One trap that we must be wary of is adopting beliefs because they are popular among people who strive to think critically or scientifically, as opposed to being the result of critical or scientific thinking. One good example of this is RationalWiki which purports to report the political beliefs which all Rational(TM) people should hold. Similarly, I believe that most people who believe in materialism do so on the basis of extremely poor reasons and without knowledge of some of the stronger arguments for qualia existing. Maybe we should ultimately support materialism, but I get the impression that many people jump to this conclusion too quickly. Here are some points I believe people should consider first

(I know someone else in the rationality community wrote a post arguing for consciousness recently and I was meaning to read it, but I lost the link before I had a chance)

Failure to bite the bullet argument

If qualia don't exist, why is anything that you experience good or bad? In this case, things like pleasure, pain and meaning are nothing more than ways that particles can combine. But if this is the case, why are these combinations special or more important than other combinations? Why should we try to make certain combinations happen and certain combinations not?

It's fairly common to deny the existence of the objectively good or bad, but denying the existence of the subjectively good or bad is a much stronger claim. But everyone acts like this matters and so it appears somewhat hypocritical. And there is an argument that we should continue to act normally on the basis of meta-theoretic uncertainty, but no-one makes that argument.

Pascal's Wager Argument

This last point is actually a pretty strong argument for believing in qualia. If they don't exist, nothing matters, but if they do exist then we benefit from acting as though they do exist. Therefore, we should assume the later.

Expected Evidence Argument

Claiming the existence of qualia is often seen as anti-scientific, some people would even go as far to say that they don't see much difference between claiming the existence of ghosts or qualia. One key difference is that if ghosts existed we would expect objective evidence of them, even if the experiments would be hard to run. For example, we would expect a greater rate of howling in houses where someone was murdered. Even if they could only interact with us psychically, we would expect a higher rate of mental illness in these houses, even if the person living there had no idea of the past. Since if ghosts existed we would expect the existence of objective evidence, the lack of any such evidence counts against them.

On the other hand, it's not so clear that we should expect any objective evidence of subjective experience. Arguably, the only evidence we should expect of subjective experience is direct, subjective evidence. So the absence of objective evidence provides no Bayesian evidence against the existence of qualia.

Initial Foundations Argument

How should we come to understand the world? It seems like we might want to first pick a class of phenomena to be the foundation and that this should be whatever we are most certain of existing. We will then need to decide on the best way of knowing about that phenomenon and then choose a way of figuring out what other kinds of things might exist in the universe.

So what should our initial foundations be? One option is the external physical world, while the other is subjective experience. The later makes more sense to me as it describes why we believe in an external world. It isn't that we just assume it a priori, but instead that we notice patterns in our subjective experience and then theorise that there might be some object that exists independently of our experience causing these regularities. On the other hand, subjective experience makes much more sense to assume a priori and hence more sense as an initial foundation. Indeed, we could even say that this approach is truer to the scientific method since we even subject our belief in the existence of the external world to an empirical test. In other words, objective experience needs to be justified in terms of subjective experience and not the other way round.

Transcendence Argument

Arguably the nature of an atom (or whatever elementary particle we choose) transcends its mere mathematical description. Firstly, the claim that "THIS IS ALL THAT THERE IS TO IT" seems like a strong claim and one which we can never know for certain. Surely, it is much more reasonable to maintain that there is at least the possibility of there being something in its nature beyond this. Indeed, if there were not, this would seem to imply that a perfect simulation of an atom is an atom and this seems absurd.

Following this reason, why can't there be an element of consciousness that transcends its mere mathematical description? And if a simulation of an atom is not automatically an atom, then perhaps a simulation of consciousness isn't automatically conscious?

Relabeling Argument

Let's suppose I have a system with a variable x which takes values between 0 and 10. Suppose we define a second variable y which is also between 0 and 10 which satisfies x+y=10.

Is this a different system than the original? It seems this comes down to whether y is a new entity or just a relabelling of x. The one thing that I would expect to be uncontroversial here is that it is possible for this new system to just be a relabelling. Whether or not it is necessarily just a relabelling would be much more contentious.

If we were to say that sometimes introducing a variable that like that could be more than just a relabelling, then that would be to accept that objects can have a nature that is not fully encapsulated by their mathematical definition as I previously argued.

On the other hand, if circumstances like this are always just a relabelling, then there is no difference between the system with y in it and the system without y in it. This becomes important when y is a much more complicated property, such as the amount of "pain" an organism is experiencing. If the system is the same with the entity representing pain or without this entity, then it seems like it can't have been important. This implies that someone insisting it was just a relabelling must then bite the bullet of qualia being unimportant.

Relational Argument

I'll quote Consciousness Comes First:

The issue is that physical properties are by their nature relational, dispositional properties. That is, they describe the way that something is related to other things and/or has the disposition to affect or be affected by those other things.
... However, if all we ever have is relational/dispositional properties—that is, if everything is only defined in terms of other things—then, ultimately, we have defined nothing at all.
It’s as though someone created a very elaborate spreadsheet and carefully defined how the values in every cell would be related to the values in all of the other cells. However, if no one enters a definite value for at least one of these cells, then none of the cells will have values.
In the same way, if the universe is to actually exist, its properties can’t be exclusively relational/dispositional. Something in the universe has to have some kind of quality in and of itself to give all the other relational/dispositional properties any meaning. Something has to get the ball rolling.

This argument is very similar to the transcendence argument and the relabelling argument in that it asserts things can be more than their mathematical descriptions, but still different enough that I felt it was worthwhile including separately. Interestingly the article argues the consciousness and conscious observations are what actually get the ball rolling, although I haven't thought this through enough to have a strong position yet.

Against the Illusion Argument

Some people say consciousness or qualia are just illusions. At best, this seems like a really bad analogy. For example, if I think I see an oasis, but it is actually an illusion, then it is the oasis that is illusionary and not my experience of seeing. In other words, if an experience is an illusion, then we still have the experience of seeing that illusion. And any discussion of illusions where the illusion isn't experienced seems to be a very misleading way of using that term.

Arguments against consciousness

I'll finish by noting that there are some very strong arguments against consciousness too. For quite a while I felt that the epiphenomenal theory was the most plausible, but there are two devastating critiques. The first is the evolutionary argument, it seems absurd that positive qualia would line up with events that are evolutionary advantageous and negative qualia would line up with events that are evolutionary disadvantageous if qualia has no causal mechanism to impact evolution. And the second is that it sure looks like qualia has a causal impact, since we are discussing them right now. So to believe in the epiphenomenal theory is to believe qualia for a reason completely independent from us actually having qualia.

These are very strong arguments, but I nonetheless worry about closing the door on this debate too quickly as there are quite possibly theories that we haven't considered yet, especially when there appear to be very strong arguments for qualia as well.

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Similarly, I believe that most people who believe in materialism do so on the basis of extremely poor reasons and without knowledge of some of the stronger arguments for qualia existing.

Wikipedia defines qualia as

individual instances of subjective, conscious experience

and gives these examples:

the perceived sensation of pain of a headache, the taste of wine, as well as the redness of an evening sky

Wikipedia also quotes Daniel Dennett:

Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett once suggested that qualia was "an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us".

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy also has an article on qualia, with much more detailed discussion of what the term is used to mean; however, it does not contradict the basic definition given above.

Meanwhile, materialism is said to be

a form of philosophical monism which holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all things, including mental states and consciousness, are results of material interactions.

I believe in materialism but also in qualia. (It’s not hard to believe in qualia; I have qualia all the time! They obviously exist sufficiently for me to experience them, which is plenty enough ‘existence’, as far as I’m concerned.) Why do you think that materialism implies the nonexistence of qualia? The consensus among philosophers seems to be that it does no such thing. You disagree? If so, why?

In fact, according to the SEP—

In this broad sense of the term, it is difficult to deny that there are qualia. 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.

So, really, my question is: against whom are you arguing, exactly? Who is denying that qualia exist? It would be helpful if you linked to some examples of this (rather strange) position.

These discussions are always complicated by different people using different words in different words.

This post was written to argue primarily against a view that has cropped up in conversations I've had with people personally, none of whom were professional philosophers. Most of these people were scientifically minded and many of them have been influenced by Daniel Dennett. Nonetheless, I feel I should be slightly cautious of saying that I'm arguing against Daniel Dennett's views as I have only been exposed to his ideas second-hand.

Keeping this in mind: Wikipedia says that Daniel Dennett "offers an argument against qualia", so it sounds like he rejects their existence; however the quote you listed makes it sound more like he supports a thin version of qualia instead. In practise the actual label is mostly irrelevant; two people can have exactly the same underlying views with one person saying they don't believe in qualia and the other saying they only support a thin definition.

So I'm not just arguing against people who say qualia don't exist, I'm also arguing against those who assert a thin definition by denying a thick definition. Some of my arguments might only work against those who claim non-existence, but others apply to both.

At this point, it would be natural to ask what exactly I mean by a thick definition, but there is a sense in which you can already predict what I mean by that. I'm sure you can already guess that if you give me your definition of qualia, then I'll respond that what I mean by qualia is not the mere arrangement of atoms or particular, but some feeling that exists beyond that. And that definition won't satisfy you because I haven't clearly stated what it is, but as I already argue in a comment below we should take the definition of qualia as primitive, so that we can only say what it is not, not what it is.

What is this business of ‘thick’ and ‘thin’? I am not familiar with these terms as applied to qualia, or definitions, or any such thing. Could you elaborate? I’m afraid I really can’t guess what you mean, and nor does your brief allusion to ‘not the mere arrangement of atoms’, etc., clarify things much.

Have you considered reading Dennett? He writes quite engagingly. In Consciousness Explained, for instance, he devotes an entire chapter to qualia. And if you find yourself frequently arguing against people who’ve been inspired by Dennett’s ideas, then why not go straight to the source?

A thin definition of consciousness would be one such as in the relabelling argument above. People start by taking a collection of atoms or quarks or part of a wavefunction. They view them in a materialistic sense, so no consciousness properties above and in addition to the physical properties. Finally they just declare that particular arrangements count as being conscious. I address this most directly in the relabelling argument above. Maybe I will read Dennett, but reluctant to buy a book just to read one chapter.

I confess that your relabeling argument makes very little sense to me. The rest of your comment, likewise. For one thing, it doesn’t seem to be a “definition” of “consciousness” at all, neither a “thick” one nor a “thin” one nor any other kind. For another thing, aren’t we trying to define “qualia” and not “consciousness”? Or are they the same thing (somehow)?

All in all, I remain very confused about what you are saying. (I certainly don’t presume to demand that you make any further attempts to explain it to me; perhaps someone else, who does understand your claims, can try their hand at an explanation?)

If somebody would insist that triangles need to be made of molecyles I could be hard pressed to talk about mathematical triangles if I can only effectively refer to triangle prototype objects. Or if someone insisted that floating point numbers were only real and real numbers were imaginary and took all statements about "reals" to "really" be claims that should be translated to be claims about floating point numbers for their actual semantics.

Some ontological stances hold for exmple that a atom can have a subjective experience. I believe these are called panpsychisist theories. It would seem a lot of people default to a ontology where you can have a single atom without any "psychisism". If you build up with non-psychic building blocks it would seem that the only way to recover psychisim to the theory would be to have it as an emergent property. But having it as an emergent property would mean it's implications for ontologcal basic being would be rather weak.

If people assume floating points trancendental numbers become inaccessible and it could seem that the question of whether existence contains "non-inert" components hangs on whether it is safe to assume that an atom is "dumb".

So people could employ a logic of "I am psychisist, I exists therefore existence has a psychisist component, therefore a theory that has no psychisist component is neccesarily inadequte". The trouble comes when you want to distuinguish this property from things like "being a computer/being able to be in complex computational states". Some people seem fine with "dead clockwork computer" theories essentially p-zombie worlds where things definetely happen and are in certain positions. Any talk trying to adress the "deadness" part can easily convert into discussion how you get complex computers from simple computers. (and the worlds are "alive" in the sense that there are dynamics they are not "frozen")

I have used almost every word except qualia, but out of the various angles I am starting to get the feeling that these kinds of things are trying to get pointed at. In phenomenology there are probably attempts in trying to understsand how "rich expereinces" get built out of "poor experiences" and it might be ontology ambivalent in that the background ontology is not terribly relevant. But I think there are a lot of people tha think there is strong correlation between poor experiences and simple computational states and rich experiences and complex computational states and the phenomenology can be understood as an attempt to get the computational state boundaries right in a very particular field which can be seen to be about very particular kinds of computers. But others might see it as being about new kinds of theories that are "alive" whose dynamics are poorly understood and the aliveness correlates with some exotic kind of ontological properties. Or that the bridge between "complex computational states" and "rich experiences" deserves recognition and theorization. That is when we explain experiences we give an explanation to a thing that other have not yet explained and can not explain and the kind of explanation is novel enough that why this type of explanation is even needed needs discussion and some might reject because it doesn't fullfill the criteria for the old type of explanation.


however the quote you listed makes it sound more like he supports a thin version of qualia instead.

He certainly argues against a thick version, but does not present himself as arguing for any version.


Chalmers use "materialism" to label the position he contrasts with the qualiaphilic position. I think it's an unfortunate choice.


Dennett does.

This is a mischaracterization of Dennett’s views.

Well, to be fair, there is this bit in Consciousness Explained (which I happened to be reading just now):

Philosophers have adopted various names for the things in the beholder (or properties of the beholder) that have been supposed to provide a safe home for the colors and the rest of the properties that have been banished from the “external” world by the triumphs of physics: “raw feels,” “sensa,” “phenomenal qualities,” “intrinsic properties of conscious experiences,” “the qualitative content of mental states,” and, of course, “qualia,” the term I will use. There are subtle differences in how these terms have been defined, but I’m going to ride roughshod over them. In the previous chapter I seemed to be denying that there are any such properties, and for once what seems so is so. I am denying that there are any such properties. But (here comes that theme again) I agree wholeheartedly that there seem to be qualia.

Yes, Dennett denies that there are qualia in the sense he’s arguing against (and in this, he disagrees with many other philosophers). But does he deny that there are “individual instances of subjective, conscious experience”? Well, he denies that there are such things in fact, but not that there are such things heterophenomenologically. As I said, his position is nuanced. (See also the bit about “fatigues”.) However, on the definition I cited in the top-level comment of this thread, Dennett does not deny the existence of qualia.

How would you characterise his views then?

Dennett’s views are nuanced, but central to them is his idea of heterophenomenology: the idea that “how things seem to me” is a perfectly real phenomenon (one which is constituted by our self-reports of how things [allegedly] seem to us, and other behavior which is apparently caused by such seemings), which it is our task (as philosophers of mind) to explain—but our explanation of which need not include anything like the entities (allegedly, apparently) experienced by the subject.

Under this view, “qualia” is taken to be a description of a certain aspect of our experiences of the world. What we do not take as given, however, is any notion that our explanation of “qualia” must ultimately include anything like qualia. (And, indeed, Dennett’s explanation does not—he spends, in fact, considerable effort on demonstrating that no sensible explanation of “qualia” will include any qualia.)

(As for the explanation itself—I really can’t do justice to it in a comment, or even a post. I do recommend Consciousness Explained, and also Brainstorms; they’re fun reading, even if you’re ultimately unconvinced by some or all of Dennett’s arguments.)


Dennett does not present himself as explaining "qualia" in any sense, not even a merely heterophenomenological sense.

Under heterophenomeonological investigation, an ordinary person will not claim to have "a red quale" or "a pain quale". A qualiaphilic investigator might regard those as reports of qualia, but Dednnett is no qualiaphile.

I can see how there could be a Dennett-alike philosopher who objects to "thick" qualia but not thin ones. However, the Dennett we have wants to "ride roughshod", not make fine distinctions.


I beg to differ.

I’m pretty sure “qualia do not exist” is an extreme fringe position. You seem to be under the impression that materialists deny qualia, which is not the case.

That said, this is a decent argument against the position that qualia do not exist.


Minimally, qualia are aspects of a subjects apparent experience, so to say that they are merely apparent does nothing to refute them. Dennett does not refute minimal qualia, he refutes a "thick" conception.

From an outside view, you have given a long list of wordy philosophical arguments, all of which involve terms that you haven't defined. The success rate for arguments like that isn't great.

We can be reasonably certain that the world is made up of some kind of fundamental part obeying simple mathematical laws. I don't know which laws, but I expect there to be some set of equations, of which quantum mechanics and relativity are approximations, that predicts every detail of reality.

The minds of humans, including myself, are part of reality. Look at a philosopher talking about consciousness or qualia in great detail. "A Philosopher talking about qualia" is a high level approximate description of a particular collection of quantum fields or super-strings (or whatever reality is made of).

You can choose a set of similar patterns of quantum fields and call them qualia. This makes a qualia the same type of thing as a word or an apple. You have some criteria about what patterns of quantum fields do or don't count as an X. This lets you use the word X to describe the world. There are various details about how we actually discriminate based on sensory experience. All of our idea of what an apple is comes from our sensory experience of apples, correlated to sensory experience of people saying the word "apple". This is a feature of the map, not the territory.

I am a mind. A mind is a particular arrangement of quantum fields that selects actions based on some utility function stored within it. Deep blue would be a simpler example of a mind. The point is that minds are mechanistic, (mind is an implicitly defined set of patterns of quantum fields, like apple) minds also contain goals embedded within their structure. My goals happen to make various references to other minds, in particular they say to avoid an implicitly defined set of states that my map calls minds in pain.

I would use a definition of qualia in which they were some real, neurological phenomena. I don't know enough neurology to say which.

Just because your current theory of apples refers to quantum fields doesn't mean quantum fields are essential to appleness. I would think your concept of apple is continous with the concept of apples before the discovery of quantum fields. And even if we abandoned belief in quantum fields we would probably still keep the concept of apple and it would survive such an ontological shift. Anything that has a true definition that would involve quantum fields could not survive such an ontological crisis.

Thanks for pointing out this argument, I might add a variation to the list.

"From an outside view, you have given a long list of wordy philosophical arguments, all of which involve terms that you haven't defined. The success rate for arguments like that isn't great." - Firstly, I didn't claim that qualia definitely exist, just that they are dismissed too quickly. Secondly, the outside view is widely ignored on Less Wrong - why is this? Do people on Less Wrong really just fall into the reference class of smart people, with nothing setting them apart? Thirdly, is it really accurate to describe these arguments as wordy? Most of the arguments seems concise to me. Indeed, if that is the case, haven't you just made a wordy argument yourself? Fourthly, if you need definitions, feel free to ask, although as I've commented below, I believe that qualia are a primitive concept.

"I expect there to be some set of equations, of which quantum mechanics and relativity are approximations, that predicts every detail of reality" - there's probably some set of equations that can predict all the physical details of reality, but who says all the details are physical? And even that comes with a major limitation, we can describe relations between physical entities, but what can't say what their nature is.

"The minds of humans, including myself, are part of reality. Look at a philosopher talking about consciousness or qualia in great detail" - yep, I've acknowledge this argument and linked to a post by Eliezer on this.

"You can choose a set of similar patterns of quantum fields and call them qualia" - See the relabeling argument and the discussion in failure to bite the bullet for reasons why defining qualia in the map leads to qualia not being of any real importance.

"This makes a qualia the same type of thing as a word or an apple" - it's a massive assumption to claim words and apples are the same kind of thing. Why should logical entities be the same kind of thing as physical entities?

Whether patterns of graphite on paper, or patterns of electricity in silicon, words are real physical things.

Don't you think that there could be a logical component that goes beyond this?

I think most people will say that they have "visual experiences" ie that they can see and experience themselfs as seeing something when they use their eyes.

There are "blindsighted people" that say that they are blind, but if you throw them a ball they can catch it. This seems to involve using eye information to coordinate hands. But it seems plausible that they lack the experience of seeing atleast on some of their conscious levels.

A person that denies the existence of qualia would seem to neccesarily claim that most/all people are blindsighted, sure they can benefit from visual information but they don't experience it. This is not a common claim.

Yet it seems common for people to understand that computers are not persons and that getting mad at computers is misguided and that there lacks a foundation to claim that there is something to "be" a desktop computer. But when considering their fellow humans they do not have any stronger claims that experience is necceary when referring to humans. (and it's common to claim that you are having experiences AND that you are not especially experienceful and it's common to see that computer-equivalency and viewpoint-symmetry lead to incompatible results). Referring to this mostly pretheoretic notion mess is probably not well done with any -ism.

I am guessing you are leaving out important presuppositions which are probably worth discussing.

Blindsight isn't merely a difference of qualia since there are actual, physical brain differences as well.

I am suspecting that you are using a definition of "qualia" that has ontological commitments built in. The term really doesn't have those and you need to get your terms straight. If you want to talk about those ontological commitment use words that directly access them.

I maybe too generous in assuming that you mean what "qualia" means. The example of insisting that people are blindsighted is what I understand for someone that doesn't believe in qualia. The version that treats qualia as "explanations" of how things can work as they do utilise a sense of the word that it does not have.

It feels like you mean"qualia" as a bit of ontology that is not material which would explain why you see materialism as it's antonym. What you really ought to use are words like "metaphysical organ" or "soul" or "mental" as ontolgocial primitive in contrast to materia. Those words have a lot worse ring because claims involving them tend to be somewhat ridicilous.

There might be an interesting argument of the lines of "materialism doesn't explain experience so we need to entertain the possibility of non-physical bits into our ontology". "qualia" refer to the "experience is a thing that happens" part but not to the hypothetical ontology extension. Like gravity anomalies might found assumptions into the existence of dark matter there migth be a danger of taking "dark matter" to be a synonym or shorthand for the gravity anomalies. But conceptually these are separate and there are physicist that think that discovering better gravitation laws addresses the anomalies without supposing new categories of substance (ie dark matterless theories are seen as viable).

It might be interesting to try to steelman the soul question. For example in a morph environment there might be a question of which actors are NPC and which are PC. And it's true there that on a game world level PCs and NPCs are similar functionning. But PCs can go "afk" and they require wetware to sit in front of a keyboard. Somebody that thought that the game world is the place where the cognitive machinery lies might think that there is no reason to posit that keyboards even exit and esoteric "biological" components would be explanationarily needless for understanding what happens in the game world. In particular examining part of the game code/world that is involved in netcode one might quess tht the cognition lies inside that bit of code instead of locating outside it.

And in general for video games the perception for the game world is primary to the existence of the game world itself. You infer the existence of a 3d world because of what flashes on your screen and because 3d terminology is an effective way to talk about different screen states. And in the case of games we know the worlds are fictious they can only upkeep an apperance and keeping up that appearance uses up cpu cycles. If somebody would try to get inductive on what is shown on the screen they could get a very different concpetion of what world forces there are present than one that assumes that there is a source code that dictates what happens.

In a conception that is popoular in these days it's easy to tell a story where the effective phenomena that we see are representative of the mechanisms that generate our expereiences. We think we can see the workings of the world, we think we have access to the source code. But if we could hit a soft or hard wall on figuring out the source code of a video game from the inductive screen patterns how could we tell whether we have hit such a wall in the real world?

It might be that explainining things like healthbars are very unnaturally explained in a theory that tries to treat the 3d game world as the actually existing layer of existence. Someone that has a lot of skill that is built on a 3d conception of the world might be tempted to not even try to explain healthbars and rather try to argue that they don't exist. But it's still a different thing to note that healthbars exist than to theorise background entities that might be responcible for them.

Qualia is a word that different people use in different ways. In this post I have been using it to refer to some kind of sensation or experience, but in a sense beyond the materialist conceptions of these words. I will admit that in other contexts I've used it to refer to whatever makes I think we have these non-materialist sensations and that I should make my terminology more consistent, but I don't think I've used it this way in this post? I think this is a useful thing to have a term for and I wish I'd added a short section at the start to clarify my use of the term, but I also think it should be clear enough from context what I'm arguing for and against.

"For example in a morph environment there might be a question of which actors are NPC and which are PC. And it's true there that on a game world level PCs and NPCs are similar functionning. But PCs can go "afk" and they require wetware to sit in front of a keyboard. Somebody that thought that the game world is the place where the cognitive machinery lies might think that there is no reason to posit that keyboards even exit and esoteric "biological" components would be explanationarily needless for understanding what happens in the game world. In particular examining part of the game code/world that is involved in netcode one might quess tht the cognition lies inside that bit of code instead of locating outside it." - this is actually very similar what I was planning to write in my next post. Not sure whether I'll still write this post now, but if I do I'll reference this comment.

I do not understand and I am afraid to guess what you mean by "non-materialist sensation". I understand that if I see a red flash and explain it by a red photon having hit my eye that I employ a materialist concept to explain my experiencen. And if somebody explains the red flash with a ghost that would be a non-materialist explanation. However I don't get how the flash itself would be material or immaterial, it's a sensation it doesn't come with a user manual. Now if i had frequent remoteviewing experiences I might have categories of sensations that do not have readily available materialist explanations. But often unexplained sensations remain open to their explanation types. It would be even more rare to not have a explanation but have reason to believe that the explanation can't be material (usually it's just assumed to be unknonwn material explanation).

By being careless with the words you are undoing a lot of concept analysis that philosophers that try to only take a small bite at a big problem have done. You are very close to promoting muddy thinking. In particular I do not really know the referent of "materialist conception of sensation". I might be badly educated in that I miss some highly spesific word associations. But I think it's also highly possible that you do not have enough grasp of the concept to explain it by other words. With a lot of "-ism" words there is often the trouble that people use it as a very short shorthand for a lot of detailed claims but different people use different expanded theories. Being able to open up the shortened version allows for disambiguation when there is semantic conflict.

For example I remember there was some named philopsher that seriously cliamed that things exist as thoughts in god's head and that matter doesn't exist. It would seem that this kind of conception for example how to see the tree would still fall under the usual way of interpreting seeing. Thus it would seem that this theory still uses "materialist conception of percieving". But then we have an antonym problem as the mentalist ontology is supposed to stand in opposition to an ontolgoy that affirms that matter exists and that mental things do not have ontological primacy. But the "qualist" apporach is supposed to stand in opposition too and it doesn't at the face of it be complatible or atleast says something different as mentalism. To solve these kinds of troubles I usuallly turn to talking about details. I get that someobody that has a different understnading of the "-isms" doesn't have the same troubles of trying to get to relate to each other. But I think how you are using the words relies too much on how idiosyncratically they have ararnged themself in your head and in order to do valuable work in other peoples mind, more care is needed for mind interoperability. There is some hint what you mean but most of that hinting just suggest that your concepetions are unhelpful or really actually wrong. If you start to mean "table" with the word "chair" and people start to disambiguiate "you do use a chair for sitting right?" that is often work critical to establish a understanding link. Even if we don't rule whether "table" should mean "chair" people being aware that there are two conceptions at play helps tremendously to account for possibilities.

I think you might not be appriciative how qualia is attempted to be a very narrow term referring to expererience. Like using "3 legged rotary bar chair" in the actual meaning of "any furniture used for sitting". Non-physical ontolgoical primaries are a whole another family of terms, "materia" for a ontological primary that is passive and follows some N dimensional space rules, "thought" for for a primary that has intentionality and usualy doesn't have extents or locations. "Dualism" says that there are multiple co-existing primaries most commonly materia and thought but that they exist independently of each other. "Neutral monism" say that there is only 1 ontological primary which can't be characterised to be any of the dualism co-existing primaries. These are terms which creep closely how you actually try to use the word "qualia". But it's not the area of concept where the word really should be used. It's like you are using the word "fourteen" in a place where a color would be expected. I need some serious briefing how fourteen makes sense as a color or I am just assuming that you are making an error. Which ever the case I am currently unable to read any intelligble claim from the text.

If you see a red flash, and explain that red flash by a red photon hitting your eye, then you are either being imprecise to the point of philosophical carelessness, or you are confused about physiology, physics, or both.

Whatever the case may be, it does not do to forget that materialism is not at all the same thing as assuming that the world is simple. The real story about what color is, and how color perception works, is vastly more complex than your offhand comment implies. I am no dualist, but I would suggest to you that giving a materialistic account of color is, in fact, quite a challenging task. The question of whether we have yet accomplished it, is not one which I would so quickly declare to be closed.

Fine I glossed over more than was good for the point I was making. To my needs if you look at a red chair, you have a vision of a red chair and it makes you think of a furniture object existing out in the world and that object is electromagnetically interacting with the object that you associate with your "identity" (ie your body). The story about objects existing is prone to theorethical uncertainty and error and it not evident from the perception itself. The link between particular kinds of flashes and particular kinds of electromagnetic waves is not central and I guess at the world side of things it would be more proper to talk about certain nanometer length waves instead (unheard tree makes a pressure wave). However you expect any kind of story of electromagnetic waves interacting with eyes in the relevant way to have a corresponding experience going. That is if you point a laser at your eye you are not surprised why you see a flash even if you have not ever damaged your eyes with a laser before.

But for example if your photo resistors are pushed without them triggering you do not experience that in any way. And if you photoreceptor are rubbed in a way that makes them go off some experience might trigger and an unused perciever might associate that experience with receiving light but what you actually experience is physical touch which is mainly felt throught skin ordinarily. A problem is that you come to believe how your senses work throught what is in them.

Say that you are watchiing television that has a documentary running how TV programs are made. Say that you are sceptical that TVs can be trusted. There is a problem in that the documentary is likely not seem compelling if you need to trust in the reliability of the TV in the first place to take it seriously. You might think that the documentary is a forgery to promote more tv ad adherence. If a person main method of finding out how TV programs are made is wathing tv they might be stuck in this catch-22 (for example my knowledge of "the room" is largely represented by "the disaster artist"). With TV you can instead go open a door and watch things with your eyes. But with our senses they are unescapingly the method that we interface with the world. There is no "extrasensory" release valve and even if there was that would just be another (standard) sense. So if we learn how eyes work by looking at slides in a biology class that is similar to wathcing a TV-making documentary on TV. Inductive reliance gives some hope. But it leaves the door open that one day the illusion of an outside world no longer (perfectly) holds. If I only dreamed the biology lesson the rules it teaches are not that fundamental. If blair witch project tries to sell itself as a found footage programming but I notice inconsistencies which are better exlained by actual production process my expectation on what I might see get changed a lot. If something is supposedly live action but looks very CGI another big shift. In the same way it's plausible that stories about electromagnetic fields might be more akin to theather sets, yes their appearance is in congruence with the plot but they are only apparent but not fundamental.

None of that is at all relevant to what I was alluding to, which concerned human color perception. (A sample of relevant questions: “what is the wavelength of light that makes you see magenta”; “what is the wavelength of light that makes you see orange”; “what color are afterimages”; “can something look to have a certain color but actually have a different color”; “what does it mean to be wrong about an object’s color”; “is there such a thing as an object that has a color no human can see”. There are many more; this is only a small sample.)

The question is relevant only to the extenet that physical world event and perceptions are intermingled. I used simplist language, I infact know a lot of interesting things about color perception which you could not have deduced from my simplistic language.

For example for the question "can something look to have a certain color but actually have a different color" there is the illusion about a cylinder casting a shadow on a chessboard. Then there is what on what in chess terms would be different colored squares one outof shadow and one in shadowm marked A and B. The image is made so that if you compare the fill color of A and B on a monitor they have the exact same color values. But when humans are presented with the picture and claimed that A and B are the same color they can't believe it. The human brain is such that when it recognises that something is in shadow it presupposes that the material would in more ordinary lighting be a more bright color and part of what makes the illusion work is that when people refer to "color" they have a closer association to the lightning-invariant color than to the kind of absolute color that computer monitor pixels have to assume. Quesitons of the form "what is the wavelength of light that makes you see orange" have presuppositions that get overruled by this lighting context. Under orange lighting the criteria on what wavelengths are counted as orange get tighter.

Going over what I wrote I notice a possible ambquity. "materialist theory" can refer to any theory whose primary ontology is fairly described as "materia" or it can be read as the top honed result of what "materialist starting point theory" has provided. A toy model belonging to the wide category doesn't do justice for exemplifying explanatory power. But the point was to clarify that there is the evidence, the suppositions that are used to make sense of the evidence and the abstract hypotheses that are either bought or disbelief based on understanding. In the visual processing system taking into account shadows it assumes the existence of shadows as appropriate transformations on raw data to get useful data. The brain assumes out of habit or without justification that shadows happen and on the abstract layer it becomes diffult to doubt them. A and B seem like different colors and as the abstract reasoner you have little clue that the assumption of shadows was used to derive those colors. "they just appear to be different color" as a matter of fact. But if you had to do the job that your visual cortex does automatically by hand you could see how the raw data doesn't necceciate that result. Looking pixel by pixel you can see that the color values match.

There is also color perception that does not enforce a materialist-handy set of assumptions. There is a form of synesthesia where letters are seen as colored. It's not that super mysterious as letter-contex is not that different from shadow-context. But somebody having these kinds of experiences is much less likely to think of these as objective qualities world objects have. You don't get confused as black object turns to red as you recognise it to be a t-letter. But sometimes your emotional state can color your perception of others feelings. If you are feeling paranoid you can think of everyone else as paranoid even without realising. This kind of experience can feel a lot like "just directly accessing that persons objective paranoidness" I guess you could have a sort of synesthesia where you color people based on what you think their mood is. If you did have emotional processing this automatic it could be hard to entertain that your emotional logic could be wrong "offcourse he is sad, just look how blue he is!"

I appear to have rambled but the point is that "simple color perception" is just open to be abstractly wrong as coloring sad people as blue. It's hard to rule out that you are literally seeing red because you are synesthesing your anger into your experience. But the standard interpretion "I am seeing red because the environment is uncaringly having electromagnetic state in my location" suffers from same sorts of difficulties.

It is interesting that you mention the cylinder/chessboard “illusion”. I do not think that the lesson to be drawn from it is what you think it is.

I do not understand how the linked discussion highlight anything that I have not covered. There are two conceptions of color according to one that A and B are same and another which they are not. Just as long as you don't mix concepts you are fine. It might be misleading that language has only one color word but it should be pretty clear that the concept definitions are separate. Notice how there is no good word to call the color the squares do not have in common. Or if we use words "white", "grey" and "black" they are both grey but one of them is black and the other is white. If you would think color was a single category one might be confused how something can be both white and grey. But the "grey" color is a different type of color ("apparent illumination") than the others ("shaded hue"). For example we readily recognise that there would be a category error for thinking that shiny and white would mean the same thing (note that shininess would be confrimed in image wby the presence of whiter than usual pixels). When the both categories are called "white" it becomes harder to recognise that they are actually homonyms of two distinct concepts.

What lesson do you think I am drawing? What thing the linked discussion is drawing? And how is the linked discussion more appropriate learning? What color conception is appropriate for tyhe situation depends on the application. Sure human brains have a great need for "shaded hue" color. But computer monitor makers have a great practical relevance for "apparent illumination" color. that's like arguing that "right" is the correct concept and "starboard" is an irrelevant and incorrect concept. And that road leads to arguing whether landlife is more valid than sealife.

If you are confused by what I'm saying, you might want to spend some time talking to some regular (non-philosophical) people and understanding their views about consciousness. Notice that a good proportion will have views contrary to the materialist stance. Anyway, I see my role as more pointing out a possible path to coming to understanding, rather than actually forcing you to take the path.

Edit: Okay let's try this. In dualism, sensations have a non-material component. Similarly, in property dualism.

Second edit: I felt my original comment was a bit rude, so I decided to edit it.

Usualy when talking to people one of the goals is to convey ideas. It's not mandatory to participate in talk but I figured that conveying that the line is dead informs whether to abandon the activity asd pointless or to engage in repair conduct.

I do know that a lot of people have softer views and people with great technical skill can have very "harsh" worldviews. And often they do not fully appriciate the philosophical problems their models have when it seems their models details are driven by a particular sort of need for detail. A materialistic stance is useful to demand and to accept thought time sacrificed to entertain and form long and detailed explanations.

The comparison to what I know of the world generally is really hampered as I don't understand that well what "materialist stance" is supposed to refer to.

It is certainly not the case that I am at duty to accept your thesis because I can't come to understand it. It might be fine even if a little disapointing to "agree to not understand" when even "agree to disagree" is often discomforting.

Another relevant option is that people downvote and don't reply and the author is left wondering why there is no engagement around the topic. This would correspond ot the stance of "if I am not understood I don't want to know about it"

If everybody would be at liberty to scramble the english dictionary and speak only in their scrambling of it communication would be very laboursome. In order to not have a "let's find out what your dictionary is" part to every conversation there needs to be some minimum level of respect for established terms.

I feel it's also a good communication practise to declare when you are not part of the common understanding early rather than late. Thus saying "you lost me at 'materialistic stance'" I feel like am making the task of upcoming explanation as easy as possible by setting it up at a point where most other concepts are understood and where the job of explaning is predictably not that long.

I guess there is a danger that somebody might deliberately play dumb to avoid processing of views they oppopse. But I have also a principle that I can't say tht somehtign is dumb before I understand what it is getting at. Thus rather than holding a hardly or not legible claim against the speaker it's more akin to having said nothing.

Okay sensations in connetion to those categories I kind of understand. But it would seem that this should somehow make clearer how qualia or "materialist stance" enters the picture.

I was unsure whether "property dualism" is the same or different as neutral monism. Wikisearching gives such things as "property dualism is epistemic as distinct from ontic" while it seems here the ontic is of relevance. And it would seem that the view still thinks that there is only physical basic ontological stuff. That would seem to make it a materialist stance when it was supposed to be an example of a system that had a non-materialistic aspect.

Non-materialistic aspect seems to be relevant. Does qualia somehow exhibit it?

I'm not sure of what it would mean for qualia to exist or not exist. Could you give an explanation/definition of what exactly is the position that you are defending? (possibly it might also be helpful to explain the position that you are arguing against)

I suspect that qualia are a primitive, so any definition I could attempt to provide would never be satisfactory. All we can attempt to do is to provide negative definitions that identify what qualia are not. For example, I could say the subjective element of experience and this is eliminates a large proportion of the possibility space, but this is still open to misinterpretation. For example, a materialist could interpret this as neurons being in a particular state, which would what was being identified, at least if they were neurons as conceived in materialism as opposed to neurons conceived in property dualism.

Not sure what you mean by "primitive" here. If we assume that a human can be simulated, i.e. described as an algorithm, then there would be a sequence of state transitions or something like it that corresponds to a perception of a certain quale. These sequences are likely to be generalizable to "qualia sequences". Further, most humans and probably other animals, when modeled, would exhibit these sequences. In that sense qualia exist, as a model that accurately describes observations like "I see color red".

I was reading it as "primitive notion" appears in geometry. One doesn't explain what a "point" is while in general geometrical results require proofs. And this not because one is being sloppy about "points" but that it's fundamentally hard to have a conception without such primitive notions.

Right, I assumed as much. Postulating qualia as a primitive notion strikes me as not very useful though.

Why doesn't it strike you as useful?

To me, a primitive notion is something that doesn't need further defining - you can just point to an example and people will know from that example what you mean. If people don't know what you mean from an example, then it doesn't seem to work as a primitive notion.

There's something like that to qualia, in that you can give examples of subjective experience, and people will know what you mean. But your post was arguing against people who were saying that qualia don't exist. In that context, using the primitive sense of qualia seems insufficient, since you are taking something whose existence seems self-evident from our experience, and start talking about whether or not it exists. That makes me think that you must mean something else than the primitive notion, since I don't understand how there could be a dispute about the existence of the primitive notion.

To use the analogy to points, suppose that someone had written a post saying "there are people who argue that points in geometry do not really exist, but I will now present arguments that they do exist". The existence of points as a primitive notion seems self-evident to me: after all, I can draw a point, do geometry using the primitive notion of points, etc. So I assume that the post must be talking about something else than the primitive notion or using some more technical definition of "exist" or something; otherwise there would be no need to argue for the existence of points, nor could their existence to be disputed.

To discuss the existence of points as something which is up to debate, seems to already presuppose that they are not a primitive notion. Likewise, if you say that "by qualia, I mean qualia as the primitive notion", that doesn't seem useful in clarifying what your post is talking about, since it already seems self-evident to me that qualia as a primitive notion exist. So it feels like any dispute about their existence has to define them as something else than the primitive notion.

Some things really are primitive notions. And for each primitive notion there will be *someone* who will deny its existence. Your claim seems to be that if I argue against them claiming that it actually does exist then I concede that it's not a primitive. That doesn't seem like a very good argument.

That wasn't what I meant.

One could certainly debate the existence of say points, without disputing that they are a primitive notion. For instance, one could argue that points are a contradictory concept since they have an area of zero, but that each point that we can physically draw always has some area. Someone could then present a counterargument to that. Neither of those arguments would dispute points being a primitive notion.

Rather my argument is that if you are discussing the existence of a primitive notion, you have to explain what it would mean for it to not exist. Otherwise it is hard to understand what the debate is about, since naively, points/qualia seem to self-evidently exist.

You said "That wasn't what I meant" - and yet you wrote "if people don't know what you mean from an example, then it doesn't seem to work as a primitive notion" and "to discuss the existence of points as something which is up to debate, seems to already presuppose that they are not a primitive notion" and "otherwise there would be no need to argue for the existence of points, nor could their existence to be disputed". So I don't know how that could possibly not be what you meant?

Anyway, dealing with your argument in this comment, someone could claim points aren't primitive because they are the intersection of lines and someone else could claim lines aren't primitive as they are made up of points. According to your reasoning, neither can be primitive by mere fact of disputation. That doesn't seem very convincing.

"Rather my argument is that if you are discussing the existence of a primitive notion, you have to explain what it would mean for it to not exist" - So what does it mean for a point not to exist? What would it mean for matter not to exist or logic not to exist.


You can have lines as primitives, and derive points as their intersections. There isn't a single unequivocal definition of "primitve" in maths, a fortiori there isn't one anywhere else.


You can take lines as primitive, and define points as their intersections. There isnt a single definition of "primitive".


I suspect that qualia are a primitive

In what and sense of primitive?

"exist" is an interesting word, for something so difficult to define or detect. All of these arguments apply to "appearance of qualia" or "belief in qualia", rather than to actual qualia. I don't know how they wouldn't apply to p-zombies.

I tend to think of the arguments about whether qualia (or consciousness or free will) exist as similar to a question as to whether topographic lines exist. They're very useful on maps, they correspond in some ways with the territory (altitude, to a very coarse approximation) but they're not ACTUALLY part of the territory.


There's no difference between qualia and appearance of qualia. Note that qualia aren't defined as non physical.

The best argument for the existing of qualia is existing of pain.

We can care about feelings regardless of what they're made of.

If feelings were made of more than atoms, I would expect neurologists to have found some evidence of magic in the brain.

I don't deny that subjective experience exists, I just think it's made of atoms.

Due to quantum physics, there is a conceivable experiment that tells whether two electrons are identical in all their properties.

I'm open to positions like property dualism. On the other hand, I'm against thin definitions of feelings (just combinations of atoms, at least where atoms only have physical properties) and some of the arguments given in the original post give reasons for not believing in this.


It might be helpful to distinguish "made from atoms" and "explicable in terms of atoms".

Wouldn't neurologists only find magic if it has material affecting components? Magic that only interacts with different aspects of reality beside materia would not be so apparent.

The knowledge engine in our brain produces knowledge of that magic. That means that either that magic affects the knowledge engine, or the knowledge engine is magic.

For example, if I think I see an oasis, but it is actually an illusion, then it is the oasis that is illusionary and not my experience of seeing. In other words, if an experience is an illusion, then we still have the experience of seeing that illusion.

I don't find this convincing personally :).

I think an illusion can simply refer to a false belief which is caused by corrupted cognitive processes. In this case, the false belief really is sincerely held, and I do not deny this. But, every time we introspect, we're not accessing some realm of direct metaphysical truths, we're just running a cognitive algorithm. It's similar to a computer that has an internal check, and runs a subroutine asking itself if it's conscious. If the computer always returns "Yes, I am conscious, and my conscious states have these properties..." I can always point to an explanation which sheds light on this reply without referring to the conscious properties.

What you've written is a reasonable point to make, I just don't find the term "illusion" productive here as people are more likely than not to try to draw an incorrect analogy. Making actual progress here requires to drop the term and use more precise language like you have. Maybe I'm making too much of an issue out of this, but this is certainly a peeve of mine.

Most of people believe in an existence of the world around us. When I say existence, I don't mean existence in a mathematical sense such as "there exists ε > 0", I mean existence as something "real", "fundamental".

On the other hand, the very same people believe there is nothing such as "soul, qualia, god, call it whatever you like it". I find that strange, because every single argument against existence of soul can be used against existence of the physical world around us.

Take this one for example:

"Of course you say that you feel like you're more than a mere atoms, that's just a manifestation of the way atoms inside you are aligned."

And contrast it with:

"Of course it seems that mathematical model is real and stuff is happening there, it's by the very definition of that mathematical model that it should look real".