Wikipedia define Qualia as “individual instances of subjective, conscious experience“. Someone says that Qualia (singular Quale) are “the experience of sense data“. Poorly said, Qualia is a word which philosophers and psychologists use to address the atomic constituents of subjective first-person conscious experience (ok, maybe not much “poorly said”).
The point is this: when you watch a sunset or experience an orgasm, when you savor the bitterness of sugar-free coffee or when you fall from the bicycle and get injured, when yoi listen to Pink Floyd or watch a starry night sky, in each of these cases you are experiencing a set of sensations, pleasant or unpleasant, and those sensations are Qualia. In fact your whole life from the subjective point of view (the “I”) is nothing but a chain, a continuum of Q.
At this point you may ask “so what?” Q. seem very much like a fact, it could be said without loss of generality that Q. are everything that makes up our reality, the omnipresent filter through which every phenomenological experience is delivered and this is precisely why these entities are so fundamental in the philosophical debate. This post is not meant to be a primer so, if you don’t know the subject, I invite you to learn more about it (a good starting point is Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). For those who have less confidence, it is enough to know that Qualia have a fundamental role in the dispute between Physicalism and Dualism and in untangling the Hard problem of consciousness. This is how important they are.
Is it not disturbing that, after millions of years of evolution, we humans have not yet understood where our mind resides?
In my previous post, A Place Beyond Belief, I condemned the fact of relying on belief systems that contradict concrete evidence, but what can we turn to when we have no priors at all? Maybe we could rely on logical reasoning but when the analysis’s subject is the same apparatus that performs the reasoning well … things escalates pretty fast. The risk here is to fall into an epistemological cul de sac, a sort of Gödel incompleteness theorem but concerning consciousness: a conscious system cannot prove all the truths about itself. Should we therefore be discouraged and focus our investigative lenses elsewhere? Maybe we should but when there is so much at stake, it’s hard to give up.
Furthermore, it should be stressed that no one has yet proven that consciousness behaves like Gödel’s formal systems, we are still extremely backward in understanding this phenomenon so it is not yet the time to declare defeat.
In my personal experiences, I well remember the first moment in which I fully wrestle with the concept of Qualia. It was during my experiments with psilocybin. In those occurrences I learned two things:
1) Q. are complex aggregates, there is no “Experience of the red” in itself as philosophers say but there is for example “Experience of red observed in a rose lit by solar refractions in a field in June, while a light breeze blows on your skin etc .. ” or “Experience of red of an office chair, at 4 pm on Thursday afternoon with a mountain of paperwork still to be filled out, while the air conditioning is broken and your back is wet from sweat and your head is bursting with migraine etc…”. it is evident that these are two totally different Q, even if both have to do with the color red. From this it emerges that a principle of idividuation for Qualia may be impossible: how many properties define a Quale? Ten or sixty-four thousand million? And How many of these properties do I have to modify to produce a different Quale? If we are talking about the redness of a sunset, is it enough to add or subtract a cloud in the sky or a centigrade degree to modify the experience or are the two indistinguishable?
2)There exists different degrees of the same Q: Walking in a forest, experiencing the lush green with certain conditions of temperature, atmospheric pressure etc. it is not the same Q. as to walk in the same forest, with the same weather properties, while you are under the effect of psilocybin. From a subjective point of view, the qualitative difference is remarkable. However, several studies have shown that brain activity while taking drugs is also different (generally higher) compared to normal regimen. This suggests that there is also a quantitative difference and therefore does not break the dualistic symmetry between physics and consciousness.
In principle, when we would have identified all the physical components of the brain and how they relate to each other, assuming we have sufficient computational power available, we could simulate the functioning of a mind and even changes in active areas when it is submitted a simulation of psilocybin. Does this mean that we would reproduce Qualia? Unfortunately no. There would be no evidence that our digital brain developed a subjective experience and, even if it were, it would remain intelligible to us: Qualia are pretty much like black boxes, I can experience mine but not yours, this raises big questions also in reference to solipsism.
Naive thinkers pointed to all these elusive properties of Q. to emphasize that if we developed an artificial intelligence and if this entity seemed truly intelligent to us, we would never be able to know if it is actually conscious. The slightly more careful thinkers argue that it is true but the same argument applies to any entity other than yourself: who says that the other beings on the planet are conscious and not pure philosophical zombies? There seem to be no empirical experiments that you can carry out to find out who or what is conscious and who or what is not.
As neuroscience develops, it will be interesting to see how much in the coming decades we will be able to unfold the ultimate mystery of consciousness and Qualia, always assuming that science is the right tool in this field… but on the other hand if not science then what?