A dilemma for illusionists — and another for realists!

David Chalmers often — rightly — presses me to clarify exactly what it is that I and other illusionists deny. We say that we deny the existence of phenomenal properties, or qualia, but what exactly do we mean by this? Here, it seems, we illusionists face a dilemma. Is the notion of a phenomenal property a theoretical one or an observational one?

Suppose we say that the notion is a theoretical one — say, that of a property of experience that is nonphysical, not publicly observable, and immediately known. Then phenomenal realists such as Chalmers will say that that’s not what they mean by a phenomenal property. They mean simply the feel of experience — what it’s like. They do not define these feels as having features such as non-physicality, though they have arguments for thinking that they do in fact have them. Thus, if illusionists take this option, they are not denying the existence of properties realists believe in, but merely denying that those properties have the features many realists believe they have. Chalmers will be more than happy to engage with them on the latter point.

Suppose, then, that illusionists say that the concept of phenomenality is an observational one — the concept of the kind of feature people detect when they introspectively detect that they are having an experience of some kind. Then illusionists are denying something realists believe in, but also, it seems, making the absurd claim that experiences have no introspectively detectable aspect — that you detect nothing when you detect that you’re in pain!

This is the dilemma facing the illusionist. Francois Kammerer has likened it to the task Odysseus faced in navigating his ship between the two sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis. (See his talk ‘Defining consciousness and denying its existence’ at a workshop in Bochum.) What should the illusionist do?

The short answer is that they should reject the dichotomy and point out that all observation, including introspection, is theory-laden and that the concepts we employ in introspection are themselves infused with theoretical commitments. This is the line Kammerer takes, and I think it’s right. I won’t develop the response here, however. (I discuss the issue at much more length in a new paper forthcoming in a special issue of the French journal Klēsis, edited by François Loth.) Instead, I want to point out that illusionists can pose a parallel dilemma for the realist.

Here’s how they can do it. First, they need to sketch some positive account of what consciousness is, couched entirely in terms of informational and reactive processes centred on the brain. For present purposes, the details do not matter; the crucial thing is that the account is framed entirely in functional terms. The realist will say that the account omits, or at least fails to explain, something — the central phenomenal aspect of experience. (Note that it does not matter whether the proposed account is actually true; the point is that the realist will claim to know a priori that it is not true, or at least not fully explanatory, since it misses out something crucial.) Now comes the dilemma. How do realists conceive of the missing properties?

Suppose they conceive of them in the observational way, as the properties people detect when they introspectively detect that they are having experiences, with no commitment whatsoever as to the nature of these properties. This option was unattractive to illusionists, but it is awkward for realists too. How can they know that the detected properties are omitted from, or not explained by, the illusionist’s account? Why should they even suspect that they are not included? After all, they claim to have no idea what the properties are.

Suppose, then, that realists allow that the notion of phenomenality does have a theoretical component after all, and that they conceive of phenomenal properties as having certain specific features. Then they can maintain that the illusionist account is inadequate, on the grounds that it omits or fails to explain properties with those features. But if they make this move, then illusionists can deny the existence of phenomenal properties without denying that experiences have an introspectively detectable aspect. For they can say that experiences have an introspectively detectable aspect but this aspect is not phenomenal. What you detect when you detect that you are in pain is not really a phenomenal property.

Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander!

Where does this leave us? It leaves us having identified the core questions as, first, what theoretical commitments are packed into the notion of phenomenality, and second, whether experiences have phenomenal properties as characterized by those commitments.

In response to the first question, I’m inclined to say that the key commitments are to phenomenal properties being (a) not characterizable in functional terms and (b) clearly revealed to introspection. Other claims, such as that phenomenal properties are non-physical, resist scientific explanation, and are radically private, derive from those core ones. I discuss this more in the Klēsis article.

As for the second question, I answer in the negative, of course.

Updated 3/12/22

Posted in Tricks of the mind and tagged , .


  1. “Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander!”

    Seriously Keith, is this what the debate reduces to is punting the phenomenal football to the other guys court? Moving on:

    “…what theoretical commitments are packed into the notion of phenomenality, and second, whether experiences have phenomenal properties as characterized by those commitments.”

    The answers to both of those questions are relatively easy if one is willing to jettison our current world view. For example:

    What is the correct definition of life, a definition that is inclusive and universal, one that does not contain any exclusions and second; what is the basis of that life, a grounding intrinsic property that is shared universally with all life forms? Original assumptions rule…..

    Unfortunately, we live in a culture where logical inconsistency, contradictions and paradoxes are the acceptable norm; so much so, that the very notion of universality is an absurd idea. Go figure eh??????

  2. Both the realist and illusionist agree that experience appears to have a qualitative aspect. The realist claims that the appearance of being qualitative just is to manifest a quality, and that qualities need explanation, whereas the illusionist claims the appearance of qualitativeness is illusory: there are no qualities in experience and it’s the illusion that needs explanation. I don’t think there’s any particular theoretical commitment involved in the claim that experience appears to be qualitative since the notion of a quality is a matter of everyday discourse as dictionaries define it:

    Miriam Webster: “…the attribute of an elementary sensation that makes it fundamentally unlike any other sensation,” a “peculiar and essential character,” and “an inherent feature”; Cambridge English Dictionary: “a characteristic or feature of someone or something”; Dictionary.com: “an essential or distinctive characteristic, property, or attribute: the chemical qualities of alcohol,” and the “character or nature, as belonging to or distinguishing a thing: the quality of a sound”. If we equate phenomenality with the appearance of qualitativeness as thus defined, then the concept of consciousness is pre-theoretically that of phenomenal consciousness. The question between realists and illusionists is whether the appearance of qualitativeness – phenomenality – involves anything actually qualitative or not.

    If we say, as illusionists do, that there’s nothing actually qualitative that distinguishes red from blue, or any element of one’s sensory experience from another, then everyday talk of experiential qualities, like talk about ghosts, is radically mistaken and should be abandoned. But of course that’s not going to happen. We need some term to capture what we now usefully refer to by “quality” since the appearance of being qualitative is what everyone, philosophers and ordinary folks, agrees exists. If illusionists grant the appearance of qualitativeness, as they do, then they will, like the rest of us, keep talking about qualities as a useful shorthand for that appearance. Whether that appearance will ultimately get cashed out as a matter of misrepresentation, as illusionists claim is likely the case, or as the existence of representational content that’s actually qualitative, as some realists think might be the case, awaits a settled theory of consciousness. What’s not going to happen is that the appearance will be explained away and that referring to qualities will drop out of discourse concerning consciousness.

  3. Pingback: Qualia are a theoretical posit, and that’s fine – No ghost, no machine, only human

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