What Does the Question “What is it like to type these words?” Mean?


Here’s a passage from the David Chalmers’ well-known and important book The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. In this passage, the phrase “something it is is like” is used: “We can say that a being is conscious if there is something it is like to be that being, to use a phrase made famous by Thomas Nagel. Similarly, a mental state is conscious if there is something it is like to be in that mental state. To put it another way, we can say that a mental state is conscious if it has a qualitative feel — an associated quality of experience. These qualitative feels are also known as phenomenal qualities, or qualia for short. The problem of explaining these phenomenal qualities is just the problem of explaining consciousness. This is the really hard part of the mind-body problem.”

The phrase “something it is like” is the main theme of this piece. I’ll tackle that by taking each sentence of the passage above, one at a time.

There’s Something it’s Like to Type These Words

Firstly, we have this opening sentence:

“We can say that a being is conscious if there is something it is like to be that being, to use a phrase made famous by Thomas Nagel.”

The American philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a famous paper called ‘What is it Like to Be a Bat?’ in 1974. That paper inspired mountains of responses — both positive and negative. Nagel’s paper is widely thought to capture the main problem with any “physicalist” or scientific accounts of subjective experiences — whether those of bats or of human beings.

I can now ask readers the following question:

“What is it like to be you?”

And any reader can, in turn, ask me this question:

“What is it like to be you [i.e., me]?”

Indeed I can now ask myself this question:

“What was it like to be me yesterday or even ten minutes ago?”

I can even ask myself the following question:

“What is it like to type these words — right here and right now?”

So, on first glance, the words “something it is like” (or “what is it like to be…”) are hard to make concrete. That said, it’s of course the case that we intuitively seem to understand what it means. After all, isn’t there something it is like for me — right here and right now — to type these words? And isn’t there something it is like for you to read these words? But what is this something it is like to type these words?

It’s definitely something very particular to me. And that, from the start, seems to make it an unscientific matter. (Perhaps non-scientific or even a-scientific would be a better term.) It may also be the case that the what it is like to type these words is incommunicable to other people (more of which later). I may of course attempt to do so in poetry, prose or in a subjective language. However, such descriptions (if that’s what they truly are) will never truly capture for someone else what it is like for me to to type these words. The best that can happen is that the person who reads (or hears) my accounts can place himself in some kind of “imaginative sympathy” with what it is that I’m describing. However, in that case it won’t be my words (or descriptions) alone which are truly capturing — for that other person — what it is like for me to type these words. This will basically mean that the hearer of my words will simply imagine himself typing his own words right here and right now. In that case, then, it won’t be my words alone which capture for him what it’s like for me to type these words.

Here’s another take on this.

Surely another person would need to literally be me in order to know what it’s this like for me to type these words. And that, surely, is impossible.

That said, let’s just accept that a sci-fi fusion is possible (if only for philosophical reasons). In other words, let’s accept that it’s logically possible that such a thing could happen. (See David Lewis’s ‘Survival and Identity’; which deals with the both the fusion and fission of persons. Fission is when one person becomes two persons.)

Yet even if there could be some kind of fusion between myself and someone else, that fusion wouldn’t result in that other person experiencing what it’s like for me to type these words. Instead, it would result in this me-and-another-person fusion experiencing what it’s like to type these words. And even then, this person-fusion may still not be able to communicate “its” what-it-is-like-to-type-these-words experience to other people or even to itself.

What is it For a Mental State to be Conscious?

“Similarly, a mental state is conscious if there is something it is like to be in that mental state.”

Again, there’s something it is like to be in this mental state of typing these words. That is, I’m experiencing and feeling things right here and right now while writing these words. What can be said about these experiences?

Nothing very precise or exact. Or, in the words of a physicist, I may be able to capture something qualitative; though not something quantitative. That said, perhaps nothing determinate and qualitative can be captured either!

And it’s this very inability to communicate — or offer precise “verbal reports”about this particular mental state (or sequence of states) which makes it suspect to philosophers like Daniel Dennett. However, the fact that these mental states (or experiences) can’t be adequately communicated — or communicated at all — doesn’t mean that these experiences aren’t real (or actual).

So does all that mean that the Dennetts of this world are demanding that at least something — or indeed everything — about this particular mental state of typing (right here right now) must be communicable? And if it isn’t, then is that the sole reason why such people reject — both from a scientific and a philosophical perspective — subjective (or “private”) mental states?

All the above means that the following is the bottom line:

If that something it is like to type these words is essentially incommunicable, then either it isn’t real or it serves no purpose in either science or philosophy.

Yet the feels I experience when typing these words clearly do exist (or are actual/real)… at least to me. That — again - is the problem. These feels only has an existence (or reality) to me and to me alone. And that’s why the Dennetts of this world have a problem with such things.

It’s All About Feels


“To put it another way, we can say that a mental state is conscious if it has a qualitative feel — an associated quality of experience.”

This seems to be suggesting — or stating — that a mental state must have a qualitative feel (or a set of qualitative feels) if it’s deemed to be conscious. In other words, can we make sense of a mental state without a qualitative feel?

More particularly, can we make sense of a mental state which involves, for example, mathematical calculations having no qualitative feels?

In this particular case it doesn’t matter if mathematics and equations have nothing to do with mental states — let alone with qualitative feels. This is about what happens when mathematical calculations are carried out by human beings.

Of course it can now be asked why anyone would care about the very particular — and (seemingly) subjective — “accompaniments” to mathematical calculations. However, that again doesn’t matter because the main argument here is that such subjective accompaniments to mathematical calculations can’t be described, grasped or owned by any science.

Nonetheless, what mathematicians say about what happens when they calculate is amenable to scientific description or study. That is, the verbal reports of mathematicians are out there in public space. Thus scientists and philosophers can indulge in heterophenomenological descriptions of the mathematical calculations which occur in human minds.

The word “heterophenomenological” has just be used.

The term heterophenomenology was coined by Dennett. He uses it to describe a third-person approach to the study of mental phenomena. This approach consists mainly in studying the verbal reports of subjects — such as mathematicians — and then making scientific and philosophical sense of them. And that is done in order to make mental states — such as mental calculations — scientifically acceptable. (See my ‘Against Daniel Dennett’s Heterophenomenology’.)

Meet Qualia

“These qualitative feels are also known as phenomenal qualities, or qualia for short.”

At first glance, saying that qualitative feels are phenomenal qualities doesn’t help us very much. We can now simply ask:

What are phenomenal qualities?

Well, they’re qualitative feels!

Now we can also say that both phenomenal qualities and qualitative feels are qualia:

So what are qualia?

Well, they’re phenomenal qualities and qualitative feels…

Another problem here is that many accounts of qualia simply say what qualia aren’t, not what they are. And how could anyone truly say what qualia are anything other than that they’re phenomenal qualities and qualitative feels?

So here again we come up against a brick wall.

Can we describe such qualia/phenomenal feels/phenomenal qualities in a way that will take us anywhere that’s acceptable from a scientific point of view? More relevantly, can we say anything of philosophical substance?

Again, there is something it is like for me to type these words right here and right now. And, on that, I’m with the qualiaists. However, what can I say about that something? Nothing much — except in the guise of my own verbal reports. Yet, arguably, such reports don’t truly capture the qualia I’m reporting. And, on that, I’m with Dennett in that he argues that there isn’t something “behind” the reports which can count in science or even in philosophy.

Explaining Qualia

“The problem of explaining these phenomenal qualities is just the problem of explaining consciousness. This is the really hard part of the mind-body problem.”

Firstly, David Chalmers assumes that there is what he calls a “hard problem”. There may well be; though that should never be simply assumed.

Secondly, what does Chalmers mean by the the word “explaining” (as in “explaining consciousness”)? That is, what is it to explain phenomenal qualities/qualia or to explain consciousness?

What would an explanation of phenomenal qualities look like — even if there is one? This isn’t to say that there is — or there isn’t — an explanation: it’s to ask what such an explanation would look like. More particularly, I suspect that no explanation would ever satisfy David Chalmers… or Thomas Nagel for that matter. And that could quite possibly be because there can be no explanation which pleases everyone— at least not of the kind that Chalmers demands. Perhaps this is, after all, a bogus problem in that either it isn’t a problem at all; or because no explanation would ever satisfy those philosophers who’re demanding an explanation. (See my David Chalmers’ Unanswerable “Hard Question” About Consciousness | by Paul Austin Murphy | Predict | Medium.)

More technically, would such an explanation of phenomenal properties be an explanation from a first-person/subjective/phenomenological point of view? Well, that wouldn’t satisfy most scientists and many philosophers.

Okay. Would such an explanation be a neuroscientific/behaviourist/functionalist explanation? Well, that wouldn’t satisfy Chalmers, Nagel and many other philosophers.

So what about uniting the physical/functional accounts with first-person accounts? Is that even possible? Yes; in the particular respect that a person may verbally report his experience/s of particular phenomenal properties and that may satisfy Dennett and others. However, such reports would still be solely verbal reports of qualia — not accounts of qualia themselves (whatever that may mean). Indeed what would an account of a single quale even look like? And perhaps even if there were such an account, then it still couldn’t — almost by definition — be united with a scientific account.

Thus there’s a definitional gap and an “explanatory gap” between scientific accounts of phenomenal properties and subjective/first-person/phenomenological accounts of the (supposedly) very same things — and never the twain shall meet.

The upshot here is that David Chalmers will never be satisfied with the accounts of Daniel Dennett and (many) scientists. And Dennett and these scientists will never be satisfied with the accounts of Chalmers and the “mysterians”. Thus, again, there’s a chasm between the two positions. And even those much-advocated “structural correlations” (i.e., between neural states and conscious states) will certainly never bridge that chasm. Perhaps nothing will.

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Note: A Single Mental State and its Set of Qualia?

It’s worth questioning if there is such a thing as a perfectly circumscribed and delineated single mental state. Don’t mental states “flow” into each other? And if mental states do indeed flow into each other, then there may not be single mental states at all.

Similarly, how many qualia make up a single mental state? Does that question make sense? Can it be answered? What would an answer look like? And even if a single mental state had a determinate number of qualia, how would we know what that number is?

So it seems that the full nature of “qualia” can’t be expressed or described. And that, again, is why the Dennetts of this world have a problem with such things.