• Aliah Yacoub

Consciousness 101: What are Qualia?

Updated: Jun 15





Have you ever been in love?


What causes this almost-physical pull towards another? Is love a subjective, ‘mental’ feeling or is it a neurological phenomenon? A twisted chemical reaction maybe?



You might think that this is a weird place to start an article about consciousness. After all, what is a supposed “AI philosopher” working at a tech startup have to do with your love life? More importantly, what in the world is up with the Souad Hosny ad?


Hold your judgements – I am not using this platform to get all mushy and romantic. Just bear with me for a little while and we’ll make sense of this together.


In our teaser campaign, we dropped quite a few hints about what “qualia” means and what our first series is going to be about. To make it clearer, the last article ended with quite the ominous note: “Are you ready to rethink the notion that consciousness exists at all?”


Let’s break it down into three questions for this article: (1) what are qualia, (2) how are they connected to the problem of theorizing consciousness, and (3) how are they an obstacle for AI development?


1. What is “Qualia”?


If we are to borrow the words of the same old white man as last time, ‘qualia’ is “an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us.” (Dennett, 1985)


However, if we are to use an example from someone far more iconic, Souad Hosny, then ‘qualia’ denotes the subjective, phenomenal quality of maybe feeling like ‘el hayah ba2a lonha bamby’.


Seriously, what is “Qualia”?


Qualia (singular ‘quale’) refers to the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives. I know that like most philosophical terms, the explanation sounds even more confusing than the term. So, let’s take an example:


“Look at a glass of milk at sunset; the way it looks to you-the particular, personal, subjective visual quality of the glass of milk is the quale of your visual experience at the moment. The way the milk tastes to you then is another, gustatory quale, and how it sounds to you as you swallow is an auditory quale; These various "properties of conscious experience" are prime examples of qualia. Nothing, it seems, could you know more intimately than your own qualia.” (Dennett 1985, emphasis added)

Put that way, there would be very little disagreement regarding the existence of qualia. After all, we have all felt pain or pleasure, experienced that which it is like to run our toes through the sand, or were awash with some intense feeling after listening to Adagio for Strings for the first time.


If this is still unclear, let’s take the example of ‘Mary the Neuroscientist’. If you recall, in our teaser campaign (Fig.1) we used some cartoonish pictures of a woman and an apple. In that ad, we were referring to a famous thought experiment often used by philosophers of mind. Let’s play their little game - this is how it goes in one variation:


Figure 1 @synapsenalytics
  • Mary is a color scientist who exists in a black and white room since birth.

  • She has learned all there is to know about colors — extensive physical descriptions of different wavelengths. Her “knowledge” of colors includes “every physical fact about the experience of color in other people, from the behavior a particular color is likely to elicit to the specific sequence of neurological firings that register that a color has been seen” (Jackson, 1982).

  • One day, Mary leaves her black and white room and sees a red apple.

  • (1) Does she experience or learn something new about what colors are when she encounters the red apple for the first time? (2) Or is all knowledge, including all that is ‘mental’ entirely physical?





If you accept that (1) Mary finds out something new by encountering color for the first time, then you accept that there is an experiential, subjective quality to knowledge – that not all knowledge is ‘physical’ and that there is something it is like to be the subject of some state “of mind”. In other words, that qualia exist. There is something inside of us, an inner life that is colored by experiences.


Are you starting to see the connection to AI? Hint: if not all knowledge is made up of physical facts, if there is something more, then how can a machine ever be like us?


2. Qualia and Consciousness


So why all the talk about qualia?


For so long, the idea that there is nothing that we are more intimately aware of more than our qualia (the properties of our “conscious” experience) was more or less taken as a fact of life.


Even if the entire essence of reality was some computer simulation like The Matrix or some big, vast illusion that is the imaginary figment of an evil demon, we would still be certain of our existence because we are “aware”. That is what is at the heart of philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes’ famous (and often misused) quote: “I think, therefore I am” (in Latin ‘Cogito ergo sum’).


But this very idea, that we are “conscious” beings with qualia/experiences, is actually controversial. Even though the advancements in neurological research over the past decades have allowed us to uncover the methods by which some of our brain functions work and explained things like vision, speech production and audition, the fact remains that there is no agreement about what consciousness actually is.


Figure 2 @synapseanalytics

No one really knows exactly how physical properties give rise to all that is mental – to the whole of conscious experience.


What if consciousness or the “soul” is separate from the body? If qualia were not caused by physical properties, meaning if subjective consciousness is causally separate from the physical brain, then there could exist “philosophical zombies”. Philosophical zombies, according to David Chalmers, are duplicates of people but without any qualia at all.


Such zombies would behave in a way that is precisely similar to that of a normal person but would not have an “inner life” or subjective experience. Would we even be able to tell that such an entity is without qualia? (Chalmers, 1996)




Is it all mechanistic – just physical? Or is there some kind of distinction between the mind and the body? Are those our only two options? Does consciousness even exist or are we exaggerating an “artefact of inquiry”?


The “old” mind/body problem:



Figure 3: Dustin Dewynne's illustration of the ontologies of dualism versus monism.

Descartes’ answer to this question (hence “Cartesian” in Fig.4) was in the form of substance dualism. The problem at the time concerned the relationship between thought or consciousness in the human mind, and the physical body or brain.


Whereas a dualist would maintain a rigid distinction between matter and mind (the physical and the mental), a monist holds that there is only one ‘unifying reality’ (substance or essence or matter) through which everything else can be explained. Physical Monists (those holding that all that is “mental” is just based on physical properties) are also vulnerable to a variety of concerns. For example: does a person in a coma, with no brain function and is “unconscious”, have no “soul” anymore?



But if consciousness has an essentially subjective character—a what-it-is-like aspect as Thomas Nagel puts it—if we “acknowledge that a physical theory of mind must account for the subjective character of experience, we must admit that no presently available conception gives us a clue about how this could be done." (Tye, 2000)


There are so many different types of dualisms when it comes to the mind/body problem. But it suffices to say here that different types of dualism have varying degrees to which the mental and physical depend on each other.


(See contemporary theories of Interactionism, Epiphenomenalism, Psychophysical Parallelism, Double Aspectism, Pre-established Harmony, Occassionalism)



3. Measure of consciousness and AI

In our last article, we made a big deal about differentiating between AI, AGI, and Machine Learning. We also pointed out that there is some semantic difference between human cognition, consciousness and intelligence without fully explaining where the disparity lies.


I wish I could offer some kind of conclusive answer about what the difference is, but the truth is that any attempt to define those terms is mostly dependent on which school of thought you ascribe to when considering the mind/body problem or Hard Problem of Consciousness.

For example, if I were a supporter of ‘eliminative materialism’, I would argue that there is “probably” no such thing as consciousness – that there exists nothing that corresponds to the concept of “consciousness,” and we have wrongly exaggerated theorizing about it.

Some believe that consciousness should be regarded as an archaic term – referring to nothing and only confusing us – and therefore choose to call the totality of all human perceptual acts “cognition”. Those who hold that opinion might still maintain that there are aspects of human cognition that are epistemologically closed to us – meaning that we are incapable of gaining any knowledge about them. Some other thinkers hold that our capacity to be “intelligent” agents is necessitated by our being conscious. If we can only be intelligent by being “conscious” then what are we to make of AI?


If it is so infuriatingly intertwined, then what are we trying to do here?


The purpose of this incredibly crude overview of the questions underlying theories of mind is to merely familiarize you with the topic at hand. Don’t worry though, in our next article we will offer a proper review of the dominant theories of mind and quit beating around the bush.


Until then, I invite you to think of how best to answer the mind/body problem and how to approach artificial intelligence development when we are still so unclear about the nuances of its human counterpart.


If a Philosopher of Mind were to read this, they would think I have completely butchered the discipline by grossly dismissing its many nuances. But oh well, we’re here to simplify and educate.


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