Demystifying Sensuous Experience

My previous post considered one of the most mysterious aspects of consciousness, the qualities of sensory experience – sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and physical sensations. It has been incredibly difficult to show how these could be physical states – brain states, for example.

One of the problems is that we understand physical states through science, and science deals with quantities, not qualities. Sensory qualia seem to be another sort of beast entirely. But that may not be as puzzling as it seems. After all, when humans think about their own experiences, it would make perfect sense for them to categorize mental states in qualitative terms when they are actually quantitative. In order to survive, we had to evolve the ability to very quickly tell one thing from another. In the jungle, we needed to distinguish ripe bananas from the green leaves that surrounded them, and from the viper gliding nearby. Thus the visual information profiles of yellow, green, and black must be represented differently in our minds.

Colors, sounds, tastes, scents, and body sensations must also contrast with each other. We would become discombobulated, for example, if tactile sensations suddenly seemed like part of the visual field. So sensory inputs must be clearly “labeled.” So neural activities that constitute sensory phenomena could be clustered into families and sub-families that we automatically think of in qualitative terms. Science, of course, would analyze these same brain states by making quantitative measurements of neural functioning. So the seemingly qualitative nature of sensations and perceptions could be accommodated by science.

Philosophers often say that sensory experiences are like something. So one way of asking what the person sitting next to you is experiencing is to ask what it is like to be that person right now. Presumably there is something it is like to be that individual, but how is that related to what your experiences are like? In particular, are your qualia the same?

I imagine most of us as children wondered about whether some people’s color experiences might be unusual or even reversed. And academicians worry about the possibility of inverted spectra, meaning that your color spectrum might be reversed, relative to mine. Perhaps when you look at a ripe banana the color you see is the same color I call “blue,” and when you look at the sky on a smog-free day you experience what I call “yellow.” It seems intuitively as if this sort of thing is possible. But is it? What do you think?

Roger Christan Schriner

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