The Phenomenal Qualities Project

Investigating the nature of consciousness and its place in the physical world…

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Phenomenal Qualities Project Poll

Conference: The Nature of Phenomenal Qualities

Our final conference:

The Nature of Phenomenal Qualities

will take place at the University of Hertfordshire on:

March 29th – April 1st 2012

The conference will focus on the ontological nature of phenomenal qualities, the role and location of phenomenal qualities in perceptual experience, the relation of phenomenal qualities to the representational aspects of experience, the connections between phenomenal qualities, bodily states and the sensible properties of the objects of perception, and other allied topics.

The Nature of Phenomenal Qualities, University of Hertfordshire/(Beales Hotel) Thursday 29th March – Sunday 1st April.


Thursday 29 March


11.15   Paul Coates                 ‘Projectivism, Revelation and the Function of Perception

What is the function of perception? I offer reasons for thinking that, even in optimum conditions, perception does not lead to the immediate revelation of qualities belonging to external physical objects. More plausibly, the role of perception is to help us navigate around our environment, so as to make beneficial use of items in it. Perceptual experiences provide direct knowledge of the location of objects, their spatial structure, and – on occasion – of their kind. None of this requires acquaintance with the intrinsic properties of objects. Perception also enables us to examine objects, and to enjoy aesthetic experiences. Neither of these two further roles requires the immediate awareness of phenomenal qualities belonging to external objects. These considerations support a causal theory, which holds that phenomenal qualities are to be located on the side of the observer, and not in the objects we perceive. Such qualities are projected onto the objects we take to be present, and whose intrinsic natures we can never be immediately aware of.


2.00     Michael Tye   ‘The Nature of Pain and the Appearance/Reality Distinction

An account is developed of the nature of pain, according to which pain is an experience that represents both valuational and non-valuational properties.  It is argued that this account not only does justice to the phenomenology but also fits well with what we know about the neurophysiological basis of pain.

3.30     Michelle Montague     ‘The Life of the Mind

Consciousness takes many forms.  There are perceptual experiences, (e.g. seeing the sunset, hearing the gonging of a church bell, smelling freshly baked bread), emotional experiences (e.g. feeling angry about an injustice, joy at a success), but no less importantly there are conscious thoughts.  It is typically accepted that perceptual and emotional experiences essentially involve phenomenology, and it is phenomenology that makes these experiences conscious.  But what makes a conscious thought conscious?  I argue that non-phenomenological accounts of what makes conscious thoughts conscious, such as those that appeal to the notion of access consciousness, or to the idea of ‘cerebral celebrity’, fall fundamentally short. Any adequate account of conscious thought must appeal to phenomenological properties. If this is right, a question arises about what kind of phenomenological features are required.  Can conscious thought be accounted for solely in terms of sensory phenomenology, including both verbal and non-verbal imagery?  I argue that the answer is ‘no’, and that we must appeal to what is now often called ‘cognitive phenomenology’ to say what a conscious thought consists in.

 5.30     Howard Robinson       ‘What Are Phenomenal Qualities and What Is their Role in our Conception of the World?

I shall be arguing for three propositions. (1) That phenomenal qualities are – or are amongst – the fundamental building blocks of our conception of the Common Sense or Manifest World. (2) That, partly because of (1) and for other reasons, they cannot be identified with neural states. (2) That these qualities are subjectively instantiated in experiential states and are not mere intentional objects of – or simply represented in – such states. During the discussion of (2) I will try to show why the phenomenal concept strategy cannot give an account of the relation of phenomenal qualities to neural states.

Friday 30th March


9.15     Philip Goff                  ‘Phenomenal Qualities are Too Thin to be Physical

A posteriori physicalism is the view that there is an a posteriori identity between phenomenal qualities and physical or physically realised properties. Ned Block believes that opposition to a posteriori physicalism ultimately rests on the thesis that phenomenal qualities are thin, i.e. that phenomenal qualities lack a hidden nature which could be discovered through empirical investigation. He responds in detail to numerous dualist arguments in defence of the thinness of phenomenal qualities.

Suppose we agree with Block that phenomenal qualities are not thin. Still the questions remains: how thick are they? Can we know anything a priori about their nature? I argue that on any plausible theory of phenomenal concepts, such concepts reveal rich information about the nature of the qualities they denote, and that this fact renders their satisfaction inconsistent with the truth of a posteriori physicalism.

11.15   Sam Coleman              ‘Neuro-Cosmology

I modify Nagel’s argument for panpsychism in light of Rosenthal’s critique of it, and use the new version to argue for a form of neutral monism (‘qualitative physicalism’) instead. Then I explain how this permits an ‘objective’ explanation of consciousness and ‘subjectivity’, and argue that what results is just an explanatorily rich version of good old physicalism.


2.00     David Papineau           ‘Can We Really See a Million Colours?

Most philosophers take it to be uncontroversial that visual perception can represent something like a million different colours (and then they debate whether this shows that some mental representation is non-conceptual). I defend the contrary thesis that visual perception only represents a few different colours (along with being able to represent that adjacent surfaces are different-in-colour). This may be counteruintuitive but it accommodates the empirical data better than the standard view and also resolves various philosophical puzzles.

3.30     David Chalmers          ‘Some Puzzles About Spatial Experience

Is it possible that everything that seems to be on your left is actually on your right?  Is it possible that everything in the world is twice as big as it seems to be?  Is it possible that everything that seems square is actually an extended rectangle?  Through reflection on these and related puzzles I will address some central issues regarding the content of spatial experience.  I will use this analysis to shed light on puzzles about skepticism concerning the external world.

5.30     Galen Strawson           ‘Real Direct Realism

(1) Direct realism is true, when properly understood. Descartes and Arnauld are good guides, although their writings are open to different interpretations. (2) The issue of the truth or falsity of direct realism must be kept scrupulously apart from the issue of scepticism regarding an external world. (3) No defensible version of direct realism denies the existence of existents that can be correctly called ‘mental representations’. (4) Direct realism neither requires nor entails ‘disjunctivism’; ‘disjunctivism’ neither requires nor entails direct realism. (5) Direct realism does not require the truth of transparentism, and is incompatible with it when the word ‘transparency’ is understood in the most natural way. (6) There is truth in the doctrine of ‘transparentism’, but we need to distinguish the Moore version from the Reid-James version. (7) A defensible version of transparentism must acknowledge (i) the sense in which we are necessarily aware of our sensations in conscious perceptual experience, and (ii) the fact that we are in everyday life often aware of our experiences considered specifically as such, even as we are in direct perceptual contact with objects.

Saturday 31st March


9.15     Ronald Rensink           ‘A Function-centered Taxonomy of Attention

It is argued that much of the difficulty in relating consciousness and attention may stem from a failure to distinguish different kinds of visual attention.  To address this, it is proposed that a taxonomy of the known kinds of attention be created, based on systematic principles.  The approach suggested here begins by distinguishing all possible attentional functions and relating these to each other on purely functional grounds.  Next, mechanisms for each are proposed, based on available empirical evidence (including perceptual deficits). A group of attentional functions with a distinct set of mechanisms in common can then be taken to correspond to a distinct attentional kind.

Following this approach, the bulk of empirical work to date can be categorized in terms of five kinds of visual attention.  The first is sampling (overt attention), involving the pickup of information by the eye.  Second is filtering (or gating), the controlled access to information considered relevant.  The third is binding, the formation of integrated structure over space.  Fourth is holding, which creates the coherent structure necessary to perceive continuity over time. Finally, indexing enables the individuation of selected items.  Each kind appears to have a distinct set of behavioral effects associated with it, as well as a distinct set of mechanisms.  Each also appears to be associated with a distinct aspect of conscious visual experience. As such, this taxonomy may provide a useful way to address the issue of how consciousness relates to attention, splitting it along natural lines into several simpler sub-problems.

 11.15   Anthony Marcel               ‘Can Phenomenal Qualities be Known?

This paper summarises earlier arguments based on empirical data.

1. The nature of consciousness (non-unified, two levels, containing much that is non-explicit and nondeterminate) means that our conscious experience can be opaque to us.

2. Attending to one’s experience not only affects and changes it, but may also bring about specific content and phenomenology. The very qualities that are assumed can be, though not always are, a product of mental acts.

If the way that we, including philosophers, know about phenomenal qualities is by any form of introspection, then we need to acknowledge the complexities of that epistemic instrument in order to discuss the nature of such qualities. (Note that my argument does not undermine realism regarding phenomenal experience or phenomenal qualities; it just implies a slightly different kind of reality.)


2.00     Ophelia Deroy            ‘Synesthesia, phenomenal enrichment and parasitic qualia

What is it like to have a synaesthetic experience? Most synesthetes have stressed “having trouble putting into words some of the things (they) experience…. (as if they had to) explain red to a blind person or middle-C to a deaf person” (Cytowic, 1989). The current definitions of synesthesia as a condition in which “stimulation in one sensory or cognitive stream leads to associated experiences in a second, unstimulated stream” (Hubbard, 2007, p. 193) leaves the questions open: What are these ‘associated experiences’, and how is the ‘association’ felt? If smelling vanilla as ‘sweet’ is a case of ‘universal synaesthesia’, as argued recently (Stevenson, 2009) shouldn’t we all know?

To address these questions, the scientific investigation of synaesthesia has consisted in varying the inducer and measuring the modifications on the side of the unusual ‘extra’, called ‘concurrent’. The concurrent has been shown to be vivid, and consistently and automatically elicited by a specific kind of inducer, behaving therefore just like a perceptual experience. This leads to the dominant dualist view of synaesthesia as a pairing between two perceptual experiences, which most of us can otherwise have at distinct times. A synaesthete has the experience of middle C and an experience of green in a situation when we only experience middle C; however, both her and us can experience green when looking at the grass. This account is the one which has led philosophers to see synaesthesia as a problem for functionalism or representationalism (cf. Gray et al., 1997, 2002, 2006; Macpherson, 2007; Wager, 1999).

Here I argue that the dualist account rests on a method-content confusion, going from the testing of synesthesia through associated pairs to the idea that synesthetic experiences themselves are a pair of experiences. I suggest an alternative account in terms of parasitic qualia and phenomenal enrichment, which is consistent with the most recent experimental results and explains away some of the philosophical puzzles attributed to synaesthesia. In conclusion, I stress the challenges raised by phenomenally enriched experiences.

3.30     Fiona Macpherson      ‘The Space of the Sensory Modalities

In this paper I explore, refine, and defend an idea that I tentatively proposed in earlier work, namely, that we can define a space of the sensory modalities. In this space we can represent the actual and the possible sensory modalities. We can see how similar and how different the senses are from each other by considering their place in this space. In doing so, I address objections that Richard Gray has recently raised to this idea.

5.30     Mike Martin               ‘Sensation!

‘What is wrong, what is evenly faintly surprising, in the idea of a stick’s being straight but looking bent sometimes? Does anyone suppose that if something is straight, then it jolly well has to look straight at all times and in all circumstances? Obviously no one seriously supposes this.’ (JL Austin, Sense & Sensibilia, p.29)

At one time sense-datum theories of perception and the argument from illusion were intertwined: each added an air of disrepute to the other. In contrast, in recent discussion it has been suggested that acknowledging even the possibility of sensory illusion is enough to commit one to ‘the Content View’: that sensory experiences possess an intentional or representational content which can be correct or incorrect. No doubt J.L. Austin would have suspected the latter trend of relying on no less a faulty form of argument than the former fashion.

Well the idea that the argument from illusion is invalid is hardly news. And simply moving the desired conclusion from the existence of sense-data to the presence of representational content is unlikely to affect the validity of the argument. At the same time, those attracted to this kind of argument may simply respond that all that Austin can show is that they have failed to make fully explicit the grounds on which they find their view to be compelling, not that there is no compelling line to be pursued.

What’s more interesting, though, is what follows from endorsing the argument from illusion. And that’s what I aim to explore in this talk. I shall argue that the predominant forms of the Content View are more similar to sense-datum theories than often supposed; and as a consequence, the Content View faces problems which are not inherent to representationalism as such. This gives us reason to reject the argument from illusion and the Content View as commonly formulated.

I first lay out the argument from illusion for the Content View, and argue that it presupposes that sense experience is ‘diaphanous’: that there can be no difference between two sense experiences which is not a difference in the objects experienced. This is a claim that only sense-datum theories have reason to endorse. In turn I argue that any view which takes sense experience to be diaphanous cannot adequately explain the contrast between mere illusion, where we misperceive aspects of the world around us, and so-called hallucinations, where we have experience but lack perceptual contact with the world.

It is an entirely Common Sense thought that in some perceptual illusions we are perceiving the things around us when we misperceive. So we should reject the claim that sense experience is diaphanous. This deprives the Content View of any argumentative route from the existence of illusions to the presence of a truth-evaluable content for experience. And while this conclusion does not show that representationalism in general is wrong, it does bring out a challenge for representationalism that the most prominent forms of the view have failed properly to address.

Sunday 1st April


9.15     Susanna Schellenberg   ‘Phenomenal Qualities and Perceptual Content

I defend the view that perceptual experience is fundamentally both relational and representational by arguing that experience is a matter of employing discriminatory, selective capacities. The basic idea is having a sensory experience is a matter of discriminating phenomenal qualities in our environment.  A discriminatory, selective capacity functions to differentiate and single out the kind of particulars that the capacity is of.  So if we possess the discriminatory, selective capacity that functions to differentiate and single out red, we are in a position to differentiate instances of red from other colours in our environment and to single out instances of red. More generally, to possess a discriminatory, selective capacity is to be in a position to differentiate and single out the type of particulars that the capacity is of, were one related to such a particular. I argue that while discriminatory, selective capacities can be employed in hallucination, they are necessarily determined by relations between perceivers and their environment insofar as the function of the capacity is to differentiate and single out, say, instances of red in perception.

11.15   Jonathan Lowe            ‘A New Argument for Realism from Perceptual Content

It has recently been urged that scientific and metaphysical realism — as opposed to various types of constructivism, conventionalism, and relativism — can be defended only if it can be argued that perception includes some species of non-conceptual content which serves to ‘individuate’ objects in the perceiver’s environment and thereby fix the reference of perceptual demonstratives, in a manner that does not rely upon the perceiver’s repertoire of sortal concepts. However, it is strongly arguable that, in order for our perceptual systems to single out environmental objects uniquely, they must in fact be able to exploit sortal distinctions of a very broad kind. This in itself need pose no special threat to realism, since it is very plausible to maintain, by appeal to evolutionary considerations, that the relevant sortals are ones that are both ‘innate’ and well-attuned to real distinctions in nature. Even so, such a response to the antirealist challenge is ultimately unsatisfactory, if what is sought is a non-question-begging argument from perceptual content to realism. For that purpose, one needs to be able to identify a species of non-conceptual ‘content’ to be found in perception which is (1) introspectively accessible by the perceiver and (2) suited by its intrinsic character to constitute inductively good evidence for the existence of an ‘external world’ conforming in its broad nature and structure to the realist’s conception of such a world. A major objective of this paper will be to sketch and defend precisely such an account of the non-conceptual content of perception. It will be seen, however, that non-conceptual content of the required kind differs markedly from the type of non-conceptual content typically appealed to by current opponents of antirealism, not least because content of the required kind is intrinsically non-representational.


2.00     Barry Smith            ‘Flavour Perception and Qualities

3.30     Ned Block       ‘Rich vs sparse, postdiction, fragmentary consciousness and generic consciousness

This talk reviews some recent controversies over whether the capacity of conscious phenomenology is greater than the capacity of cognitive access to that phenomenology.  The role of postdictive phenomena will be assessed along with the issue of whether the “richness” of phenomenal experience is shown to be illusory by some experiments that shows we confuse standard letters with rotated or flipped letters.  The question will be considered of  whether there can be generic phenomenology without specific phenomenological details.  The issue will be addressed of the importance of a notion of consciousness according to which the details of conscious experience inevitably remain unknown to the subject.


There will be a special reduced registration fee for postgraduate students.

Further details for delegates concerning accommodation, amenities etc. can be found on the Conference Information and Programme.

Registration preferably by email. Please download the Registration Form.

If you have any further queries please contact Paul Coates ( or Sam Coleman (