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.




8 responses

21 05 2013
Ashmen Dasgupta

Hello Mr. Rupple. I have found your website quite helpful in exploring the intricacies of the Christian view on the world and helping to make sense of my faith. I am currently doing a study on the mind to hopefully conclude that in some sense it is immaterial and could possibly survive death. Thus I was hoping you could let me know if there is a place where I could acquire your masters thesis so as to gain a better understanding of consciousness and maybe see how to critique naturalized views on the mind such as those espoused by Daniel C. Dennett and John R. Searle. If this is an inappropriate question or you are not able to give out copies of you thesis that would be okay but it would be very helpful if you could elaborate on these themes in your current series on the mind. Nonetheless I look foward to your future posts and best regards. – Ashmen

23 05 2013
Paul Rupple

Ashmen, thanks for the comment and question. I’m glad that you are studying philosophy of mind, it is a fascinating subject. My thesis addressed two leading figures in the study of philosophy of mind, Drs. Dennett and Searle. Each takes a very different approach to the subject, yet both are materialists who come to similar conclusions. They take issue with each other’s view and approach to the topic, which is one reason I thought it would be interesting to determine whether either can ground his view, specifically on the subject of intentionality, the of-ness and about-ness of our mental states. In the end, I found that Dennett tried to be very consistent to his materialism and Searle tried to be very consistent to our experiences, but neither could adequately explain intentionality given their stance of naturalism. Let me know how I can get you a copy of my thesis and I would be glad to send a copy. ~Paul

25 05 2013
Ashmen Dasgupta

Thank you for your response Mr. Rupple. I am just starting to get into the philosophy of mind and do to find it quite interesting. I am very much looking forward to reading your thesis to facilitate my knowledge of the mind. If you could send a copy of your thesis to an email address, mine is if you can not please let me know and maybe we could arrange another avenue. Anyways thank you and have a good day.

28 08 2013

Hello Mr. Rupple. Just discovered this site. Nice job.

Concerning Ecclesiastes 3:11, I was having a debate with atheists recently about the problem of eternity. It is my opinion that God gave us the ability to conceptualize eternity as one way to call to the “fool” who willfully ignores all other evidence (Proverbs 9). However, because I am not schooled in philosophy or logic reasoning, they refused to admit that I had made a clear case and kept insisting I was arguing from parts to the whole, when in fact I was trying to do the opposite. We have a whole with no parts.

Basically, the point I was trying to make was that there is no evidence of eternity or perfection on earth, yet we can conceptualize the qualia of both without gleaning *any* evidence of them from the reality we experience day to day. Therefore, if we are able to conceive of things which don’t exist, then the atheist should be able to produce some quale without depending on their experience or prior evidence. For example, o8ii7(*&^HHYFHkjhyt5#4!, flibbertyjibbets, and even nothingness depend upon parts from prior experience (nothingness depends on something, everything. If the universe is expanding we must have nothingness at it’s borders). The whole may be useful, completely meaningless, or fanciful, like unicorns, but each part depends upon something from our real life experience. Nuclear fission is not experienced by most people, nor what they do at the Hadron Collider, but through others teaching and relating to us we can experience those things vicariously because of our creative minds pulling up referential data pertaining to the topic being related (videos we’ve seen, etc.)

There was a lot of word-salad, and insisting I was telling them that, based on my logic, those things must be real; that I was talking about something non sequitur, and being tangled up in logic and term. The latter I could understand, but the logic seems clear to me.

Is this topic useless? Is my logic faulty? Was this frustrating conversation a by-product of theism vs. materialism, or physicalism? Should I just mark “d”, all the above?
I don’t believe God is a God of confusion. In Ecc. 3:11, in older versions, “eternity” is also translated “world” from ” ‘olam”. Either way this describes, to me, the frame of our existence, so to speak. Eternity is within our permanent soul, and this universe exists by being held in Christ’s hand. Between the two we live, learn, and die.

28 08 2013
Paul Rupple

Thanks for your comments and thoughtful questions. I typically don’t go the direction of calling atheists or anyone else fools as I don’t believe it is an effective way to lead them to truth, especially the truth of the gospel. I look at Paul’s ministry and he seemed to engage people where they were in their understanding and try to help them move closer to the truth, though he was not always successful in that work (see Acts 17). I would agree that eternity is a concept that we can understand, however, I don’t know how the person with whom you are engaging sees this as a parts to whole argument, you would have to explain that to me.

I’m also not sure what you mean by “conceptualize the qualia of both,” maybe qualia wasn’t the word you meant to use? We can understand what perfection is and we can understand the concept of eternity. It may have gone back before Plato, but it was he to whom we connect the idea of the forms, or the perfect representations of the substances that we experience on earth. Plato saw forms as brute facts, whereas, Augustine tied them to the ideas in the mind of God.

You have brought up a few other ideas that are very useful and problematic for a materialist. Those are the ideas of concepts, intentionality, and qualia. These are not explainable from a materialist worldview. Concepts are ideas of things, whether existent or imagined, that cannot be reduced to the brain. The brain is involved in concept development, but a concept is not a material thing. Intentionality is the “of-ness” or “about-ness” of our thoughts. In other words, our thoughts are always about or of something, but my brain is never about or of anything. Intentionality cannot be naturalized or reduced to brain function or material. Third is qualia, which is the qualitative experience that you and I have. These are the pains, tickles, experience of redness, and other qualitative experiences. These too cannot be reduced to brain functions or states, nor are they material in and of themselves. These and other mental states are extremely problematic to the materialist. I’ve done a fair bit of study on these topics and started to write on them on my blog before studies prevented me from continuing. I need to get back to it now that studies are, for the most part, complete.

29 08 2013

Boy I just re-read that and I am not being so clear, am I?
I was only trying to tie scripture to my stated objective in engaging atheists. I don’t call them fools, either. It is rude in our culture and just plain counterproductive. Besides, most atheists are waaaay smarter than this pole.

Quale, qualia – consider me befuddled on that issue. Perhaps they were using the wrong terminology and I just tried to keep up with their lexicon. That’s what I get for trying to use Wikipedia.

I was using the term “concept” to describe this issue in prior discussions.
God has two standout attributes. Eternality and Perfection. I will try applying the term Divine Concepts them. If God does not exist, and is in fact made-up, then any Divine Concept attributed to Him must have real world counterparts. Unicorns, for example. The concept of unicorns is a mixture of real world attributes observable in nature. So we have the Divine Concept (D.C.) of eternity but no real world counterpart to build the concept. Our lives are bound by decay. Perfection is another D.C. with no parts in the real world. Nothing is perfect. These two D.C’s go hand in hand, I think. How do humans, cursed to lives not much higher in order than the beasts we were given charge of (Ecc.3:19), manufacture D.C’s with no real world counterparts?

Nothingness is the closest thing to a D.C. I read. Yet, if the atheist accepts the fact that the universe is expanding, it has to be expanding into what must be accepted as nothingness. Besides that, the term is defined by it’s opposite.

Hope this is somewhat clearer.

29 08 2013
Paul Rupple

Glad to hear that you show humility in your responses. It is unfortunate that online discussions can devolve into crass banter so quickly. I’m encouraged to hear that you don’t engage in that type of exchange. In regard to qualia, I think if it as the qualitative feelings that an experience provides us. For example, when I ate breakfast this morning, I had the taste of the cereal, fruit, orange juice, etc. In fact, the orange juice even gave me another quale, that of tartness and sweetness. I felt the banana that I ate and saw its color, etc. We can have qualia for immaterial objects or material objects. Love makes me happy, injustice makes me angry. Neither love or justice (or its opposite, injustice) are material things, but they can produce qualia.

The line of thinking that you are going down is quite valid, but a challenging case to make in that most people can get lost in the details. I tend to focus on arguments that are more easily grasped, yet just as effective. For example, the moral argument is one that is within grasp of most people as we all interact with morality. Either some things are wrong for all people at all times and in all circumstances, or there are no things that are wrong for all people at all times and in all circumstances. If the former is true, that claim must be grounded in reality, if the latter is true, that claim has consequences that must be explored. I don’t think that anyone can live consistently with the latter claim, so it a person either lives in tension of there being objective moral values and duties that cannot be explained from his or her worldview (i.e., materialism) or one finds the grounding for these objective moral values and duties. I believe the only adequate explanation for objective moral values and duties is in God.

Again, I applaud you for going down this line of argumentation as it will sharpen your understanding of it and also your patience. Take your time with the people with whom you engage this line of reasoning and continue thinking about and reading the arguments of those who use this argument. I’m sure that Plantinga and Kreeft have done some work on this argument.

29 08 2013

Thank you thank you thank you.

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