Honey And Me And Quining Qualia

I grew up loathing honey. I preferred jams: plum, orange. apple, ‘mixed fruit,’ gauva, mango, marmalade. Toasted bread with thick white cream and jam; never honey. Honey was just a little ‘sickly-sweet;’ its taste was a ‘little off.’ It crossed some permissible boundary of ‘sweetness’ and became cloying; it sent shudders through me. I couldn’t wait to get a drink of water, washing out the offending affect. My taste was inexplicable; I could not make sense of it when I made my reluctance to consume honey known. I stood by, a mere onlooker, as others around me sang paeans to its glory.

But then, just as mysteriously, shortly after I moved to the US, I began adoring honey. The ‘taste of honey’ was now a glorious treat, the right attribute of a nectar of sorts. I liked honey with crackers and cheese, on toasted bagels, in iced tea, lemonade–all of it. Sugar seemed a crude sweetener, its ‘taste’ not ‘complex’ enough; honey gave off the right airs of sophistication. Had I, in ‘growing up,’ finally found, in this new maturity, the right apparatus to process honey’s ‘taste’? Or was the honey just ‘better’?

Time rolled by; I found myself growing distant from honey again. Its ‘taste’ lost its standing on the pedestal I had erected for it, and now mingled with the masses. I grew suspicious of sugar and sweeteners and things that gave you insulin spikes; like many men north of the forties, I possessed a new-found rectitude at the dinner table, the salad bar, the diner counter. Honey’s ‘taste’ acquired connotations and allusions; honey entered the precinct marked ‘treats,’ its contents to be pilfered with care. The contrast with all else I ate grew, marking every encounter with honey with a distinctive shock of sorts. The ‘taste of honey’ ain’t what it used to be, no sir.

A curious business then, this ‘taste’ of honey.  Talking about ‘the taste of honey’:

presumes that we can isolate [it] from everything else that is going on….What counts as the way [honey tasted to me] can be distinguished , one supposes, from what is a mere accompaniment, contributory cause, or byproduct of this ‘central’ way. One dimly imagines taking [my tasting experiences] and stripping them down gradually to the essentials, leaving their common residuum, the way [honey tasted to me] at various times….The mistake is not in supposing that we can in practice ever or always perform this act of purification with certainty, but the more fundamental mistake of supposing that there is such a residual property to take seriously [Daniel Dennett, ‘Quining Qualia‘, in Consciousness in Contemporary Science, edited by A. J. Marcel and E. Bisiach, Oxford University Press, (1988)].

If such thoughts are correct, then there was no ‘taste of honey’–always indexed by ‘to me’–there were only various experiences: ‘tasting-honey-during-my-childhood-years;’ ‘tasting-honey-after-I-migrated;’ ‘tasting-honey-as-a-forty-something’–the ‘taste of honey’–the way honey seems to me–is not something that can be drawn apart from these. There’s no articulable qualitative experience, independent of the surrounding ‘context.’

We’ve known this for other supposed qualia too, of course. That shortness of breath, that pounding in your chest, that fire in your legs, those reminders of your determination and outward bound spirit that herald the glory to come as you ascend a steep switchback with a cool wind raking your brow and the aroma of pine trees wafts by, if transplanted to a hospital ward with the sick visible, the smell of disinfectant in your nostrils, becomes ‘unbearable agony.’ There is no separable ‘pain’ here; just a different assemblage of my ‘world-sensation’, experienced differently thanks to its arrangement and presentation and internal relationships. We don’t experience the world as a bunch of separate parcels of sensation and phenomenal experience; the world comes to us a package with each component receiving its ‘meaning’ by its placement within the ‘field,’ by its relationships within it. What we notice, taste, see, smell, hear is a function of the arrangement of this field, and of course, our histories and anticipations (our ‘interests‘) which have performed this arrangement.

‘Eva’: Love Can Be Skin-Deep (Justifiably)

Kike Maíllo’s Eva makes for an interesting contribution to the ever-growing–in recent times–genre of robotics and artificial intelligence movies. That is because its central concern–the emulation of humanity by robots–which is not particularly novel in itself, is portrayed in familiar and yet distinctive, form.

The most common objection to the personhood of the ‘artificially sentient,’ the ‘artificially intelligent,’ or ‘artificial agents’ and ‘artificial persons’ is couched in terms similar to the following: How could silicon and plastic ever feel, taste, hurt?  There is no ‘I’ in these beings; no subject, no first-person, no self. If such beings ever provoked our affection and concerns, those reactions would remain entirely ersatz. We know too much about their ‘insides,’ about how they work. Our ‘epistemic hegemony’ over these beings–their internals are transparent to us, their designers and makers–and the dissimilarity between their material substrate and ours renders impossible their admission to our community of persons (those we consider worthy of our moral concern.)

As Eva makes quite clear, such considerations ignore the reality of how our relationships with other human beings are constructed in actuality. We respond first to visible criteria, to observable behavior, to patterns of social interaction; we then seek internal correspondences–biological, physiological–for these to confirm our initial reactions and establishments of social ties; we assume too, by way of abduction, an ‘inner world’ much like ours. But biological similarity is not determinative; if the visible behavior is not satisfactory, we do not hesitate to recommend banishment from the community of persons. (By ostracism, institutionalization, imprisonment etc.) And if visible behavior is indeed, as rich and varied and interactive as we imagine it should be for the formation of viable and rewarding relationships, then our desire to admit the being in question to the community of persons worthy of our moral care will withstand putative evidence that there is considerable difference in constitution and the nature of ‘inner worlds.’  If Martians consisting solely of green goo on the inside were to land on our planet and treat our children with kindness i.e., display kind behavior, and provide the right kinds of reasons–whether verbally or by way of display on an LED screen–when we asked them why they did so, only an irredeemable chauvinist would deny them admission to the community of moral persons.

Eva claims that a robot’s ‘mother’ and her ‘father’–her human designers–may love her in much the same way they would love their human children. For she may bring joy to their life in much the same way they would; she may smile, laugh giddily, play pranks, gaze at them in adoration, demand their protection and care, respond to their affectionate embraces, and so on. In doing so, she provokes older, evolutionarily established instincts of ours. These reactions of ours may strike us so compelling that even a look ‘under the hood’ may not deter their expression. We might come to learn that extending such feelings of acceptance and care to beings we had not previously considered so worthy might make new forms of life and relationships manifest. That doesn’t seem like such a bad bargain.