I wrote a rhetorical post a while ago that attempts to motivate a new perspective on qualia and why we ought to consider it as something philosophically valuable. My appeals to art and cultural products aim to be persuasive by connecting qualia to everyday experiences, however, I think it still comes across as too abstract or unclear because the arguments are not well articulated. One of my supervisors has been instrumental for pushing me to abstract away from the science and evidence, and I now have a general idea of where I went wrong in my previous attempts to clarify my own perspective. Emphasis on ‘general’ because there is a lot of work to be done before I fully understand the difference between where I was and where I want to go.
Qualia, ultimately, are just concepts, which essentially boil down to information. This information is applied to the lived experience of one’s own sense data, as received from the environment, either internally in the form of bodily feelings, for example, or externally, as generated by features of the physical world. When we notice this sense data, which I consider similar to phenomenal experiences or Chalmers’ registrations (Chalmers 214), we often need a way to conceptually organize it. As a functional system, the brain receives incoming signals and processes them through various functions or streams, subsequently creating perceptions from sensations (Wolfe et al. 3). Our perceptions, however, are malleable based on information the individual has access to. This ranges from subtle, unconscious shifts in perspective to deliberate thought processes aimed at rethinking the situation at hand. As the body turns data into information (Computer Hope) through functional biological processes, qualia serve to facilitate the mind as the body’s owner or central processing unit by providing additional information which structures and curtails the process of perceiving.
Qualia as information can be passed from human to human as expressions of subjectivity as a means of connecting with others, in addition to making sense of the world. If qualia seem to be illusory or unreal, perhaps it’s because the significance of this information is lost as we try to make sense of what the mind is really doing from a scientific perspective. It probably doesn’t help that ‘information’ is abstract, conceptual, and invisible, as its inherent subtlety enables one to easily overlook or neglect its importance for structuring human thought and behaviour. Perhaps we take our theory of mind for granted and ignore subtle forms of communication, deeming the exchange of knowing glances as something less significant than a well-formed linguistic phrase. Though the information expressed through these channels may not demonstrate a high degree of fidelity to the thought as it exists in the mind of the communicator, our mere ability to communicate this way suggests that additional information already exists in the mind of the receiver, information which can contribute to shaping of the act of perceiving data about body language.
Through qualia, we are better equipped to separate the signal from the noise to determine its meaning, however, we are also reminded through the sharing of these experiences via various mediums that even in our private subjectivity, we are not alone. The “what-it-feels-like” inherent in qualia may be unique to a particular body, but similarities may also exist between individuals. The knowledge of these similarities supports our endeavours to make sense of our feelings and sensations, ultimately allowing us to accept ourselves and our experiences as they are. Although the act of sharing personal, subjective experiences serves a practical social purpose like fostering cooperation and empathy, qualia are useful for individuals as well. The exploration of our subjective selves, along with some act of expression, also allows us to feel more comfortable as we process the deluge of sense data as received by various sensory organs within the human body. Through qualia, we are reminded that the body we inhabit is not a boundary between our inner selves and the subjectivity of others, but a structure that creates and presents information based on our experiences of incoming sense data. This information may be elusive, but it still exists and is significant for structuring human consciousness.
Chalmers, David J. The Conscious Mind: In search of a fundamental theory. Oxford university press, 1996.
Wolfe, Jeremy M., et al. Sensation & perception. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer, 2015.