A materialism of qualities?

In a previous post, I suggested that some people who proclaim to adhere to the materialist metaphysics in fact misapprehend what materialism is. One example of misapprehension I mentioned was the implicit notion that, although the brain produces the felt qualities we call thoughts and emotions—that is, endogenous experiences—the qualities of perception, such as color, flavor, smell, etc., are thought to really exist out there in the world, not inside our skull. These people subliminally assume that the physical world is the qualities displayed on the screen of perception, which contradicts mainstream materialism.

Indeed, according to materialism all qualities, including those of perception, are somehow—materialists don't know how—generated by the brain inside our skull. The external world allegedly has no qualities at all—no color, no smell, no flavor—but is instead constituted by purely abstract quantities, such as mass, charge, spin, momentum, geometric relationships, frequencies, amplitudes, etc.

Triggered by my post, a long-time reader of mine, who also writes about philosophy, wondered if we could conceive of an alternative form of materialism precisely along the lines above. That is, can we devise a coherent 'qualitative materialism' according to which the qualities of perception are really out there in the external world—whether they constitute that world or are merely objective properties of it—while only non-perceptual experiences, such as thoughts and emotions, are generated by the brain? The answer is no, but if such a smart and well-informed reader felt tempted to entertain the thought, I think it is worthwhile to elaborate more here.

For starters, notice that the qualities of perception—color, smell, flavor, etc.—also appear in dreams, imagination, visions, hallucinations, etc. Many dreams and hallucinations are qualitatively indistinguishable from actual perceptions, something I have verified multiple times—to my own satisfaction—during lucid dreams and psychedelic trances. So if colors and other perceptual qualities are really out there in the external world, then somehow our inner mental imagery can also incorporate the exact same qualities independently of the external world.

This is problematic for qualitative materialism, for it entails postulating two fundamentally different grounds for the same qualities: in one case, the qualities are inherent to the matter out there in the world; in the other case, the exact same qualities are somehow generated by material arrangements in our brain, which themselves do not have those qualities.

For instance, the brain—that reddish object inside our skull—does not itself display the colors of the rainbow when we look at it on an operating table. Yet it can generate—under the premises of qualitative materialism—the dream-imagery of a rainbow. Analogously, the brain itself does not sound like anything. Yet, it can generate—still under the premises of qualitative materialism—the dream of a lovely concert. So the same qualities must be both fundamental to matter when they occur outside our skull, and also epiphenomena of material arrangements when they occur inside. This doesn't seem coherent to me.

You see, even if the perceptual qualities of our inner mental imagery are just remembered from earlier perceptions, under qualitative materialism the brain still has to epiphenomenally generate the experience of re-living the memories, despite not having the entailed qualities in its own matter. For instance, the brain has to epiphenomenally generate the re-experiencing of a rainbow—which entails experiencing many colors—without having all those colors in its own matter. So we still end up with two fundamentally different grounds for the same qualities.

But that's not all. The defining principle of all formulations of metaphysical materialism is that the classical, macroscopic world beyond our private mentation, as it is in itself, is objective; that is, its properties are independent of observation. Under qualitative materialism, this means that the perceptual qualities of an object—such as e.g. its color—are objective, intrinsic to the object itself, not private creations of our personal mind. Therefore, these qualities can only change if the object itself changes.

Let's make this more specific with an example. Consider the squares marked and B, respectively, in the figure above. We clearly perceive square A as dark grey and square B as light grey. Under qualitative materialism, these perceived qualities are in the squares themselves; their colors are objective, beyond our personal mentation; dark grey is a property intrinsic to square A as it is in itself, whereas light grey is a property intrinsic to square B as it is in itself. Therefore, for as long as we don't change anything about squares A and B themselves, their colors should remain the same.

In the figure below, squares A and B are shown again, with no modification except for some zooming; only the rest of the original figure above has been removed (if you can't believe it, watch this). Can you still perceive the light grey color? If by altering merely what was going on around squares A and B, without touching the squares themselves, we managed to make a color disappear, how could this color—this perceived quality—have existed 'out there,' beyond our personal mind, to begin with? How could it have been objective in the first place?
Mainstream materialism preserves the objectivity of the classical, macroscopic world around us by stating that the colors—or any other quality, for that matter—we perceive are generated by our brain, inside our skull. This internal generation of qualities depends not only on the internal characteristics of our visual system, but also on the external context of observation. This is why we perceive the colors of the squares differently depending on context.

Qualitative materialism, on the other hand, has problems accommodating not only color illusions, but any perceptual illusion. Do you see the circles in the figure below rotate? (Click on the figure for a higher resolution version, where the effect is more powerful.) If so, qualitative materialism would presumably say that this perception is objective; that the circles on the screen, outside your private mental life, are themselves moving. Yet, this would contradict myriad other ways of observing the circles (e.g. through instrumentation), which would destroy the illusion of movement. Thus the qualities associated with experiencing the rotation cannot be objective.

Qualitative materialism can't work. Self-declared materialists who unwittingly associate the plausibility of their position with this misapprehension of what materialism means should rush to review their worldview.


  1. I agree with you, but you might need to answer the materialist objection that the dream imagery of a rainbow is accessed in brain cells that store the memory of such imagery (even though memories can't be specifically located in the brain).

    1. Here I am not trying to defeat materialism, just explaining why what I call 'qualitative materialism' is not coherent within the basic premises of a materialism.

    2. Even if the qualities in the dream are just remembered, the brain would still have to epiphenomenally generate the (remembered) experience of those qualities in a manner independent of its own intrinsic qualities.

  2. I would love to read what you think causes the need to cling to this obvious wrong thinking. From my viewpoint I would assume fear is part of it. For many that grounding that comes with a materialistic world view is necessary for their well being much as a heroin addict needs heroin regardless of the damage it causes.

    1. I'm the long-term reader that Bernardo refers to.

      I'm not a materialist of any flavour. I gravitate towards some sort of idealism.

      However, I think that many people want to reconcile 2 commonsensical positions:

      a) Colours, sounds, smells are not creations of the mind or minds, they actually exist out there. So a red rose exists independently of my mind and all minds. And the rose really is red (not just reflecting a wavelength of light), and has an actual smell (not just molecules in motion).

      b) The brain somehow creates consciousness.

      It's not clear to me that this position is more problematic than standard reductive materialism/physicalism.

    2. I don't think anything is more problematic than standard, reductive materialism/physicalism ;-)

  3. Bernardo,
    Most of the discussions here tend to happen at the level of intellectuals and to many would come across as discussing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I have now purchased and read all of your books with the possible exception of one and find them fascinating and my vocabulary has improved tremendously. Although living with people that don't speak English and have maybe a 2nd grade education at most there is little opportunity for me to use it.
    My question is how do you visualize the absolutely spot on observations you make percolating down to people that don't find reading books that make your eyes bleed entertaining. This is the engineer coming out in me, the pragmatic side. When I look at the development of western civilization in my mind materialism grew up with it or probably out of it. As far as I can see humanity is in uncharted territory. There are no readily applicable technical manuals to reference in how we move the theory to pragmatic application. There is no trail of bread crumbs to take us back to a place we were before.

    1. I just do the best I can... I don't really know how things will ultimately play out.

  4. https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2020/02/07/philosopher-consciousness-could-not-have-evolved/amp/

    I just read this post critiquing your view of materialism...any thoughts?

    1. Jerry is an entertaining buffoon, but not a serious party to engage in any debate. I rather let him bark. :)

  5. Well, the fact that things look different, when they are put up against a different context is not that new. Lawyers and politicians and salespeople use that method to get to the point of convincing someone that something is "different" when compared out of context.

    You know, compared to a comfortable life as a billionaire in New York City, working in the salt or coal mines of Siberia is rather not my idea of something to strive for. Yet, generally for people condemned to death, the salt mines still appear more hopeful than certain death.
    It reminds me of the joke about government statistics: If a guy stands with one foot on a hot oven plate and with the other foot on a big old ice cube, the government statistics would hold that on average he should feeling just fine. Clearly not true, but there it is.

    Looking at Ian Wardell's argument, I can easily say that the rose is not just red, but it BOTH is red and reflects lightwaves of a certain wavelength. And it is not just red, but it shows off the the loveliness of a rose, with dew drops and all, in much more distinct, shimmering and radiating way then the mere image of a rose done in watercolors. And what is the loveliness of a rose but the human appreciation of it? And what is the appreciation of a rose by a woman in love, as compared to a grumpy old man? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but only if you are human. Would a wild feral pig in Texas show any appreciation of a rose? Doubtful!

    I don't know where I stand, or where I should be standing with regard to what you call "materialism". It could mean different things to different people. It seems more likely to me though, that the human perceptions of sight, smell, sound, etc. are there specifically to help the human move and live and survive in the real world. A blind tiger, a blind wolf would be rather handicapped in its attempt of survival, just as a deaf and blind rabbit or deer would be the first to be eaten. So, this way I would say that these senses are there to provide an "approximate, not perfect" picture of the outer world to the inner world of the human, tiger, rabbit, etc.
    Science seems to struggle to determine and define what "consciousness" is, but once you introduce the purpose of life and survival to this, it becomes clearer, in that consciousness is mainly a survival mechanism. I struggle as well to fully define consciousness.

    The arguments about a "conscious universe" tend to ascribe too much
    consciousness to the parts of it. For example, the metallic element selenium has the quality of being "not a conductor of electricity in darkness, but being a conductor when light shines on it. Looking at this, it may be possible to assign a "partial quality of reactivity or vision" to selenium, but in and of itself we will not call selenium "fully conscious". You could go on with the various physical and chemical qualities of several different elements, such as the metal sodium bursts into flame when in contact with water, yet when it's combined with the poisonous gas chlorine, it becomes common table salt. Who came up with that strange idea? Not me. It's a given.
    Pretty odd that an elemental metal like sodium appears to cross the barriers between physics and chemistry, boom, like that.

    The best I can do here is to call consciousness "a state of physical and electro-chemical reactivity combined into a complicated mental readiness to react to a number of inputs, where "mental" refers to a
    brain that is in an ongoing process of taking in inputs and making decision on the best possible output. That's of course far away from any concept of philosophical reasoning or religious or spiritual states of mind.

    As for me, I prefer music as my input, and relaxation as the output.

  6. Bernardo, may I ask you to clarify something, just to get this straight in my head? I can't post a photo here but you can imagine, let's say, a picture of a red tree in a green field, alongside the same photo that has been "cartoonised" in Photoshop and had its colours removed. Are we saying that the black and white, cartoonised version, made up of geometric shapes (and charge and spin etc, as you say) is the closer representation, of the two, of reality? Whilst the other picture is the one that more closely represents what we experience, projected, so to speak, within our skull but which exudes qualities that do not objectively exist?...and that further, this latter picture is what materialists believe to be a real and objective rendering of reality?

    1. The black and white picture would be closER to what materialism says is out there, independently of conscious perception. But in fact, even black and white are qualities, colors in experience. So what materialism says is out there wouldn't even be that; only the shape would be there, but you can't visualize the shape, for any visualization already entails qualities. The best you could say is that what is out there, according to materialism, are abstract mathematical equations.

    2. Yes, "closER" - I understand. I can imagine persons not wrapping their heads around this visual perspective that we're describing because we're reducing a sharp, colourful, rich and very "real-looking" world to "fuzz"/geometry/mathematical abstractions. I have found when chatting with friends that the audial/aural perspective is helpful: the classical "is there a sound of a tree falling in the forest if there is no-one there to hear it?". People get that! They know the answer intuitively: there's no "sound" without the hearing apparatus; it's just vibrations in the medium.