Qualia: Term used to refer what is characteristic for
1. The term "qualia"
The term refers to experiences such as this:
One sees something with a rich red, one smells strawberries, one
tastes something sweet and sour. Indeed, one is eating strawberries.
Each of these experiences - seeing a certain color, smelling a certain
smell, tasting something specific - has its own characteristics, that
everybody who had those experiences knows what they are like, and that
is hard or impossible to imagine or explain if one never had such an
How to explain the smell of onions, the taste of mangoes, the joys of
orgasm, the bliss of young love on a beautiful spring day, and indeed
any kind and type of human experience, to another human who for
some reason or other never had those experiences?
2. Qualia and "shared" experiences
One important problem here is that no one has the experiences of
another (See: Other minds), so
that even if you and I seem to agree very well on what we mean by
"green" as said of grass, it is difficult to be certain whether the
green I experience and the green you experience when we are looking at
the same field of grass from more or less the same
perspective at the
same time, really
have the same experienced qualities each of us associates with that
specific green color.
Indeed, it is logically possible that the colors each of us sees in
the sketched circumstances are the opposites of what the other sees: Wherever
you experience green, I experience red etc. Again, it is a fact that
some humans are colorblind in some ways, which can be determined by
suitable tests: They cannot make discriminations others can make. And
again, it is difficult to imagine what it is like to see colors if one
and the fact that we are similarly built in so many
ways, and often react similarly to similar things, suggest that
probably experience - more or less - the same qualia in the same
circumstances, but this is not a conclusive argument. And
indeed, you cannot experience my experiences, nor can I experience your
experiences, and each of us can only guess about the felt qualities each
of us experiences.
3. Qualia and the distinction between the mental and the physical
qualia play an important role in
and theories about
between the mental and the physical.
This may be stated as follows
I give one survey of some
versions of arguments that attempt to establish that the mental and the
physical are fundamentally distinct, and so the one cannot be explained
in terms of the other.
like atoms and molecules, have many kinds of physical qualities and
relations, such as voltages and velocities, that mental elements,
like pains, aches,
desires, and feelings do not have, or do not have in
the same way and the same sense.
elements, like pains, aches, desires and feelings have many
qualities and relations, such as being annoying, interesting or
desirable, that physical elements do not have in the same way and the
same sense. These are the felt
qualia of experience - the very experiences of tastes, sights, sounds,
feelings of what things are like when one experiences them.
elements, unlike physical elements, all have a directedness and extra
component, physical elements lack: they are the pains, aches, desires,
feelings, and beliefs of some person, concerning something, that is not
identical with these pains, aches, desires, feelings and beliefs.
Furthermore, when we consider
the mental elements that are beliefs and desires, we notice that their
objects - what the beliefs
represent or what the desires are for - may not exist, and sometimes
may not possibly exist, in which case we may be said to have an idea -
surely also a mental element - of something that does not or cannot
That is: certain mental
elements are directed towards quite specific things - such as would
exist if specific beliefs were
true or specific desires were satisfied -
that do not exist as physical elements. Yet these quite specific things
may have a quite specific mental existence, as ideas, fantasies, or
imagined things: one knows what they would look like and how they would
behave, but one also knows, for example, that they could not possibly
Moreover, there is a sense of
self that every normal person seems
to have, that involves many such beliefs and desires that transcend the
physical facts, in that these very beliefs and desires posit ideal
things, ideals, and fantastic and impossible situations and things, and
thus that sense of self transcends the physical facts.
Again, one may have many
ideas of imaginary situations and
things, and of possible things, and of
impossible things, and of things and situations one does not know
whether they are real, or possible, that have no physical
exist as ideas.
Finally, and in brief: To
experience, to desire, to believe, to perceive, to feel are not physical
elements or events, and mental events - ideas, feelings, desires,
beliefs, sensations - are not physical events - changes of states of
atoms or molecules.
Thus it may be argued.
To the last argument, which
is a kind of dogmatic conclusion and restatement of the others, the
reply is that it is true that it is not known which kinds of changes of
which states of which atoms or molecules are
experiences, but from the fact it
is unknown it does not follow such an explanation is impossible.
And in general it may be
remarked that while there is at present no sound reduction of the mental
to the physical, nor of the physical to the mental, two problems with
insisting both exist are that it is to assume more than may be
necessary, and that it is not clear how mental and physical would be
related - which is a problem one does not have if one of these is
shown to be a form or appearance of the other.
(Thus, brains may be very special physical organs in being the only
physical things that can produce experience, in suitable physical
The other arguments may be
divided into the following ones:
1. Not all the
of mental elements are physical, nor are all the properties of
physical elements mental.
2. Mental elements are directed to, stand for,
mean (the actual terminology one
prefers here is far less important than the idea meant) something
other than themselves, and physical elements never do.
3. What mental elements mean may not exist, and may even be
impossible. Yet meanings are specific, and may be quite lively
4. The sense of self is of something non-physical, and involves the
assumption of ideal and non-physical things.
Compressed thus, and given
that one agrees that it is a fact that, so far, there is at present no
sound explanation of physical facts in terms of mental events, nor of
mental events in terms of physical facts, nor a clear proof either
explanation is impossible, it may be concluded that none of these
arguments are conclusive, and all point to things that must be explained
on a materialist or physicalist hypothesis: how mental events may seem
to have qualities that when experienced differ from the qualities of
physical things; how mental events represent something other than
themselves; how it is possible that one may mentally
impossible and non-existent things; and how the sense of
possible in a merely physical thing,
and how qualia are produced, and indeed whether it may be possible to
somehow tune into the brain of another person with one's own, when suitably
connected, once these mysteries have been finally unravelled.