Sunday, September 25, 2005

the Chinese dragon in my garage:
revisiting Sagan and qualia

I've quoted it before: Carl Sagan's evocative image of "the dragon in my garage," his attempt at showing the worthlessness of positing that which is unverifiable. It may be time to revisit that story and tweak it slightly to address a similar problem.

In Sagan's example, we hear someone claim they have a dragon in their garage. The dragon is, however, immune to all possible tests for its existence: it floats, leaving no footprints; it's incorporeal, so you can't tag it with spray paint; it's heatless, so it has no infrared signature, etc.

Well, in my garage, I've got a Chinese dragon. It's plenty real, but it appears only to me, so only I can experience its reality. Let's say that this dragon scratches me across the chest one day. Will it leave evidence? No, of course not: as I said, only I can experience its reality. Evidence of its presence is completely unavailable to everyone else. I, however, know I have a Chinese dragon in my garage.

Will you take my claim seriously? Why should you?

What if you had a Chinese dragon in your garage as well, and your interactions with it sounded a lot like my interactions with my dragon? Would you be more inclined to believe my claim? What if everyone claimed to have such a dragon hidden somewhere?

The comment-thread discussion at Dr. Vallicella's blog has reached a crucial phase as we on both sides of the substance dualism debate focus on the "reality" of qualia. Dr. Vallicella contends, in the comments, that qualia are subjective facts. I'm not sure what this might mean. The phrase strikes me as self-contradictory. To me, qualia are lot like the Chinese dragon.

In the example above, everyone claims to have their own dragon, but no one can confirm the existence of anyone else's dragon. What, exactly, is the ontological status of each dragon? How do we know how real each of those dragons is? Can I trust that your dragon is as real as mine? What if some people do indeed possess such dragons, while others are merely hallucinating them? Is there any way to confirm who has which type of dragon?

This is precisely the problem with trying to establish a meaningful argument on the basis of qualia. The arguer wants to move from "it's true for me" to "it's true for you," but can't make that move. Qualia can arise from misapprehensions, right? Just how reliable are they? A sight-quale involving a nonexistent snake is a classic example of how we fool ourselves. Hearing a loved one's voice after that loved one has died is another such example. This unreliability doesn't strengthen the substance dualist's case.

Basing a line of argument on something of dubious ontological status is a bad move. Proceeding from what is empirically confirmable (by which I mean, confirmable by others) is a much more solid way to proceed if we're serious about exploring the nature of mind.

Note what I'm not saying: I don't seriously question the existence of my own and others' qualia. In my long post, I argued that we all have such qualia, but that they aren't confined to first-person ontology-- they aren't merely "subjective facts." What I'm trying to say, with my Chinese dragon example, is that you cannot make the subjectivistic claim about qualia and then expect to build an argument based on that claim. If we can't get past the very first step-- confirming to each other the existence of our respective Chinese dragons-- it's hard to make general claims about all those dragons.

[NB: The above point is being missed again and again by Dr. V and his posse. They want to contend that it's enough for me to know that I have my qualia. The problem, though, is that whatever argument Dr. V and Company build from that premise cannot be said to apply equally to all sentient beings. What, then, is the purpose of formulating an argument that's true only for me? Don't arguments presuppose at least two interlocutors?]



  1. Wasn't that the basis by which justified being an atheist? He was truly a fascinating man, although I found a lot of his stuff went over my head.

    "Billions... and BILLions..."

  2. Sagan was a beautiful writer, even though he wasn't exactly appreciated by fellow scientists. His The Demon-haunted World is a must-read. That's where his "dragon" story can be found.




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