Direct Reference and Dancing Qualia


John Hawthorne



A direct reference theory for a term holds that the semantic content of that term is the referent itself. One important group of philosophers defend direct reference accounts for ordinary proper names and demonstratives, attempting to disarm standard Fregean complaints to the effect that their account generates an unacceptable rift between semantic content and cognitive significance. A second group accepts the standard style of criticism for direct reference theories of ordinary singular terms but maintains that a direct reference theory is exactly the right one for a special class of terms whose reference lies within the Cartesian theater of phenomenal experience.[1] It is the latter group of philosophers that is the concern of this short paper. More specifically, I shall undertake to expose a tension between this second species of direct reference theory and standard anti-physicalist views of phenomenal experience. A single thought experiment will serve as the centerpiece.


1. Direct phenomenal concepts


There are plenty of ways of thinking and talking about qualia. “Those qualia that I had yesterday”, “The feel of tension headaches”, “God favorite type of qualia”, “What it’s like to be a bat” are all, on the face of it, perfectly good devices for speaking of the phenomenal world. Yet there appears to be a specially intimate way of forming a conception of phenomenal experience. I can focus in on a particular experience token  and form a conception of a phenomenal kind that the experience falls under. I might naturally express such a conception using a type demonstrative: “Thus is one of the ways that I am feeling right now.”  Following David Chalmers, let us call this kind of concept a “direct phenomenal concept”[2]. It is direct phenomenal concepts to which our second group of philosophers bring attach a direct reference theory. The semantic value of a direct phenomenal concept (and the associated type demonstrative) is the phenomenal kind itself. The view is self-consciously Russellian in inspiration: recall that Russell believed that while the content of , say, “Bismarck” could not be Bismarck himself, there is a special class of logically proper names that stand for the objects of direct acquaintance and which, on that account could be given a directly referential semantic treatment.[3]




2. Qualia and the Physical


What is the relation between phenomenal facts and physical facts? The literature divides between those who take phenomenal facts to be necessitated by physical facts (the most straightforward version of that view being one according to which phenomenal kinds are identical with certain physical kinds) and those – the anti-physicalists -- who take phenomenal facts to be only contingently related to physical facts: the contingent nomic connections that bring the gulf between the physical and phenomenal worlds could have been different. It is the second view that concerns me here.

            Famously, anti-physicalists are happy to admit the possibility of zombies[4], beings that duplicate us in all physical respects, but which lack all phenomenal life altogether. But given the postulated contingency of the physical to phenomenal connections, there are plenty of other physical duplicates that engage the imagination. There are is a physical duplicate of me who shares my qualia on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, but who is a zombie the rest of the time.[5] There is a physical duplicate of me who alternates between three seconds of being a zombie, and three seconds of phenomenal life that duplicates that which I enjoy during the counterpart period. There is a physical duplicate of me whose phenomenal life duplicates mine except for the fact that, once during its life, the qualia that it has when it is complaining of pain are the same type as certain qualia that I actually have during certain moments of intense pleasure. These are paradigm cases of what David Chalmers calls “dancing qualia”: there are marked shifts in phenomenal experience in a subject who does not believe that anything unusual has occurred in his experiential life.  The periodic zombie will believe that he has always had experience during waking hours. The complaining duplicate with the once in a life time substitution will not register that anything strange is going on.


3 A Case


Fred and Twin Fred are told that the right hand side of their phenomenal field is going to “dance” during a given period of time. More specifically Fred and Twin Fred are told that on three or four occasions during a five minute interval, there will be a sudden change in the type of qualia that occupy the right hand side of the phenomenal field without their knowing that a change has occurred. Fred is lied to: during the relevant five minutes, there is no qualia dancing in his head. In fact, his phenomenal theater consists of a continuous expanse of phenomenal red throughout the period. Twin Fred is not lied to. (The reader is free to choose between a version of the story where God told him knowledgeably that his qualia were going to dance or else someone told him on the basis of a very lucky guess). At various points during the five minutes, the right side of his phenomenal field switches from phenomenal red to phenomenal blue and then back again. Twin Fred, being a physical duplicate of Fred, is altogether unable to say when any such change occurs. After two minutes, each of Fred and Twin Fred attend to the left side of the phenomenal field, form a direct phenomenal concept of the phenomenal type that is present there and utter the triviality “Thus is Thus”, where the newly minted phenomenal concept is expressed twice over. After three minutes, Fred and Twin Fred form a direct phenomenal concept of the phenomenal type on the left of their phenomenal field[6] and a direct phenomenal concept of the phenomenal type on the right of their phenomenal field and, albeit hesitantly, make an identity claim, which they express with the same string of phonemes: “Thus is thus”. [7] Let us suppose that, once again, they both express truths. (The qualia were dancing in the right direction for Twin Fred at that moment). After four minutes, they again form direct phenomenal concepts of the kinds displayed on the left and right and, once again, express an identity claim with “Thus is Thus”. This time Fred expresses a truth and Twin Fred does not. After four minutes it is phenomenal blue that occupies the right hand side of Twin Fred’s phenomenal field.



4 Discussion


Consider the standard Fregean case against direct reference theory[8]: Someone who considers the thought that Hesperus is Hesperus is considering an utter triviality about which he can be a priori certain. Someone who considers the thought that Hesperus is Phosphorus, is entertaining a thought that cannot be verified a priori, one which instead is judged true or false on the basis of empirical inquiry. Hence the thought that Hesperus is Hesperus is a different thought to the thought that Hesperus is Phosphorus. The same point can be couched in the language of epistemic possibility[9]: It is epistemically possible that ~ Hesperus is Phosphorus but not epistemically possible that ~ Hesperus is Hesperus.

            It is not my concern here to defend Fregean arguments against direct reference theory. Instead I wish to press a point that should by now be obvious: If one reckons Fregean arguments to refute a direct reference theory for ordinary proper names, then should take a dim view of those anti-physicalists who propose a direct reference theory for qualia. The familiar distinctions that apply to Hesperus/Phosphorus thoughts can be reenacted at the level of direct phenomenal concepts. Consider:

The first judgement made by Fred and Twin Fred has, like the thought that Hesperus is Hesperus, an a priori security. Just as it is not coherently conceivable that Hesperus is not Hesperus, Fred and Twin Fred would not find it coherently conceivable that their first judgment is false.[10]

Matters are quite different when it comes to Fred and Twin Fred’s second and third judgements. They are both understandably hesitant with regard to those judgements. And they ought to be hesitant. The propriety of hesitance is made manifest by Twin Fred’s error. None of the relevant four judgement tokens express a priori knowable thoughts. In each case, it is epistemically possible that the judgment is false. But if the contents of those thoughts are individuated in line with a direct reference theory for direct phenomenal concepts, then they will turn out to be the very same thoughts as the first thought entertained by Fred and Twin Fred respectively. The salient distinction between an a priori knowable thought and epistemically risky thoughts will have been obliterated. Those who reckon the original Fregean line of argument persuasive, should reckon the preceding reflections equally cogent. Moreover, what goes for Fred goes for us. If we accept the possibility of a beings like Twin Fred, then we should not take ourselves to be a priori certain of type-identity claims about the phenomenal theater that are analogous to Twin Fred’s second and third judgments.[11]

If he is to maintain his position, the anti-physicalist Russellian will have to insist that while it is not always that case that we ought to know that Hesperus is Phosphorus, is it always the case that we ought to know the content expressed by Twin Fred’s second judgment. Just as some wildly irrational person who hesitated about whether it is true that Hesperus is Hesperus would provide no reason for denying the a priority of that proposition, so Twin Fred’s hesitation about the second proposition expressed by the second judgement should provide no reason for denying the a priority of that proposition. Twin Fred has radically defective a priori competence.[12] But this contradicts what is intuitively obvious about the case, namely that from an epistemic perspective, Twin Fred’s second judgment has far more in common with the judgement that Hesperus is Phosphorus than the judgment that Hesperus is Hesperus.[13]




Let us be clear. I do not think that it is intuitively obvious that the Fred/Twin Fred case is possible. And that it because it is far from clear that it is possible that we undergo radical changes in our phenomenal world and yet sincerely deliver similarity judgements that are blind to those changes. Yet contemporary anti-physicalists are committed to that possibility. What I have shown here is that with such a commitment in place, there is little prospect for a direct reference theory confined to direct phenomenal concepts and their linguistic expressions. Surprisingly, it may be the physicalist who is better able to defend a special semantic treatment for phenomenal concepts. 

[1] There is a mild variant of the view according to which the semantic values of the distinguished class of terms are not the referents themselves but instead, in each case, a function that takes worlds as arguments and delivers the referent (or set containing the referent) for each world in which the referent exists and delivers nothing at all (or else the empty set) for worlds where the referent does not exist. This does not conform to the letter of direct reference theory but is equally susceptible to the concerns raised in this paper. Philosophers who adopt the second view, or its mild variant, include David Chalmers, Brian Loar, Brie Gertler, Martine-Nide Rumelin. Some, but not all of this list, combine the second view with anti-physicalism.

[2] See “The Content and Epistemology of Phenomenal Belief,” on his website.

[3] For example: “[W]hen I say ‘This is white’. . . [if] you mean this piece of chalk as a physical object, then you are not using a proper name. It is only when you use ‘this’ quite strictly, to stand for an actual object of sense, that it is really a proper name.” The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, reprinted by Open Court, 1965, p. 62.

[4] Of course, there are some versions of anti-physicalism that would not tolerable the possibility of zombies, part-time zombies, and our other imaginary creatures. It is clear enough, for example, that Descartes thought that a language-using organism would not be self-sustainable in the absence of an immaterial mind to watch over it. My discussion here is confined to more familiar versions of anti-physicalism.

[5] Of course, such physical duplicates may well not be nomologically possible. (cf. The Conscious Mind, p.269)

[6] Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as the phenomenal type, since there are more and less abstract phenomenal types that belong to a given experience. (Compare being phenomenally red with being phenomenally dark red, and so on.) The direct phenomenal concepts, let us suppose, select one particular level of abstraction.

[7] Note that this is not what Chalmers would call a “direct phenomenal belief,” since it is grounded in two distinct acts of attention, directed to two distinct property instances. But the left and right hand side of the phenomenal judgment nevertheless express what he would call direct phenomenal concepts. See his “The Content and Epistemology of Phenomenal Belief”.

[8] See ‘On Sinn and Bedeutung,’ reprinted in Michel Beaney ed. The Frege Reader (Blackwell, 1997), 1. 151-171.

[9] Where a thought is epistemically possible iff it cannot be falsified a priori.

[10]  I abstract away from the tricky issues posed by considering worlds where reference failure occurs.  Arguably, in a world where the term ‘Hesperus’ does not refer, ‘Hesperus is Hesperus’ is not true (and not false either). Similarly, in a world where Fred switches from back and forth from zombiehood to phenomenal richness and utters ‘Thus is Thus’ on an occasion where he is a zombie, it is arguable that ‘Thus’ does not refer to anything and hence that ‘Thus is Thus’ is not true. Some will hold that this does not threaten a priori knowledge in a case where there is no reference failure. Others will hold that in each case, one can at best hold know a priori a thought of the form ‘If a exists, a =a’. Others will hold that not even the latter is strictly knowable a priori. What I wish to emphasise in the present context is that, however the issue is resolved, it does not point to any significant disanalogy between the Hesperus case and the case under consideration.

[11] That is not to say that such claims are never known to be true. Such possibilities as Twin Fred may not be relevant enough to defeat knowledge in the actual world. (Unless one is a sceptic, one cannot regard such mere possibilities of error as defeating knowledge.) It is perfectly coherent to maintain that we know such identity claims and that Fred does not on account of the fact that Fred, and not us, has been worrying testimony. All I insist upon is that once we concede such possibilities as Twin Fred, then we cannot coherently take ourselves to know the relevant claims with a priori certainty.

[12] Such a response is what one would get if one applied the materials in David Chalmers ‘The Paradox of Phenomenal Judgement’ to the case at hand. The idea would be that Fred and Twin Fred have very different evidence; that Twin Fred, unlike Fred is wildly irrational since his beliefs are wildly out of line with his evidence. The implausibility of that diagnosis in this case provides some reason for rejecting Chalmers’ conception of evidence as constituted by the facts of phenomenal character and not by one knows (or is in a position to know) about phenomenal character. .

[13] I note that if the indiscrimability of phenomenal character is intransitive and thus does not run in tandem with identity, then a milder version of the Twin Fred case may be easy to contrive in the actual world: Two color chips will produce indiscriminable and yet distinct phenomenal properties. A subject will, understandably, be disposed to judge the phenomenal colors associated with each chip to be exactly the same but will be mistaken. Cf Timothy Williamson, Identity and Discrimination.