But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she. . .
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars
As daylight doth a lamp; her eye in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
Your brain visualizes words contained in sentences in this screen. The eye takes the words as physical stimuli of light rays and transduces them into electrical and chemical signals that can be interpreted by the brain to construct physical images. Light waves enter through the cornea, processing through the pupil to the center of the iris and retina. The neural signals initially processed by the retina travel via the axons of the ganglion cells through the optic nerves, dividing and partially crossing over into the optic chiasm and then travelling via the optic tracts to the lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus. Finally ending up in V2, V4, V5 and V6. These are then mapped onto a word form and the corresponding semantic representation within a syntactic framework.
The reason why, sometimes, a salty fluid chock full of proteins, water, mucus and oil is released from the lacrimal gland in the upper, outer region of your eye when one understands some passages of very good literature, is, however, still to be comprehended. The human ability to interpret and apprehend the imaginative vision of Shakespeare’s keenness expressed in this passage of aesthetic mental energy is very difficult to be accounted for the physicist’s objective. In fact, if those very same words were written in a foreign language to the reader, she would be able to read the words, without the understanding, since there would be visual stimulation and the cognitive function of reading without the elicitation of subjective experience.
The reader might argue that perchance if the physicist had broader understanding than he has about the anatomy, physiology and function of the nervous processes involved in reading, she might be able to explain such qualitative phenomena. Well that is fair enough, but let us further consider for instance the aesthetic experience of perceiving Michelangelo’s frescoes in Sistine Chapel. Subjective experience is beautifully described by James Joyce’s as aesthetic arrest, that is, “[t]he instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state very like to that cardiac condition called the enchantment of the heart” (Joyce, 1993). Why would visual stimulation be accompanied by aesthetic experience and inspire Joyce’s insight on it? Such conditional experience remains yet unknown explanandum among the sciences of the brain and the mind. Can the study of neurons help us to understand what art creation is? Can the study of acoustics help us to understand Beethoven’s music? Truth is even if we were able to explain how perceptive sensory information is discriminated, integrated and reported, we would not be able to explain how it is experienced since those seem to constitute two different problems. Besides, “[t]here is no cognitive function such that we can say in advance that explanation of that function will automatically explain experience” (Chalmers, 2010, p. 7).
In fact, what does challenge the venture of the understanding of the qualitative aspects of experience through an exclusive neurophysiological filter is possibly the conspicuous fact that we still don’t know how to bridge, the easy problem of for instance, the cognitive function of reading, with the hard problem of, for instance, the ability to interpret pragmatic cues. In fact, why is the performance of cognitive functions, such as attention, perception, memory, language, accompanied by experience? Gretel Erlic’s vision acutely describes the well-known dichotomy between the easy and the hard problem,
“bodies of thoughts swim in the synaptic lake, sliding over receptors . . . How odd that we walk around with this bodies, live in them, die in them, make love with them, yet know almost nothing of their intimate works . . . Up to this point my living and breathing had been an act of faith. I existed but I didn’t know how (2010).
Likewise, we do not know what is the relationship between subjective experience and sensory stimulation. In Chalmers’ words, we do not know “[w]hy is it that when electromagnetic waveforms impinge on a retina and are discriminated and categorized by a visual system, the discrimination and categorization are experienced as a sensation of vivid red” (Chalmers, 2010, p. 6). Furthermore, truth is after decades of concerted effort on the part of our neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers, we yet have not a clue on how the brain gives rise to sensation, feeling, subjectivity, such as the feeling of redness of red (Noë, 2010).
Our place in the universe seems to rest someplace between the material world of trees and sound waves and light radiation, and the mental world and its subjective experience, such as the one we commonly have while interpreting and engaging in a literary text, listening to a masterpiece of music, or perceiving the colors of a painting. In fact, as John Eccles understood it, “[t]he more we discover scientifically about the brain the more clearly do we distinguish between the brain events and the mental phenomena and the more wonderful do the mental phenomena become. Promissory materialism is simply a superstition held by dogmatic materialists” (Eccles, 1994).
In the material world, there are shapes, sizes, surfaces, and textures that obey Euclid’s and Galileo’s laws, and those are commonly designated as the primary qualities. However, it is also true that we do not objectively perceive according to those geometrical laws, since, objects illicit in our perception conscious experiences. In fact, the reader does not see words written over a plain white paper, but subjectively interprets Shakespeare’s words. Nor do we hear independent auditory stimulus as notes, but we perceive the whole song.
We do perceive qualities subjectively that seem to result from what can be seen as conjunction between the physical properties and our modes of perceiving. For example, the colors shapes, sizes, surfaces, and textures in Michelangelo’s ceiling, --however clearly related to the primary qualities inherent to the physical stimuli that elicit our qualitative perception--, seem to differ both from the Euclidean rules that the physical stimuli obeys and from the anatomical and functional rules the visual system obeys, while agreeing with the aesthetic qualitative experience. This seems to be so because we certainly do not see those physical properties in isolation in the Sistine Chapel, but we do perceive Micheangelo’s masterpiece. In other words, we do not plainly see fragmented colors and geometrical measurable shapes, sizes, surfaces, and textures, but we do integrate those colors, shapes, sizes, surfaces, and textures subjectively in a qualitative experience that is meaningful to us. If this is correct we shall ask then, where to locate the qualities of experience?
It seems, on first sight, very tempting to localize them in the brain. However we do have to acknowledge qualitative experience as distinct in nature from physical processes. The ontological actuality of the mind might somewhat shelter qualitative aspects of subjective experience. Although mind and brain are distinct in nature, subjective qualities are a product of the physical ones. Therefore, the mind has to maintain intimate relations with the physical world and, consequently, with the brain. What comes promptly to mind is how can such qualitative phenomena be scientifically attended. Does subjective experience belong within the domain of science? Are observable physical objects and properties only those things that are measurable on well-defined physical variables such as length, duration, wavelength, mass, and energy? What is the place of experiential phenomena within the realm of science? What are the best methods to study it?
In this systematic thesis we take as a starting point that:
Empirical observation and philosophical thinking should be combined to address both components.
The idea that science and philosophy are dichotomous realms with their own methods and criteria is questionable. Science is not discontinuous with broader human concerns. Nor is philosophy a free-for-all of opinion. In fact philosophy and science share a common aim: understanding (Noë, 2010). The conditions of the lifeworld can, for instance, seduce us into thinking that only the measurable is the real.