Qualia

The Idea

Contributed by @philhagspiel |  Edited and curated by @philhagspiel

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'What it is like' to experience something is inexplicable.

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While we can describe the taste of a wine with words associated with objectively understood flavors (berries, wood, sour, ...), we cannot convey the actual subjective experience of the tasting of the wine.

Likewise, the blueness of an ocean, the emotional pain of a breakup or the sound of a fingernail scratching on a classroom blackboard are all experiences we can try to describe objectively with word associations — while the subjective experiencing of color, emotions and other perceptions remains inexplicable.

Verbal descriptions of what we experience aim at objective understandability — while our conscious experience itself is purely subjective.

Qualia (/ˈkwɑːliə/) is a controversial term and idea in philosophy describing experiential properties of sensations that cannot be described or analyzed fully objectively.

The concept is closely related to the so called hard problem of consciousness; the challenge to understand why and how experiences "feel like something" that goes way beyond our understanding of how our thinking and feeling is powered by our body and brain.

The concept of Qualia is an entrypoint to both the philosophy and science of consciousness and a fascinating exploration of the mysteries and beauty of the human experience.

Understanding the omnipresent gap between the description of an experience and the experiencing itself can help us to make more sense of the unique peculiarities of other people, to cultivate more empathy and to more deeply appreciate our own everyday experience of life.

“It's weird to try to write lyrics for somebody else. They can't really get behind what you're saying or what you want them to say because they didn't experience it.”

— Wes Borland

“Consciousness is a quantum leap from the physical to the non-physical dimension.”

— Sadhguru

Explore

This 4-min. video walks you through a famous thought experiment that will make you instantly understand what Qualia is about.

➞ For an overview of Qualia and related philosophical models, dive into this Wikipedia article.

Resources

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