Can you clarify qualia for me?
I understand qualia to be the subjective qualities of conscious experience but is 'qualia' only
representative of 'something we sense'? All the examples I have read to date seem to be along the
lines of a sensory experience.
Can the feeling of love, hope, being frightened be described as qualia? We have conscious
experiences of these things and I assume we can experience these things in different ways. Can we
say the quality of fear I feel is different to the quality of fear you feel? If these things cannot be
described in terms of qualia — can you clarify why?
This is a very good question — I'm impressed. It's also a very controversial issue. It is indeed true
that the term "qualia" (or the singular, "quale"), is usually taken to refer to those aspects of
phenomenal experience usually considered sensory. There isn't too much problem with emotions
here also; one of the classic qualities to analyze in philosophy of mind is the feeling of pain, for
example; that feeling is something Dennett and many others work with as an example. The problem
comes with what might be termed "attitudes", "propositions", "abstractions", and suchlike. Is our
attitude towards something a phenomenal experience? What about our understanding of a sentence,
or a mathematical expression? These latter, as expressed, i.e., as symbols, are certainly
propositions, but what of their mentalexpressions, their meanings... what do we experience as we
read a sentence, an equation, etc.? The classical answer to this is that we "have" mental
"propositions". I have always thought this absurd, myself, and the tide is starting to turn around
somewhat, as people begin to study consciousness. That is, it is one thing to representour
phenomenal experiences as propositions, it is entirely another to claim that those experiences are
literallypropositions. The former seems very reasonable, given human limitations on representation,
the latter, to me, if not to legions of analytic philosophers, clearly untrue. But if it is untrue that we
experience propositions as such, what dowe experience when we read a sentence, understand an
equation, and so forth? I'm actually working in just this area, and because of that, I don't know how to
give you a short answer... it would be easier if this weren't a major interest of mine. Twenty-five words
or less: we experience gestalts (in a very broad sense of that word), i.e., unified complexes, of
sensory, emotional, and abstract qualities, in a variety of modalities, encompassing verbal and
non-verbal qualia (whoops... 30).
Let me just step back a bit... you ask whether feelings can be "described in terms of qualia"... what
does that mean? If a feeling is a quale, then any description of feelings, employing feelings, is one in
terms of qualia. Or you could be a behaviorist and describe fear in terms of bodily responses, but
then you'd be a behaviorist. Or, perhaps, a Jamesian (James-Lange theory of emotions), or even a
Wittgensteinian (given a broad conception of "body"). You could describe fear in terms of neural
discharges in the amygdala (and other areas)... but then you'd be describing neural discharges. You
could describe fear in terms of its social causes and consequences, but then you'd be a sociologist
(or maybe some sort of post-modernist, post-Heideggerian type), describing social interactions. I
actually don't think that the above, in my opinion, inaccurately termed "reductionist" approaches to
describing feelings (in terms of other entities) are either correct or incorrect, appropriate or
inappropriate. In other words, there are situations, contexts, in which a neural description of fear, or a
sociological, is in fact the best description, and anyone, in my opinion, who wants to be able to
understand and describe the mind, our phenomenal experiences, our interactions with the world,
must of necessity be familiar with the totality of these approaches. It is just the restriction to one such
viewpoint which limits investigation and description. I'm just dipping my toes into the ocean of
literature and controversy here; there's no way to summarize it in this context.
As for referring you to the literature... the mind reels. D. Ihde: Experimental Phenomenology. James:
Principles of Psychology, V1. Wittgenstein: Blue & Brown Books. Nagel: What is it like to be a bat?
(an article). Metzinger: Conscious Experience (an anthology). Tye: Ten Problems of Consciousness.
Flanagan: Consciousness Reconsidered. Go on the web and look up the Association for the Scientific
Study of Consciousness for an enormous list of readings and sources.
Steven Ravett Brown