De Gustibus

One difficulty in developing a coherent philosophical account of consciousness is that the foundation upon which it rests – our subjective experience itself – is not as solid as we take it to be. We tend to think that the features of our inner life – our representation of the world, and the qualia that compose it – are stable and beyond dispute, and that our conscious “now” is a definite, pointlike event – as if there is an inner screen upon which consciouness plays, with Us as the viewer, and that whatever goes up on that screen is a matter of unambiguous fact.

This is not the case, however, as has been demonstrated by a great many carefully constructed experiments. Our conscious awareness is distributed both in space – there is no privileged “screening room” in the brain, no point where it all “comes together” – and in time. Our conscious record is subject to continuous editing and revision, and much of the inner representation of the world we think we have “loaded into RAM”, as it were, is not there at all.

I will take this up over the next few posts, but to get the ball rolling, think about the qualia we call “acquired tastes”. If you are fond of adult beverages such as beer or wine or whisky, try to remember your first taste. I recall my first sip of beer – I was about five years old, and after pestering my father to the limit of his patience, he finally gave in and let me have a swig. It was awful. But looking back on it, it was beer, alright, and now, of course, like most grown men, I consider beer to be one of the more compelling arguments for the existence of a loving God. What happened in the meantime? Did the taste change? Or did my relation to the taste change? How can I tell? Did I come to love that taste? But it was awful. How could anyone love something so unpleasant? But isn’t deliciousness or horridness part of the quale itself? So did the quale change? Can I trust my memory? What’s going on here?

I’ll be returning to this in days to come. It is often said that our qualia, though subjective in their very essence, nonetheless have an objective reality. Is this true?

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