restricted access Chapter 8: Qualia, Qualities, and Our Conception of the Physical World
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231 Qualia, Qualities, and Our Conception of the Physical World Howard Robinson 1. The Real Power of the Knowledge Argument The Initial Predicament The dialectical situation in which the knowledge argument (KA) for property dualism is usually taken to be located is the following.1 It is taken as agreed that physicalism gives an adequate account of nonconscious reality, and that this part of reality constitutes almost 100 percent of the universe. Despite this overwhelming success, however, the physicalist account struggles to accommodate certain features of mental life, namely the ‘what it is like’ or qualia of certain conscious states. These qualia constitute the qualitative nature of sensations and probably of secondary qualities, but have nothing to do with our robust conception of the physical as it applies to the vast mindless 8 232  Howard Robinson tracts of reality. These awkward entities constitute what Chalmers called “the hard problem” for physicalism (Chalmers 2003). But the fact that they also constitute such a tiny part of the world is im­ plicitly understood as being a strong prima facie reason for thinking that there must be some way of reconciling their apparent existence with the otherwise triumphant and clearly adequate physicalist account of the world: if it were not for the qualia that occur in a few corners of reality, the adequacy of physicalism would not in any way be in ­ dispute. I think that this interpretation of the situation constitutes a radical misunderstanding of and understatement of the problem that faces physicalism and the role that the knowledge argument plays in bringing out that problem: the dialectic is quite different from the way it is represented in the previous paragraph. To see why and how this is so, one must direct attention at our conception of matter and the physical, rather than at our concept of mind. Science, whether of the macroscopic or the microscopic, is very largely concerned with measurement and quantification and with the expression of its findings in mathematics, as far as is possible. But the resultant abstract— we might call it Platonistic—conception of the physical cannot, we think, wholly capture our concept of the physical, especially as it is conceived in our naïve or commonsensical conception of the world. Taken in this abstract form, the concept of the physical is insufficiently concrete. But what concretizes it is the addition of qualities— essentially sensible qualities—that figure so importantly in our naïve or commonsensical conception of the world. These are essential to our ability to ‘cash’ or ‘model’ or ‘interpret’ the abstract, mathematical conception. Physicalism’s real predicament, as has been brought out by the KA, can be represented in two propositions. (1) Standard physicalism cannot capture the qualitative nature or aspect or reality. (2) The qualitative is an essential feature of any conception of the physical that goes beyond the purely abstract and mathematically expressed. These two together entail Qualia, Qualities, and Our Conception of the Physical World   233 (3) Standard physicalism cannot capture any conception of the physi­ cal that goes beyond the purely abstract or mathematically expressed . This is, of course, a much stronger conclusion than that which the normal understanding of the ‘hard problem’ attributes to the knowledge argument, namely (4) Standard physicalism cannot capture the qualitative nature of certain mental states. On my reinterpretation of the situation, what the knowledge argument really shows is (1). I take (2) to be independently plausible, possibly analytically true and probably largely uncontested. Propositions (1) and (2) together show that standard physicalism is not merely incomplete, failing to cope with consciousness, but something more like incoherent, because it cannot give a coherent account of the physical itself. In the next two sections I shall do the following. First, I shall show that the knowledge argument, if sound, proves that physicalism cannot capture the qualitative at all: that is, I shall try to prove (1). Second, I will argue that this does not merely strengthen the knowledge argument’s conclusion, but also undercuts all known attempts to refute the argument, for they all rest on the assumption that the physicalist’s conception of the purely physical is itself unproblematic; that is, they rest on the assumption that the physicalist’s conception of the physical would not be inadequate if it were not for the need to explain consciousness. Extending the Scope of the Knowledge Argument The knowledge argument as traditionally stated appears to concern only the nature of mental states. This appearance is founded on...


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