The Nature of Phenomenal Qualities Project

Professor Paul Coates is the Principal Investigator for a project to examine the nature of Phenomenal Qualities. Dr Sam Coleman is the co-investigator. Professor Shaun Gallagher (also in the Philosophy Department at the University of Hertfordshire) and Professor Anthony Marcel (Psychology Department) will also be contributing to the research. The project is initially scheduled to last three years, and is funded by a research award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It will include a series of seminars and workshops, and one major international conference which will be held some time between mid-September 2011 and April 2012.

One post-doctoral research assistant and two doctoral students will be involved with the project. It is proposed to circulate draft material from the seminars and workshops online.

About the Project

Objectives:

There are four main objectives.

  1. To investigate a set of fundamental questions concerning phenomenal qualities - such as the colours, sounds and so on, of which we are immediately aware in perceptual experience - and their place in the physical world. The research will focus upon issues connected with the role of phenomenal qualities in perceptual experiences, their relation to cognitive states of mind, their ontological status, and the way they fit in with the best current theories about the fundamental nature of physical things.
  2. To encourage and co-ordinate research focused on the above questions by organising a series of seminars, workshops and an international conference on the nature of phenomenal qualities, and through publication of research material. An interactive website will be set up, facilitating the dissemination and discussion of research on the issues raised.
  3. To stimulate dialogue between theorists of different philosophical persuasions, and with cognitive scientists working on perception and attention, on problems connected with the nature of experience and phenomenal qualities. This project will bring together philosophers and cognitive scientists of international standing from different traditions to advance our understanding of these problems.
  4. To communicate to a wider non-academic audience, through public lectures and the internet, the nature and relevance of this project for existing work in Consciousness Studies, Cognitive Science and Physics.

Summary:

This project will explore issues connected with the exact nature of the phenomenal aspects of experience. In perceptual and related experiences subjects are aware of a range of phenomenal qualities: these are the colours, sounds, and so on, which are immediately present in conscious experience. There is currently broad-ranging debate about the reality and cognitive role of phenomenal qualities. There is no settled view about their status either as subjective - belonging to inner mental items of some kind - or as objective, dependent in some way upon the properties of the surrounding objects perceived. Nor is there agreement about the ultimate ontological status of phenomenal qualities, and how they are related to the entities postulated in our best current scientific explanations about the underlying structure of physical things.

The research will seek to answer the following questions:

  1. In what sense can we say that phenomenal qualities exist? What is the relation of phenomenal qualities to cognitive processes? Do they form a distinct component in consciousness, or do they, in some respects, parallel conceptual states as distinctive perceptual ways of representing facts about the world?
  2. How are phenomenal qualities related to the mind? Where are phenomenal qualities located - are they subjective states of the experiencing subject? Or should phenomenal qualities, at least when they occur in normal perception, be understood as in some manner dependent on the objective properties of the external objects perceived?
  3. What is the ultimate ontological nature of phenomenal qualities? How can we reconcile our current scientific theories about the real underlying physical nature of persons and objects with the existence of conscious experience and with the phenomenology of perception? Should we embrace a radical revision or extension of fundamental physics, as some theorists suggest?

Timetable:

The research will be organised into four interconnected phases of enquiry:

The first phase will consist of a series of seminars, extending over the course of two semesters, with papers from leading theorists in philosophy and cognitive science on the general topic of the nature and role of phenomenal qualities in perception and in hallucination. Concurrently, two PhD students, together with one post-doctoral researcher, will be engaged to research the nature of phenomenal qualities.

It is planned that one of the doctoral researchers will focus on issues connected with the "subjective dimension" of the problems, that is, on the implications of our subjective experience of phenomenal qualities for current versions of physicalism. The second doctoral researcher will focus on issues connected with the "objective dimension" of the problems: on the phenomenology of perception, and the implications of theories of perception for questions concerning the underlying objective nature of the physical things we perceive. Alongside this research, a web-site will be established, and suitable draft material from the seminar series will be placed online.

The second phase will involve organising two workshops covering respectively the subjective and objective aspects of the general problem, in the second year of the project. The resulting material will be made available online, facilitating discussion and allowing for the generation of feedback on the research.

The third phase will focus mainly upon the international conference, at the end of the final year, to which leading international theorists in this area will give papers. We also envisage the completion of 2 PhDs, the post-doctoral monograph, and refereed articles by each of the project's two investigators. The conference proceedings will be edited and submitted to OUP, who have expressed interest in publishing the collection.

The final phase will see the dissemination of the research both in print, and where appropriate, online; and also the maintenance of the web-site to stimulate continuing research in this area.

International Collaboration:

The following have so far agreed to contribute to the Project:

Ned Block, David Chalmers, Andy Clark, Tim Crane, Willem DeVries, Shaun Gallagher, Andreas Hutteman, Max Kistler, Jason Manjaly, Anthony Marcel, Mike Martin, Alva Noƫ, David Papineau, James O'Shea, Ronald Rensink, Daniel Robinson, Howard Robinson, William Seager, David Smith, Paul Snowdon, Galen Strawson, Alan Thomas, Michael Tye, and Jerry Valberg.