Non-Dualists Do Not Deny Subjective Experience!

By | March 28, 2014

Juan Bernal


An entry in Wikipedia on “Eliminative Materialism” reads as follows:

 ”Eliminative materialism is the relatively new (1960s-70s) idea that certain classes of mental entities that common sense takes for granted, such as beliefs, desires, and the subjective sensation of pain, do not exist. The most common versions are eliminativism about propositional attitudes, as expressed by Paul and Patricia Churchland and eliminativism about qualia (subjective experience), as expressed by Daniel Dennett and Georges Rey.”

Eliminative materialism supposedly is one version of non-dualism, the denial of the dualistic view which divides reality into two realms, matter and mind.  Some people take this to imply that the non-dualist denies subjective experience.  But this is erroneous and indicative of some confusion.

Skepticism about putative ‘objects’ of subjective experience (such as impressions and qualia) does not translate into skepticism about subjective experience; it does not amount to skepticism about the reality of subjective experience. I reject the philosophy of dualism (that reality is divided into matter and mind) but surely would not dream of denying that we have subjective experiences much of the time.

Lately a friend argued that a denial of dualism (such as that by the Eliminative Materialist) amounts to a denial that we have subjective experiences.  This surely seems to mix up two different issues:  dualism and first-person experiences.

Dualism:  Reality has two aspects: material/physical/corporeal   and    mind/mental   (e.g., Cartesian Dualism).  There exist such entities as thoughts, ideas, perceptions, beliefs, desires, subjective sensations and other denizens of our “inner-life.”

Subjective experience:  From a first-person perspective:  I often have thoughts, ideas, feelings, sensations, aspirations, and dream dreams  which I keep to myself.  I don’t report them or describe them to others.  Some might refer to this a private, subjective experiences.


Below is my reply to my friend:

Someone who denies dualism can consistently affirm the obvious truth that each of us has subjective experiences.  These are different issues altogether.  In fact, I don’t know of any non-dualist who denies that people have subjective experiences.  Not even the more radical behaviorists went to that extreme.  What they deny is the relevance of first-person, subjective experiences for conclusions as to what may or may not exist, or (in the case of behaviorism), for what applies to our public behavior.   My subjective experience does not manifest a separate mental realm, or a mind separate from my nervous system.  My subjective experiences are indicative of the capabilities of my corporeal person.  If you insist on referring to mind, our reference is to an embodied mind and physically-based mental processes.

Some people prefer the metaphor “inner life.”  (You wrote: “There must be something more than outer appearance and behavior to be human, there has to be an “inner life”.)  This is harmless unless you attribute too much to that metaphor: “inner life”; e.g.,  infer that this inner life is a reality alongside our outer life.  In this case, using the metaphor inner life would be subscribing to a dualistic metaphysics.  One can affirm that we (humans) have our private, subjective experiences (things we keep to ourselves) without the metaphysical implication of an inner life.  “Life” properly used refers to biological life of an organism; a public rather than inner life.

Of course, humans have the capability of that which you call “inner life.”  We all have our own thoughts and dream our own dreams.  The exercise referred to as the zombie thought experiments may be understood by many people to show that zombies and robots – regardless of how sophisticated – do not have an inner life.

But the exercise can also be used to bring out the fact that first-person experience of an “inner life” does not come into play when we distinguish between persons and non-persons.  For example, suppose that this very sophisticated robot reports and describes what he thinks and dreams?  Why couldn’t he have some ‘internal’ processing that he does not usually manifest as external processing?   How does this differ from second- or third-person reports of an “inner life”?  How, for example, do you know that your wife has an inner life?   Isn’t it only by her behavior, linguistic and other public behavior?   Surely you cannot experience her “inner life”?  If so, then what is the difference between your wife’s claim to an inner life and that of a sophisticated robot?   Aren’t both claims such that we only have some external form of behavior to go on?

The point is that we have legitimate concepts of personhood which we apply when making a distinction between persons and robots.  They are public criteria, such as those coming from biology, cognitive sciences,  history,  culture, and such.  As a result, we might say that a person has the capacity for subject experiences, which, among other things, give a basis for a hard distinction between persons and robots.  But none of this rests on any first-person, subjective experience of an “inner life.”

In conclusion, the rejection of dualism is distinct from any claim as to the reality or unreality of subjective experience. There is no reason whatsoever for thinking that denying the dualistic picture of reality implies that one denies an obvious, common-sense fact: that we have subjective experiences much of the time.

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