THE REPRESENTATIONAL THEORY OF QUALIA
William G. Lycan
University of North Carolina, USA
I use the terms “qualia” and “quale” in a specific, strict sense: A “quale” in this sense is an introspectible monadic qualitative property of an apparent phenomenal individual. (An “apparent phenomenal individual” is anything of the sort that Russell would have taken to be a “sense-datum,” such as a colored region of one’s visual field, or a heard sound.) My paradigm of a quale is the color of an after-image. Qualia in this sense pose a problem for materialist theories of the mind. For where, metaphysically speaking, are they located? (Not in the brain.)
According to the Representational theory of qualia, qualia are intentional contents, properties of representata. Suppose Ludwig is seeing a real tomato in good light, and naturally it looks red to him. He is visually representing the actual redness of the tomato. But suppose Bertie is experiencing a green after-image as a result of seeing a red flash bulb go off. On my analysis, that is for Bertie to be visually-representing a green blob located at such-and-such a spot in the room. Since in reality there is no green blob in the room with Bertie, his visual experience is unveridical; after-images are illusions. The quale, the greenness of the blob, is an intentional inexistent.
On pain of circularity, the theory requires color realism. “Green” means the objective, public property that inheres in some physical objects. What property? I buy into D.M. Armstrong’s Disjunctive Realism.
I give four direct arguments in favor of the Representational theory. First, the only viable alternative seems to be belief in actual Russellian sense-data. Second, there is nothing intrinsic to the brain that constitutes the difference between a red quale and a green one; unless there are Russellian sense-data, what distinguishes the two qualia must be relational, and the only obvious candidate is, representing red or green. Third, we distinguish between veridical and unveridical visual experiences. How so, if the experiences do not have properties like colors as representational contents? Fourth, when you are seeing a real colored object at one location in your visual field but hallucinating a second, identical object, say to the right of the real one, the relevant two sectors of your visual field are phenomenally just the same; the appearances are just the same in structure. The color involved in the hallucinatory appearance is exactly the same property as that involved in the veridical one.
Finally, I shall discuss and rebut an argument against the Representational theory: Ned Block’s appeal to “Inverted Earth.” Block describes a science-fiction scenario in which, he contends, one’s qualia would remain the same even though all one’s intentional or representational contents had changed; he concludes that it cannot be true that the qualia just are representational contents. In response, I shall argue that Block has given us no reason to agree with him that the qualia would not have changed also.
Block's Inverted Earth argument depends on assuming that qualia are “narrow,” in the sense that one’s qualia are determined by the total state of one’s nervous system. (On this view, two molecularly indistinguishable people could not experience different qualia.) A number of people have since called that assumption a “deep / powerful / compelling intuition,” and some have contended that it is in conflict with the Representational theory.
I give three arguments for the contrary claim, that qualia are “wide”: Two molecularly indistinguishable people could indeed experience different qualia. (Following Fred Dretske, I shall call this claim “phenomenal externalism.”) First, if the Representational theory is correct, then qualia are determined by whatever determines a psychological state’s intentional content; in particular, the color properties represented are taken to be physical properties instanced in the subject’s environment. Second, if qualia are narrow, then Block’s Inverted Earth argument is plausible, and a slightly augmented version of it would show that qualia are properties of a very weird kind whose existence is suggested by nothing else we know. Third, if qualia are narrow, then two molecularly identical subjects whose intentional contents are all different owing to different environmental surrounds must nonetheless have the same qualia; but neither the two subjects nor anyone else could ever know or even have reason to think that there were those shared qualia.
In what time remains, I survey a number of arguments against phenomenal externalism, and rebut them. Some of the arguments are the following: That a “Swampman” individual might pop into existence without the sort of history needed for intentional contents, yet would still have qualia; that a subject’s relevant intentional content could change without the subject’s noticing any qualitative change introspectively; that if qualia are wide, then then it is hard to see how the qualities of experiences can affect behavior; that if a quale is a representatum, it must be represented under a mode of presentation, and modes of presentation may be narrow even when the representational content itself is wide; that phenomenal similarities and differences do not track wide semantic similarities and differences such as those holding among the intentional contents of beliefs and desires; and that if qualia are wide, there should be “fool’s red” in just the same sense as there is “fool’s gold.”
I believe the most damaging of these arguments is the next to last. In response, I argue that perceptual representation is unlike that which arguably constitutes ordinary propositional attitudes such as beliefs and desires. Because perceptual representation is more modular and domain-specific, in particular, the Representational theory should not lead us to expect that phenomenal similarities and differences would track those holding among the intentional contents of ordinary propositional attitudes.