On Qualia

One may be forgiven for assuming that qualia only exists as a six-letter word in the corpus of words we call philosophy. Maybe we grant that the little squirt has invaded some psychology too, and is replicating and surviving in the mysterious way that words do in socially-enforced niches in brain-space.  However, if the word qualia is to have any meaning, any use, any reason for my pinky to strive for that q-key, and my right index for that u, and for you to be reading about it, then I believe that the word, for the love of God, must at least refer to something that is a philosophy/psychology -independent property of the universe. To be worthy of our time, it must be something that would exist wether or not the people of Earth had devised a language game were it could be a playing piece.

So to figure out if this is an objectively grounded word or a playing piece with no further strings beyond those of an improvised virtual reality we create with language, we must figure out what is being represented with this word. What do people mean when they say “qualia”?

Individual instances of subjective, conscious experience.

… is what they mean on paper… erm, on Wikipedia should I say.

Of course, in reality, words are dynamic and interpreted in different ways by different people at different times, but lets start with this seemingly simple definition.

It is of note for the keen eye to analyze the tagging of “individual” to describe “instances.” Could instances be otherwise? Think about that for a moment. Can instances be multiple?

I believe that right off the ground, considering this “qualia” requires us to imagine instances beyond this instant. And that seems fair. After all, imagining instances beyond this instant is the necessary scaffolding for all theories, all conceptual thought.

But even more subtly, it requires us to imagine that there exist boundaries in the first place. An instance is not another instance because there exists a boundary separating it from another instance. Alas, this aspect of qualia is falsifiable, praise be to The Method and Popper – peace be upon him. If we can find well-defined boundaries in the information theory, physics, or neuroscience describing instances, then qualia actually stands a chance of referring to something. I would plant a flag here for future research. The question being: Is there a way to describe instances without having to refer to our felt sense that there exist instances? 

Then the definition continues with a desperate redundancy: “‘subjective’, ‘conscious’, ‘experience’.” I’d like to meet an experience that isn’t conscious. Right? Okay, enough with being so anal. I get it. There is a weird combination of reverence for and defiance against reductionism. It is as if the defenders of common-sense “experience” (that which is automatically known to exist) go out of their way to communicate with words that won’t make prudish-textbook science writers blush, but are so awkward about it that they just make it worse. It is somewhat like Cristopher Hitchens learning a shit-ton of Christianity just to enter the playing field and desecrate it. This always struck me as not the best approach to desecrate foolishness. Arguably, rational people don’t learn monkey language in order to move past a monkey, they just walk around the monkey… and the orangutan, and the giraffe.

So that’s how I read the definition – in its social context. I doubt that the words “subjective” and “conscious” really pack something necessary beyond that. We could just say “experience.” The collections of meanings under the headline of “subjective” and “conscious” are just attempts at describing properties of experience. So if someone defines the having of qualia as the having of experience, and someone else, understanding this, denies the having of experience, then that person is an imbecile or possibly evidence for the existence of p-zombiehood. It is not interesting to debate whether there is such a thing as experience. Of course there is. End of that discussion.

The aspects of qualia that must be held up to scrutiny are the properties of experience assumed to be real with no grounding. There are two smuggled intuitions already which may or may not be true:

  1. An instance exists. An instance is a bounded region of experience.
  2. There exist more than one instance.

Number two seems completely necessary unless we accept solipsism. But it is actually the first assumption that seems a bit heavy to just assume. Introspectively, it kind of seems like there exist instances, but it could also be so fuzzy at the edges that maybe its just a flowing wave with no way to intuit the precise experiential packet that is this instant. That is why we need to look for these instances, if they exist at all, with the tools of dispassionate third-person reason. Science is the closest thing we have to disembodiment from this direct experiential content which has often been found to contain false representations.


The term qualia comes from the latin adjective qualis. I speak Spanish, so its origin was no surprise to me and I think reveals the most important aspect of qualia. Qualis means “of what sort.”  This aspect of experience is something that is very emphasized by users  of the word “qualia”. That there is what it is to kiss these particular lips, these particular lips now. Again, obvious. That there is no generic kiss that all experience, there is no generic now, there are different nows that are different in their particular, unique way.

Very often, the problem with people who like the term is that they believe they are saying something profound when in fact they are conveying the limitations of our arbitrary method of communication. For example the Wikipedia page lists examples of qualia as “the perceived sensation of pain of a headache, the taste of wine, as well as the redness of an evening sky.” Make no mistake, these are all physical events. The description for the sensation of pain of a headache is as grounded on the real and physical world as any description for the existence of the midbrain and proton gradients. One thing sounds poetic and ineffable, the other sounds cold and sciency. This is irrelevant. If we were the sort of big-brained creatures that could communicate the taste of wine by sending a highly detailed description of the state-space of the fundamental fields that adhere closer to the underlying reality, then we wouldn’t feel that qualia refers only to a mysterious partition in the world of experience. So that particular emphasis of qualia is inappropriately due to limitations of cognitive bandwidth.

A definition of qualia which is more in line with what we began with, and doesn’t arbitrarily refer to flowery-sounding moments only, is what Daniel Dennett simply called “the way things seem to us.”

If qualia is just the way things seem to us, and nothing more, no further assumptions, no further content, then it is just a wacky term for “experience.” A synonym that contributes absolutely nothing other than one more phonetic option. The way things seem to us is experience. And hence there is no need to either combat or embrace the term under this definition, unless there are people who really deny that experience is a thing – which besides being as clearly wrong as anything that is ever wrong, is also a funny little paradox on paper. To say experience is not a thing, one would have to say, “things don’t seem a certain way to me.” But saying that implies that they do seem a certain way, namely, things seem to you as if “not seeming a certain way.”

So much useless debate could be spared by specifying each of the claims being made instead of using a provocative word that forces one to face different arguments at different times from the assortment of assumed connotations in the other’s mind.

Whether qualia can independently and scientifically be proven as fact depends both on what we mean by qualia and what we mean by “proven as fact.” Both of these are contentious. When the plains are contentious, what would otherwise be bold, confident claims are translated by the winds into bashful, ignorant wails.

This topic of the changing meaning of words is sufficiently annoying that I think it would be a moderately good investment by society to form a Final Dictionary. A dictionary that is precise as fuck. It doesn’t necessarily have to be words defining other words. It can be a project that involves video with ontologically reductionist motions to force the explanation. This would, for one thing, compel us to keep our definitions honest.

In the meanwhile, I have to stumble unpacking these phrases. Take the infamous ‘what it is like’ definition of qualia.

“What it is like.”

The important part of this definition is that it generalizes from “what it is,” (which is now and untranslatable) to “what it is like,” which transcends the solipsism of life and offers a token of similitude to other presumably conscious creatures, including our future and past selves. –Here lies another area for future research. Just how much of our experience generalizable?–

But by saying “what it is like” instead of just saying “what it is,” it also makes us undergo the strenuous work of trying to re-live a memory, and as many philosophers have pointed out, introspective motion exerts a change in the experiential content.

…And this is boring now. Maybe I should write about something more useful. Now I know what that feels like.




A Science of Qualia to Replace Conscience and Intuition

Conscience in Islam is defined as something that every human has been endowed with, and this makes it fair-game for Allah to judge at the end of times. Similar emphasis on conscience exists on some branches of Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

But what is conscience? It is often described as a spontaneous moment of recognition, an emotional whir that manifests at particular events that the human agent perceives bifurcate towards right and wrong.

There is a set, Ω, of possible worlds in the predicting mind, and instead of reasoning about the probabilities of finding oneself in a specific world, given certain actions, the person trusting conscience will do what is compelled by a seeming god-given or nature-given intuition.

This sense of knowing right from wrong is a double edged sword. It can shield one from siding with Big Brother, religious dogma, or non-memetic genetic drives that lead to wrong. But it can also be the very same kind of inner-voice that tells the Chinese government official that he is right to torture you for having committed the crime of threatening the order with public dissent.

Instead of trusting our intuitions, we should look at the valence object, ω, that we wish be produced and calculate the probability that this object will appear given a certain action, P(ω|a).

Valence objects are subjective slices of now as defined by neuroscience and cognitive science. The problem facing us is that we do not have a catalogue of all valence objects. To catalogue them, we will need to capture both their physical isometry (neuroscience scan→bio-quantum-chemistry model→fundamental physics model→math structure) and their judged value after direct apprehension.

Right now, we are not even at the high-level biology understanding of valence objects in our day-to-day lives. We are not far beyond the literature/poetry level. There exist words that we combine to refer to what is good and what is wrong, but it is impossible to specify to another brain how to simulate the experience we wish to create for them past a certain rough-grain threshold. The qualia contents must be unzipped, transcribed, and translated in the self-reflexive entertainments of the other’s mind.

The future naturalists, those who stand a chance of becoming Darwin, are those who will venture into the sea of the mind to build a taxonomy, to anchor the hues of consciousness with scientific and mathematical tools. Once the nature of valence objects is described and explained, there will no longer be a need for ethical systems of old. There will only be a navigation problem, with fixed stars in sight.

None of this is to say that the symbols should be confused with the objects. An ISBN represents a book but is not a book. A catalogue of experiences specified by highly-precise physics is not the experiences. The experiences actually need to be instantiated on the necessary substrates in the 4-d flesh of the universe.

It would be great if there should be principles, mathematical symmetries perhaps, that underly pleasures and pains, and are generalizable across species. This way, “magnets*” in morphological space could be placed on the path of living beings without having to eliminate them all for the sake of a monotone hedonium nuke. *[Concrete examples of magnets would include neurosurgery, brain-computer interfaces, genetic engineering and virtual reality environments.]

But what if eliminativists are right and we cannot trust our own introspection whatsoever? In that case, I agree that a science of consciousness and morality would be doomed. But the hard eliminativist position which claims that we are deluded about our own experience and so our judgements cannot be trusted as more than relativistic noises, is, to put it mildly, absurd. One wonders how the hyper-skeptical eliminativist deduces anything about anything – even that there is such a thing as a natural world requires that judgements about experience be made.

There are no doubt going to be dishonest reports about the contents of conscious experience that will cause problems in the first stages of developing this science. For example, sometimes people give dishonest reviews about how enjoyable a book was for nefarious, profit-seeking motives. Or someone can claim, and later come to believe, that a meal was more enjoyable than it really was, simply because of their kindness and conflict-avoiding disposition. This seems like an insurmountable obstacle for qualia-science only to those eliminativists and reductionists who are but dualists at heart.

If we accept that valence is a natural phenomenon, then clearly this can be assigned values. RGB and “how much pain do you feel on a scale of one to ten?” actually refer to natural objects in the brain synonymous with conscious percepts. There is no extra illusion (what a sophisticated dualist calls it), or soul (what a naive dualist says.) There is just the universe in its totality, with certain chunks of it feeling like something unto themselves, and others not. The recollection cannot be perfect – for by necessity, it is its own region of the universe. But the claim that all information is lost from one moment to the next will be cast to shame by the foundational structure of reality itself. Hence, with meticulousness and by working from low hanging-fruit like orgasms, which are widely-regarded across the entire animal kingdom as enjoyable, for obvious evolutionary reasons, we will then isolate the substructures of the experience that are common not only to all reproduction-oriented pleasures but that also appear when eating a good meal (and are less apparent when only faking.)

An optical illusion is no less real than anything else. The optical illusion is a structure nested in the workings of brain. Consciousness is the same. It really exists, but that doesn’t mean we can assume it is foundational to any arbitrary external object in Reality. Knowing this, we must also be wary of most panpsychism.

And because we know that much of the reality that we come into contact with is of this optical illusion kind – a phenomenologically real percept but, map-wise, a deceiving percept – we must not assume that qualia is simple to capture. For instance, some misguided people have construed a thought experiment which supports eliminativism by suggesting that we can be confused about qualia based on our expectations. It goes like this: A woman is sitting at a researchers office with her back exposed and is told that she will be prodded with a hot utensil. The utensil is actually placed in a freezer and is instead very cold. When it is pressed against her back, the back feels cold qualia but she interprets it as hot qualia, therefore even if qualia exists, we cannot know about it empirically.

This thought experiment is non-sense because the woman felt hot qualia, period. There was no cold qualia regardless of our own outside intuition which knows the utensil was cold. Consciousness is a creative process that is being hallucinated in the brain, and only sometimes is accurate at representing the environmental inputs. Qualia has nothing to do with externalities which are not part of the internal simulation. So as long as we can understand the topology, information-processing events, molecular snapshots, and so on, a map corresponding to the internal simulation can be built, and the good configurations identified for future precision-targeting.



On Reaching Utopia

Now that we can pause to describe a method for monitoring and replanning, we need to ask, “Can Utopia work?”  This is a surprisingly tricky question. If we mean “Can we guarantee that sentience will always achieve Utopia?” then the answer is no, because the sentience could inadvertently arrive at a dead end from which there is no repair. For example, the human sentience might have faulty models of herself and not know that her existence can rot away along with her body. Once the body does, it cannot repair any plans to reach Utopia. If we rule out dead ends–assume that there exists a plan to reach the goal from any state in the environment–and assume that the environment is really nondeterministic, in the sense that a plan always has some chance of success on any given execution attempt, then the sentience will eventually reach Utopia.

Trouble occurs when an action is actually not nondeterministic, but rather depends on some precondition that the sentience does not know about. For example, sometimes a mind configuration may be unsatisfactory, so becoming isomorphic to that configuration has no effect towards Utopia. No amount of retrying is going to change this. One solution is to choose randomly from among the set of possible reconfiguration plans, rather than to try the same one each time. In this case, the reconfiguration plan of becoming another mind might work. A better approach is to learn a better model. Every prediction failure is an opportunity for learning; a sentience should be able to modify its model of the world to accord with its percepts. From then on, the replanner will be able to come up with a reconfiguration that gets at the root problem, rather than relying on luck to choose a good reconfiguration.


Eternal Block Time



Event B is simultaneous with A in the green reference frame, but it occurred before in the blue frame, and will occur later in the red frame.

From Wikipedia:

Special relativity suggests that the concept of simultaneity is not universal: according to the relativity of simultaneity, observers in different frames of reference can have different measurements of whether a given pair of events happened at the same time or at different times, with there being no physical basis for preferring one frame’s judgments over another’s. However, there are events that may be non-simultaneous in all frames of reference: when one event is within the light cone of another—its causal past or causal future—then observers in all frames of reference show that one event preceded the other. The causal past and causal future are consistent within all frames of reference, but any other time is “elsewhere”, and within it there is no present, past, or future. There is no physical basis for a set of events that represents the present.[8]

If you get this, you can move on. If not, then let me try to explain this simply; with analogies and without jargon.

We can be separated by space. For example, I can be standing on the sand at the shore and you can be knee-deep in the sea. Say we agree to raise our hand up at the same time, and do so. It may seem that this event proves there is a now. There is a snapshot of time in which we both raise our hand up.

However, there exist ways for a third observer to see me raising my hand first, or you raising your hand first. This has nothing to do with the biomechanics of reaction speeds or cognitive illusions. It is possible for an observer to literally see and measure what are precisely two simultaneous events from our perspective to not be simultaneous. This is because we all exist on our own “reference frame.”

It is impossible to affirm that I universally raised my hand at the same time as you. We did or didn’t, both views can be physically correct.

For example, a princess falls asleep in Tokyo and another on the Moon. Imagine a being halfway between these two places that has godlike vision, it sees them give their last blink at the same time. However, if another being is flying from Tokyo towards the Moon, it will see the princess on the Moon doze off first. It does not make sense to ask, “But which one really happened?” The god-eyed being resting between Tokyo and the Moon could take a photo of the situation, and then later meet up to compare this with the photo taken by the other god-eyed being who had been soaring to the Moon, and they would have different photos. If they then compare their results with yet another frozen snapshot taken by a being who had been plunging from the Moon towards Tokyo, they would find evidence of another version of the events in which the Tokyo princess was already asleep while the other’s unmistakable aquamarine gaze was yet peering into the stars.

There is a way for the universe to line up the events so that all reference frames agree that one of the princesses fell asleep first. The universe does this by gathering up the fragments and connecting them on a strand of light. This is called causality, and this is how it’s done:

The Tokyo princess closes her eyes. Now quick, count, 1 tick, 2 tock, 3 tick, 4 tock, 5 tick, 6 tock, 7 tick, 8 tock, 9 tick, and the princess on the Moon closes her eyes. We have time 9 seconds. Now set aside this 9 we have collected for we will need to weigh it against another number. If the 9 we have collected is greater than the number we will collect, then we will succeed at preserving the order.

Now we must create the opponent. To transmute 9’s contender, we must take the distance 238,900 mi (from Tokyo to Moon) and divide by 186,282 miles per second (the speed of light)… And the opponent created from distance and light speed, measures in at 1.28.

Now weigh these and pray that our 9 is larger than this 1.28. Yes! 1.28 is definitely smaller than 9. We have succeeded at preserving the order! Now no one will have to disagree that the princess in Tokyo closed her eyes first.

Notice that the universe only succeeded because it didn’t see the princesses doze off at the same time. But what if it saw 0 time elapse between the shutting of each of the lady’s respective eyelids? This is what the god-eyed being resting half-way between the Moon and Tokyo saw. It is not what the being shooting head-first toward the Moon saw, and this is unavoidable. There are different reference frames. Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage.” He was wrong. You are wrapped in your stage as you move through the world.

This means that your past can be in someone else’s future, and your future can be another’s past, so long as you are not causally linked.

Favorite Bands


The Firstborn

Shape 7

The Firstborn is a Portuguese band that does Buddhist metal. Enough said.

No but really, they capture the radical, dark beauty of both Tibetan and early Buddhism. There is, in the eastern Christ, a hard to express combination of Thanatos(death drive), with hardcore realism, and a vast network of action plans for self-administration of wireheading. At one moment the Buddha says it is better to swallow a sphere of hot iron than to lay in bed with a woman, the next, he is advocating practicing compassion for all beings. Within the framework of rebirth, there is no contradiction. His obsession with eliminating suffering is haunting and refreshingly bleak. I’ve always admired that. And this band seems to get it.



Shape 6

I know it’s weird that I’m recommending religious bands, but here goes an Evangelical Christian band: Thrice.

Their theology leads to a fucked-up-world-view. But they capture the stark sentimentality of Christianity with genuinely intelligent poetic skill.

“Your eyes resting in flame
Leaving me breathless again
Like hydrogen split on fault lines”


The Ocean


Luckily, there is a band that proselytizes the truth of evolution, and the error of heliocentrism. When I meet Richard Dawkins, I will tell him about this band.




For those who have upgraded their concerns from common-sense atheism/humanism to transhumanism.

Featuring lyrics lamenting our arbitrary human condition such as:

“I am a product of chaos and entropy; as the dusk’s kicking in, I get tired… …Reborn in a cosmic fire, will I die or return from demise? Is it already over? Am I falling apart? Out in the dark and into a fading white star.”

And the techno-optimism often fervent in these circles: