What’s it like to eat a chocolate Hobnob?

What is it like to eat a chocolate Hobnob? And how, if at all, can one come to know the answer to that question? How, that is, can one know what it is like to eat one? One obvious answer, at least applicable to normally endowed humans would be: by eating one. Alternatively, and perhaps more carefully, one might try: through a combination of one’s being normally endowed with knowledge acquiring powers and one’s undergoing a sufficient quantity of experiences of eating chocolate Hobnobs. But is that answer the only one? That is, is having such an experience of eating a chocolate Hobnob a necessary condition for knowing what it’s like to have the experience?

I wish here briefly to set out two more specific aspects of these questions, analogues of which have figured in some recent philosophical work. The first question is, must one have some sorts of experiences in order to come to know what it’s like to eat a chocolate Hobnob? The first question is a version of questions that have famously been pressed by Thomas Nagel (about what it’s like to be a bat) and Frank Jackson (about what it’s like to see the redness of a rose). The second question is, must one have the experience specifically of eating a chocolate Hobnob? The second question is a version of questions that have famously been pressed by David Hume (about his missing shade of blue) and Thomas Nagel (again, about being a bat, given that none of us has been). (Hume’s question concerned the possibility of acquiring a particular type of idea of a shade of blue that one had not experienced that shade, but had experienced surrounding shades.)

Let’s begin with the first question. Suppose that one had never eaten a biscuit, or any approximately biscuit-like foodstuff. Imagine, for example, that one had been locked in a biscuit-less canteen all of one’s life and fed only yellow paste. Would a verbal description of what it would be like to eat a biscuit put one in a position to figure out what it would be like? Could one even imagine what it would be like for one to experience eating a biscuit? And if one could, could one tell that that was what one was imagining, for example by reliably distinguishing that imagining, as the imagining of eating a chocolate Hobnob, from similar imaginings?

The second question aims to home in on a more specific requirement. Suppose that one had enjoyed a wide variety of experiences of eating (plain) Hobnobs. And suppose that one had also had many experiences of eating chocolate biscuits—for example, chocolate Digestives. Suppose, finally, that one had reflected carefully on those experiences and were normally endowed with powers of imagination. Would one’s experience, reflective knowledge, and imaginative capacity put one in a position to figure out what it would be like for one to experience eating a chocolate Hobnob? Here, one might think that one’s experiences might do so if the experience of eating a chocolate Hobnob were a sort of combination of aspects of the experiences of eating a (plain) Hobnob and eating a chocolate Digestive. For in that case, one might be able to construct an imagined experience of eating a chocolate Hobnob from its constituent aspects. Alternatively, however, one might wonder whether the experience of eating a chocolate Hobnob is merely a combination of aspects of experiences one could have had by other means. Perhaps, for example, the experience of eating a chocolate Hobnob involves a chocolate-aspect and a Hobnob-aspect. However, perhaps those aspects are similar to, but not identical with, the chocolate-aspect of eating a chocolate Digestive and the Hobnob-aspect of eating a (plain) Hobnob, respectively. In that case, although it may yet be possible to figure out what it would be like to eat a chocolate Hobnob, doing so might involve non-combinatorial operations of the imagination.

For further discussion, see David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, edited by L. A. Selby-Bigge, 2nd ed. revised by P.H. Nidditch, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975: Book 1, Part 1, Sect. 1; Thomas Nagel, 1974, “What is it like to be a bat?” Philosophical Review 83: 435–50; Frank Jackson, 1982, “Epiphenomenal Qualia,” Philosophical Quarterly 32: 127–136; John O. Nelson, 1989, “Hume’s Missing Shade of Blue Re-viewed,” Hume Studies Volume XV Number 2: 353-364; Paul Snowdon, 2010, “On the what-it-is-likeness of experience,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy, Volume 48, Issue 1: 8–27.

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6 comments
  1. cathyby said:

    This is, if I may say so, vastly superior to the famous “Mary” thought experiment. While it is difficult to imagine living a life with no experience of red, it is easy to imagine a life without chocolate Hobnobs. I lived that sadly deprived life. And personally, I found the experience of eating Hobnobs and the experience of eating chocolate digestives did not adequately allow me to anticipate the experience of eating chocolate Hobnobs.

    I wonder if eating chocolate Kimberleys (an Irish biscuit with few analogues to other biscuits) might be the biscuit equivalent to Nagle’s bat.

    • Thanks. It’s really just a version of earlier food related versions–Hume and then Russell on the taste of pineapple, Lewis on Vegemite. However, you’re right that the more obscure foodstuff, the better. I have no idea what your specialist biscuit would taste like.

    • billwringe said:

      But is it as easy to imagine as one might initially be inclined to suppose? Might it not be possible to confound, for example, one’s imagining a life without chocolate hobnobs with one’s imagining a life without chocolate digestives, for example? And since we might distinguish between imagining a life and simply failing to imagine any experiences of chocolate hobnobs within that life and imagining a life with, as it were, an affirmative absence of experiences of chocolate hobnobs (with all the metaphysical difficulties that Sartre, for example, suggests that this might entail), which of these is intended here?

      • Thanks. Good question. I’m inclined to think that one can imagine the affirmative absence only if one knows what the positive experience would be like. By contrast, one might know enough to know that one didn’t know what the positive experience would be like without thereby, and paradoxically, being required to knowing what one didn’t know, what the positive experience would be like. And I’m inclined to think that the latter might suffice for imagining the life merely lacking the experience. But the matter demands much further reflection.

  2. thonyc said:

    Your post already fails in the title question! Milk or plain chocolate?

    • Thanks. I was hoping the reader might allow me a grain of salt.

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