Sociological concepts are controversial in the skeptic/atheist community. Many of its members don’t think of sociology as a “real” science, or otherwise dismiss the claims such a peculiar field makes as not holding up to the scrutiny expected in biology, geology, or physics. Criticisms of important sociological concepts like privilege tend to rely either on argument from personal incredulity or on hazy readings of introductory philosophy texts.
The funny thing is, philosobros who think they can undo sociological privilege with binary logic or harsh skepticism about the motives of other humans have only a few pages to flip before their own sources turn against them. Equally basic philosophical concepts and discussions underpin major sociological findings, and remind us to be aware of the limits of our own knowledge in other ways.
Thomas Nagel, in his famous 1974 paper “What’s it like to be a bat?”, lays down some important limitations of our understanding of consciousness. While by now somewhat dated, this paper accurately points out that there is one layer of examination of consciousness that we cannot access, even conceptually: what it’s like for the other person. We can establish via neurological and psychological observation a rich assortment of properties about consciousness. We can establish beyond reasonable doubt that the brain is the primary organ generating the mind, and slowly begin to understand how much the rest of the body contributes to our inner lives. We can compare those properties between individuals and, from there, reach conclusions about how things work for ourselves and others. We can rely on empathy, a phenomenon in which we process and mirror the mental states of others based on signals we may not even realize we are integrating, to figure out what’s going on in others’ minds. It’s effective, but it’s contextual, variable between people, fallible, and sometimes far too loud. But even empathy doesn’t address the question of how to even calibrate a device meant to measure someone’s mind, if we have no alternative measure for comparison. What so far, and most likely forever, eludes us is being able to “plug in” to someone else’s mind and experience it from the inside.
If we could have such an experience, we might finally have the definitive answer to the question of qualia. Qualia, quale in singular, are subjective experiences: what it’s like to be a bat, or see the color red, or feel the touch of a loved one for the first time. Where Nagel’s thoughts concentrate on the subjective part of that definition, the concept of qualia emphasizes the experience. This concept tries to bridge the gap between academic study and hands-on encounters. Does someone who learns everything there is to know about the color red, but who has never seen it, learn anything when they first see red? The concept is about the limits of communication, knowledge, and our own ability to read and predict our own internal states, but it also about how difficult it is to know whether someone else experiences something the same way we do. Would we recognize someone else’s qualia as different from ours, if we could somehow compare them? Could a device or process ever duplicate an experience exactly, and enable someone to operate on an equal footing with those who have acquired it firsthand?
We don’t have to operate at these theoretical, thought-experiment limits to find these concepts useful. Even a student whose encounter with Nagel’s bats and Lewis’s qualia began and ended in Philosophy 101 can see where these concepts go.
Subjectivity is real. No one is a bigger expert on a person’s experience, the “what it’s like to be” of them, their qualia, than that person. A lot of questions can be settled by empirical, observational study, and that kind of info can corroborate or contradict what people say about their experiences or internal states, but it will never override it. People’s experiences are their own, and cannot be directly accessed by others. For the parts that cannot be studied from the outside, we have only their word, which most of the time, we can trust.
When we’re dealing with things as elusive as bigotry, those words are the best we have.
Oppression is something that, often, is most easily viewed via a society-wide lens. The data on income, résumé call-backs, murder rates, and political influence have no ambiguity in them: people of color, women, transgender people, and members of any of various other social categories are oppressed. Connecting all of that to individual experiences, however, is not so easy to do from outside. These are patterns that mainstream society would rather ignore, to maintain its own lies about itself, and people are trained to ignore them. Workplace recruiters imagine themselves impartial while somehow passing over all of the linguistically unfamiliar names in their heap of candidates, and office workers somehow imagine that every member of a marginalized group among their co-workers got there specifically to fulfill a diversity quota, rather than to fulfill a job.
If you’ve heard that ableism is a thing but never recognized it, do you learn something when you see how doctors treat disabled people?
Recognizing the intimate, personal reality of racism, classism, ableism, and other oppressions requires intimate, personal experience, that primes people to see things that mainstream myth-making tells everyone else aren’t real. It requires noticing patterns that the mainstream wants people to simply take as a given, background noise, totally “normal” rather than noteworthy. It requires treating as comparable things most people are not used to comparing.
It requires, to stretch this thought exercise to its breaking point, other people’s qualia.
Philosophy bros who try to use empiricism or logic to deny the reality of sociological privilege…didn’t read far enough.
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