If you’d like to understand what philosophers of mind are vigorously, and sometimes heatedly, discussing, it’s important to understand qualia. Qualia rhymes with Somalia and the singular is quale, pronounced qua-lay or qua-lee. Although it may be an unfamiliar word, it’s a fairly simple idea. Qualia are the qualities of sensory experience. Here’s a list of examples from my book, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You (p. 73):

❁ Color experiences – pale pinks, bilious greens, the electric blue of a peacock’s feathers

❁ Auditory phenomena – frog chirps, fingernails on a chalkboard, the rumble of thunder

❁ Smells – garlic, cigar smoke, sizzling fajitas

❁ Tastes – popcorn, overripe bananas, kung pao chicken

❁ Tactile qualia – paper cuts, rib-tickles, foot rubs with warm lotion

❁ Internal sensations – spine-tinglings, mal de mer, the overwhelming rush of an orgasm

Think about your own vivid sensory perceptions – the snap of firecrackers on July 4th, the scent of oranges, the flavor of peppermint ice cream. Each of these perceptions is experienced as a quale, a special quality that is difficult or impossible to describe. How would you explain the smell of rotten eggs, for instance, to someone who has never been able to smell anything? “Well, umm … it’s just … like that. It has a certain quality that I can’t put into words.”

Unfortunately, discussions about qualia are confusing and contentious, and part of the problem is the crazy-quilt complexity of scholarly terminology. “It is hard to find a description of qualia with which two (let alone all) philosophers would agree …”* In any case, it’s hard to explain how sensory qualia such as pains, tastes, and color experiences could exist within a brain.

We describe some aspects of experience quantitatively. I am now visually experiencing two drinking glasses on my desk and three books. The bigger glass seems about 25% larger than the smaller one, and one book looks twice as far away as the other two. But we wouldn’t say red is twice as low as pink or that blue is a little faster than green. We can compare colors in terms of lightness and darkness, but the quality of the color itself is just its own quality, period. Similarly, the sound of a flute has a special quality, and we aren’t sure how to speak of it quantitatively. A musical tone vibrates at a certain number of cycles per second, so we can talk about a sound wave in quantitative terms, but that’s not a sound-experience. To understand what all the fuss is about, we need to understand that qualia are the qualities of our experiences. If experiences are brain events, we need to understand how the qualities that we experience relate to the quantities that science investigates.

Make sense? If not, send me a question or comment and I’ll reply.

Roger Christan Schriner

* Fred Dretske 1995, p. 73.


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