Friday, October 10, 2008

The Inverted Spectrum Argument

The "inverted spectrum argument" was developed as a critique of functionalism. Imagine someone whose color spectrum was inverted: where normal people saw red, this one saw blue, where blue, red. Such a person, raised among normal, English-speaking persons, would be functionally indistinguishable from normal persons: asked to go out to the car and get the blue bag, say, they would perform this task exactly as anyone else would. Neither they nor anyone else would have any way of knowing that their experience of seeing the blue surface of the bag was the same experience the rest of us have when we see a red surface, since they, like everyone else, would refer to such a surface as "blue." Since such a person would be functionally identical to a normal person, a functionalist is committed to the position that there is nothing different about their mental state. But, the argument goes, of course there is something different about their mental state: the quale, or phenomenal quality of the experience, is different. Thus functionalism is false.
This is, I think, the very same argument as the "zombie argument" made famous by David Chalmers: imagine a person who behaved exactly as a normal person does, but who has no conscious experience whatsoever. Again, there would be no way of knowing that one was interacting with a non-conscious "zombie." The arguments can be run using two imagined persons, or one person and a machine. Imagine that I have a wine-identifying device. I put a drop of wine in the device and it spins out the molecules in a centrifuge, and then identifies them using an on-board data base, and has a readout telling me that it is a merlot from such-and-such a vineyard, of such-and-such vintage etc. If I encountered a true wine afficionado I could match him identification for identification, but he would be using his familiarity with respective gustatory qualia whereas I would be using my device. Or imagine an android who was functionally identical to a person but non-conscious. "Inverted spectrum" and "zombie" are two variations of one argument, we can call this the "absent qualia argument." Typically this argument is presented as showing that functionalism (and behaviorism, and operationalist theories of mind in general) founders on the problem of phenomenal properties.
Wittgenstein, for one, noticed that in fact the absent qualia argument demonstrates just the opposite: since it is not even in principle possible for public language (the only kind of language there is, according to Wittgenstein) to pick out private sensations, phenomenal properties are not a problem for operationalist approaches. No theory of mind (or science of mind, or description of mind) will ever include any discussion of the quality of private sensations. These are beyond the range of language.
Wittgenstein deploys the "private language argument" in two different ways. Regarding intentional mental states, he denies the possibility of mental content altogether: there can be no representation, symbolic, isomorphic, or otherwise, in the head. Regarding phenomenal mental states, he does not deny that experience has quality, only that these qualities can be picked out using language. While the problem of intentionality and the problem of phenomenology are, on my view, two distinct metaphysical problems, Wittgenstein can address them both because his thesis is in fact about language, and this thesis can be applied in any number of ways.


  1. Anderson,

    What of people who find that their "private experience" of their gender, differs from their sex? There need not be a specified qualia of "male" or "female" for private experience to foreground an authority of gender. If this "woman" knows herself to be a "man", and the full ground of the meaning of private experience is to be found externally in the language games that surround her/him, does the private experience of her/his own gender have no footing? Or is her/his private experience the very authority on which we determine his gender? When "she" says, "I feel more like men than women" where does the truth of this "inversion" lie? We would say, I think, in their 1st person claim for what they feel. Given the language games and discourses on gender, this is their privatized experience. Just how private it is relies instead on the historically contingent process of incorporation into the human. I would be interested how you view this

    I take up something of this question of color perception and naming and its relationship to gender, here:

    As for spectrum inversion, I recall reading the memoir of a cochlear implant subject who liked to muse about Wittgenstein, "Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human" by Michael Chorost. He suggested that the frequencies of his device could indeed be inverted and wondered if after time there would be any difference at all.

    I find the thought-experiment of spectrum inversion, like many thought experiments, silly, for they change one aspect of conceptual reality without others, as if you could just "tune out" one factor or another. It wants to say, let us make a difference that makes no difference at all. Such a difference, in my book, is by definition, not a difference.

  2. The claim is not that private experience does not exist (as you understand, I know), only that the meaning of your words (or for that matter the meaning we may attach to your facial expressions etc.) cannot include the quality of your private experience. We don't need any fancy examples to see this, "pain" will do. You are holding your hand and wincing and telling me it hurts, and I understand, correctly, that you are in pain. "Pain-for-you" vs. "pain-for-me" can play no role in this, although undoubtedly "pain-for-you" is what you are in fact experiencing. The quality of experience not only has authority (as you put it), it is all the authority we have (Tractatus: "I am my world"). It is the limitations of language, not some hegemony of language, that is W.'s point. Sometimes people tell us that they are "happy" but we don't believe they are telling the truth, other times they say it but we suspect they are mistaken. W.'s point is precisely that we are not limited by language this way. What we can refer to, or mean, is limited. Mention vs. use.

  3. Anderson,

    I do see how one would want avoid "fancy" examples ("We don't need any fancy examples to see this, "pain" will do."), and I can see why because this makes the point much easier to make. Yes, the example of pain renders the thing much clearer, but that is because it lacks much of polyvalence of valuation. If we change "pain" to "sadness", or even better as you say "happiness". It is then that the privacy and issues of agency and incorrigibility come into play. The statement "I am happy" actually is much more fancy than "I am in pain" (though pain too is much more complex and variable than is often assumed by Wittgensteinians who want the clearest of the clear: the sadomasochist...)

    "I am happy" does not possess the authority that "I am in pain" does. What you say of pain: "The quality of experience not only has authority (as you put it), it is all the authority we have." is not the case at all. Go to an analyst, and you may soon discover that the experience that you thought was "happy" was actually morbidly "sad". The quality of the experience (I know that you are not arguing for qualia, so I'm not sure what you mean by that), no longer is the only authority that we have. Instead, it is the coherence of the description amid theory and interpersonal exchange, in the context of that experience, that becomes the "authority".

    Nonetheless, there remains a first person appeal that acts like a balast to meaning. "I am happy" and "I am a male inside" are related to "I am in pain", but are not strictly the same thing. Like "pain" the assumption is that one is experiencing things which I as an interpreter can also experience. But less like "pain" the determination relies upon a much broader public determination of the coherence of the words, one that can lead to an alternate understanding of the subjects own experiences, by the subject. One does not doubt, regularly, the sentence "I am in pain", but one MAY doubt regularly (given a historical condition) the statement "I am a man" by a biologically gendered woman.

    It is in this case, cases where the interpretative value of the words (their truth) is contested, that the quality of the experience bears strongly upon the conclusion. In this sense, and perhaps in this sense alone, the "meaning of your words" can INCLUDE the "quality of your experience". That is, your words are taken to be true because you and I are able to have similar experiences. This "inclusion" in meaning is not a question of property (that is your experiences of maleness, and mine do not have to have enumerable properties in common), but of affective imitation, and the coherence that arises from it.

    The reason for this is that Wittgenstein would like to maintain a strict distinction between causes and reasons. Experiences are causes. Reference to rule-followings are meant to be reasons. In the example of "I am in pain" the world of reasons is collapsed onto the world of causes. The sentences operates almost like a cry. But Wittgenstein is on less sure footing in higher order self-descriptions. Here experiences one has may have a causal relationship to the words one professes, but the meaning of the words, the reasons and rule-followings which govern their meanings are publically shared. What I believe that Wittgenstein is lacking in his analysis is that reasons too have a causal nature. My reasons may have caused my intentional actions. In a sense, my reasons are somewhat like experiences...experience cause beliefs, beliefs cause actions. Because of this, there ia degree of privacy that is afforded to beliefs. This is not a fixed, categorical privacy (such that no one can know it), but rather is the 1st person pole of the spectrum of authority, as I call it, the balast. "I am a male" is granted a certain weight, even if the language game of gender does not regularly warrent it. There is the sense that the individual experience (and its belief, from which the one cannot be parted), causes the proclamation, without justifying it. The thing is that the same causal belief, can function as a reason, with reference to a shared criteria: men feel a rush of agression, men don't like wearing dresses, etc., etc. In such cases, the causal relationship between experiences and beliefs is put aside, and the subject measures whether the experiential criteria are met, in self-reflection (the authority of this self-reflection is weighed against social tendency and coherence). The thing is, if one can put it this way, experiences are BOTH private and public, as are beliefs. Insofar as they are causal, they are private. Insofar as they are reason-able they are public. Which they are at any one time depends on your analysis. The mistake that Wittgenstein makes in my mind is to attempt to divide these aspects into two pure realms "reasons" and "causes" such that one is ultimately not the other. In interpersonal exchange we regularly regard the causal and the reason-able along a floating border. The same belief can refer to rules or be a cause. Reasons become causes, and causes reasons.

  4. I'm not sure I see your disagreement here (admittedly I'm not sure I fully grasp your "reasons/causes" distinction re W.). Your last paragraph reads to me like a Wittgensteinian position. And the "happiness" point I meant was just as you discuss it: I have authority, but not sole authority. Others (analysts, family members) may even have better authority, and thus see that I am not really as I report that I am, etc. That is just what operationalist approaches would assume: the criteria for psychological interpretation extend well beyond what's "in my head." Part of my point was that W. does not dismiss phenomenal experience, on the contrary he identifies the totality of phenomenal experience with the self, and with the world (in both "early" and "later," by the way). That's what I meant by "all the authority that one has." Only this means that phenomenology is impossible, not the reverse (and this is the Buddhist position as well).

  5. Anderson,

    I agree, as usual, we are often in much agreement. But when you say:

    "Part of my point was that W. does not dismiss phenomenal experience..."

    though I find you correct in a general sense, he does dismiss them from philosophy, strictly so under the cause/reason distinction. He wants phenomenal causes simple to fall outside of philosophical discussion, and to be tossed somewhere in the bin of "psychology" (a new science he had some fascination with).

    This is an interesting division, because in a certain sense he wants simply to do away with a great deal of philosophy altogether (a pathological pursuit simply founded on so many elementary confusions). He plays the philosophy game supposedly to stop playing it. He enters the complexity to disentangle to complexity.

    Now the question is what status does this phenomenal admission hold WITHIN Wittgenstein's philosophical cure? He wants to place it outside of philosophy, in the causal realm of the sciences, but is conducting a conceptual, one must say philosophical, analysis in the first place. So the phenomena is both admitted and dismissed. It is admitted (in the philosophical description) in order to be dismissed (in the proscription).

    Where my problem with Wittgenstein comes in is at this border. First of all, I do not entirely accept his proscription, i.e., that philosophy is by and large a pathological activity founded upon fundamental confusions (confusions resolved permanently by Wittgenstein's analogy of language operating like a game). It is helpful at times to see philosophy in this way, but Wittgenstein's analogue of language and game-play both reveals and obscures.

    But more than this, because Wittgenstein wants to cut off certain kinds of philosophical attempts at answers to questions (in favor of the dissolution of questions), his cause/reason distinction (Blue Book) cuts too sharply into the anatomy of philosophical discourse. As Davidson points out, any discussion of the nature of rational disagreement and interpretation in the world requires a causal understanding of belief and reason. Beliefs can be distinguished from causes, such as the causes of experience, but they also a necessarily causal concepts themselves. They explain our behaviour. It is this additional notion of causal belief that opens the door to philosophical answers to questions of rationality. It is what allows perhaps greater detail to be shown on the landscape of Wittgenstein's game-playing. In a sense,

    "I painted this patch supposed to be 'blue' this color because that patch over there is called 'blue'"

    also implies,

    "The belief that that patch over there is called blue, CAUSED me to paint this patch supposed to be blue, this color"

    Wittgenstein's treatment of the case of Private Languages I believe cuts too purely, too simply, the world into experiential cause (which would turn like empty mechanisms or newspapers editions printed over and over) and public meaning. He wants to make a logical fact of the matter. Public meanings instead possess a causal relationship to beliefs. We take others to necessarly be driven by their beliefs, as part of our ability to diagnosis the errors in others' points of view, and our own. When others are "wrong" it is not just that they have followed a rule incorrectly, but also that they have beliefs that are incorrect, beliefs that lead them to act in ways that otherwise would be incoherent. The Private Language sense of these believes is anchored in this communicability, the way that to-a-degree, there is an autonomy of meaning, apart from public discourse, that is, individually others must be seen as "talking to themselves" in a way that is immune from public critique. This is simply the recursive coherence of the organization of there thoughts and experiences. This is not private in the categorical sense (that is, there is no language which in principle cannot be understood by others), but it is private in the sense that we have to grant it an authority of process which circulates without correction (it is assumed that people - an animals for that matter - make sense to themselves). This "makes sense to themselves"assumption is the origin of private language imaginations. This is a product of our very interpretive stance by which we make sense of other minds. If I check my own experiences and judgments upon reflection, this is not just like me checking multiple copies of the same edition of the newspaper.

  6. I would add, after a moments thought, Private Language is a bit like Private Property. It would be a odd to say of someone who was the only person on the planet after a natural disaster, "They have Private Property", but it would be equally odd to say of those living in America in the 20th century, "There is no such thing as Private Property". In a certain sense, Private Property is a product of Public Laws which makes it Private. But this does not make it Public Property either. The "making sense to ourselves", the running talking in our head, and the other language-informed distinctions may very well be a product of our Public meanings, but those distinctions are not themselves Public: they are internal and recursive, and necessarily so.

    So too, to understand the phenomena of Private Property one must also bear in mind the relationship to other forms of "ownership" (in the extra-legal sense), such as ownership by force, and the territoriality of animals. The Privacy of Language too has relationship to the brute force the territory of an organism.

  7. Absent qualia are also what seem to differentiate me from a Chinese Room. (Don't tell anybody this, but I actually am a Chinese Room.)

    Whereof one cannot speak, thereof everything must be shewn. (That's what he should have said, and sort of did later on.)

  8. Kevin: "Absent qualia are also what seem to differentiate me from a Chinese Room. (Don't tell anybody this, but I actually am a Chinese Room.)"

    Well, you may be a Chinese Room, I'm sure of your linguistic capabilities. But you do seem to be an English Room, at least as far as I suspect a Turing Test would tell.

  9. Anderson,

    You claim that the "inverted spectrum" argument seems to you to be the same as the zombie argument.

    I think there is an important difference though. In the inverted case, we are assuming that the behaviorally indistinguishable subjects do have phenomenal experience.

    Zombies, without any phenomenal experience whatsoever, we are encouraged to think might be behaviorally indistinguishable from in tact humans.

    The upshot here, it seems to me, is that one must think that quale are causally inert in the zombie case, which is why indistinguishability is an issue, but not in the inversion case. If quale are useful for anything, i.e. navigating the world, recognizing similarity relations, etc, the inversion issue still arises.

  10. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  11. El qualia ha sido muy importante en la Filosofía de la mente. Esta ha sido descrita como cualidades sensoriales subjetivas. Así que el dolor, olor, falsos recuerdos, color, etc. son qualia como también son funciones básicas en la vida del ser humano. La qualia se compone de cualidades subjetivas que están en nuestra percepción y en el sistema físico el cual le llamamos cerebro.

    Entiendo que el argumento del espectro invertido nos hace imaginar todos los colores invertidos. Aunque estos cambios no han sido invertidos en nuestro cerebro. Lo que significa que el qualia no puede ser aprendido por otro medio más que por la experiencia directa. Por lo que una persona normal que puede ver el color verde, no podría describirle a otra persona oyente el color, si nunca lo ha visto.

    A modo de explicar el qualia y el espectro invertido en clase hemos discutido dos conceptos: primero la intencionalidad- Wittgenstein es eliminativista con relación a las representaciones de la mente, contenido y lenguaje. Al este filosofo ser eliminativista no cree que tengamos imágenes mentales internas, lenguaje en nuestra cabeza. El segundo concepto es fenomenológico - Ludwig Wittgenstein cree que el idioma no tiene la comunicación necesaria para las expectativas del consciente del individuo. Quien tiene el espectro invertido puede seguir denominando "rojos" a los objetos según su referencia intencional, el cambio en la fenomenología del color no afecta a la función que desempeña.

    Al surgir experiencias privadas no existe lenguaje privado. Según Wittgenstein en el espectro invertido puede que el mismo objeto pueda producir en la mente del ser humano diferentes ideas al mismo tiempo. Un individuo vería verde lo que todos verían rojo, y al revés. Pero, como desde que nació es así, aprendió a llamar “verde” lo que él percibe como rojo. Los eliminativistas consideran que no tiene sentido atender esa subjetividad individual indetectable.


  12. There is no way we can know for sure how other people perceive things. So we cannot assume that other people’s mental states are identical, even if those persons can function exactly the same. Wittgenstein’s view that qualities can be picked out using language is incorrect because there cannot be enough words to describe things that might be unique to each person.

  13. Michelle Espinosa Section 020
    I’m going to talk about the “inverted spectrum argument “and the “zombie argument” both are examples of an absent of qualia, and both are a phenomenal experience. The inverted spectrum is when a person changes a color to another one. It means that is a person with a functionally identical to a normal person. In my personal opinion a person who doesn’t see the same things with their real color is not normal. When the professor starts talking about this argument I couldn’t stop thing about: when a blind person tell someone that they can imagine something the exact way that it is for me is a lie because they never going to see the same things the way like us. And for me all the blind people or all the people with inverted spectrum problems are abnormal because they don’t have the view or the correct view for the same thing.
    When we talk about the second example the “zombie argument” is a non conscious but a functioning person. This argument explain the exact thing but with the mental state. Because for me it’s just when a person is in a unconscious mental state is a functional inadequate to think or act like a real person or in a conscious way.

  14. As I was reading your argument I couldn't help but to think of Searle's Chinese Room. I find his argument quite intriguing since he mentions that what separates us from a computer is the fact that computers lack semantics and only work with syntax. Having a mind implies working with both syntax and semantics.
    There is certainly a phenomenal problem to all this since there is really no way to explain or measure those "internal" processes. An example you mentioned before, about pain, this phenomenal property is surely different for each individual. In other words, there is no way to prove that the way I feel pain is the same way another person feels pain; yet when we say for example: "I have a headache" everyone seems to understand what this pain implies given their own phenomenal experiences.
    This argument (Inverted Spectrum) is quite interesting, the example that you mention about the person that sees colors inverted fits in quite well. If a person "seems" to know which color is which (even though they see colors inverted) then we assume that they understand them (even though their phenomenal experience seems very different from ours).

  15. I find this topic really interesting and enjoyed reading through your blog.

    On the topic of the inverted spectrum problem, with no real way to test weather individuals see different colours, do you personally believe that it is possible for people to be walking around seeing an inverted spectrum. If so does it bother you? I defiantly bothers me, what if I am that one person (or one of the people) who walk around seeing an inverted spectrum?

  16. I find this topic really interesting and enjoyed reading through your blog.

    On the topic of the inverted spectrum problem, with no real way to test weather individuals see different colours, do you personally believe that it is possible for people to be walking around see an inverted spectrum. If so does it bother you? I defiantly bothers me, what is I was that one person (or one of the people) who walk around seeing an inverted spectrum.

    1. Nicole, Well, firstly I doubt that anyone actually has an "inverted spectrum," although there must be variation in the quality of color-experience from one person to another. More to the point, since there would never be any way to know, I don't quite get the source of your apprehension: it's not as if you might be missing something that everyone else is getting; you'd just be another person getting something (the experience) like what everyone else was getting.