Qualia and the Mystery of Colors

Hello everyone. I wrote a paper on qualia, here it is. I’m doing a little presentation in front of some people I deem important. Anyone care to ask me about qualia as if it were a Q and A session? :slight_smile: This will be good practice for me, if anyone cares to. Below is the paper I wrote. Qualia is suggested in the third paragraph. It’s controversial because it seems to lie outside what physics can describe, and may even lie outside physics altogether, but that’s taking a dualist position. Qualia are sensations/perceptions such as the redness of red, pain, sweetness etc… Please ask questions, Ill do my best to answer them!!!

Mary, Quite Contrary: Consciousness Unexplained

What is the ultimate nature of reality? In Philosophy of mind, there are many positions regarding what has real being. On a commonsense level, dualism seems to be the reality. Thoughts, beliefs, and qualia really do seem to be different from tables, apples, and automobiles; therefore, according to dualists, there are two types of stuff furnishing reality. However, the gap that bridges the mind and body remains a mystery-- no one has yet explained how they interest. To put it another way, how does a physical brain state, consisting of neurons firings, cause the associated mental event, that just is a feeling pain, or any feeling at all?
Many philosophers have argued that the physical sciences show the way to the answer. On this view, the unparalleled successes of scientific predictions and explanation justify the belief that all reality is physical. One expression of this physicalist account may be found in cognitive neuroscience. To explain vision, neuroscientists will point out that the first physiological response to light is biochemical, occurring in the photoreceptor cells in our eyes. From there, as electrical patterns, the signal travels to the back of the brain, into the occipital lobe, and subsequently to other areas. The physicalist will assert that conscious experiences are actually nothing other than a property of neural events just described. 
Many other philosophers question whether science can provide an account of everything that exists. We do not see electrical patterns-- we see colors, cars, pedestals, and people. How is this possible? “Qualia” is the term currently used by some philosophers to refer to conscious phenomena they believe lying outside the scope of scientific explanation. The redness of red, the small of a rose, and the feeling of pain, they claim, are nothing like atoms, wave-length, quarks and gluons, or any of the other phenomenon which form the subject matter of the physical sciences. In this paper I will argue that this view is correct, and that there are phenomena that can never be accounted for from the scientific perspective. 
Frank Jackson's “Mary Problem” gives a clear, concise contemporary argument for the existence of qualia, which he claims, are not physical. About a woman raised in a black-and-white environment, this is the Mary Problem: 

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room, with a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’ and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wave-length combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produced vie the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that result in the uttering of the sentence ‘the sky is blue’. (Quoted in Heil p.765)
One day she leaves the lab and walks into the sunlit world, and she experiences color! In the view of those who believe in qualia, this means that she learns something new that the study of physics could not tell her. Therefore, Jackson claims, the Mary problem shows that physics, in the black and white room, does not account for all of reality. All that physics could have taught Mary is what we typically refer to as objective descriptions of the physical world, which can only describe color as radiation wave-lengths that hit the retina and send patterns of electrical signals to the brain. What is missing in the neuroscientific equation is the actual conscious experience of color seen.
The philosopher and neuroscientist, Daniel Dennett, believes that the problem of qualia should be dispelled. To make his case, Dennett argues that we ought to focus on a premise in Frank Jackson’s “Mary Problem” argument. If we recall, Jackson says that Mary knows, “all the physical information…” (765). However, Dennett asserts, if Mary knew all the physical information there is to know about color, then she would not learn anything about color, when stepping outside. He states boldly: “she knows everything-- absolutely everything–… about the physical causes and effects of color vision” (399). Therefore, Dennett claims that, Mary would have predictive power regarding events in the physical world, since everything to be learned is ultimately describable in physical terms. According to Dennett’s critique, “[Mary would know] exactly what physical impression a yellow object… would make on [her] nervous system” (Dennett 399-400). He concludes, “So the only task that remains is for her to figure out a way of identifying the relevant neurophysiological effects “from the inside” (p.400). By figuring out that some color isn’t yellow or red, from knowing the physical reaction that yellow would have on the nervous system, Dennett believes, she would then be able to open the flood gates to the color spectrum—before exiting the black and white room. Dennett finally concludes that the existence of color as “qualia” is null and void, for there is no actual objective evidence of it, only our own reports of allegedly private perceptual experiences.
Let us review Dennett’s argument further. Jackson is stating that physics is not complete because there is a subjective aspect to our consciousness. For this part, Dennett wants to show that physics can describe everything that truly exists. The first way in which Dennett’s argument falls short is in its emphasis on knowing by description rather than on knowing by the actual experience. For supporters of the Mary Problem, even though Mary presumably knows all that physics conveys, she cannot know what it is to see the color red when she leaves her black and white room. As of yet, no one knows how physical brain-states interact with events characterized as “mental”. It may be the case that all physics can ever do is describe phenomena, external to our mental states. This leaves a problem for physicalists, like Dennett, for how does one describe the sensation of color to one who hasn’t seen the redness of red? As a supporter of the Mary Problem myself, I claim that It’s finally left to our conscious experience to actually sense the phenomenon, called qualia, like the feeling of a pain or perception of color.
Secondly, without the actual prior experience of color, Mary has no way to associate the relevant neurophysiological events with the qualia experienced. Dennett’s solution for Mary is merely to have her study neurophysiological effects on her own brain. Neurophysiological effects are one thing, but now Dennett wants to suppose color is a neurophysiological effect that is reducible to physical terms, but what is relevant is that the qualia actually experienced are qualitatively different, not quantifiable or reducible to the physical sciences. And since these are different in kind, rather than in degrees, Dennett will hit a road block when attempting to reduce something not reducible in physical terms. To illustrate the issue, using an example from Leibniz: “imagine a brain that is blown up to the size of a building. Upon entering, all we see are [physical] parts working on each other; nowhere do we find anything that explains or shows perceptions [known as qualia]” (Leibniz P.50). So, Dennett’s argument basically restates the issue: how is Mary going to associate the relevant brain response with the color if she hasn’t seen the color prior to the neurophysiological response? Viewing the brain’s physical makeup in motion will not explain color as seen by Mary when looking out into the colored world. Therefore, Dennett’s solution for Mary-- which is studying neurophysiological events functionally-- still presents Mary with a gap.
At every corner we turn we again bump into this explanatory gap, between mind and matter. Dennett’s solution, which is opposed to common sense, is ultimately to deny that we have the subjective sensations other philosophers call “qualia”. While Dennett is correct in claiming that humans can’t "objectively” prove the existence of qualia-- I can’t help but feel Dennett is missing an essential ingredient of consciousness, if qualia are left out. To dilate on this, is it not self-refuting to deny one’s own sensations? To have perception, at a bare minimum, means that one knows what it is like to be conscious.
Dennett is not alone in his view of subjective experience. As a result of the “Enlightenment”, one of the beliefs some people do hold is that the physical world makes up all that is reality. However, we would do well to acknowledge that if we set out to describe all of reality, using a method designed to discover only what is physical, then our conclusions must be that everything is physical. On this model, of course physics is complete! I am not here denying the success of scientific achievement, I am merely pointing out this limitation. A scientific method, limited to objectivity, has no capacity for discerning what lay beyond the range of scientific description. Daniel Dennett shows us a picture of a machine, but a machine is, as Leibniz says, simply a set of physical parts working on each other. Would this machine smell coffee, or a burning sensation if spilled on the machines lap? No matter how many pieces we add to the machine, it seems as if it won’t welcome qualia, unless it could have that extra ingredient, conscious experience.

Agreed. If we say that colour is something as our experience suggests, then no amount of moving parts added to the machine will define that, unless we can say colour is part of the machine - which we cannot.

Most scientists if not all agree that colour is perceptual and subjective, it can be shown to relate also to language. Yet it is still there, it is not an idea in the mind [info also doesn’t exist physically] whereby we imagine something that is colour but there isn’t anything there.

Conclusion; the mind can make things exist according to its perception. What relativity is to time, such things are to perception. Colour and info exist in the form we make them - as relative to us.

I think we can say the same thing about what we hear or feel and any quality of mind. We make them up, they exist transcendentally, we then describe them and the info gets turned into objects e.g. sound waves for a sound qualia.


Mind > perception > qualia > info >object

Invert for input.

That was insightful. :slight_smile:

Are you familiar with David Chalmers’ since of extrinisic and intrisicc “information”? He also puts a spin on it with his idea of panpsychism.

No I am not, but I’d be interested to know a concise version of the theory.

He has a book, a couple now, called The Conscious Mind: In Search for a fundemental theory. However, a good introduction by him is in one my my anthologies, I’ll dig it up and find a link.

The only problem with it is that it isn’t concise, because he doesn’t want to reach too far out into the turbid turbulent realms in metaphysics.

Well what does it basically say? What did you get from it? No need to be exact.

When I get home I’ll look at the indents to see what I thought about it. It’s been a year since I’ve read it. The problem with it, as I remember, is that Chalmers doesn’t exactly lay down much of a theory at all. He wants to include the subjective within the framework of the objective, so that phenomena such as qualia may be subsumed under science-- both being labeled as “information”. It’s not a dualism-- per se-- it’s called “dual aspect theory”. So one side is extrinisic, what we know of the objective, scientifically describable world; the other side is known as intrinsic, what we know of the subjective, qualitative side where consciousness comes from. That’s what I remember from it.

I think I said this before, where it sounds like Spinoza’s Nature/God substance which has, at least, two aspects to it, but itself is one thing. To put it in physicalist terms, There is this substance and it has multiple properties that is predicable to it.

Having one substance working on itself certainly seems to fix the explanatory gap, however, if comon sense is about the best we have, and thoughts ideas, sensations really do seem different from physical stuff, such as tables cars and chairs, then how can we be sure there isn’t two distinct substances?

Metaphysics is a tough game! I wish I knew more to make a better reasoned guess.

Three fold chord really brought this issue alive to me. I had to read it twice to understand it but he came up with some brilliant ideas. Multi-realisability is clever concept I cannot debunk. :slight_smile:


Nice paper by the way. But some new material may help you along the way. :smiley:

Multi-realizability? Are you talking about functionalism, and how brain states may be analogous to how circuit boards work, or even a system of pipes and water arranged in a complex fashion?

No in fact Putnam started off by talking about circuit boards and logic and computation in the logical mind, which he later abandoned for more fuzzy logical systems.

You should read his book. It was a real eye opener for me.

Which book? I have some of his stuff already. :slight_smile: The guy is a genius. However, I don’t see ho functionalism, even in tandem with fuzzy logic, will give rise to consciousness. It will give rise to better, more convincing zombies though :smiley:.

Maybe I’m just hung up on the whole, machine idea, and how machines, consciously, are absolutely dark inside-- that is, not thinking things in the since that we are. Do they know what it is to “play” a game, to never want it to end, like a game of chess or life? Do they “understand” or is it just following a function that a human programmed it to do?

The Three Fold Chord.

lrb.co.uk/v22/n14/jerry-fodo … f-tuesdays

You’re right the zombie issue is a real pain in the ass, I am not saying that Hillary Putnam has solved the problem just that I cannot see a problem with his theories as they stand. Hell that review is very critical, but suffice to say he came up with a really interesting idea about qualia.

I think it’s a good idea to think of things all acting together as one, but as one ‘substance’ ~ I’m not so sure. Philosophers and scientist try to bring everything down to matter/substance, but I don’t see how mind and info or even colour can be reduced to that. For me its better to reduce both the material and mental down to a third party, probably information and communication.

It doesn’t have to be just different machines imho, if we imagine consciousness as a machine but not physical, I don’t see why that wont work. Essentially consciousness mirrors the informational input from the human machine, kinda like a stamp upon wax and in that, it ‘knows’.

Colour it would seem, is a mental quality produced relative to sensory info as perceived, but it is ‘something’ too. It all seems to come down to weather or not we accept there is more than the machine going on, but to not accept that is to say that your experience doesn’t exist, the colours you see in the world do not exist. Can we say that and make any kind of sense?

Geeze… people argue about a paradox, but never try the circumstances in reality. Its called a Hypnogogic Hallucination. I had a room down in a unfurnished coal cellar as a kid cause my mom didn’t love me. No windows, cold, furniture is what I found, including a black, white, and green tv (I dunno why green, it was really old from the 50s on it’s last leg, found it tossed out). I saw color patterns all the time. You can measure this effect by the footlamp… certain cognitive styles will be more prone to it, I’m a INTJ, given your a professor up in Michigan, you can test this on a class. Black out all the lights, including from the door in a class, and gave just a lamp you can progressively turn off, by degrees. The measurement the light gives off it a footlamp… that’s it’s metric, not a kind of lamp. I’m Catholic, but also spent time learning various meditation styles. I could never tell if I was doing “Zen Correctly” cause all my instructors were initially of the Dogen persuasion and just told me to sit there, and keep still, and ignore everything… which didn’t answer my question. Wasn’t till I found Nicheran Zen who used this sort of light to dim the room did I realize how futile meditation was for me. The exact light level most people preferred for mediating, caused the light patterns associated with hypnogogic hallucinations to become very noticable. I see thus stuff always, but trained myself to ignore it. Its like staring at the sun or bright light, then looking away… you see something of it floating around, burned… it becomes a blob, fades into other colors, green, blue, yellow… same thing here, save I’m not staring at the sun. Some patterns are just lines and waves, others quite colorful. A black and white TV still produces white… and white can burn a image, and this image can morph colors. Likewise, the darkness and lack of stimulation can assert activity… it functions like musical ear syndrome in deft people, but for the eyes… lack of sensory information forces the brain to produce it. If you ask volunteers to try this, and to take a free online MBTI test, you can test the effective range of those who wouldn’t be bound to thus paradox through natural Hypnigogic hallucinations. Likewise… everyone will experience color bleeding when focusing on a black and white TV. If she is this great optical neurologist, she will certainly notice something is up. So Mary sees in colors… what does this mean for her philosophically? It means she has seen the outside world while stuck still very much in this Platonic Cave of yours.


I am the original poster, Frankenstein. I’m surprised this was revived. I’m glad to see people still debating this. I’m sorry I’m posting under a new alias now. The password and email attached are lost to me.

Mr. Ferguson, in principle do you see the fundemantal problem here? This goes for touch, for sight, for hearing, for tasting, you can make an argument about taking a fundemantal color like blue and turn it off but what if mary never did that and only watched it for the news? What if she had no cones in her retna, which meant that she couldn’t see color? But in the future she is given the power to with advanced medical procedures? What of a person that is completely deaf, only then to be given the means to hear again? What if Mary never tasted anything before because of a medicine she has always been on? This goes for all qualia.

Furthermore, your Meyer’s Briggs test, as impressive as it is, just rates your personality. It has nothing to do with sense perception I believe, but I could be wrong. So i’ll end this post with a semicolon;

:laughing: :laughing: :laughing: :laughing: :confusion-seeingstars: :laughing: :laughing: :laughing: :laughing:

It does, your MBTI rating has a lot to do with how information is processed, including information processed through the Frontal Eye Fields, how imagination is used and visualized, etc.

And yes, I’m aware, we have a member blind, no eyes at all, she is used as a example occasionally. Doesn’t undermine my position, that observation isn’t restricted to a monochrome even in a impossed monochromatic world, externally in the case of controlling the light, or internally, with random lesions to your inner eye.

Reason why is, sight has much more to do with the interpretation of seeing, and maintaining this, than actually seeing. I can, for example, write a essay on musical composition with musical ear syndrome, even if I became completely deft… that music comes from my memory, new each time… but the music is encoded to learned rules… but it’s always The Best Music Ever for that kind of music (it’s true, look into musical ear syndrome). Deft people hear it, or people in strict isolation, like I was on guard often in the army. Its never just something you’ve heard, but a new formulation of music at it’s best. Someone like Mozart (if I recall, he went deft, might be thinking of someone else) might of always been at that high level, and not noticed after losing his hearing fantastic music playing… might of been normal for him, but for me, it is always great music. You’ll find this mentioned a lot on Musical Ear Syndrome pages. Not so for when the lack of sight forces images… they can come off as bizarre or outlandish.

I believe this eventually dies off in the completely deft and/or blind, as the brain adjusts to not needing that sense, so you gotta factor in Locke’s outlook of a person constantly in a state of change.

If you just poke your eyes, you’ll see flashes of light similar to hypnogogic hallucinations… not quite the same, but similar.

And yes, I know who you are, came across this thread long ago, found you online. When I saw you signed up again, brought it back. From my limited knowledge, you also have a background in the classics, you’ll find Aristotle wrote on the eye phenomena… I’ve recently been leaning back towards the idea (in a much modified fashion) of how Aristotle approached sense perception, since researching Hynogogic Hallucinations. I don’t do drugs, smoke, or drink… so it’s not artificially simulated. And naturally personality type differences that effect how your brain processes info will in turn mean your using parts of your brain others of a far different type don’t use as much. Its one of the side effects of why I notice this happening, I do believe, over those who can’t see anything at all, unless they are near sleep.

Optometrists tend to know a lot on this subject, even your small town doctors. I can’t see how this woman doing these tests in isolation, wouldn’t possibly notice her sensory system going into fluxuations. If she us trying to lust all phenomenal ranges, she would have to explain every oddity, traced back to it’s source. I’m holding my smartphone in the dark, I blink, IRS “light” bleeds into my sight.

I turn away, a largely white screen bleeds into Green. I see color. I close my eye near it, I see red. I close them, I see red, yellow, green.

If you start cutting out chunks of the mind though, or take someone blind from birth, this differs. Blind from birth people have occasionally sworn they see colors in a dream, but honestly, I doubt it. I seriously doubt you can just beam a image into their head via some scifi “wifi” and will notice any change at first. To us, it’s common sense, sight is right in front of us, but if you turned it in for no one who never had it before, even compensated with a chip for all the brain and neural degeneracy of never using that part of the mind… would they even know they are “seeing”, or would it not even register till some painful conditioned responses kicked in? Like waving in front of the face… feeling the air from the hand… then snaking them hard… then waving, smaking… a few dozen times, until that say “wait… something is odd, what is this… I’m not certain, I never noticed this before”.

It may take along time for them to descern the cardinal directions visually, despite knowing it haptically. Optical illusions would stump them. Staring at the sun will burn their eyes, all the while not knowing they are even looking at it… they may see it just their eyes hurt, and are getting watery, and they are blinking often, to everyone else sighted we would know they are starring at the sun.

It takes us a while as babies and even as children to get this. A grown adult with haptic equivalents should get it faster, but not at first.

I have a question about qualia.

Can we count them and measure their interactions with one another?

Maybe that’s 2 questions. But you get what I’m asking right?

You are right about your direction of seeking answers and those enlightenment philosophers were wrong, including scientists. There is something for sure that is primarily responsible for sensation which resides outside physical brain too. You can name it what you want; qualia, consciousness or something else.

With love,

I like how the first 2 paragraphs give away key information without saying anything. It is a rather elegant writing style.