Qualia

This article describes the philosophical use of the word ‘qualia’ and its relevance to cognitive science.

What are Qualia?

The word ‘qualia’ (KWAY-lee-uh), plural of ‘quale’ (KWAH-lee), traditionally refers to the non-relational properties of experience.

Defining qualia as non-relational is meant to exclude those properties we attribute to an experience by comparing it to other experiences. For instance, consider a visual sensation of red. Some of its relational properties might include being brighter than some other shade of red, being the same colour as freshly oxygenated blood, being elicited by electromagnetic radiation with a certain mix of frequencies, reminding one of a cardinal’s robes, suggesting that one should stop the car, etc.

Qualia, by contrast, are the properties of an experience in and of itself, such as the ‘redness’ of the red (or the painfulness of the pain, the lustfulness of the lust, and so on). The red quale is the redness as experienced by some conscious entity. Sometimes, qualia are described as the ‘ineffable feel’ of an experience: those features of an experience which you cannot explain to someone else by relating them to other things, because they aren’t relational.

Perception Without Qualia

It seems easy to imagine perceptual experiences with and without qualia. For instance, how about pain that was less painful? Why not just some indication that a wound has been sustained, rather than the searing pain of a hot poker landing on one’s foot? But such a non-painful indication might make me less apt to take immediate action to get rid of the hot poker. An important question is whether we could imagine the exact same behaviour — i.e., the exact same eagerness to get rid of the hot poker — without the qualia actually being present. This is one aspect of the zombie problem, discussed in another of these introductions.

For the present context, the concern of the cognitive scientist or the engineer attempting to create artificial cognitive systems is the extent to which qualia are a necessary, a superfluous, or perhaps even an impossible-to-recreate feature of biological cognition. For instance, most people probably agree that Deep Blue was utterly devoid of qualia when it defeated Kasparov. Deep Blue felt no thrill of victory and no fear of defeat. It seems possible to engineer chess playing behaviour without any qualia at all. What about vision? Suppose we tacked on to Deep Blue a sophisticated system for analysing data from a video camera pointed at the chess board. Perhaps we programmed it to recognise Kings and Rooks, black squares and white — perhaps even the wrinkled brow of a Grandmaster contemplating. We ought to be able to do that without qualia. That is, such a system ought to be able to recognise chess pieces without experiencing the ‘blackness of the black’ pieces.

Could we do the whole thing without qualia? Could we create an entire artificial Kasparov with no qualia? (Here again is the zombie problem.)

If we could, then why did Nature bother to give us qualia in the first place? What evolutionary purpose could they have served?

If not — i.e., if we could not fail to create qualia by building an artificial Kasparov — then what is it about creating an entire artificial Kasparov which brings qualia into the picture, when they didn’t appear for the basic Deep Blue or the added visual recognition system?

Or were they there all along? Could even the most elementary of cognitive processes include qualia? Does my mechanical watch get some kind of clicky feeling as it flicks through the seconds, hours, and days?

Finally, if it is possible to create qualia in artificially engineered systems, do we want to? Should we aim to build a system that can feel the painfulness of the pain, rather than just receive an indication that damage level 12 has been reached in extremity F2?

This article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser on .

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