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.

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(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 Mind: What is consciousness?

4 07 2011

I’ve spent the past few years reading and studying the topic of the mind, but I’ve barely scratched the surface on the topic. Some believe that the mind exists, others don’t. Of those who believe that the mind exists, some believe it to be merely an emergent property of the brain, while others see it as an immaterial substantial part of who we are as people. The mind is a fascinating subject and one worth thinking about, so I will be devoting a number of upcoming posts to the topic of the mind. If it is a real and immaterial part of who we are, as I believe it to be, then it gives indication that this world is not reducible to material stuff alone. If there is an immaterial aspect to our natures, it gives good indication that there is an immaterial nature to reality. I believe the mind gives us a clue to the existence of God and that will be the case that I build throughout these posts.

Let us begin by examining the question, what is consciousness? Although there is no definitive and exhaustive answer as to what consciousness is, we have some ideas as to what consciousness is like. Van Gulick1 describes several elements of consciousness, including:

  • Sentience – the capability to sense one’s environment.
  • Wakefulness – being awake and alert.
  • Self-consciousness – being self-aware.
  • What it is like – Thomas Nagel described this as “something it is like” to be who you are. The subjective aspect of being who you are.
  • Subject of conscious states – having conscious mental states
  • Transitive consciousness – the ability to be aware of many things at the same time or one thing over time.

Other aspects of consciousness include:

  • States one is aware of – the awareness of having states of awareness or of conscious states. These are also known as meta-mentality or meta-intentionality.
  • Qualitative states – otherwise known as qualia, these are states that have an experiential or sensory nature to them. Whenever we have a sensation (sight, sound, feel, taste, or smell), these are known as quale (kwal’ ee).
  • Phenomenal states – the totality of qualitative states forms the phenomenal state of consciousness.
  • Access consciousness – This concept was developed by Ned Block and describes not the phenomenal state, but whether the sensory information can be accessed to guide the organism.
  • Narrative consciousness – this is more commonly known as the stream of consciousness and refers to the ongoing serial of episodes that string together to the perspective of the self.

Philosopher, David Chalmers wrote:

Consciousness poses the most baffling problems in the science of the mind. There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain. All sorts of mental phenomena have yielded to scientific investigation in recent years, but consciousness has stubbornly resisted. Many have tried to explain it, but the explanations always seem to fall short of the target. Some have been led to suppose that the problem is intractable, and that no good explanation can be given. 2

Chalmers breaks the problem of consciousness down into the “easy problem” and the “hard problem.” The easy problem is that part of consciousness that can easily be explained by cognitive science, while the hard problem “seem to resist those methods.”3 The easy problems are those of categorizing, discriminating, reporting mental states, attention, behavioral control and other like phenomena. The hard problem deals with issues that are more subjective, like qualitative experience, or as Thomas Nagel described, the what it is like phenomenon. In other words, there is something it is like to be me or a bat or a my dog. These are subjective experiences. We have others as well, including what it is like to listen to Bach, or to eat Jambalaya, or to watch the Packers win the Super Bowl. Each of us will have a different experience in each of these cases. In later posts, I will give more detail on this problem and some of its implications.

Consciousness is an intriguing study and often quite perplexing. Many philosophers over the years have attempted to explain consciousness or, at times, explain it away; at least, various aspects of it. In the coming weeks I will explore many of these aspects, describing how the many of the philosophers have attempted to fit them into their respective worldviews. I will look at what I believe to be the best explanation of consciousness and the phenomena associated with it. I hope you will read on and gain greater understanding of this fascinating field of study. Leave me comments and questions along the way.

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1. Robert Van Gulick, “Consciousness”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), available from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2011/entries/consciousness/, Internet accessed on 22 June 2011.

2. David Chalmers, “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2(3):200-19, 1995, 1.

3. ibid, 2.