I say we accept this hypothesis and acquiesce that for every functional system there is something that it is like to be that functional system; there is a first-person point of view for that system. It is really a kind of vestigial proposition, but we ought to accept it for the same reasons that Nagel assumes there is a something that it is like to be the bat. We have no idea what being a bat might entail; we have no way of actually approximating bat-experiences by proxy-scientific methods; we have no knowledge of what echolocation and bat-behavioral feels like from the inside. If we accept this, then we must say the same about being a China-Body system: we have no idea about what-it-is-like to be a whole political system. Since every functional system is believed by Block and Shoemaker to have a first-person view, when this is applied to entities we have no way of talking about, the more absurd these qualia objections become.

The paradoxical absurdity of this view might derive from our relative size. We are each so much smaller than the China-body system that we fail to see how we could fit into the functional systems approach. Of all the things a fish might discover, for example, “water” is probably not one of them. Just as a creature the size of a neuron trapped inside a human head might well be wrongly convinced that there could not be consciousness there, so we too draw the wrong conclusion as we contemplate the China-body system. It has also been argued (by Shoemaker) that any system that was a full functional duplicate of one of us would have to be subject to all the same beliefs, including beliefs about its own internal states. Thus the China-Body system would have to believe that it experiences pain; and if it had beliefs of this sort, then it could not fail to be the subject of some experiences (and hence some states with phenomenal character). Perhaps Churchland was right about our beliefs, after all. If Shoemaker’s reply is successful, what it shows is that the property of having some phenomenal character or other has a functional essence. But it does not show that individual qualia from the creature inside the human head are functional in nature. So one could accept that absent qualia are impossible while also holding that inverted spectra are possible (Shoemaker 1975).

In my view this is consistent with many authors, such as the content externalism of Tyler Burge. Burge’s linguistic theory of content can be interpreted as a functionalist systems approach. The point Block is trying to drive home is that qualia such as pain are not successfully explained merely by reference to functional states no matter how complex. The Chinese nation might mimic all the functional states taking place in the nervous system of someone who is pain, but the functional states themselves in China do not yield pain qualia. This is similar to Leibniz’s Monadologie where he considers the unique nature of perceptual experience.

“It must be confessed that perception and that which depends on it are inexplicable on mechanical grounds (that is, by figures and motions) and supposing there were a machine so constructed as to think feel and have perception. It might be conceived as increased in size, while keeping the same proportions, so one might go into it as if into a mill. That being so, we should on examining its interior find only parts which work upon one another and never anything by which to explain a perception.”

We can enter the mill envisaged by Leibniz or observe the entire population of China making phone calls, and supposedly in neither case will qualia be explicated.