Qualia -The Short Version
Many of the problems of contemporary psychology and philosophy of mind arise from what must be called a blunder, or at least a mistaken assumption. The error is to assume that physical means neurological when the topic is mind. It is to assume that all aspects of the mental must be explained in terms of neurological processes if a biological theory of mind is valid. We know of course that there is much more going on inside our bodies and even inside our heads than just neurological processes, that neurology does not exhaust physiology, but this basic scientific fact seldom if ever makes it way into considerations of the processes or phenomenon of mind. For the most part, the mental is the neurological and that’s it.
It is important to note that this prejudice in favor of the neurological and against all other forms of biological process actually proceeds the information age. It goes back to the late 1950’s and early 1960’s at least, before talk about information became so common. This as it turns out is part of the problem. The implications of a theory that says that an information system, like the brain, can alone produces mind are generally never considered. This is probably the result of the neuron doctrine in neurophysiology, the idea that it is only neural activity that is important in the mental processes. The neuron doctrine is not unquestioned, but it is of overwhelming importance and weighs heavily on all discussions of the relationship between the mind and the body. Later on when the results of experiments that directly stimulated the exposed cortex became known, the notion that the mind is in the neurons became even more fully entrenched and the result of this neural prejudice has led to many problems and paradoxes that disappear once we disavow this rather simplistic notion.
One of the big problems that arise from the "neurons produce mind" theory is that of qualia. The qualitative aspects of sensory experience, the tastes, feels, smells, sights etc. of everyday life are very hard to explain in terms of neurological processes. Now this is because they are not in fact neurological processes, but this "hard problem of consciousness" is generated in no small part by the neurons produce mind theories of sensation. While the plain man thinks that tastes, smells, sounds, etc. are produced by the organs they are associated with, the more sophisticated analysts assume that they are produced by the brain, this despite the everyday experiences that suggest that they are not. If I close my eyes, block my ears or have a head cold that disrupts smelling and taste, my qualia change, sometimes to the point of becoming non- existent, but these changes in experience produced by disruptions in the operations of the sensory organs for many play virtually no part in the analysis of the nature of the qualitative aspects of experience.
The easiest way to uncover the nature of qualia is not to start with the question of what they are and to assume that the answer lies in theories about the brain, it is rather to ask why they differ. The most fundamental fact about sensory experience, besides the fact that we have it, is that we have different sorts of sensory experiences which are as different as different can be and there is no reason to think, much less a reason to assume, that these difference can be explained in terms of variations in neurological operations. While we do not understand how neurons and the rest of the hardware in the CNS work together in network operations, we do understand how neurons work on the individual cellular level, and we know that essentially they all work the same way. To suggest that we can produce the qualitative aspects of sensation with variation in the operation of these individual units working together is to introduce a magic theory of sensation and hope that somehow, someday, science will support it.
It is obvious that sensory organ activity has something to do with sensation, at least sometimes, and it is only in the sense organs themselves where we can find enough variation in process to account for the phenomenal differences in experience. The eyes work differently from the ears, the organs of taste and smell work differently again as do the sensors for the various somatic sensations. The transduction or conversion processes associated with these various systems are inside us and are a part of us as much as any neurological process and there is no reason to think a priori that they are not normally a part of experience. In fact it can be shown that they must be qualia, and that there is no other way to account for the variations in experience.
There are perhaps two central arguments against the notion that transduction processes are qualia: First it might be argued that we can have sensation without external stimulation or the activity of the sense organs. Secondly it might be maintained that we simply don’t know enough about how the brain works to reject the view that qualia are internally generated by the CNS. The first position can only be sustained if we ignore the fact that sensation has two components, qualia and information and that it is the information- internal neurological activity- that produces thoughts and behavior. The reason that things like hallucinations and schizophrenic delusions produce behavior that might resembles that produced by external stimulation is that the information is present even while the qualitative aspects of the imagined experiences are not. Similarly, when for example we excite the cortex of the epileptic during surgery, we produce internal information, a signal or pattern of excitation that does not result from external causes but has nevertheless the same effect on the rest of the system as a pattern of excitation that is externally generated. The second, ignorance theory, is harder to disassemble but relies largely on a lack of understanding of what theories of network operations are like or are likely to look like in the future. This topic and others like the “brain in a jar problem” along with the implications of the qualia theory are addressed in the essay "Why is Seeing Not Like Hearing" below. ( at www.epistemology.be )