The Reality of Inner Experience and Why It Matters
Qualia show there's more to reality than spatiotemporal mechanics.
Posted Oct 14, 2019
One common way to dismiss someone’s concerns is to tell them, “It’s all in your head.” If the person is projecting their personal issues onto a situation where they aren’t relevant, this response could be appropriate. However, our society tends to dismiss the relevance of “what’s in our heads” even when it’s of the utmost importance: for instance, when it comes to discerning the very meaning of our existence.
Our science-oriented culture places the highest value on things that can be studied objectively, that is, things that can be observed by more than one person at a time. In fact, repeated observations by multiple investigators is generally how we confirm that something is “real.” Nevertheless, there is no innate connection between how many people can observe a thing and how real it is.
Consider, for example, the sensation of pain. When you feel pain, this is an experience that is private to you. No one else is experiencing your pain; only you are. Other people may observe your wincing or moaning or writhing in agony, but those are the effects of your pain they’re observing, not the pain itself. Even a scientist who was able to peer into the inner workings of the neurons that are correlated with your pain would not be able to observe the sensation of pain itself. That is a private experience, accessible only to you, the person who is having it. Does that make it unreal? I think you would be hard-pressed to convince anyone who is enduring intense physical pain that it’s not (Rawlette 2016).
Another point in favor of the reality of such experiences is the fact that they are the necessary starting point for all our knowledge about the world that lies beyond our experiences. For instance, how do I know that there is a desk in front of me right now? Because I am having certain visual and tactile experiences of a desk. And, if I believe that the desk I’m experiencing is real and not just a hallucination, it’s because these experiences I’m having of a desk continue predictably over time and also cohere with the experiences that other people communicate to me.
The point is that none of us have any information about the reality of this desk or any other physical object except what comes to us through the medium of our own inner experience. Our first-person experiences are our necessary epistemic starting point, the thing about which we have the most certainty. We can then infer from them the reality of physical objects, but our knowledge of the reality of physical objects is dependent on our knowledge of the reality of our experience. If our experience isn’t real, we have no justification for believing in the reality of the physical world either.
It’s also important to realize that our knowledge about the physical world is much less detailed than our knowledge of our own experience. All we know about physical things is what we can abstract about them from our myriad individual experiences (Kastrup 2018). In this process of abstraction, we leave out any part of our experiences of these objects that differs from person to person or that differs when we use one observational device rather than another. However, when we abstract from all the particular observations of objects in order to get at what is common across all of them, we aren’t left with very much: just facts about the objects’ spatial location and extension and how these properties change over time. We know nothing, for instance, about what the physical objects are in themselves.
If we now go a step further and take the physical objects that we’ve abstracted from our experience as the standard for what is “real,” we end up with a grossly impoverished view of reality, one in which the only things that are real are spatiotemporal properties and the disposition for these spatiotemporal properties to evolve in certain ways. Taking physical objects as the sole standard for what is real thus leads quite directly to the conclusion that we ourselves are nothing but spatiotemporal objects moving about according to purposeless mechanical laws, and that our existence has no more profound qualities than this, including no inherent value.
But we don’t have to take this last step. We don’t have to take abstract, physical objects as paradigmatically real. Each of us is intimately acquainted with a huge number of properties and qualities that go far beyond the skeletal spatiotemporal properties of physics. We just have to know where to look. And the place to look is in our minds.
What do we find there? An enormously rich and variegated landscape. We find color, for one thing. An infinite range of hues that the scientist examining our neurons won’t be able to derive the first clue about. We find music and all manner of sound. We find smells, and textures, and tastes. We find joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain. We find beauty and awe and anger and love. We find that ineffable feeling of meaning, that inexplicable conviction that what we are experiencing is of supreme — even cosmic — importance. We find the vast, billowing sea of feelings and thoughts that artists of all stripes have struggled to capture and convey down through the ages.
All of these qualities — what philosophers of mind call “qualia” — are things that cannot be seen by an outside observer, but they are nevertheless real. All of this exists. All of the grandeur that we experience in our moments of greatest ecstasy really happens. There is more to the world than spatiotemporal properties, and our experience is proof! Each of us, in our own inner lives, is witness to the fact that there is much more to us than what any outsider examining our brain chemistry or EEG could discern.
In the past few centuries, our civilization has created some amazing physical technologies, and perhaps it’s our awe of these tools that has fooled us into thinking that anything these tools can’t fix isn’t real. Or perhaps it’s our yearning to have finally conquered the secrets of this intimidatingly wild world that makes us ready to proclaim that whatever can’t be investigated by the gadgets we’ve developed must not really exist.
Whatever the precise chain of thought that got us here, modern science has clearly led many of us to ignore a vast kaleidoscope of meaningful experience lying in front of (or behind?) our very noses. And we have the option, even at this late stage in the game, to broaden our single-minded focus on the abstractions of physical science and open ourselves to the investigation of the multi-faceted, qualitatively rich field of experience that continually presents itself to our awareness.
Our inner, conscious experience assures us that the nature of our universe is more profoundly compelling than what can be hung on the bare scaffold of its spatiotemporal properties. And we owe it to ourselves not to dismiss as an illusion that corner of the world with which we are most intimately acquainted: our own inner lives.
Kastrup, B. (2018). Conflating abstraction with empirical observation: The false mind-matter dichotomy. Constructivist Foundations 13(3): 341-7.
Rawlette, S. H. (2016). The Feeling of Value: Moral Realism Grounded in Phenomenal Consciousness. King George, VA: Dudley & White.