May 19, 2021. Across the rooms of our house: the bedside tables, sideboards, entrance desk and the bathrooms are piles of books, magazines and slices of newspapers. Flat Surface (book) Syndrome. Sometimes within these piles I come across an ‘old’ interesting article in the Economist or National Geographic.
Here is one: National Geographic, August 2020. Page 15. ‘When life turns into Quarantine’ by Oliver Whang. Oliver’s article revolves around his relationship with his identical twin, Ethan. This leads him into a discussion about the virtual world, the digital world, that has become, for many, their central existence during the restrictions of Covid-19. The resultant isolation has caused our students and workers to live their lives through their various digital devices – quite apart from their lectures and Zoom meetings, they have at their fingertips the world of video games (Overwatch (40 million players) … Fortnite (350 million) Minecraft (140 million)), YouTube, Netflix, Facebook (2.8 billion), Tiktok (689 Million) etc. Losing sense of day and night is one of the symptoms – and there are others. The digital was already invading, taking over our lives, but Covid-19 has supercharged the trend. (How many students do you know who are studying IT? No one seems to study humanities.)
Olive Whang. ‘I worry that the experience of this pandemic might convince people that we can keep living just fine while physically isolated from others. I find myself slipping towards that reality. There are entire days when I don’t leave the house, when my only human contact is with my brother as we await a turn in the bathroom.’
‘What if this level of isolation is the future? In this environment, something clearly is lost. I am sure of it, because I feel different when I experience things directly rather than virtually.’
And in quarantine, in isolation, we can be trapped in a half-world. ‘My fear is that going forward, some of us will never completely come out of self-quarantine: that dread and uncertainty will cause us to lose part of physical connection to the world: the qualia.’
So, we come to the qualia. It’s a slippery word that is hard to define. Perhaps it comes from the word, ‘quality’. But Wikipedia says that it comes from Latin: ‘of what sort‘ or ‘of what kind’ … is a conscious experience.
There is a convoluted discussion about the concept in the world of psychology.
The way I understand qualia is that it relates to the essence of a material thing or experience. That part of it we cannot know in a description, cannot experience through the digital world, that quality that we need to physically encounter and know through our imagination, our conscious selves.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes qualia as follows: ‘the intuition that no amount of knowledge of the physical information or physical facts concerning certain experiences can by itself suffice for knowledge of what these experiences are like, i.e., knowledge of their qualitative character or distinctive qualia.’
I needed to read that definition a couple of times.
Examples of qualia include the perceived sensation of pain of a headache, the taste of wine, seeing the wind in the trees, the redness of an evening sky. To know qualia is to be human. And yet, why should not animals experience qualia?
Qualia is an interesting concept … a subjective concept. Maybe it is the ineffable nature of being.
‘The “felt quality” of a conscious experience. – “Quale” is singular, “Qualia” is plural. There is something that “it’s like” to be conscious, to have a sensation, to see an after-image. “Qualia” is a word introduced to help us talk about what “it’s like” to be conscious.’
It is what we will be missing in our locked down world. Perhaps qualia are the central value of our existence.
Oliver Whang continues: ‘After college, I’ll enter an increasingly virtual work force. Computers are– or will be – replacing humans across the economy: bankers, truckdrivers, factory workers. Many of the jobs that aren’t disappearing are moving online. I assume that most of my friends will work in professions that involve staring at computer screens or talking on phones. As a writer, I could end up working from home every day. I’m already spending half my life online, so that prospect doesn’t feel all that jarring. Still, it’s a pretty strange reality.’
Reality is somewhere else.
A long long time ago, a friend called Ruth collected her young daughter from school and said to her with excitement, ‘We are going to look at trees this afternoon.’ The daughter became an artist of significance.
Is that what it’s like to be conscious?