March 19, 2021•480 words
Telling a blind man about a strawberry ice cream sunset
One of my favorite things about living in the area of the world I do is the gorgeous sunsets. During spring and early summer the sky turns a rose-pink color almost looking like strawberry ice cream in the sky. One thing that sticks in my head however is the idea of how do you describe this color to someone who is blind? I can’t say that it is a lighter shade of red because this person has no frame of reference for what red its. They have never experienced the sensation of pink. This sensation is called qualia, the subjective conscious experience of something, and is the reason that electricity in our minds becomes sensation. And it is the hardest problem we have yet to solve as human race.
The cilantro conundrum
Somewhere between 4 to 14% of the population has a strong aversion to cilantro often saying that it tastes like soap. As someone who has never experienced this phenomenon, I could spend the rest of my life study the problem, and become the world expert on the gene that causes cilantro to taste like soap, however I would never be able to experience the qualia of their unfortunate situation. I could understand how the chemical compounds in cilantro break down, what receptor are engaged, and where in the brain the sensation is taking place. But I would never feel the subjective experience that these people feel. This leads to the root of the problem. What causes objective reality to become subjective experience?
We have no idea. We don’t even know where to start. What causes matter and electricity to become consciousness? We can describe where certain emotions in the brain maybe taking place but we have no idea why they are or how they got there. That is the hard problem of consciousness
A world of dead things
All around us in the world are dead things. Things without subjective experience. Rocks, grass, and air do not experience reality the same way we do. But we know that we aren’t alone in being conscious. We see that animals have subjective experience. And we know that we have subjective experience. As Descartes said,” I think there for I am”. The problem is we don’t know why we think and feel.
The good news? We want to find out. We’ve had hard problems in science before, such as the origin of species. And it is solely becoming more and more fashionable to try and understand consciousness. From the wider acceptance of psychedelic and psychoactive drugs to an increase look inward as the push for mental health goes forward, we as a culture are trying to find out and explain why we have our subjective experience. Hopefully one day I can find out why I experience a strawberry ice cream sunset.