The Qualia Delusion

File:Inverted qualia of colour strawberry.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Now that I’ve gotten your attention with that outrageous title, let me reassure you, I am not going to argue that qualia aren’t real. What I am going to do is suggest that while they’re real, they aren’t what you think they are. The “delusion” I am talking about here doesn’t concern the existence of qualia; rather, it concerns what they are and when they arise. It is vitally important that we get some clarity on this issue because until we do, we will never understand consciousness and how it fits into the world, meaning we will never understand ourselves. Hopefully this article, much of which arose directly out of a string of ongoing, intensely thought-provoking discussions I have enjoyed with a good friend, Luke Oliver, gets us a little closer to that clarity.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness

David Chalmers tells us there is a hard problem of consciousness; namely, how we can explain the fact that it feels like something to, I don’t know, experience red, for example. When I look at a red tomato, of course it is true that photons impinge on my retina, get converted into electrical signals which are sent along the optic nerve, and so on and so forth. We’ve all heard this story a hundred times. But in addition to all of these physical, mechanical processes, something else happens; something so unimaginable, so incredible, that if it hadn’t happened to you personally, you would never have believed it possible. That something is, of course, phenomenal experience, or qualia; i.e. the astonishing fact that the redness of the tomato feels like something when I experience it. Obviously, I can’t quantify this experience or reduce it to an equation, nevertheless, it feels like something. Moreover, this inexpressible something feels different from other experiences; the experience of the blueness of a blueberry, for example.  

If Chalmers is right about this, he’s actually wildly understated the situation. The hard problem of consciousness (the problem of explaining qualia, or phenomenal, conscious experience) isn’t just hard, it’s impossible. It isn’t a problem we can ever realistically expect to solve, not because our puny human brains designed by the blind hand of natural selection are somehow not up to the task, but because Chalmers has inadvertently made the same error Descartes made four hundred years ago; that is to say, he’s postulated an inner, mental realm (in his case, one that experiences qualia) completely divorced from the external, physical realm (which is decidedly non-experiential).

Consciousness and Qualia

A typical definition of consciousness these days will almost always come down to awareness; both of the external environment and the internal psychic state of the organism. This awareness, in turn, is experienced by the organism. If there is no accompanying phenomenal sensation (that experience of awareness, the indefinable something it is like), what we have is a non-conscious automaton. The problem here is that starting with this definition of consciousness as an irreducible ‘experience’ in the mind, absolutely guarantees that we will never explain it. How can you get conscious, phenomenal experience from non-conscious, non-experiencing building blocks?

It is precisely the intractability of this paradox which is leading a few brave souls to turn to panpsychism, not because it seems like a good explanation of the world, but because in the face of the hard problem, it appears that the only way to get phenomenal, conscious experience into organisms is to simply put it directly into the building blocks. The problems associated with doing this – for example, the uncomfortable fact that fundamental particles must therefore have experiences (no matter how bare, or thin, these may be), and the combination problem (how can combining many thin slivers of experience yield one big, rich, unified experience?) – are accepted as a fair trade-off only because we realise that getting experience into a universe full of non-conscious, non-experiencing ‘stuff’ is impossible. In truth, however, I think panpsychism’s problems are just as intractable as the hard problem. They only seem like an improvement because we at least have the thing we’re trying to explain.

While reading Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution, in which he talks a lot about psychic states and consciousness, I was struck by the fact that he never once mentions qualia. Although this is obviously explained by the fact that the term wasn’t coined until twenty years after the book’s publication, the centrality of phenomenal experience in consciousness, as that ineffable feeling of X-ness, is noticeably absent. Could a thinker of Bergson’s calibre really have overlooked this core aspect of consciousness, something that seems glaringly obvious to us these days, or is there something about our modern mindset which has led us to mistakenly see qualia in consciousness where it perhaps doesn’t exist?

Grant me the latter for a moment. If it’s true that we, not those previous philosophers who didn’t make qualia the centre of consciousness, have made the mistake, what might be the cause for this? In other words, what is the mindset that most completely distinguishes us from our predecessors? Let me suggest that the most significant difference is the objective, third-person, scientific mindset that so dominates our intellectual landscape these days.

Now hold on, you might think. Isn’t this a blatant contradiction? Aren’t qualia the exact opposite of objective, third-person phenomena? How would subjective qualia have emerged from objective thinking? Qualia didn’t arise from our scientific mindset; rather, what happens is that we try to understand qualia in terms of scientific, third-person, disinterested concepts. When people like David Chalmers talk about qualia, they imagine they are describing lived experience as it happens in the moment for an individual, but what they’re actually doing is describing lived experience as it happened (i.e. a completed experience), or, even worse, lived experience in general (i.e. an abstract concept that no one actually lives). Yes, Chalmers and co. (I’m picking on Chalmers a little here, but only because he’s the most prominent figure in the field) describe qualia using words like ‘felt’ and ‘lived,’ but they aren’t talking about genuine feelings or lived sensations; quite the opposite in fact. Qualia are felt and lived only to the extent that they are thought; in other words, they are products of the intellectual, rational mind, and the intellect always arrives on the scene too late to partake in genuine experience.

Imagine you are playing table tennis, and your opponent serves the ball. The ball has just bounced on your side of the table. Now, the question is, are you perceiving qualia? Of course you are, Chalmers says. You’re experiencing sensations, and that experience feels like something (moreover, it feels like something different to what it feels like when you are sitting at home on the couch watching TV). What is the nature of these qualia, then? We can list them. You experience the whiteness of the ball in the foreground and the greenness of the table in the background; you hear the roaring of the crowd (crowds roar at table tennis matches, don’t they?) and the pinging sound the ball makes as it bounces off the table; and so on.

Now, notice the way I described this scene. Everything is taking place as if you were a detached (*cough* Cartesian) observer, and experiences are appearing for you like mental objects being projected in some internal (*cough* Cartesian) theatre. The truth is, and this is critically important, when we are engaged in the world, we don’t perceive qualia.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty – Non-Thetic/Thetic Consciousness and The Phenomenal Field

In his superb (although also ‘superbly’ difficult to read) magnum opus, Phenomenology of Perception, French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty talks about two types of consciousness; non-thetic and thetic; although we might be better off thinking of them as ‘modes’ of consciousness, or even ‘ways’ of experiencing. The first is the mode of consciousness by which we experience ourselves and the world when we are fully immersed and engaged in life. The second is something like the experience-object we construct afterwards to explain or understand the first. Non-thetic consciousness is characterised by lived activity during the event, whereas thetic consciousness is characterised by intellectual construction afterwards.

The relevant distinction here is between living and thinking. When we are really living; that is, actually doing things – walking to get the bus, typing an e-mail, playing table tennis, etc. – we aren’t thinking about what we are doing. But this isn’t to say we are unconscious or unaware. On the contrary, in this mode we are deeply and intuitively aware of ourselves and our surroundings through what Merleau-Ponty calls the phenomenal field, which is the practical, pre-conscious awareness that allows us to effectively navigate the world. In fact, we can go even further and say that we are only able to function in the world because of this pre-conscious, instinctive ‘feel’ that the phenomenal field grants us. If we had to cognise our way through the world, we would find even the simplest of acts almost impossible.

To get a little more clarity on what the phenomenal field actually is, look around yourself; but when you do, resist the urge to look with your intellect. Don’t think like a scientist who inspects everything, dissecting objects into component parts, grouping them into categories, etc. There’s nothing wrong with this approach… if you’re doing science, but we’re not doing science here. For the moment, I want to get beneath this view, to the phenomenal field. There is nothing mystical in this either, by the way. You aren’t tapping into some hidden, suprasensible realm, trying to feel mysterious currents of energy. Just look around yourself normally. Take in your surroundings. Experience without subjecting everything to analysis. Seriously. Take just five seconds, and do this before you read on.

Now, if you did that exercise, what I can guarantee you didn’t experience was a host of qualia. You didn’t find yourself experiencing the ‘blackness’ of your smartphone or the ‘whiteness’ of the book cover. Nor did you find yourself surrounded by a host of objective ‘things’; a black, rectangular object over here (that smartphone again), a collection of sheets of paper over there (yes, the book). If you really got through to your primary, non-thetic mode of engagement with the world, which, again, far from being some ‘special’ way of seeing the world, is your original, normal mode of engagement, you would have found yourself surrounded, not by static, fixed ‘things,’ but by possible actions. The smartphone on your desk wasn’t a black object composed of wires, transistors, and whatever else goes into a smartphone. It is only this for the scientist. Rather, you experienced it originally, non-thetically as ‘for sending text messages,’ or ‘for watching YouTube videos of people’s pets dancing to music.’ Similarly, the book wasn’t a rectangular object 15cm by 8cm and weighing .2kg (science again); instead, it was ‘to be read,’ or maybe even ‘to keep the papers from flying off my desk.’ Rather than being a disinterested, inner spectator gazing out on an alien, external world, an “I think” assailed by qualia and brute objects waiting for you to identify and classify them, you were an engaged, active participant, an “I can” in the midst of a world already full of meaning and significance. This referential web full of centres of activity that invite us to take them up in meaningful action is precisely Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenal field. Welcome to the world you actually live in, the one you know far more intimately than the objective, abstract, qualia-filled one you think you spend all of your time in.

The Body and Action

Let’s get back to our table tennis game. There is clearly no explicit intellection (thetic consciousness) going on here. Anyone who has learned to play a sport, or instrument, or really anything that involves the acquisition of some motor habit, knows that thinking about what you’re doing, more or less assures that you won’t be able to do it well. The intellect just isn’t the right tool for playing table tennis. Of course, it is of immeasurable utility when it comes to learning how to play in the first place; learning the rules, getting the movements right, correcting your technique, etc., but all of these things are separate from the actual playing itself. When you’re receiving instruction on your swing, by definition, you aren’t playing; you’re analysing. And that is what the intellect is for. When you start playing though, you don’t think the act, you do it, and the ‘tool’ which allows this is the body, not the mind. It is here, not in abstract, conscious qualia, that we must look to find genuine phenomenal experience.

The phenomenal field shows us that we aren’t, in fact, surrounded by isolated, static, ‘things;’ rather, we are thrust into the middle of a lived reality; a reality in which meaningful centres of action (what the intellect sees as ‘things’) solicit and invite us to take them up in certain ways. This can only happen through action; i.e. the body. What I’m calling centres of action here make their solicitations not to our minds first, but to our bodies. It is to my hand, to my fingers, that the smartphone calls. When I begin the cascade of actions that will terminate in my watching a YouTube video on my phone, my body adopts the postures necessary to get there, all without thought or qualia. I feel what I have to do in my bones, as it were. This is the genuine ‘feeling’ that captures our lived, in-the-moment experience, and it turns out to be pre-conscious and non-thetic.

You might find yourself objecting to me giving the body/action preference over the mind/thought. “Doesn’t this joker have it all backwards?” would be the technical formulation of the objection. No less a philosopher than Aristotle himself affirmed that it is our capacity for reason that distinguishes from other animals. This is absolutely true, but doesn’t change the fact that we are concrete beings first, and rational agents second. I’m not saying that it is better to act non-thetically, or that we should ban all math and science; I’m simply saying that our original, fundamental mode of being is practical, lived, body-centred. Yes, reason and intellect distinguish us from other (‘lesser’ – that’s going to raise some hackles) animals, and they are unequivocally good things, but they aren’t the way we fundamentally experience our lives… and this is what we are trying to get at.

Qualia and The Hard Problem

So, where does this leave qualia? I promised that I wasn’t going to get rid of them, but I also said they’re not what you think they are; i.e. they’re not features of genuine, in-the-moment experience. Rather, they are a second-order, reflective, thetic way of understanding that in-the-moment experience. Another way of saying the same thing is that qualia are crystallised, mental objects we construct after the fact to explain the actual lived experience. The lived experience, we saw, was non-thetic, felt in the body, and acted, not cognised in thoughts or qualia. But when we reflect on that lived experience, we shift, without noticing it, into a thetic mode of consciousness, meaning that we analyse, intellectualise, and abstract, constructing mental objects which we use to try to understand the phenomenon. Now, there is nothing wrong with this strategy, in and of itself. Indeed, it works exceptionally well for all of the things science studies, but when it comes to lived experience, it fails because demolishing lived experience into component parts (in this case, qualia) also destroys it, replacing it with a 2-dimesional caricature.

What all of this means is that while qualia are real, the hard problem isn’t. The hard problem, formulated as a question, is how do we explain the subjective, experiential ‘feeling’ (qualia) that imbues awareness with that special something it is like to X? Since it turns out that qualia aren’t actually a part of our original awareness (we’re never reflectively aware of what we are doing when we are in the middle of doing it), we don’t have to explain how they got there. But didn’t I say they are still real? Doesn’t this mean we still have to explain them? No, because although they are real, they aren’t the types of things that require a ‘hard’ explanation. When we thought that qualia were genuine features of first person experience, an ‘inner’ realm separate from the external realm of matter, they needed to be explained, and that explanation was going to have to be special, a different kind of explanation from all other scientific explanations because we were dealing with a phenomenon different from all other scientific objects. Now, however, we see that this ‘inner’ realm of qualia never existed. Qualia are nothing more than abstract concepts we project backwards into lived experience after the fact. There is no mysterious ‘what it is like’ feeling arising in-the-moment that we have to explain. Problem solved, or rather, problem dissolved.

Consciousness Revisited

The insight that qualia aren’t what we thought they were has dramatic implications for our understanding of consciousness. We won’t chase down all of these here, but it is worth making a start down that path. Earlier, we defined consciousness as awareness, but awareness accompanied by that ‘what it is like’ feeling. Since the ‘what it is like’ feeling actually turned out to be ‘my conceptualised reflection concerning what it was like’, a mental object rather than a subjective experience, we are left with consciousness being mere awareness. Since awareness doesn’t require any special cognitive abilities, this gives us a clear route to afford consciousness to other, in fact all, living organisms. Awareness, now that we’ve jettisoned the unhelpful, ill-defined notion of qualia, is simply recognising the existence of external surroundings that are separate from me, as a body. However, while a minimal sense of awareness neither requires any impossible to explain qualia, nor that I be able to pass something like the mirror test (this tests higher order cognitive faculties, not the basic awareness we are talking about here), it does require that an organism be capable of having a history; i.e. past results must be able to influence present actions. All living organisms, right down to bacteria, and even viruses, meet this criterion, but no non-living objects do.

As you can see, purging consciousness of its mysterious ‘something it is like’ feeling gets us a much cleaner, tidier picture, but haven’t we lost something? Am I saying that human beings are no different than viruses? No. There is still a distinction to be drawn between higher organisms and lower organisms. What I am saying is that that distinction doesn’t lie in consciousness, properly defined. What does it lie in, then? Unfortunately, I’m still working through my thoughts on that one. Hey, I can’t solve all the mysteries of the universe in a single article!


Taking our cue from phenomenology, we saw that original, phenomenal experience has nothing to do with thetic, intellectual activity. Rather, our first-person, in-the-moment experience is primarily non-thetic, and centred around the body and action. Qualia, then, which we discovered were actually abstract, reflective, reflexive concepts, have no place in first-person experience. The belief that they do is a delusion (I have steered clear of the too-often used ‘illusion’ here because this would suggest qualia don’t exist) caused by the fact that when we reflect on our first-person, phenomenal experience, we unwittingly and inevitably distort it, crystallising it into something amenable to the intellect (which stands to reason, because it is the intellect which is doing the reflecting); namely, an object. If phenomenal experience is truly non-objective, which I have argued it is, then the act of reflection can never hope to properly describe it.

As a bonus, if qualia are second-order, reflective concepts, then the ‘hard’ problem of consciousness disappears. There is no mysterious, ineffable something it is like that we have to explain. Since modern views of consciousness almost always eventually condense around qualia in some way or other, our analysis here would suggest that consciousness is also quite different from what we typically think it is. Rather than tying consciousness in with some ephemeral, first-person quality that certain brains have and others don’t, having the ‘lights come on’ as it has been described, we now have a cleaner, tidier, less mysterious way of understanding consciousness; specifically, as awareness of self and environment. Of course, this means that the intellect and its higher-order cognitive capabilities (which create qualia and other psychic objects) still stands in need of an explanation, but the path to this is less difficult than it appears, I think, and at any rate, is certainly not outright impossible, unlike the task Chalmers set us. With the hard problem gone, qualia back in their rightful place, and consciousness starting to take on a less mysterious, less mystical hue, the path to an understanding of the human mind might just be looking a little clearer than it has for a long while.


5 thoughts on “The Qualia Delusion

  1. Well done. This gives me confidence in my similar disagreement with Chalmers. I tackled it by suggesting that what it’s like to be a dolphin or a bat or another person for that matter is primarily *familiar.* What I mean is that what the bat does with sonar or the dolphin in water or the other person’s special experience of being in battle, for instance, is first familiar. Yet it is the *differences* I think Chalmers (I’ll pick on him too) is mistakenly trying to ascertain. The person wanting to feel what it’s like to be a fruit bat tries to set himself up with some blindfolded flying contraption etc., but those would be *differences* between the human world and the bat, right?

    What it was like to be a Roman centurion in 100 A.D. would be exactly what it’s like to be you on any given afternoon under a partly cloudy sky and filled with apprehension and some particular scent wafting through the air. The soldier’s key objectives are just like any key objectives.

    So as this relates to your tracing back via Ponty is that it seems “familiarity” is roughly the same as “non-thetic”: pure, absentminded doing. And thetic would involve the reflections that juxtapose and mine for meaning via mediation and difference?

    Let’s say you want to know what it’s like to jump out of a plane. I’m not suggesting you don’t need to do it so much as I’m agreeing with you that even the person who did it wouldn’t know what it was like until reflection, and he would have to plug into all the compromises of language to assemble for himself some semblance of what it was like; and whatever it is he thought is was like would be conveyed to you in a manner you could relate to or feel somewhat familiar with.

    So anyway, thank you for solving this conundrum from another (but I think ultimately similar) angle. There is no qualia is correct I think because even if the skydiver could deliver on it to himself, he would require some type of communication exchange in order to achieve that, which is a system that itself is some kind of communal buildup of sorts, no? Maybe this is getting all too Lacanian. But how would even the skydiver know for sure what something is exactly like? Wouldn’t he “land” on a description more than anything else? And if he said that his heart rate went through the roof, and this panic attack was somehow weirdly coupled with elation, aren’t we already starting to relate?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice. That’s fascinating that we got to the same conclusion through different, although similar, approaches. As I was reading your comment, I found myself just nodding all the way through.

    Just wanted I add that I really like that idea of experience being first and foremost “familiar.” That’s a good word to capture this. I also like your use of the word ‘absentminded.’ Non-thetic awareness literally is “absent-minded”; that is to say, the rational, thinking intellect is not present when we are authentically living. It is only after-the-fact that it kicks in, and through analysing “differences” (which it can do only because it has crystallised experience into static objects) detects things like qualia.

    Thanks for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Towards an Understanding of Consciousness – Henri Bergson | Absurd Being

  4. Pingback: Consciousness | Absurd Being

  5. Pingback: Brains in Vats | Absurd Being

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s