Quale’s Eggs and Consciousness
- Quale [kwah-lee] - plural - li·a
- an essential property, sense-datum or feeling having a distinct quality or character
This post is based on the work of V.S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein entitled “Three Laws of Qualia”. I’m going to clarify exactly what qualia are so that we are all on the same page.
They are the subjective sensations which seem to require a first person account. If you think of a red square, there are two qualia involved in that particular experience of consciousness: a colour quale - responsible for the “redness” sensation - and a shape quale - dedicated to the emoting of “squareness”.
They are “raw feels” responsible for creating the sentiments that allow for consciousness: the painfulness of pain, the doggyness of dogs. Most philosophical objections to explanations of the “human experience” from scientists relate to qualia. No scientist can explain fully why electrical currents firing through certain neurons at certain times in the brain creates the perception of sensation and of the self. Essentially, qualia are private.
Not according to Ramachandran and Hirstein. They developed three laws for qualia and simply put, to qualify as qualia the sensation must:
- Be irrevocable and automatic on the input side - you can’t say “this square is red, but I can visualise it as blue if I want.” An explicit neural representation of red is created that “reports” this to higher brain centers;
- Be flexible on the output side - once the representation of an apple is created you have the luxury of choice. You can use it to tempt Adam, bake a pie or to keep the doctor away otherwise it is just a reflex arc;
- And finally the representation must remain long enough in the short term memory to allow a decision to be made - otherwise, again, it would be simply a reflex arc.
It’s important to understand these laws to understand this blog but I think Daniel Dennett put it best by saying that qualia is an “unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us.” Put pictorially:
Once you’ve seen both things in this picture, it is IMPOSSIBLE to “unsee” them. That is how powerful the combination of qualia and your brain can be.
Armed with that knowledge: Onwards! Ramachandran and Hirstein’s paper concerns itself with proving that there is a scientific way to prove qualia are not private. That is, it is possible to experience the world through another creatures “eyes”. They posit the results of connecting two people’s brains with a bridge of neurons from one area in a normal sighted person (Bob) and to the corresponding area in someone who is colour blind (a rod monochromat - James). Within James’ brain, the central processing mechanisms for colour are undamaged - he just doesn’t have the cone receptors to delineate the different colours.
They state that if this were to happen, then James could finally perceive “redness” in an identical way to Bob, bridging this gap and hurdling the hypothesis that qualia will remain forever private.
Ramachandran and Hirstein have turned the philosophical barrier problem of qualia into one of translation. They say this barrier arises when there is any “translation” involved. This is more daunting than at first glance. When Bob says “red”, it means nothing to James, because he has neither the physiology nor the fluency of colour language. Nerve impulses (the language of neurons) are translated into a different, spoken language (English). Bob can tell James that he sees “red”, but the sentiment is literally lost in translation. Using any intermediary language, whether it be English or monitoring which neruons are firing on a computer screen (The instrument’s output is a translation of what it is detecting), the barrier is formed.
Imagine the wonders of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Or taken a step further, imagine seeing the world as a shark perceives it: sensing electrical impulses in the water. This “bridge of neurons” is obviously still at the “Sci-Fi” end (possibly Hardcore SF end) of the Scientific spectrum but it is brilliant to think that there are people like V. S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein pushing these barriers to their limits.
Here is a link to a PDF of “Three Laws of Qualia”