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Post No.: 0646qualia


Fluffystealthkitten says:


Will we ever be able to objectively describe and convey what it’s like to feel love, depression or other emotions or feelings, or to objectively describe what it’s like to see the colour purple, hear music in D Minor or smell the scent of a rose – via the language of science and numbers? Neuroscience and technology might find a way one day but it’s currently a limitation of all languages so far, not just science, to be able to fully convey what it’s like to feel many things. This problem concerns the subject of qualia.


‘Qualia’ has been mentioned within a few posts before (like Post No.: 0484 when the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ was explored) but I think it deserves its own dedicated post because it can be difficult to grasp what the term means at first because we might understand that all perceived colours are just different objective wavelengths of light, all perceived sounds are just different objective wavelengths of sound, and all perceived aromas are just different combinations of objective chemicals in a gaseous state that can enter our nostrils, for instance – hence it seems to be the case that every sensation can be objectively conveyed via the language of science and that’s the end of the discussion.


But qualia concerns how something is in terms of ‘what it is like’ or ‘what it feels like’ – it’s the subjective, conscious experience of something, and this experience is arguably impossible to describe or to exactly compare with between different individuals, even if everyone is being exposed to the same input stimuli.


We might fully understand the input stimuli that enter our senses and even all of the electrochemical signals that are triggered in the brain during an experience. For example, a garden pea may have a particular chemical composition and we understand how these chemicals interact with our taste buds and olfactory bulbs. But what peas taste like and what the quality of ‘pea-ness’ is like is subjective. We can only say it tastes like pea. :< To a hypothetical person who has never eaten or tasted anything ever before – the only way they can find out is to try some for themselves. The same with hearing the musical note A and the quality of ‘A-ness’…


Qualia is the qualitative character of a sensation, rather than a quantitative one, hence it cannot be objectively conveyed via numbers.


Some therefore argue that qualia is evidence of something ‘non-physical’ – that the qualitative aspects of an experience are evidence of incorporeal souls (which would be non-physical too) because we cannot currently fully explain what colour, worry, falling in love and similar feelings feel like through quantitative language. Artificial robots won’t ever be able to feel qualia; or so it’s argued.


However, we can imagine they one day could without logical contradiction. We’d also have to answer how an incorporeal soul would explain qualia? (And if souls were non-physical then why do believers speak of them as obeying physical concepts such as space and time?)


A quale is ineffable, or cannot be effed. You cannot eff it even if you wanted to. It cannot be truly expressed in numbers or even the words of any known language. We might say something like, “Red makes me feel hot”, “Blue makes me feel calm”, “Soup comforts me” or, “Cocoa tastes bitter” – but qualia is not about these experiences. (What is ‘hot’ or ‘bitter’ like anyway unless you’ve felt or tasted it before?) Qualia is the indescribable experience. So a normally-sighted person who sees ‘blue’ would not be able to describe the experience of this sensation to someone who has never experienced colour before (due to being totally blind or colour blind from birth) in a way so that they’ll be able to know all there is to know about that sensation. Qualia is about the perception in and of itself, considered in isolation from any effect it has on us.


So we may never truly know what something ‘is like’ without directly experiencing or feeling it for ourselves. And if we wanted to compare our experiences with someone else’s, we won’t know for sure what other people are experiencing or feeling, even if we are in the exact same situation as them (because of our different genes and past experiences). So don’t automatically doubt people’s mental health experiences or assume ‘I’ve got that/felt that before and it’s nothing’. I might assume that your taste of ‘sweetness’ is the same as my taste of ‘sweetness’. I guess it’ll most likely be the same but that’s just a guess. Your ‘pink’ could look like my ‘orange’ for all we know. But it’s never been a practical problem because whatever we each see is personally self-consistent for us thus we can learn patterns and associations with them.


Pain can thus only be self-reported because it’s precisely about what a person feels, even though someone’s ‘3’ could be someone else’s ‘6’ on a scale of 1 to 10 (although this discrepancy or mismatch would be just a presumption because an external observer wouldn’t be able to know what someone is really feeling when they say their pain is a ‘3’ or ‘6’). The same wound doesn’t necessarily mean the same pain – even for the same person, a paper cut on the same place and depth can be annoying one time but feel like nothing another time.


Likewise, tasting the same watermelon can make us feel one way one day and another way the next, perhaps because we’re ‘not in the mood’ for it and want something else for a change – whatever ‘not in the mood’ feels like if we tried to describe it to a robot who genuinely wants to affectively empathise with us rather than merely cognitively empathise with us? The robot might understand its effect on our motivation and thus subsequent actions but not what it feels like. How an experience feels like depends on many factors such as our neural proclivities or predispositions, our current hormone and neurotransmitter levels, any priming effects, our personal history and associations with a stimulus, and more. The language we personally employ in an attempt to describe our feelings or experiences could possibly shape them too.


So we know that different individuals can react differently to seeing, for instance, a scorpion despite everyone seeing the same scorpion at the same time. And we might react differently to ourselves from one day to another when seeing a scorpion too depending on the present mood we’re in.


The same stimulus can even appear different to us at different times – for example when seeing regular ‘warm light’ indoor lighting as whiter than it really is. (Take a photo with a camera and the picture will seem more yellowy without white balance compensation. Our pupil dilation, and our brains, unconsciously automatically adjust the intake, and perception, of brightness and colour.) We don’t experience the world objectively. How can we therefore be sure that we see the world in the same way as everyone else – such as that everybody’s perception of ‘yellow’ looks the same – never mind how things make other people feel compared to us? How something makes us feel is thus a subjective experience, and so is potentially how something appears too.


What we see or hear isn’t an intrinsic phenomenon of a light or sound wave – the eyes or ears convert the light or sound waves into electrochemical signals and then pass these onto the brain, where they are then interpreted and ‘felt’. So it’s the brain, not the eyes or ears, that creates the qualia of colours or sounds. People with achromatopsia can have perfectly working eyes (they have all the colour-receiving cones present) but their brains don’t interpret the signals as colours properly – it’s analogously like how the hardware of a webcam could be working perfectly fine but the software drivers are corrupted or missing. The ‘red-ness’ of an object is thus not an inherent property of that object either. And perhaps another animal that can perceive a different range of the electromagnetic spectrum than humans can will perceive a different ‘red-ness’ when looking at the same object?


What would the colours deep within the infrared and ultraviolet ends of the electromagnetic spectrum look like if humans had evolved to discern them with their naked eyes? Some other animals can sense these wavelengths. What perceptions and experiences of colour might people therefore be missing because they cannot perceive the colours ‘tegun’ or ‘jeroab’? (I just made up these hypothetical colours.)


Assuming that they would simply look ‘even more red’ or ‘even more violet’ wouldn’t be the case because it’s like for people who have red-green colour blindness – without people who don’t have the same kind of colour blindness telling them it isn’t so, they would assume that 700nm light and 530nm light both look like ‘different tints of ochre’ when the former looks ‘red’ and the latter looks ‘green’ to others.


Cats and dogs don’t perceive ‘reds’ as humans do, and they wouldn’t be able to understand what ‘red’ is like even if you tried to describe it to a quizzical cat or mystified mutt. As a consequence, I could claim that humans are lying through their stubby teeth when they claim that they perceive something fundamentally different at 650nm compared to at 570nm on the electromagnetic spectrum. But I won’t because, for one reason, we shouldn’t arrogantly believe that our own perceptions are always objective, correct and are the only possible ones, and that anyone who differs from us in their views must automatically be wrong. I’m also no ordinary cat. Meow!


I wonder what mantis shrimps can see with their 16 colour cones/receptors? I wonder if future bioengineering could one day create artificial eye sensors with more ‘colour cones’ than 3 so that they can discern between more colours beyond normal human vision, and then have these sensors implanted inside a very young child who was born without vision? How will their brain adapt to interpret those electrochemical signals? Would these extra perceived colours make the Pride rainbow flag look like it lacks enough inclusivity?!


Whatever they would perceive, they wouldn’t be able to describe the ‘tegun-ness’ or ‘jeroab-ness’ of those colours to us in a way until we can say, “Yep, I know exactly what you mean.” And that’s qualia!


Meow! If you think you can describe what ‘blue-ness’, ‘yellow-ness’ or any other colour is like to a person who was born totally blind so that they’ll be able to understand all there is to understand about that sensation – then try your best in a reply to the tweet linked to the Twitter comment button below!


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