Inverted Qualia and Absent Qualia: Too Short Arms to Embrace Consciousness

Published 15 Feb 2017

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From the dawn of consciousness, humans wanted to give shape to their inner feelings and experiences, but in most of the cases this endeavour remained limited only in individualized graphical details, representation through words or voice expressions. Yet the endeavour is still on – and that depicts about human craving for further refinement. It is this quest that has been able to identify and universalize a vast range of feelings through categories and names. However, the broad-based term like ‘qualia’ used by the philosophers to address such package of various mental states, command some explanations to achieve deeper understanding on the subject – because every proposition of philosophy is accompanied by counter argument. Thus this essay explores ‘inverted qualia’ and ‘absent qualia’, the chief constituents of qualia to reach a decision regarding their standpoint on physicalist account of consciousness.

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Altogether there are six major identifiable states of consciousness like below:

States one is aware of: in this state one is aware of being in (Rosenthal, 1986).

Qualitative states: this state takes place when one is conscious in a qualitative sense – for example, when one senses something out of something like appreciating a drink or experiencing pain, etc. these are often referred to as qualia, which involve disagreement about their nature. However, qualia have been regarded as “intrinsic, private, ineffable monadic features of experience, though current theories of qualia often reject at least some of those commitments” (Dennett, 1990).

Phenomenal states: It involves more than sensory qualia, as it covers spatial, temporal and conceptual organization of experience regarding the world and the person’s standpoint in it.

What-it-is-like states: It’s when one associates a sense of experience with another, like if there is something that it is like to be in that state.

Access consciousness: It’s when one deals with intra-mental relations – like one seeing a thing and ideating something and then deciding on something, where there maybe or may not be any apparent relationship among the above-said three stages.

Narrative consciousness: It’s when someone is in the “stream of consciousness” that contain an ongoing, series of thoughts from the “perspective of an actual or merely virtual self” (Dennett, 1991).

What is Qualia

Qualia can be called something as a package of intrinsic and intricate experiences that helps the sense to associate, distinguish or differ their qualities. As for example, if someone sees a colour red and subsequently experiences its proximity to orange and distance from black, then the intrinsic and intricate experiences associated with such reasoning can be called as qualia. In other words, phenomenal characteristics of such experiences that are accessible introspectively can be referred to as ‘qualia’.

Mental States that Cause Qualia

In general, qualia involve

Perceptual experiences: When one seeing and identifying a colour or sound or taste, etc.

Bodily sensations: It involves feelings like pain, itch, hunger, hot or cold or dizzy, etc.

Reactions: This involves passions, emotions, like feeling joyous, jealous or regretful, etc.

Felt Moods: This involves feelings like depression, calm, bored, tense or miserable, etc. (Haugeland, 1985).

Inverted Qualia

Inverted qualia suggest that two persons having exactly same functional organization can experience the same sensation from different contexts. As for example, the sensation (joy, for example) one can gather from seeing red colour, can occur in another person while he is seeing green, in spite of both being on the same plane of functional organization. However, this hypothesis extends itself even to the contrasting reaction zones, such as one is getting pleasure when injured or getting pain in a situation when others are experiencing pleasure. While the former opposes qualitative preconditions of functional state of mind (injury begets pain), the later fits well in the premise – as it is perfectly possible to be at pains with the loud music at a disco, where others are experiencing pleasure out of it.

Absent Qualia

Absent qualia propose that functional duplicates of consciously perceiving creatures are possible, where the duplicates would totally lack qualia. As for example, Mr. X likes pizza and dislikes pudding, and accordingly, a clone of Mr. X would also like pizza and dislike pudding, for which it won’t need processes like earlier intricate and intrinsic package of experiences – thus it would achieve the same outcome even without having any phenomenal consciousness.

Researchers argue that absent qualia hypothesis can be understood in three ways:

  • Absent qualia are nomically possible.
  • Absent qualia are possible metaphysically
  • They are conceptually or logically possible.

While the orthodox school of the philosophy of mind, comprising of dualists about phenomenal consciousness and the materialists, maintains the view that absent qualia are at least conceptually possible, the opposing school holds the view that they are impossible.

Qualia and Functionalism

The issue of qualia evolves out of functionalism, a doctrine that a certain feeling (for example, pain) is identical to a certain functional state, which is definable in terms of its causal relations to inputs, outputs, and other mental states” (Block, 1980). The functional state in this regard may be partially characterized by its tendencies like

To be caused by tissue damage,

To cause the desire to clear it, and

Producing action to protect the damaged part of the body from the carriers of pain.

This premise of functionalism evokes two objections stemming out from the concept of qualia, viz., ‘Inverted Qualia’ and ‘Absent Qualia’. Inverted qualia suggest that two persons having exactly same functional organization can experience the same sensation from different contexts. As for example, the sensation (joy, for example) one can gather from seeing red colour, where that sensation can occur in another person while he is seeing green, in spite of both being on the same plane of functional organization.

If this hypothesis is taken as true, then one has to admit that there can be functionally identical mental states in two persons under qualitatively or phenomenally different conditions. This shows that the functional characterizations of mental states fail to capture their qualitative factors.

If the hypothesis of inverted qualia is considered as true then it puts the rationale of functionalism under scanner, as it says that every mental state is a functional state, while inverted qualia argues that if the qualitative state remains undefined (as to why one gets joy from red and another from green while being equal in terms of functional organization) then it becomes clear that functionalism fails to comprehensively cover the mental states.

On the other hand, absent qualia suggests that two persons’ mental states could be functionally identical even in the condition where one of them doesn’t possess qualia at all! This also defies the premise of functionalism that ‘every mental state is a functional state’.

However, the premise of functionalism has been defended by many – as for example, Sydney Shoemaker, the author of “Functionalism and Qualia”, argued that functionalism can align itself with inverted qualia by admitting that mental state is ‘not identical’ to any functional state, which does not block functionalism to characterize mental states that have qualitative character, though they miss out the qualitative characters (Block, 1980).

However, Shoemaker argues that absent qualia, i.e. two persons doing the same thing under same conditions, where one of them doesn’t possess qualia, are impossible. According to him, if absent qualia is possible then the presence or absence of the qualitative character of pain would make no difference to its casual consequences, and accordingly we could have no knowledge of the qualitative character of pain, which in fact is not true, as we do have the knowledge of the qualitative character of pain. Therefore absent qualia is not possible.

Ned Block, who depicts the situation as below, counters the above.

Two persons, one with qualia and another without qualia experience pain, which are functionally identical.

The pain experienced by the person having no qualia lacks qualitative characters that are supposed to stem out of qualia.

This person’s pain, say named as “ersatz pain”, is possible even though the qualitative character of genuine pain is crucial to producing the consequences (say, tears) that are produced in another way by ersatz pain.

Absent Qualia and The China-Body System

In his well-known essay “Troubles with Functionalism”, Ned Block (1980a) offers the following example: Imagine that a billion Chinese people are each given a two-way radio with which to communicate with one another and with an artificial (brainless) body. The preconditions of that imagery are:

Their body movements are controlled by radio signal

Signals are made in accordance with instructions displayed in the sky

All Chinese people can see that display

The nature of the instructions are making Chinese people function like individual neurons, where radio links are working like synapses so that together the Chinese people duplicate the casual organization of a normal human brain down to very fine-grained level.

This system, according Block, does not undergo experiences and feelings. (Tye, 2006).

Functionalists, however, considered this proposition as too hasty, where they countered with the argument that “Being so much smaller than the China-Body system, we fail to see the forest for the trees and we leap to an unlicensed conclusion about the absence of qualia – one no more to be trusted than the conclusion a tiny extraterrestrial might reach if he happened to materialize inside a human brain and concluded that the pulses of electricity running down the huge number of pathways surrounding him do not support experience” (Tye, 2006).

If the idea of China-Body is taken as true then it makes absent qualia true too – where it would be conceptually possible to duplicate normal human mental state in spite of not possessing qualia, much like someone imagining that a certain rock within the gravitational framework of the earth can float after it is dropped from a height. Yet one can imagine the case of outer space (where there is no gravitational force like the earth) where s/he can drop a rock from the earth to see it is floating. Otherwise, under the earthen environment it remains obvious that the rock will fall on earth.

Aligning with the above idea, one can say that even if one decides that it is nomicaly impossible for the China-Body system to lack experiences, one cannot be averse to the idea that it is conceptually possible. This clears the deck for absent qualia, though it is seemingly impossible.

Mary’s Case: Are Qualia Non-Physical Entities?

In his book “Epiphenomenal Qualia”, Jackson presents the case of Mary, where she remains confined within a black-and-white ambience, while acquiring knowledge about other colours, after which she successfully identifies other colours, like roses are red and grasses are green. This event serves as a pointer towards the intrinsic phenomenal qualities that are associated with colour, which is beyond the explanation of a physicalist. Since it is beyond the parameters of “I know” physicalist concept (Mary cannot say I know colours physically) it corroborates the notion that there is more than it meets the eye regarding phenomenal organization. Kant (1787), and Husserl (1913) too supports this fact that phenomenal structure of experience involves more than sensory ideas, thereby accommodating time, space, cause, body, self, world, and maybe more, to cook a complex package within our brain.


The propositions discussed above points to the fact that inverted qualia are possible and absent qualia are impossible. Inverted qualia are possible much like the way two brothers experiencing same craving for two different dishes, while absent qualia are impossible much like the way a robot fails to cry while seeing a hapless orphan amid a battlefield, where a human would do the other way, while associating his/her childhood with that boy and subsequently deciding to do something about the boy. However, inverted qualia cannot answer its conflict with functionalism where an injury is bound to generate pain and not pleasure to anyone. Together these grey areas of absent qualia and inverted qualia do show that there is yet to be a plausible physicalist account of consciousness, as the What, How and Why of consciousness – the descriptive, explanatory and the functional questions regarding consciousness still remain unanswered, where ‘What’ asks for a clear model of the salient features of consciousness, ‘How’ asks an explanation regarding the primary status of consciousness, while ‘Why’ asks about the value and relevance of consciousness.


  • Block, N. (1980). Are Absent Qualia Impossible? The Philosophical Review. Vol. 89, No. 2. (Aprl, 1980), pp. 257-274.
  • Block, N. (1980a), Troubles with Functionalism. In Readings in the Philosophy of Psychology, 1:268-305. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Denett, D.C. (1990). Quining qualia”. In Mind and Cognition, W. Lycan, ed., Oxford: Blackwell, 519-548.
  • Dennett, D.C. (1991). Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
  • Haugeland, J. (1985). Artificial INtelligence: The Very Idea. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, Bradford Books.
  • Husserl, E. (1913-1931). Ideas: General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. Translated by W. Boyece Gibson. New York: MacMillan.
  • Kant, I. (1787-1929). Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by N. Kemp Smith. New York: MacMillan.
  • Rosenthal, D. (1986). Two concepts of consciousness. Philosophical Studies, 49:329-359.
  • Tye, M. (2006). Absent Qualia and the Mind-Body Problem. Philosophical Review, Vol. 115, No. 2, 2006.
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