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Angus Menuge Explains Why “Red” Is Such a Problem in Philosophy

“Red” is an example of qualia, concepts we can experience that have no physical existence otherwise

In philosopher Angus Menuge‘s second podcast with Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks, the big topic is the perennial Hard Problem of consciousness and various proposed solutions. Menuge, who is chair of philosophy at Concordia University, talks about some of the ways consciousness is hard to pin down and why it doesn’t follow the rules we might expect in a fully material universe:

This portion begins at 01:01 min. A partial transcript, Show Notes, and Additional Resources follow.

Robert J. Marks (pictured): There is a lot of research happening in modeling consciousness. Panpsychism, quantum consciousness, and integrated information theory (IIT) are examples of consciousness models that have been getting a lot of press and visibility lately…

So first, what is the definition of consciousness? Is there a widespread agreement to this definition?

Angus Menuge: Well, the problem is it’s an ambiguous term that is used to denote distinct ideas. There is one kind of consciousness, which philosophers of mind have spent a lot of time on, called phenomenal consciousness, which is basically experience — your awareness. So it comes along with the idea of what it is like to see a red rose or to smell that red rose or to feel pain.

Note: The concept of what it “is like” to experience something is often called qualia: “Qualia are the subjective or qualitative properties of experiences. What it feels like, experientially, to see a red rose is different from what it feels like to see a yellow rose. Likewise for hearing a musical note played by a piano and hearing the same musical note played by a tuba. The qualia of these experiences are what give each of them its characteristic “feel” and also what distinguish them from one another.” – Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

Angus Menuge: You’re aware of it, you can’t really deny that you’re having the experience. And in some sense, though some philosophers question this, you have privileged access to it. In other words, we take a dim view — when somebody is writhing in pain — if somebody else says, oh, no, you’re not really in pain. All right. Because they could be acting, but if they feel that they’re in pain, they’re not going to listen to anybody else telling them that they’re not because they’re aware of it directly through introspection.

However, it’s not the only notion of consciousness. Ned Block [pictured] tried to distinguish what he called access consciousness. And here, the idea is more cognitive; it moves from experience to representational content. So for example, if you’re solving a problem in logic or mathematics, there is a content to your thinking. That content might not come with any particular qualia or subjective experience. And yet it is accessible to your reasoning.

So his idea was that you could perhaps have some qualia that has no particular content. So you just have a vague pain, but it’s not a pain that is pointed to anything. And you could also perhaps have thoughts with no associated qualia or experiences or you could have both. So a lot of times when you’re thinking about something abstract, you might write something. So you’re thinking about prime numbers, but you actually use a symbol to indicate them. So then you would have both at the same time, but they do seem to be distinct.

And then the other kinds of consciousness appear, it seems, particularly in human beings; we are also self-conscious so that we are aware of our own awareness. You can, for example, enjoy a sunset, but you can also step back and think about your awareness.

Robert J. Marks: I’ve never thought of that — being self-conscious is a meta-consciousness, isn’t it? That’s fascinating.

Note: Metaconsciousness is the state of being aware of one’s awareness, often called metacognition. “Human beings are conscious not only of the world around them but also of themselves: their activities, their bodies, and their mental lives. They are, that is, self-conscious (or, equivalently, self-aware). Self-consciousness can be understood as an awareness of oneself. But a self-conscious subject is not just aware of something that merely happens to be themselves, as one is if one sees an old photograph without realising that it is of oneself. Rather a self-conscious subject is aware of themselves as themselves; it is manifest to them that they themselves are the object of awareness.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy It’s generally considered a human distinctive in the sense that a dog does not ask himself why he barks at the moon but a human might ask himself why he buys lottery tickets.

Angus Menuge (pictured): And in fact there seems almost to be no end to the levels of it. This is something actually that Hegel noticed. So for example, assuming that we have good reason to believe that other people have minds, … perhaps I’ve noticed you and then I’m aware that I’m noticing you. So now I am self-conscious, but then I start to think that you’re conscious. So now I’m conscious of your being conscious of me being conscious of your being conscious. And there seems to be almost no end to the levels that you could add. Thankfully, we normally don’t. But we in principle can become aware on many, many levels. And maybe one of the most interesting is what the late Lynne Baker called the first person perspective, she noticed that we can be aware, as it were, from the inside of what our life will be like.

Note: In a memorial tribute to Lynne Baker (1944–2017, pictured), her Philosophy Department wrote “Lynne’s latest book, Naturalism and the First-Person Perspective, presents a striking challenge to naturalism, arguing that the very fact that we are capable of thinking of ourselves from a first-person point of view cannot be captured within a naturalistic worldview. This is an extraordinary body of work, presenting an utterly distinctive set of views on topics of the first importance.”

Angus Menuge: So when you’re thinking to yourself, “Will I cry at my son’s wedding?”, that’s very different from saying, “Will Angus Menuge cry at his son’s wedding?” Or using either a name or a definite description. No, I’m thinking about what it will be like to be me going through that. And that shows, I have an understanding of myself persisting over time. And likewise, when we regret things that we did in the past or think about vacations — if such things ever come back again — we are thinking about what it is going to be like for us to be in those perspectives. And we have a pretty good ability of mental simulation that allows us to empathize.

We can’t introspect other people’s mental states, but we can to some degree think what it will be like to be that poor person who is suffering now.

Robert J. Marks: I have this experience all the time. I think so much about my consciousness in this meta state that I don’t enjoy life as much as I think I should. I think, “I’m enjoying life,” and then I think, “Hey, I’m enjoying life,” and I start thinking about my consciousness experience and the entire joy of the experience disappears. It’s fascinating. You mentioned qualia. In artificial intelligence I use this as an example of why artificial intelligence will never exist in the general sense where you’re going to have a duplication.

Qualia, for example, is our perception of the color red. And I use the example that how are you going to explain the color red to a person that has had no sight since birth? You can’t do it. You can explain its properties, its wavelength, that apples are red and other things, but the actual experience… cannot be communicated. And if that is the case, how the heck are you going to be able to write a computer program, to explain to a computer what the color red is? Qualia is not algorithmic, it can’t be computed.

Angus Menuge: And that ties in well with the famous example of “Mary,” going back to Frank Jackson. He imagines a woman, “Mary,” in a room where everything is black and white and she is black and white as well. And she has studied and knows every scientific fact that there is about the physiology of color vision. Trouble is she’s never actually seen anything red. And then one day she leaves the room and for the first time sees a red rose. It does seem that she has acquired some new knowledge. She knows now what it is like to see red. And it’s interesting.

Angus Menuge: One can get around things indirectly. So colorblind people can stop at stop signs, even though they don’t have a red quale because they know what the function of that stop sign is. And they can in a sense, talk about red things and they know what somebody means in a sense when they say that blood is red, for example, but they don’t have that same direct, intuitive understanding as the person who has actually seen red.

Robert J. Marks: One of the evidences of near death experiences is people who are blind from birth. they have the ability in their near death experiences to go outside of their body and actually see. So they experience qualia that they have never experienced before in their life. I find that fascinating and really a strong evidence of the mind body problem of dualism.

Angus Menuge: Blind near-death experiences are absolutely extraordinary because they recount information using color terms for colors which they have never actually seen with their eyes. And that’s quite extraordinary because it seems as if they had some kind of independent access to them, because it’s a difficult question. How could we know what was it like to have that experience? That’s an almost unanswerable question I suppose, but it is remarkable that they can recount things using language that describes things which they have never witnessed.

Note: Blindsight, the ability of blind people to gain visual knowledge of their environment by co-opting non-visual neurons, is a current subject of study in rehabilitation research. The human eye, in any event, sees only part of the color spectrum under normal circumstances. Near-death experiencers report seeing colors not before experienced.

Next: Panpsychism is, in Angus Menuge’s view, a desperate move.

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The mind’s reality is consistent with neuroscience. A neglected “dualist” theory offers some insights.

Show Notes

  • 00:26 | Introducing Dr. Angus Menuge
  • 01:01 | Phenomenal consciousness and qualia
  • 07:25 | Experiencing vision and color
  • 10:35 | Problems for panpsychism
  • 12:48 | Integrated information theory
  • 18:22 | Quantum consciousness
  • 25:33 | Testing consciousness in artificial intelligence

Additional Resources

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Angus Menuge Explains Why “Red” Is Such a Problem in Philosophy