively: a particular kind of subjective experience is tied to a particular behavior. What is important here is that the subjective phenomenon has the same content as the behaviors: the blind man’s subjective experience is that he cannot see, and his external behavior tells us exactly the same thing; there is no difference between what is seen "from the outside" and what is experienced "from the inside": we know exactly what the blind man knows (namely, that he is blind). Hence, I hold, to explain overt behaviors (or lack of them) is also to explain subjective experience.


In general I do not surmise fear in him--I see it. I do not feel that I am deducing the probable existence of something inside from something outside; rather it is as if the human face were in a way translucent and that I were seeing it not in reflected light but rather its own. (Wittgenstein, Vol. II, 170)


However, do we really know what others’ inner experiences are like by virtue of behavior? How can we be certain that another person’s tooth-ache doesn’t really feel like my sadness, or even something else entirely? How do we know that we all don’t have different "inner" subjective experiences that just correspond to the same outward, behavioral phenomena?


This is likely to be the point at which it is said that only form, not content, can be communicated to others.--So one talks to oneself about the content. And what does that mean? (How do my words ‘relate’ to the content I know? And to what purpose?) (Wittgenstein, Vol. II, 46)


Well, Wittgenstein holds, insofar as we learn to use our words in virtue of the training we are given by others--remember, public ostensive definition in itself does not suffice--then we learn to use our words as others use them. "Pain", we learn, refers to those horrible sensations which have as their behavioral manifestations things like crying, screaming, etc.. Like the blind man, I was taught to use the word in certain contexts--i.e., when I am injured and crying--and I associate it with a particular horrible experience. This, Wittgenstein holds, is just the public use of the word.


"Yes, but there is something there all the same accompanying my cry of pain. And it is on account of that that I utter it. And this something is what is important--and frightful."--Only whom are we informing of this? And on what occasion? (Wittgenstein, 1958, p. 296; emphasis added)


The same thing goes, for instance, for colors; the fact that someone else uses the word "yellow" correctly means just that he experiences a particular visual sensation in the very same instances that we ourselves do--i.e., we all see one particular color (which we call yellow) with regard to bananas, ‘yield’ signs, the sun, and so on. For example, you and I both agree that ripe bananas are yellow; we show this in our behavior and, of course, it is also our respective subjective experiences which agree. Hence, Wittgenstein holds, "the grammar of ‘seeing red’ is connected to the expression of seeing red closer than one thinks." (Kenny, 161)

In short, Wittgenstein’s essential point is that insofar as ostensive definition does not suffice to endow a word with a use, words are not names--and hence, the meaning of a word belongs to no one person; we all understand what "pain" means. Insofar as all language learning consists in public training, Wittgenstein holds, "any explanation which I can give myself I give to him too"; "pain" does not mean something private to me. (PI, 200) Hence, Wittgenstein asks, "which are my pains?"--the word has the same meaning for you as it does for me: "Essence is expressed by grammar." (Wittgenstein, 1958, p. 371)


"Another person can’t have my pains."--Which are my pains? What counts as a criterion of identity here? Consider what makes it possible in the case of physical objects to speak of "two exactly the same", for example, to say "This chair is not the one you saw here yesterday, but it is exactly the same as it".

Insofar as it makes sense to say that my pain is the same as his, it is also possible for us to both have the same pain. (ibid., 253; emphasis added)


Indeed, as Wittgenstein points out, the fact that we use the word "pain" the same ways--just as we use "chair" the same ways--presupposes that we mean same thing; it doesn’t mean something different for me than it means for you: we both know what one another’s pains feel like. For, just because we do not experience other people’s pain does not mean that I do not know what it is like, any more than my not seeing the table in your home does not mean I don’t know what your table is like.


Imagine that you were telephoning someone and you said to him: "This table is too tall", and pointed to the table. What is the role of pointing here? Can I say: I mean the table in question by pointing to it? (ibid., 670)


Indeed, Wittgenstein points out, another person need not see the object itself--either the table in your house or the pain in your chest--in order to know exactly what you are talking about. In fact, Wittgenstein holds that this is a grammatical point, not an empirical one; I know that your pain feels horrible with the very same certainty with which I know that all rods have length; your pain simply can’t be different than mine; for the fact that both our pains are horrible sensations is presumed by how we use of the word--just as the way in which we use the words "rod" and "sphere" presupposes that rods, but not spheres, have length--insofar as "any familiar word already has an aura, a ‘corona’ of faintly indicated uses surrounding it" (Wittgenstein, Vol. 1, 293):


What does it mean when we say: "I can’t imagine the opposite of this" or "What would it be like, if it were otherwise?"--For example, when someone has said that my images are private, or that only I myself can know whether I am feeling pain, and similar things.

Of course, here "I can’t imagine the opposite" doesn’t mean: my powers of imagination are unequal to the task. These words are a defense against something whose form makes it look like an empirical proposition, but which is really a grammatical one.

But why do we say: "I can’t imagine the opposite"? Why not: "I can’t imagine the thing itself"?

Example: "Every rod has a length." That means something like: we call something (or this) "the length of a rod"--but nothing "the length of a sphere." Now can I imagine ‘every rod having a length’? Well, I simply imagine a rod. (ibid., 251; emphasis added)


Indeed, how do I imagine the pain? I simply imagine a horrible sensation; that is all. However, one may want to object that it is possible that our words have both public and private meaning--as though "pain" refers to something we all know, but also something only known to me which cannot be described or conveyed in any way?


What am I to say about the word "red"?--that it means something ‘confronting us all’ and that everyone should really have another word, besides this one, to mean his own sensation of red? Or is it like this: the word "red" means something known to everyone; and in addition, for each person, it means something known only to him? (Or perhaps rather: it refers to something known only to him.) (ibid., 273)


Wittgenstein, however, goes on to show that this idea is unequivocally nonsense; there is no such thing as private subjective content: "The very fact that we should so much like to say: "This is the important thing"--while we point privately to the sensation--is enough to shew how much we are inclined to say something which gives no information. (ibid., 298) And, in fact, Wittgenstein demonstrates that there is no such thing as private content in the famous following passage:


Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case!--Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a "beetle". No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle.--Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something completely different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing.--But suppose the word "beetle" had a use in these people’s language?--If so it would not be the name of a thing at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty.--No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is. (ibid., 293)


Indeed, the idea of private content ‘behind’ our words is nonsensical: "the object drops out of consideration as irrelevant." (ibid.) Some conscientious objectors, however, have still pressed the case for qualia here: even if the object drops out of consideration, they want to say, there is still an object there (i.e., the quale); perhaps it is just beyond all conceptualization. This seems completely tendentious to me: how can we even say that something has content if we concede that we cannot even begin to say what that content might be? And indeed, Wittgenstein shows that this objection is nonsensical insofar as any appeal to private content presupposes that it is public content:


If you say he sees a private picture before him, which he is describing, you have still made an assumption about what he has before him. And that means that you can describe it or do describe it more closely. If you admit that you haven’t any notion what kind of thing it might be that he has before him--then what leads you into saying, in spite of that, that he has something before him? Isn’t it as if I were to say of someone: "He has something. But I don’t know whether it is money, or debts, or an empty till." (ibid., 294)


Wittgenstein’s main point here is that any claim for private, ineffable subjective experience ‘behind’ description either tacitly assumes content we can describe in those experiences, or, it claims utter nonsense. For, if one claims "I don’t know what his pain is like", one has already made certain assumptions. After all, one did not say, "I don’t know what his yellow is like" or "I don’t know what his sadness" is like; no, one has already presupposed the thing that is being doubted merely by using the word "pain". How? Think about it: think about how we use the words. For instance, see how we say that "this banana looks yellow," but not "this banana looks pain"; the latter makes no sense at all: pain doesn’t look like anything. On the contrary, as we can well describe, pain feels terrible--hence, we do know what others’ pains feel like: "The point here is . . . that we understand [our sense-impressions’] language." (ibid., 355) But now we have described the thing we claimed not to know.

Thus, what the Private Language Argument has shown is that meaning is essentially public, and, we don’t know anything privately--not even our own subjectivity:


"But when I imagine something, or even actually see objects, I have got something which my neighbor has not."--I understand you. You want to look about you and say: "At any rate only I have got THIS."--What are these words for? They serve no purpose.--Can not one add: "There is here no question of a ‘seeing’--and therefore none of a ‘having’--nor of a subject, nor therefore of an ‘I’ either"? Might I not ask: In what sense have you got what you are talking about and saying that only you have got it? Do you possess it? You do not even see it. Must you not really say that no one has got it? And this too is clear: if as a matter of logic you exclude other people’s having something, it loses sense to say that you have it.

But what is this thing that you are speaking of? It is true that I said that I knew how one thinks to conceive of this object, to see it, to make one’s looking and pointing mean it. I know how one stares ahead and looks about one in this case--and the rest. I think that we can say: you are talking (if, for example, you are sitting in a room) of the ‘visual room’. The ‘visual room’ is the one that has no owner. I can as little own it as I can walk about it, or look at it, or point to it. In other words, it does not belong to me because I want to use the same form of expression about it as about the material room in which I sit. (ibid., 398)


Once again, we can see that the objection ‘I have got THIS’ leads straight back to ground we covered earlier in the ‘manometer example’. Insofar as the manometer was my criterion, it determined my use of the word ‘S’. And, insofar as the manometer is an external object, anyone can refer to it and know exactly what I know: namely, that I feel my blood-pressure rising. Thus, when it comes to subjective experience, the Private Language Argument proves that "Nothing is hidden." (ibid.)




6. Conclusion: Consciousness, Present and Accounted For



Is telling what one sees something like turning one’s inside out? And learning to say what one sees learning to let others see inside of us? (Kenny, 158)


In order to climb into the depths one does not need to travel very far; no, for that you do not need to abandon your immediate and accustomed environment. (Wittgenstein, Vol. I, 361)


The human body is the best picture of the human soul. (Wittgenstein, 1958, p. 178e)



If somebody held out an orange and proclaimed to the world, "I know something privately about the weight of this orange that none of you can ever know in principle," what would we say? Well, we would say that the person simply misunderstands the concept of weight--for weight is, by definition, something that science can exhaustively explain (publicly): weight is defined as "the force by which a body is attracted to the earth or a celestial body by gravitation and which is equal to the product of the mass by the local gravitational acceleration." (Webster’s Dictionary) So, surely the person is mistaken; but consider we give him a chance to explain himself: "Well", we might respond to this person, "what is it about the weight of that orange that only you know?" He says: "I just can’t describe it." Once again, he is wrong by definition; the mass of an orange can be described completely: it is simply nonsensical to claim that one knows something about the mass of an orange in private.

So too, we have seen, is it nonsensical to claim that one knows something about one’s own subjective states in private; everything I know about my own subjective experience I can describe to you: there is nothing beyond that which I can (conceivably) describe. But of course I don’t have to describe anything; the point, of course, is that we already know full well what pain is: the ways in which we use the word "pain" presuppose that pain is a sensation, that it feels bad, and so on. And, of course, the conclusion is that materialism can explain all of this. However, we have seen one materialist theory that doesn’t work: Dennett purports that "’qualia’ have been replaced by complex dispositional states in the brain." (Dennett, 1991, p.431) As we have seen, Dennett is partially right, partially wrong; ‘qualia’ have been replaced by dispositional states in the brain, only not all such states. For, we have seen that there are dispositions which are not specific to particular experiences, whereas others--primary judgments--are, and the conclusion was that these primary judgments account for subjective experience. Indeed, as I argued, pain is just what we ordinarily (and publicly) judge it to be: a sensation, a bad sensation, and so on--all of which science can explain.

Finally, thanks to Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument, we have proven that no private subjective content exists. There can’t be private subjective phenomena, we saw, because any real content can be described. We do in fact know full well what another person’s experience of pain is like; it is horrible--that is our judgment, and it is intrinsic to the concept "pain" itself. To explain the series of judgments we can put into words is to explain the subjective experience of pain: The pain from a quick pin prick is very intense and brief, and it localized to the point where the pin penetrates the skin. Contrast this to a muscle-pull in the hamstring: "The pain in my leg is dull; it hurts all day, and it very spread out throughout the whole area of my muscle, unless of course I try to walk--then it ‘pulls’ sharply right here (pointing)." Couldn’t science explain this difference? Couldn’t science tell us exactly what you feel?


A print-out from a brain scan: "Patient X claimed to have a ‘shooting pain’. Indeed, the patient has sporadic, quick bursts of nerve firings which cause split-second, intense reactions in the brain: his sensory cortex "spikes", so does his motor cortex--which causes him to flinch and wince; his frontal cortex is having the thought "this shooting pain feels terrible". Patient Y has a "dull pain", characterized by prolonged, continuous mild-intensity bursts which cause the brain to go into an indefinite state of mild excitement of the form "displeasure".


And now what would Mary the Super Color-Scientist need to know about the color yellow in order to know everything about what it looks like? Well, since we have shown that there is no such thing as private content, knowing what red looks like must consist merely in the ability to use the concept, i.e., point out a sample; seeing red and pointing red out have the same content. There is nothing more to the content of the experience than that:


But let me ask: what is knowing that I see red like? I mean: look at something red, ‘know that it is red’, and ask yourself what are you doing. (Kenny, 160)


Well, Wittgenstein holds, you certainly cannot give yourself any explanation, like you can with pain: "Pain is horrible, temporary, etc. . . ."


Don’t you mean seeing red and impressing it on your mind that you are doing so? But there are, I suppose, several things that you are doing: You probably say to yourself the word "red" or "this is red" or something of the sort, or perhaps glance from the red object to another red one which you’re taking to be the paradigm of red, and suchlike. On the other hand you just silently stare at the red thing. (ibid.)


Indeed, every way that you can "know" red is really empty: the best you can do is just stare at the thing. So what private content do you know that other people don’t know?--as though "besides seeing it, he also knows what he sees?" (Kenny, 157) There is no such private knowledge; you can just stare at the thing; there is no privileged information you can give yourself about it. In fact, the only explanation you can give yourself--saying the word "red" while looking at the thing, pointing at another red thing, etc.--can all be given to other people publicly; knowing red us just being able use the concept as we are trained to do: treat certain things as "red". Therefore, I hold, colors experiences are just labels, nothing more.

So, all that Mary the Super Color-Scientist would have to know in order to know everything about colors is just which things (i.e., ripe bananas) are yellow, which things are red, etc.. When she is released from her black-and-white room and shown a banana—which she can tell is ripe perhaps by its dimensions and firmness--she can correctly say that it is yellow. She will not be surprised by anything. What if her experimenters brought out a blue banana? Well, isn’t this similar to the confusion we ordinary people would have if scientists brought out a banana in near-darkness, or perhaps in a "black light"; in these cases we could very well be left speechless, or we might give the wrong answer. We, like Mary, make this mistake not because we don’t know what yellow looks like, but rather, because the circumstances are extraordinary; we would be merely confused: What more could Mary possible know about yellow? Well, what more do we know about it? Nothing. And, in fact, even if Mary was confused at first, she could very well notice that her perception of the blue banana is inconsistent with her perceptions of other objects which, in her studies, she had learned were yellow—such as the yellow light from the light bulb overhead, or the daisy she brought out of her black-and-white room. "Aha!," she might say, "you tricked me!" The scientists might ask her, then "Well, then, what color is this banana," and she could very well look up at the blue sky outside and say "blue!"

Dennett, as we saw, was ‘cheating’. Am I cheating? . To know a color, in every way that we do, is being able to consistently name certain objects under ‘normal’ circumstances: I know yellow insofar as I can point out, when asked, that a banana is yellow, that urine is yellow, and so on. And I have to confess that if someone asked me to define ‘yellow’ in some other way, I couldn’t possibly do it. If a person didn’t know what color blue was, wouldn’t our best ‘description’ be not "blue is such-and-such reactive dispositions", but rather, "the sky is blue!"? This is, of course, what we do—and if Mary could do it she would know colors as well as us. She wouldn’t need fancy scientific equipment, only a book of everyday objects and their respective colorings. In fact, this idea essentially clears up the problem supposedly posed by inverted spectrum thought experiments. We can now explain our intuitions without explaining them away.

The idea of the inverted spectrum arguments, remember, was that each of us could see different things when we see a color; perhaps, the intuition goes, if we could compare our experiences your blue would look like my yellow, your red like my green, and so on. Remember, this notion has often been presumed to be unconfirmable and undisconfirmable; and, indeed, this is just what Dennett’s arguments show: we could never test this hypothesis in principle. Now I want to ask the question that should have been asked long ago: what’s the problem? If we all behave exactly the same with regard to colors--there is nothing about our own knowledge that conflicts with anybody else’s--what right have we to say that we see ‘different color-representations’? Indeed, what would be ‘different’ if you saw purple where I saw blue if our speech matched up--that is, if we all called the same public objects "purple" and "blue"? That’s just it: nothing. That is to say, if we saw ‘different’ colors, I suppose that ‘something’ would be different between us, yet nothing would be different in every relevant sense. Wittgenstein’s very point is that it is true that I don’t know whether you have got this or something else, but that this truth is totally, completely trivial! For, although how green looks to you is logically hidden beyond my grasp, I still know the entirety of what it means to you. That is to say, when it comes to your conscious experience, I know exactly what you know (remember the manometer?). We can see why this is so in the following passage:


When he first learns the names of colors--what is taught him? Well, he learns, e.g., to call out "red" on seeing something red. -- But is that a correct description; or ought it to have gone: "He learns to call ‘red’ what we too call ‘red’"? Both descriptions are right. . . . But someone might be taught colour-vocabulary by being made to look at white objects through colored spectacles. What I teach him, however, must be a capacity. So he can now bring something red at an order. But then what is something red? "Well that (pointing)." Or should he have said, "That, because most of us call it ‘red’."? Or simply "That is what most of us call ‘red’"?

This information doesn’t help us at all. (Volume II, 312)


For the concept "red" refers to an type of experience in particular contexts--i.e., things we call red--apples, stop signs, etc.--not a particular experience; even if I put on colored spectacles, I will still call red apples apples "red", or else talk utter nonsense.


Someone tells us today that yesterday he always saw everything red blue, and so on. We say: But you call the glowing coal red, you know, and the sky blue. He answers: That was because I also changed the names. But didn’t it feel very queer? and he says: No, it all seemed perfectly natural. Would we in this case too say. . . . ? (Kenny, 160)


Indeed, would we really want to say that the content of his subjective experience had changed? No, that would not be correct--for in every relevant sense nothing has changed: the inversion he has undergone has not in the least disturbed his behavior or his primary judgments. Something has changed, yes, but also nothing has changed. What has changed, I claim, is merely his labels:


Imagine that you have two shelves; one is on the right, and it is labeled "right", and the other is on the left, labeled "left." Now you switch the labels so that the left drawer says "right" and the right drawer says "left." You might be momentarily confused, but you can easily adapt: only the labels have changed. What you know about the labels themselves has not changed at all--they still serve exactly the same function: namely, to designate one sort of thing.


Hence, the switcheroo "is not a something, but not a nothing, either!" (Wittgenstein, 1958, p. 304) And the same, I hold, goes for colors. If, one day, evil neuroscientists inverted your color experiences, you would (after a period of disorientation and complaint) still call apples "red" and the sky "blue", in order to get back in step with the rest of the world. Would you know what happened to you? Sure; you would know that what used to be blue is now red, and so on. So do you have any private knowledge? Not at all; the scientists could (in principle) tell you exactly the same thing; they could explain exactly what you experience.













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-----. 1988. "Quining Qualia", in Marcel and Bisiach, eds. 1988 Consciousness in Contemporary Science. New York: Oxford University Press


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-----. 1980. Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology: Volume 1. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

-----. 1980. Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology: Volume 2. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago