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Qualia (raw perceptual “feels”) are often supposed to be a problem for physicalism, the doctrine that everything that exists is physical; a problem because they do not occupy any physical location. It seems to me that these arguments are mistaken, for the reason that I suspect qualia can be shown to be thoroughly based in conditions obtaining in the brain. Now, Qualia are often taken to be epiphenomena of brain activity, caused by it without causing further physical effects. But to study the phenomenon of qualia in this light is to give in to a construal of mentality which evades our better knowledge of the mind in nature, by giving in to a picture of the brain’s representational ability which divorces it from occurrences in the world. The thought that leads to such a conclusion is this: the mind represents external states of the world.
On this account, a mental representation is conceptually related to the external world, such that a series of questions as to its accuracy and mode of causation obtain and give rise to the epistemological treatment of mental states. Qualia are considered subsidiary phenomena to the mainstay of intentional states, such that the question of the “distance” between them and the world obtains as well. But to operate with “representational distance”, rather than considering the mental event as foremost a piece of the physical world, is already to grant our consideration of the phenomenology of mental states too much distance from physical reality. It is obvious, if we consider the matter metaphysically rather than epistemologically, that the mental state contains a more direct relation to physical reality than its content: the material which forms its basis.
In other words, the psychological mechanisms by which humans successfully perceive external realities are mooted from the standpoint of considering what mental states consist of: relations of epistemological significance are dependent on relations of ontological constitution, and the former set of problems presupposes a solution for the latter. Mental states causally interact with the world before they representationally interact. On this model, qualia are a more central, not a derivative, form of mindedness: they get their phenomenological characteristics from the causal relations the brain instantiates, not the representational characteristics it simulates. There is no contradiction in “feeling the cause”: our experience is constituted by causal nexi in the nervous system, and the representational character of mental states is based upon the causal network constituting the character of experience. We perceive because a part of the physical world feels.