Phenomenal properties: do they even exist?

David Chalmers has made available an early draft of a new paper, ‘The Meta-Problem of Consciousness’, in which he addresses two topics. First, he sets out the meta-problem: why is it that we find explanations of phenomenal experience problematic? Second, he considers the claim that phenomenal consciousness is some form of introspective illusion, as exemplified in Keith Frankish’s recent paper ‘Illusionism as a Theory of Consciousness’ (see this interesting blog review by Peter Hankins).

Reading these papers by Chalmers and Frankish, one after the other, highlighted two areas where it seems easy to talk at cross purposes. I’ll start with phenomenal properties

The description of phenomenal properties that Chalmers provides in his earlier writings is quite straightforward: he refers simply to ‘those properties that characterize conscious states according to what it is like to have them’ and emphasizes that this definition involves no further substantive requirements, such as intrinsicality (2010, p. 104; see also 1996, p. 359). We might term this a minimal conception of a phenomenal property, and it is reflected in one of Chalmers’ comments in his recent draft paper: ‘To generate the hard problem of consciousness, all we need is the basic fact that there is something it is like to be us. We do not need further claims about intrinsicness, nonphysicality, and so on’ (2018, p. 31).

Of course, it is obvious from his writings taken as a whole that Chalmers believes that phenomenal properties are intrinsic and nonphysical. So why adopt this minimal definition? The reason is this: in order for his arguments against materialism to be effective, they must not assume at the outset some form of ontological divide between the phenomenal and the physical. As he says near the beginning of The Conscious Mind, ‘At this early stage, I do not wish to beg any questions about whether the phenomenal and the psychological will turn out to be the same thing’ (1996, p. 12). Instead, Chalmers takes conscious experience as a phenomenon that is in need of explanation: ‘The main intuition at work is that there is something to be explained—some phenomenon associated with first-person experience …’ (1996, p. 110).

It is precisely because he adopts this minimal definition of a phenomenal property that Chalmers is able to force the materialist between Scylla and Charybdis: either they account for those familiar epistemic gaps (of explanation, knowledge, conceivability), or else they have to reject conscious experience even as a phenomenon in need of explanation – which, suggests Chalmers, is to ‘deny the manifest’ (2010, p. 112).

For my part, I have no difficulty accepting phenomenal properties on this minimal conception, on the grounds that having an experience with (e.g.) a greenish aspect is different from having an experience with a reddish aspect, and that whatever it is that differs in respect of those experiences qualifies as a phenomenal property on Chalmers’ definition. I am therefore perfectly happy to refer to experiences as being characterized in qualitative terms – such as ‘greenish’ or ‘reddish’. However, I maintain that Chalmers’ definition of phenomenal properties does not ipso facto mean that experiences cannot be biological processes: one can surely characterize an experience as ‘reddish’ even if that experience turns out to be constituted by certain neurological activities in the brain.

Frankish, on the other hand, is having none of it … and in his article on illusionism he categorically repudiates the existence of phenomenal properties. Here’s one reason he gives (2016a, p. 26) for this rejection: ‘Phenomenal properties must not merely cause representations of phenomenality but have some genuinely “feely” aspect to them. And it is unclear what this could be. What phenomenal residue is left, once features such as privacy, intrinsicality, and ineffability have been stripped away?’ I can see the point here, but it doesn’t seem to me to be decisive. In particular, the illusion that experiences involve intrinsic, ineffable properties does still have what Frankish refers to as a ‘feely aspect’; for example, my experience when I look at the sky on a clear day surely has an aspect to it that I characterize as ‘bluish’. Renouncing even this does appear to open one up to the objection that one is denying the manifest.

I believe that for Frankish, the decisive reason for rejecting phenomenal properties in toto is that if we do not, then we will still face those familiar epistemic gaps, and the hard problem will bite us just as forcefully as it ever did:

But while I do not deny that we may be able to provide reductive accounts of many aspects of conscious experience, I doubt that these will be sufficient to justify realism about phenomenal properties in anything like the traditional sense. My worries centre on explanatory gaps. While identities may be initially inferred on the basis of partial explanations, we expect to be able to render them intelligible, giving reductive explanations of higher-level properties in terms of more basic ones. Why should consciousness be an exception, especially when the feature that resists explanation is such a central one? (2016b, p. 282)

While I am sympathetic towards Frankish’s uncompromising materialist attitude, I fear that his approach to phenomenal properties is problematic in two respects. First, as I have already noted, it leaves him wide open to the claim that he is denying the manifest. As Chalmers bluntly puts in his draft paper: ‘I think illusionism is obviously false, because it is obvious that people feel pain’ (2018, p. 35). Second, I believe that by attempting to neutralize the epistemic gaps, it diverts attention away from the real causes of those gaps (see The Possibility of Materialism’).

Of course, Frankish understands perfectly well that he needs to meet the objection that he is denying that consciousness exists. He attempts to do this by distinguishing between (i) phenomenal properties, and (ii) experience – a term which he says he will use ‘in a functional sense, for the mental states that are the direct output of sensory systems’ (2016a, p. 13, emphasis added). But this reference to ‘functional’ brings us to the second area where confusion needs to be avoided, which will require a separate post …



David Chalmers (1996) The Conscious Mind

David Chalmers (2010) The Character of Consciousness

David Chalmers (2018) ‘The Meta-Problem of Consciousness’ (version 2), draft paper available at

Keith Frankish (2016a) ‘Illusionism as a Theory of Consciousness’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 23:11–12, pp. 11–39

Keith Frankish (2016b) ‘Not Disillusioned: Reply to Commentators’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 23:11–12, pp. 256-289