Not About Food

The elusive qualia of taste -- metaphysics and aesthetics in food comparisons


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Not About Food

The elusive qualia of taste -- metaphysics and aesthetics in food comparisons

Brian S | | Nov 23, 2005 10:58 AM

One of my favorite restaurants is Fleur de Sel and I've written some glowing detailed descriptions of my meals there and posted them to the Manhattan board. (See link below.) And, though many people agree, I got one or two replies like "I found Fleur du Sel to be pretty mundane in the cuisine department." Now such a difference of views fascinates me because it brings up fascinating problems of metaphysics and aesthetics. Specifically, how do we compare qualia (sense-perceptions)? How do we know what another person tastes? And is there a way to objectively rank and value them, or is the best we can hope for "I like that meal!" "Well, I HATE it!"

Let's dispose of the simplest and the hardest scenarios first. Simplest: we had different meals. My critic went on a bad day and was served bad food. Had I tasted it, I would have agreed with her judgment. This is possible, but uninteresting. Hardest: My critic (or perhaps I, for all you know) is what philosophers call a zombie, an entity that does not experience consciousness, sense-perception or qualia but is otherwise identical to me. This is interesting, but there's really no way to tell.

But there are so many other possibilities. One is that our qualia, our perceptions, are different. My experience of taste is as different from hers as sight is different from sound. Or one of us is taste-impaired, similar to the way a stuffed nose impairs taste. How to tell? An assumption, and a suggestion. The assumption is that humans with roughly similar minds have roughly similar perceptions. We can disregard all radical hypotheses (e.g. totally differing qualia) unless warranted by strong evidence. Suggestion: dialogue. I think some, but not all, of these differences can be resolved (or at least diagnosed) by dialogue. "Can you taste the three different flavors? "" Hey, I taste seven!" (And it might be interesting to classify the possible differences according to whether or not they can be ameliorated by dialogue.)

Of course, our taste experiences are not just raw perception. Even before they rise to the level of consciousness, the brain classifies them, stresses some notes, suppresses others. The more this higher-level brainwork is involved, the more there is a possibliity of education. The wine connoisseur, for example, is not so much born as made, by long study. If I explain to someone the reasons I like a dish, the flavors I taste, the care taken in preparation, they might appreciate it as I did.

And if they don't? Are there any objective standards? If A says "I like the veal confit with chanterelles at Fleur de Sel!" and B says "I LIKE SPAGHETTI WITH CHEEZ WHIZ!!!" -- is there a way to objectively judge the two dishes? I think there is. I think objective standards are possible, in terms of complexity, psychological resonance, harmony, daring, elegance. Perhaps there's a clue in the process of maturity. They say that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" ... the development of the individual recapitulates the development of the species. Maybe this is true in aesthetics as well. When I was a kid, my favorite dish was spaghetti with cheez whiz. But I outgrew it.
Brian S