What is Qualia?
Before we begin to understand this philosophy concept, we must first learn what it is. It is an internal subjective sense of perceiving and it works by raising the awareness of stimulation in the senses. Derived from the Latin term, it is pronounced Qual-ee-uh, with the exact meaning being translated to “what sort” or “what kind”, such as, what does this particular shade of orange taste like?
Thus, a good example would be the sensation of a pain in the head or a headache, how the wine might taste, or particular shades of orange and red in the evening sky that one may admire. Have you ever looked at a bottle of wine and analyzed the color in order to determine what you were going to buy?
You may have gone on to purchase that particular bottle of wine on the assumption that the particular lovely shade of rose was exactly what you were looking for in a wine. You could practically taste it, that is until you uncorked the bottle only to find that it didn’t taste nearly as good as you had imagined.
The focus, however, is on the direct beliefs in regards to the experience as opposed to what the person is actually experiencing. At one point in time, renowned philosopher Daniel Dennett suggested it’s an unfamiliar term for something that is very familiar to us.
There has been a considerable debate over the topic which is based on the philosophy that either emphasizes or denies the very existence of the features of Qualia. Thus, the very existence and nature of a definitive sensation is controversial and may or may not be a verifiable matter – it is all subject to interpretation.
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Accordingly, there are a variety of definitions for the term. These have changed over the course of time and the more simple yet very broad definition is that of mental states. Such a state of pain, seeing a particular shade of a color or smelling the scent of a particular flower are all susceptible to personal interpretation.
For example, imagine a visit to the doctor with a broken bone and you’re invariably asked to tell them your pain level based on a scale of 1 to 10. If you have a high pain threshold, you may tell them it’s about a 3. However, if you have a very low pain threshold, you may tell them that your pain level is at a 10 and pressing higher. Each person is going to perceive that pain differently, just as each person is going to evaluate that particular shade of rose and determine what they think that particular glass of wine is going to taste like.
Consider, if you will, the person who is color blind. They see particular colors with their own personal interpretation, which doesn’t necessarily make their perception off balance, they just have the capability to be more creative with what they choose to see. But for example, they may struggle with traffic lights, such as how the green light is always on top. However, on occasion, a city will turn a traffic light on its side and the person may not have encountered this before. Now they must determine which light is green – the one on the right? Or is it the one on the left?
Philosopher Clarence Irving Lewis wrote a book called “Mind and the World Order” where he used the term, Qualia, and put it forth as a modern sense. There are many specific experiences in reference to such characters such as the opinion of color or the opinion of a particular scent. To keep it simple, we’ll work with colors and scents to examine the concept.
Since it’s subjective to personal interpretation, there can be no wrong answer. It’s all up to the personal interpretation of an individual. Saturated colors are a prime example. Color a box on a piece of white paper in with one shade, then go and ask someone what that particular shade is.
If you use red for example, you may hear that it’s orange, while it may be orange-red to another person, and another person may state that it is very clearly red-orange. Who then is right? The truth is, since it’s a subjective matter, no one is definitively right or wrong. It is possible that you can even save the crayon and read the color off of the label, and an argument can still commence.
Obviously, there are a variety of characters for the specific color which may be represented differently for each particular individual. The person who is color blind may even tell you that the box you’ve carefully shaded in with your favorite shade of red, is green. While that is far off the mark to you, for them, it’s all a matter of subjectivity and opinion, and in their mind, they’re right and you’re the one that is wrong.
This is where Qualia becomes confusing. Historically, there are many times that something may be subject to such opinion, and these opinions could potentially affect the course of history or the course of a person’s life. This can be possible all because of one particular individualized perception.
According to Daniel Dennett, there are four identifiable traits of this philosophy. These traits are:
Only being able to communicate or capture something by experiencing the matter for yourself. The idea of, you’ll have to try it to see if you like it, would be a good example of this trait. A child may think that the white fluffy color of cauliflower is lovely, however, they may not like the taste of it at all. It must be experienced.
Intrinsic or non-relational in their particular properties, they don’t change and are therefore absolute, however, this absolute is subject again to personal interpretation. Thus, comparisons are virtually impossible and each person is entitled to their own opinion.
Direct or able to be captured easily via the conscious mind. This is the idea of once someone has experienced something, they can then share it readily.
Indirect, or rather, sharing it second hand or having heard about it or seen it and being able to share it is in an indirect manner as it didn’t actually happen to you.
Understanding all of the above, we then know that even though we may be able to see particular colors, it is virtually impossible to explain said color to someone who either can’t see at all or someone who is color blind. We can tell the person that it’s a shade of red, however, that particular person hasn’t been able to truly experience the color, and therefore can’t fully understand or know what is actually meant by the word that the color in question is red, blue, green, yellow, or whatever color it may be.
Even attempting to explain that red is a “hot” color would be confusing to that person as they would feel the sun on them and later interpret that the sun itself is red. How then would we explain that the sun is actually a yellow or a golden color? It quickly becomes complicated.
Even more, to help complicate this idea, the blind person may tell you that they sense the shade of red or that perhaps, they feel red when they touch something. They might even say that they taste red. Again, it is all a subjective matter and the subjectivity trails back to personal interpretation.
If you tell a 2-year-old that the sky is blue, you may wind up with a serious argument on your hands if that particular 2-year-old wants to insist that the sky is green today. All the arguments in the world aren’t going to sway that 2-year-old that the sky is blue and the grass is green. Why? Because it’s a matter of personal opinion, which boils right back down to the fact that each person is entitled to their own opinion.
Many parents who are “unschooling” allow this mindset and let the 2-year-old make up their own mind in due time, as it would certainly save a lot of time rather than arguing with the child in regards to the actual color of the sky today. Feelings and experiences can vary widely from one person to another.
Take, for example, a piece of sandpaper. Does it feel rough like a cat’s tongue if fingers were to run over it? Is one side smoother? How does it make your finger feel? What runs through your mind as you touch it? Do you sense a specific color as you touch it with your eyes closed? All of this is Qualia – your own personal interpretation of a particular situation.
Philosophers frequently use the term to describe the phenomenal features of our mental state or our mental psyche. It can be challenging to offer an opinion that differs from everyone else, but it’s a personal sensation both inside of, and outside of one’s mind. This has long been a debate in philosophy circles as it’s centrifugal to understanding the human mind.
Is a zebra white and black, or black and white? The answer is going to likely depend on who you ask, and when you do get an answer and ask them to explain why they said what they think, you’re likely to get several different answers.
Many studies have been done on twins to determine how close they actually are in their perceptions and opinions. Since twins were grown together in the womb it’s often believed that they would think alike. This, however, isn’t always the case.
Sometimes, twins will be what is known as, “mirror image”, where one is left-handed and the other is right-handed. Since the right side of the body is ran by the left side of the brain, and the left side of the body is run by the right side of the brain, they may then perceive things far differently from their different “observational” points.
Hard Problem Of Consciousness
This state is a very debatable topic in philosophy due to the lack of understanding of the consciousness of the human mind. At the root of the issue is the fact that it’s all subjective to interpretation. Right or wrong, it is all a matter of personal opinion.
Let’s take a person, for example, who is in a catatonic state of mind. They are simply staring ahead and not reacting to what is around them. Are they sensing any perceptions at all? How about the zombies in the movies? Are they sensing any perceptions (assuming of course, that they really do exist in reality)?
We have learned, over the course of time, to react to our own personal environment. We are able to feel pain or sense danger, we can sense when something is warm, and picture a color depicting that warmth. The human mind is an amazing and highly functioning machine that, when properly cared for, will indeed last a lifetime.
Many get caught up in questions such as “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it really make a sound?” Truthfully, can we even see the trees for the forest? Philosophically speaking, we know that if a tree falls, it makes a loud crashing sound.
But, if no one is there to hear it, we can only assume that there was a sound. We know that the forest is there because we can see it. We know that a tree is down and must’ve fallen because we can see it. Yet, we weren’t there when it fell. So this begs the question, “Did it make a sound?”
Again, this is obviously a subjective matter in which we only have limited information and can thus only assume or conclude the end result: that it must’ve made a sound, even if no one heard it. Or did it?
Should mental states be included in this list of perceptions? We often hear that a person was acquitted of a crime due to their mental state. Perhaps they were depressed or needed something such as food for their family and thus stole some food.
If you’re raising a child that is overly curious, you may learn to tell them in a roundabout way to stay out of the street, as they may be rather oppositional. You may have to tell them something along the lines of, “If you run out in the street you might be hit by a car, but if you stay in the yard you won’t be hit by a car” as opposed to simply saying, “don’t play in the street”. Why? Because you know your child, and you know that as soon as you tell your child not to do something, they are going to do the opposite. So, you learn to work around the simplistic ways of telling them something in order for them to stay safe and not be in danger.
It’s all about perception. If a child hates to be told what to do, causing them to be defiant and do exactly opposite of what you tell them to do, you must learn how to get around their defiant nature while still telling them what to do. You’ve beaten them at their own game using philosophy against them. It’s a win-win situation. It’s all in their perception of what you’ve told them. You let them think that they had a choice, they took the bait, they thought they had a choice and made the right choice. It’s all in their perception of how you told them.
Philosophy Of The Mind
When considering the philosophy of the mind, one is tempted to look at just one side of the picture. However, the mind is a complex machine that must be cared for properly. Philosophy is, therefore, an argument that is designed to analyze complex information and determine the actual reality of a state of being.
It’s not unheard of for philosophers to differ on their opinions, in fact, that’s why there are so many different forms of philosophy. The actual knowledge of a particular subject, on a conscious level, will all be perceived differently even in siblings or twins.
Ask two children what happened when they were growing up and you’re going to hear two distinctly different stories, even in regards to the same incident. The first thought that comes to mind is that one of them is lying, however, this may not be the case at all.
The actual scenario would have been perceived differently by each child. One child may have been older or younger, they may have had different viewpoints as they weren’t standing side by side, or perhaps they favor one parent over another. All of these factors can lead to a completely different perception of the incident and thus, different opinions.
Each child had their own perceptions, their own memories, their own physical sensations. Thus, the conclusion is that their perceptions or memories are their own. It doesn’t make one of them a liar, it just means that they each had their own personal perspectives on the situation and that is the truth.
Understanding Qualia can take a lifetime to master. It’s a huge undertaking for a study of philosophy and it’s a fascinating study at that. There have been many great debates on the topic and of course, each side of the debate has its own validity.