Perceptual and Cognitive Qualia

Fung, Torrance, Philosophy - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Langsam, Harold, AS-Philosophy, University of Virginia
Ott, Walter, AS-Philosophy, University of Virginia
Gertler, Brie, AS-Philosophy, University of Virginia

From the time you wake up from a dreamless sleep, there is a three-dimensional, multisensory, fully immersive movie playing in your head. This movie includes perceptual experiences that seem to include felt qualities like the soft, smooth feel of your pillow, or the visual blueness of the ocean. The movie also includes cognitive experiences like the realization that ‘Today is Friday’, and perhaps seeing that this means you will be meeting an old friend for dinner. There is something in common among all of these experiences: something it is like experientially simply to have them.

My dissertation seeks to explain the experiential feel of perceptual and cognitive experiences by saying what their common underlying structure is. Specifying something’s underlying structure can explain its other properties, as when, for example, specifying the underlying structure of a skyscraper can explain its property of being a certain height, or being able to withstand a hurricane of a certain strength. Similarly, philosophers of perception offer accounts of the fundamental structure of experiences in attempts to explain why they feel the way they do.

I propose that both perceptual and cognitive experiences fundamentally consist in an immediate awareness of, or acquaintance with, qualities ‘in the head.’ Our immediate awareness of these intrinsic, introspectively accessible qualities, which I call qualia, determines the felt character (‘phenomenal character’) of our experiences. Compare the sense data theory, which says perceptual experience consists in an acquaintance with mind-dependent substances—sense data—which really are the way they appear.

Leading claims of the new theory include: (i) experience is a subject’s acquaintance with her own qualia, where acquaintance is an irreducible relation to qualia, not an instantiation of qualia. (ii) qualia are instantiated by the subject, not the experience, and so enter in as constituents in the relation of acquaintance. (iii) qualia intrinsically represent external objects; that is, qualia in virtue of their intrinsic properties are ‘about,’ or are ‘of’, or ‘point at,’ external objects. (iv) One version of my theory says that perceptual qualia point by their intrinsic properties resembling the properties of worldly objects, while cognitive qualia point not by resembling. If the indirect realist, resemblance version of the perceptual qualia theory explains phenomenal character better than contemporary theories, then it has the historical significance of reviving a kind of resemblance account, akin to those held by Early Modern philosophers. The dissertation is also significant because there has been little overlap between the literatures on philosophy of perception and of cognition, and little overlap between philosophy of perception and debates over panpsychism. (i)-(iv) are defended at length.

Philosophers of perception distinguish between experiences that seem to be about the external environment—e.g. seeing mountains, feeling the coolness of a breeze—and (aspects of) experiences that don’t—e.g. the blurriness of vision and feeling dizzy. Philosophers have argued for standard qualia theories by appeal to non-outward pointing experiences. They do not argue for these theories by saying they account best for outward-pointing experiences. Chapter 1 is significant because it motivates a novel kind of qualia theory by arguing it accounts best for what it’s like to have both outward pointing and non-outward pointing experiences.

Suppose you are looking at the orange leaves of a maple tree. One theory says this visual experience fundamentally consists in an acquaintance with those very leaves, their orangeness, and their shape. That theory is called naïve realism, a main rival to my qualia theory. Chapter 2 argues that the external qualities that naïve realism appeals to for constituting phenomenal character must be non-physical (mental or neutral), fundamental, and ubiquitous. If these properties are mental, then naïve realism entails panpsychism (i.e. mentality is fundamental and ubiquitous). If they are neutral, then naïve realism is at odds with three influential theories of mind and world (dualism, idealism, and physicalism) and, I argue, entails panprotopsychism (i.e. protoconsciousness is fundamental and ubiquitous).

Is there something it is like to think a conscious thought? Suppose you’re reading an email chain. You read it from top to bottom, but it makes little sense because, unbeknownst to you, you’re reading the conversation backwards. Then you read it bottom to top, and it all makes sense. What it is like to read the email chain the second time with understanding is noticeably different. Some philosophers maintain that felt differences like these are fully accounted for by sensory phenomenal character: e.g. by what it’s like to imagine scenes in one’s head, ‘hear’ one’s inner voice, and changes in emotions. Others think there is more to the feel of such cognitive experiences than sensory character. Chapter 3 argues for the view that there is more to it. That there are irreducibly cognitive feels occasions a case for a theory of cognitive experience to account for them. I then sketch some reasons to prefer a cognitive qualia theory.

Philosophers of mind have fought over whether the mind is physical (physicalism), or whether it has irreducibly mental aspects (dualism). In the last decade philosophers have explored a third option, which says that irreducible mentality, including consciousness or thought, is ubiquitously instantiated in the natural world (panpsychism). Some are interested in panpsychism because it agrees with the intuition that mental states aren’t made out of matter, while providing a door for mental states to enter into causal relations with the external world. Panpsychists seek to explain experiences like ours by appeal to the combination of experiences at the fundamental level of reality. But they worry about how this might work. For instance, it’s hard to see how the sensations of electrons’ spinning up or down, or the sensations of any fundamental particles, could add up to the feel of the sun on one’s face. Chapter 4 argues that my qualia theory can help solve this problem for panpsychists. Though the qualia theory neither entails nor is entailed by panpsychism, this chapter provides a reason for those attracted to panpsychism to favor the qualia theory.

This dissertation offers a new, unified account of the nature of perceptual and cognitive experience. Experience is an immediate awareness of qualities ‘in here’ that intrinsically point at the objects of experience.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
consciousness, philosophy of mind, perceptual experience, cognitive experience, qualia
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