The Qualia Manifesto Top Page

The Qualia Manifesto -Phase 2-

June 2002

Ken Mogi

Note: Since the drafting of The Qualia Manifesto in 1998, the circumstances that surround the problem have changed. An updated appraisal of the significance of the concept of qualia to the humanity in general is also due. This is therefore an amendment to the original manifesto.

1. The Alchemy of Mind

Despite the great advances in neuroscience, we are still at the alchemist's phase when it comes to the essential question: what are the first principles which makes it necessary that our subjective experiences accompany the physical processes in the brain? We may laugh at the alchemists' ignorance with the benefit of the hindsight, but our future descendants might laugh at the ignorance of our present time on the origin of consciousness as well.

Asking the neural correlates of consciousness might sound like at least a respectable scientific endeavor, but it is an alchemist's endeavor as well as far as the question why there should be conscious experience at all in the first place is concerned. The fact that a philosophical zombie appears at least possible means that we do not really know why consciousness should arise. If we had some very exact law like the conservation of energy, the appearance of phenomenal experience would be deduced as a logical necessity. Such a natural law is yet to be discovered.

2. The easy and hard problem

There are so-called easy and hard problems. Or so it appears at a casual glance. However, the easy problems are not so easy after all. A typical attempt to refute the importance of the question of consciousness is to claim that the physical or chemical description of the brain in terms of membrane potentials, neurotransmitters etc. is necessary and sufficient. A short retaliation from those in the know would be that the very concepts that the physicalists or the functionalists use to describe the brain are constructs of qualia (sensory and intentional qualia). Therefore, the attempts to explain away the problem of consciousness are bound to fail. Claiming that everything reduces to algorithms is not of much help either, as the conceived algorithms are also constructs of sensory and intentional qualia.

Conversely, if everything is indeed immersed deeply in the hard problem, an interesting question is how we may treat some problem domains as easy problems. For example, how is it that we may treat any problem which we can write down as algorithms as easy, when the foundations of the semantics of algorithms is a hard problem? There is certainly no completely easy problem in the world, but we can somehow pretend as if some of those are. It is the other side of the coin. If everything is eventually hard, how can we even pretend that some problems are easy?

3. Qualia for the rest of us.

It is likely that a solution of the origin of qualia, if one is possible at all, is going to be a difficult one. Once it was joked that only a dozen in the world can understand the theory of relativity. A theory of qualia, when it does come along, is bound to be as tough. Since we have all conscious experience, and we intuitively understand what the redness of red is, it is easy to fall into the fallacy that it is possible to discuss the problem of consciousness using daily concepts and terms from folk psychology. But that is far from the case. Even to understand what is at stake, one perhaps needs to have a working knowledge of relevant fields in mathematics, physics, neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, linguistics, philosophy, information science, computer science, etc. On top of that, one would need a certain sensitivity to appreciate why the question of qualia and intentionality is so hard.

One can say without too much exaggeration that the ability to tackle the fundamental questions concerning the physical origins of qualia is to be found in a selected few. For the rest of us, perhaps it is sufficient to get to know the concept, how it relates to our daily experience, and what new light it sheds on the human activities that we continue to pursue anyway. In other words, it is a good thing to be at least qualia-aware without pretending to be able to tackle, let alone solve, the problem.