Gibbons’ “Qualia: They’re Not What They Seem”

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Originally uploaded by Pete Mandik.

Reading Notes on John Gibbons’ “Qualia: They’re Not What They Seem” Philosophical Studies 126:33, 397-428, Kluwer, 2005.

Ways things seem are not invertable. Intuitively, they would have been. Qualia are not the ways things seem and we should not trust our intuitions about them. There are unlikely to be good arguments for the existence of qualia. Certainly, we can’t trust claims that qualia are obvious.

§2. A Surprising Impossibility
Ways things seem cannot be inverted between Laverne and Shirley. Laverene and Shirley learned the same language in the same environments. They both call red things “red” and they both believe what they say. When they say “x seems red” it is true.

§3. A Surprisingly Unstable Situation
If transported to Inverted Earth and fitted with reversing lenses, you will call green things “red” and mean red. You will have systematically false beliefs. But over time the meanings of your terms will change: when you say “red” it will refer to green. Not only will the meanings of your words change, so do the contents of your beliefs. The ways things seem to you have changed without your noticing. But this has been accompanied by a change in the meanings of your words and thought contents.

§4. Should we believe in qualia at all?
Red qualia are the redness in the mind. Three main but not good reasons for believing in the redness in the mind are introspection, intrasubjective spectrum inversion, and the argument from illusion.

Bad reason 1: Introspection
Introspection does not tell us that there is redness in the mind. When we go looking for redness we find it in the objects in the world.

Bad reason 2: Intrasubjective spectrum inversions
Qualia are hypothesized to explain a certain case. This is not a great reason for believing in qualia if there are other ways to explain the case

The case and the qualia explanation
You put on inverting lenses and eventually get used to them. Before putting them on, grass looks green. Right after putting them on, grass looks red. What we need an explanation for is what to say about after you get used to them. One thing you might say is that the grass seems green in one sense and in another sense seems red. This is the qualia strategy. It postulates that there are two kinds of “seeming”, “looking”, etc.. There are two senses for every appearance concept: an epistemic sense that has to do with the representational content of judgments and a phenomenal sense that has to do with qualia.

The Non-qualia explanation of the case
Where the qualia explanation postulates an ambiguity in the meaning of “seems”, the non-qualia strategy postulates an ambivalence people have about whether one’s representational contents can change without one noticing. So, prior to the lenses, one represents grass as green. Right after, one represents grass as red. After one has gotten used to the glasses, one is ambivalent about whether one’s experiences still represent the grass as red or now represent it as green. The non-qualia explanation is also able to explain what it is like to undergo experiences similar to intrasubjective spectrum inversion like getting used to sunglasses. Here, the difference of what it is like is doe to differences in the operation of thought. It is not weird to think that thought influences what it is like. Consider what it is like to taste wine before and after gaining wine-tasting expertise.

Bad reason 3: The argument from illusion
The argument goes something like this. Things can look red even though they are not red. But in order for things to look red, something or other has to be red. So, when you undergo the illusion that something external to you is red, what is really happening is that you are experiencing the redness in your mind. Such an argument about rock illusions wouldn’t suffice to show that you had rocks in your head. Just rock beliefs, that is, beliefs about rocks. If the argument from illusion doesn’t suffice to show that you have rocks in your head, why think it suffices to show that you have redness in the mind? Is there some special distinction between properties like redness for which the argument works and properties like rock-ness for which it does not?
Failed attempts at such a distinction:
-Secondary vs. primary qualities
-Just seen vs inferred properties
Secondary vs. primary won’t work because things that are red must be shaped. This puts shapes in the head too and they are no better than rocks in the head.
Just seen vs inferred properties won’t work because something can seem like a rock even though you believe I isn’t. If you don’t believe it you don’t infer it.

10 Responses to “Gibbons’ “Qualia: They’re Not What They Seem””

  1. A.G. says:

    Most of the arguments seem straight from D’s Quining Qualia, but some of them I hadn’t heard before (or at least don’t remember hearing and my memory isn’t vey good). Especially, the response to the “argument from illusion” got me thinking.

    If I understand the argument, then there isn’t phenomenal redness, just beliefs about redness as there are beliefs about rocks. This assumes that all supposed experiencers hold beliefs. But, it’s a reasonable possibility that beliefs aren’t possible without language (Davidson). It’s also reasonable that animals with a nervous system comparable to our own but with vastly inferior mental abilities experience pain in disporportion to their ability to think in language. And if that’s true, then something other than psychological beliefs would have to explain “pain” for instance.

  2. Pete Mandik says:


    Can things seem red to an animal incapable of believing that things are red?

    If so, how do you know that things do seem red to the animal?

    And why wouldn’t the answer to the previous question suffice to also show that, despite lacking language, the animal does in fact believe that things are red?

    Also, do things seem hot to a thermometer? Why or why not?

  3. Eric Thomson says:

    The strategy of explaining the structure of folk beliefs or concepts about qualia rather than explaining qualia seems to be gaining some momentum in the naturalist’s camp. While this direction will probably lead to some cool psychology of beliefs about experience, and a bit more clarity in our concepts about qualia, it leaves out what every normal (i.e., non philosopher) person is interested in seeing explained: experience, not beliefs about it.

  4. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Eric,

    Gibbons’ point is that we need reasons to believe in the existence of qualia since they are not obvious and that the typical reasons for believing in them are flawed. Along the way he argues that a lot of the things qualia are posited to explain can be explained with out them (and explained instead in terms of, e.g., belief).

    What’s the best strategy for people who think that qualia are obvious despite arguments like Gibbons’? Does it really help to simply repeat the claim that qualia are obvious?

  5. Eric Thomson says:

    Pete: I was making a general point that I think is true, and I didn’t understand the summary of the article well enough to comment on that. All of the attempts to ‘explain’ qualia by averting to judgments or concepts about them (Aydede, Dennett, the recent PMS article, etc) have left me fairly underwhelmed.

    I just took a quick (!) look at the article. It seems like more of the same to me, but I’d have to take the time to read it closely and pick it apart. For one, his refutation of HYPE was not compelling: it was quite annoying the way he kept saying he was going to refute HYPE and then the argument was line two lines and not convincing at all.

    Here is where I think his argument is:
    Laverne and Shirley both say that fire hydrants seem red to her. Since they believe what they say, each believes that fire hydrants seem red to her. Since each is in a position to know what’s going on in her own mind, both beliefs are true. So fire hydrants seem red to both Laverne and Shirley. So, as far as their colors are concerned, fire hydrants seem the same way to both Laverne and Shirley. A similar argument will show that grass seems the same way to them both as well. It’s part of the story that fire hydrants and grass do not seem the same way either to Laverne or to Shirley. And it follows from this that as far as their colors are concerned, fire hydrants do not seem to Laverne the way grass seems to Shirley. This is the negation of Hype.

    As a preliminary, there seem to be different senses of seem (I think this is from Peacock), one that Sellars gave a good analysis of (it is basically an ‘I think this is true but I’m not sure’ operator (e.g., ‘It seems Guliani will run for president’), and the other more technical sense is phenomenological (I am having the experience X that I would have if I were perceiving X : ‘It seems there is a unicorn in front of me’ (and I am on LSD) or ‘It seems I still have an arm’ (when it is a phantom limb)). Which sense are L&S using? While Gibbons pretends to be theoretically making no substantive commitments, I don’t see it. If they are using the second sense, then they are indeed contradicting each other when they say that the hydrant seems red.

    If someone doesn’t want to agree to the second sense of ’seems’ then just use ‘I am experiencing’ or ‘I feel’. I feel nauseated, I am experiencing a unicorn in front of me.

    The discussion of rocks and redness seems awful: most qualiaphiles will simply make a content-vehicle distinction, and say that the problem for them (as naturalists) is giving an account of conscious contents. He could have made it much simpler and focused on spatial properties: I see a red book (out there) but clearly the representational vehicle is not out there in the world. But nobody believes that anyway (except maybe Bergson).

    Again, those are my first impressions after a quick read.

    At any rate, if the point is that people haven’t given good arguments for skeptics to believe in qualia, I won’t disagree (though inverted spectra arguments and the like are good intuition pumps). However, I can’t deny something that seems so obvious without a good argument, even if I don’t have a good argument to back up why someone else should believe it. His arguments, on a first pass, are simply more of the same forceful asking “Justify your claim that qualia exist.” I think this is good, but because of the supposed nature of qualia, it is obviously very tricky.

    The burden of proof in this debate is a tricky issue. I tend to just go caveman and agree with Chalmers and Block. Chalmers is right that this is the Great Divide in the consciousness debates, and I really like his discussion of it in The Conscious Mind.

  6. Pete Mandik says:


    Fair enough, Eric. I won’t give you a hard time about an article you read only quickly. Regarding your last remarks, though…

    I agree with you and Chalmers on this being the Great Divide. I, of course, find myself on the opposite side of it. What I find curious is when scientists find themselves on the zombie-phile side, since I can’t see that any scientific advantage would be gained by holding such a view of qualia.

  7. [...] Davidson, Beliefs, Qualia Brain Hammer has a good post up on qualia, sort of building on Dennett’s ideas. It made me wonder about the following: [...]

  8. A.G. says:

    “Can things seem red to an animal incapable of believing that things are red?”


    “If so, how do you know that things do seem red to the animal?”

    I’d speculate based on circumstantial evidence, evolution similarity etc. I think pain is more intuitive on these lines, however.

    “And why wouldn’t the answer to the previous question suffice to also show that, despite lacking language, the animal does in fact believe that things are red?”

    It’s consistent with that position, but wouldn’t we just trivially be defining belief to fit a psychological definition of seeming?

    “Also, do things seem hot to a thermometer? Why or why not?”

    Well, Dennett himself says thermostats have beliefs. But how sophisticated? The intentional stance may leave it an open question. Dennett notes that we interpret Christmas trees as happy. And in history, some cultures apparently really did believe trees or totems had souls. We might say these positions are naive, but let’s not forget that the intentional stance - which is also the position that all intentions are secondary - leaves the fact of the matter of beliefs to be nothing more than what we ascribe to trees or thermometers. So if Ancient Egypt ascribed the Pharoh laying in his tomb with a rich afterlife experience, then by George, the dead pharoh had plenty of belief states.

  9. Clayton says:

    Eric and Pete,

    I agree with Eric, I think that the argument can be resisted if we appeal to different senses of ’seems’. What bothers Gibbons with this move, however, is that the sense of ’seems’ that he uses to derive the contradiction from the inversion hypothesis is the one that we use in trying to describe the phenomenal character of our own experiences and you might have thought that if ’seems’ picks out qualia, this is the sense of ’seems’ that does. Now, the argument for that claim seems to be that if some other sense of ’seems’ picks out qualia (i.e., some sense that we don’t use in describing our experience from the first-person), there will be a difference between how things seem to us (described from the first-person) and the ways things are in terms of the qualitative aspects of our experience. That seems bad, to Gibbons at least.

    I’ve written up something that (I believe) shows that Gibbons’ argument against inversion can’t be right (if it worked, it would constitute an apriori refutation of the possibility of color blindness) and diagnosed where it errs. Pete (or anyone else for that matter), if you have any interest, let me know.

  10. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Clayton,

    I would indeed be interested in seeing what else you’ve got on Gibbons. Your blog posts on Brain Pains and Think Tonk are what got me interested in his paper in the first place.