Understanding the Question of Consciousness: A Comprehensive Guide to Qualia

A Comprehensive Guide to Qualia

What’s the difference between a robot and a human? What makes the human experience distinct from the experience of other living things? What is the basic makeup of consciousness? There are many potential answers to that question, but one of the central responses has to do with a term called qualia.

Qualia is a term that has many potential definitions. For many decades now, cognitive scientists, neurologists, and philosophers have debated about the definition of the word qualia, whether it even exists, and what implications it has for the understanding of consciousness in general.

The most basic definition of qualia is “individual instances of subjective, conscious experience.” The word qualia is a Latin term that means “of what sort” or “of what kind.” For example, what it is like to see a particular bird, in a particular moment. For those who believe that qualia exist, qualia are the term for many aspects of the human experience.

The pain you experience when you have a headache is qualia. The way you feel when you listen to a piece of music that you love is an experience of qualia. Any time you could add “what it is like to” before an action or experience indicates that you are recognizing qualia.

woman on swing

The Debate Around Qualia

Philosophers, particularly phenomenologists, have been concerned with qualia for many decades. The area of philosophy of mind, which has been heavily influenced by cognitive science and neuroscience in recent years, has been the home of a vital debate about the existence of qualia over the past few decades.

The term was actually first introduced by the philosopher Clarence Irving Lewis. In 1929, he published a book called Mind and the World Order. In the book, he used the term qualia in the sense that it is now defined. Thomas Nagel further expanded upon the idea of qualia in his famous paper, “What It Is Like to Be a Bat.”1

In this paper, Nagel illustrates the idea of qualia by inviting individuals to consider that in order for something to be conscious, there must be something of what it is like

In 1982, the philosopher Frank Jackson offered an alternate definition.2 In his definition, he explained that qualia refer to both the bodily sensations one experiences in any given moment, as well as information that goes beyond the purely physical information.

There is a famous thought experiment that Frank Jackson introduced to explain the essence of qualia. The thought experiment is known as “Mary’s room” or “Mary the super-scientist.” Philosophers use thought experiments like this one to illustrate ideas and highlight interesting issues or problems.

Mary’s Room Thought Experiment

In this thought experiment, Mary is an amazing scientist equipped with all of the latest technology and observational tools. In fact, she even has tools that haven’t even been developed yet. These tools help her measure and learn absolutely everything there is to know about seeing a red rose.

The only catch is that Mary lives in a black and white room, in a black and white world. Nevertheless, she has access to all of the information that her observational tools have gathered—how light hits the rods and cones in her eye to produce the appearance of color, how that perception travels through the visual cortex and is processed by the brain, and the wavelengths of the electromagnetic waves being emitted by the rose. Her equipment is powerful, so she must know absolutely every possible observable fact about seeing a red rose.

One day, the door to her lab room opens up to reveal a red rose sitting inside of a glass vase. All of a sudden, Dr. Mary is exposed to the world of colors for the very first time. After all of the years of gathering so much information about what it is like to see a red rose, now she is actually seeing the colors themselves.

The question is, do you believe that Dr. Mary receives a new piece of information when she sees the red rose, even though her equipment had already gathered all the data that she possibly could about the rose? Most individuals do instinctually have a sense that there is a new piece of information received by Dr. Mary when she sees the red rose.

That piece of information is referred to as qualia. There is something to “what it is like to see the rose’s color” that is distinct from all of the objective information her scientific equipment could gather about the rose.

red roses

Responses to Mary’s Rose Experiment

When most individuals hear the “Mary’s room” experiment, they do have the gut instinct that she does receive a new piece of information when she sees the color red for the first time, even though she has been studying it for years.

But just because you have a gut instinct that there is such a thing as information beyond what can be gathered by even the most sensitive equipment, does that mean that there truly is? Actually, many philosophers and great thinkers have disputed this.

Perhaps the most well-known philosopher to doubt that qualia actually exists is Daniel Dennett.3 First, Dennett does a good job of defining what appears to define qualia in philosophical writings. He identified four main attributes in the writing: ineffable, intrinsic, private, directly or immediately apprehensible in consciousness.

Ineffable means that they can not be clearly communicated or understood except through directly experiencing the phenomenon. Intrinsic means that they are sourced from the experience or the phenomenon itself, rather than being in relation to other things. For example, the qualia of what it’s like for you to see a red rose in a particular moment won’t change an hour later in time or if the rose moves to a different place in the room.

Private refers to the fact that qualia are always individual and specific to the person that has experienced them, meaning that only the individual who has experienced the qualia can ever have access to it. Finally, qualia are often defined by being immediately discernible by the individual. When you have an experience of qualia, it is not something that you have to think about or figure out. It is something that comes immediately into your consciousness.

Arguments Against Qualia

After Dennett set out this definition of qualia, he then composed his argument against qualia. Dennett refutes the “Mary’s room” experiment by calling it, and experiments like it, “intuition pumps.” Basically, he states that while humans have the intuition that Dr. Mary receives new information when she sees the red rose, in actuality, she does not.

He argues that if she truly received all of the possible known information about what it is like for a human being to see a red rose, she would know how to imagine that experience with accuracy and would not receive any new information by seeing the red rose.

There’s another reason why Dennett doesn’t think qualia truly exists: it is not compatible with a physicalist explanation of mind. Basically, Dennett and other philosophers of mind contend that the mind, and consciousness that arises from it, is made up of entirely physical material.

This runs counter to a philosophy of dualism, which says that there is a distinction between the material, physical body, and consciousness. Qualia is an issue for those with a physicalist approach to the mind because it suggests that there are other elements that make up conscious experience beyond just the physical or material data that people can observe.

Hence, in the “Mary’s room” thought experiment—even though she has all of the possible physical and material information about the rose, there’s still something more she experiences when she sees the red rose for the first time.

Whatever that “something more” is, the thing intuition tells people is there, it doesn’t appear to have a material source. This is a serious problem for physicalists and is also an issue for cognitive scientists and neuroscientists who contend that all conscious experience can be explained by brain phenomenon.

man sitting on cliff

Other Arguments Against Qualia

Daniel Dennett continues his arguments against the existence of qualia by suggesting that in order for qualia to truly exist, then it must meet these two qualifications:

  • It’s possible to know that a change in qualia has occurred, as opposed to a change in something else.
  • There’s a difference between having a change in qualia and not having one.

Dennett uses a different thought experiment to explain these qualifications. He calls it “alternative neurosurgery.”4 In this thought experiment, you awake from surgery and find that your qualia have been inverted. The sky now appears to be green, and the grass appears blue. But there are actually two potential things that the neuroscientists changed.

First, they may have rewired your brain so that you experienced all the colors differently. Alternatively, they could have rewired your brain so that your memory has changed, so you were, in fact, seeing colors as they always were, but your memory had been altered so you remembered seeing them differently in the past.

Dennett says that because you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between those two scenarios, can’t truly be considered a real thing. For something to be a true phenomenon, he argues, you should be able to know for sure whether a change in qualia has occurred.

The Hard Problem of Consciousness

Ultimately, the arguments against qualia go back to one of the greatest debates going on in the philosophy of mind and neuroscience today: the hard problem of consciousness.5 Philosophical materialists, who believe that the whole universe is made up entirely of physical phenomenon that can be measured in an objective way, are challenged by the hard problem of consciousness.

Simply put, people who challenge scientific materialism ask, if the brain is made up of the same chemical compounds as a rock, where does the experience of consciousness come from? How do unconscious materials become conscious? Why do people identify rocks as being unconscious but understand other animals and human beings to be conscious?

There is a wide range of arguments and about this issue. At the end of the day, many of the arguments come down to your approach and understanding of what qualia is. If you believe that qualia exist and are not just an illusion as Dennett suggests, then you can develop some theory or understanding around the hard problem of consciousness.

For example, some philosophers and physicists, like Amit Goswami, suggest that consciousness exists, to a small degree, inside every cell or molecule. The reason that individuals believe that humans are conscious and a rock is not is because the two things lie on opposite sides of the spectrum of consciousness.

Other philosophers argue that the existence of qualia demonstrates that there is something unique about consciousness—there is “something it is like” to be who you are.

a book pages

Language and Qualia

Another reason that qualia can be so hard to define or determine with certainty is because of how difficult it is to explain or talk about qualia. For those who don’t believe qualia exist, they suggest that the reason individuals can’t talk easily about qualia is that they have yet to determine all of the neurological and biological factors that contribute to qualia states.

Once more research in neuroscience has been completed, and scientists have a clearer picture of how the brain and consciousness work, then qualia can be successfully described.

Why Qualia Are Important Now

In a world that is becoming increasingly dependent on computers, many scientists and robotic engineers have concerns that artificial intelligence could take over the world. There are many who believe that science is merely a few steps away from being able to create robots that would be fully sentient.

This idea has a lot of dangerous implications, most notably, that humans would be at risk. After all, once robots became fully sentient, what would prevent them from wanting to take over? Not only would they have all of the advantages of a human being, but they would also not have physical bodies to maintain, and they would be able to process, sort, and call upon information at much faster rates than humans are capable of.

For those who don’t believe that qualia exist or have trouble understanding how it could, it is easy to imagine how robots could eventually become fully sentient and ultimately have more power than humans do.

But if you do believe in the existence of qualia, it is more difficult to see how robots could become sentient. For qualia proponents, it’s not so easy to see how a computer could be motivated the way that human beings are, such as through love, happiness, and passion.


Qualia and Philosophical Materialism

This brings the discussion back to questions of materialism and the hard problem of consciousness.6 What does it mean to be a materialist? Basically, every phenomenon that exists in the universe can be explained by the physical material that comprises it. So, if you are a materialist, you believe that if qualia exist, then they must have a physical cause.

Of course, if you are a materialist, it would be a lot more convenient if qualia did not exist at all because it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to ever measure or find the objective cause of qualia because of the difficulty of measuring someone’s subjective experience.

This makes qualia exceedingly difficult to study and understand, which ultimately motivates committed materialists like Daniel Dennett to create arguments against its existence at all.

Qualia in the Context of Everyday Life

While the arguments and understanding of qualia can become quite academic and philosophical, there are other ways to understand qualia and incorporate it into your life.

In today’s modern society—one which is increasingly data-driven and science-based—the qualia of daily life, or the unique internal experience of what it feels like to you, can often go overlooked. Emphasis is placed instead on the things that can be objectively or externally measured. For instance, many people tend to focus more on outward appearance and judge the external appearance of others more than they consider what their own or another person’s experience may be on the inside.

Social media has fueled this shift, as people scroll through pictures and words that have been carefully curated by others to present a particular image to other people. This can keep people focused on what is going on externally instead of what’s going on internally.

At the same time, there is a growing awareness and understanding among many people that what is going on internally has vital importance. Science is even beginning to investigate these factors, as there is increasing research on phenomena like the placebo effect, nostalgia, aromatherapy, energy work, and dreams, which all have important implications for qualia.

The more science attempts to investigate these phenomena, the more likely it is that philosophers and scientists will come to a mutual understanding about what qualia are, which will then shed light on their understanding of consciousness more generally.

person with arms up celebrating

Using the Concept of Qualia to Your Advantage

Even if you believe qualia exist, there are many factors in place in society that would have you believe that your internal experience is not very significant. What is not talked about as often is how you could potentially use your personal relationship to your own qualia to your advantage.

For example, consider all of the new research about nostalgia. These moments of reverie could be considered as qualia. After all, the most potent aspect of memories is the way they make people feel. And of course, when you are experiencing a memory, you’re having a completely private and internal experience. This is one way to think about qualia.

ion if you are seeking to understand your behavioral and relationship patterns. This is one way that you can connect your dreams to qualia and gain a deeper understanding of who you are.


Qualia is a fascinating and emerging topic in today’s world. As researchers learn more about how the human brain functions, more questions arise about whether consciousness arises from inert matter or there is a non-material aspect of consciousness.7 The debate over the existence of qualia lies right in the heart of that question and poses fascinating implications for the understanding of humanity as a whole.

If you do have the intuition that qualia do exist, there are a number of ways you can investigate your personal relationship to your own qualia. Nostalgia, dreams, and aromatherapy can all stimulate a fascinating exploration of qualia and provide you with some amazing benefits.

Photo credits: Song_about_summer/shutterstock.com, elina.nova/shutterstock.com, rdonar/shutterstock.com, AllgaierPhotography/shutterstock.com, solarseven/shutterstock.com, KieferPix/shutterstock.com, Max4ePhoto/shuttersock.com


By Savannah Wilson

Savannah is an aromatherapy enthusiast who takes pride in knowing everything about essential oils, from ylang-ylang to chamomile. When taking a break from learning more about essential oils, Savannah likes to spend her time reading books or working out.

Favorite MONQ blend: Sexy

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The above information relates to studies of specific individual essential oil ingredients, some of which are used in the essential oil blends for various MONQ diffusers. Please note, however, that while individual ingredients may have been shown to exhibit certain independent effects when used alone, the specific blends of ingredients contained in MONQ diffusers have not been tested. No specific claims are being made that use of any MONQ diffusers will lead to any of the effects discussed above.  Additionally, please note that MONQ diffusers have not been reviewed or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. MONQ diffusers are not intended to be used in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, prevention, or treatment of any disease or medical condition. If you have a health condition or concern, please consult a physician or your alternative health care provider prior to using MONQ diffusers.

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