What is the strongest example that we can be mistaken about the experience of our qualia?

The reasoning for the infallibility of the experience of qualia is based on the immediateness of qualia. There is nothing between the subject and qualia, because qualia are part of subjective experience. This experience is direct, there is no interpretation involved. So how can we possibly be wrong about what qualia we experience?

An optical illusion, but nothing fancy, so that the argument works: enter image description here

The left red disk has objectively exactly the same color as right red disk (HTML color #FF0000). But the left one seems brighter than the red one.

And another one:

enter image description here

The lower spot seems brighter than the upper spot, but they have objectively exactly the same color (HTML color #D38402).

The obvious analysis would be that we are mistaken about the objective colors, because we experience different qualia. But we are not mistaken, that we experience different qualia.

Still, might it not be a possibility that we experience the same qualia, but we are indeed mistaken about it? What would it even mean to be "mistaken" about the qualia we experience? How can this be reconciled with the immediateness of qualia? If qualia immediately present themselves to me, without any mediating step, what I experiencing simply are the qualia. How can the notion of a mistaken quale be made coherent?

"Sadly", in most people these examples do not induce doubt, often for the above reasons. They dismiss the latter possibility (that we experience the same red, but are mistaken about it) out of hand.

Is there a stronger example? One that makes clearer how we can be mistaken about qualia?

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    Would you be so kind as to explain as coherently as possible and in detail what could "being mistaken about qualia" possibly mean?
    – nir
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 10:15
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    @nir. I would like to see a stronger example in any sense that would make the argument seem plausible. How about whatever sense that Dennett might have been referring to when he said the following: "The idea that people might be mistaken about their own qualia is at the heart of the ongoing confusion..." Is there any way to make any of Dennett's arguments seem convincing?
    – user3017
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 14:22
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    @PédeLeão: Hey, that's my question! ;-) But I concur with you.
    – viuser
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 14:41
  • The two patches of red seem exactly the same to me, surrounding pattern not-withstanding. I don't get the point? Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 16:14
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    @wolf-revo-cats the second example is clearer, but I still don't get the point being illustrated? A 30°C temperature outside is going to feel different after I exit a 50°C Sauna than the way it is going to feel after I exit a refrigerated room at 10°C, how does this make me "mistaken" about the qualia of heat? Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 19:17

3 Answers 3


I think the sticking point here is, as you point out, the immediateness of qualia. But that's not actually taken for granted in the literature.

In the physicalism vs. anti-materialism debate in philosophy of mind, there's a proposal called the Qualitative Inaccuracy Hypothesis (QI), essentially that we are mistaken about our own qualia (for example, we're wrong about how we represent our experience of "red" when we see an apple). This is a pretty robust position (I was swayed despite vehement resistance at first), though it's admittedly abstract.

In brief, the hypothesis relies in most incarnations on a non-immediacy of qualia. That is, consider that whenever we form beliefs about our qualia, we undergo an introspective process: we have to introspect to decide what it is we're feeling. The skeptic about our qualia-beliefs suggests that this introspective faculty can, in some instances, be wrong. Here's a rough (and not entirely successful, I know) example attributed by Christopher Hill in Sensations: A Defense of Type Materialism to a seminar of Rogers Albritton's:

The case involves a college student who is being initiated into a fraternity. He is shown a razor, and is then blindfolded and told that the razor will be drawn across his throat. When he feels a sensation he cries out: he believes for a split second that he is in pain. However, after contemplating the sensation for a moment, he comes to feel that it is actually an experience of some other kind. It is, he decides, a sensation of cold. And this belief is confirmed when, a bit later, the blindfold is removed and he is shown that his throat is in contact with an icicle rather than a razor.

Of course, one can object that nonetheless the experience of cold was not mistaken, only mistakenly identified - but then there's an entire literature on whether we can really be said to experience things of which we aren't aware. Ian Philips and Ned Block take, as I recall, roughly opposing sides in a debate on whether or not our consciousness overflows - whether what we experience is more than what we can fit in our active awareness.

I can't faithfully replicate all of that debate, nor the argument for QI, but hopefully these are decent pointers. For more on QI I strongly recommend the first chapter or two of Derk Pereboom's Consciousness and the Proespects of Physicalism.

  • I like Rogers Albritton's example
    – hellyale
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 16:37

The fact that we can be mistaken about Qualia can actually be a good argument against the existence of subjective experiences. We can't know, for example, if in two different cases we experience different Qualia or interpret one Quale differently. Some very strong examples are given in Daniel Dennett's "Quining Qualia" . As always with Dennett, it's nicely written, and supplies some strong arguments.

  • I ask as above, what does it mean to be mistaken about qualia? for example, since philosophers have many different and non compatible opinions about qualia it probably means that some of them are mistaken about qualia. is that what you mean? if so, then this is trivial, but is this the sense which you mean? I ask again, what does it mean to be mistaken about qualia? for me, qualia is a thing that generally cannot be described by words. this means that the whole idea of comparing qualia temporally like Dennett loves to do, is nonsensical.
    – nir
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 18:50
  • it may make sense to say that today's blue of the sky is different than yesterday's, but it makes no sense at all to say that my qualia of the blue of the sky today is different than the one I had yesterday, to the extent that I am talking about an aspect of it that I cannot describe in anyway. but that does not mean at all that qualia does not exist. it only means that we are very limited in what we can say about it.
    – nir
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 18:50
  • Wittgenstein says “It’s not a Something, but not a Nothing either! The conclusion was only that a Nothing would render the same service as a Something about which nothing could be said.” (PI, §304) but philosophers would not listen and so they write enormous piles of confused books.
    – nir
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 18:53
  • @nir, I'm actually never sure what Wittgenstein's conclusion about Qualia is. Even if we can't talk about it - or in other words - can't reduce it to objective terms only, it obviously exists. Dennett tries to show, I believe, that there is a way to speak about Qualia, or at list to Dismiss this term by replacing our vocabulary with a new one that is not problematic.
    – Amit Hagin
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 18:56
  • I don't remember now the whole argument in Quining Qualia, but shortly, when he says that ew are "mistaken" actually he says the following: Philosophical arguments for the existence of subjectivity ascribe Qualia 4 different characteristics that make them so mysterious. As he writes, Qualia are ineffable, intrinsic, private, direct (see the paper for a full explanation). The examples he gives for being "mistaken" about Qualia try to show that these 4 characteristics cannot exist at the same time, and therefore that our so called "given", or fundamental understanding of Qualia is an illusion.
    – Amit Hagin
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 19:05

"The idea that people might be mistaken about their own qualia is at the heart of the ongoing confusion..."

Ah qualia, a source of much controversy in the field of philosophy of mind, some deny it entirely (What really?) others argue about what exactly it is...

Before we talk more about it, let us loosely define what it is exactly :

enter image description here

Or more simply stated, qualia is what a conscious mind experiences.

So why should we doubt our qualia? This is the age old debate between the rationalist and the empiricist, the hard-line empiricist stating all we can trust is our experiences, and the hard-line rationalist saying only trust reason. This being of course a very shallow summary of the debate.

There are many hypothetical arguments on why to doubt qualia, the inverted qualia thought experiment for example... however I believe you are looking for something more concrete.

In that case we can go to something that everyone has experience with...

Dreams, dreams are the strongest example that we can in fact be mistaken about our qualia. We can tweak some of the ideas in Descartes' Meditations to derive a convincing argument that we cannot always trust our qualia. There might be people who deny that they have ever been immersed in a realistic dream, only to awake and realize their experiences for the past few hours do not exist in the objective world, but we doubt their sincerity in such maters.

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    please do try to derive a convincing argument employing dreams because I cannot conceive how such an argument might go
    – nir
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 15:44
  • @nir I had qualia in a dream, i woke up, theq qualia was illusory.
    – hellyale
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 16:04
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    The question is not illusory qualia - it's illusory experiences of qualia. You may have been mistaken that the dream was reality, but you weren't mistaken about having the dream.
    – commando
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 16:05
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    Again, that isn't the point of the question; mistaken qualia are trivial to find. Mistaken experiences of qualia, less so.
    – commando
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 16:09
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    As someone who has studied philosophy of mind closely under multiple figures who work on exactly this issue, I can assure you that's simply false. I can dream about a red apple and be right that I experienced seeing red, while being incorrect that this red corresponds to some physical item. I can also dream about a green apple and (strange as it sounds) believe that I experienced red, in which case I'm simply wrong about my own qualia. We can continue this in chat, if you would like, but this is enough for comments.
    – commando
    Commented Aug 1, 2016 at 16:14

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