Rewiring Biology: the Debate on Qualia

Qualia: one little world; a very complicated thought. The thought is on consciousness, or self-perception.

Philosophy describes qualia as: individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. Well what does that mean? It means that my experience of the color red is different than your experience of the color red- and this subjective difference in experiencing the world creates a heated debate on conciseness. Personally, I believe people use the idea of qualia to run the idea of consciousnesses into infinite.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a moment to talk about consciousness.

Perception is the sole root of the strange phenomena of consciousness.* To perceive means to make the jump from confusion: What is this thing I am looking at? –to the abstract symbolic level: Maybe it is some type of instrument? And then when perception focuses on itself: What am I doing writing about writing about consciousness? –you get a magical seeming consequence: self reference.

Let me clarify, consciousness is not an add on option; it is an inevitable emergent consequence of the fact that our mental system has a sufficiently sophisticated repertoire of categories.* These mentally mapped neural network of categories takes place all throughout our life; it is how we understand the world.

Now how does qualia fit into all of this?

The heart ideology behind qualia is that you are so different from me there is no way to cross the gap between our interiority’s -you can’t know what I experience when I look at the beautiful red rose, and vice versa. We know that feelings are not identifiable physical phenomena in a brain, they are inherently incommunicable sensations that you supposedly have when red lights hit your eyes. We are also rational enough to agree that everyone has the same internal events happen when lights hit their eyes (Biology 101 anyone?) –yet we are irrational enough to argue that they don’t experience it the way I do. Oy.

I mean seriously?? Of course no one can experience anything the way I do, not love, not sadness, not color. Why? Because my consciousness, or perception of self is built up from years of experiences- experiences that are vastly different from yours. Countless factors have gone into shaping me: my environment, the society I was raised in, the choices that I have made, etc. All this and so much more is responsible for the creation of my idea of a ‘self’; this self is my consciousness.

So yes, the irrational argument that “you don’t experience the word in the way I do” does hold; and so does science. Sounds like we are spiraling in circles, why?

Language. The key is remembering that language is just a medium of communication. But when we use language to discuss feelings and express subjective experiences we are teetering on a fine line of personal universal experiences; experiences that everyone feels in a private way but expresses publicly. The context of our communication when discussing: feelings, emotions, experience, etc. are all powerfully charged by subjectivity and this makes the illusion of “my experience is different than yours” even more potent.

There are a multitude of angles to consider when talking about qualia; for me personally the debate on qualia, or experiencing redness in a specific private way, is considered moot. Biology has created us as equals, our experience with the world and the way we interpret it- creates our consciousness; and language is what allows me to communicate and compare my experience with yours.

In the end, it is simply perception and my creative use of language to communicate experiences that creates the illusion that my experience is separate from yours. Qualia is nothing more.

Still don’t believe me? Listen to Steven Pinker:

“Eyes do not register wavelengths the way a thermostat resisters temperature. They contain three kinds of cones, each with a different pigment, and the cones are wired to neurons in a way that makes the neurons respond best to red patches against a green background or vice versa, blue against yellow, black against white. No matter how influential language might be it would see preposterous to a physiologist that it could reach down into the retina and rewire the ganglion cells.”

Language is powerful, but it isn’t powerful enough to rewire our biology. It is only powerful enough to convince us that my experience is different that yours. But your knowledge about consciousness should raise red flags about this newly formed conviction (or so I hope). So yes, in the end your conviction of experiences being different from one person to the next isn’t completely wrong but that doesn’t mean that it is wholly right either… welcome to science.

My inspiration to synthesize this piece came from my readings of Douglas Hofstadter’s book I am a Strange Loop and Steven Pinker’s book Language as an Instinct.

*Quote from I am a Strange Loop

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