"Qualia" is "an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us. They can be defined as qualities or sensations, like redness or pain, as considered independently of their effects on behavior and from whatever physical circumstances give rise to them. In more philosophical terms, qualia are properties of sensory experiences.
The importance of qualia in philosophy of mind comes largely from the fact that they are often seen as posing a fundamental problem for physicalism. Much of the debate over their existence, however, hinges on the debate over the precise definition of the term, as various philosophers emphasize or deny the existence of certain properties.
The word "qualia" comes from Latin, meaning "what sort" or "what kind." The Latin and English singular is "quale" (roughly KWAH-leh))
Believers in qualia are known as qualophiles; non-believers as qualophobes.
Clarence I. Lewis, in his book [Mind and the World Order] (1929), was the first to use the term "qualia" in its generally agreed modern sense.
Frank Jackson (1982) later defined qualia as "...certain features of the bodily sensations especially, but also of certain perceptual experiences, which no amount of purely physical information includes" (p. 273).
Under definitions like these, which are quite broad, there can be little doubt that qualia exist However, definitions this broad make it difficult to discuss the precise nature of qualia, and their interaction with the mind and the environment. Some philosophers have made attempts at more precise, possibly narrower, definitions of qualia, describing things whose existence are more controversial...
If qualia of this sort exist, then a normally sighted person who sees red would be unable to describe the experience of this perception in such a way that a listener who has never experienced color will be able to know everything there is to know about that experience. Though it is possible to make an analogy, such as "red looks hot", or to provide a description of the conditions under which the experience occurs, such as "it's the color you see when light of 700 nm wavelength is directed at you," supporters of this kind of qualia contend that such a description is incapable of providing a complete description of the experience.
Another way of defining qualia is as "raw feels". A raw feel is a perception in and of itself, considered entirely in isolation from any effect it might have on behavior and behavioral disposition. In contrast, a "cooked feel" is that perception seen as existing in terms of its effects.
According to an argument put forth by Saul Kripke in "Identity and Necessity" (1971), one key consequence of the claim that such things as raw feels can be meaningfully discussed — that qualia exist — is that it leads to the logical possibility of two entities exhibiting identical behavior in all ways despite one of them entirely lacking qualia. While very few ever claim that such an entity, called a philosophical zombie, actually exists, the mere possibility is claimed to be sufficient to refute physicalism. Those who dispute the existence of qualia would therefore necessarily dispute the existence of philosophical zombies.
There is an ancient Sufi parable about coffee that nicely expresses the concept: "He who tastes, knows; he who tastes not, knows not."
Since it is by definition difficult or impossible to convey qualia verbally, it is difficult to demonstrate them directly in an argument; a more tangential approach is needed. Arguments for qualia generally come in the form of thought experiments designed to lead one to the conclusion that qualia exist.
The inverted spectrum thought experiment invites us to imagine that we wake up one morning, and find that for some unknown reason all the colors in the world have been inverted. Furthermore, we discover that no physical changes have occurred in our brains or bodies that would explain this phenomenon. Supporters of the existence of qualia argue that, since we can imagine this happening without contradiction, it follows that we are imagining a change in a property that determines the way things look to us, but that has no physical basis. In more detail:
The argument thus claims that if we find the inverted spectrum plausible, we must admit that qualia exist (and are non-physical). Some philosophers find it absurd that an armchair argument can prove something to exist, and the detailed argument does involve a lot of assumptions about conceivability and possibility, which are open to criticism. Perhaps it is not possible for a given brain state to produce anything other than a given quale in our universe, and that is all that matters.
The idea that an inverted spectrum would be undetectable in practice is also open to criticism on more scientific grounds.
A similar argument holds that it is conceivable that there could be physical duplicates of people, called "zombies", without any qualia at all. Similar criticisms about conceivability versus possibility can be made.
Joseph Levine's paper Conceivability, Identity, and the Explanatory Gap takes up where the criticisms of conceivability arguments, such as the Inverted Spectrum argument and the Zombie argument, leave off. Levine agrees that conceivability is flawed as a means of establishing metaphysical realities, but points out that even if we come to the metaphysical conclusion that qualia are non-physical, they still present an explanatory problem.
"While I think this materialist response is right in the end, it does not suffice to put the mind-body problem to rest. Even if conceivability considerations do not establish that the mind is in fact distinct from the body, or that mental properties are metaphysically irreducible to physical properties, still they do demonstrate that we lack an explanation of the mental in terms of the physical"
However, such an epistemological or explanatory problem might indicate an underlying metaphysical issue — the non-physicality of qualia, even if not proven by conceivability arguments is far from ruled out.
"In the end, we are right back where we started. The explanatory gap argument doesn't demonstrate a gap in nature, but a gap in our understanding of nature. Of course a plausible explanation for there being a gap in our understanding of nature is that there is a genuine gap in nature. But so long as we have countervailing reasons for doubting the latter, we have to look elsewhere for an explanation of the former".
In "Epiphenomenal Qualia" (1982), Frank Jackson offers what he calls the "Knowledge Argument" for qualia. One example runs as follows:
This thought experiment has two purposes. First, it is intended to show that qualia exist. If we agree with the thought experiment, we believe that Mary gains something after she leaves the room — that she acquires knowledge of a particular thing that she did not possess before. That knowledge, Jackson argues, is knowledge of the quale that corresponds to the experience of seeing red, and it must thus be conceded that qualia are real properties, since there is a difference between a person who has access to a particular quale and one who does not.
The second purpose of this argument is to refute the physicalist account of the mind. Specifically, the Knowledge Argument is an attack on the physicalist claim about the completeness of physical truths. The challenge posed to physicalism by the Knowledge Argument runs as follows:
Finally, Jackson argues that qualia are epiphenomenal: not causally efficacious with respect to the physical world. Jackson does not give a positive justification for this claim — rather, he seems to assert it simply because it defends qualia against the classic problem of dualism. Our natural assumption would be that qualia must be causally efficacious in the physical world, but some would ask how we could argue for their existence if they did not affect our brains. If qualia are to be non-physical properties (which they must be in order to constitute an argument against physicalism), some argue that it is almost impossible to imagine how they could have a causal effect on the physical world. By redefining qualia as epiphenomenal, Jackson attempts to protect them from the demand of playing a causal role.
In Dennett's updated version of the inverted spectrum thought experiment, "alternative neurosurgery", you again awake to find that your qualia have been inverted — grass appears red, the sky appears orange, etc. According to the original account, you should be immediately aware that something has gone horribly wrong. Dennett argues, however, that it is impossible to know whether the diabolical neurosurgeons have indeed inverted your qualia (by tampering with your optic nerve, say), or have simply inverted your connection to memories of past qualia. Since both operations would produce the same result, you would have no means on your own to tell which operation has actually been conducted, and you are thus in the odd position of not knowing whether there has been a change in your "immediately apprehensible" qualia.
Dennett's argument revolves around the central objection that, for qualia to be taken seriously as a component of experience — for them to even make sense as a discrete concept — it must be possible to show that
Dennett attempts to show that we cannot satisfy (a) either through introspection or through observation, and that qualia's very definition undermines its chances of satisfying (b).
Supporters of qualia could point out that in order for you to notice a change in qualia, you must compare your current qualia with your memories of past qualia. Arguably, such a comparison would involve immediate apprehension of your current qualia and your memories of past qualia, but not the past qualia itself.
Dennett also has a response to the "Mary the color scientist" thought experiment. He argues that Mary would not, in fact, learn something new if she stepped out of her black and white room to see the color red. Dennett asserts that if she already truly knew "everything about color", that knowledge would include a deep understanding of why and how human neurology causes us to sense the "quale" of color. Mary would therefore already know exactly what to expect of seeing red, before ever leaving the room. Dennett argues that the misleading aspect of the story is that Mary is supposed to not merely be knowledgeable about color but to actually know all the physical facts about it, which would be a knowledge so deep that it exceeds what can be imagined, and twists our intuitions.
If Mary really does know everything physical there is to know about the experience of colour, then this effectively grants her almost omniscient powers of knowledge. Using this, she will be able to deduce her own reaction, and figure out exactly what the experience of seeing red will feel like.
Dennett finds that many people find it difficult to see this, so he uses the case of RoboMary to further illustrate what it would be like for Mary to possess such a vast knowledge of the physical workings of the human brain and colour vision. RoboMary is an intelligent robot who, instead of the ordinary colour camera-eyes, has a software lock such that she is only able to perceive black and white and shades in-between.
RoboMary can examine the computer brain of similar non-colour-locked robots when they look at a red tomato, and see exactly how they react and what kinds of impulses occur. RoboMary can also construct a simulation of her own brain, unlock the simulations colour-lock and, with reference to the other robots, simulate exactly how this simulation of herself reacts to seeing a red tomato. RoboMary naturally has control over all of her internal states except for the colour-lock. With the knowledge of her simulation's internal states upon seeing a red tomato, RoboMary can put her own internal states directly into the states they would be in upon seeing a red tomato. In this way, without ever seeing a red tomato through her cameras, she will know exactly what it is like to see a red tomato.
Dennett uses this example to show us that Mary's all-encompassing physical knowledge makes her own internal states as transparent as those of a robot or computer, and it is almost straightforward for her to figure out exactly how it feels to see red.
Supporters of qualia could point out that RoboMary's simulation would constitute a direct experience, despite the fact that it wouldn't be caused by a real tomato.
Perhaps Mary's failure to learn exactly what seeing red feels like is simply a failure of language, or a failure of our ability to describe experiences. An alien race with a different method of communication or description might be perfectly able to teach their version of Mary exactly how seeing the colour red would feel. Perhaps it is simply a uniquely human failing to communicate first-person experiences from a third-person perspective. Dennett suggests that the description might even be possible using English. He uses a simpler version of the Mary thought experiment to show how this might work. What if Mary was in a room without triangles and was prevented from seeing or making any triangles? An English-language description of just a few words would be sufficient for her to imagine what it is like to see a triangle — she can simply and directly visualise a triangle in her mind. Similarly, Dennett proposes, it is perfectly, logically possible that the quale of what it is like to see red could eventually be described in an English-language description of millions or billions of words.
Such a response is disputable, however, on empirical grounds. Accounts such as those of Oliver Sacks in 'An Anthropologist on Mars' concerning Virgil, who has his sight bestowed upon him in his forties, challenge the developmental view of colour vision. It seems that whilst shapes must be visually learned through visual experience of shapes for the right concepts to be formed (i.e the right neural connections to develop/be preserved), the same is not true of colours. There are connotations of primary-secondary quality distinctions here. Experiments are not decisive, but some views on experience require a non developed ability - i.e. we need to be able to see something innately in order to get things off the ground - else we'd be trying to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, as it were.
David Lewis has an argument that introduces a new hypothesis about types of knowledge and their transmission in qualia cases. Lewis agrees that Mary cannot learn what red looks like through her monochrome physicalist studies. But he proposes that this doesn't matter. Learning transmits information, but experiencing qualia doesn't transmit information; instead it communicates abilities. When Mary sees red, she doesn't get any new information. She gains new abilities — now she can remember what red looks like, imagine what other red things might look like and recognise further instances of redness. Lewis states that Jackson's thought experiment uses the 'Phenomenal Information Hypothesis' — that is, the new knowledge that Mary gains upon seeing red is phenomenal information. Lewis then proposes a different 'Ability Hypothesis' that differentiates between two types of knowledge: knowledge that (information) and knowledge how (abilities). Normally the two are entangled; ordinary learning is also an experience of the subject concerned, and people both learn information (for instance, that Freud was a psychologist) and gain ability (to recognise images of Freud). However in the thought experiment, Mary can only use ordinary learning to gain know-that knowledge. She is prevented from using experience to gain the know-how knowledge that would allow her to remember, imagine and recognise the colour red.
We have the intuition that Mary has been deprived of some vital data to do with the experience of redness. It is also uncontroversial that some things cannot be learned inside the room; for example, we do not expect Mary to learn how to ski within the room. Lewis has articulated that information and ability are potentially different things. In this way, physicalism is still compatible with the conclusion that Mary gains new knowledge. It is also useful for considering other instances of qualia; 'being a bat' is an ability, so it is know-how knowledge.
"Now, a philosophical dualist might then complain: "You've described how hurting affects your mind — but you still can't express how hurting feels." This, I maintain, is a huge mistake — that attempt to reify 'feeling' as an independent entity, with an essence that's indescribable. As I see it, feelings are not strange alien things. It is precisely those cognitive changes themselves that constitute what 'hurting' is — and this also includes all those clumsy attempts to represent and summarize those changes. The big mistake comes from looking for some single, simple, 'essence' of hurting, rather than recognizing that this is the word we use for complex rearrangement of our disposition of resources".
- "Qualia are irrevocable and indubitable. You don't say 'maybe it is red but I can visualize it as green if I want to'. An explicit neural representation of red is created that invariably and automatically 'reports' this to higher brain centres.
- "Once the representation is created, what can be done with it is open-ended. You have the luxury of choice, e.g., if you have the percept of an apple you can use it to tempt Adam, to keep the doctor away, bake a pie, or even just to eat. Even though the representation at the input level is immutable and automatic, the output is potentially infinite. This isn't true for, say, a spinal reflex arc where the output is also inevitable and automatic. Indeed, a paraplegic can even have an erection and ejaculate without an orgasm.
- "Short-term memory. The input invariably creates a representation that persists in short-term memory — long enough to allow time for choice of output. Without this component, again, you get just a reflex arc.
- "Attention. Qualia and attention are closely linked. You need attention to fulfil criterion number two; to choose. A study of circuits involved in attention, therefore, will shed much light on the riddle of qualia.
The position known as epiphenomenalism, which states that consciousness lies outside the physical world, and does not have any causal power over it, is often regarded as unlikely , if only because our own consciousness seem to be causally active. In order to avoid epiphenomenalism, one who believes that qualia are nonphysical would need to embrace something like interactionist dualism; or perhaps emergentism, the claim that there are as yet unknown causal relations between the mental and physical. This in turn would imply that qualia can be detected by an external agency through their causal powers.