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On Qualia as Intrinsic Properties of Experience

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The nature of Qualia, or the qualitative feel of an experience, and their philosophical insinuations have been widely debated in modern philosophy of mind. To attempt to cover all the different views concerning the broad subject of Qualia might be somewhat tedious. Rather, the focus of this paper will be an analysis of Sydney Shoemakers ideas in “Phenomenal Character and Introspection” and an argument for the importance of qualia when considering experience through representationalism and any other theory of consciousness. This seems to be the most plausible place to start in order to display just how vital qualia are to properly understand the nature of subjective experience. For if qualia can be representationally or functionally defined in one way or another it would bring us a little closer to understanding the subjective phenomena that IS[1] consciousness, rather than the phenomena that is human being.

What it’s Like 

The “what it’s like” of an experience is something we can come to understand intuitively, can a person who has never been on a roller coaster completely appreciate what it’s like to ride it just by observing someone else or being told about it, e.i by experiencing it vicariously? Maybe they could tell you what they thought it was like but they could never tell you what it’s actually like, the person riding the roller coaster might find quite a lot of trouble attempting to explain it concisely to the person who has never ridden before. They might use words like: exhilarating, great fun, frightening, etc.. to frame the experience, but that still does not capture the phenomenal character of riding a rollercoaster. Considering this, it can be safe to assume that it could be the case that every single person who gets off the roller coaster would have experienced something completely different than anyone else who has ridden the rollercoaster before. Despite the representational content of the roller coaster itself (fun, speed, loops, twists, steep descents) having more or less similar representational values to those who present themselves before it, we cannot safely say that the physical and cultural properties are the only qualities that shape the experience. Otherwise, it would not be the case that some people appreciate them, and some don’t, even when the people share similar representational attitudes. This is due in part to the qualitative feel of their introspective appreciation of the phenomenal experience. It could be that while riding a person laughs and screams along with the rest of them, but upon finishing the ride they are introspectively aware about the contents of that sensory experience and find that the intrinsic qualities of the phenomenal character were not something they enjoyed. Not for any particular reason, it just wasn’t enjoyable to them. Despite knowing exactly what it’s like to ride one and knowing that the experience ends when the ride ends, something only known to the person who is introspecting results in the experience holding a certain quality. A friend, however, was sitting right next to them and is insisting to go again. The question here is who perceived the rollercoaster ride veridically, with no chance of misperception or misrepresentation? It doesn’t help that we have physical proof how it should feel to go fast then drop, roll, twist, and do loop de loops; if one was to crunch the numbers and find out how much force per square meter was being exerted all along the ride, at each interval, or if one was to ride with electrodes attached to the head to point out which parts of the brain were being activated, would that help to communicate or show the real (veridical) experience of a rollercoaster to the observers in white lab coats who wish to get an objective idea “what it’s like” and maybe compare the results and find a general consensus what it’s like to ride the roller coaster? Even then, wouldn’t that make for a pretty boring and dull ride if the phenomenal character of an experience was somehow known?

Ned Block argues that qualia are non-representational contents of experience, and thus since qualia don’t supervene on representational content, there is no misperception because the nature of the quale is not a representational quality (Lycan, 2000). Is there any way to bridge this gap, and find a tangible approach that will also aid in displaying what role Qualia play without dismissing them as subjective noise?  Shoemaker’s Paper is aimed to provide an example where spectrum inversion is possible and where awareness of representational phenomenal states is accounted for.

Why reject Qualia

Representationalism claims that our experience of an object would be a representation of a property that the object itself has and that that property itself is also perceived representationally. One could call on Qualia to weaken the argument that phenomenal character is a form of representational content, though Sydney shoemaker argues that qualia play an important role in representationalism about phenomenal content, and that it is the case that phenomenal character is  “self-intimating” representational content brought about upon reflection; “it is of the essence of a state’s having a certain phenomenal character that this issues in the subjects being introspectively aware of that character, or does so if the subject reflects” (Shoemaker, 2002).

In order to understand why Shoemaker argues to incorporate and invigorate the role of qualia when considering representationalism in his paper “Phenomenal Character and Introspection” one must understand why representationalism rejects certain forms of qualia. Representationalism assumes that intentionality (or the minds capability to form beliefs, and grasp aboutness) is composed of representational concepts related to the objects and culture in the environment (Jacob, 2003). That is to say, given the above example with the coaster; that an intentional state occurred at the end of the experience is partly due to the particular representation of “Rollercoaster” that was already beheld in the subject’s mind, including the representational sensory input. One does not see a strange thing composed of many different parts, that bears a moving object full of bodies which are making loud noises and guttural sounds as they woosh by. One sees these collections of objects, and occurrences, is conscious of the environment in which they are found, and is aware of the representation “Rollercoaster”, and along with that come all the representations that this entails, depending on previous experiences, culture, age and other such factors. As per some philosophers like Micheal Tye’s views (Tye, 2002), the subjective qualities of phenomenal experience, or qualia of the sensory data in that experience play little to no part in the outcome of the experience. Qualia are rejected because they cannot be functionally defined. There have been numerous debates and much philosophical bickering on how one can prove the existence of qualia, let alone show what role they play in the functional and representational sense. Much of this philosophical bickering takes the form of thought experiments meant to display the existence and meaning of qualia, or their lack thereof.

Shoemakers “humble” Inverted Spectrum

In the original experiment, X’s color experience when viewing a red object is phenomenally identical to Y’s experience when viewing a green object Tom is a special guy whose visual experiences are inverted in respect to his fellow men and women. When Tom looks at red objects, he experiences what it’s like for other people when they look at green objects (Tye, 2002). This inversion is non-detectable by people because Tom has learned the correct words for colors and he uses them normally. This means that when he sees a Tomato, his phenomenal experience differs from ours but the representational one is the same. The difference is the Quale of the visual experience Tom is having. If this case is possible, Representationalism proposes that since both experiences have individually different qualia, they should also have different representational content. This is where some philosophers like Micheal Tye refute the argument by denying the existence of qualia as nonrepresentational, introspectively accessible qualities of experience. They claim such a definition for qualia is a philosophical myth, and that undetectable strong color spectrum inversion is an impossibility; someone in the case is misperceiving (Tye, 1997, 2002).

Shoemaker instills that what is often an issue of discussion concerning spectrum inversions is the possibility of behaviorally undetectable spectrum inversion. This is problematic because it “aggravates the problem of knowledge of other minds”, and because such cases seem to imply that qualia are not functionally definable. His challenge to these problematics is to claim “that it is possible for the visual experiences different creatures have of objects of certain colors to differ in their phenomenal character without any of these creatures thereby misperceiving the colors, and for the visual experiences of two creatures to be alike in phenomenal character when they are viewing things of different colors, again without either of the creatures misperceiving the colors” (Shoemaker, 2002). He goes on to assume that, given the physiological traits of a subject, sensory input can vary and no misrepresentation occurs. The presented example in his paper is of unique hues, as it is known that certain hues are perceived as unique due to the rate at which lights of various wavelengths are absorbed in the retina, since these pigments vary, so do the perceptions of unique hues. There is no good reason to say that some observers correctly get which shades are unique and some of them don’t. Shoemaker claims that this is a valid example of a behaviorally detectable spectrum inversion, he deduces that how things look to us must be in part determined by the nature of our visual and central nervous systems as well as the nature of the circumstance.

If phenomenal character of perceptual experiences entails representational content which consists purely of representational objective properties, then experiences that share the same objective representational content would also share phenomenal character, whether or not the physiological and psychological mechanism of the subjects were similar. This ends up showing that inverted qualia are impossible, since the phenomenal character should be the same as the representational content. so to reconcile the claim that they are possible, Shoemaker holds that among the properties being represented by perceptual experiences are “Phenomenal properties” (not to be confused with the synonym for Qualia, in a note Shoemaker claims this might not have been the best choice of words since they describe an external state) that are represented in the phenomenal content of experiences. According to Shoemaker, “These properties are perceiver relative, in such a way that perceivers can differ in what phenomenal properties they are perceiving the same objects to have while veridically perceiving these objects to have the same objective properties, and in such a way that different perceivers can, when veridically perceiving different objects, perceive the same phenomenal properties even though the objective properties they perceive are different” (Shoemaker, 2002), this means that we perceive colors by perceiving a phenomenal property that is associated with the object. It also holds that different subjects can have different associations with the phenomenal property being veridically perceived as an objective secondary property. Qualia fit into this by taking up the determinant role in terms of the types of phenomenal properties that are being singled out by individual subjects.

This primes the notion that things look a certain way to us when we see them, and if this lingo is used in a color inversion case, we can safely say that things which are red look green to the inverted subject, though the subject says and thinks they look red. There is no difference in the objective properties of the object’s appearance, so there must be another kind of property other than the color (or other objective property). If things look a certain way to someone, there is a type of property which corresponds to that “certain way” and is a property of the object looking a certain way to the observer.

In an attempt to pinpoint these phenomenal properties, Shoemaker gives an account of a case in which a subject is observing a table’s uniformly colored surface, partly covered in shadow. The different parts of the surface will look different to the subject, with no misperception. It is not the case that the objective representational content of the experience when observing one part of the surface differs from the experience of observing the other. The part in shadow, although appearing different, will not look to have a different color. It may look like one part of the table has the objective property of being in shadow or of having a different hue, where the other one lacks that property, but lacking any clues concerning the illumination of the table, the decisive factor is the difference in the way alternate parts of the table’s surface look to the subject. “If their looking different in this way consists in there being different properties they appear to have; these won’t be objective properties, they will be candidates for phenomenal properties”, as per Shoemakers thinking.

Appearance properties
These phenomenal properties, according to shoemaker, contain, or rather include Occurent appearance (OAP) properties, and Dispositional appearance properties (DAP). OAPs are properties that “cause, in a certain way, an experience of sorts”; they are instantiated when the observed object has a direct property that makes it look a specific way to the observer. DAPs are capable of producing an experience of a certain kind, in the correct observer who has the correct relation to the property. Dispositional appearance attitudes are borne when the observed property is inclined to produce a certain experience in some observers if the observer happen to bear a dispositional relation to that property. In previous papers that shoemaker has written concerning the subject of qualia inversion, he hadn’t taken that into consideration when choosing an observer or observed property, oversimplifying the thought experiment. Since each shade of color will have several different occurent appearance properties, observing it to have one of these many OAP’s is enough to say it has that specific shade. The observer will also have dispositional attitudes which should be considered, and the observer will experience a DAP if they are the right sort of observer and have some relation to the object in the correct way, as well as the correct circumstance. These dispositions will always implement the instantiation of an DAP, given the scope of possibility here, it is safe to say that there are as many if not more dispositional appearance properties as occurent appearance properties, due to the fact that sometimes it is the same OAP that instantiates different DAP’s in diverse observers.

In the case of colors, some will have OAP’s that bear a close relationship to it, relative to the kind of observer perceiving it. So, the certain way a color appears to look to someone observing it will be representative of a certain OAP that the specific color has in relation to the dispositional character of the observer and their environment. Appears to look, is to say that something is looking a particular way, and as there have been many arguments on the subject of the epistemological use of these words by Fred Dretske, Shoemaker goes through three ways things might look to an observer. He gives the example of a particular shade that looks blue, meaning there has to be an imagined way blue shades should look in the observer’s mind as a base to compare, this he calls the “canonical” sense of looking a certain way. If we are looking for an objective point of reference though, this can seem to be a very ambiguous term, hence the introduction of the “Doxastic” way of looking; the observer believes that shade looks blue, and the observer’s experience is taken at “face value” when they say that shade looks blue to them. Even then, describing a shade in such a fashion is still very vague and does nothing to point out which OAP it has that is currently being observed. By discussing these different epistemologies of the term, shoemaker is attempting to figure out which OAP is giving the experience its phenomenal character. It pertains that the focus for Shoemaker’s train of thought is the “phenomenal” sense of “looking” a certain way to the correct observer. “if F is a color then something looks F in the phenomenal sense if a painter would use F pigment to represent how it looks” (Shoemaker, 2002). He then goes on to say that things appearing (in the doxastic sense) to have certain objective properties is grounded in their looking phenomenally a certain way, but that the transition from the way things appear in the phenomenal sense, to the objective properties they have, and appear to have, rests on several contingencies. Such as facts about illumination conditions, the spatial relation of object and observer, and how these combine with the objective properties of a thing to determine how it will look phenomenally to the observer, depending what kind of visual system the observer actually has.

It is apparent that there are many things to take into consideration other than simple facts about why and how an object is perceived or misperceived, especially when considering this under representational ideals, and especially when attempting to find a phenomenal property that our experience represents.

Shoemaker’s Veridicality

Unless one was unwittingly dosed with a psychedelic entheogen and was hallucinating, there is something (an OAP) that phenomenally appears to have a certain quality in their perceptual experience of a given thing, and claiming otherwise would seem to be implying that they were constantly in a state of hallucination. Hence, since we are not hallucinating when we say, something looks a certain way, and the correct appearance properties are observed, we are still having a veridical experience. The appearance properties have to be taken into account. If something that is not blue appears blue in the doxastic sense, this is a fair case of misperception and can be said not to be veridical. We cannot say the same for the case of it appearing blue in the phenomenal sense, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a case of misperception. One example given in Shoemakers paper is that snow often phenomenally looks blue depending on the circumstances, and it is not a case of misperception, nor one of dispositional attitude. It is a case of observing a white surface under a certain circumstance, and its having the phenomenal appearance of the canonical way blue things look.

Veridicality, according to Shoemaker, can now be defined like this: “for an experience of a thing to be veridical, the way the thing appearsp must be such that a thing’s appearingp that way to an observer of that sort in those circumstances would not count as misperception” (Shoemaker, 2002).  Appearsp being the way something looks in the phenomenal sense. The thing being experienced then, must also have a dispositional property of sorts that can be experienced in that phenomenal sense when being observed by an observer who is correctly oriented/related towards it (given that the observer has a normally functioning perceptual system). Now we can put all these different variables together and say that the veridicality of a phenomenal visual experience (appearancep) requires that something has the OAP of appearingp that way, as well as the DAP of appearingp to someone who is viewing it under the correct conditions for that OAP and DAP to coincide. This reasoning can lead to the notion that such an experience represents the instantiation of both sorts of properties.

Shoemaker goes on to mention yet another appearance property that

could be shared by all things that are disposed to appear, in the way mentioned above, to observers situated in a certain way respective to the thing being observed. “This will be the higher order property of having one or another of the dispositional appearance properties which can manifest themselves in an instantiation of a given occurrent appearance property, and will be a property that a perceived thing will have just in case it has that occurrent appearance property” (Shoemaker, 2001).

These “Higher-order” DAPs along with the associated OAP’s, can be said to be the properties that may be represented by our experiences. Shoemaker argues that If something appears phenomenally a certain way, it is imperative to the veridicality of the experience that the thing have the higher-order DAP of appearing phenomenally in such a way. He argues that having an experience such as that puts the observer in a position to judge that the perceived object does indeed have that property.

Shoemakers concluding argument

Even if the above mentioned appearance properties were denied to be perceived and represented in perceptual experience, it will still hold to say that because things appear phenomenally to us in certain ways, do we perceive them as having distinct properties. It will also be true that the introspective awareness we have concerning the nature of our experiences will reflect the way things look to us. Shoemaker proclaims this with much conviction: “If anything deserves to be called the phenomenal character of our experiences, it is the part of their introspectable nature that reflects how things look, feel, taste, smell, or sound to us” (Shoemaker, 2001).

I would like to give an analogous example to support this, let us assume that a given person who has no access to wine, has read all there is to know about drinking and tasting wine. This person has accumulated all the possible knowledge that concerns this field, and has introspected about the subject to no end. This person also has a normal nervous/perceptual system in respect to their species. Is this enough raw data for the person to credibly say that they might as well have tried wine and can tell you the subtle differences in their types as well as describe their taste with accuracy? I would think not, since what is lacking is the raw feel of the wine itself on that person’s tongue, the taste of it and the phenomenal character of the sensory experience as well as the qualia of it all, it could be that upon tasting wine they find the taste to be nothing like what has been described in the literature, or that it’s more like Author X’s interpretation than author Y’s. This is not misperception; neither him or the authors are wrong. The objective representational content is all present, but the phenomenal character along with the appropriate appearance properties were purely imagined by the person. In a sense, the doxastic appearance properties were represented in the literature and as a result represented in the reader’s mind canonically rather than phenomenally. The phenomenal aspect of it does not exist and so the representation is not valid or sound until the experience is phenomenally validated. According to Shoemaker, if phenomenal character is part of the represented content of our experiences then the aforementioned appearance properties are the only candidates for being the properties that are represented. If it is not the case that they are being represented, then representationalism about phenomenal character is false.

The essential argument of Shoemaker’s paper is not to only to argue for representationalism about phenomenal content, but also for representationalism to be acceptable, it must primarily allow that the properties whose representation provide phenomenal character are phenomenal properties in Shoemaker’s sense. Secondarily, that in allowing such properties, representationalist must allow for phenomenal character to be independent of the objective representational content of experience in a fashion that would allow for cases of inverted and non-human qualia.

Shoemaker’s take on Qualia

          One could say that Shoemaker’s view on phenomenal character so far, can be applied without the introduction of qualia. He pertains that this can be done by claiming that the appearance properties in question are instantiated from a state of being appeared to, which are states that represent these appearance properties, and cause this state of “being-appeared-to”. This seems like a very circular argument, and to break out of it while holding true to his premises, he fine tunes the definition of appearance properties to simultaneously define both the appearance properties and the states of being appeared to, by using the Ramsey-Lewis technique. This technique as developed by Frank Ramsey and David Lewis, allows for terms found in a theory to be defined by the assertions of the theory itself (Lewis, David, 1970). Though, while doing this, Shoemaker points out the problem of not accounting for states of being appeared to in “creatures” of another kind and not accounting for the distinction of appearance properties and intrinsic objective properties. Also, this definition invokes the notion of sameness when considering appearance properties, that essentially means that the object itself has to have the same potential for a given appearance property given the correct conditions. Shoemaker suggests that this notion be applied intrasubjectively in order to support the definition, this would aid in extending this definition to the case of color inverted qualia and alien qualia by taking into account the psycho-social relationship between a given creature and the rest of their social niche. The unrefined product of this thinking yields the following definition as per Shoemaker:
“The state of being appearedp blue to and the property of appearingp blue are the unique state S and the unique property P such that S represents P, someone is in state S just in case the way something looks to him is the way blue things look to us under optimal conditions, and something is P just in case it is producing state S in some observer (in a way that does not involve misperception), or is disposed to produce S in some sort of observer.”  This is still rough and in need of refinement. But plainly any account of these properties and states needs an account of sameness of state of being appeared to.”

As quoted, there has to be a kind of sameness applicable to states of being-appeared-to which is not only defined in respect to which property is being represented. Shoemaker thinks that the only acceptable sense of sameness is one that is defined in terms of qualitative character, and is functionally valid. This is where qualia come in as the media which deliver the representations of a perceived object’s appearance properties, they are properties in “virtue of which they stand in relations of qualitative similarity and difference” (Shoemaker, 2001). These relations will be defined in functionalist terms when they are considered intrasubjectively.

I think This is clear when one considers the socially agreed upon similarities and differences we constantly use to differentiate between experiences and to recognize objects, if qualia aid to bring these qualitative similarities or differences to light, their functional role is hard to refute. Shoemaker is saying that Phenomenal experiences of the same objective property may differ qualitatively, but once illumination conditions and the relation of the observer to the observed is determined, so is the sameness of the objective representational content, and so is the sameness of qualitative phenomenal content. What needs to be further pinpointed is how realization of qualia in instantiated properties occurs. Shoemaker does this by discussing the contingency, in the case of objective properties, that a given quale will represent a particular instantiated property and that this quale is “multiply realizable” depending on the introspective, intrasubjective nature of the observer.

In a functionalist sense, perceptual experiences were categorized in respect to an evolutionary history by being attributed to certain vital functions, representative of the functional (not physical-according to Shoemaker) environment in which they were experienced- aiding in the generation of beliefs about that environment. This obviously helps determine, to some extent, how a given subject discriminates and recognizes these experiences, thus allowing for “Multiple realizability” of phenomenal properties and heterogeneity in objective ones. Thus according to Shoemaker, “it is qualia that type the experiences, and thus it is that qualia contingently represent the objective environmental features they do”.

Why are qualia so important?

          To sum up Shoemakers ideas, his view in the paper “Introspection and Phenomenal Character” can be vitalized by his claim:

“Contents of perceptual experiences include representations of properties of external objects (or parts of our bodies) which things have in virtue of appearing to us, or being disposed to appear to us, in certain ways, these being what I Call phenomenal properties, and that the phenomenal character of experiences that we are introspectively aware of is this part of their representational content.” (Shoemaker, 2002)

Now that we have functionally defined Qualia in shoemaker’s sense, and found the properties in which they are represented, we can surmise that qualia and experiences are intrinsic to each other, and that how things appear to us and the different and similar ways they do appear shape our reality. On the topic of Conscious Experience, Fred Dretske mentions that what makes experience conscious is that the experience makes us conscious of something else – namely our bodies and the world we live in (Dretske, 2002). Shoemaker argues that we are also introspectively aware of the phenomenal properties that shape these experiences. Given all the ideas that shoemaker presents to support that the intrasubjectivity involved in the matter takes on a rather important role in fixing a point of reference for qualia to be defined, and especially in determining the outcome of the multiple realizablility of phenomenal properties. Can we objectively lead discussions concerning the nature of consciousness and one’s phenomenal experience therein without accounting for all the possible forms of creature (and perhaps other, yet unknown forms of) consciousness?

If you were a representationalist, it would not make much sense to say that you are objectively discussing something so grand as consciousness in terms of one facet of its representation, or discussing only the contents of OUR perceptual experiences, respectively; the represented phenomenal properties intrasubjectively and introspectively accessible to us. This is one reason I was so attracted to Shoemakers paper, as it took into consideration Alien/inverted Qualia and phenomenal character and attempted to integrate these notions clearly in the representationalist view as well as show that they can be at least conceptually possible. It was my firm intuitive belief that phenomenal character is intrinsic to understand the nature of experience and I think that Shoemaker was able to fit phenomenal character and representationalism logically together, confirming my belief. It is also strange to see functionalists such a Daniel Dennet quickly dismiss an idea due to its subjective nature. After all, according to ancient sophist dogma, there are 3 parts to philosophy Ethos, Logos, and Pathos. Why choose to ignore a facet of that trinity due to its subjective and intimate nature? Pathos can be related to the nature of qualia, in that it is essentially a type of feel, a way to look, or at the ontological level a way to Be. If as Shoemaker suggests our introspective awareness of that deep ontological level is available to us in terms of the qualia that aid in representing what we sense and experience, then it is no wonder that there are so many different ways to look at the same thing, even if that thing is consciousness. To attempt to unify a Universe (or possibly multiverse) worth’s of possibility under one theory of consciousness using only representational content known as logic and the objective credibility of science without considering and revaluating the intuitive and intimate would be the equivalent of the man in the above example who thinks he might as well have drunk wine, despite never having actually drunken any.



Chalmers, D. j. (2002). Philosophy of mind classical and contemporary readings. New York : Oxford University Press.

Dretske, F. (2002). Concious Experience . In D. j. Chalmers, Philosophy of Mind classical and contemporary readings (pp. 422-433). New York: Oxford University Press.

Shoemaker, S. (2002). Introspection and Phenomenal Character. In D. j. Chalmers, Philosophy of mind classical and contemporary readings (pp. 457-472). New York: Oxford University Press.

Tye, M. (2002). Visual Qualia and Visual Content Revisited . In D. j. Chalmers, Philosophy of mind classical and contemporary readings (pp. 447-456). New York: Oxford University Press.

Lycan, W. (2000). Representational Theories of Consciousness. Retrieved September, 2016, from

Tye, M. (1997). Qualia. Retrieved September, 2016, from

Jacob, P. (2003). Intentionality. Retrieved October 03, 2016, from

[1] Parmenides- Being IS “Never must you think that nothingness can be”


Author: pisceanist

Hi, My name is Fouad, I was born in San Diego CA in 1986 and currently live in Hamburg, Germany. I love to read and play video games, and am a great fan of post-rock music and Tool. I am currently working my way to an MA in Creative writing and also teach English as a Second Language to get by. Have been writing for quite some time, and thought It was time I stopped hoarding my strange digressions and shared them with fellow writers and readers in order to get more honest feedback, Enjoy!

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