Knowing What It is Like

Dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles (1995)
Torin Alter
University of Alabama
I examine the notion of knowing what an experience or emotion it is like. What kind of knowledge is this? Is it, for example, a species of factual knowledge? If so, what sort of fact is known by someone who possesses this kind of knowledge? ;Knowing what it is like plays a central role in a recent, influential argument, which runs : complete knowledge of the physical facts would fail to provide one with knowledge of what it is like to taste a lemon or see red; therefore, there must be more to such experiences than the events involving only physical phenomena, and so materialism must be false. I argue that this argument involves an ineliminable illicit inference from epistemological premises about how we know about mental and physical events to a metaphysical conclusion about the nature of these events, and that materialism is compatible with the argument's epistemological underpinnings. ;Failure to appreciate this point has led materialists to advance reductionist theories of knowing what it is like, including the theory that it is a species of "ability knowledge" and the theory that it is a species of "acquaintance knowledge". I argue that all such reductionist theories are untenable: someone who does not know what it is like to see red is missing some bona fide factual knowledge about that experience. Given plausible assumptions, it follows that this factual knowledge cannot be acquired by discursive means alone. ;There is a prima facie tension between this "discursive unlearnability" thesis and the plausible idea that the representational resources of our language enable us to speak about that with which we are not directly acquainted, but others with whom we communicate are directly acquainted--an idea that gains support from recent work in semantics by Kripke, Kaplan, Donnellan, and others. I argue that the conflict is only apparent. However, the discursive unlearnability thesis does contradict the widely held view that all facts can be expressed in the language of objective science , and are in principle accessible to any rational creature with an intellectual capacity sufficiently powerful to understand that language
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