Suppose that meet a Martian. This Martian has spent its entire life drifting in the voids of space, always moving in a straight line (and having a fine old time doing it).
Now, you start talking to the Martian and say something to it like, “My! You should look at those stars over to your left. They’re swell!” (And, let’s be honest, isn’t that the most likely thing you’d say to a drifting Martian?)
The Martian responds by asking, “What do you mean, ‘left’?”
“Oh, you know,” you respond, chuckling, “to your left… on your… left—the side that’s not your right.”
“I don’t understand,” the Martian answers. For a while, you attempt to convey to the Martin just what “left” is, but you find—discouragingly—that you can’t. It’s impossible.
The next day, you encounter a blind man, and you start telling him the story of your encounter with the directionally challenged extraterrestrial. You conclude your story by describing the freakish alien.
“What a crayon he was,” you exclaim. “I’ve never seen a living creature such a bright shade of blue!”
“Blue?” asks the blind man. “What’s that?”
“The color of the sky, the color of a suffocating Smurf—or any other Smurf, for that matter,” you explain.
But it’s no good. No matter how hard you try, you cannot imbue the sightless man with any notion of what “blue”—or any other color, for that matter—really are.
Annoyed with the ineffable nature of things, you leave the wayward spacefarers and bat-like blind men to their own devices and visit the local pub.
There, you sit in a bench made of the finest faux leather. An ugly cocktail waitress approaches and says, “Ugh. I hate these new red booths.”
“Red?” you say, confused because you are sitting in an orange booth. “It looks orange to me.”
“Whatever,” says the waitress, “I suppose you think traffic lights are orange, too?”
For the next half hour, you and the waitress bicker furiously about the color of the booth. You then decide not to leave her a tip. It occurs to you, of course, that the booth very well may be orange AND red—it’s orange to you, and it’s red to someone else.
Worse, the next time someone says, “the booth is red”, you’ll find yourself wondering just what they mean. Do they mean it’s “red” as you understand it, or a completely different shade?
All of the above miscommunications are prime examples of things called qualia (KWAHL’ee’uh). Qualia are essential, intrinsic, and ineffable qualities which exist independent of any other condition—and, most importantly, which exist only in your mind. You know, quite well, what “left” is. You know what “red” is. You know what “hurt” and “happiness” are. But you can only use these words and concepts in conversations with others who have encountered them, or things like them. To someone who has never, ever seen a color, you do not have the power to describe colors in a way other than by referring to other colors or colorful objects. To someone who’s never heard a sound, there is no way that you can make the word “loud” have any meaning.
Qualia are (and—in the singular—a quale [proncouned KWAHL’ee—not “quail’]) fascinating expressions of the human mind (and, in our example, the Martian mind). They are qualities of comprehension which exist exclusively within the mind. That we are able to communicate them effectively most of the time is perhaps the greatest reassurance we have that we’re not all that different after all.
Editor’s Note: This post was written by Mark Jacobs. Mark is a volunteer assistant editor for Jet Fuel Review. He is double-majoring in Physics and Air Traffic Control Management at Lewis, but the left side of his brain is an avid writer. Mark is a junior and works as a ramp traffic controller at O’Hare and at Panera Bread, from which he does not steal dozens of bagels every day. He is also a tutor in Lewis’ Writing Center.