I was reading this stanford entry and I can't understand how representationalism helps overcome the problem of a sensory quality without external origin that otherwise undermines belief in materialism. I quote some relevant segments from the first part of the article body:

Sensory qualities pose a serious problem for materialist theories of the mind. For where, ontologically speaking, are they located? Suppose Bertie is experiencing a green after-image as a result of seeing a red flash bulb go off; the greenness of the after-image is the quale. Actual Russellian sense-data are immaterial individuals; so the materialist cannot admit that the greenness of the after-image is a property of an actual sense-datum. Nor is it plausible to suggest that the greenness is exemplified by anything physical in the brain (if there is some green physical thing in your brain, you are probably in big trouble).... [Therefore] Bertie’s experience is not, or not entirely, physical. [6]

... The representational theory is usually (though not always) an attempt to resolve the foregoing dilemma compatibly with materialism. According to the theory, sensory qualities are actually intentional contents, represented properties of represented objects.

... suppose George Edward is hallucinating a similar tomato, and there is a tomato-shaped red patch in his visual field just as there is in Ludwig’s. George Edward too is representing the redness of an external, physical tomato. It is just that in his case the tomato is not real; it and its redness are nonactual intentional contents.

On the representationalist (sometimes “intentionalist”) analysis, for Bertie to experience the green after-image is for Bertie to be visually representing a green blob located at such-and-such a spot in the room. Since in reality there is no green blob in the room with Bertie, his visual experience is unveridical; after-images are illusions. The sensory quality, the greenness of the blob, is (like the blob itself) a nonactual intentional content. Of course, in cases of veridical perception, the color and the colored object are not merely intentional contents, because they actually exist, but they are still intentional objects, representata. And that is how the representationalist resolves our dilemma.

I don't see how highlighting nonactuality of a delusional visual thing fixes the problem. The experience of tomato or blob is still actual! The viewer is still experiencing a redness or a blob which is neither out there nor can be inside his brain. In other words, the illusion itself is still experienced and therefore has to be somewhere for there must be a distinction between illusion and nothingness!

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    It's bizarre that the author of the SEP article would think this is a problem for materialism. No actual materialist would say that green qualia must be produced by a green object. Green qualia are produced by a brain-state corresponding to that type of qualia. No actually green objects need to be involved, just certain specific patterns of neurons.
    – causative
    Aug 21, 2023 at 7:08
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    The entire section 5 of this SEP article is about representationalist responses to arguments from qualia against materialism, including perspectivalism, phenomenal concepts, illusionism, etc. I am not a fan, but what illusionists seem to argue is that experience is a secondary self-representation and we operate in a way that forces us to be mistaken about its nature. They do not use "illusion" in the conventional sense you have in mind. The best explanation I've seen is in Kammerer, The illusion of conscious experience, section 3.
    – Conifold
    Aug 21, 2023 at 9:16
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    The inside physical green thing in P3 is meant to be the supposed same veridical secondary physical property as in P2, not its underlying primary physical property as excited/inhibited neuro-patterns generating green quale. So representationalism solves a puzzle here for physicalists via claiming actually such secondary physical property is non-actual illusion represented by intentionality, instead of proceeding to infer it as actual property of the non-physical phenomenal-consciousness which doesn't really exist. Aug 23, 2023 at 1:00
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    Yes secondary properties are all emergent intentional contents as some error theory possibly adapted from biological evolution, and their corresponding primary properties are biophysical properties which could be objectively measured assuming no quantum interference or collapse. It's not hard to conceive fish may not see any green quale like ours for its survival, however, it achieves same end result of finding food from its own intentional qualia just as we human finds green apple in the rainforest to eat. Like analytic-synthetic they could diff in degree but above effect still applies... Sep 10, 2023 at 6:12
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    Kammerer, at least, does not miss the point. His theory is a work in progress and far fetched (my opinion), but if it works out then "false experience is still experience" argument will fail. The "illusion" he is talking about is rather a deep structure error theory where propositions about "experience" we are psychologically compelled to believe are false, no matter how intuitive, including that "there is still experience". He has a clever theory of the workings of this compulsion. What is there instead does not answer to specifications needed in arguments against physicalism.
    – Conifold
    Sep 10, 2023 at 8:38

1 Answer 1


... The representational theory is usually (though not always) an attempt to resolve the foregoing dilemma compatibly with materialism.

What foregoing dilemma? Your question is a little unclear about where the dilemma is. The SEP article describes the "dilemma" in more clarity than you mentioned. I'll quote it here:

  1. Bertie is experiencing a green thing.
  2. Suppose that there is no physical green thing outside Bertie’s head. But
  3. There is no physical green thing inside Bertie’s head either.
  4. If it is physical, the green thing is either outside Bertie’s head or inside it. Thus,
  5. The green thing is not physical. [1,2,3,4] Thus,
  6. Bertie’s experience contains a nonphysical thing. [1,5] Thus,
  7. Bertie’s experience is not, or not entirely, physical. [6]

This is a valid deductive argument against materialism, and its premises are hard to deny.

I'm incredulous that anyone would think this is a valid deductive argument against materialism, or that it somehow made it into SEP. It rests on obvious equivocation between "a green thing" being a green quale, or "a green thing" being an object with a green emission spectrum. There is no reason to think that green qualia must be produced by an object with a green emission spectrum. Indeed, materialists do not think this. Green qualia, like all the other qualia, are produced by masses of neurons, which tend to have gray or white emission spectra.

Let's resolve the equivocation to better illustrate the fallacy. Let's replace the words "a green thing" with the words "a green quale." The argument becomes:

  1. Bertie is experiencing a green quale.
  2. Suppose that there is no physical green quale outside Bertie’s head. But
  3. There is no physical green quale inside Bertie’s head either.

BZZT! Materialists who believe consciousness is material reject 3. There are certain physical patterns of neurons in Bertie's head, and the materialist would say that the presence of these physical patterns constitutes the presence of green qualia.

  • You raise a valid point. The author has ignored a possible elimination of the dilemma by reducing it to the neural patterns producing the quale. But the disjunction he has highlighted between inside and outside the head seems to me intended to draw attention to how can there be a quale floating in our head at all? That seems to be the standard hard-problem argument as I raised in the comment under OP but the author doesn't elaborate. I'd ask how can a neural/physical arrangement relate to a quale even after acknowledging the causation?-- apart from the failure I see in representation theory.
    – infatuated
    Aug 21, 2023 at 8:12

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