Dialectics of Qualia. An overview on different conceptions of the phenomenon of qualia

Term Paper, 2020

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3



I. Introduction

II. Preliminary Remarks: Qualia, Phenomenology and Language Games

III. Introducing Qualia
A. Qualia as Sense-Data
B. David J. Chalmers
1. Mind the Gap
2. The Dual Life of the Mind
3. Qualia – Solely a Human Affair?
C. Thomas Nagel
1. In Search for Objectivity in the Philosophy of Mind
2. At a Loss for Words
D. John R. Searle
1. Disparity in Subjectiveness
2. Shaping Qualia

IV. Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience
A. The Objections
1. On the Conception of Qualia
2. On the Notion of ‘How It Is Like ’
B. Remarks on Bennett/Hacker

V. Conclusion


I. Introduction

Zombies play a role in a number of surprisingly varied scenarios. We might have encountered them in film, in our childhood nightmares and, a little more surprisingly, we might even find Zombies within philosophical cogitations. But how come, philosophers are concerned about such absurd creatures nobody really believes to exist? We comprehend their importance for thought experiments, specifically in the philosophy of mind, when we bring to our mind what one imagines under the term “zombie”: externally human-like, not really alive, not really dead. They might wander around aimlessly in search for their next meal with an empty glance in their eyes, arms are raised, skin is rotten. And internally? Well, there is nothing internal in the ‘life’ of a Zombie and therefore it has nothing to do with being a human whose life’s most integral part is and has to be his conscious experience. With scientific progress, however, it has become a well-established view, according to which the world consists solely of ‘dead’ matter and what we call our mental life is nothing more than synapses firing inside our brain. Does this threaten our self-perception as conscious beings and what then makes us different from Zombies? It seems not just a little counterintuitive to identify oneself with one of those strange creatures because, in defiance of all science, the mind still remains as an entity incomparable to any other phenomenon we find in the external world. In a bid to bring the science of what was formerly known under the notions of soul, anima, nous, etc. onto physical grounds, scientists have teamed up with philosophers in the desire to rule out Descartes’ heritage of the immaterial soul once and for all. And it seems like Gaul is entirely occupied by the physicalists. Well, not entirely! One small mental phenomenon still holds out against the invaders. And it goes by the name of ‘qualia’.

II. Preliminary Remarks: Qualia, Phenomenology and Language Games

To briefly put the term into context: qualia are one out of various approaches by philosophers to describe the nature of, what is called, ‘phenomenal consciousness’. To be distinct from epistemic consciousness, it refers to the experiential traits of the mental which not only accompany sensual perception, but also the qualitative aspects that come with intentional acts, such as thinking or introspection.1 Qualia as a possible explanation in turn have been used in various different denotations and the proceeded confusions heavily complicated the debate, which is the basic issue this paper occupied itself with clarifying.

It is often disputed whether philosophy is anything but conceptual analysis. For the debate around the mind-body-problem we have to peruse the complex of qualia (lat. ‘ qualis ’ = how/condition). Therefore, it is the objective of the paper at hand to introduce the reader into the idea of qualia, alias the qualitative token of experience, alias the ‘how it is like to be for someone to be in a mental state’. Notably, there are quite a few terms used by various thinkers to conceptualize the most challenging aspect of understanding human nature, which does not make the case any easier for us. Michael Tye sums up the aggravation thusly: “[p]ilosophers often use the term ‘qualia’ (singular ‘quale’) to refer to the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives. [...] Disagreement typically centers on which mental states have qualia, whether qualia are intrinsic qualities of their bearers, and how qualia relate to the physical world both inside and outside the head”.2

Materialist philosophers are willing to rule out qualia by claiming it is no more than an illusion, or by trying to give a reductionist explanation, which aims to prove that it is possible to speak of qualia or the phenomenal traits of consciousness, respectively, in solely physical language without disregarding objective facts.

The original branch of research under the label of Phenomenology (Greek ‘ phainómenon ’ = the appearing), founded by Edmund Husserl and maintained primarily in continental tradition by philosophers such as Heidegger, Sartre or Merleau-Ponty, has suffered losses in relevancy over the last decades and analytical philosophy ousted it as the front-runner inside the philosophy of mind. This paper thus disregards their manifold approaches on the richness of experience and focuses on Anglo-Saxon thinkers.

With that in mind, I would like to present the most important components for the argumentation of qualia-advocates. We will take a look at what is at stake (Chalmers), the im-/possibility of a language for the mind (Nagel) and an attempt on structuring our phenomenal life (Searle). Afterwards, we will discuss some predominantly language-related dissents on the concept of qualia by Maxwell Bennett and Peter Hacker in order to demonstrate how easily philosophers can unintentionally talk at cross purposes when there is no consensus about the usage of terminology. To answer the opening question from the last paragraph in the spirit of Wittgenstein: “[p]hilosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language”.3

III. Introducing Qualia

A. Qualia as Sense-Data

The term “qualia” in regard to the sense-datum-theory was firstly introduced by the American philosopher Clarence Irving Lewis inside his Mind and the World Order from 1929. 4 Based on the first apprehensions of the presence of qualia to consciousness through sense-data, the theory has been developed into various, so to speak, very heterogeneous shapes. The essence all its advocates share is that there actually exists an entity which is being sensationally perceived and is indispensably responsible for the manner of phenomenal experience the subject has, not regarding its ontological state of being physical or non-physical.5 Taking the popular example of a red apple: the sense-data responsible for the apple’s perceived redness our roundness comes into contact with one’s consciousness and shapes the ‘inner-image’ of the intentional object as it is phenomenally experienced.

The sense-data-theory is and has been critiqued for its alleged incapability in order to give the entities experienced during a hallucination or while dreaming and despite its importance for the history of qualia. Thus, it is only to play a minor part in our exposition, as we want to address the usage of the term in regard to the mind-body-problem nowadays. The most recognizable attempts to reconcile qualia into a universal theory of mind and matter have been made by accounting for them as phenomena of human consciousness.

In contrast to the idea of qualia as items ‘outboard’, we are now going discuss a number of aspects contemporary theoreticians of consciousness attributed to their qualia-concepts, namely the Australian David J. Chalmers as well as the two American philosophers Thomas Nagel and John R. Searle. Whereas all three advocate particularly different visions on the mind-body-problem, they all share the view on qualia as non-functional or non-representational: qualia do not simply display the outside world but are intrinsic features of experience.6 Either they are identified with phenomenal consciousness itself or stand for inner counterparts of the intentional object – qualia essentially shape conscious experience.

It is this stage of argument’s objective to introduce the vital characteristics of the concepts behind the scenes of the question on ’how it is like to be in a conscious state’.

B. David J. Chalmers

After more than 5,000 years in history of doing research on the brain and pioneering advance in order to treat neurological diseases or extend brain performance, the laws of interaction between the brain and the rest of the body are, if yet not entirely, widely decrypted. One might wonder why there still is a need for answers about the nature of the mind, in fact even a separate philosophical domain, being the philosophy of mind.

1. Mind the Gap

One of nowadays most recognized philosophers in the field, David J. Chalmers (*1966), would entirely agree on the overwhelming accomplishments of neuroscience but indeed be quite pessimistic on its prospects in decoding our mental lives. This is due to his estimation, according to which the mind-body-problem and the question on how they interact is not the decisive one, but rather the query on how qualitative experience, “[…] from mundane sounds and smells to the encompassing grandeur of musical experience[,] from the triviality of a nagging itch to the weight of a deep existential angst […]” is construed.7 According to analogical views on the attempt to distinct the psycho-physical laws responsible for our perception of the world and ourselves, it is no longer the mind-body problem which should concern us, but the “mind-mind-problem”.8

In accordance with Joseph Levine’s so-called epistemic gap, we do not understand why physical entities had to generate phenomenal qualities in the first place which Chalmers references in the following: “[...] consciousness is surprising. If all we knew about were the facts of physics, and even the facts about dynamics and information processing in complex systems, there would be no compelling reason to postulate the existence of conscious experience”.9

2. The Dual Life of the Mind

Chalmers assumes that this argument carries enough weight to split the mind into two units, namely the psychological and the phenomenal: “[i]t seems reasonable to say that together, the psychological and the phenomenal exhaust the mental”.10

Following him, that distinction is vital as it can be accepted as an empirical truth that both show some sort of co-occurrence,11 which would necessarily be neglected by behavioristic and functionalist theories: “[o]n the phenomenal concept, mind is characterized by the way it feels; on the psychological concept, mind is characterized by what it does. There should be no question of competition between these two notions of mind. Neither of them is the correct analysis of mind. They cover different phenomena, both of which are quite real“.12

The intrinsic phenomenal traits of pain, for example, could not be sufficiently characterized by the accompanied behavior or an attempt to give the causal role as both leave out the phenomenal part of consciousness, responsible for the explanatory gap.

3. Qualia – Solely a Human Affair?

We already mentioned the more and more popular purpose to rule out consciousness as an illusion to its carrier. With Chalmers, we take the oppositional path: to declare qualitative experience not only as part of the conditio humana, but to consider “consciousness as a fundamental property in reality, the same way physicists recognize space and time and mass as fundamental properties”.13 The consequences of this would initiate bedrock changes within our worldview and maybe even change our perception of morality.

Outside the philosophical debate, we naturally acknowledge each other as conscious individuals, able to perform demanding cognitive acts, more importantly, to suffer and thus possessing a moral status. At least some of our abilities are said to be held by other species as well, which are allegedly as well provided with an emotional life. And no small number of people therefore admit that animals also own moral rights as they are capable of suffering. Barely anyone actually disagrees with this expansion of an inner life on the animals, some even claim plants to be in a way conscious, but what if we go even a step further?

The metaphysical doctrines of panpsychism or idealism cannot be accounted as recent innovations to philosophy, but rather seem as fairly outdated ones. Thinkers like Hegel, Berkeley, etc. advocated the idea of consciousness as a universal phenomenon. Nowadays though, these theories are mostly dismissed as esoteric shenanigan. According to Chalmers, however, they are worthy to consider as rational approaches to the nature of the mind. The idea concisely implies that everything in our world, including thermometers, books and even our currently beloved mouthguards consists of mental components and consequently possesses consciousness of a certain kind.

With intent to reason the concept’s rationality, we briefly recall the epistemic gap and ask ourselves: why does panpsychism does seem so much more counterintuitive than the concept of inanimate neurons creating our experiential life? For Chalmers, the latter appears at least as untenable, which is why he discusses the possibility of missing qualia by recycling a thought experiment by Ned Block, according to which other entities, e. g. the population of China, - although finding themselves in the same configuration as neurons inside the brain - most probably could not generate consciousness. Chalmers upends this as follows:

“[i]f we take the image of the population, speed it up by a factor of a million or so, and shrink it into an area the size of a head, we are left with something that looks a lot like a brain, except that it has homunculi – tiny people – where a brain would have neurons. […] There is not much reason to suppose that neurons should do any better a job than homunculi in supporting experience”.14

The possibility of mental properties as fundamental determinants of our universe has extensive metaphysical impacts on our entire conception of the world. Most importantly, the future proceedings in regard to who or what actually has qualitative experience - and is therefore passible - is essential to determine moral guidelines. It is at least not automatically understandable, whether morality can somehow be justified in the absence of qualia.

C. Thomas Nagel

The most established as well as frequently criticized wording for the role of conscious experience inside the mind-body-problem originated with the famous and still highly controversial essay What is it like to be a bat? by Thomas Nagel (*1937). Following him, the quest for the nature of our mind would neither be as difficult nor as interesting, if there was not for a living being “something that it is like to be that organism – something it is like for the organism”.15

Therefore, the two major hurdles for science are the former’s irreducible first-person-perspective plus the ineffability of conscious experience. With Nagel’s concept, we want to understand those two problems caused by the phenomenal quality of experience before we can understand the objections made by some of his contradictors.

1. In Search for Objectivity in the Philosophy of Mind

The usual manner of scientific investigation abstracts from the fallible subjective perspective of a human-being, always threatened by the possibility of illusion, as it cannot serve the desired objectivity. In accordance with Nagel, when trying to give a physicalist explanation of consciousness, science can just not do that but has to include the first-person-perspective as it is a domain of “objective facts par excellence […]”.16 The neuroscientific method had to subtract irreducibly objective data, despite its objective to explain the entire phenomenon of consciousness: “[i]t is impossible to exclude the phenomenological features of experience from a reduction in the same way that one excludes the phenomenal features of an ordinary substance from a physical or chemical reduction of it – namely, by explaining them as effects on the mind of human observers”.17 On that score, it seems forlorn to gain all-encompassing answers, in the words of Nagel: “[i]f we acknowledge that a physical theory of mind must account for the subjective character of experience, we must admit that no presently available conception gives us a clue how this could be done”.18


1 Cf. LIPTOW (2013): Philosophie des Geistes, Hamburg: Junius, pp. 78f.

2 TYE (1997): Qualia, in: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (available online at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qualia), last accessed on 21st of September 2020, 7:03pm.

3 WITTGENSTEIN (1953): Philosophical Investigations, second edition, Oxford: Blackwell, pt. 1, sect. 109.

4 Cf. LEWIS (1929): Mind and the World Order, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

5 Cf. TYE: Qualia.

6 Cf. LIPTOW, Philosophie des Geistes, pp. 93-96.

7 CHALMERS (1996): The Conscious Mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 4.

8 Cf. JACKENDORFF (1987): Consciousness and the Computational Mind. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

9 CHALMERS: The Conscious Mind, p. 5.

10 Ibid., p. 16.

11 Cf. ibid., pp. 17f.

12 Ibid., p. 12.

13 CHALMERS (2019): Am I my brain?, in: Sternstunde Philosophie, SRF Kultur (available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkLxuREOwok&t=1972s), last accessed on 22nd of September 2020, 04:52pm, [32mm:33ss].

14 CHALMERS: The Conscious Mind, p. 252.

15 NAGEL (1974): What is it like to be a bat? / Wie ist es, eine Fledermaus zu sein?, Stuttgart: Reclam, p. 8.

16 Ibid., p. 24.

17 Ibid., pp. 10f.

18 Ibid., p. 32.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Dialectics of Qualia. An overview on different conceptions of the phenomenon of qualia
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für Philosophie)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Das phänomenale Bewusstsein als Prüfstein materialistischer Theorien in der Philosophie des Geistes
Philosophie, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind, Materialism, Qualia, Dualism, Idealism, Idealismus, Neurowissenschaften, Neuroscience, Searle, Dennett, Chalmers, Geist, Philosophie des Geistes
Quote paper
Roman Rogg (Author), 2020, Dialectics of Qualia. An overview on different conceptions of the phenomenon of qualia, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1137570


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