Işik Sarihan (Central European University)

"What Makes Qualia "Mental"?"

Abstract: This paper is a conceptual exercise about the semantics of the term “qualia”, written by a qualia-eliminativist representationalist who doubts the existence of such mentally instantiated qualities.

Qualia are usually defined as non-functional and non-intentional (or non-representational) qualities of phenomenal experience. As they are properties of phenomenal experience, they are taken to be mental properties. But in virtue of what qualia deserve being classified as mental properties? How do they differ from other qualitative properties in the world such as colors and smells, which are not called “mental”? Representational acts like thinking and imagining are the paradigms of the mental. But what is mental about the instantiation of a quality?

Bertrand Russell, in his Problems of Philosophy, warns us that it is easy to slide into a confusion when thinking about (now old-fashioned) sense-data: The fact that the existence of sense-data depends on their being in a mind, in the sense of being the objects of a phenomenal state, doesn’t mean that they are in the mind, in the sense that they are instantiated in a substance called the mind. If Russell is right, then sense-data need not be mental entities. Qualia, although they are not the objects of experience, are qualitative properties that exist as long as a relevant phenomenal state exists. Is it true to say that qualia are mental entities, merely because we find them only during the introspection of phenomenal states? The logical space includes the following possibilities: Qualia are non-mental objects of introspection, which actually means that the philosopher who claims to find them in introspection is not really introspecting at all. The other possibility is that they are merely intentional objects represented as being mental.

Qualia are usually claimed to be the vehicular properties of experiences, properties that do the representing. One can argue that it is by virtue of this that they count as mental. But according to most theories of qualia, there exists phenomenal states with qualia but without representational content, and the inversion of qualia is a conceptual possibility. And if a defender of qualia wants to reject these possibilities, the rejection has consequences:  If we admit that there is a direct relation between qualia and mental representation, we get to a point very close to representationalism, and the qualia theory will also lose most of its grounds, as the arguments for qualia usually deploy allegedly non-representational mental states like phosphenes and pain.

The other option, allowing the instantiation of qualia without representation, leaves us without a criterion to call qualia “mental”, because other qualities in the world like colors and heat are not classified as such. This wouldn’t constitute an argument against qualia, but would have the interesting consequence that the problem of qualia is not really a problem of the philosophy of mind. Indeed, the problem of qualia is just a general metaphysical problem of understanding how something qualitative can emerge from something non-qualitative.  

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