Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Philosophy of Mind — Part 1: Qualia

I really wish I could say that what you are about to read is a well-thought out dissertation on such deep and intellectually stimulating topics as human consciousness, the biological basis for memory, and neural representations of meaning, but as you can probably tell from the sketch above, this post is more of a lark than a serious attempt to explore philosophies of the mind. Still, it's a topic I find pretty interesting so hopefully this will degenerate into a more worthwhile stream of consciousness post than my typical rant.

Disclaimer: I might at times make claims in this post that make me seem like I have a clue what philosophy of the mind is about. This is the internet, however, and I don't cite any sources. Reader beware.

Qualia are probably as good a starting point as any other. The word 'qualia' (pronounced kwalia, presumably after quality) is a term that describes — and you may want to brace yourself against the forthcoming hand waving — the subjective essence of an experience, the quality of a conscious sensation, the purplishness of purple being one example (although the "redness of red" is a more common example). At first, qualia don't seem to be overly interesting: it's hardly surprising that I can perceive redness or purplishness, or any of the other sensations I'm equipped to perceive, but the idea behind qualia is not simply that I notice when objects are purple but that this perception evokes a unique sensation that I can only appreciate due to my consciousness (and that a video camera would therefore not experience upon seeing the same purple).

You can almost feel that purplishness oozing into your mind, can't you?

If you're anything like me, qualia still probably seems like a somewhat esoteric and possibly useless concept at this point. It's loosely defined, not exactly a testable quantity, and seems to succeed mainly at evoking thoughts of sensations instead of helping to understand the process behind these sensations. So why have I spent so much time talking about qualia? Because the idea that every experience has this property, qualia, that is so familiar to us and yet indescribable is both extremely pervasive and influential. Dualism, the belief that thinking, intuition, sensation, and logic are made of a mind-substance that is completely different from physical matter is one attempt to deal with preconceptions about qualia. Dualism is generally discredited these days, thanks to science's proclivity for materialist theories, but I'm probably getting ahead of myself. The point is that consciousness is such a complex process that we have a catch-all term for the mindbogglingly indescribably properties of everything.

It's now getting to the point where I'm experience the sensation of sleepiness in an intrinsically indescribable way, so I'm going to have to wrap this up abruptly. Clearly, I haven't done this topic justice, but if you're moderately interested then Eliasmith and Hofstadter (among many other) are interesting guys to check out. Also, this page about qualia inversions (à la inverted spectrum) is a better introduction to the way the term qualia is actually used by philosophers.

Oookay. Sleepy times.

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