Ineffability of Qualia

This post is the first part in short series on philosophy of the mind. At the end of each part, there is a link to the next.

Suppose you and I experienced red and blue differently:

You: red blue

Me:  red blue

We would never be able to prove this, or even realize it. It is not possible for you to communicate your understanding of red to me, so that I could realize that it is different from my understanding of red. Our conversation might go something like this:

Your understanding of our conversation My understanding of our conversation
Blue is the color of the sky. Blue is the color of the sky.
Red is the color of blood. Red is the color of blood.
Blue light has a shorter wavelength than red light. Just check their sequence in the rainbow. Blue light has a shorter wavelength than red light. Just check their sequence in the rainbow.
In color-space, if you go from red to purple, and continue going in that direction, you end up at blue. In color-space, If you go from red to purple, and continue going in that direction, you end up at blue.
Red is a hot color. Just think of a glowing iron in the fire. Red is a hot color. Just think of a glowing iron in the fire.

Why is it impossible to communicate the meaning of a color? Because a color is inherently subjective. Its meaning cannot be expressed objectively. Only objective things can be communicated from one subjective perspective to another.

In the next post (What is Sentience?), we will use this idea to demonstrate that even the meaning of sentience is ineffable.

3 Responses to “Ineffability of Qualia”

  • Trey Hash says:

    Color is actually not inherently subjective. Color is what our brain interprets at different wavelengths of light. However, this interpretation is consistent with our anatomy. Unless I was born with one less cone, I will have the same visual spectrum as anyone else, ceteris paribus. And when an object exerts a wavelength interval of 650 nanometers, we will see some variation of the color red. If you don’t see it, and can’t know that you don’t see it, then how did we identify and then define color-blindness? Simple, we looked at the anatomy of the eye, and realized that this ‘subjective experience’ that is seeing color is actually just exactly what our eyes and visual cortex are meant to do. Also, there is new and exciting neuroscience research being done that show that electrical information from the visual cortex can actually be recreated into a video onto a computer screen just as a person is watching something. The dualist has been steadily losing credibility as modern neuroscience sheds more and more light on how our brains work.

    • admin says:

      Of course I can simply assume that everyone experiences what I experience when 650nm wavelength light falls on my cones, but that is an unfalsifiable assumption. If you have the same number of cone types as someone else, you can conclude that your color space has the same number of dimensions, but that has nothing to do with where the basis vectors of that space point. Color blindness, which was discovered long before we knew about cones, has the effect of collapsing your perceivable color space to a subspace, meaning that it can collapse what are discernible color-points to you, onto what is a single color-point to the color-blind person. The dimensionality itself is objective, but any invertible transform applied to the color-space is subjective since it is objectively unfalsifiable. What is to say that when my red cones are stimulated I undergo the same experience as you undergo when your red cones are stimulated? The fact that we have both been conditioned to call it “red” doesn’t mean we are experiencing the same thing or even nearly the same thing.

    • Ralf White says:

      Showing that “electrical information from the visual cortex can actually be recreated into a video onto a computer screen” is certainly exciting, but it has nothing to do with discrediting dualism, because the computer screen isn’t perceiving the image. To claim that would be like building a camera into a robot’s eye sockets and a computer screen into its skull, and then claiming it can consciously perceive images, without anyone actually being there to look at the screen. To the dualist, the visual cortex simply offers a more processed version of the information that the optic nerve offers. Reverse engineering this information is exciting but it doesn’t provide the miracle we need to explain conscious perception.


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