Are Roses Really Red?

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Photo by Milly Sime on Unsplash

I’m grateful to Edward Feser for commenting on my work. We share a common starting point, namely our conviction that the qualities we encounter in experience cannot be fully accounted for in the purely quantitative terms of physical science, and hence that our conventional scientific worldview misses something out. But we disagree on how to rectify this error. I agree with Galileo (ironic, given the title of my book) that the qualities aren’t really out there in the world but exist only in consciousness. So I don’t think we need to account for the redness of the rose any more than we need to account for the Loch Ness monster (neither exist!); but we do need to account for the redness in my experience. Following Russell and Eddington I do this by incorporating the qualities of experience into the intrinsic nature of matter, ultimately leading me to a panpsychist theory of reality. Feser, in contrast, rejects Galileo’s initial move of taking the qualities out of the external world. The redness really is in the rose, the greenness really in the grass, etc., and hence we have a ‘hard problem’ not just about consciousness but also about the qualities in external objects.

A very similar critique was made of my work my Michelle Liu and Alex Moran in this special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies on my work, which is coming out later this year as a book called Is Consciousness Everywhere? I reply to Liu and Moran (and all the other contributors) here.

Feser’s view is standardly called ‘direct realism’ or ‘naïve realism’: the view that conscious perception (when it goes right) is essentially a relationship between the mind and the external world. According to direct realism, experiences are not inside the head but are rather ‘world-involving’: the red rose out there in the world is literally inside of (or at least partly constitutes) my visual experience of the red rose. The redness I directly encounter in my experience is not a property of my experience but of the rose itself.

I have a familiar philosophical concern with this view, which arises from thinking about hallucinations. If I’m hallucinating a red rose, then there’s no red rose out there in the world for me to be related to. So when it comes to hallucinations, at least, the experience must be in the head. The direct realist, then, is led to the view that veridical experiences (‘veridical’ is the technical term for experiences that present things as they really are) are radically different kinds of thing from hallucinations: the former are world-involving relationships, the latter are in the head. This view is known in philosophy of perception as ‘disjunctivism.’

For these reasons, Feser’s direct realism entails disjunctivism, and I think there’s a pretty good argument against disjunctivism. It was first formulated by my good friend Howard Robinson but further developed by Mike Martin. It goes as follows.

Consider a moment when Sara is veridically seeing a red rose at precisely 2pm. Now let’s imagine a genius evil scientist kidnaps Sara later that day, removes her brain and puts it in a vat, and then fiddles with it so that it’s in the exact same state it was at 2pm that day. Presumably, Sara’s brain in the vat will now be having an internal experience that makes it seem to her that it’s seeing a red rose (even though the brain doesn’t have any eyes, so isn’t seeing anything). But, given that at 2pm Sara’s brain was in the same state, then her brain at 2pm must have also generated an internal experience that made it seem to Sara that she’s seeing a red rose. Strictly speaking this doesn’t rule out direct realism: at 2pm Sara’s brain might have generated an internal experience (that made it seem to her that she’s seeing a red rose) and in addition Sara might have also had a world-involving experience (that also made it seem to have that she’s seeing a red rose). But the latter experience seems redundant, given that the former is sufficient to make it seem to Sara that she’s seeing a red rose. This argument persuades me that there aren’t really any world-involving experiences: experiences are all in the head (which is not to deny that experience inside our heads can put us in contact with reality outside of our heads).

(In fact, Mike Martin, who developed this argument, goes onto reject it, but I think the position he ultimately goes for is incompatible with the kind of anti-materialist view Feser and I agree on…I will write a paper about this at some point…).

Feser also suggests I don’t have good justification for panpsychism, but he doesn’t in fact consider my main argument for panpsychism, which is a simplicity-based argument. I have argued that panpsychism is the most parsimonious theory able to account for both the reality of consciousness and the data of third-person science. All things being equal, we should go for more parsimonious theories. So unless there’s some data we can point to that panpsychism is unable to account for, then panpsychism is the view we ought to go for.

The Author

I am a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK. My research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview.


  1. One thing I remember about Howard Robinson is his support for Berkeleyan idealism. God sets up the system so that it works. What matters is that we conceive ourselves as being in the kind of world where roses can be red.
    While Berkeley argued that the external world doesn’t need to exist, I’m happy to leave it to God to sort that out, since if God got it right we can have no way to tell the difference.
    But then I believe in the god of the omnis. (I argued for it in my Why Progressives Need God). I think I read something you wrote saying you don’t.
    So have you moved to Durham now?

  2. Good to hear from you Jonathan! Yes, indeed, this argument is consistent with Howard’s Berkeleyan idealism, although I’m not too keen on that myself for other reasons. Yes, my new book argues for cosmic teleology but against the omni-god (the latter being familiar problem of evil issues). Can you link to your article you refer to? Yes, been in Durham 4 years now; I think we’re finally settled 🙂
    How’s all with you? Hope to catch up in person at some point!

    • I’ve emailed you the relevant chapter. I’d be interested to hear your comments, and if appropriate would be up for a bit of dialogue.
      Marguerite and I now live in Guiseley, just outside Leeds. If you are ever this way I’d love to meet up.

  3. Bob Felts says

    Substitute a variable wavelength light bulb for the rose. Changing the wavelength changes the color that you see. If there are no world involving experiences, how is is that my changing a dial affects what you see?

    • This is explained by the fact that the world (e.g. the wavelength) *causally impacts* on my experience. The claim that experience is ‘world-involving’ is stronger than that: it’s that my experience is not inside my head: the things I’m looking at is literally part of my experience.

  4. I think that the thought experient has some furtive ambiguities of language, the ‘seeming’ being the culprit. What is happening in the ‘seeming’? Whatever neurological-biochemical processes are triggered could be enough to trigger the seeming from memory, and perhaps Mary isn’t perceiving red at all; she’s just perceiving that she’s perceiving red. I think additional content might be hiding in the ‘hallucination’ term—Perhaps this is due more to connotative baggage affecting denotative intent. If you are using as a placeholder for experiencing something not present, it is likely adequate.

    Whilst I feel that there are gaps in the current state of functional knowledge, I don’t feel one needs to fill these gaps with metaphyical content.

    • Not sure I get your point, sorry. This isn’t an argument against physicalism or materialism. It’s just an argument that experiences are inside the head. Most materialists and functionalists agree with that.

  5. Joseph A. Sabella says

    What gives living entities self-awareness and external awareness, i.e., consciousness? Is it the physical brain-body system or something else? Since the most accurate science currently available is quantum physics, and quantum physics postulates that all physical objects are composed of quantum entities, then perhaps something about quantum entities gives living entities consciousness.
    I suggest that since quantum mathematics is the basis for quantum physics’ incredibly accurate predictions, perhaps something in quantum math indicates what gives living entities consciousness. The mathematical operation that allows quantum mathematics to make its incredibly accurate predictions is called the Born Rule, named after the physicist, Max Born who formulated that rule in 1927. This mathematical operation involves multiplying two complex numbers, which is mathematically represented by (a + bi) (a – bi). Now, even though Max Born knew that this mathematical operation accurately predicts the probabilities of where energy is located within a quantum system, he had no idea why it worked. Even today, almost one hundred years later, to the best of my knowledge, there is only one interpretation of quantum mathematics that clearly explains why Born’s Rule works. That interpretation is Professor Ruth Kastner’s Relativistic Transactional Interpretation (RTI).
    RTI calls the realm where all quantum entities exist, Quantumland. RTI contends that before a quantum entity emits energy, it transmits offer waves, which are mathematically represented as (a + bi). These offer waves announce to all the other quantum entities in Quantumland, “Hey, I have X amount of extra energy. Who wants it?” Simultaneously, each quantum entity in Quantumland, who can absorb X amount extra energy, responds with a conformation wave, which announces, “Hey, I can absorb X amount of extra energy. I want it.” Each confirmation wave is mathematically represented as (a – bi). When offer waves (a + bi) and confirmation waves (a – bi) meet, quantum mathematics represents this meeting as (a + bi) (a – bi), which is Born’s Rule. Since RTI explains the Born Rule, and also solves the measurement problem, which I won’t explain here, I contend that RTI is currently the best way to interpret quantum mathematics and consequently, the best way to explain what goes on in Quantumland. So, how does RTI relate to consciousness?
    Based on RTI, I contend that quantum entities with extra energy are self-aware of their own extra energy, as indicated by their transmission of offer waves. I also contend that quantum entities with extra energy are also externally aware of other quantum entities who can absorb their extra energy through their interaction with confirmation waves. Since consciousness is a living entity’s self-awareness and external awareness, I contend that since quantum entities with extra energy have energy self-awareness and external energy awareness, they have quantum energy consciousness. In addition, since living entities have consciousness, I also contend that quantum entities with extra energy are living entities with a consciousness that I call, bioquantum consciousness, where bio comes from the Greek, meaning living or alive.
    Similarly, based on RTI, I contend that quantum entities that can absorb extra energy are self-aware of their potential to absorb energy, as indicated by their transmission of confirmation waves. I also contend that quantum entities that can absorb extra energy are also externally aware of other quantum entities who can give them energy through their interaction with offer waves. Since consciousness is a living entity’s self-awareness and external awareness, I contend that since quantum entities that can absorb extra energy have energy self-awareness and external energy awareness, they also have quantum energy consciousness. In addition, since living entities have consciousness, I also contend that quantum entities that can absorb extra energy are living entities with a consciousness that I call, bioquantum consciousness, where bio comes from the Greek, meaning living or alive.
    Since all quantum entities periodically emit and absorb energy, then based on the above, I contend that all quantum entities are living quantum entities possessing bioquantum consciousness. Furthermore, since Quantumland is the realm that contains all possible quantum entities, I propose that Quantumland is a Universal Bioquantum Consciousness.
    Since quantum physics postulates that all physical objects are composed of quantum entities, I contend that all physical objects, which include our physical universe, and our physical bodies emerge from a Universal Bioquantum Consciousness and are composed of living bioquantum consciousnesses. Consequently, every physical object including stars, planets, rocks, microorganisms, plants, insects, and animals, are bioquantum entities, each possessing varying degrees of bioquantum consciousness. In short, based on RTI, I conclude that the physical universe and the quantum universe are panpsychic.

  6. araybold says

    I have no dispute with the claim that experience is all in one’s head, so to speak, but here, in support of his position on panpsychism, Goff begins with an old canard about physical science being purely quantitative, and so, allegedly, incapable of explaining qualitative experience.

    One of the most powerful explanations in the physical sciences, Darwin’s theory of evolution, was presented qualitatively, and the knowledge to take a quantitative approach was not acquired until later. Plate tectonics can be adequately explained without numbers. Young’s demonstration of the wave nature of light did so non-quantitatively, even if measurements of the equipment and outcome could yield a wavelength.

    The fact that these can be treated quantitatively is a feature, not a bug, and is, of course, often necessary in establishing whether speculation is correct, as Newton did in showing that an inverse-square force of gravity can explain the elliptical orbits of the planets (Christopher Wren asked Newton if it might be possible to show this, and he replied, off-handedly, that he had already done so!)

    Goff has said that he wants to combine scientific and physical approaches to turn panpsychism from speculation into an actual explanation of the mind, but that would not be a viable project if this canard about science were true. For example, he has proposed that electric charge is a form of consciousness (and has made clear that this is not just an analogy), but is that even coherent if consciousness is unquantifiable while charge is? Some of the biggest challenges acknowledged by proponents of panpsychism are the combination and subject-summing problems, which are inherently quantitative! (See the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on panpsychism; Goff is one of the authors.) Personally, I don’t suppose a panpsychist explanation of consciousness will ever emerge, but if it did, it would very likely be the final nail in the coffin of the canard Goff uses to prematurely rule out the possibility of physical explanations of the mind!

    • This comment is not especially relevant to the post it’s attached to, but just briefly, I appreciate of course that there are qualitative aspects to natural science in general, and even to some extent in physical science (after all, neuroscience talks about consciousness). The point is that, according to materialism, the *nature of matter*, e.g. in the brain, can be exhaustively characterised in purely quantitative terms. And it is not that consciousness lacks a quantitative structure, but that its nature can’t be entirely captured in quantitative terms. It is on these two assumptions that the philosophical case against the coherence of a materialist account of consciousness relies, and nothing you’ve said here casts any doubt on those assumptions.

      • araybold says

        I agree that this is an issue peripheral to the post, but the argument was made, so I figure it is in play… I take your point, but that moves attention to the second premise: the claim that the nature of consciousness cannot be entirely captured in quantitative terms. What justification has been offered for that claim? I am aware of an argument that what our experiences are like cannot be conveyed from one person to another through any use of language (whether couched in quantitative or qualitative terms) – it’s just Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument with the arbitrary restriction of Mary’s prior knowledge removed: instead of being limited to the physical sciences, it is expanded to encompass all language-expressible knowledge – but if that is the standard for entirely capturing the nature of consciousness, then panpsychism will fail to do any better, so it no longer stands out as the most parsimonious of the viable options (if it otherwise would.) Furthermore, this non-communicability is easily explicable (though qualitatively, for now) in terms of the physical architecture of the brain: its physical state is not introspectively accessible to the mind, and physicalism, properly construed, does not imply it must be.

      • jatclat says

        I wonder whether part of the problem here lies in inherited motivations in the history of science. Environmental philosophers usually date from around Francis Bacon’s time the project of human science and technology taking over control of the world (nature being conceived as nasty since the Black Death). But to make that feasible you’ve got to believe that the human mind can in principle get a complete account of reality. Throughout the 19th century it was commonly believed that if scientists can’t observe a thing, it doesn’t exist (a good way to get rid of God). But empirical science observes and measures. Therefore, if the project is to succeed, reality has to consist of nothing but measurable observables.
        While 19th century positivism isn’t popular among philosophers today, it remains popular elsewhere – eg the policies of governments. (So bosses assume their workers haven’t done anything unless a form has been filled in saying they have done it.) Just as seeing ghosts or foretelliing the future feels spooky, because it can’t be scientifically explained and therefore undermines our sense that we know how things work, so also we feel unhappy with the idea that there’s a dimension to all our experiences that we haven’t got the conceptual tools to explain.

    • araybold says

      @Jatclat Belief in ghosts and fortune-telling is still quite widespread, but where it has fallen out of favor, the reason has been more basic than a lack of explanation: it is on account of a lack of anything to explain – the evidence is unreliable, and the situation got worse the more it was investigated. In the case of consciousness, I agree with Goff that there is plenty of reliable evidence for it, we just have different intuitions about how it might be explained, in part because evidence from thought experiments is not really evidence. Personally, this situation makes me curious, not uneasy.

      Part of the problem is over what we expect in the way of explanation. There is a tradition of thought experiments, the best known being Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument (‘Mary the Neuroscientist’), which purport to show that science cannot explain what it is like to have experiences, but what they actually show (if you accept the premised outcome of the experiment) is that this ‘what it is like’ cannot be conveyed by language. This does not rule out their being explained (by science or panpsychism or whatever), as to do so, it would impose a criterion that no other explanation is expected to meet: that of bringing about the phenomenon that is being explained. We can explain hurricanes without creating one in so doing, so why suppose we cannot explain phenomenal experience unless that explanation creates the experience?

      • jatclat says

        Thanks araybold I found your second paragraph helpful. But I’m puzzled about the first.
        1) I’m not a believer in ghosts, but plenty of people report seeing them. That’s evidence. The difference between their evidence and scientifically useful evidence is that the experience of ghosts can’t be tested in laboratory conditions. So I’m wondering whether some element of 19th century positivism is still lurking in your approach. I’m wanting to stress that 99% of what we experience in ordinary life is untestable in laboratory conditions.
        2) Can you explain what you mean by saying there is evidence for consciousness? I would have thought consciousness is a precondition of having evidence for anything at all.

      • Materialists always claim that the evidence for ghosts or anything that contradicts their metaphysic is unreliable. And they always claim that when investigated, the evidence becomes less and less persuasive. Ask them for details, though, and there’s a deafening silence. And the reason there’s a deafening silence is that what they claim is simply not true.

        Let’s get real here. Apparitions have been observed throughout history and across all cultures. The idea that there is nothing external to the perceiver is simply preposterous. And it scarcely matters that an individual experience might well be mistaken. Even if we were 99% certain that for each individual report of an apparition that there was a “normal” explanation, over millions of such reports the likelihood that they all have “normal” explanations is virtually zero. And I’m talking about the more interesting accounts here like “crisis apparitions” here, not a vague feeling that there’s a presence there’s someone else in a room. Of course, what this external apparition actually represents is another matter.

      • I read everything you said, I see no explanation. You simply asserted that science can explain what it is like to have experiences, and gave no justification for this assertion (the fact that experiences cannot be conveyed by language doesn’t alter the fact that consciousness doesn’t come under the ambit of reductive science).

        Consciousness is certainly not a problem for dualism. Consciousness is fundamental. How on earth does this constitute any problem? Materialism, on the other hand, is simply not compatible with the existence of consciousness, and you’ve said nothing to cast doubt on this.

      • araybold says

        @ianwardell (in reply to your July 16 post): I urge you to re-read what I have written here, because, contrary to what you claim, at no point have I asserted that science can explain what it is like to have experiences. At this point, neither science nor panpsychism nor any other -ism has explained consciousness, and your bald assertion that, according to dualism, consciousness is fundamental, is just an opinion that does not even take the form of an explanation (you are, of course, entitled to hold that opinion, but that itself gives no reason for Goff or anyone else to abandon the search for explanations.)

        Furthermore, that is not the issue under discussion here, which is, as you put it in your initial reply, the question of what justification has been offered for the claim that the nature of consciousness cannot be entirely captured in quantitative terms.

        In that reply, you posed two questions that tacitly assume a straw man. No one is claiming, and materialism does not imply, that consciousness can be explained just by a set of numbers, any more than, say, metabolism can be, yet there is little or no serious philosophical debate over whether the latter can be reductively explained as a physical process, and no-one thinks the question of what units would you use presents any challenge to this view.

      • Joseph A. Sabella says

        araybold – In response to your comment, “neither science nor panpsychism nor any other -ism has explained consciousness,” I suggest you consider my July 13th post, which is based on Professor Ruth Kastner’s Relativistic Transactional Interpretation (RTI) of Quantum Mathematics.

    • araybold says:
      //What justification has been offered for [the] claim [that the nature of consciousness cannot be entirely captured in quantitative terms?]//

      It follows from the very nature of conscious experiences. Your question makes no sense at all, akin to asking what is the justification is there for supposing 2 + 2 = 4.

      Something like an experience of green will have a shape, a certain shade of green. But the greenness itself isn’t quantifiable. How would any set of numbers convey what a certain shade of green is like to experience? What units would you use?

      I am genuinely baffled why anyone imagines the existence of consciousness doesn’t straightforwardly refute the type of materialism that holds the material world is exhausted by the entirety of its quantifiable aspects. Unless you’re saying consciousness doesn’t actually exist? That we are all p-zombies?

      • araybold says

        @ianwardell You ask “How would any set of numbers convey what a certain shade of green is like to experience?”, but I have already explained, in my July 15 reply to Jatclat, why a) explanation is not ruled out by an inability to convey experience via language of any sort, b) if it were a problem for physicalism, it would equally be a problem for panpsychism (or any form of dualism, for that matter), and c) that the inability to convey experience linguistically is easily accommodated within any plausible physicalist explanation (or a panpsychist one, for that matter: the point is that it is a non-issue.)

        What is your response to the question I posed in the final sentence of that post?

    • araybold says

      @jatclat While writing that comment, I had in mind the rise and fall of spiritualism over the turn of the 19th-20th century, as it included quite a few scientists among its adherents. My feeling is that its decline owed a lot to old-fashioned skepticism about anecdotal evidence for unusual events rather than anything more philosophical, though the unmasking (through what were, more or less, experiments) of various charlatans who claimed they could, in effect, deliver strong evidence undoubtedly contributed to its demise. I doubt there will ever be an epistemological theory for distinguishing good and bad anecdotal evidence that does not include a hefty dose of rules-of-thumb for the ambiguous cases.

      In the above paragraph, I referred to skepticism as old-fashioned, and while I suspect we (and our immediate ancestor species) have had it almost as long as we have had a theory of mind (i.e. the realization that other people have minds like ours), our sense of it may have become more acute in the last couple of centuries. This is a time when the intelligentsia came to think of itself as being ‘enlightened’, the decline of spiritualism coincided with the rise of the detective novel, and neither could have happened without the expansion of literacy. This might be described as (late) 19th century positivism, but so what? it may have been simplistic, but it was not just plain wrong. More generally, I am suspicious of -ism arguments, as they are generalizations that strip away the specifics. While they may be a guide to how an argument fails, one always (IMHO) has to follow up by showing how the specific argument fails.

      With regard to your second question, I feel the strongest evidence for consciousness is that our language allows us to speak about our experiences, and – what makes it different from ghosts – for the most part, everyone physically capable of having those experiences have them and are broadly in agreement about what they are like, to the extent that it is possible to do so. When Nagel asked “what is it like to be a bat?” most of us did not think “what are you talking about?”

      With regard to preconditions, Surely one not only has to be conscious, but also have language, before contemplating any evidence whatsoever?

  7. Pingback: Edward Feser: Goff’s gaffes

  8. Evan says

    Under blobject theory, there’s no identity between the properties of the rose and the properties of the perception…but…the rose and the perception would have a deep ontological relationship, not just a causal relationship

  9. Robin Sharp says

    My take on direct realism is that consciousness offers direct access to physical processes. At least more direct than a physics experiment.

    Following that I think consciousness is a space-like field that is produced by quasi static fields.

    One thing physicalists get completely wrong is to think consciousness is either a transmitting electromagnetic field (light) which is way to fast and energetic, and is too inefficient and uncontrollable in brains. Similarly static fields are … well static. So the only option is fields in the quasi static or Darwin regime.

    I think the most profitable avenue for research is to compare neural components with electrically engineered components. For example there is good evidence that primary neuron myelin sheaths are magnetic wormholes. (see below)

    • Joseph A. Sabella says

      Robin, I suggest you consider the idea that consciousness precedes electromagnetic fields, brains, or neuron myelin sheaths, in the form of the offer waves and confirmation waves suggested by Professor Ruth Kastner’s Relativistic Transactional Interpretation (RTI) of Quantum Mathematics. These waves are the precursors to electromagnetic transactions, and they carry energetic information/consciousness about the state of the quantum particles about to emit and absorb electromagnetic energy in the form of photons. Since the manifestation of all electromagnetic fields and material objects require these electromagnetic transactions, this means that energetic consciousness, in the form of offer waves and confirmation waves, precedes the manifestation of all electromagnetic fields and material objects. Consequently, everything we know about from photons, to rocks, to planets, to quasars possesses varying degrees of consciousness. The whole universe is panpsychic.

    • araybold says

      Does something depend on the answer? I am curious as to what the issue is with direction, as the word first appears in your comment here.

      If we are using the word in its spatial sense, rather than imperatively, it does not appear to be quantified in an expression like “It left in an unknown direction”, but then that’s just a verbose circumlocution for “It’s gone.”

  10. Nick Watts says

    Where, I wonder, would animism fit into all of this? If all matter had some form of intrinsic spiritual dimension and/or form of consciousness, would the universe, by observing itself, self-preserve the ‘reality’ of objects like the moon?

  11. araybold says

    I am a little surprised by your argument against disjunctivism, as you write “presumably, Sara’s brain will now be having an internal experience that makes it seem to her that it’s seeing a red rose”, but why would we presume that to be so, unless we assume that achieving a certain physical state is sufficient to instantiate an internal experience, and will reliably instantiate the same specific internal experience when the state is recreated? That’s fine by me, but I cannot figure out how that would be compatible with your panpsychist position, and particularly your rejection of Sean Carroll’s view that a theory of panpsychism would be a new physical theory.

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