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.


The Real Thing and the Really Real

16 01 2010

Years ago, in fact when I was a kid, Coca Cola had a tagline, It’s the Real Thing. I’m not sure
why they believed that this was the right message for the time (1969), but for some reason that is the message that their marketing team thought was most important to convey. People always feel more secure dealing with the real thing in these days of fakery and fraud. We want to know when we buy something online that we are going to get the genuine item and are dealing with a legitimate merchant.

It has been often said that when a federal agent wants to learn to spot counterfeit currency, they must first know the genuine currency inside and out, so much so that it is easy to spot the fake. We live in an age of technology in which it is much easier to make realistic looking fakes. It has made many of us cautious and skeptical when reading marketing pitches, buying items online or in stores, and even when listening to the media.

There is another level of skepticism that is rising in our time and culture related to the nature of reality. This new skepticism would have us believe that reality consists only of that which one can see, feel, hear, taste and smell. In reality, this type of skepticism is not new, but merely a repackaging of an old skepticism that dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries A.D., which itself was a repackaging of skepticism that dated back to the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C., which was a repackaging of skepticism that dates back to the Garden of Eden. Wasn’t it the first skeptic who started his question with the words, “Did God actually say…?” Skepticism is not new, however, it is being renewed in our time in the guise of the new atheists.

C.S. Lewis set  this type of battle of the mind against skepticism in his book, Til We Have Faces, his retelling of the ancient myth of Psyche and Cupid. It is Orual in Lewis’ book who is in the battle with skepticism as she is raised on Greek philosophy by a materialist known as The Fox. Even when she has an encounter with the gods and the immaterial world into which her sister, Psyche, has entered she simply dismisses it once the vision has gone away. Throughout the book she is in a battle to suppress that immaterial reality and to hold on to her belief that reality consists of the material world.

I often encounter this same attitude these days in people with whom I have discussions. Their attitudes are much like the Kangaroo in the movie Horton Hears a Who who said, “If you can’t feel it, see it or hear it, it does not exist!” The question is whether this is true? Is the physical stuff all there is, or is there a reality beyond the physical stuff?

Plato certainly seemed to understand that the physical stuff was not all there was to reality. He understood, in fact, that it is the immaterial forms (the perfect idea of what is represented in the material world) that were the highest and most fundamental nature of reality, and not this world of material world. This was one of the ways that Plato overcame the problem of universals or ideals (i.e. how does one account for perfection or ideals if everything is in flux). I think that in many ways Plato was moving in the right direction with his thoughts, although, I think where he missed the mark was to have abstract ideas without a mind from which they originated. It seems to me that it is more logical and reasonable to think that these ideals were the thoughts of a perfect being – God.

The author of Hebrews echoes these types of ideas in the ninth chapter when he compares the earthly tabernacle (the tent that served as Israel’s meeting place with God as they traveled through the wilderness) with the new tabernacle that God has prepared for us. The author writes,

11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, wrote of Jesus, “If only he had remained in the desert and far away from the good and the just! Perhaps he would have learned to live and to love the earth – and even to laugh! Believe me, my brothers! He died too early; he himself would have recanted his teaching if he had reached my age! He was noble enough for recanting! But he had not yet matured.” (from On Free Death, p. 55) Nietzsche’s mistake was to think that this world was all there was to reality, when in fact, Jesus knew of a better reality – he knew the difference between the real and the really real.

If this physical world is all there is to reality, maybe Nietzsche was right and we should learn to love this world and eat, drink and be merry (even though Nietzsche himself never epitomized this in his life). On the other hand, if Jesus and the authors of the New Testament were right, then we are called to a different mindset, one completely opposite of what Nietzsche advocated. The Apostle John writes,

15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

Jesus, through his resurrection demolished the idea that this physical world is all there is to reality. Jesus told his disciples that he was going to prepare a place for them and that he would come back and take them with him, he said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:6,7) In Jesus we have seen God.

Jesus himself is the bridge between what we see as real and that which is really real. He left heaven to enter into space and time. He left the immaterial world to take on flesh and blood. He is evidence to all who will see and hear that there is a reality that we cannot now see or hear, but which is more real that which we do now see, hear, feel, taste and smell. Like Orual, we can convince ourselves that it doesn’t exist, or we can embrace what we truly know deep down, that this world is only a pointer, an indicator, a sense of longing for the truer reality that lies beyond it. Let me return to C.S. Lewis to tie these ideas together. He wrote in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” And so we are…