what?

Today’s LiveJournal interest explained: Qualia.

Qualia is the experience of something. Look at this:

You are seeing red in front of you. You are having an experience of redness. What does that mean, exactly? Is this the same experience other people have when they look at it? Why can’t you describe the experience of redness? That is qualia. Qualia is a very slippery thing, but it exists. It is a product that exists entirely within the conscious mind, but it is a product with real properties.

The classic thought experiment is as follows:

Mary was born and raised in a black and white room. All her books are black and white, her clothes are black and white, her skin is black and white (because of magic light bulbs), and her only view of the outside world is through a black and white TV. However, Mary is a brilliant woman, and a scientist. Not just any scientist, mind you, but a scientist who studies colour. She knows everything there is to know about the physics of colour, she’s interviewed countless people over the phone about their subjective experiences with colour, she knows what neurons talk to other neurons when people are exposed to colour, she knows what colours are complimentary and what colours clash — she’s just never seen colour.

But when we bring a red apple into the room, Mary will say ‘holy fuck’. We’ve taught Mary something. We’ve taught her the experience of redness.

If Mary knew everything there was to know about the physical properties of colour, but she still learned something new when we gave her an apple, then what she learned cannot be described or explained through physical means. Which means that physicalism (the belief that all things which exist have physical properties) is clearly wrong, and a non-physical property (the qualia of redness) caused a physical reaction (Holy fuck!)

Consider: If we had painted the apple blue before we give it to her, is it possible she would have said “You tried to fool me, this is blue”?

Qualia fucks me up.

18 thoughts on “what?

  1. Consider: If we had painted the apple blue before we give it to her, is it possible she would have said “You tried to fool me, this is blue”?

    She could easily determine whether the apple is, in fact, red or not by performing a series of simple experiments with basic equipment. I don’t, however, believe she would be able to make the determination based on her own vision if she has had no prior experience with colour. She would, of course, be able to tell different colours apart, but I don’t believe she would innately understand which was which, just that they are different from one another.

    (Think about identifying animals… If you’ve never seen a moose before, or a deer, or a horse, would you instinctively know which was which when presented with only a moose?)

  2. I think we try to interpret “implicit body reactions” too much…
    You know your heart beats… But it would still beat if you didnt know…
    Knowing the precise mechanics of a heartbeat isnt gonna make your heart beat better…

    Same goes for colors, you “understand” the color from the implicit reactions of “seeing” that are caused by it. Had you been taught (by example, seeing the blue apple) that the implicit reactions that you recognise as blue are in fact red, wouldnt invalidate the fact that this it is blue… its just a name… Mary wouldnt know that red isnt blue…

    just my opinion, qualia = implicit reaction of the “human” (body, mind, soul?)

  3. …..and I should add that the names and “qualities” we give to colour are arbitrary, and in some instances can be unique to our cultural backgrounds. What we “experience” when we see a colour, other than the colour itself, is a very ingrained emotional response to the experience, based on previous experiences with that colour, as well as what we are “trained” or taught to experience in relation to that colour.

  4. No. She has no frame of reference.

    Hence the point: It’s impossible to communicate or quantify qualia, leaving us with a intangible properties that have causal effects.

    …and while the names and qualities are arbitrary and coated in memory, there’s still an objective set of properties. If you woke up tomorrow, and your colour spectrum had shifted (Red is blue, blue is green, green is red), and you couldn’t find any physical changes to yourself or your environment, your experiences would still be qualitatively different, without regard to emotional conditioning.

  5. If you woke up tomorrow, and your colour spectrum had shifted (Red is blue, blue is green, green is red), and you couldn’t find any physical changes to yourself or your environment, your experiences would still be qualitatively different, without regard to emotional conditioning.

    Like wearing coloured sunglasses for a day? Or perhaps clear, tinted sclera?

    Hey! Look! A way to do an actual experiment!

    *runs off into cyberspace to look for cheap tinted sclera*

  6. very cool. as someone who has difficulty conceiving of things without language, it pleases me that there exists something beyond language that we can experience. and that we have a word for it.

  7. Very cool!
    There actually is a “Mary” btw. Her name is Susan Barry (an associate professor of biological sciences at Mount Holyoke college). Susan was born with crossed eyes, and never developed stereoscopic vision (the ability to see in 3 dimensions) . She was not, however aware that she was missing this until years later as she was studying neuroscience. She had her own sort of qualia, when she witnessed a snow fall for the “first time”.
    I watched the snow fall for several minutes, and, as I watched, I was overcome with a deep sense of joy. A snowfall can be quite beautiful–especially when you see it for the first time.”

    Her story is here, and is often referenced as a more realistic example of the Mary story to move fwd the notion of qualia:

    http://138.110.28.9/offices/comm/news/newsfull.shtml?portal_id=2JGD4D2HvyUDCnnQJDD_0gQ_&node=4382214&full=1

  8. This phenomena is actually not all that uncommon. It is sometimes called “binocular vision”. I first encountered the idea in a Diana Gabaldon novel (from an awesome but very silly historical fiction series). I was intriqued and read up on it. It is really cool.
    My mother now thinks she may have this as an explanation for why she can’t play any sport that requires you to hit a moving object with a stick or racket.

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