The Mind: What is qualia?

1 08 2011
In my first installment on the mind, I discussed the question, “what is consciousness?”  One of theattributes of consciousness that I discussed was that of qualia (kwal’ ee ah) or the qualitative aspect of consciousness.  I mentioned that these are the states that have an experiential or sensory nature to them.  These sensations include sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound.  Each sensation like a pain, an itch, a tickle, etc., is known as a quale (kwal’ ee).So far, it seems like this idea would be fairly uncontroversial, but it actually presents many challenges and has been rejected by some philosophers as nonsensical.  These would be philosophers who hold a materialist (the world consists solely of particles in fields of force) or physicalist (the belief that all phenomena can be reduced to physical processes and properties).  The question is whether there are phenomena that cannot be accounted for within a materialist or physicalist worldview.  I believe that qualia is just such a phenomenon.

Consciousness is different than qualia, however, consciousness, as I said earlier, has a qualitative aspect to it.  NYU professor of philosophy, Thomas Nagel, presented an argument that has come to epitomize qualia in his “What it is like to be a bat” illustration.  Nagel argues that if physicalism is true, then consciousness and qualia must be reducible to physical explanations; however, he believes that the subjective experiences that we have cannot be so reduced.

Nagel asks us to think about a bat.  Bats navigate by sonar, or echolocation.  They send out signals that are processed by the bat’s brain to detect objects and to help it maneuver around objects and to detect and capture prey.  This is a bat form of perception, but it is completely different from human perception.  Nagel adds, “there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine.” (1)  Other bat behaviors include sleeping upside down, flying (with their own wings), eating rodents, etc.  And yet, even if we could mimic these behaviors, it would only tell us what it is like for me to be a bat, not what it is like for a bat to be a bat.

The problem is the same in reverse in that if there was a race of space aliens, let’s say, Martians, who possessed superior intellects to ours, it would be just as impossible for them to imagine what it would like for us to be us as it is for us to imagine what it is like for a bat to be a bat.

Another illustration that makes a similar point was developed by philosopher, Frank Jackson, developed the illustration,“What Mary Didn’t KNow.”  In this account,

Mary is confined to a black-and-white room, is educated through black-and-white books and through lectures relayed on black-and-white television. In this way she learns everything there is to know about the physical nature of the world. She knows all the physical facts about us and our environment, in a wide sense of ‘physical’ which includes everything in completed physics, chemistry, and neurophysiology, and all there is to know about the causal and relational facts consequent upon all this, including of course functional roles. If physicalism is true, she knows all there is to know. For to suppose otherwise is to suppose that there is more to know than every physical fact, and that is just what physicalism denies. (2)

As the story continues, Mary is freed from her black and white cell to experience the world of color.  She knows all there is to know about color, except what it is like to experience it.  She actually learns something that she could not have otherwise learned or known unless she experienced it first-hand.

Jackson argues that there is a type of knowledge that escapes the physicalist’s realm of knowledge.  In other words, Mary could know all physical facts about the universe, but still learn new knowledge upon her release the entailed that physical knowledge is not everything there is to know.

These two illustrations give an idea that qualitative experiences, or qualia, point us to a subjective aspect to ourselves that is not adequately accounted for in a purely physicalist or materialist accounting.  There is a subjective aspect to us, a “what it is like to be me,” that points us to the idea that we are more than just the sum of our physical parts.  There is much more that could be said about qualia, but this should give you a “feel” for what it’s all about.


(1) Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?”, The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, 4 (October 1974), 436.

(2) Frank Jackson, “What Mary Didn’t Know,” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 83, No. 5. (May, 1986), p. 291.