Consciousness and Qualities




Consciousness and Qualities



There are good reasons to suppose that the qualities we perceive the world to have do not belong to it objectively. The most obvious example is color, but it can also be argued that perceived shape is not an objective property of things.  [1] I am concerned here with the consequences of this position for the nature of consciousness and for the general veracity of our view of reality. So suppose that color and shape, as we perceive them, are indeed projected qualities of things, not belonging to the austere objective conception of reality; in particular, suppose that we do not derive such perceptual categories from the antecedently existing physical world. What does that tell us about the powers of consciousness and about the relation between appearance and reality?

            It tells us, first, that the sensible qualities of things originate in the mind: consciousness is the cradle of these qualities. Consciousness creates these qualities; it doesn’t find them existing already in the observable world (nor are they handed down by God). The qualities are projected outward, but they have an inward origin. This is a remarkable power: qualia (if there are such) depend for their existence on consciousness, but so too do the qualities that we sense in the external world. How does consciousness generate these qualities? It doesn’t itself instantiate them, but it manages to conjure them from somewhere—or nowhere. If it is puzzling how the physical world generates consciousness, it is also puzzling how consciousness generates the external world of color and shape (and other qualities). Before consciousness came to exist there were no such qualities, but with consciousness they blossomed into being—as flowers once did in evolutionary history. If physical reality consists wholly of powers, which are not themselves perceptible, then qualities were introduced by the mind in order to render the world perceptible; but how is this achieved—how are qualities manufactured? Whatever theory of consciousness we develop, it needs to explain how consciousness has this originative power. I don’t think we have even the beginnings of such a theory.

            How closely does the world of perception correspond to the objective world? Is the world the mind projects the same as the world that independently exists? No, it is not the same, since the projected qualities don’t exist in the world as it is in itself. So much is commonly accepted: the qualities that constitute appearance are not found in the reality that appears (considered independently of appearing). There may well be structural correspondences, but the two worlds diverge in what they contain. What I want to draw attention to is a point not often (if ever) noted, concerning the nature of instantiation. Our understanding of instantiation must be shaped (likely constituted) by the way qualities strike us in perception—by how things look, primarily. What it is for an object to instantiate a quality is exemplified by things looking red to us (say): this is how instantiation appears to us. But such qualities are projected from our own mode of sensibility not derived from reality, as it exists independently; so it is to be expected that instantiation, as we conceive it, is likewise projected. It is not just the quality red that is projected but being red. The mode in which objects have properties is conceived on the model of perceptual seeming, which results from the way we impose qualities onto reality. But there is no guarantee that objective instantiation will conform to this aspect of appearance—maybe the way things actually instantiate properties is remote from the way we represent such instantiation in perception. What this means is that the structure by which we grasp reality is conditioned by our mode of sensibility—the structure of objects instantiating properties. To put it differently, our notion of a fact is an offshoot of subjectively imposed qualities. The paradigm of a fact is an object being red or square, but if these facts reflect projected qualities, not objective conditions, then our whole conception of reality is shaped by our psychological make-up. The very idea of objects having properties, as we conceive of it, is infected with subjectivity, i.e. the mode of sensibility we bring to the world. We try to extend our notion of instantiation beyond the appearances, but it is bound up with appearances from the beginning, because the qualities that appear originate in us.

            Suppose the picture of the world presented by current physics is on the right lines: physical reality consists of fields of force exhibiting certain powers at certain spatiotemporal points. Does the presence of these powers in a field mirror the way objects appear to us to be red or square? Is that the way powers are instantiated in objective physical reality? Certainly we can’t sense these powers as we sense color and shape, so we can’t apprehend their mode of instantiation in that way. Powers are not qualities and fields are not perceptible objects, so the mode of instantiation involved will not mirror the kind that we perceive; perhaps we have little idea of what it involves. We vaguely think of it as like colors-as-perceived, but it may not be like that at all. Thus the physical facts don’t necessarily have the structure of the facts we perceive—facts that arise by projection. Our concept of instantiation may be as parochial and subjective as the qualities we project onto the world.

            There is something Kantian about this picture of things, but it is not committed to the total inaccessibility of the objective world. Nor does it regard space and time as merely subjectively imposed categories. It says rather that the world of appearance is constituted by qualities and structures that derive from the conscious mind not from objective reality. These qualities and structures are not “copies” of the world, derived by some sort of imprinting, as classical empiricism supposed; they are products of human consciousness (mysteriously so). The mind needs to find a way to cope with the world, to represent it, and the imposition of perceptible qualities is the way it has come up with. If the world consists purely of powers, something like the imposition of qualities is necessary, because powers cannot be perceived. The point I have wanted to make here is that consciousness must have the power to generate the imposed qualities, in addition to its other characteristics. Further, the structure in which these qualities feature inevitably reflects their status: the instantiation of projected qualities is itself projected—and whether objective instantiation fits this model is a moot point. Consciousness has to be the origin of (perceived) instantiation as well as of the qualities instantiated—form and content. The world we perceive is thus an upshot of consciousness not of antecedently existing reality—which can only be described as a type of idealism. I don’t doubt that there is an objective world and that it stands in some sort of correspondence relation to how things appear to us, but the constituents of our perceptual experience—of the world as we perceive it—derive from the mind’s own resources (ultimately from the brain). In this respect perceptual representation resembles language: language is a product of the mind, constrained by the mind’s inner nature, not some sort of imprint of objective reality—similarly for the structured qualities that form our perceptual world.


Colin McGinn


  [1] This has to do with the geometry of space, relativity theory, and so on; I won’t get into this now. I will only say that there is really no a priori reason to suppose that how we perceive extension and its modes coincides with the actual structure of matter (though there may be a correspondence of sorts). Do other species perceive the real objective nature of matter and space accurately? Are the qualities that mice attribute to the world in their perceptual experience the very qualities that feature in the correct objective conception of reality? Is the correct geometry of the universe already written into the forms of animal experience?

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