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Can Pragmatists Believe in Qualia? The Founder of Pragmatism Did...

(SLIDE 1: title slide)
In 1898, in a secluded home in rural Pennsylvania, an old man sat at his desk and
began to write a book. Here is how what he wrote in his very first paragraph: “The
undertaking which this volume inaugurates is to make a philosophy like that of
Aristotle, that is to say, to outline a theory so comprehensive that, for a long time to
come, the entire work of human reason, in philosophy of every school and kind, in
mathematics, in psychology, in physical science, in history, in sociology, and in
whatever other department there may be, shall appear as the filling up of its details”
(1992, pp. 246–247). The man writing these words was Charles Sander Peirce.
When Peirce compared himself to Aristotle, it was not because he had received a
lucrative book contract or an invitation to give, say, the John Locke Lectures at
Oxford or even the colloquium series at Trent. No, when he wrote this, he was
jobless, almost starving, and virtually unknown. However, that same year, 1898,
William James credited Peirce with founding pragmatism, arguably the most
important homegrown American school of philosophy.
No one paid much attention to James’ acknowledgement, but a few people did,
and eventually a few more. Peirce died in 1914, with hardly any recognition. Some
time later, his widow Juliette and a few close friends gathered boxes upon boxes of
papers from the Peirce home, and lugged those boxes over to Harvard. C. I. Lewis,
the founder of modal logic and teacher of Quine, was tasked with cataloguing those
papers as a graduate student. Lewis came back from the Harvard collection a
changed man. Over the next century, a consensus slowly began to form among
scholars who studied Peirce’s unpublished papers: Peirce did in fact succeed in
outlining a theory as comprehensive as that of Aristotle.
I am not a Peirce scholar, nor do I want to be. I am far too curious and assertive
for such a job. Exegetical work renders my work possible, so I admire and salute
those at the front lines who clean-up textual sources for the rest of us. Still, as a
matter of personality, I simply cannot anchor my work to a single author (if I did,
infidelity would soon follow). Yet, despite my desire to avoid any namable
allegiance, I have nevertheless come to the conclusion that Peirce is, in the history of
philosophy, a thinker of the same rank as Plato, Aristotle, and Kant.
Yet, unlike those well-known figures, it is very difficult for someone to
corroborate the lofty estimate I have just given, since the work of editing Peirce’s
corpus is far from finished. It is not just that Peirce published relatively little, it is
that what he did write adds up to more than 80 000 pages.
The Peirce Edition project, with headquarters at the University of Indianna, was
founded in 1975 to address this. It’s central undertaking is the Chronological
Edition of Peirce’s works (SLIDE 2), but there currently are only 7 volumes done
out of a projected 30 volumes.
In the meantime, we have the 8-volume Collected Papers (SLIDE 3), which can
be found online as a PDF, and we have the two compact and very reliable Essential
Peirce volumes, which I urge you to purchase. Peirce’s contributions to mathematics
have their own 4-volume collection (SLIDE 4). This collection, however, does not
contain Peirce’s unique logic, called Existential Graphs.
The Existential Graphs are a complete system of logic, comparable and perhaps
even broader in expressive power to Frege’s, but all couched in a diagrammatic
format. I worked on the philosophical underpinnings of that system in Finland, with
the logician Ahti-Veikko Pietarinen. In the next months, look for the publication of
1000-page edition titled Logic of the Future. Here are a few sample pages from my
advanced copy (SLIDE 5 to 17).
Full lines, dotted lines, thick lines, thin lines, dots, shaded areas, overlaps,
juxtapositions, contrasts, colours—all of these features are used to maximize the
perspicuity of the inferences. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Peirce suggests that it
could all be done using only sounds or smells.
It’s like Russell and Whitehead’s massive Principia, but on crack.
(SLIDE 18: blank)
I was not always a Peirce addict. My studies of Peirce began in 2002. Now, 13
years and 2 PhDs later, Peirce has become the most recurring figure in my work. I
have published a dozen articles on him, plus I have a full book in the works.
My oh my how things have changed. You see, when I was younger, I used to
boast that “I specialize in generality.” That, to me, was what being a philosopher
was all about. In a way, I still cling to this pluralistic and open-minded outlook.
However, the academic job market quickly taught me that a philosopher needs to be
pigeon-holed in a far more rapid and recognizable manner.
So, if you want to know what I work on, well, I have to own up the fact that, like
it or not, I work on Peirce.
Actually, I should probably rephrase that. I do not work on Peirce. Rather, my
work strives to apply Peirce. Specifically, I apply his ideas to current issues and
controversies in philosophy of mind.
Now, philosophy of mind is a big field, but one of its most vibrant areas in recent
years has been consciousness studies. This is where I spend most of my time.
If the topic of consciousness is so active, it is mainly because consciousness
seems to possess some unique qualitative features that risk unseating what is
arguably the dominant view in philosophy of mind, namely functionalism.
Functionalism is the idea that when you track what a creature does, you track what a
creature thinks. We are all functors. Map that complex function between sensory
inputs and behavioural outputs, and your job is done.
This view gained prominence in philosophy of mind for a couple of reasons.
First, it does not require us to identify a given thought with any particular brain
state. Functions are, in the A.I. jargon of the 1970s, “multiply realizable.” So, to be
in pain is to recoil before a certain subset of object or events, say a burning fire, and
this holds whether you are a human or a squid. Both creatures can be said to be in
pain, even if there is no single physical trait that they share. In addition,
functionalism became popular among philosophers because it does not require that
you buy into anything spooky. To deploy the view, you must countenance the heat
source and the organism having an aversive reaction to it, but you are not asked to
posit an “ouch” bubble atop this.
So, functionalism holds that the most solid explanations of the mind are those
that start with an input that enters “at the gate of perception” and end with an output
that exists “at the gate of purposive action” (Peirce 1998, p. 241). Yet, no matter
what those explanations look like, they seem destined to relate states. If you like
math, you can think of this relation as “F(x)=y.” Or, if you like logic, you could also
think of this as “If P then Q.” This involvement of relations would be benign, were it
not for the fact that a prevalent construal glosses consciousness as having a non-
relational element to it. For instance, when one bites into a lemon and winces, this
seems to involve a distinct feeling of sourness, and it is unlikely that someone could
truly appreciate what that feeling is like just by studying lemon chemistry and facial
In this respect, functionalism does require that one overlook an important
dimension of consciousness experience. For most of us (for me at least), pain
involves the feeling of pain, not just the retraction of my hand from the fire.
Likewise for sour taste. Now, those experiential qualities might not seem like they
are worth keeping, but consider an example favoured by Ned Block: orgasms.
Having an orgasm is more than faking an orgasm, and the whole value of the
experience seems to lie precisely in the unique quality sandwiched between the
inputs and the outputs. To deny this seems like letting the demands of scientific
plausibility erase everything that really matters in our lives.
Predictably, the functionalist program has come under heavy attack in the last
two decades. If you look at the vast literature on consciousness, you will find many
people with an anti-science agenda. At the last Toward a Science of Consciousness
conference, there was a symposium on my forthcoming book, but alongside that
session you could attend talks on vision quests, yoga, levitation, out of body
experiences, ghostly visitations, and so on. Right now, in consciousness studies, it is
the wild west.
I encourage open inquriy, but for the most part, I wish to distance myself from
such extravagant proposals. Yet, despite my resolve to stay on sober grounds, I do
not think it is entirely nuts to concede that conscious experience does pose some
problems for naturalist approaches like functionalism. So, it would be nice if we
could find a way to have both functions and qualia.
As it happens, I think Peirce espoused just such a view. So, if a commitment to
qualitative consciousness precludes a commitment to pragmatism, then Peirce was
guilty of a major contradiction. I do not think he was, so I want to pay attention to
how he could have it both ways, venturing novel arguments along the way.
As we have just seen, there is good reason to suspect that at least one dimension
of our psychological lives involves experiential qualities conceived apart from any
relation(s). Ned Block, for example, is routinely in the journals claiming that
perceptual consciousness “overflows” cognitive access.
As a rule, pragmatists tend to dismiss this idea of a qualitative surplus.
Pragmatism requires that claims be answerable to some sort of tangible verification,
preferably of a scientific kind, but “the word quale and its plural qualia were
introduced into philosophy as technical terms precisely in order to capture that
aspect of an experience that escapes the scrutiny of any natural science”
(Hattiangadi 2005, p. 342). It complexifies matters, however, to consider that this
term “qualia” was introduced by the scientist and founder of pragmatism himself,
Charles Peirce (1998, p. 272; see Livingston 2004, p. 6). He also called them
Central to Peirce’s original account is the idea that humans can take anything,
internal or external, and focus on its qualitative character to the exclusion of all else.
Peirce argued that we can always adopt three different perspectives on any
phenomena: considering anything, we can countenance only it, what it stands for,
and what it stands for to. Those are the three perspectives that his semiotic theory
affords (Houser 1983). The first perspective, aptly called Firstness, is the one I am
most interested in, because it is the one that lands philosophy of mind into trouble.
I want to argue that, properly understood, Peirce’s nuanced account manages to
make sense of the intuition that the qualitative dimension of consciousness escapes
scientific description. It is not that Peirce took experiential qualities to escape
verification. Rather, he held that experiential qualities are amenable to a different
kind of verification, one that is neither scientific nor introspective, but logical.
Peirce was conversant with (and contributed to) early advances in neuroscience
(see Pietarinen 2006, pp. 71–76), but he was never a “naturalist” in today’s sense.
True, his
famous pragmatist maxim does say that, if “the object of our conception”
does not “conceivably have practical bearings” (Peirce 1992, p. 132), then we have
no basis to credit our concept with having an object. One might thus argue that
because recent discussions of consciousness have called on qualia-lacking
“zombies” who display no practical difference from regular humans (Kirk 1974;
Chalmers 1996, pp. 94–105), those discussions violate the founding intent of
pragmatism. Yet, what tends to be overlooked is that, before one can delete qualia
from zombies, one has to focus on a very narrow construal that deletes all relations
from a given quality.
Those eager to invoke pragmatism to dismiss or belittle the qualitative dimension
of consciousness should therefore remember that Peirce saw good grounds to
countenance qualia. In fact, Peirce called on his semiotic distinctions to “prove” the
pragmatist claims that won him fame (see Peirce 1998, pp. 402–414, 429–431).
It might therefore be helpful to
distinguish between two versions of Peirce. There
is, on the one hand, the better-known version who founded pragmatism and
managed to get a few key articles published at an opportune time. Yet, there is also,
on the other hand, the lesser-known (but increasingly appreciated) Peirce who made
unparalleled advances in the philosophy of signs which, until recently, remained
mostly unpublished.
This is a rough division, but it helps. The fact that the Essential Peirce
collections are cut into two volumes renders that division even more vivid. The
cover of the first volume shows the younger Peirce (SLIDE 19), who instructed us
to focus on the practical effects of a concept in order to clarify its meaning, whereas
the second volume (SLIDE 20) shows the older, more heavily bearded, Peirce, who
relentlessly investigated a neglected branch of philosophy called semiotics.
A newcomer who turns to the second Essential Peirce volume bent on figuring
out what all this fuss about signs is about will quickly find an essay titled “What is a
Sign?” That essay begins by noting that its title question is “most necessary,” but
also “very difficult.” A mere four lines in, Peirce tells us that “[i]t is necessary to
recognize three different states of mind” (1998, p. 4).
The first state Peirce invites us to consider is that of a red feeling, and nothing
else (SLIDE 21).
The reader who came in expecting a discussion of hand gestures and traffic
signals will likely wonder at this point whether Peirce has veered off topic. He has
not. He wants to make a point: with a quality like red and just red, there can be no
flow of consciousness. If one finds such a flow, the impetus must be from a source
different from the quality itself. It is only at this higher level of complexity that sign
relations, and thus knowledge, can enter the scene.
Implicitly, Peirce is making an additional point, just as important, which is that
we can follow through with his invitation to consider a quality like red in complete
isolation from anything else. Logically, it can be done. Peirce makes sure to
emphasize that, phenomenologically speaking, “nobody is really in a state of feeling,
pure and simple” as he just described (ibid.). Yet, he observes that “whenever we are
awake, something is present to the mind, and what is present, without reference to
any compulsion or reason, is feeling” (ibid.).
Thus, from a logical point of view, qualities take centre-stage, long before
thinking enters the scene and the drama of cognition proper begins.
Interestingly, Peirce was trained by a professional wine taster alongside his
regular studies in chemistry and mathematics at Harvard. Pasteur is famous for
saying that “a bottle of wine containes more philosophy than all the books in the
world” (SLIDE 21.5). Maybe because of this, Peirce became convinced, rightly I
think, that “[t]here are countless Objects of Consciousness that words cannot
express” (2015, p. 728). So, the founder of pragmatism never donned the straight-
jacket of philosophy of language. Instead, Peirce wisely planted his flag in
philosophy of signs—which includes philosophy of language as a part.
If you want to understand Peirce, then you have to understand that paradigm.
When John Locke introduced the word “semiotics” in the penultimate paragraph
of his 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he surmised that such an
inquiry, systematically pursued, might dramatically reshape how we view many
long-standing philosophical problems.
In keeping with this vision, I believe that, when you combine philosophy of signs
with philosophy of mind, you get access to many resources that remain unavailable
given a fixation on language. For example, the philosopher of signs has no problem
acknowledging that listening to a symphony is not like reading a sheet of musical
notation. Those who think the music can be captured on paper without loss are, to
my mind, voluntarily embracing a very impoverished worldview.
An increasing number of philosophers agree that qualia stand apart from
language. Many have been convinced of this by the so-called “knowledge
argument,” a thought-experiment involving a neuroscientist Mary who is trapped in
a black and white environment from birth. Only when Mary is released does she
really get to appreciate what a colour like red is like. Frank Jackson, the Australian
philosopher who gave us that memorable story, was trying to show that all the book
learning in the world cannot replace or amount to a quality. Peircean semiotics can
help us make sense of why that is.
Alas, most philosophers interested in consciousness are not well-versed in
semiotics. W
hen my colleague Cathy Legg mentioned Peirce to Frank Jackson, he
responded: “Peirce? I know two things about Peirce. First, he is mentioned in David
Armstrong’s book on universals. Second, wasn’t he a drunk?”
This, my friends, is the sort of gap in familiarity that I have to remedy. My hunch
is that, if we can seal that scholarly gap, we can eventually seal the explanatory gap
that makes the qualitative dimension of consciousness look mysterious.
Let me
therefore impress on you the promise of Peircean semiotic tools.
The crowning achievement of Peirce’s philosophy of signs is arguably his so-
called 1903 classification. It begins with the following modal axiom: necessity
implies actuality implies possibility.
This principle is both elegant and untendentious. If something is necessarily the
case, then we can infer that it is actually the case (e.g., if it is true that humans
die, then clearly humans
die). Likewise, if something is actually the case, then we
can infer that it was possible in the first place (e.g., if it is true that humans
then clearly humans
die). However, there is an asymmetry in what can be
inferred (e.g., the fact that a vase
break does not mean that it
The next step is to apply this modal axiom to the various parts of the sign. A sign
is a triadic relation where something stands for something to something. The first
part, that which has the role of “standing for,” is called the sign-vehicle. The second
part, that which is “stood for,” is called the object. The third part, that “to which”
there the standing for relation, is called the interpretant. Once we recognize that each
of those parts can be either potential, actual, or general, we get this (
Each layer constrains the one beneath it. For instance, a single token instance
cannot support a conventional association with an object, but a recurring type can.
So, if we percolate downward in accordance with this asymmetry, we get a ten-fold
range of signs (
This taxonomy carefully tracks varying degrees of complexity and simplicity.
The most complex bookend is the argument—something that tends to happen, tends
to be linked with something else, in a way that tends to compel the production of a
further symbol. An inferential pattern like the
modus ponens
fits this description
perfectly. Everything prior to sign ten is meant to give a foundational account of
where such inferences fit in the world. A triadic stand-for relation came thus come in
ten varieties: a
, or an
, or an
—and so on, all the way to a
As we have seen, when Peirce asks “What is a sign?,” he begins by asking us to
contemplate a single engulfing quality like red. Now we can locate that in his mature
account: such qualia are sign 1.
This Peircean account bears directly on current debates in philosophy of mind.
his hugely-popular book, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory,
David Chalmers zeroes in on a very specific dimension of conscious life: “On the
phenomenal concept,” he writes, “mind is characterized by the way it feels; on the
psychological concept, mind is characterized by what it does(1996, p. 11).
Interestingly, few commentators have noticed that, in order to avoid begging the
question, Chalmers never calls on the controversial idea of zombies to justify the
concepts teased apart in his opening chapter on “Two Concepts of Mind” (1996, pp.
3–31). Indeed, if we read Chalmers closely, we notice that he first pinpoints a very
narrow sense of “experience” and then asks us to conceive experience-free zombies.
This means that, whatever stance one takes on the traditional issue of dualism versus
materialism, the quality/function distinction can be made intelligible on its own
Chalmers and his commentators seem to consider the distinction between two
concepts mere table setting, but I think it is where all the major action transpires.
As a result, I am not interested in the metaphysical possibility or impossibility of
zombies, but rather in the conceptual distinction that makes this very proposal
intelligible. As I see it, the function/quality distinction that Chalmers and others
appeal to is underwritten by our generalized ability to artificially tease apart the
parts of a sign.
Chalmers speaks of “the double life of mental terms” (1996, p. 16) and
emphasizes that while “[o]ur everyday concept of pain presumably combines the
two [concepts of phenomenal pain and psychological pain] in some subtle weighed
combination, [...] for philosophical discussion things are clearer if we keep them
separate” (ibid., p. 17). What might this “keeping separate” mean?
Clearly, it is not a matter of physically isolating one from the other, like severing
the corpus callosum. If you think you can put a quale in a test-tube and stare at it
like you would a sample of red blood, then you do not know what a quale is. You
can certainly stare at the red quality, put considering it apart from the liquid blood
requires a separation of the tone from the token that no physical machine could
Is the distinction then just mere word-play? On a superficial level, “feeling” and
“doing” are certainly different words, so we might well be fooling ourselves when
we apply such different words to describe conscious experience. However, the
suggestion by Chalmers is that those words “cover different phenomena, both of
which are quite real” (ibid., p. 11).
Since we are dealing with something more substantive than different words yet
less palpable than physical separation, I argue that we are confronted with what
Peirce called a “formal distinction.”
Peirce took this from medieval philosophy, specifically the work of Duns Scotus.
A “formal distinction,” also called “prescission” (or “prescissive abstraction”), lies
between a “distinction of reason” and a “real distinction.” Real distinctions are the
easiest to compass. “[T]hings are really distinct if they are separable, that is, if they
can exist one without the other” (Jordan 1984, p. 45). At the other extreme, we find
a distinction of reason, which “is completely dependent upon the mind” (ibid., p.
44). Formal distinction, which is the type I am most interested in, is somewhere in
the middle.
Peirce used this distinction of distinctions to tease apart the ordinal steps
involved in the action of signs, and I think we can do the same to profitably
disambiguate important puzzles about phenomenal consciousness. For instance, if I
perceive a French tricolor, I perceive a rectangle made of three horizontal stripes, of
red, white, and blue. This involves experiences of those individual stripes. There
seems a good sense in which I could have had the experience I had of any of those
stripes without having the experiences of the others (SLIDE 24a).
We can make a “real distinction” by cutting out the red portion of the flag with
scissors, but only a “formal distinction” truly allows us to arrive at a lone red tone
(SLIDE 24b).
eleting all relations means deleting all contrasts and comparisons. So, o
there, there is no telling which flag it might be a part of.
uch a qualitative state of unrelated redness is not (and could never be)
encountered in actual experience, so it is, as Peirce (1998: 294) says, “a mere logical
possibility.” Still, because we humans can suppose all relations absent, we have
some logical justification for forming the concept of a quale.
An unbounded red expanse without any difference is not yet a sign, because the
thing that signs do is called “semiosis,” literally the “action of signs.” There is no
action here.
The word semiosis is used by Peirce, but it did not come from Peirce. He took it
from a first-century book On the Methods of Inference by Philodemus, an Epicurean
thinker. This treatise on inferences was known to Latin thinkers as De Signis (“on
Now, in many ways, prescissive abstraction resembles the simplification
inference rule in logic. Simplification tells us that, if we know that “P and Q and R,”
the we can take that conjunction and infer one of its conjunct as a conclusion, say
“P” (SLIDE 25). It is a formal fallacy, however, to go in the reverse direction. The
repetition inference rule allows us to infer “P” from “P” (SLIDE 26), but if we take
“P” as our premise, we are not rationally entitled to conclude “P and Q and R”
(SLIDE 27 and SLIDE 28).
Let us now apply this analogy between prescission and simplification to the
French flag (SLIDE 29). The flag conjoins three colours: blue, white, and red
(SLIDE 30). Because this is a conjunction, we can infer say, red (SLIDE 31). And
of course, the proper rendering of such a lone quality would be this (SLIDE 32). Try
to infer the French flag from that. You cannot, since nothing in red implies anything
beyond red itself.
Peirce was concerned to track how many things are needed for a given inference
to go through.
If you want to stick red post-it on something to convey “This is the
one, then your analysis of that indexical sign-action will have to include a
minimum of two things: the red post-it and whatever else it is on. If you want to do
like the French flag and use three colours to stand for the nobility, the clergy, and the
bourgeoisie, then your analysis of that symbolic sign-action will have to include
those colours, what they stand for, and the cultural code that binds them. However,
red can stand for another red just by being red, so the 1903 classification makes
room for a pre-discursive quality that, even on its own, retains the modal power to
iconically stand for anything that
resemble it. With just red, you cannot tell
whether it is being used as a post-it, a flag, or anything. If the quality is involved in a
function, it is nevertheless discernible from that function.
To bring home this point, let the red on the screen be the only thing in the
universe, such that it extends in all directions. I agree with Peirce that nothing stops
us from considering such a state of Firstness, even if we can do so only artificially,
by prescission. Now, Peirce anticipated some objections to this, so I want to quote
his response directly:
I suppose you will tell me that no such thing could be alone in the
universe because, firstly, it would require a mind to feel it, which would
not be the feeling itself; secondly, the color [...] would consist of
vibrations; thirdly, none of them could last forever without a flow of time;
fourthly, each would have a quality, which would be a determination in
several respects, the color in hue, luminosity, chroma, and vividness [...];
and fifthly, each would require a physical substratum altogether disparate
to the feeling itself. But I point out to you that these things are only
known to us by extraneous experience;
none of them are
seen in the
[...]. Consequently,
there can be no logical difficulty in supposing
them to be absent
, and for my part, I encounter not the slightest
psychological difficulty in doing so, either. To suppose, for example, that
there is a flow of time, or any degree of vividness, be it high or low,
seems to me quite as uncalled for as to suppose that there is freedom of
the press or a magnetic field. (CP 1.305)
Now, back in the real world, there is a lot more going on than just one quality.
So, to further see how the Peircean account can help philosophy of mind, consider
the setting called the “Game of Life” (SLIDE 33).
The Game of Life is not a “game” at all, but rather a self-organizing system
invented in the 1960s by the mathematician John Conway. It consists of a primitive
set of axioms or “rules” successively deployed on a two-dimensional grid of cells. In
the grid, any given cell will have eight neighbouring cells. Depending on how many
of those neighbouring cells are “on” or “off,” the cell at the center will be either on
or off. If, for example, there are exactly two neighbours that are on, the center cell
will maintain its status in the next generation or time-slice. Assuming an initial
dispersion, the successive implementation of these rules gives rise to more or less
cohesive patterns.
As Daniel Dennett emphasized in his 1991 paper “Real Patterns,” when one
adopts the intentional stance, categorizing the morphology of these patterns gives
one some measure of predictive power. Thus, if one has ascended to a sufficiently
abstract level of description, then one can tell, for instance, that a “glider” is about to
fall prey to an incoming “eater.”
The creatures are made of pixels, in the same way that we are supposed to be
aggregates of particles. This image, which is taken from a remarkable book called
The Recursive Universe, thus captures well a view of the world as
“made out of
ultimate little things and collisions amongst them”—to borrow a nice expression
from James Ladyman and Don Ross.
Now, looking at this setting, we can make the following observation:
It is complex (SLIDE 34)
And, because each pixel is related to the eight pixels around it, we can also see that
2) There is no such thing as a neighbourless cell pixel (SLIDE 35)
So far, so good. Now, consider what happens when we add the following claim:
3) Complexity subsumes simplicity (SLIDE 36)
I hold these three claims to be true. Yet, their conjunction can create a tension.
Indeed, claims (1) and (3) allow for the supposition of a neighbourless cell pixel
(SLIDE 37)—even though claim (2) states that, factually, there is no such thing.
I am a philosopher, so I am not trying to scratch the surface, but rather go the
root cause. This, on my diagnosis, is what ultimately generates the “hard problem”
of consciousness. As long as we have not addressed the tension I have just evinced,
worries about the insufficiency of functional explanations will likely resurface
(perhaps under different guises).
Using Peirce, I argue that
since the simplicity of (3) can be arrived at by a
prescissive distinction that does not factually separate anything, the conjoined
claims can be rendered consistent.
If we begin (as I believe we must) with a premise of complexity and grant (as I
believe we should) that anything involved in complex relations can be prescissively
decomposed, then we are led to conclude that, in principle, such decomposition
would have to bottom out at simple qualities. This is so regardless of whether the
complex starting point that we prescind is construed as being “external” or
“internal” to the mind. As long as that object of study demonstrates relational
complexity, a thoroughgoing analysis will arrive at Firstness.
In a 2011 article, Paul Churchland recently objected that the world does not
permit us to encounter a quality in isolation. In this respect, Churchland is
undoubtedly right.
The attempt to access some phenomenal quality without
triggering any kind of detectable bodily effect would be
tantamount to “asking a
flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light
shining upon it” (Jaynes 2000, p. 23). Thus, anything which makes sense to us will
necessarily be embroiled in relations. Among these, we find similarity relations,
causal links, and even arbitrary imputations. Thus, conscious life is, like the world at
large, teeming with activity, and Peirce’s semiotic theory lets us do justice to this
without veering into any kind of reductionism.
(SLIDE 38: blank)
Despite the fact that the action of signs is always triadic, humans can conceive—
and thus request an account of—the intrinsic, non-relational, nature of any thing,
because we are the sorts of beings for whom that idea makes sense. Yet, t
he lone
quality one gets when one artificially deletes all relations is not something one can
ever talk about—on pain, that is, of reintroducing relations.
So, given that qualitative simplicity does not entail complexity (or any kind of
relation), this asymmetry can act like a fishhook, letting us reach ineffable qualities
—but preventing us from going back to the level of triadic relations where
cognition, discourse, and science are possible. Hence, so long as the existence of
relations presupposes the existence of unrelated relata, we will have to concede, as
Peirce did, that “[l]ogic teaches us to expect some residue of dreaminess in the
world [...]” (Peirce 1931–58, vol. 4, para. 79)
I think the conceptual tool of prescission used in Peircean
accounts for
how/why humans can, as Thomas Nagel put it,
“form the idea of phenomena that
we do not know how to detect” (1986, p. 24).
Admittedly, those influenced by the foregoing analysis of qualities will be led to
say some things that natural scientists do not. Responding to this, some prominent
Peirce scholars like Thomas Short think “that there is some sort of warfare afoot
between respectable intellectuals and barbarians at the philosophical gate” (Ransdell
2007, p. 655). In a different context, such a silly attitude would hardly concern me.
Yet, pragmatism was a tremendously important idea/theme, so I am not prepared to
sail away from the rich tradition it spawned. At the very least, if pursuing Peircean
philosophy of signs requires such an exile, it must be on account of something more
tangible than a polemical expulsion.
I thus want to ask (SLIDE 39): Does belief in the non-functional character of
experiential qualities automatically place one outside the pragmatist tradition? My
answer would be (SLIDE 40): not necessarily. Let me therefore spend the final
portion of my talk sketching one possible reconciliation.
(SLIDE 41: final blank)
Peirce never “used the expression [pragmatism] to describe his entire
philosophical orientation” (Bernstein 2010, p. 11). In his most famous pragmatist
papers, Peirce did say, quite rightly, that if we want to make our ideas clear, then we
should look downstream to their actual and future effects. That is as good a
formulation of pragmatism as any. Yet, there is a tendency to overlook that this
pragmatist recommendation is nested in a conditional: if you want clarity, then you
should do this and that.
I see no reason (and, to my knowledge, Peirce gave no reason) why anyone
should feel obliged, in the strict deontological sense of a categorical imperative, to
pursue intellectual clarity, come what may. Rather, that pursuit, which finds its
maximal expression in collective scientific inquiry, seems to be one among many.
In his best-known pragmatist articles, Peirce uses a series of foils to
progressively build up to the view that he finally wants us to endorse. In “The
Fixation of Belief,” Peirce looks at various methods of settling opinion. One method
is presented charitably, then a flaw is detected, which leads to the development of a
better method, followed by another flaw, and so on, until one reaches the fourth and
final method, that of science. By pooling our results and keeping our judgements
open to revision, the scientific method lets us turn our fallible shortcomings into
learning opportunities.
Of course, it is normal to think that, if you are offered various options and you
know which is best, then you should pick that best one. So, predictably, when Peirce
offers us three “grades of clearness” culminating in his pragmatic maxim (1992, p.
132), we naturally assume that the other two were there mainly to rhetorically set the
stage. However, the moment we do this, we walk away from the possibility of
something not defined by its causal or inferential role(s).
William James was ready to relax the demands of scientific inquiry whenever
following those demands would result in increased personal suffering. John Dewey
expressed similar humanistic concerns while putting greater emphasis on collective
benefit as the bottom line. However, ideas like these have attracted the ire of militant
Peirceans. Cheryl Misak, for instance, says that “more often than not, James and
Dewey failed to make sense of something’s being objectively right or wrong,
leaving the door ajar for Rorty to pick up on certain of their statements and open
wide that divide” (2013, p. 436).
Defining things in terms of their tangible effects is indeed the best known way to
settle disputes and foster the long-term march toward objectivity. However, part of
what has happened, I think, is that in their rush to be branded as naturalists,
pragmatists like Short and Misak have lost sight of the fact that not everything is
appropriately gauged by its current or anticipated practicality.
Building scientific consensus is nice, but so is enjoying simple experiences, even
when the incommunicable character of those experiences ensures that they will not
move the machinery of science one inch forward. To return to the example favoured
by Ned Block, “there are features of the experience of orgasm that don’t represent
anything” (1995, p. 34). So, when you undergo one of those, your aim cannot
possibly be the end of inquiry.
Despite the ten-fold sophistication of Peircean semiotics, the triadic model of the
sign that it employs makes room, at its core, for qualitative vehicles that are non-
representational (Peirce 1998, p. 294). Peirce endorses what I have called a triple-
layer ontology, so countenancing qualia constitutes only one-third of that
comprehensive worldview. Still, given that simple qualities admit of a prescissive
vindication, I believe pragmatism is more plausible/palatable when it makes room
for inefficiency—in the double sense of a respite from technological progress and an
escape from efficient causation.
The latter idea, often called epiphenomenalism, seems to offend many
sensibilities, but I think that, as an idea, it enjoys empirical support, at least if we
allow ourselves to reason by analogy.
To see this, imagine a collection of assorted coins from assorted countries, all
placed in a jar. On the lid of that jar, a series of holes have been punched, all with
the same diameter. Hence, when one shakes the jar upside down, only some coins
will fall out, while others will remain trapped inside, being too large to pass through
the holes of the lid. In a way, this situation “selects,” in an evolutionary sense, some
individuals possessing a certain trait. Causal forces are clearly the excluders here.
Judged by this standard, the quaint designs inscribed on the various coins are
“epiphenomenal.” The profile of a dictator, the depiction of a rare bird, the bas relief
of a national sports hero or famous waterfall—these are all differences that make no
difference. In fact, copper, silver, gold, plastic—those are epiphenomenal properties
Of course, it takes only slight shift in perspective to realize that “passing through
the colander” does not amount to “possessing existence.” So, the point of my
analogy is not to show that epiphenomenal mysteries are easily solved, but rather to
show how easily some perspectives can render features mysteriously
As I said earlier, a sheet of musical notation cannot convey all that a live
performance can. Likewise, an oral presentation like this one cannot match the
virtues of written prose. So, owning up to the limitations of today’s format, I hope
that you will look up my published work, most of which has been made available
online. Peirce never finished the ambitious book he began in 1898, but I finished
I also hope that you will read the more heavily-bearded Peirce directly, and that
in the process you will begin to think of semiotics as a branch that any respectable
philosopher can investigate, no differently than other -ics like metaphysics, ethics,
esthetics, or politics. Again, a good starting point would be my entry on the subject
for Oxford Bibliographies in Philosophy.
Above all, I hope that I have answered my title question by showing why and
how pragmatists can believe in qualia. There are many ways of looking at things,
and pragmatists are supposed to flexible, right? Hence, it would be nice if, in
addition to the roster of stances catalogued by Dan Dennett, we followed Peirce and
gave ourselves the right to also adopt what might be called the “contemplative
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