What Is Qualia Science?

by Scott Morrice on 10/10/2012

I’ve started to run into a very interesting term lately—qualia science—mostly in respect of my readings on consciousness.

First of all, some definitions.

Qualia is all about how you experience things—about sensation, perceptions, feelings, and even thoughts and desires. It is about awareness—the way things seem to us (Daniel Dennett). The most often cited examples by way of explanation are how you experience the “redness” of red, the “pain” in your foot, the “warmness” of warm. It is sometimes talked about in terms of “raw feel”—which is the awareness of the perception in of itself—and not an awareness derived from perceiving its effects (which is a “cooked feel”). Wikipedia illustrates the difference by pointing to the perception of the taste of wine (a “raw feel”) as against the experience of bitterness caused by that taste (a “cooked feel”).

Qualia is obviously very subjective—person-specific—and therefore impossible to understand without the benefit of personal experience. Your experience of “red” or “blue” might be—probably is—quite different than the “red/blue” experience of others. It may be that your “red” is actually, for me, what you call “blue”—but I have learned to call it “red”, even though if you saw what I was seeing you would call it “blue”. There is probably no way to really know.

The term qualia originated in philosophy, but has lately spilled over into the scientific, and is now becoming an important concept in the discussion as to what is consciousness.

And, of course, that means that it is accompanied, surrounded is probably a better term, by controversy.

There is actually controversy about whether qualia even exists, but there is also, and of more interest to me, controversy about whether it can be the subject of physical definition or description, or not. Whether it is an issue of cognitive science—the science of how the mind processes information—or whether qualia remains a strictly philosophical issue.

On the one hand, you have organic chemist and molecular biologist A. G. Cairns-Smith suggesting that qualia have actually evolved—for example he argues that the qualia “feeling” of hunger is so obviously adaptive, that it probably was “designed” for survival—and in that sense it has evolved over time—because there are obvious selective advantages to experiencing this feeling. And he says that this means that qualia must have physico-chemical causes, which, in turn, means that they are very much a part of our physical world. Nothing of a philosophical nature here. This lands qualia squarely in the sights of cognitive science.

But—on the other hand, physician and writer Deepak Chopra argues that qualia, which he defines as all subjective experiences—such as every perception, cognition, and mental event, and all feelings, and even insight, intuition and creativity—actually emerge from the base field of pure consciousness.

This is important to understand because Chopra argues that consciousness is not a trait that has evolved at all. It is fundamental—that it is, as he says, without cause—that it is in fact the very ground state, the base-line, of all existence.

In this view of things consciousness forms a field, in the same sense that we understand the existence of an electromagnetic field. This is a field of all possibilities, and when each possibility emerges, it does so as qualia—specific forms of consciousness, such as our own.

Birth is the beginning of a particular “qualia program”, and death is the end of that qualia program

Key to Chopra’s theory is the idea that we experience our existence (our whole existence) subjectively—through our feelings, sensations, our thoughts—all of our subjective experiences that are our qualia. In fact, our subjective reality is made up of a very large basket of different qualia.

And in turn, our objective reality arrives to us through the portal of qualia—the qualia that is subjective and therefore unique for each of us—which of course also makes our objective reality a very individual experience.

According to this theory every specific form of consciousness (us, for example) creates its own reality—which is a perceived reality (we can only know and understand our reality through the “filter” of qualia)—and it does so by interacting with the underlying base field of pure consciousness.

Chopra suggests that quantum mechanics can be somewhat useful in mapping qualia mechanics. But he really believes that the future of science requires us to understand the foundation of our existence—pure consciousness. And he is of the belief that for this to happen science has to be reorganized somewhat—into qualia physics, qualia biology, quality medicine, and so on.

Quite a different take on things!

These are very interesting, and important ideas, and I need to read and study them much more. They are quite new to me, and I am having a difficult time wrapping my head around much of what is written in this area—but I will be coming back to this idea in future posts as I learn more.

I’ll keep you posted.

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