On Not Splintering Appearances

Eric Schwitzgebel, as usual, illuminatingly plumbs the depths of introspective error at his Mind Splinters blog. Of particular recent interest are reports of some exchanges he’s been having with Dan Dennet over how to reconcile the possibility of introspective error with the sorts of authorial authority granted to the introspector by Dennettian heterophenomenology and first-person operationalism. (Schwitzgebel’s most recent post is here, which is a follow-up to this earlier post here.)

I think Schwitzgebel is on to something when he suggests we try to draw the distinction between what errors can and cannot be made in terms of a distinction between phenomenal judgments and what’s “behind those judgments”. I think, however, he missteps in his description of such a distinction in terms of two senses of “seems”. Dennett is no friend of the phenomenal/epistemic distinction between senses of “seems” that many philosophers follow Chisholm and Jackson in drawing. Also worth keeping in mind is Dennett’s negative reaction to so-called “real seemings” expressed in Consciousness Explained and elsewhere.

So how best to flesh out Schwtzgebel’s insight regarding Dennett interpretation? I think one can do this with a single (epistemic) sense of “seems” and a distinction regarding the way’s things are with regard to our seemings.

To give a very clear illustration of this distinction, consider a substance dualist who judges a piece of wax to be melting in the heat of their fireplace. One way things are with respect to the dualist’s seemings is that it seems like he can tell by sight that the wax has changed shape. And about this they are correct: it does seem he can tell by sight that the wax’s shape has changed. But another way things are with respect to the dualist’s seemings is that they, the seemings, are identical to brain states. And about this the dualist is quite wrong (or, more humbly, clearly might be wrong).

To relate this to an example discussed by both Schwitzgebel and Dennett, consider the case of peripherally presented playing cards which, to the surprise of many subjects, cannot be identified by suit or even color (though their motion may be readily apparent). I urge that we avoid cleaving senses of “seems”. We should not describe the case as it epistemically seeming to subjects that the periphery is clear and phenomenally seeming blurry. Instead we should say the following:

It seems to the untutored observer that he or she has detailed information about the color and suit of peripherally presented cards. However, in reality the subject does not have detailed information about the color and suit of peripherally presented cards, even though it may really seem that way to the subject.

[See also, some of my earlier posts on senses of "seems": Bursting Apart at the Seems; Bursting at the Seems 2: Electric Boogaloo; Transcending Zombies.]


23 Responses to “On Not Splintering Appearances”

  1. Nice post, Pete! I continue to think that “seems” (and worse, “seemings”) is a treacherous word in contexts of this sort. Is the word essential to your view, do you think? How would you phrase your view without it?

    The playing card demonstration is nice because we’re (most of us) not inclined to judge that our visual experience of the card is precisely detailed when it’s 20 degrees from the point of fixation. So I’d put the contrast between our judgments about our experience and our actual experience in the following way: Many people’s general judgment about their visual experience, including the experience as it transpires, is that it is flush with detail a fair way from center; but our experience is not actually like that, as the playing card demonstration can help us realize.

    Not one “seems” in there! Would you accept that way of putting things?

    I side with you in preferring the epistemic sense of “seems”; the phenomenal sense is, I think, an artificial philosopher’s construction — one I suspect ultimately derived from a veil of perception view of epistemology — so maybe we’re not as far apart as it (!) seems. But I do think that, given that some philosophers use “seemings” to refer to phenomenal states rather than epistemic ones, and also given that “it seems…” is used conversationally as a kind of caveat rather than strictly as an epistemic report about one’s own mind, the word breeds confusion.

  2. Pete Mandik says:

    Thanks, Eric.

    I don’t think “seems” is indispensable, so there’s something we agree on. However, I think we may instead make do with propositional attitude constructions concerning various judgments and dispositions to judge, and I doubt you’d be crazy about that suggestion.

    Also perhaps not up your alley: I think “experience” is eliminable as well. The “seem”-less description of the card case you offer bothers me a bit in what you seem (!) to attribute to the experiences. I worry about confusions that threaten to arise in describing experiences as “flush with detail”. I don’t think it makes sense to say of experiences that they are red or that they are diamond shaped. I worry that describing them as being highly detailed is similarly erroneous. I think, instead, the best sense to make out of the issues concerning detail is that there are various judgments about cards that subjects make more reliably for foveally presented cards than for peripherally presented ones.

    I do agree with you that “seems” and “seemings”, especially in their so-called phenomenal guises, may perhaps invite more trouble than they’re worth. But some of what I see as problematic about the way they get handled also attaches to “experience”.

  3. Hi Pete,

    I was arguing in few last posts on my blog about doing away with ‘experience’, and I’m very very glad to see you arguing that also!

    BTW, in the comments of The Splintered Mind, I already proposed to Eric doing away with ‘experience’ and ‘visual field’ talk, and talk about capacities to see (clearly) something instead.

    But I think (might be wrong) that Eric is concerned about ‘loosing’ the what-is-it-likeness aspect.

  4. Yes, I’ll hang on to “experience” or “phenomenology” or some synonym like that. I’m not ready to say that it all comes down to judgments!

    In my view, there’s a property RED* that can be introspectively picked out (or “ostended to”) in experience and which is normally caused by red things. And likewise, visual experience can be blurry, detailed, streaked, or doubled, independently of whether we’re inclined to judge that the objects that visual experience is of are blurry, detailed, streaked, or doubled.

    The science and metaphysics of consciousness would be much easier if it weren’t so!

  5. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Tanasije,
    Forgive me if I’m misinterpreting your view regarding reducing experiences to capacities, but one thing that makes me think capacities won’t be the magic bullet is that they are dispositional whereas whatever experiences reduce to should be occurrent. So, unlike my ability to lift 50kg, talk of my experience as of a pink elephant should be cashed out in terms of states I’m currently in, not states I’m able to get into. Further, the capacity suggestion seems unable to underwrite the sorts of knowing-that we have concerning consciousness and is, if suited to any kind of knowledge, suited to knowing-how. I know that I’m not a zombie, and my experiences constitute my basis for this knowledge. This is what makes me think that appeal to judegments, insofar as they are both occurrent and have propositonal content, are more up to the task than mere capacities.

    Regarding what-it’s-like, I propose to reduce it to what-things-are-judged –to-be, and I gather Eric would much rather reduce it to, if anything, ways-certain-things-are.

  6. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Eric,

    Re: Ease.

    Yes, of course!

    So let’s not make things any harder on ourselves than we need to.

  7. Oh, I’m not saying that experiences should be reduced to capacities. Just that in the case with the cards, I think it is best to do away with ‘experiences’ talk, and instead the question can be something like “can you see the cards clearly if they are 20 degrees aside from the fixation point?”. In such view of the matter it is that capacity that is tested, and they figure out that they are wrong about it when they are tested.

    I do think that it is best to do away with talk about ‘experiences’ all together, but not just talk about capacity to see (’clearly’ or whatever other modifiers of seeing may be there), but also the concrete acts of seeing, hearing, or becoming aware in general of something in the world (thing, situation, event, relation, possibility).
    In combination with the what-it’s-like related to the ways-certain-things-are (I don’t know if Eric buys that, but I do), the knowing-that concerning consciousness, would be then reducible to being aware that we are seeing the-ways-certain-things-are.

  8. Pete Mandik says:


    What, then of hallucinations, illusions, and afterimages? If someone is subject to a green after-image or a pink elephant hallucination, it strikes me as implausible that in knowing what it’s like to have such a hallucination one is seeing the ways certain things are. Best to say that one is judging things to be in ways that they aren’t. Or, in more complicated cases, as when they know that there’s no pink elephant in the room in spite of an enduring hallucination, they are overriding a judgment concerning the way things aren’t

  9. Pete,

    The illusions and afterimages are I think easy to address, if we accept that more different ways-the-things-are might appear same to us because of the limits of our perception, and also that other things in the world besides the ‘target’ of perception affect the perception. Things like distance, fog, angle, having glasses, ambient light, and so on, including ‘eyes affected by looking at a red circle for 30 seconds’ (which I guess again might be connected to the limits of perception), and would can be included in the ways-things-are.

    As for the hallucinations, I’m playing with the idea of “seeing affector” in our brain, which would affect the seeing in similar way that looking at a red circle for 30 seconds does. I mean this is just an analogy, in reality this would ‘affect’ seeing in real time, but the end result would be that the way-things-are-when-you-see-empty-space-affected-by-the-seeing-affector, appears same as the-way-things-are-when-you-see-a-pink-unicorn.

  10. Ugh, reading my comment, I think I didn’t formulate it best. Should’ve taken more time on writing that comment. Sorry about that.

    Hope you might still make some sense out of it.

  11. Pete Mandik says:

    Hi Tanasije,

    No problem. Let me see if this helps. As I understand Eric from his last comment in this thread, when there’s a red circle and you see it correctly, you have an experience which is not red, but has a property he calls “RED*”. And, I suppose he’d say, when you take the red circle away and have an after image, nothing in the room need be red, or green, but the experience is GREEN*.

    I’d agree that nothing need be red nor green in this latter case, but I deny that there’s such a property as GREEN*. Oversimplifying my view, it is the view that you have a judgement that something is green, but the judgment is neither green nor GREEN*.

    And what do you say? I gather that you’d agree that nothing is green. But in what consists the state of something seeming green? It is, on your view I take it, that one is in a state as if one were seeing something green, but this state is no kind of judgment. Is that a correct characterization?

  12. I would agree with you that there is no such property as GREEN*.

    I would actually say that there are green things, and that the distinction of green, red, etc… things is made on the basis of how they appear to us given the conditions which are taken as uncomplicated (maybe ideal). In those conditions, the things are as they appear.
    Even in those conditions though because of the limits of perception, different things might appear same way to us. (pyramid and box seen from certain angle will appear to us same, even if they appear as they are, two different things seen from very far might appear same,etc…)

    In the complicated conditions, how things appear is affected by the conditions of seeing. A thing in those complicated conditions might appear same as some other different thing in simple conditions does. So, white surface that we look at after looking at a red circle for some time (that would be the complication), will appear same as white wall with green circle on it (without complications).

    The judgment (and possibility to be right or wrong) is than connected to picking-out one of those possible situations as being the case - Do we have a box or pyramid in front of us? Is there a green circle on the wall, or is it a case of an afterimage?

  13. Pete Mandik says:

    Focusing on the afterimage case, I’d say there are two judgments there and you seem to be saying there is only one.

    I wonder: How do you know that what you are calling the judgment is the first time a judgment appears in this case? How do you know that the white wall’s appearing the same as a white wall with a green circle on it isn’t itself just a judgment and what you are calling a judgment isn’t just a second judgment to the effect that the first judgment was incorrect? How do you know that there’s anything going on here besides you just making a bunch of judgments?

  14. Hi Pete,

    I’m thinking this…

    The appearing same to certain subject would be objective fact connected to the objects, viewing conditions and limitation of subject’s perception. If the perception of more subjects is limited in similar way, this will be an objective fact of two things appearing same across this class of observers (e.g. non-blind male humans) given particular conditions in both cases. This would be their what-it’s-like (I guess I can point that even linguistically this aligns nicely) in the particular conditions, to subjects with particular perception limits.

    So, this won’t be matter of judgment, but of how-the-things-are.

  15. Pete Mandik says:


    I’m not getting it. I take it the problem that needs to be solved is the problem of how something can appear green even though nothing in the immediate environment or in the head of the subject actually is green or even GREEN*. Now, one model we have for this is judgment. Judgments can pretty clearly be judgments to the effect that something is green and judgments need not be either green or GREEN*. Now, you think you have some other model of how this works. What’s the model?

    To put it another way, what’s your explanation of how something non-green can appear green to someone who isn’t making a judgment? You say “this will be an objective fact of two things appearing same across this class of observers” but what is the objective fact in question? And why isn’t the objective fact simply the objective fact that they are making such-and-such judgment?

  16. As for the knowing how one is not a zombie…

    I agree with you that it requires some ‘intimate’ connection between what-it’s-like and concepts. From what I understand, you are solving the problem by somehow equating what-it’s-like and judgments.
    On my view the concepts (at least those connected to the issue of knowledge that we are not zombies) are aspects of the world on which we can put attention (or of which we are aware of), and because the what-it’s-like is not something separate from this how-things-are of which we are aware of, by being aware of an aspects of the world we *are* being aware of what-it’s-like. The issue if we are zombies is answered negatively then, because we are supposing a scenario in which we are not aware of this what-it’s-like, but that obviously is not the case.

  17. Pete, sorry, left the page open for some time, and didn’t notice you posted a comment. So my previous comment was about an issue raised in the previous comments.

    As for the last one…
    The model is that green things appear same as some other things which are not green in specific conditions. I’m not saying that there is objective fact that they ‘appear green’ (or if I said that I take that back), they just ‘appear same as green things do in ideal conditions’, and as far as we talk about “appearing green” I think we are talking about comparing of how the things appear with a known case.

  18. Pete Mandik says:

    Suppose that 5 minutes ago every green thing in the world is destroyed. Suppose also that I’ve just stared at a red circle and am now subject to the resultant afterimage whereby something around here seems green even though nothing around here actually is green. How is this consistent with “by being aware of an aspects of the world we *are* being aware of what-it’s-like”? What aspect of the world is it that I’m aware of? Am I aware of all the green things that no longer exist?

  19. Pete Mandik says:

    What you offer as the model, namely “that green things appear same as some other things which are not green in specific conditions” is precisely what needs to be explained, so it looks like you have a circular explanation.

  20. Pete Mandik says:

    Also: isn’t “comparing of how the things appear with a known case” something done by judging?

  21. Pete,

    You ask…

    What aspect of the world is it that I’m aware of? Am I aware of all the green things that no longer exist?

    You are being aware (or what you see) is the wall after having looked at a red circle. Walls look like walls with green circle on them, after one is looking at a red circle for some time. And that because of the limits of perception hence objectively so, same as pyramid and box look same when seen from certain angle. So, in this case I would say that you are not aware of a wall with green circle on it, but simply of a wall, after having visual system affected by looking at a red circle. As you say , and I agree, there isn’t anything green in the situation, nor is there any GREEN* in the experience.

    “that green things appear same as some other things which are not green in specific conditions” is precisely what needs to be explained

    Not sure that I understand this. If this is what needs to be explained, it can be explained by the limits of our perception. Take a camera which is affected the same way our perceptual system is affected by looking at red circle for same time, and the camera will “capture” this objective appearing same of different things in different conditions. Or take a camera and make a picture of a box and a pyramid from certain angle, and you will get the same appearance.

    isn’t “comparing of how the things appear with a known case” something done by judging?

    Yes, I think I agree with you that this is a judgment, and that saying that something “appears green” is hence a matter of judgment. There is nothing in the world which is green, there is nothing in the experience which is green, so must be matter of judgment. But the things which are compared, namely “how things appear to me now”, and “how things appear to me when I see green circle” are not judgments themselves.

  22. Pete Mandik says:

    These things that aren’t judgments but can be in cameras, is there something it’s like to have them? Is there something it’s like to be a camera?

  23. Ok, I guess the example with cameras “capturing” the objective appearance doesn’t work as good as I thought it would. :)

    After all we have the cameras so that we get a picture which when we look at it appears same as the situation appeared at the time, but it is not “the appearance” which is somehow recorded by it. It is just yet another thing which appears same as other thing (the situation of which we took picture).

    So, I guess I will just stay with the things appearing same because limits of our perception, and that being used by us for making movies, cameras, magic illusions, and so on.