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Qualia

Conscious experience has a structure that we can describe and model mathematically and an intrinsic nature beyond communication or analysis. For example the experience of the color green cannot be constructed from simpler or more basic experiences. However, whenever we experience green it has a shape (even if the shape is the entire visual field), a hue, a saturation and perhaps shading and texture all of which can be described and analyzed. The structural aspect of experience is inseparable from its intrinsic nature, but we can analyze the structure independently of the experience. For example we experience spatial relationships visually, audibly or through touch. A relationship like A is left of B can be the same in all cases, but the intrinsic nature of the experiences are remarkably different.

The term qualia is used to refer to the intrinsic nature of immediate experience sometimes divorced from its structural aspect. I use qualia to mean what it feels like to have an experience which includes its structural aspect. We can, in theory, analyze external reality down to the empty set so that all properties are explicit and structural. Conscious experience has both an analyzable structure and an intrinsic nature beyond analysis. Bertrand Russell may have been among the first to comment on this direction that philosophy and science were moving in pushing all sense of intrinsic nature into consciousness.

As regards the world in general, both physical and mental, everything that we know of its intrinsic character is derived from the mental side, and almost everything that we know of its causal laws is derived from the physical side. But from the standpoint of philosophy the distinction between physical and mental is superficial and unreal[23, 402].

Daniel Dennet takes this disconnect between causal analysis and intrinsic nature as evidence that there is no need to assume the existence of anything but physical structure.

Thus we arrive in mysteryland. If you define qualia as intrinsic properties of experiences considered in isolation from all their causes and effects, logically independent of all dispositional properties, then they are logically guaranteed to elude all broad functional analysis-but itâs an empty victory, since there is no reason to believe such properties exist[9].

I believe conscious experience has an aspect beyond analysis or scientific description because I experience it. Because qualia are inseparable from their causal structure, they do have causal force. We avoid pain and seek pleasure. Those experiences are what physical reality is. Our mathematical model of neural structure is not the reality of our existence. Sir Arthur Eddington put it colorfully.

We have only one approach [to world-stuff], namely, through our direct knowledge of mind. The supposed approach though the physical world leads only into the cycle of physics, where we run round and round like a kitten chasing its tail and never reach the world-stuff at all[11, 280].

Claiming that there are nonstructural aspects of consciousness that cannot be communicated or explained may seem self contradictory. However, having experience is structural. If one were to design a machine capable of self reflection, communication and some form of sensation, it would understand the question: Does it feel like something to have a sensation? After all it can describe its sensation. That is what it feels like. If it had multiple sense organs and the capacity for subtle pattern recognition across its forms of sensation, it might use metaphors about light and color to describe what a symphony is like.

Claiming to have experience with an intrinsic nature is structural and a subject of science. It is a logically emergent property in a self reflective machine with sense receptors, memory and language that sufficiently mimics the structure of the human mind. Experiencing the intrinsic nature in qualia is internal, private and empirical5 although recognizing this is structural. If physicalism is true, we will almost certainly be able to build such machines eventually. Of course we can force the machine to say whatever we want, but, to the degree we build it to resemble the structure of the human mind, we can expect it to react like humans do. I think such a machine, like everything that exists, would have immediate experience, but there is no way to tell unless you are that machine.


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