What Are Qualia?

By Antonia Čirjak on March 8 2020 in Environment

Qualia are used as an unfamiliar term for things that are incredibly familiar to us; it represents the way things seem to us.
Qualia are used as an unfamiliar term for things that are incredibly familiar to us; it represents the way things seem to us.
  • Qualia is an unfamiliar term used to describe things that are familiar to us.
  • The topic of the exact definition of qualia is still debated amongst philosophers.
  • According to Daniel dennett, the four properties of qualia are that they are ineffable, intrinsic, private and immediately perceivable.

Qualia (or singular: quale) is a term used in philosophy and sometimes in psychology, and it refers to specific occurrences of subjective and conscious experience. The word itself may sound weird, but it has a Latin origin. It comes from the Latin verb ''quālis'' that can be loosely translated as “of what kind,” but referring to a particular instance.

To try and better explain it with an example, we could say “what it is like to ride a specific horse, this particular horse right now.” Yes, we know, Latin can be a real head-scratcher of a language, but the most important thing here is the term qualia, which is something you may come across while researching anything related to philosophy. 

Qualia Are Subjective Feelings

Some of the examples that could be explained as qualia are the way we perceive the pain of a headache or the taste of specific food or drink. Or it could be tied to our sight, and in that case, qualia can mean the way we perceive the color of the sea, but in a more specific instance. In that case, qualia would be the way we perceive the color of the sea when the sunset starts to reflect on its surface.  

Philosopher Daniel Dennett gave an interesting point of view on how he would describe qualia. He says that qualia are used as an unfamiliar term for things that are incredibly familiar to us; it represents the way things seem to us. That would make qualia a subjective feeling of how we perceive things.

One the other side of the spectrum of experience is the propositional attitudes. These attitudes fall on the more quantitative spectrum of things (whereas qualia are qualitative), and they focus on the beliefs about the experience, as opposed to qualia, that deal with finding out what it actually feels like to experience certain things. 

The Task Of Expressing Qualia

he exact definition is still the object of debate among philosophers.
The exact definition is still the object of debate among philosophers.

Despite our best efforts, it is worth noting that qualia refer to an extremely abstract term, and the exact definition is still the object of debate among philosophers. They also raise the question of how important are qualia. Since the nature of its definition is often disputed and cannot be verified in any way, it remains a controversial topic in philosophy

Qualia are impossible to express verbally, which makes it impossible to demonstrate it in a conversation or to create an argument that proves its existence. Most often, arguments that try to prove the existence of qualia are formed in different kinds of thought experiments that eventually lead us to the conclusion that qualia are, in fact, real. 

The Properties Of Qualia

The previously mentioned philosopher Daniel Dennett provides us with four unique properties that, in his opinion, make qualia. The first one notes that qualia are ineffable, meaning that they can only be experienced, but not communicated. The second quality describes them as intrinsic, meaning that they cannot exist in relation to other things, and more importantly, that relation could not change them.

Dannett then describes qualia as private, meaning that they cannot be compared between different people; they are unique to everyone. Lastly, he concludes that qualia are immediately perceivable in our consciousness, so by experiencing them, we are fully aware of what we’re experiencing. 

While this may sound needlessly complex (welcome to philosophy!), we can try to make it easier by giving an example. If we take all of these properties into account, a person that has seen the color green would never be able to completely describe the color to someone that has never experienced it. The description would always be incomplete, thereby making the experience incomplete as well. And that is what we call qualia.

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