It’s what life’s all about.
Imagine for a moment you cut a lemon, lift one half to your lips, bite deep into it and suck hard! What do you taste? What’s the feeling like? Now think of a glass of your favourite wine or the silky smooth taste of fine chocolate melting in your mouth. How about the sight or the rich deep green of an Irish meadow. What is the sting of a bee or the caress of a lover like?
The feeling, the perception you have in your senses of these things is Qualia. The personal perception of the experiences of the world around you. And one of the hardest things in humanity to share with others. You know exactly what honey tastes like but how do you explain it without using other Qualia terms like sweet? How do you explain sweet?
What a stupid question.
Oh, how many times, when I mention I’m colour deficient, have I heard it asked, “So what do you see?” Followed immediately with, “What colour is that?” as they point to something.
I don’t frigg’n know! I call it blue but that’s not because it is blue, it’s just that we all agree to call that colour blue! And I know when I look at the leaves of a tree, I will call it green and so will they but I’ve had the tests and I know, what I see is not the same as what they see but how to express green so everyone understands? That’s the challenge of explaining any Quale.
Just look at the awkward descriptions of what is said to be the finest wine ever by Robert Parker:
The 1947 Cheval Blanc exhibits… huge nose of fruitcake, chocolate, leather, coffee, and Asian spices is mind-boggling. The unctuous texture and richness of sweet fruit are amazing. Consider the fact that this wine is, technically, appallingly deficient in acidity and excessively high in alcohol. Moreover, its volatile acidity levels would be considered intolerable by modern day oenologists. Yet how can they explain that after 47 years the wine is still remarkably fresh, phenomenally concentrated, and profoundly complex?
Well that’s pretty clear isn’t it? For the trained wine cryptographer who can decipher these terms there is some meaning but this is not an explanation of the taste of a fine wine but a cheating comparison with other Qualia feelings. Go on Mr. Parker describe what leather means to someone who has never experience it! Then there is the whole Subjectivity of Wine, which is another issue.
The issue of Qualia has real importance not only with sharing the wonders of life but also letting people know how tough it can get. On a 1 to 10 pain scale used in hospitals, comparisons are entirely subjective on multiple factors. Some people scream like stuck pigs from an ant bite while I knew someone with a smashed hip who barely blinked. A standard which we all can understand was needed so the Schmidt Sting Pain Index compared pain referenced with a standard of a bee sting which most can agree on.
It’s still comparison, not explanation!
Qualia is the richness of life we all experience. It’s personal and can’t be shared.
Buzz Aldrin mentions in Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon the need for artists to go to space to help convey the magnificence of the experiences as seen from space. Sadly even past poets and artists have done their best but on all the pain and joy of the human experience and they’ve still been left wanting.