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Intermediate article Qualia

Torin Alter, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, USA

Qualia are the subjective aspects, the characteristic
properties, of conscious experience. There is exten-
sive philosophical debate about how qualia relate to
the physical world, and in what terms they can be
Conscious experiences involve neural activity and
information processing. They also feel a certain
way. Consider your visual experience of reading
these words, or the auditory and tactile sensations
you had when you turned the previous page. There
is something it is like to have those experiences.
That is, the experiences have certain properties
characterizing what it is like to have them. Those
properties are known as qualia (singular: quale). C. I.
Lewis coined the term in 1929. Common synonyms
include `phenomenal properties' and `phenomeno-
logical properties', among others. Phenomenally
conscious states, by definition, are states with
Recent decades have witnessed vigorous philo-
sophical debate about qualia. Most of the contro-
versy concerns whether qualia can be adequately
characterizedin physical or functional terms. If they
cannot, then physicalism and functionalism, two
leading theories of mind, are incomplete or false.
Other issues include whether qualia exist, which
mental states have qualia, how qualia relate to cog-
nition, how physical systems such as brains give
rise to qualia, how qualia can be scientifically stud-
ied, what the neural correlates of qualia are, which
creatures have mental states with qualia, and how
qualia are known. All of these issues have empirical
components. In some cases, such as the neural cor-
relates issue, scientific investigation is under way.
`Qualia' is sometimes defined narrowly, in ways
that give rise to substantive issues about their
existence. For example, some reserve the term for
properties that are nonphysical by definition. On
that usage, the debate over whether conscious ex-
periences have irreducibly nonphysical properties
(discussed below) is a debate over whether qualia
exist. And, to take a second example, Daniel Den-
nett (1988) reserves `qualia' for properties that are
by definition ineffable, intrinsic, private, and im-
mediately apprehensible in consciousness. He at-
tributes belief in their existence to various errors.
For instance, he argues that conscious experiences
seem to have ineffable properties because they
have practically ineffable properties. Even the most
detailed descriptions one can fathom might fall
short of capturing what it is like to, say, taste a
pomegranate. Nevertheless, on Dennett's view, a
sufficiently detailed, accurate physical/functional
description would leave nothing about such an
experience unexplained. Thus, Dennett concludes,
qualia do not exist.
But if qualia are defined broadly, as the proper-
ties characterizing what it is like to have conscious
experiences, then their existence is hard to deny.
Here `qualia' should be understood in the broad
Mental states with qualia include bodily sensations
such as pains, itches, and orgasms, and perceptual
experiences such as seeing, hearing, and hallucin-
ating. Candidates for other states with qualia in-
clude at least: emotions such as lust, fear, and grief;
moods such as depression, euphoria, and anxiety;
thoughts one thinks silently but explicitly; percep-
tion of sentences of a language one understands;
and cognitive attitudes such as desire, regret, and
even belief.
Some use `qualia' in such a way that by definition
only sensory states can have qualia. On that usage,
Do qualia exist?
Qualia and other mental phenomena
Are qualia irreducible?
Qualia and causation
Qualia and cognitive science
Knowledge of qualia
Qualia 807
even if there is something it is like to have a belief,
beliefs do not have qualia. But on the most common
usage, nonsensory states are not excluded from
having qualia by definition. There may be a sub-
stantive issue about whether there is something it is
like to have a belief, and therefore about whether
beliefs have qualia.
Many believe that sensations have their qualia
essentially. On that view, for example, no state
that lacks pain qualia would count as pain. Opin-
ions vary widely on whether the same should be
said of emotions, moods, and other mental states.
Disagreements over that issue tend to reflect diver-
gent attitudes towards the overall relationship be-
tween qualia and cognition.
The assumption that qualia and cognition are
closely linked has a distinguished history. It was
more or less standard in seventeenth- and eight-
eenth-century Western philosophy, including espe-
cially (though not only) British empiricism and the
Kantian tradition. In a different form, it pervades
the writings of Brentano and other phenomenolo-
gists. (None of those figures used the term `qualia',
which was introduced in 1929. The preferred term
was `consciousness', and the assumption was usu-
ally implicit.)
Attitudes have since changed dramatically, due
in part to the influence of behaviorism and the
subsequent development of cognitive psychology.
Many have come to believe that cognition and in-
tentionality can and should be investigated without
paying attention to qualia. Indeed, that opinion
predominates in contemporary philosophy of
mind and cognitive science, and has done so for
more than half a century. But there are prominent
dissenting opinions. John Searle argues that inten-
tionality depends essentially on consciousness,
which on his view entails qualia by definition. He
There is a conceptual connection between conscious-
ness and intentionality that has the consequence that a
complete theory of intentionality requires an account
of consciousness (1992, p. 132).
How qualia relate to the physical world is contro-
versial. Some doubt they can be explained in phys-
ical terms at all. The discussions usually centre on
thought experiments, to which we now turn.
The Knowledge Argument
Perhaps the most widely discussed thought ex-
periment about qualia is Frank Jackson's (1982)
case of Mary, the brilliant scientist. Mary is raised
in a black-and-white room, but learns all the phys-
ical information (all the physical facts) about
human color vision by watching lectures on black-
and-white television. That includes all the informa-
tion in completed physics, chemistry, and biology,
and everything that follows from that information
(including functional information). Then she leaves
the room and sees colors for the first time. Intui-
tively, it would seem that she thereby learns some-
thing new. For example, she learns what it is like to
see red. So, Jackson concludes, there is nonphysical
information about qualia. That is the knowledge
argument against physicalism, the view that every-
thing, mental and nonmental alike, is physical.
Physicalists have challenged each of the know-
ledge argument's assumptions. Some question
whether one can learn all the physical information
without experiencing color first-hand (e.g. Dennett,
1991). That objection is natural but unpopular;
physical information as traditionally conceived is
fully explicable in the objective language of science.
Others (e.g. Lewis, 1988) argue that what Mary
acquires when she leaves the room is not informa-
tion but rather abilities: abilities to imagine, re-
cognize, and remember color experiences. That
objection is also relatively unpopular. As many
note, what Mary gains when she finally sees red
bears characteristic marks of informational know-
ledge. For example, the present author (Alter, 2001)
argues that she might retain her new knowledge
even if she loses the corresponding abilities, which
is generally true of informational knowledge. A
third objection to the knowledge argument runs
as follows: when Mary leaves the room she ac-
quires only new ways to represent information al-
ready in her possession. Before leaving the room,
she uses physical concepts to represent the facts
about color qualia. After leaving the room, she
uses phenomenal concepts to represent those
same facts (e.g. Loar, 1990). That objection is popu-
lar. But many remain unconvinced that phenom-
enal concepts pick out physical properties rather
than distinctive properties of their own.
The knowledge argument has much in common
with an argument advanced in Thomas Nagel's
classic paper `What is it like to be a bat?' (1974).
Nagel argues that our inability to adopt the subject-
ive viewpoint of echolocating bats prevents us from
understanding essential aspects of their mental
lives, and that no amount of objective, physical
information would render our understanding com-
plete. His reasoning is so similar to Jackson's that
the knowledge argument is often attributed to both
808 Qualia
Absent Qualia
Another familiar thought experiment is usually
discussed in connection with functionalism, the
view that mental states consist in their causal rela-
tions to one another and to sensory stimuli and
behavioral responses. The thought experiment is
designed to show that the functional organization
of a sentient creature could be realized in a system
that has no mental states with qualia. In Ned
Block's (1978) example, China's population organ-
izes itself in a way that is isomorphic to the
functional organization of a human brain. Individ-
ual citizens simulate the behavior of individual
neurons, radio links correspond to synapses, and
the system controls a robotic body. In Block's
view, such a system might feel nothing, despite
being a functional duplicate of a conscious human
being. For example, it might feel no pain. If so,
then qualia cannot be explained solely in functional
David Chalmers (1996) argues that the absent-
qualia hypothesis challenges not only functional-
ism but also any version of physicalism. Just as a
qualia-free functional duplicate of a conscious
human being seems possible, a qualia-free physical
duplicate seems possible. Such creatures are known
as phenomenal zombies (not to be confused with
the Hollywood variety, which may have qualia and
are functionally unlike ordinary humans).
Functionalists and physicalists sometimes re-
spond by challenging the coherence of the absent-
qualia hypothesis. For example, Shoemaker (1975)
argues that a true functional duplicate of a con-
scious human must have introspective beliefs
about its own sensory states, which on his view
entails that some of its states have qualia. Another
reply is to concede that the absent-qualia hypo-
thesis is coherent, but deny that it undermines
functionalism or physicalism. Here many invoke
the Kripkean (Kripke, 1972) notion of a posteriori
necessity, which may be explained as follows.
That water is H
O is a metaphysically necessary
truth, which would obtain even if the laws of
nature were different. Yet we know that truth
only a posteriori; conceptual reflection alone cannot
reveal the metaphysical impossibility of water
existing without H
O. Likewise, the argument
runs, conceptual reflection cannot reveal whether
absent-qualia cases are metaphysically possible.
And, the argument continues, in fact they are not
(e.g. Loar, 1990).
The latter response, though popular, has its prob-
lems. The Kripkean reasoning depends on the
clear-cut distinction between the ordinary concept
of water, which is given by its superficial features,
and water itself, the essence of which consists in its
molecular structure. Yet there appears to be no
analogous distinction between the ordinary con-
cept of pain and pain itself. There might be some-
thing, in some possible world, with the superficial
appearance of water that is not H
O. But, on most
views, in any possible world if something feels like
pain, then it is pain.
Inverted Qualia
A third familiar thought experiment, which Locke
mentions (1690, bk II, chap. 32), involves inverted
qualia. Imagine that your color experiences are
inverted relative to mine. For example, ripe toma-
toes look to me the color grass looks to you, and
vice versa. We both call ripe tomatoes `red' and
grass `green', but our qualia are inverted. There is
empirical evidence that such cases may actually
occur (Nida-Rumelin, 1996). The inverted-qualia
hypothesis is that the whole range of one's color
qualia could be inverted relative to a functionally
identical twin.
The debate over inverted qualia parallels the
debate over absent qualia in at least three respects.
First, like the absent-qualia hypothesis, the in-
verted-qualia hypothesis is often used in argu-
ments against functionalism. Second, some gener-
alize the inverted-qualia hypothesis in the same
way, arguing that physically indistinguishable
creatures could have inverted qualia just as func-
tionally indistinguishable creatures could. Third,
reductionists reply in similar ways to the objections
based on absent and inverted qualia; they argue
that the cases are incoherent or metaphysically
It does not follow, however, that the absent-
qualia and inverted-qualia hypotheses stand or
fall together. On Shoemaker's view, the former is
incoherent but the latter is not. Also, the two hy-
potheses raise different problems for reductive ex-
planation. The absent-qualia hypothesis challenges
reductive explanations of the existence of qualia (of
having mental states with any qualia), whereas the
inverted-qualia hypothesis challenges reductive
explanations of the nature of specific qualia (of
having red qualia as opposed to green qualia, for
Inverted Earth and Swampman
Recently, philosophers have been reflecting on two
further thought experiments. One is the case of
Inverted Earth (Block, 1990). Inverted Earth is just
Qualia 809
like Earth, except the sky is yellow, grass is red,
and so on. In the middle of the night, kidnappers
drug you, transport you to Inverted Earth, and
place you in your counterpart's bed. They also
change your body pigments and put color-
inverting lenses in your eyes, so that you are un-
aware of any difference (the two inversions cancel
each other out).
According to Block, your new linguistic and
physical environment will eventually produce
changes in the intentional contents of your mental
states. In time, your blue experiences will be about
yellow things, your red experiences will be about
green things, and so on, just like the other inhabit-
ants of Inverted Earth. In Block's view, you will
then be both intentionally and functionally
inverted with respect to your former self, but your
qualia will remain invariant. Inverted Earth thus
creates another problem for functionalism.
Inverted Earth also challenges representational-
ism, the view that qualia are just representational
or intentional properties. On that view, blue experi-
ences are equated with perceptual states that rep-
resent blue things. Representationalism is popular
among reductionists, who combine it with an ap-
propriately reductionist account of mental repre-
sentation (e.g. Tye, 1995). But if Block is right
about Inverted Earth, then qualia can vary inde-
pendently of, and thus fail to reduce to, intentional
In response, some reductionists argue that the
move to Inverted Earth affects qualia in ways that
are not subjectively evident. And many deny that
the move affects intentional content. The latter
reply sometimes involves an appeal to a teleofunc-
tional account of intentionality, on which the inten-
tional content of color qualia is determined by
the evolutionary history of one's species. Nature
designed a certain type of human perceptual state
to track blue things. That remains true even though,
after enough time on Inverted Earth, that type of
perceptual state is usually produced in you by
seeing yellow objects. Therefore, the reply runs,
your color experiences' intentional content never
The idea that qualia are teleofunctional-represen-
tational properties encounters a difficulty from an-
other thought experiment, devised by Donald
Davidson (1986). In Davidson's story, lightning
hits a dead tree in a swamp and creates Swamp-
man, a molecule-for-molecule duplicate of a
normal human being. Swampman has no evolu-
tionary history. A fortiori, its experiences did not
evolve for any biological purpose. Therefore, the
teleofunctional-representation theory seems to
lead to the conclusion that Swampman's states
lack qualia, which many find counterintuitive.
The Hard Problem and the
Explanatory Gap
The thought experiments discussed in the previous
section relate closely to what Chalmers calls the
hard problem of consciousness: how could a phys-
ical system such as the brain give rise to qualia?
That problem has long seemed intractable, despite
substantial progress in neuroscience and cognitive
psychology. We are learning much about how the
brain processes sensory stimulation, how it inte-
grates information, and related matters. But why
is such processing accompanied by qualia? There
appears to be (in Joseph Levine's (1983) phrase) an
explanatory gap: it seems that no amount of func-
tional or physical information we might acquire
about the brain would explain how it generates
conscious experience.
Those who deny that qualia exist dismiss the
explanatory gap as illusory. But, as noted earlier,
those philosophers characteristically use `qualia' in
a narrow sense in which qualia are irreducible by
definition. Even qualia eliminativists recognize that
there is a problem, if only an empirical one, of how
the brain generates conscious experience. Many
qualia reductionists also regard the hard problem
as unremarkable, according it the status of other
unsolved problems in science. Eliminativists and
reductionists sometimes compare the contrary in-
clination to the mindset of the vitalist, who puzzles
over how life could emerge from mere physical
processes and insists that nothing we could learn
from biology or chemistry would remove the mys-
tery (e.g. Dennett, 1988). Such comparisons may
have value, but they can mislead. In the case of
life, the phenomena requiring explanation are
plainly complex functions, such as how a living
system reproduces and how it adapts to its envir-
onment. But whether qualia can be explained func-
tionally is a central point of controversy.
Other qualia reductionists agree that there is an
explanatory gap, but attribute the problem to the
distinctive character of phenomenal concepts.
Those philosophers deny that the gap has strong
metaphysical consequences. In particular, they
argue, it does not undermine physicalism, because
qualia can be identified a posteriori with physical
properties (Loar, 1990).
Some are convinced that the hard problem is
insoluble. For example, Colin McGinn (1989) argues
810 Qualia
that, although there must be a naturalistic solution,
we are constitutionally incapable of comprehend-
ing it not because it is intrinsically difficult to
grasp (though it might be), but rather because our
distinctive cognitive capacities are ill suited to the
task. Others are more optimistic. On Chalmers'
view, a complete explanation will require psycho-
physical principles that connect physical processes
and qualia. He proposes a framework for such
principles, on which information is treated as
basic and has both phenomenal and physical
aspects. Nagel (1998) also suggests that qualia and
physical properties may be manifestations of some
deeper phenomenon, but he thinks our present
concepts distort the underlying reality. He pro-
poses that we try to develop new concepts to close
the explanatory gap, modeled on Maxwell's devel-
opment of the concept of a magnetic field, which
enabled us to comprehend the relationship be-
tween electricity and magnetism.
The hard problem concerns how qualia are caused.
There is also a problem concerning their effects. If
qualia reduce to physical properties, then they have
the effects of those properties. But what if qualia do
not so reduce? How could they affect the physical
world? Most agree that the physical world is caus-
ally closed, or nearly so; with the exception of some
quantumindeterminacy, every physical event has a
physical explanation. There would thus seem to be
no room for qualia to do any independent causal
work. Non-reductionism seems to imply epipheno-
menalism, the view that qualia have physical
causes but no physical effects. Many find that con-
sequence unpalatable, and some consider it a
strong argument for reductionism.
Some non-reductionists respond by defending
epiphenomenalism, but more try to block the infer-
ence. One way to do that is to reject the assumption
that the physical world is causally closed. Some
interactionist dualists (e.g. Eccles, 1986) argue that
qualia affect brain processes by filling in gaps
resulting from quantum indeterminacy. But few
contemporary philosophers or scientists accept
interactionist dualism.
Many non-reductionists accept the causal closure
of the physical, and argue that qualia nevertheless
have physical effects. That strategy has been pur-
sued in various ways. For example, some claim that
certain physical events are causally overdeter-
mined: that those events have both phenomenal
and physical causes. By causal closure, any phys-
ical event has a sufficient physical cause. Therefore,
any phenomenal cause it might also have would be
causally redundant. That is an odd result, which
some find as unacceptable as epiphenomenalism.
But most non-reductionist strategies for avoiding
epiphenomenalism involve substantive, sometimes
surprising, views about causation.
Consider a second example. Chalmers describes
a view, once proposed by Bertrand Russell (1927),
on which the causal powers of qualia derive from
intrinsic properties of the physical world. Physical
theory characterizes its basic entities relationally.
Basic particles, for example, are described in
terms of how they interact with other particles
and forces. Perhaps fundamental physical entities
have intrinsic properties, which ultimately account
for their relational properties. If so, then those in-
trinsic properties might be phenomenal properties.
Or perhaps they are protophenomenal properties,
from which both physical and phenomenal proper-
ties are constructed. Those ideas may sound
strange, but either of them would explain how
qualia could have physical effects.
How did qualia come to exist? Many suspect that
they provide organisms with evolutionary advan-
tages. One hypothesis is that they supply an effi-
cient way for organisms to acquire information
about their bodies and environments. For example,
pain qualia might help creatures capable of loco-
motion to avoid bodily damage, and olfactory qua-
lia might help them distinguish nutritious food
from poison.
Such hypotheses can be instructive (see below),
but the extent to which they explain the origins of
qualia is controversial. Phenomenal zombies, who
lack qualia, have exactly the same informational
sensitivities as their conscious counterparts. If phe-
nomenal zombies are possible, then natural selec-
tion alone cannot explain why conscious creatures
rather than phenomenal zombies evolved. Further
principles may therefore be required to explain
why qualia exist (Chalmers, 1996). Additionally,
until more is understood about qualia and the
brain, many will regard speculation on the evolu-
tionary benefits of qualia as premature.
Cognitive science often concerns qualia, or at least
subjective reports of qualia, in some way. Consider
three examples. First, studies of the splitting of
auditory attention tend to rely on first-person
reports of what the subject consciously experiences.
Qualia 811
Second, consider the search for the neural correl-
ates of consciousness. Some of that research con-
cerns the neural correlates of the general state of
being conscious, in a sense of `conscious' that im-
plies having qualia. And many studies concern the
neural correlates of specific qualia. For example,
experiments on rhesus macaques, trained to give
bar-press reports, indicate strong correlations be-
tween specific kinds of visual sensation and activ-
ity in the inferior temporal cortex (Logothetis and
Schall, 1989).
A third example is psychophysics. The Weber
Fechner law and Stevens's power law, typical
results in the field, relate the intensity of percepts,
or qualia, to the intensity of corresponding physical
stimuli (e.g. luminance). Or consider studies of
sensory illusions such as those produced by the
Kanisza square, depicted in Figure 1. Normal sub-
jects report seeing a square in the middle of the
diagram, with a border as real as if it had been
inscribed in ink. They also report perceiving the
interior of the square as slightly brighter than the
background, although there is no corresponding
difference on the printed page. Many regard qualia
such as those associated with such illusions as con-
stituting a significant part of what psychophysics
seeks to explain.
Studying qualia scientifically presents methodo-
logical difficulties. In general, we have only indir-
ect access to a subject's conscious states. We have
direct access to our own qualia, but introspective
investigation also has well-known problems, which
plagued the introspectionist tradition of the late
nineteenth and early twentieth century. Further,
first-person reports tend to employ coarse-grained
and imprecise language such as `an image of hori-
zontal lines' or `a high-pitched tone'. Substantial
progress will presumably require developing
more precise forms of expression. There may be
principled limitations to any such endeavor; some
claim, for example, that qualia are ineffable. But it
may be possible to devise precise languages that
capture at least the structural features of qualia.
Indeed, there have been attempts along those
lines, such as the quantitative techniques used in
Many of the difficulties for the scientific investi-
gation of qualia concern the phenomenal character
of particular experiences, rather than the existence
of qualia. Therefore, studying whether there is
something it is like to be a bat is in certain respects
more tractable than studying what it is like to be a
bat (Allen and Bekoff, 1997). Here evolutionary
hypotheses can be of use. For example, if we
assume qualia evolved to allow adaptively flexible
behavior, we may infer that adaptively flex-
ible behavior provides evidence of qualia. Philo-
sophical views can also help determine criteria for
attributing qualia to other creatures. For example,
functionalists might be more inclined than others to
base attributions on the presence of certain func-
tional properties.
We have direct, first-person knowledge of our own
qualia. That much is relatively uncontroversial. But
what that knowledge consists in is unclear. Most
accept that one can know about one's qualia non-
inferentially. For example, one need not infer one's
qualia from one's behavior. Beyond that, opinions
differ. In the early twentieth century, the heyday of
sense-data theories, particularly strong epistemic
claims about qualia were common. For example,
three sentences after C. I. Lewis coins the term`qua-
lia' he writes: `The quale is not the subject of any
possible error ' (1929, p. 121). One seldom finds
such unqualified claims in contemporary philo-
sophy, though philosophers continue to discuss
attenuated variants.
Philosophical arguments sometimes rely on
appeals to first-person knowledge of qualia. The
knowledge argument (see above) provides one
clear example. The literature on representational-
ism provides another. Some representationalists
claim that experience is diaphanous: that when
you attend introspectively to your experience
of the color patch you perceive, you `see right
through' your qualia to the features of the patch
itself, such as blueness and roundness. And that,
they argue, suggests that qualia are just representa-
tional properties such as representing blue and
representing roundness. But the legitimacy of
such appeals to introspection is much disputed. Figure 1. Kanisza square.
812 Qualia
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Block N, Flanagan O and Guzeldere G (eds) (1997) The
Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Churchland PM(1995) The Engine of Reason, the Seat of the
Soul. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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MIT Press.
Flanagan O(1992) Consciousness Reconsidered. Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press.
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