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My Qualia Quirk
February 3, 2020
by William P. Meyers

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Quibbling with Qualia

I don't like the word 'qualia.' Most people are not familiar with it, so using it in ordinary conversation involves explaining it. It also leads one almost immediately away from where my real interest lies in the more general topic usually called Philosophy of Mind, or Consciousness.

Like many people I have a number of quirks that do not come out in ordinary circumstances. These usually go back to my strange and sometimes traumatic childhood. At some point I realized an awful lot of people were lying to me. I became distrustful and cynical, and yet there was always a hopeful side to me that wanted to believe that sometimes the truth could be told and known. Eventually, around when I was in college, deeper issues emerged, more obviously philosophical issues, like: can you trust your own eyes? Your own memories?

Qualia [singular quale], per My ancient Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition, published in 1988, are "a quality, as whiteness, loudness, etc. abstracted as universal essence from a thing." Which helps not at all. But let the thing be something well-known to most people, say a red rose. The odor of a rose, its color red, or its well-known shape are all qualia. So what?

The classic philosophy question is: how do I know the red I see in my mind's eye is the same red other people see in their minds. Perhaps what both Jill and I call red, consistently for roses and red objects, we actually see as different colors. The problem is describing red. Red is red. It is a color, not a sound or shape. There may be shades of red and colors nearly red (slightly orangish red), but there is no way to describe red without using the word red or a synonym. Red is the color of blood does not help.

Fine, if that does not bother you. Worrying about consciousness is my quirk, not yours. From a science standpoint a reasonable argument is: All humans evolved in the same world, with the same basic brain structure. We can all agree to names of colors. So we, our brains, must be seeing the same colors.

Unless one digs deeper, more critically. We know the eye has cone and rod receptors, and some of the cones respond to light in the red part of the spectrum [defined by measuring the wavelengths of light that produce the qualia red]. Neurons carry signals, electro-chemical impulses, to clusters of neurons in the brain. But the brain has billions of neurons, and trillions of connections between them, and the red signals go hither and thither. Somewhere they are connected to the rose, and memories of other red objects, and the English word red. But despite major advanced in neurobiology, no one can say, at this point in history, how red is in a person's consciousness.

Worrying about qualia is fine, but there are bigger fish to fry. Because while the real world is out there, what we experience is in our heads. Just close your eyelids, and the red of the rose goes away. Cut the optic nerve and the red goes away. Take a good draught of an anesthetic, and the red goes away. Even just napping makes the red go away.

Most of the time I take the world for granted. I eat food, I walk the dog. But it is definitely a quirk that I fairly frequently remind myself that it is my nervous system telling me my feet are walking over pavement and that the street scene before me is not just pouring in through my eyes into my awareness. It is all being input and then reconstructed in an automated process in my head by neurons that have been evolving for hundreds of millions of years.

On the other hand, I do not subscribe to various philosophies and religions (notably Buddhism) that assert that the world we know through our senses is an illusion. Nor do I believe in solipsism, the idea that my mind is the only thing that exists. I admit it is a long chain of reasoning that has led me to accept the view that the universe is billions of years old, that life on earth has been evolving for at least a billion years, and that as a baby my brain gradually put together a reasonably accurate construction of the part of the world I was exposed to.

What all this leads to is a belief about healthy and unhealthy human minds. I live in Seattle, where any day I may see really good examples of broken minds walking the streets. More broadly there are the minds that are basically functional, but have serious blind spots or points that are malfunctioning, often because of cultural exposure rather than unhealthy neurons.

Healthy minds make good decisions. Deciding to pretend the world of living things is not in big trouble, caused by human overpopulation and activity, is the most serious mental illness of our age.

So it is not just on specific qualia that two minds might not see eye to eye. On a big complex issue, like what to do about overpopulation, or even acknowledging that there is overpopulation, minds might believe they are living in different bodies, in different worlds.

But they are not.

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