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Gaylen comments on Zombies: The Movie - Less Wrong

72 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 April 2008 05:53AM

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Comment author: Gaylen 19 May 2008 02:54:00PM 2 points [-]

I stumbled upon this page, and am new to this site. I love the movie script, but it seems to me that qualiaphobes are making a difficult topic even more difficult than it needs to be. As I see it, 'qualia' is just a term that makes it easier for us to discuss the nature of our experiences. Experience is complex. At any given moment I am aware of many different colors, shapes, sounds, smells, etc. Complexity implies a multitude of elements that constitute a complex system. The constituent elements of a complex system (so far as we are able to identify them) need not necessarily be "fundamental" in any absolute ontological sense, but in any case we can better understand the nature of a complex system by being able to discuss compositional elements. As I said, experience is complex. It is convenient to have terms that help us to understand this complexity. Among the elements of my current experience, I find the color blue. We can talk about electromagnetic waves, chemistry in the retinal cells, neurotransmitters, etc., but it just seems awfully doggone handy to also be able to refer to the brute experiential nature of blue – that qualitative feeling of experiencing blue that serves as the basis for my ability to distinguish this color from some other color, or this visual sensation from other sensations like sounds or tastes. Yes, this does lead us into some profound philosophical and scientific puzzles, but I don't see this as a good reason to deny that these elements of my experience exist. The term 'qualia' is handy for referring to the elements of experience. Why muddy the waters by claiming that qualia don't exist? I might agree that qualia don't exist if we want to get into the Buddhist notion of emptiness (everything is interdependent and thus there are no ontologically isolated substances, that survive over time, etc.), but in that sense, nothing exists, so it’s a whole different ball game. But existence is a handy concept for purposes of science and everyday discussion, and if you want to assert that computers exist, then I see no reason to deny that the qualitative blue of my experience exists as well. The blue quale is simply "that element of my experience" that constitutes my felt capacity to distinguish this part of my computer screen (the blue part) from another part (e.g., the white part).

It is logically possible for me to response unconsciously to different elements of my environment. A subliminal image of a Coke can might cause me to take a sip of my drink. In this sense one might say I am acting "like a zombie" – following through on a specific behavior due to sensory inputs I'm not consciously aware of. (Blindsight is another example.) But what is it that I'm "not aware of"? I respond to the subliminal image without experiencing the image. 'Qualia' is a handy term we can use to refer to "that which is missing" in the subliminal image, but present in my experience if I become aware of the image. There is "nothing it is like" for me to be exposed to the subliminal image, as such, even though I am in some sense exposed to the sensory information, but there is something it is like for me to actually notice the image. The difference is the qualitative nature of my experience, verses the non-qualitative nature of subliminal stimuli. Trying to claim that the qualitative character of my experience "doesn't exist" or is "just an illusion" is unnecessarily confusing. I would also add that there is no logical reason that qualia have to be nonphysical, or intrinsically private. Qualia can be universals, and thus shared. Qualia could be a physical form of energy. None of this would prevent qualia from also being the compositional elements making up my complex "lived experience".