What is the function of Qualia

Qualia or the incomprehensibility of taste

You have a minute to explain the taste of a tomato to someone without using the word "tomato", I'll wait while ...

And did it work? I thought to myself ... Human vocabulary is simply not enough to accurately describe the taste of a tomato, pineapple, or any other kind of food. The attempt is just as doomed as trying to explain the color "red" to someone who has been blind from birth. Because part of every sensory perception is a completely subjective, personal impression, which is also called "qualia" in the technical jargon of consciousness research.

The subject of consciousness is still on the edge of what can be explained and imagined by humans, similar to the caliber of a question such as: "What is actually outside of the universe?" The experience of qualia, i.e. a subjective experience, is a strong indicator of the existence of our consciousness. Only a conscious subject can also experience subjectively. So far, however, it has not been possible to demonstrate awareness in a measurable way. So it's no wonder that the Qualia dug a deep rift through science. While some completely deny its existence, others consider it a vital part of our world.

What defines the qualia is that they are not communicable, they exist for each person individually. Of course we can analyze and describe the exact wavelength of the red, or the biochemical composition of the pineapple, but all of this only affects our external perceptual mechanisms. Much more interesting, however, is what happens after the information has been captured and processed by our nervous receptors. After the neurons fire. In other words, why do we have a subjective taste or visual experience? Do we even have one? How can something as thoroughly physical as the brain, something as unphysical as the impression of a taste or a color, the bottom line: create the feeling of “being”? But one after the other.

How does a taste come about at all? Most will now say, “It's easy. Through the taste buds on our tongues. ”That's true to a certain extent, but it's not that simple either. You can compare that to human color perception. Because nothing in the world is colored by itself, the colors we see every day only arise in our brain. The same can be said of our taste. But the whole thing goes one level further. If you look at modern robots, for example, which can also "taste", among other things, you see that these machines, just like us, can differentiate, analyze and describe tastes. Nevertheless: You yourself have no subjective perception of a taste, no "taste experience". Of course, these machines aren't as intelligent as we are anyway, but that doesn't matter. Even if they were, based on the current state of knowledge, they would probably not have any qualia. So there seems to be a certain component missing.

And now it's getting tricky. Because it is precisely this component that makes the whole problem so complicated. The thought experiment of the “philosophical zombie” can be used to illustrate this: Imagine an organism that is like humans in every respect. He can walk around, talk, eat ice cream, and even say things like "I am conscious." The only difference is that there is complete darkness in him, he has no subjective perceptions and sensations, he has no consciousness. I think anyone can easily imagine that. You can't even say with certainty whether your counterpart is actually conscious. Conversely, this would mean that the consciousness and thus also the qualia is something that can exist independently of the physical body, if not even has to exist. Provided you accept the premise "What is imaginable is also possible."

One of the best known critics of the Qualia concept is the cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett. In his text “Quining Qualia” he tries to expose the concept as pure imagination. In his materialistic view, the puzzle of consciousness should be solved on a purely physical level. His worldview does not go beyond receptors, neurons and synapses. Since we are part of the physical world, this also applies, according to Dennett, to our consciousness. He considers the philosophical zombie to be a sign of the human urge to gain recognition. If the zombie existed, our consciousness would have the character of a kind of supernatural substance. Something that is not tied to our bodies and may continue to exist after we die. In this case it could be called “soul”. Without this “soul” we would just be matter. What we then feel when we eat the tomato would be just a specific combination of receptors on our tongue and neurons in our brain that fire in a certain way, which in our prefrontal cortex creates memories of previous tomatoes and other information that we have connect with tomatoes, evokes. For many people an unbearable thought.

According to Dennett's train of thought, the entire universe and everything we see around us is the product of a mindless and purposeless process. As far as qualia is concerned, Dennett is quite alone with his radical thesis. Many consciousness researchers consider the existence of qualia to be very possible.

Richard Gregory, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Bristol, is absolutely convinced of the concept of qualia and believes that he has even recognized its function. Only how they arise is, of course, a mystery to him. In order for us to find our way around our world and to be able to understand it, our brain has to constantly fall back on a huge wealth of experience in our subconscious. For example, if I want to eat an orange, my brain has to remember that I can't just eat the peel. With everything we perceive, our brain has to process gigantic amounts of data so that we can react correctly to our environment. According to Gregory, qualia could have the function of signaling the present to our brain so that it can separate the past and the "now". This can be illustrated by dreaming, for example. No matter how real the dream is, as soon as we wake up we know with absolute certainty that we are back in reality. The qualia, the absolutely subjective sensory experiences, would not only make our life more worth living, but they would even be necessary for survival.

Tomato is a tomato is a tomato is a tomato. It would be nice.

Images: Eugenia Loli