Qualia - the elements of conscious experience - are associated with sensory information, most identifiably with what we see, hear, smell, touch, or taste. This is information "coming in" to the mind from outside. So we might think that there is some abstract boundary between (conscious) mind and non-mind, and that qualia are information as it crosses this boundary.

Contrarily, qualia can also involve information that we remember or imagine. But we can still fit this into the "information-from-outside" model, if we assume that the memory or the mind's eye are in effect extra senses attached to the conscious mind. In this interpretation, the memories or mental images are still crossing the boundary from a non-conscious system into the conscious system, and generating qualia as they cross.

The boundary would not be a distinct spatial location, because consciousness is spread through different parts of the brain, not centralized in a single location. To use a software analogy, suppose you have a program containing a linked list. The linked list does not exist at any single spatial location, as the cells of the list may be distributed anywhere in the program's memory, not necessarily contiguously, and the locations may change over time. However, when we add an element to the list, information crosses the boundary into it.

On the other hand, there is a model that qualia are state variables of the conscious mind. In this model, information from what we see, hear, smell, touch, or taste is not perceived as qualia until after it crosses the boundary into consciousness. Once the information is "inside," the state of the conscious system has been altered, and the qualia perceived is a function of the current state.

Which is true - is qualia information as it crosses the boundary of the conscious system, or is qualia information that's already inside the conscious system?

  • 1
    Why is this an either/or question? In Integrated Information Theory, they actually have a "qualia space" that represents the state of a consciousness, but to get there you need information crossing a boundary and its proper representation.
    – Annika
    Oct 30, 2023 at 2:50
  • @Annika If the qualia space represents the state of consciousness, then that's a state variable approach to qualia. Of course, any "qualia=state variable" approach will also involve inputs to change the state. In a "qualia=input variable" approach, the qualia are the inputs themselves, not the state.
    – causative
    Oct 30, 2023 at 3:11
  • How do you get from "are associated with sensory information" to "are information"? Qualia, on standard meaning, are pure qualities ("what it is likes"), they are not information or anything else relational. Since you seem to want a relational account why not just speak of sense data and/or neural correlates? As is, the question is hard to make sense of since you clearly redefined "qualia" without telling how. Is it something like: are brain states that manifest qualia induced by sensory input directly or after processing and integration? They can probably be both.
    – Conifold
    Oct 30, 2023 at 8:12
  • @Conifold Your definition of qualia as inherently non-relational is just your personal view, which I have not encountered elsewhere. Qualia are "what it is like," and what it is like can be relational. In my view it's necessarily relational; what it is like to experience something depends on the relation of that mental event to other mental events. Two events with the same causal effects on the mind would be perceived as the same quale. The SEP article mentions relational theories of qualia plato.stanford.edu/entries/qualia/?ref=ourbrew.ph#Relational with no mention of your view.
    – causative
    Oct 30, 2023 at 14:19
  • I do not really have a personal view. "Pure qualities" is the description Peirce gave when introducing "quale", SEP phrases them as "intrinsic, non-representational features" at the top. Relational theories are error theories that reinterpret what is called "qualia" (by Chalmers, Nagel, etc.) as something else because the usual meaning is taken to be in error. If that is what you mean then you should, at least, state that in the post and link to SEP. But it would be better if you just used non-error terms, without "qualia", it is hard to understand from current text what you are getting at.
    – Conifold
    Oct 30, 2023 at 17:39

2 Answers 2

  1. In philosophy of mind, qualia are defined as instances of subjective, conscious(!) experience. Neuroscience adds “being irreducible” to this definition. Hence by definition, a quale is a conscious experience.
    And the anwer to OP’s question, as formulated in its last sentence, therefore is: Qualia are “already inside the conscious system”.

  2. (Added) For the optic system it has been verified that a stimulus becomes a consciously registered perception not until a cyclic forward and backward activation between the associative areas and the primary visual fields has been established. It is not sufficient that the action enters into the component systems, it is necessary that it cycles between the component systems, see Noesselt et al..

    This obsersation seems to exclude your first alternative of qualia being "input variables." Who does advocate this alternative?

  3. The Theory of Integrated Information employs the definition above.

    The theory develops a mathematical model to discriminate between different qualia. The model is based on the state space of a set of n neurons, a 2^n- dimensional space of possible states. Next, the model introduces the corresponding qualia space, the set of all probability distributions on the state space. The model considers a given quale as a specific set of directed links between these probabilities. It is the set of these links which discriminates between different qualia. For more details see Qualia: The Geometry of Integrated Information.

  • About (1): The conscious system is not entirely qualia, is it? There's some other structure there, interacting parts that process the qualia somehow. So conscious experience is not the same as the conscious system, and it is thus conceivable that conscious experience could arise only at the boundary, with the interior unconscious. (2) We do not understand the brain very well, but as I mentioned the conscious mind is not spatially localized; it could well be that cycling back and forth between two brain areas is actually the process of crossing the non-conscious/conscious boundary.
    – causative
    Oct 30, 2023 at 23:26
  • @causative -- There is no "conscious system" in IIT. Causally with the physical world, IIT assumes functionalism. The algorithms implemented by our brains are what is causal. For consciousness, IIT assumes neural identity theory -- that the details of the neural net states are identical to qualia. But qualia are not themselves causal, and there is no "structure processing qualia". The idea behind IIT is to explain why brains have qualia, but our algorithm-executing machines appear not to. Tying qualia non-causally to high neuronal "dimensional space" vs our machines is epiphenomenalist.
    – Dcleve
    Oct 31, 2023 at 17:17
  • Jo, I have wondered why IIT is considered plausible at all? My understanding is there is no causal or logical coupling between qualia and events -- hence massive decoherence between qualia and function should result. This is the problem that all Identity Theories face, and is challenged by James' and Popper's Evolutionary Test Case for epiphenomenalism and Identity Theories.
    – Dcleve
    Oct 31, 2023 at 17:24
  • @Dcleve IIT is a mathematical model to explain how consciousness arises. As such it is an audacious enterprise and an ambitious attempt of mathematization in neuroscience. – Qualia are sujective experiences. Which kind of “event” do you mean? If you mean physical event, than one cannot equate "quale" and "event" because both belong to different categories. But one can ask: Which events in the neuronal communication processes generate qualia or - more general - conscious experience?
    – Jo Wehler
    Oct 31, 2023 at 18:30
  • @JoWehler -- The language you used: "events in the neuronal communication processes generate qualia or - more general - conscious experience" is epiphenomenalist language. A one way causal relationship between neurons and consciousness, with no back-causation relationship. Epiphenomenalism cannot explain any relationship between an epiphenomenon, and anything that subsequently happens physically, OR mentally. It cannot explain the raising of a hand following the intention to raise it. The solving of a math problem following the intention to solve it, etc.
    – Dcleve
    Oct 31, 2023 at 18:48

Both of your options presume there is a difference between a conscious mind, and an unconscious mind. These options intrinsically reject a variety of mind models, such as reductive eliminativism, neural identity theory, most idealisms, or delusionism, as they do not support your assumptions.

The conscious/unconscious boundary assumption requires some version of emergence, or ontological dualism. Emergent physicalism is the most common family of physicalist views, and both Popperian emergent dualism, and spiritual dualism both would support this unconscious/conscious boundary assumption for qualia, so there are a spectrum of mind theories that can be referenced here.

There are several research efforts on consciousness that seem like they could shed light on your question. The most useful I have found is David Eagleman's neo-dualist model of our unconsciousness using qualia "props" to create the illusion in our conscious mind of a fully fleshed out stage of the world which is then used as our world model in our "mind's eye". This is spelled out in his book Incognito: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9827912-incognito. Some of what is passed to our consciousness are detailed sensory quales, others are basically logic categories, such as "there is something over there". One key point Eagleman points out is that we have far fewer actual quales of perception than we THINK we do, because of so many sleight of hand logic frames that are passed rather than actual quales. Note, it is ME saying Eagleman's model is basically dualist, Eagleman considers himself to be a physicalist.

Additional test data set I find of great interest is the decision logic experiments of Daniel Kahneman, documented in Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman postulates that we have two mental systems, system 1 which is basically a neural net processor, and system 2 which is logical/algorithmic. Kahneman does not distinguish between consciousness and unconsciousness, but almost all of our formal reasoning is conscious, and our neural net processing is mostly unconscious, so his system 1 can be treated as an unconscious neural net brain, which feeds selected conclusions and data to a conscious reasoning system for a double-check on what the neural net processing recommends. Note, Daniel Dennett also thinks we have two systems in our heads, and refers to most of our mental processing being neural net processing, but considers that we run a "virtual von-Neuman machine" on our neural net hardware. While Dennett denies we are conscious, his concession to a two-system process is a significant admission from one of the giants of the field.

Two systems requires the interface you reference, as data is passed from system 1 to the conscious system 2, and whether that data is qualia, or whether system 2 generates qualia from that data, is a significant question.

Studying how the two systems interact can address this point. IF system 2 questions system 1, and wants more information about a problem -- such as "show me more details about the 'thing over there'" -- this appears to be system 2 doing thinking on its own, NOT just being fed qualia. And the units of experience behind "show me more details" are themselves qualia, even if system 2 is deluded (per Eagleman) that there are even two systems, or that it is asking a question of another system rather than of itself. So -- qualia can be states of the conscious system.

However, the blindsight experiments done by Nicholas Humphries are also highly informative. The unconscious mind can communicate information to the conscious mind without qualia in blindsight. But the degree of confidence system 2 has in this qualia-free data is greatly decreased. That confidence is ITSELF a qualia, which is self generated, once more showing qualia to be a state of system 2. BUT -- the difference in confidence between data that provides sight qualia, and data that does not, strongly suggests that system 1 is generally providing sight qualia to system 2. Therefore the answer to your question is very plausibly "both".

Therefore a tentative conclusion: System 1 provides qualia in much of its communication with system 2, and system 2 also uses qualia it generates for itself in thinking.

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