On Qualia

One may be forgiven for assuming that qualia only exists as a six-letter word in the corpus of words we call philosophy. Maybe we grant that the little squirt has invaded some psychology too, and is replicating and surviving in the mysterious way that words do in socially-enforced niches in brain-space.  However, if the word qualia is to have any meaning, any use, any reason for my pinky to strive for that q-key, and my right index for that u, and for you to be reading about it, then I believe that the word, for the love of God, must at least refer to something that is a philosophy/psychology -independent property of the universe. To be worthy of our time, it must be something that would exist wether or not the people of Earth had devised a language game were it could be a playing piece.

So to figure out if this is an objectively grounded word or a playing piece with no further strings beyond those of an improvised virtual reality we create with language, we must figure out what is being represented with this word. What do people mean when they say “qualia”?

Individual instances of subjective, conscious experience.

… is what they mean on paper… erm, on Wikipedia should I say.

Of course, in reality, words are dynamic and interpreted in different ways by different people at different times, but lets start with this seemingly simple definition.

It is of note for the keen eye to analyze the tagging of “individual” to describe “instances.” Could instances be otherwise? Think about that for a moment. Can instances be multiple?

I believe that right off the ground, considering this “qualia” requires us to imagine instances beyond this instant. And that seems fair. After all, imagining instances beyond this instant is the necessary scaffolding for all theories, all conceptual thought.

But even more subtly, it requires us to imagine that there exist boundaries in the first place. An instance is not another instance because there exists a boundary separating it from another instance. Alas, this aspect of qualia is falsifiable, praise be to The Method and Popper – peace be upon him. If we can find well-defined boundaries in the information theory, physics, or neuroscience describing instances, then qualia actually stands a chance of referring to something. I would plant a flag here for future research. The question being: Is there a way to describe instances without having to refer to our felt sense that there exist instances? 

Then the definition continues with a desperate redundancy: “‘subjective’, ‘conscious’, ‘experience’.” I’d like to meet an experience that isn’t conscious. Right? Okay, enough with being so anal. I get it. There is a weird combination of reverence for and defiance against reductionism. It is as if the defenders of common-sense “experience” (that which is automatically known to exist) go out of their way to communicate with words that won’t make prudish-textbook science writers blush, but are so awkward about it that they just make it worse. It is somewhat like Cristopher Hitchens learning a shit-ton of Christianity just to enter the playing field and desecrate it. This always struck me as not the best approach to desecrate foolishness. Arguably, rational people don’t learn monkey language in order to move past a monkey, they just walk around the monkey… and the orangutan, and the giraffe.

So that’s how I read the definition – in its social context. I doubt that the words “subjective” and “conscious” really pack something necessary beyond that. We could just say “experience.” The collections of meanings under the headline of “subjective” and “conscious” are just attempts at describing properties of experience. So if someone defines the having of qualia as the having of experience, and someone else, understanding this, denies the having of experience, then that person is an imbecile or possibly evidence for the existence of p-zombiehood. It is not interesting to debate whether there is such a thing as experience. Of course there is. End of that discussion.

The aspects of qualia that must be held up to scrutiny are the properties of experience assumed to be real with no grounding. There are two smuggled intuitions already which may or may not be true:

  1. An instance exists. An instance is a bounded region of experience.
  2. There exist more than one instance.

Number two seems completely necessary unless we accept solipsism. But it is actually the first assumption that seems a bit heavy to just assume. Introspectively, it kind of seems like there exist instances, but it could also be so fuzzy at the edges that maybe its just a flowing wave with no way to intuit the precise experiential packet that is this instant. That is why we need to look for these instances, if they exist at all, with the tools of dispassionate third-person reason. Science is the closest thing we have to disembodiment from this direct experiential content which has often been found to contain false representations.


The term qualia comes from the latin adjective qualis. I speak Spanish, so its origin was no surprise to me and I think reveals the most important aspect of qualia. Qualis means “of what sort.”  This aspect of experience is something that is very emphasized by users  of the word “qualia”. That there is what it is to kiss these particular lips, these particular lips now. Again, obvious. That there is no generic kiss that all experience, there is no generic now, there are different nows that are different in their particular, unique way.

Very often, the problem with people who like the term is that they believe they are saying something profound when in fact they are conveying the limitations of our arbitrary method of communication. For example the Wikipedia page lists examples of qualia as “the perceived sensation of pain of a headache, the taste of wine, as well as the redness of an evening sky.” Make no mistake, these are all physical events. The description for the sensation of pain of a headache is as grounded on the real and physical world as any description for the existence of the midbrain and proton gradients. One thing sounds poetic and ineffable, the other sounds cold and sciency. This is irrelevant. If we were the sort of big-brained creatures that could communicate the taste of wine by sending a highly detailed description of the state-space of the fundamental fields that adhere closer to the underlying reality, then we wouldn’t feel that qualia refers only to a mysterious partition in the world of experience. So that particular emphasis of qualia is inappropriately due to limitations of cognitive bandwidth.

A definition of qualia which is more in line with what we began with, and doesn’t arbitrarily refer to flowery-sounding moments only, is what Daniel Dennett simply called “the way things seem to us.”

If qualia is just the way things seem to us, and nothing more, no further assumptions, no further content, then it is just a wacky term for “experience.” A synonym that contributes absolutely nothing other than one more phonetic option. The way things seem to us is experience. And hence there is no need to either combat or embrace the term under this definition, unless there are people who really deny that experience is a thing – which besides being as clearly wrong as anything that is ever wrong, is also a funny little paradox on paper. To say experience is not a thing, one would have to say, “things don’t seem a certain way to me.” But saying that implies that they do seem a certain way, namely, things seem to you as if “not seeming a certain way.”

So much useless debate could be spared by specifying each of the claims being made instead of using a provocative word that forces one to face different arguments at different times from the assortment of assumed connotations in the other’s mind.

Whether qualia can independently and scientifically be proven as fact depends both on what we mean by qualia and what we mean by “proven as fact.” Both of these are contentious. When the plains are contentious, what would otherwise be bold, confident claims are translated by the winds into bashful, ignorant wails.

This topic of the changing meaning of words is sufficiently annoying that I think it would be a moderately good investment by society to form a Final Dictionary. A dictionary that is precise as fuck. It doesn’t necessarily have to be words defining other words. It can be a project that involves video with ontologically reductionist motions to force the explanation. This would, for one thing, compel us to keep our definitions honest.

In the meanwhile, I have to stumble unpacking these phrases. Take the infamous ‘what it is like’ definition of qualia.

“What it is like.”

The important part of this definition is that it generalizes from “what it is,” (which is now and untranslatable) to “what it is like,” which transcends the solipsism of life and offers a token of similitude to other presumably conscious creatures, including our future and past selves. –Here lies another area for future research. Just how much of our experience generalizable?–

But by saying “what it is like” instead of just saying “what it is,” it also makes us undergo the strenuous work of trying to re-live a memory, and as many philosophers have pointed out, introspective motion exerts a change in the experiential content.

…And this is boring now. Maybe I should write about something more useful. Now I know what that feels like.





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