Why our experience and the object we experience are one

Box 5

The phenomenal vs physical confusion

Philosophers love to make distinction. Actually, for a philosophers, being able to make as many distinctions as possible is a matter of distinction. One of the most successful distinctions has been that between mental and physical properties (currently, often referred to as phenomenal and physical).

A popular way to make such a distinction is to gather, on one side, phenomenal properties such as "the subjective sensation of the red of a sunset" or the "the sound of a middle C played by a guitar", and, on the other side, physical properties such as weight and length. After this grouping, it is customary either to argue that phenomenal properties do not exist at all — a sort of collective delusion — or to explain them away as some innefable emergent properties we do not understand yet. Either way, it is taken to be a platitude that they are different.

The mistake is not on the side of phenomenal properties but rather on that of physical properties. The whole distinction is based on the idea that we know what physical properties are. This is not true insofar by physical properties we mean something that we do not perceive. In fact, once you perceive something — according to philosophers — what you perceive is no longer physical but phenomenal. Thus, according to the distinction between phenomenal and physical, the physical properties are unobservable. They are only measurable. Even those measures are not accessible unless one perceives them.

Thus, to cut short a long story. The only properties we experience are what philosophers call "phenomenal" and that everyone else calls the properties of the world we experience. By means of such properties, scientists devise abstract models of such properties, their relations and further properties we do not perceive first-hand. These models are not the real world though, they are just models that may point to something likely real that we do not experience.

Physical properties such as radio waves are like inferring the number of people in a room we can't look into. The estimate can be very good, but we do notstill know their faces. Phenomenal properties are like the people in the room. We know their faces. To recap.

Phenomenal properties are not an addition to the physical properties of the world, they are those physical properties that we happen to be identical with and that we call our experience.

When I see the red of the apple on the table, there is something physical which is the red and which has mostly to do with the apple on the table, somewhat singled out and constrained by my visual apparatus. Still the red is literally there rather than inside some mysterious inner domain — it is a property of the apple. And it is not a phenomenal property. it is just a property of the apple that I happen to experience.

All the hassle about the nature of phenomenal experience/properties has been the outcome of accepting the premise that our minds were not the objects we experience.

Riccardo Manzotti, 27 January 2015