Grounding Sensible Qualities

From October 2017 to June 2017

Perhaps the most recalcitrant mystery about the mind is how to account for our conscious sensory experience of the world around us. When we see the redness of a hummingbird’s plumage or feel the contours of an elegantly crafted vase, we perceive a rich tapestry of sensible qualities, a world of colors and shapes. Since the Early Modern period, the scientific approach to understanding the world has sought to account for various phenomena in terms of underlying physical particles, waves, forces, and fields. But the colors and shapes of the objects we perceive, and the qualitative character of our experience of those features, have yet to find a comfortable home in this kind of reductive physicalist description. Our perceptual encounter with the hummingbird surely involves refraction of light off of the bird’s feathers, transmission of photons to our retinas, and an almost incomprehensibly complex set of neural interactions within the visual cortex of our brains. But, as much light as our scientific investigations have shed on those microphysical processes, the redness that we experience as enlivening the bird’s plumage seems to get left out – we get no real explanation of the nature of the sensible qualities that characterize our own experience of the world from a detailed description of the underlying microphysics.

In analyzing the nature of conscious experience, debates in the philosophy of mind have tended to focus on the question of whether mental states are reducible to physical states of the brain. We believe, however, that the recent stagnation in these debates is partly due to the inadequate attention paid to questions that lie outside the traditional purview of the philosophy of mind; questions that must be addressed before we can assess whether conscious experience fits into a reductive ontology. Our project, titled Grounding Sensible Qualities, begins with the natural thought that an adequate account of sense perception - perception of a sensible world - is only possible once we have a satisfactory understanding of the nature of sensible qualities themselves. We will investigate two paradigmatic qualities - colour and shape - and the relations they bear to the physical world and to the mind. Our project seeks to enrich the study of sense experience by investigating the nature of sensible qualities, incorporating insights from contemporary metaphysics, the history of philosophy, and empirical findings in physics and psychology. Such an approach, in eschewing the standard reductive assumptions that characterize recent philosophy of mind, promises to push our philosophical theories in exciting new directions.

This project will culminate in an international conference which will take place 26-7 May 2017 at University of California, Berkeley. For more info, visit the project’s own website.

Image: goldenrod, liz west

Umrao Sethi

Co-Principal Investigator

Peter Epstein

Co-Principal Investigator