Do We Both See Grass as Green?

Have you ever looked outside at the grass, and wondered if people see the colour you do? If you are naturally inquisitive, this thought is surely to have crossed your mind. Or forcibly so if you’re a philosophy student. No I’m not talking about if you need glasses, I’m talking about the experiences. Albeit complicated, here’s the basics.

Here’s what I’m talking about: Qualia.

Feelings and experience vary. A paper cut, the feeling of anger, the colour of red. In each of these cases, you are subject to a mental state. It is what it’s like to experience or feel things like these. When you see grass as green, you are experiencing ‘qualia’. Qualia are individual, subjective and conscious experiences. ‘Qualia’, like much of the English language, is derived from Latin, ‘qualis’ (meaning “of what sort” or “of what kind”). Qualia can also be described as the way objects phenomenally appear/seem. It is difficult to deny qualia, as it’s central to the notion of consciousness. Qualia lies at the heart of the mind/body problem.

Boring definition done, onto the real explanation.

An example of qualia would be the sourness of a lemon, the colour you see when you look at grass, the pain of a headache etc. These experiences, and how they are to YOU, are qualia. It’s ‘what it’s like’ to experience things, a mental state, not a physical state.

Which mental states possess ‘qualia’?

1. Perceptual experiences – seeing green, hearing a drum.

2. Bodily sensations – a headache, a pin prick.

3. Felt emotions – lust, love, anger.
Qualia= a mental state, serves to disprove physicalism. Physicalism= thesis that everything in the world is physical, nothing exists outside the physical.

Philosophy is filled with thought-experiments, stories of thought, imagined to aid a theory. So here is one to support the argument that qualia exist, and cannot be reduced to the physical. 

Frank Jackson’s Thought Experiment.

The Knowledge Argument: aims to establish that conscience experience involves non-physical properties. Someone who has complete physical knowledge might lack knowledge about how it feels to experience something. This argument is one of the most popular arguments against physicalism.

Jackson stated that in the knowledge argument, there is a guy called Fred. Fred sees different shades of red, that we are unable to see. Fred’s colour variation allows him to distinguish a spectrum of one colour (Red1 and Red2) as distinctly as we can differentiate two colours, like yellow and blue. Despite having all the physical evidence about Fred, we still don’t experience his optical ability. We are thus “left ignorant of a property of Fred’s existence”. No amount of physical knowledge can tell us ‘what it’s like’ to be Fred. Fred seeing more colours that we can know through the physical = Physicalism is incomplete. 

Do you see ‘green’ when you look at grass? Or do we all just call it ‘green’ but actually see different colours or shades? The only way we would be able to prove that we see the same colours, was if I were to have your eyes for a day. On that note, I’ll settle for not knowing what you see. 

So we could have ‘qualia’, but philosophers love to complicate things, so we could also have inverted qualia. Inverted qualia goes back to John Locke. He asked us to imagine a situation in which we wake up one day and perceive colours in a different way. The world, nor our brains have changed physically. What we used to see as red (eg. tomatoes), we suddenly see as green, and so on. If it’s conceivable that we see different colours when looking at the same object, inverted qualia, then by necessity qualia are to exist. If it’s conceivable, it’s possible…

Summary of Jackson’s thoughts:

  • Qualia – subjective experiences, cannot be known by purely the physical 
  • Inverted Qualia – seeing the same colour differently, is conceivable, thus possible. If we could have inverted qualia then qualia exist too. 

For Jackson, when you see grass, you will experience a shade of green (qualia). The question is, to what extent your ‘green’ is different to my ‘green’ (inverted qualia). This question is difficult to answer, if we even can.

HOWEVER (there’s always a different opinion in philosophy), there are plenty of critics of qualia, one being Michael Tye.

Critique of Qualia – Tye

Tye’s opinion states there are no ‘veils of perceptions’, no qualia. He states our experience of an object in the world, like a lemon, is transparent. This means that it doesn’t matter what private ‘understandings/misunderstandings’ we have with things, it still remains in reality. He regards qualia as a massive facade, intervening between us and the ‘object’ etc. The only objects that you are aware of are external; there is no such thing as qualities of experience. His theory is called the “representationalism theory”.

I think that even though qualia can’t be proven nor disproven, it’s feasible to suggest we have qualities of experiences. I think qualia are real, in turn suggesting inverted qualia are real too. I know Uni lecturers HATE Wikipedia, but honestly there’s some good information on there regarding qualia and the arguments for/against. So take what you wish from this snippet of philosophy. It’s a lot to take in, but if you want to know more on this topic (that’s more reliable than wiki): research Jackson’s ‘epiphenomenal qualia’ (a great short article) , and Hume’s ‘missing shade of blue’. 

Published by Harriet Leslie

Hi! I'm Harriet, and i'm currently a postgraduate student at Kings College London and a freelance medical writer. I hold a first-class degree in philosophy at undergraduate level, and my MA is in medical ethics and law. I hope you enjoy my mini introductions to all things philosophy and ethics.

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