December 12, 2011

Qualia & Behavior: A Rambling

Qualia: the property or characteristic experienced by a person.
By definition, qualia is personal

This post was inspired by me watching rats in a behavioral task (testing for 9+ hours a day makes you think of some interesting things!) at lab.

As a kid, I remember asking my mom if she sees the same colors as I do (not in such a straight-forward manner).  I said something like, 'What if you grew up seeing my purple in grass, while I see it as being green, but that we all use the word "green" to describe the color of the grass?  You grew up figuring purple was the normal color of grass'.  To my enjoyment as a junior in college, I found out this was, in fact, an epistemological question and a question of great interest in some sectors of neuroscience!  And this is when my interest in 'qualia' really grew (though I find it completely intractable -- maybe due to my lack of imagination-- to research, I do enjoy reading about it and seeing if anyone can 'crack the code').  I started reading more John Searle books (here,  herehere), David Hume (here), Ian Ravenscroft (here), Bertrand Russell (here), and Benedictus de Spinoza (here; though, I must admit, I only made it half-way through - maybe I'll finish it some day).  John R. Searle and Bertrand Russell, and the bits of  Hume I've read have been of great inspiration to how I think --- if anyone can recommend some works of the like, let me know, especially those related to the topics that Searle discusses!  Not all of the books listed above relate to qualia, but all have a theme in common, which we can't see anything truly objectively, because, in order to do that, we need to go outside consciousness, no matter what the issue at hand is, and we are bound by, you guessed it, consciousness (even in our 'objective' measurements).

In philosophy of mind (PoM), they often talk about 'qualia', or the upper-sense of 'feeling' or 'knowing' - or maybe the cognitive or meta-cognitive recognition of 'what's going on' (meta-meta cognitive?).  Yet, what does this even mean?  I know that I have emotional experiences and perceptual experiences of certain colors, and those colors can even convey certain emotional expressions (and vice versa).  Such things as, I can say the word 'red', yet I also see the 'redness' of the image above.  Maybe your 'redness' is really my 'greenness' and your 'redness' is my 'greenness' (Stroop!).  To me, there's no way to visually, objectively say that you see the same colors as I do.  This label of red or green projects a qualia that is personal, subjective to me.  Sure, you can say green has a wavelength distance of 510 nanometers and red is 650 nanometers, but you are not conveying what it means or what experience you have in your mind when you experience a wavelength of 510 or 650 nanometers.

It is great to talk about it in these terms, but eventually we will need to start talking about it on a neurophysiological level. As John Searle states, "Even for a system of whose qualia I have near-perfect knowledge, myself for example, the problem of qualia is serious.  It is this: How is it possible for physical, objective, quantitatively describable neuron firings to cause qualitative, private, subjective experiences?  How, to put it naively, does the brain get us over the hump from electro-chemistry to feeling?" (p. 28).  This, of course, is the "key" to consciousness and is the hard question to answer.

We infer that we both see the same colors, but, without anyway to 'get outside' consciousness and our brain/mind, there is no way of knowing.  We take it on good reason to think that evolution has built in certain mechanisms within us all, as humans, share a same color vision.  Much of PoM is focused on the human experience, which is egotistical in and of itself.  Yes, we all want to know where we stand in nature.  Yes, we care about ourselves, because, well, evolution has built in a mechanism for which we 'care' about ourselves (read: genes). Yet, to me, at least as far as I have thought, the only reason we talk about or express such a thing, like qualia, is because of qualifying terms used by language, 'qualia'.  If we, as humans, did not have language, how would we know to express the thing of 'qualia'?  We, or at least I assume, human and non-human primates have qualia, because I have learnt that non-human primates are close to us humans and, I have seen behaviors that reflect individualized behaviors in response to the same stimulus X as it provokes in humans and can confirm it via language.

This also raises the question of consciousness without language.  We assume such beings have consciousness because behavior suggests that they probably do - they internalize pain that is probably special to them; they see colors that are personal to them (experience 'redness'); they have emotions that are special to them.  Their behaviors tell us so.  Even further down, how do I know other classes don't have qualia, like rodents?  I think they most certainly do.  Maybe not to an advanced degree that we do, taking in to account brain development, but I do not know.  No one does.  I have seen behaviors from rodents that suggest that they do.  So, the question is, do they?  Do lower animals - insects, flies, C. elegans, squids, bacteria - have these same personal, subjective representations in their equivalence of a brain?  How much of a 'nervous system' has to be developed in order to 'see' or 'feel' qualia?  This is intimately related to the nature of consciousness and whether it is a graded feature (I tend to think it is graded).   But is qualia graded?  I think so.  Some things that we experience are internalized by the person and kept intimately secret within our own mind.  Other creatures, for example, may react to pain but do not 'internalize' it as we do. They just feel it and learn 'stay away'.  We A) feel pain through nerve fibers being stimulated and B) our brain interprets this as 'pain' that is special.  The other person may not feel it the same way.


References: Searle, J. R. 1997. The Mystery of Consciousness. The New York Review of Books, New York, NY. p. 28.

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