[ExI] putting the qual into qualia

John Clark johnkclark at gmail.com
Wed May 8 04:59:25 UTC 2013

On Tue, May 7, 2013  Gordon <gts_2000 at yahoo.com> wrote:

>> Gordon, suppose the fMRI said that you were in great pain, absolute
>> agony, but you felt just fine, very happy and healthy;  who are you going
>> to believe, the machine or your own direct experience?
> > I would believe my direct experience.

Smart move, therefore we can never be as certain of the qualia experienced
by other people or by other computers as we are of ourselves because we
only have direct experiance to our own qualia; Raymond Smullyan made that
clear in his 1982 dialog "An Epistemological Nightmare". By the way,
Smullyan is something of a mystic and before I started reading his
wonderful and beautiful books I thought all mystics were fools, but now I
just think that most mystics are fools:

An Epistemological Nightmare

Scene 1

Frank is in the office of an eye doctor. The doctor holds up a book and
asks "What color is it?" Frank answers, "Red." The doctor says, "Aha, just
as I thought! Your whole color mechanism has gone out of kilter. But
fortunately your condition is curable, and I will have you in perfect shape
in a couple of weeks."
Scene 2

(A few weeks later.) Frank is in a laboratory in the home of an
experimental epistemologist. (You will soon find out what that means!) The
epistemologist holds up a book and also asks, "What color is this book?"
Now, Frank has been earlier dismissed by the eye doctor as "cured."
However, he is now of a very analytical and cautious temperament, and will
not make any statement that can possibly be refuted. So Frank answers, "It
seems red to me."


    I don't think you heard what I said. I merely said that it seems red to

    I heard you, and you were wrong.

    Let me get this clear; did you mean that I was wrong that this book is
red, or that I was wrong that it seems red to me?

    I obviously couldn't have meant that you were wrong in that it is red,
since you did not say that it is red. All you said was that it seems red to
you, and it is this statement which is wrong.

    But you can't say that the statement "It seems red to me" is wrong.

    If I can't say it, how come I did?

    I mean you can't mean it.

    Why not?

    But surely I know what color the book seems to me!

    Again you are wrong.

    But nobody knows better than I how things seem to me.

    I am sorry, but again you are wrong.

    But who knows better than I?

    I do.

    But how could you have access to my private mental states?

    Private mental states! Metaphysical hogwash! Look, I am a practical
epistemologist. Metaphysical problems about "mind" versus "matter" arise
only from epistemological confusions. Epistemology is the true foundation
of philosophy. But the trouble with all past epistemologists is that they
have been using wholly theoretical methods, and much of their discussion
degenerates into mere word games. While other epistemologists have been
solemnly arguing such questions as whether a man can be wrong when he
asserts that he believes such and such, I have discovered how to settle
such questions experimentally.

    How could you possibly decide such things empirically?

    By reading a person's thoughts directly.

    You mean you are telepathic?

    Of course not. I simply did the one obvious thing which should be done,
viz. I have constructed a brain-reading machine--known technically as a
cerebroscope--that is operative right now in this room and is scanning
every nerve cell in your brain. I thus can read your every sensation and
thought, and it is a simple objective truth that this book does not seem
red to you.

*Frank (thoroughly subdued):*
    Goodness gracious, I really could have sworn that the book seemed red
to me; it sure seems that it seems read to me!

    I'm sorry, but you are wrong again.

    Really? It doesn't even seem that it seems red to me? It sure seems
like it seems like it seems red to me!

    Wrong again! And no matter how many times you reiterate the phrase "it
seems like" and follow it by "the book is red" you will be wrong.

    This is fantastic! Suppose instead of the phrase "it seems like" I
would say "I believe that." So let us start again at ground level. I
retract the statement "It seems red to me" and instead I assert "I believe
that this book is red." Is this statement true or false?

    Just a moment while I scan the dials of the brain-reading machine--no,
the statement is false.

    And what about "I believe that I believe that the book is red"?

*Epistemologist (consulting his dials):*
    Also false. And again, no matter how many times you iterate "I
believe," all these belief sentences are false.

    Well, this has been a most enlightening experience. However, you must
admit that it is a little hard on me to realize that I am entertaining
infinitely many erroneous beliefs!

    Why do you say that your beliefs are erroneous?

    But you have been telling me this all the while!

    I most certainly have not!

    Good God, I was prepared to admit all my errors, and now you tell me
that my beliefs are not errors; what are you trying to do, drive me crazy?

    Hey, take it easy! Please try to recall: When did I say or imply that
any of your beliefs are erroneous?

    Just simply recall the infinite sequence of sentences: (1) I believe
this book is red; (2) I believe that I believe this book is red; and so
forth. You told me that every one of those statements is false.


    Then how can you consistently maintain that my beliefs in all these
false statements are not erroneous?

    Because, as I told you, you don't believe any of them.

    I think I see, yet I am not absolutely sure.

    Look, let me put it another way. Don't you see that the very falsity of
each of the statements that you assert saves you from an erroneous belief
in the preceding one? The first statement is, as I told you, false. Very
well! Now the second statement is simply to the effect that you believe the
first statement. If the second statement were true, then you would believe
the first statement, and hence your belief about the first statement would
indeed be in error. But fortunately the second statement is false, hence
you don't really believe the first statement, so your belief in the first
statement is not in error. Thus the falsity of the second statement implies
you do not have an erroneous belief about the first; the falsity of the
third likewise saves you from an erroneous belief about the second, etc.

    Now I see perfectly! So none of my beliefs were erroneous, only the
statements were erroneous.


    Most remarkable! Incidentally, what color is the book really?

    It is red.


    Exactly! Of course the book is red. What's the matter with you, don't
you have eyes?

    But didn't I in effect keep saying that the book is red all along?

    Of course not! You kept saying it seems red to you, it seems like it
seems red to you, you believe it is red, you believe that you believe it is
red, and so forth. Not once did you say that it is red. When I originally
asked you "What color is the book?" if you had simply answered "red," this
whole painful discussion would have been avoided.
Scene 3

Frank comes back several months later to the home of the epistemologist.

    How delightful to see you! Please sit down.

*Frank (seated):*
    I have been thinking of our last discussion, and there is much I wish
to clear up. To begin with, I discovered an inconsistency in some of the
things you said.

    Delightful! I love inconsistencies. Pray tell!

    Well, you claimed that although my belief sentences were false, I did
not have any actual beliefs that are false. If you had not admitted that
the book actually is red, you would have been consistent. But your very
admission that the book is red, leads to an inconsistency.

    How so?

    Look, as you correctly pointed out, in each of my belief sentences "I
believe it is red," "I believe that I believe it is red," the falsity of
each one other than the first saves me from an erroneous belief in the
proceeding one. However, you neglected to take into consideration the first
sentence itself. The falsity of the first sentence "I believe it is red,"
in conjunction with the fact that it is red, does imply that I do have a
false belief.

    I don't see why.

    It is obvious! Since the sentence "I believe it is red" is false, then
I in fact believe it is not red, and since it really is red, then I do have
a false belief. So there!

*Epistemologist (disappointed):*
    I am sorry, but your proof obviously fails. Of course the falsity of
the fact that you believe it is red implies that you don't believe it is
red. But this does not mean that you believe it is not red!

    But obviously I know that it either is red or it isn't, so if I don't
believe it is, then I must believe that it isn't.

    Not at all. I believe that either Jupiter has life or it doesn't. But I
neither believe that it does, nor do I believe that it doesn't. I have no
evidence one way or the other.

    Oh well, I guess you are right. But let us come to more important
matters. I honestly find it impossible that I can be in error concerning my
own beliefs.

    Must we go through this again? I have already patiently explained to
you that you (in the sense of your beliefs, not your statements) are not in

    Oh, all right then, I simply do not believe that even the statements
are in error. Yes, according to the machine they are in error, but why
should I trust the machine?

    Whoever said you should trust the machine?

    Well, should I trust the machine?

    That question involving the word "should" is out of my domain. However,
if you like, I can refer you to a colleague who is an excellent
moralist--he may be able to answer this for you.

    Oh come on now, I obviously didn't mean "should" in a moralistic sense.
I simply meant "Do I have any evidence that this machine is reliable?"

    Well, do you?

    Don't ask me! What I mean is should you trust the machine?

    Should I trust it? I have no idea, and I couldn't care less what I
should do.

    Oh, your moralistic hangup again. I mean, do you have evidence that the
machine is reliable?

    Well of course!

    Then let's get down to brass tacks. What is your evidence?

    You hardly can expect that I can answer this for you in an hour, a day,
or a week. If you wish to study this machine with me, we can do so, but I
assure you this is a matter of several years. At the end of that time,
however, you would certainly not have the slightest doubts about the
reliability of the machine.

    Well, possibly I could believe that it is reliable in the sense that
its measurements are accurate, but then I would doubt that what it actually
measures is very significant. It seems that all it measures is one's
physiological states and activities.

    But of course, what else would you expect it to measure?

    I doubt that it measures my psychological states, my actual beliefs.

    Are we back to that again? The machine does measure those physiological
states and processes that you call psychological states, beliefs,
sensations, and so forth.

    At this point I am becoming convinced that our entire difference is
purely semantical. All right, I will grant that your machine does correctly
measure beliefs in your sense of the word "belief," but I don't believe
that it has any possibility of measuring beliefs in my sense of the word
"believe." In other words I claim that our entire deadlock is simply due to
the fact that you and I mean different things by the word "belief."

    Fortunately, the correctness of your claim can be decided
experimentally. It so happens that I now have two brain-reading machines in
my office, so I now direct one to your brain to find out what you mean by
"believe" and now I direct the other to my own brain to find out what I
mean by "believe," and now I shall compare the two readings. Nope, I'm
sorry, but it turns out that we mean exactly the same thing by the word

    Oh, hang your machine! Do you believe we mean the same thing by the
word "believe"?

    Do I believe it? Just a moment while I check with the machine. Yes, it
turns out I do believe it.

    My goodness, do you mean to say that you can't even tell me what you
believe without consulting the machine?

    Of course not.

    But most people when asked what they believe simply tell you. Why do
you, in order to find out your beliefs, go through the fantastically
roundabout process of directing a thought-reading machine to your own brain
and then finding out what you believe on the basis of the machine readings?

    What other scientific, objective way is there of finding out what I

    Oh, come now, why don't you just ask yourself?

*Epistemologist (sadly):*
    It doesn't work. Whenever I ask myself what I believe, I never get any

    Well, why don't you just state what you believe?

    How can I state what I believe before I know what I believe?

    Oh, to hell with your knowledge of what you believe; surely you have
some idea or belief as to what you believe, don't you?

    Of course I have such a belief. But how do I find out what this belief

    I am afraid we are getting into another infinite regress. Look, at this
point I am honestly beginning to wonder whether you may be going crazy.

    Let me consult the machine. Yes, it turns out that I may be going

    Good God, man, doesn't this frighten you?

    Let me check! Yes, it turns out that it does frighten me.

    Oh please, can't you forget this damned machine and just tell me
whether you are frightened or not?

    I just told you that I am. However, I only learned of this from the

    I can see that it is utterly hopeless to wean you away from the
machine. Very well, then, let us play along with the machine some more. Why
don't you ask the machine whether your sanity can be saved?

    Good idea! Yes, it turns out that it can be saved.

    And how can it be saved?

    I don't know, I haven't asked the machine.

    Well, for God's sake, ask it!

    Good idea. It turns out that...

    It turns out what?

    It turns out that...

    Come on now, it turns out what?

    This is the most fantastic thing I have ever come across! According to
the machine the best thing I can do is to cease to trust the machine!

    Good! What will you do about it?

    How do I know what I will do about it, I can't read the future?

    I mean, what do you presently intend to do about it?

    Good question, let me consult the machine. According to the machine, my
current intentions are in complete conflict. And I can see why! I am caught
in a terrible paradox! If the machine is trustworthy, then I had better
accept its suggestion to distrust it. But if I distrust it, then I also
distrust its suggestion to distrust it, so I am really in a total quandary.

    Look, I know of someone who I think might be really of help in this
problem. I'll leave you for a while to consult him. Au revoir!
Scene 4.

(Later in the day at a psychiatrist's office.)

    Doctor, I am terribly worried about a friend of mine. He calls himself
an "experimental epistemologist."

    Oh, the experimental epistemologist. There is only one in the world. I
know him well!

    That is a relief. But do you realize that he has constructed a
mind-reading device that he now directs to his own brain, and whenever one
asks him what he thinks, believes, feels, is afraid of, and so on, he has
to consult the machine first before answering? Don't you think this is
pretty serious?

    Not as serious as it might seem. My prognosis for him is actually quite

    Well, if you are a friend of his, couldn't you sort of keep an eye on

    I do see him quite frequently, and I do observe him much. However, I
don't think he can be helped by so-called "psychiatric treatment." His
problem is an unusual one, the sort that has to work itself out. And I
believe it will.

    Well, I hope your optimism is justified. At any rate I sure think I
need some help at this point!

    How so?

    My experiences with the epistemologist have been thoroughly unnerving!
At this point I wonder if I may be going crazy; I can't even have
confidence in how things appear to me. I think maybe you could be helpful

    I would be happy to but cannot for a while. For the next three months I
am unbelievably overloaded with work. After that, unfortunately, I must go
on a three-month vacation. So in six months come back and we can talk this
Scene 5.

(Same office, six months later.)

    Before we go into your problems, you will be happy to hear that your
friend the epistemologist is now completely recovered.

    Marvelous, how did it happen?

    Almost, as it were, by a stroke of fate--and yet his very mental
activities were, so to speak, part of the "fate." What happened was this:
For months after you last saw him, he went around worrying "should I trust
the machine, shouldn't I trust the machine, should I, shouldn't I, should
I, shouldn't I." (He decided to use the word "should" in your empirical
sense.) He got nowhere! So he then decided to "formalize" the whole
argument. He reviewed his study of symbolic logic, took the axioms of
first-order logic, and added as nonlogical axioms certain relevant facts
about the machine. Of course the resulting system was inconsistent--he
formally proved that he should trust the machine if and only if he
shouldn't, and hence that he both should and should not trust the machine.
Now, as you may know, in a system based on classical logic (which is the
logic he used), if one can prove so much as a single contradictory
proposition, then one can prove any proposition, hence the whole system
breaks down. So he decided to use a logic weaker than classical logic--a
logic close to what is known as "minimal logic"--in which the proof of one
contradiction does not necessarily entail the proof of every proposition.
However, this system turned out too weak to decide the question of whether
or not he should trust the machine. Then he had the following bright idea.
Why not use classical logic in his system even though the resulting system
is inconsistent? Is an inconsistent system necessarily useless? Not at all!
Even though given any proposition, there exists a proof that it is true and
another proof that it is false, it may be the case that for any such pair
of proofs, one of them is simply more psychologically convincing than the
other, so simply pick the proof you actually believe! Theoretically the
idea turned out very well--the actual system he obtained really did have
the property that given any such pair of proofs, one of them was always
psychologically far more convincing than the other. Better yet, given any
pair of contradictory propositions, all proofs of one were more convincing
than any proof of the other. Indeed, anyone except the epistemologist could
have used the system to decide whether the machine could be trusted. But
with the epistemologist, what happened was this: He obtained one proof that
he should trust the machine and another proof that he should not. Which
proof was more convincing to him, which proof did he really "believe"? The
only way he could find out was to consult the machine! But he realized that
this would be begging the question, since his consulting the machine would
be a tacit admission that he did in fact trust the machine. So he still
remained in a quandary.

    So how did he get out of it?

    Well, here is where fate kindly interceded. Due to his absolute
absorption in the theory of this problem, which consumed about his every
waking hour, he became for the first time in his life experimentally
negligent. As a result, quite unknown to him, a few minor units of his
machine blew out! Then, for the first time, the machine started giving
contradictory information--not merely subtle paradoxes, but blatant
contradictions. In particular, the machine one day claimed that the
epistemologist believed a certain proposition and a few days later claimed
he did not believe that proposition. And to add insult to injury, the
machine claimed that he had not changed his belief in the last few days.
This was enough to simply make him totally distrust the machine. Now he is
fit as a fiddle.

    This is certainly the most amazing thing I have ever heard! I guess the
machine was really dangerous and unreliable all along.

    Oh, not at all; the machine used to be excellent before the
epistemologist's experimental carelessness put it out of whack.

    Well, surely when I knew it, it couldn't have been very reliable.

    Not so, Frank, and this brings us to your problem. I know about your
entire conversation with the epistemologist--it was all tape-recorded.

    Then surely you realize the machine could not have been right when it
denied that I believed the book was red.

    Why not?

    Good God, do I have to go through all this nightmare again? I can
understand that a person can be wrong if he claims that a certain physical
object has a certain property, but have you ever known a single case when a
person can be mistaken when he claims to have or not have a certain

    Why, certainly! I once knew a Christian Scientist who had a raging
toothache; he was frantically groaning and moaning all over the place. When
asked whether a dentist might not cure him, he replied that there was
nothing to be cured. Then he was asked, "But do you not feel pain?" He
replied, "No, I do not feel pain; nobody feels pain, there is no such thing
as pain, pain is only an illusion." So here is a case of a man who claimed
not to feel pain, yet everyone present knew perfectly well that he did feel
pain. I certainly don't believe he was lying, he was just simply mistaken.

    Well, all right, in a case like that. But how can one be mistaken if
one asserts his belief about the color of a book?

    I can assure you that without access to any machine, if I asked someone
what color is this book, and he answered, "I believe it is red," I would be
very doubtful that he really believed it. It seems to me that if he really
believed it, he would answer, "It is red" and not "I believe it is red" or
"It seems red to me." The very timidity of his response would be indicative
of his doubts.

    But why on earth should I have doubted that it was red?

    You should know that better than I. Let us see now, have you ever in
the past had reason to doubt the accuracy of your sense perception?

    Why, yes. A few weeks before visiting the epistemologist, I suffered
from an eye disease, which did make me see colors falsely. But I was cured
before my visit.

    Oh, so no wonder you doubted it was red! True enough, your eyes
perceived the correct color of the book, but your earlier experience
lingered in your mind and made it impossible for you to really believe it
was red. So the machine was right!

    Well, all right, but then why did I doubt that I believed it was true?

    Because you didn't believe it was true, and unconsciously you were
smart enough to realize the fact. Besides, when one starts doubting one's
own sense perceptions, the doubt spreads like an infection to higher and
higher levels of abstraction until finally the whole belief system becomes
one doubting mass of insecurity. I bet that if you went to the
epistemologist's office now, and if the machine were repaired, and you now
claimed that you believe the book is red, the machine would concur.

No, Frank, the machine is--or, rather, was--a good one. The epistemologist
learned much from it, but misused it when he applied it to his own brain.
He really should have known better than to create such an unstable
situation. The combination of his brain and the machine each scrutinizing
and influencing the behavior of the other led to serious problems in
feedback. Finally the whole system went into a cybernetic wobble. Something
was bound to give sooner or later. Fortunately, it was the machine.

    I see. One last question, though. How could the machine be trustworthy
when it claimed to be untrustworthy?

    The machine never claimed to be untrustworthy, it only claimed that the
epistemologist would be better off not trusting it. And the machine was

  John K Clark
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.extropy.org/pipermail/extropy-chat/attachments/20130508/3b8b03a4/attachment.html>

More information about the extropy-chat mailing list