Roderick Chisholm criticized the logical positivist version of phenomenalism in 1948. C.I. Lewis had previously suggested that the physical claim "There is a doorknob in front of me" necessarily entails the sensory conditional "If I should seem to see a doorknob and if I should seem to myself to be initiating a grasping motion, then in all probability the sensation of contacting a doorknob should follow". Chisholm objected that the statement "There is a doorknob..." does not entail the counterfactual statement, for if it were to do so, then it must do so without regard to the truth or falsity of any other statement; but suppose the following statement was true: "I am paralyzed from the neck down and experience hallucinations such that I seem to see myself moving toward the door". If this were true, Chisholm objected, then there could be a doorknob in front of me, I could seem to myself to see a doorknob, and I could seem to myself to be performing the correct sort of grasping motion, but with absolutely no chance of having a sensation of contacting the doorknob. Likewise, he objected that the statement that "The only book in front of me is red" does not entail the sensory statement "Redness would probably appear to me were I to seem to myself to see a book", because redness is not likely to appear under a blue light-bulb. Some have tried to avoid this problem by extending the conditions in the analysandum: instead of "There is a doorknob in front of me" one could have it that "There is a doorknob, and I am not paralyzed, etc." In response, Chisholm objects that if one complicates the analysandum, one must also complicate the analysans; in this particular case, that one must analyse in purely sensory terms what it means not to be paralyzed and so on, with respect to which the same problems would arise leading to an infinite regress.
Another common objection to phenomenalism is that in the process of eliminating material objects from language and replacing them with hypothetical propositions about observers and experiences, it seems to commit us to the existence of a new class of ontological object altogether: the sensibilia or sense-data which can exist independently of experience. Indeed, sense-data have been dismissed by some philosophers of mind, such as Donald Davidson, as mythological entities that are more troublesome than the entities that they were intended to replace.
A third common objection in the literature is that phenomenalism, in attempting to convert propositions about material objects into hypothetical propositions about sensibilia, postulates the existence of an irreducibly material observer in the antecedent of the conditional. In attempting to overcome this, some phenomenalists suggested that the first observer could be reduced by constructing a second proposition in terms of a second observer, who actually or potentially observes the body of the first observer. A third observer would observe the second and so on. In this manner we would end up with a "Chinese box series of propositions" of ever decreasing material content ascribed to the original observer. But if the final result is not the complete elimination of the materiality of the first observer, then the translational reductions that are proposed by phenomenalists cannot, even in principle, be carried out.
Another criticism is that the phenomenalist can give no satisfactory explanation of the permanent possibilities of experience. The question can be asked, "What are the counterfactual conditionals which ground the existence of objects true in virtue of?" One answer given by phenomenalists is that the conditionals are true in virtue of past regularities of experience. However, critics object that this answer leads to circularity: first our actual experience was meant to be explained by the possibility of experience, and now the possibility of experience is meant to be explained by our actual past experience. A further objection to the phenomenalist answer is that generally speaking, conditionals are not true in virtue of their past occurrences. This is because it seems that a conditional could be true even if it never actually obtained, and also past occurrences only confirm that a conditional is true, but never make it so.
Roderick Firth formulated another objection in 1950, stemming from perceptual relativity: White wallpaper looks white under white light and red under red light, etc. Any possible course of experience resulting from a possible course of action will apparently underdetermine our surroundings: it would determine, for example, that there is either white wallpaper under red light or red wallpaper under white light, and so on. On what basis are we to decide which of the hypotheses is the correct one if we are constrained to rely exclusively on sensibilia?
Read more about this topic: Phenomenalism
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