PHIL2206 Philosophy of Mind
Week 9: Qualia


  1. This week we are interested in qualia.
  2. Suppose you have a headache. The headache feels a certain way to you. There is something that it is like to have the headache. The headache has a qualitative character, it has qualia, or phenomenal properties.
  3. So too when you have a visual experience - your visual experience has qualia. When you look at a ripe tomato you have a visual experience with one set of qualia; when you look at a granny smith apple you have a visual experience with a different set of qualia (although they might share some qualia). When you sniff petrol you have an olfactory experience with one set of qualia; when you drink petrol you have a gustatory experience with a different set of qualia.
  4. Part of the story about zombies is that they have mental processes just like ours except those processes lack any qualia (assuming that we are not zombies!).
  5. Here I am trying to pick out our subject matter (i.e. qualia) ostensively, by pointing.

Some questions about qualia

  1. Here are some questions that it would be nice to answer:
  2. Question. Does every occurrence of a mental phenomenon have qualia, or just those of certain kinds? Perhaps pains do, but beliefs do not.

    Kim argues that unconscious beliefs, at least, have no qualia.

    We do seem to have unconscious beliefs: Do you believe that some neurosurgeons wear hats? Yes. You had this belief before I asked the question, but were not aware of the belief, were not aware that you had the belief (are these the same thing?). My question made the belief occurrent.

    Kim argues: We are not aware of such beliefs; therefore they have no qualia. But does this follow? What about a visual experience of the hour hand of a clock?

  3. Question. Is it possible to be in pain without being aware of the pain, or that you are in pain? You might say: yes, as long as the pain has no qualia. But what if the pain has qualia - is it possible to have a pain with qualia and not be aware of the pain, or that you are in pain? You might say: yes, as long as you are not aware of the qualia. But is it possible to not be aware of the qualia? The clock example might be relevant here.
  4. Question. Suppose pains always have qualia. Is there a quale that they all have? (It might need to be a fairly general quale.)
  5. Question. Are there any kinds of mental phenomena which sometimes do and sometimes do not have qualia? Perhaps beliefs and desires?
  6. Question. Suppose a belief or a desire need not have any qualia. Suppose that I desire that I will have sushi for dinner, but do not believe that I will have sushi for dinner. How do I know that I desire this thing rather than believe it?

    Relatedly: I can tell whether I am angry or embarrassed. Is that because anger and embarrassment have certain distinct qualia?

  7. Question. We know what it's like to see the walls of a cave. Do we know what it's like to echolocate the walls of a cave? If not, can we know?
  8. Question. Is it only mental phenomena that have qualia, or do some (perhaps all) non-mental phenomena have qualia too? Perhaps the process of producing red blood cells has qualia, it's just that we're not aware of them. Perhaps it's not the qualia which are the mental phenomenon, but the awareness of them. Perhaps there is something that it's like to be a rock?
  9. It might be helpful to fill out this table:
    Kind of phenomenon Sometimes have qualia Always have qualia Have a common quale
    Seeing a tomato

Two problems with qualia

  1. Suppose we reject Cartesian dualism and accept that the only substances there are in the world are physical, so that all mental phenomena are exhibited by physical substances, or systems of physical substances.
  2. This raises a question: How could a system of physical substances exhibit (give rise to) mental phenomena?
  3. It has been suggested (e.g. by Dave Chalmers) that this question splits into two, an easy one and a hard one:
  4. Here is another problem with qualia: Why do pains (say) feel the way that they do, rather than the way tickles (say) feel? And why do tickles feel the way that they do, rather than the way pains feel? This is the problem of the explanatory gap.

    We get a similar problem with mental phenomena in general. Suppose that mental phenomenon m supervenes upon (or merely correlates with) physical phenomenon p (i.e. p gives rise to m), and m' does not. Why does p give rise to m rather than m'?

  5. One possibility is that these are just brute facts and cannot be explained. They were choices made by God when he created the world.

Do qualia supervene on the physical

  1. We have discussed the view that mental phenomena supervene upon physical phenomena:

    For all x and m: if m is a mental property and x has m then there is a p such that p is a physical property and x has p and necessarily: for all y: if y has p then y has m.

    But what about qualia - do they supervene upon physical phenomena?

  2. The possibility of inverts (i.e. people exactly like us physically but with a pair of qualia inverted) and zombies (i.e. people exactly like us physically but without any qualia) suggests not. In fact, if such things are possible then it follows that qualia do not supervene on physical phenomena.

  3. But are these things possible? Perhaps they are conceptually possible, or epistemically possible, but that does not entail that they are metaphysically possible, and for there to be a problem here we need these things to be metaphysically possible.

    Observe: it is conceptually possible that water is not H20, but it is not metaphysically possible.

    Observe: it was epistemically possible that Hesperus is not Phosphorus, but it was not metaphysically possible.

Qualia representationalism

  1. Here is a view, call it representationalism: Mental phenomena are representational, and qualia are the properties that they represent.

    Suppose I look at a ripe tomato and it looks red to me, so I have a visual experience with a certain quale. According to this view, my visual experience of the tomato represents that the tomato is red, and the quale that it has is the property of being red.

    Proponents don't want to claim that the property of being red is instantiated by my experience (visual experiences are not the kind of thing that can be red), nor even by the tomato (the tomato might not actually be red). Is this a problem?

  2. Kim is a bit sloppy. First, he is not clear about whether it is mental phenomena that represent and qualia are the properties that they represent (as above), or it is qualia themselves that represent. Second, he says that the view locates qualia out there in the world, but does it? Third, he says: "The grapes look green to you. That is, your visual experience has the quale green. So green is instantiated" (p. 226) But what if the grapes are not green?
  3. This view seems to allow that you and I can and do know what it is like for other animals to exhibit mental phenomena. Suppose that an animal exhibits some kind of mental phenomenon which represents that a certain tomato is red. According to this view, the quale of this phenomenon is the property of being red, the very same quale that our visual experiences have. So we do know what it is like for the animal to exhibit this mental phenomenon. And perhaps we know what it is like to be a bat.
  4. Here is something given as evidence for the view: the transparency of experience. Suppose you are having a visual experience of a ripe tomato. If you attend to the phenomenal character of the experience, you will end up looking more closely at the tomato. This suggests that the phenomenal properties (qualia) of your experience are not in your experience, but in the tomato itself.

    But does it?

  5. It is part of the view that mental phenomena represent. Here is a commonly given argument that visual experiences represent:
    1. Whenever something looks a certain it makes sense to ask whether or not that thing is that way.
    2. Therefore, visual experiences represent things as being certain ways.

    I think this is a bad argument (see Breckenridge (2007)).

  6. Here is a problem for the view: the possibility of inverted qualia. Suppose that Tom is just like us except his 'red' and 'green' visual experiences are inverted. His visual experiences of tomatoes are like ours in representing tomatoes as being red, but they have a different quale from ours. So too for his visual experiences of lettuces. So the qualia of our experiences are not the properties that they represent.

    Possible reply: there is some other difference in what our experiences represent, hence the different qualia.

  7. Here is another problem for the view: inter-modal differences between qualia. My visual experience and my tactile experience of an object might both represent that it is spherical, but the experiences have different qualia.

    Possible reply: ditto.

Denying qualia

  1. Perhaps we can avoid the problems that qualia pose by denying that there are such things, or by denying that they are important. That is, perhaps we can be qualia nihilists.
  2. Qualia nihilism comes in at least two varieties: