What follows is a draft passage which might eventually form part of a longer piece: I’d appreciate any feedback. – Peter


scribeLet’s ask a stupid question that may not even be answerable. How many qualia are there? It is generally assumed, I think, that this is like asking how long  is a piece of string: that there is an indefinite multiplicity of qualia, that in fact, for every distinguishable sensation there is a matching distinct quale.

As we know, colour is always to the fore in these discussions, and the most common basic example of a quale is probably the colour quale we experience when we see a red rose. I think it is uncontroversial that all sensory experiences come with qualia (uncontroversial among those who believe in qualia at all, that is), although the basis for that appears to be purely empirical; I’m not aware of any arguments to show that all categories of sensory experience must necessarily come with qualia. It would be interesting and perhaps enlightening if some explorers of the phenomenal world reported that, say, the taste of pure water had no accompanying qualia – or that for some, slightly zombish people it had none, while for others it had the full complement of definite phenomenal qualities. To date that has not happened (and perhaps it can’t happen?); it seems to be universally agreed that if qualia exist at all, they accompany every sensory experience.

I think it is generally believed that feelings, phenomenal states with no direct relation to details of the external world, have qualia too. Pain qualia are often discussed, with feelings of hunger and pleasure getting occasional mentions; qualia of emotions are also mentioned without provoking controversy. It seems in fact that all experience is generally taken to have accompanying qualia, including dream or hallucinatory experience, and perhaps even certain memories.

In fact there seems to be an interesting, debatable borderline in memory. Vividly recalling a piece of music in real time seems, I would say, to have the same qualia as hearing it live through the ears (Or are the qualia of memories fainter? Do qualia, as a matter of fact, vary in intensity? Or is that idea a kind of contamination from the effable experiences that pair with each quale? It could be so, but then if there is no variation in intensity qualia must be sort of binary, fully on at all times – or fully off – and that doesn’t feel quite right either.) In general the same might be claimed for all those memories that involve some ‘replay’ of experience or feelings; the replay has qualia. Where nothing is held before our attention, on the other hand, there’s nothing. The act of merely summoning up a PIN number as we use it does not have its own qualia; there’s nothing it is like to recall a password, though there might be something it is like to search the memory for one, and something unpleasant it is like to panic when we fail.

There is certainly room for some phenomenological exploration around these areas, but that more or less exhausts the domain of qualia as I understand it to be generally recognised. I think, however, that it actually stretches a little further than that. There is, in my view, something it is like to be me, something properly ineffable and separable from all the particular sensations and feelings that being me entails. If this is indeed a quale (and of course since this is an ineffable matter I can only appeal to the reader’s own introspective research) then I think it’s in a category of its own. We might be tempted to assimilate it to the feelings, and say it’s the feeling of existing. Or perhaps we might think it’s simply the quale that goes with proprioception, the complex but essential sense that tells us where our body is at any moment. Those are respectable qualia no doubt, but I believe there’s a quale of being me that goes beyond them.

To that we can add a related and problematic entity which uniquely links the Hard and Easy problems, a phenomenal state we could call the executive quale, that of being in charge. We feel that consciousness is effective, that our conscious decisions have real heft in respect of our behaviour.

This, I think, is the very thing that many people are concerned to deny: the feeling of being causally effective; but to date I don’t think it has been regarded as a quale. For some people, who wish to deny both real agency and real subjectivity, the conjunction will seem logical and appealing – to others perhaps less so…


  1. 1. Rick Coste says:

    I too get stuck on the idea of there being ‘something it is like to be me’. Yet, that ‘something’ is not the same something that was present yesterday. Depending on the day that ‘something’ is more confident, emotional, focused, creative, or any number of experiences/feelings that make up who I am at that moment. It goes back to the notion that what makes me “me” is simply a psychological narrative that appears to flow but is, in reality, just a jumble of experiences that are stitched together. There is no ‘me’. That idea aside, if I am a jumble of experiences and sensory data that is being stitched together into a cohesive and continual narrative then who is doing the stitching? Or better put, is the stitching performed at a biological level or is it being performed somewhere else? Somewhere separate from the physical substrate?

  2. 2. Arnold Trehub says:

    I think the quale of “being me” is simple the primitive sense of being here in surrounding space. This is my immediate and fleeting experience on awaking from a deep sleep — the onset of subjectivity/consciousness.

  3. 3. Mike.cox says:

    Peter, do you not think that there is equivalence between experience and qualia.

  4. 4. Mike.cox says:

    That we are aware of some of the mechanisms resulting in action, and we experience the sum of these quales as thoughts that precede the action, and we tend to think in terms of cause and effect. It is easy to believe that the thoughts caused the action.

  5. 5. Peter says:

    “equivalence between experience and qualia”

    Yes, in the sense that qualia are the subjective aspect of experience: but I think there’s more behind your comment?

  6. 6. Sergio Graziosi says:

    explicitly asking for feedback will always tempt me…
    The first, and more important thing I can say is thanks for sharing. Even if you can call me a hard-line physicalist, this kind of reflection never fails to light me up: you have created a short essay that can be described as the nirvana of a consciousness nerd like me.

    Other disorganised thoughts:
    – Using the Q-word is problematic, because it can mean different things. The “what it is like” sense frequently applies to the whole perceived experience, not a single element of it. So, if you take this definition, each experience will be unique and thus there are, by definition infinite (possible) qualia. I don’t like this approach because it forbids reductionism: if you try to subdivide the whole “experienced sensation” into smaller parts, people may say “yes, but you are now looking at the easy problems, so you are not even addressing the real mystery of qualia”. If anything, I believe this approach should be avoided because it is guaranteed to be fruitless (from a physicalist perspective).

    – The other frequent meaning of the Q-word does start with a reductionist attempt, describing a quale as the “redness of red”, thus separating the whole conscious experience into its building blocks, and is a much more promising approach in my eyes. And indeed, it does send us into the (supposedly) easy field, and allows trying to answer some of the questions you propose.
    For example, starting from vision, we know we detect 4 kinds of signal: red, green, blue (via cones, mostly active in daylight) and “just” light (rods). Trying to dissect “visual” qualia into the basic components one could be tempted to say that there are four visual qualia in normal people, and variations thereof for colour-blind individuals. Being a bit colour-blind myself, and having worked on the biophysics of photoreceptors for a little while (a long time ago), I’m fully aware of the different kinds of colour-blindess, but most people aren’t. This is a good page to get an idea, something that I do think it’s useful for any p-qualia junkie that may be reading your blog. [Hint: looking at real-world and measurable phenomena can bring you a long way!]

    What we get from this approach is some hope that this “dissecting” might be useful and justified, as studying anomalies does indeed help circumventing (at least partially) the supposed ineffability of qualia (and is therefore met with scorn by some). However, it gets weird soon: edges are already detected, highlighted, and specifically encoded in the retina, so one could start arguing that we have 5 visual qualia (red, green, blue, light and edges), but looking more downstream in the signal processing you’ll find detection of movement, curves, shapes, etc, so it quickly becomes impossible to decide where to draw the line and say “this is a quale and this is something else”.
    On the other hand, this approach does suggest that qualia do indeed come with an “intensity” component.

    Still, the study of perceptual or cognitive anomalies is very fruitful and it does even start addressing your other questions; there are tons of observations that allow interesting speculations on the senses of self and agency, for example. There are people who will have an intense feeling that some part of their body does not belong to them, and some others that will think one arm is actually controlled by someone else; you get also the reverse, and can craftily produce the illusion that you are controlling someone else’s limbs. I can look for references if you wish me to, but my memory is failing me, so I can’t spell them out without digging in my notes. Anyway, an entertaining general overview can be found here.

    Finally, I think you know I do regard the sense of agency, or more precisely, the feeling of “I’m taking a decision” as a quale in it’s own right. One may want to argue that free will (of the libertarian sort) is an illusion, but I don’t think we can deny that we can experience a particular feeling when engaged in conscious decision making (there is a specific “something that it’s like”, as far as I’m concerned).
    Hope some of this makes some sense.

  7. 7. Peter says:

    Thanks, Sergio!

  8. 8. Rodger Cunningham says:

    I’ll be the first to say it: “O quanta qualia!”

  9. 9. Richard J.R.Miles says:

    Very fashionable Rodger.

  10. 10. John Gregg says:

    Nothing it is like to recall a PIN? Have you ever recalled a PIN? If so, how do you know you have done so? I think of the redness of red as the gateway drug to acknowledgement of qualia, and it works as such because of its vividness, but it is a mistake to think then that qualia must be unstructured or non-cognitive. Thought is not made of ones and zeros, it is made of qualia.

    -John Gregg

  11. 11. Peter says:

    how do you know you have done so?

    Money came out of the machine, so I must have done.

    You could reflect on your pin in such a way as to have a genuine subjective experience, but I don’t think that would normally be true for just recalling a number. I wouldn’t say even the act of perceiving a red rose is made of qualia, just accompanied by them. What do other people think?

    If thought were made of qualia, my zombie twin wouldn’t be able to think at all.

    Of course, you might consider that that is the case, and that the zombie is impossible.

  12. 12. John Gregg says:

    Actually, I *do* think simply recalling the number is qualitative, through and through. There is something it is like to recall a number, different from remembering how to spell George Washington’s name, etc. As far as zombies are concerned, by hypothesis, they do all the neural clinking and clanking we do, with the same inputs and outputs, but no qualia. So they “think”, in my opinion, just as a computer “thinks”, but not in the same qualitatively rich sense in which we think. So in a sense, sure zombies think, they recall the PIN and type it into the machine correctly, but in another sense, no, they don’t think at all.

    -John Gregg

  13. 13. Vicente says:

    Peter, I have two concerns and detours from your idea:

    First you consider as a single quale what I most times consider a qualia “aggregate”, and you also put in the same bag “logical” and “sense or representational qualia”. Let’s consider this example: a scientist is working on a sheet of paper, and suddenly realizes he’s made an important discovery. You consider this as one whole single quale. The feeling of making the discovery plus all the sensorial phenomenal imagery. To me, you have many qualia that are then encapsulated by an intellectual process into “an experience”. You consider (why not) that experiences are a quale. I don’t. I think experiences include qualia, but something else, a logical envelope. In summary I distinguish between qualia and experiences, it seems you don’t.

    Regarding this foundational quale “being me” I believe it is empty in absolute terms. I will apply Mach principle and say that “being me” can only be understood in relative terms to other conscious entities or objects. If there were no other people there would be no you. And the “feeling” of being you is always modulated by your relations to other people, as well as by current and past conditions, so it is not really fundamental.

    This time I agree that the feeling of “being oneself” (not the self) is an illusion, as much as absolute space was an illusion for Newton, therefore I can take as a fundamental basis.

  14. 14. Peter says:

    Thanks, Vicente.

    I wouldn’t say that experiences are qualia: I regard them as an aspect of experience (I think – my views on this are sort of loosely held).

  15. 15. Scott Bakker says:

    It’s worth bearing in mind the degree to which ‘executive subjectivity’ is a historical artifact. The ancient Greek had quite a different understanding of personal autonomy, and were quite happy to acknowledge they were expressions of external forces/agencies. This simply raises the big problem looming over all cognitive phenomenology debates: the degree to which our introspective intuitions are products of our intellectual assumptions. When I was a Heideggerean I could FEEL Dasein as clear as day – it seemed an eminently accurate account of what it was ‘like to be me.’ Now, by contrast, I’m just as obviously a cloud of confused, murky, metacognitive phantasms that my pattern-seeking brain continually wants to beat into some coherent shape.

    The virtue of the latter is that it accords with the kinds of limits we should expect metacognition to suffer. If it took brains hundreds of millions of years just to reliably track a multiplicity of objects in our external environments, the idea that it could somehow develop the capacity to reliably track ‘supra-natural’ objects in our far, far more complicated internal environments should set off any number of alarm bells. Saying these ‘objects’ are ‘self-intimating’ is saying they provide cognition without cognitive processing: that they’re magic. As soon as you bite the bullet and acknowledge that cognizing experience demands biological resources the same as cognizing environments, you’re more than halfway to acknowledging that all this ineffability and discursive intractability are artifacts of our inability to see, not some special order of reality. Our capacity to reflect on the particulars of our phenomenology carries a metabolic toll like any other capacity, and as such was selected for the degree to which it solved certain ancestral problems, none of which had anything to do with the philosophy of mind.

  16. 16. Gary says:

    A short video I did asking a similar question.

    how many qualia can the brain create?

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