Volume II

On Physicalism, Qualia, And Agency

by Daria Sleiman



Philosophy of mind is a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with questions about the mind’s nature and its properties, the realm of consciousness, and how they relate to the physical body (known as the mind-body problem).  Upon the emergence of new research in cognitive science in the 1950’s, many began to wonder whether neural events were perhaps identical to mental events, given their apparent correlation; otherwise, if not an identity, what other kind of correlation could exist between the two, and from whence does it stem?  Questions such as these are central to the study of the mind, which has undergone an interesting history.  In contemporary philosophy of mind, the comprehensive framework within which most philosophers proceed is termed “physicalism,” and philosophers and non-philosophers alike widely accept this framework, in part, because it is consistent with scientific practice.  Physicalism is also a building block of eminent analytic philosopher and William Herbert Perry Faunce Professor of Philosophy at Brown University Jaegwon Kim’s architecture of his book Philosophy of Mind, with which I will be engaging throughout this paper; thus I shall assume physicalism for the purpose of this paper. 

Definitions and Contextualization


It will prove useful to define some key terms I will be employing frequently hereinafter: physicalism, qualia and intentional-cognitive states, functional reduction, epiphenomenalism, and agency.  


One understanding of “physicalism” is as the theory according to which all things are either physical or supervene on the physical.  One of its principles is the causal closure of the physical domain, by which it is to be understood that ‘‘the physical world is causally self-contained and self-sufficient.”  Because it is generally accepted that mental phenomena have effects in the physical world—for example, that my wanting a glass of water may result in my reaching out my arm to grab it, where wanting is a mental phenomena and reaching out is a physical phenomena—the following conclusion is also typically accepted: ‘‘mental phenomena are physical phenomena.”  Physicalism, then, claims to be able to account for all phenomena, mental and physical alike.  Later on, I will explore the limits of physicalism in this respect.  


Amongst these mental phenomena, according to Kim, one may find two kinds: qualia (also referred to collectively as “phenomenal consciousness”) and intentional-cognitive states.  Qualia are the “way things seem, look, or appear to a conscious creature.”  They are those mental phenomena that involve “sensory qualities: pains, itches, tickles, having an afterimage, seeing a round green patch, smelling ammonia, feeling nauseous, and so on.”  The quale of the color red, for example, is the redness of the red.  Analogously, what makes a pain a pain is its painness—it hurts.  There is something it is like to see the color red and there is something it is like to feel pain, and these corresponding phenomena are what we refer to as qualia.  Intentional-cognitive states (also called “propositional attitudes”), conversely, are those mental states that lack a phenomenal or qualitative property.  They can be “attributed to a person by the use of embedded that-clauses.”  For example, a belief is a propositional attitude; in the sentence “Kendra believes that her brother will have lunch with her at noon,” the belief is the speaker’s attitude or state, and the proposition (which constitutes the content) is that her brother will have lunch with her at noon.  Other states may include hoping, desiring, doubting, and so on.  Emotions also fall under this same category because they too have content—for example, the view is that Kendra would not merely be sad, but that she would be sad-that, in this case, her brother could not make it to lunch.  


I will demonstrate that this distinction between two types of mental states is crucial to the understanding of the relationship between physicalism, mental phenomena (in particular, qualia) and agency—or lack thereof.  Kim argues, as will be clearly explained below, that intentional-cognitive states such as beliefs and desires can be functionally reduced, whereas qualia cannot.  Functional reduction is a mode of reduction that aims to provide a reductive explanation of consciousness in terms of neural states.  In other words, philosophers have the task of defining physical states and mental states; some, like Kim, favour a functionalist account whereby mental states are neural states that play a particular functional role in a broader system of inputs and outputs.  That is to say, everything for which physicalism claims to be able to account ought to be functionally reducible—which I claim to not be the case.  


Although physicalism appears to functionally reduce mental states to physical states successfully (at least on a theoretical level—the rest of the work is left to the scientists), there exists another theory in philosophy of mind that holds that mental events are causally inefficacious: epiphenomenalism.  There are two forms of epiphenomenalism: weak and strong.  Weak epiphenomenalism is the view that mental events can be caused by physical events, but cannot, in turn, act as causal factors (of either mental or physical events).  Strong epiphenomenalism maintains that mental events belong to an entirely different realm of things, that they exist outside of the causal world and, hence, cannot be caused by or cause anything (whether of a mental or physical nature).  This view is especially worrisome with regards to agency, for it implies that if I simply were to want a glass of water, for example, this theory would be unable to account for how I would act on that want and reach out my arm to grab the glass.  Nothing could be a consequence of my mental life, of my desires, my intentions, my beliefs or my thoughts.  


In Philosophy of Mind, Jaegwon Kim explores the main theories of the past centuries in philosophy of mind and arrives at the conclusion that, amongst the contemporary theories so far developed, physicalism and epiphenomenalism are the most plausible ones (although he will ultimately reject both).  Because epiphenomenalism entails such an immense loss of agency, Kim attempts to save a maximum of mental events and properties from it through functional reduction and into physicalism.  Even physicalism, however, has its limits.


Agency implies, among other things, the ability to recognize oneself as an agent—one who is endowed with cognition and rational thought, and has the capacity to act as a result of the exercise of the former.  I have previously explained the relationship—or lack thereof—between epiphenomenalism and agency; it would seem that the relationship between physicalism and agency is a much more promising one with regards to both the capacity to account for mental events and properties and the preservation of our full agential capacities.  The premise upon which this suggestion is based is that our agency and cognition lie entirely in the intentional-cognitive domain.  


The purpose of this paper is to take issue with the aforementioned premise.  I contend that losing qualia as intrinsic properties to epiphenomenalism entails a significant loss of agency insofar as it leads to the neglect of actualizing our innate capacity for creation and sharing; I seek to demonstrate this by establishing and analyzing a relationship between qualia, art and agency.  


The following section of this paper will shadow Kim’s analysis of the relationship between physicalism and phenomenal consciousness, with the subsequent section consisting of my reply to Kim in which I introduce art as a medium to understand a relationship between qualia and agency.  I will begin by explaining how a physicalist might fail to account for intrinsic phenomenal properties or qualia.  Then, I will explain how a physicalist might still be able to preserve phenomenal differences.  Finally, I will assess the extent to which it might be problematic for our understanding of ourselves as agents to lose qualia as intrinsic qualities to epiphenomenalism but to save qualia differences therefrom.

The Relationship between Physicalism and Phenomenal Consciousness


As previously explained, Kim invites us to consider mental phenomena as consisting of two kinds: intrinsic phenomenal events or properties (qualia), on the one hand, and intentional-cognitive states, on the other.  He draws this distinction in order to analyze each kind with respect to functional reduction, which he considers to be the only option left if one does not wish to embrace epiphenomenalism.  Kim appears to successfully offer a model for the functional reduction of intentional-cognitive states; nonetheless, he argues that states with qualia are in fact irreducible.  


To this end, he takes up the “qualia inversion argument,” which supposes a world physically identical to ours, and whose only difference from our world is that its people have an inverted color spectrum.  To better illustrate this theory, suppose that there is a small child barely beginning to acquire language.  Suppose further that her color spectrum is inverted: what we call “red,” she sees as green, and what we call “green,” she sees as red.  Her mother, who possesses a normatively regular color spectrum, in order to teach her child how to speak English, has a small book for children.  On each page, there is a circle colored with a unique color and beneath it is written the name of that color.  Where the circle is red, the word “red” is written beneath it, and the mother utters the word “red,” pointing out the colored circle to her child.  Recall that the child’s color spectrum is inverted; she is learning that the name of the color she is shown is “red,” but what she actually sees we would call “green.”  This knowledge that she thus carries throughout the rest of her life consists in always referring to green as “red,” and vice-versa.  


Now, let us generalize this situation to another world, whereby everyone’s color spectrum in that world is inverted in comparison to ours.  If this world is just like ours in all physical respects, there is no way of accounting for that unique difference—so goes the argument.  So, whereas people from both worlds would all refer to a ripe tomato as “red,” to use another example, and use the same word to describe the color of the ripe tomato, it would not be the case that they have the same phenomenal qualitative state of consciousness—in fact, what the people in the other world of our thought experiment call “red” we would call “green” and vice-versa.  Clearly then, qualia cannot be functionally reduced.  To sum up Kim’s argument: a property can only be realized if it can be functionalized; qualia are not functional properties; it follows that qualia cannot be realized.  ‘‘So qualia are not functionalizable, and hence physically irreducible.”  This is how a physicalist might fail to account for intrinsic phenomenal properties or qualia.  


However, a physicalist might still be able to preserve phenomenal differences, or differences amongst qualia.  Kim argues that qualia differences, as opposed to intrinsic qualities, are potentially reducible in that they can be functionalized, on the grounds that they ultimately result in behaviours—and, what’s more, different behaviours with different instances of qualia differentiation.  As an example of the relevance of qualia differences, as opposed to qualia as intrinsic properties, Kim introduces the “traffic lights analogy,” which argues that what each of the colors of a traffic light represents—“go,” “stop,” or “slow down”—does not matter.  It also does not matter if some drivers’ color spectra are inverted.  There will not be car accidents assignable to this disparity in color attribution since, regardless of the phenomenal property of the experience, it will evoke the same law of road traffic control, and therefore enable a similar behaviour in all drivers.  What ultimately matters is that in practicality, all drivers will have the ability to differentiate qualia and adjust their behaviour accordingly.   Kim expresses this thought with the following conclusion: ‘‘Therefore, two persons whose color spectra are inverted with respect to each other can exhibit the same discriminative behaviour.”  This observable difference in behaviour, with relation to differences amongst qualia can, hereafter, in the domain of cognitive science, be functionalized and hence reduced.  Therefore, a physicalist might both fail to account for intrinsic phenomenal properties or qualia, and still be able to preserve phenomenal differences or differences amongst qualia.


By following Kim’s process, one has apparently succeeded in saving qualia differences from epiphenomenalism.  However, one has lost qualia as intrinsic properties to epiphenomenalism.  The question now remains: how problematic is this for our understanding of ourselves as agents?  Kim’s answer is that cognition and agency lie in the intentional domain, which was saved through functional reduction, and thus our status as cognizers and agents is saved: ‘‘The mental residue encompasses only qualitative states of consciousness, and does not touch the intentional/cognitive domain.  And it is in this domain that our cognition and agency are situated.”  This implies that to lose qualia as intrinsic properties to epiphenomenalism is not problematic for our agency, given that agency is exclusively situated in the intentional domain.  


I contend that losing qualia to epiphenomenalism does, in fact, entail a significant loss of agency.  I suggest approaching the problem backwards and analyzing the desideratum first, that is, to begin with agency.  As was mentioned above, agency implies the ability to recognize oneself as a rational agent endowed with the capacity to act as a result of one’s cognitive activity.  It also implies, then, knowledge of one’s own actions.  Where agency confers autonomy upon its agent, and the agent has first-person authority over one’s own thoughts, it follows that an agent can engage in metacognition and use whatever one gathers from that activity in one’s actions.  Insofar as qualia are defined as ‘‘the ways in which objects and events around me, and in me, present themselves in my experience,” one must accept that one does have knowledge of those experiences, and does have direct access to those phenomenal properties.


Moreover, these intrinsic qualities are made available to other cognitive functions within one, such as thought, knowledge, perception, and language—all necessary to the communication of this phenomenal consciousness and sensory experience.   How is it that one knows others also experience firsthand these same phenomenal properties? After all, it can be assumed that by this point in the paper the reader and author of this paper share a common understanding of the meaning of the word “quale,” and, thus, that both understand what qualia are; how can this assumption about qualia and their familiarity to any given person be so certain?

Art as a Medium by which to Understand a Relationship between Qualia and Agency


My answer is that there are large amounts of testimonies to qualia, with which one grows familiar very early on—in the arts, notably.  Let me take the example of poetry; surely, everyone can recall an instance of imagery in a poem that is so strong and genuine-feeling.  Its strength and genuineness are precisely because of the very thing that it evokes in one: a quale—the quale of a particular kind of moment.  Art both serves as testimony to those inner experiences, and communicates them effectively to others.  Through art, in all its variety of media, the quale experienced instantly by one person can be experienced indefinitely by another—be it the quale of an exact moment (represented by a realist painting, for example) or the quale of an unique association of sensory experiences (as, perhaps, expressed in a metaphor).


Beyond the immediate sensory communication of a quale, from its presentation by the artist to its reception by the beholder, there is the originating act of creation itself.  Where inspiration comes from for a poet, for example, is an exceptional understanding of a given quale—either sparked spontaneously in the mind or experienced directly in the world.  “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”  There is something it is like, for William Shakespeare, to be (or experience, in some sense) a summer day, and there is something it is like to be (or experience, in some sense) the subject referred to as “thee” in his “Sonnet 18”—and both emerging qualia happen to overlap.  Without the capacity to experience, access, and further inscribe qualia in the creative cycle, there is no possibility to move from the step of inspiration to that of creation whereby a work of art is accomplished in the first place.  If epiphenomenalism were to win over qualia, Shakespeare could never have been able to create his famous “Sonnet 18,” thus expressing qualia through the use of language.  This is because epiphenomenalism holds the view that qualia are causally inefficacious—and if that were the case, and qualia were lost to epiphenomenalism, then qualia could not cause within one other mental states and neural states that would enable one to participate in the creation, communication, and even deep feeling of art.  


Two points must be noted before moving on.  Firstly, to account for qualia, and thus to save them within the causal realm of things, means that it remains possible to account for a causal connection between qualia and other mental states, such as emotions (thus allowing a person to feel something after experiencing a quale, or to have an emotion be evoked when she sees any kind of image or reads a text, for example).  Second, it is primordial to understand that, although qualia differences can matter functionally, as Kim explains at length, qualia also matter in and of themselves—it is not important that you get a different quale when looking at a Renoir, than when looking at a Picasso—it intrinsically matters that you experience the quale you experience when looking at a Renoir, because it will evoke specific other mental states in you, which, in turn, will participate in a causal cycle.  


In addition to the essential role of qualia in the creative process, it is interesting to expand on a point briefly introduced earlier: this section has more or less directly answered our question—how is it that one knows others too experience firsthand these same phenomenal properties?—through an analysis of art and the sharing of artistic expression.  The answer leads to yet another conclusion relevant to our understanding of ourselves as agents: because we are inevitably so familiar with qualia, we understand that others, too, experience these same phenomenal properties.  This understanding that we share something so fundamental as certain kinds of mental events provides us with a trust necessary to further communication amongst ourselves; it enables a justified predisposition to share experiences with one another, with the feeling that the other will understand.  Qualia, with their distinctive aspect as fundamental blocks of creation and art, thus contribute to the feeling, supported with empirical evidence, of belonging to the human social circle of life.  Thus, not only do qualia play a primordial role in the creative process, they also participate in the consolidation of human trust and relationships, historically frequently through art.


Art is traditionally one of the most widely used and creative modes of expression and action, on personal, social, cultural and political levels.  One can thus see how losing qualia to epiphenomenalism would entail an incommensurable loss for our agency: the lost capacity to create and share with others certain ideas in our minds.  It is the very capacity of human beings to create and express themselves artistically throughout history that is at stake.  Thus, it is essentially problematic that physicalism fails to account for qualia as intrinsic properties—despite the fact that it accounts for qualia differences.


This paper has first sought to shortly explore philosophy of mind as a dynamic field, and engage in dialogue with world-renowned scholar Jaegwon Kim’s writing, specifically on the topic of physicalism and qualia.  I explained the relationship between physicalism and qualia through the lens of functional reduction as per Kim, before signifying the vital necessity to ward off epiphenomenalism from qualia in all its forms.  I sought to demonstrate that, although it is within physicalism’s scope to account for qualia differences, inasmuch as this theory fails to account for qualia as intrinsic properties, it follows that physicalism also fails to account for an essential part of what constitutes our agency.  Indeed, I showed through a colorful use of art as a medium of human connection on a myriad of levels, that losing qualia to epiphenomenalism is highly problematic for our understanding of ourselves as agents insofar as it does not enable us to fully exploit some of our innate and natural tendencies: to create, as well as to feel and share with others some of the experiences underlying these very creations.