Wednesday, 13 October 2010


This is a concept that has always intrigued me. I think it first occurred to me when I was about 14-15 and was delighted to discover later a fuller exposition in William Poundstone's excellent "Labyrinths of Reason". A concise description of qualia is basically our raw subjective experience of the external world and the impossibility of actually describing this to a second party. I especially like Daniel Dennett's delineation of properties associated with the concept:

1. ineffable; that is, they cannot be communicated, or apprehended by

any other means than direct experience.

2. intrinsic; that is, they are non-relational properties, which do not

change depending on the experience's relation to other things.

3. private; that is, all interpersonal comparisons of qualia are

systematically impossible.

4. directly or immediately apprehensible in consciousness; that is, to experience a quale is to

know one

experiences a quale,

and to know all there is to know about that quale.

A simple example is the inverted spectrum argument (this was actually the thought that struck me in my teens) that was first described by John Locke (I always have a mix of chagrin and pride when I've been anticipated, on the one hand it's a bit deflating but at the same time rather flattering to know that greater minds then yours have had the exact same ideas). This is is a thought experiment which states that, if you were to wake up one morning and all the colours in your visual spectrum were swapped, (i.e. red-to-green and vice versa, yellow-to-blue and v.v.), it would be impossible for you to objectively prove this to an outsider. Theres some quibbling that in the case of a black-to-white inversion or vice versa, this could perhaps be independently verifiable but these not being strictly colours but rather the absence/presence of light (yeah, yeah, gross simplification), its still a valid argument that there is just no way possible in which one could
convey what one experiences by the "blueness" of a blue object and whether or not to someone else that "blue" which we visualise mentally is inverted and experienced as our "red".

“Einstein: The same uncertainty will always be there about everything fundamental in our experience, in our reaction to art, whether in Europe or in Asia. Even the red flower I see before me on your table may not be the same to you and me.”
from a conversation between Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore

This leads to the inescapable conclusion that in a sense we are all prisoners inside our skulls, never to make contact with fellow captives and that in the most fundamental way conceivable, we live out our lives terrifyingly alone.

And yet, and yet....while this may be true for the bedrock experiential datum of our existence, our consciousness takes these raw inputs, these tiny incommunicable building-blocks and out of these flowers all of our art, music and poetry, giving expression to our deepest fears, hopes and dreams. While our personal notion
s of something as simple as "red" are incommensurable, here I am jumping into your head as a little voice behind these words (hi!). This I find almost miraculous, that something (everything, really in terms of human culture) should come from almost nothing.

Tagore and Einstein. Two moustaches, two Nobel prizes. Hmmm, think I'll hang up my razor for a while. (Incidentally, if you disregard the facial hair, don't they look incredibly alike?)

No comments:

Post a Comment