The Nature and Human Impact of Qualia

Qualia have captured the imagination of philosophy of mind for generations, with a substantial body of scholarly literature devoted to analysis of this subject.  What are these phenomena both internal and external to mind, which create the appearance of our world while simultaneously informed by environments, both inside and outside of matter?  Why do qualia differ between species and human individuals, even when surroundings are identical, and looking at the opposite side of the coin, why are qualia similar enough that many billions of organisms can perceive, conceive, predict each other’s behaviors, intentions, even overall mental states despite the differing conditions of their biochemistries and physiologies?  Some phenomenon basic to the structure of mind as such must exist, embodied in all these variant lifeforms as a foundational dynamic of cognition, yet at the same time so diverse and intricate that no two moments of experience are ever exactly the same, even for the intense self-observance of our human psyches.

Certainty regarding the nature of qualia pends further research, but we can make some preliminary speculations based on current science.  In particular, the application of quantum physics to biology sheds light on intriguing phenomena.  Scientists have identified entanglement in photosynthetic reaction centers within which light-activated electrons of multiple chlorophyll molecules are more like a single perturbing quanta field than a particle transport chain, with energization transmitted to centrally located reaction center complexes responsible for initiating biochemical pathways that drive much of cellular metabolism in plants, stimulation that can take place from any direction and while diffuse electron wavicle structure is in any orientation.  We can liken this quanta phenomenon to a subatomic body of water, where translation of light into kinetic energy at any point in the electron field generates a holistic ripple effect that never fails to evince statistical signs of reaction center activation in direct proportion to UV exposure, total energy yield from any quantity or orientation of ultraviolet photons.

Though experimental proof is still lacking, the key functional role of ‘entanglement systems’ or hybrid electron waves spanning multiple molecules to a biological process as basic as photosynthesis makes it seem probable that this type of phenomenon is one of the core components of physiology, a pillar of life’s chemistry.  From this provisional assumption, and it cannot be emphasized enough that it is wholly an assumption, we can consider wider implications.

First of all, we know that photons of different wavelengths have additive properties when combined: any two primary colors synthesize to produce a secondary color, and all visible wavelengths together generate white light.  Like photons, electrons also have a wavelike nature and no doubt additive properties within single atoms or small collections of molecules, which are probably minute enough to evade detection by the naked eye, and most likely decompose quickly in an inorganic environment due to decoherence from the thermodynamic “noise” of kinetic entropy characterizing large aggregates of mass.

However, in a physiological context, mass is much less subjected to the entropic effects of kinetic motion, being stabilized as emergent structurality in biochemical pathways and additional molecular systems, so that these additive properties of electron wavelength may be sustained for a prolonged period.  Not only this, but electrons can hypothetically be entangled in multiple ways at once, creating a superposition in which additive properties of numerous entanglement structures are congregated into larger entanglement structures, systems within systems that we might distinguish from the relatively simplistic situation inhering in photosynthesis, a categorically different phenomenon of hybridized ‘coherence field’.  If coherence fields are found to be supported by the molecular assemblages of cellular biochemistry in the nervous system, especially likely to be discovered in the brain, their complex additive properties may be what we know as ‘qualia’.  In this scenario, qualia are not an immateriality supervenient on atoms, but instead an exceedingly complex “color” or quantum resonance intrinsic to tangible structure of the physical world.

The question then is how consciousness can emerge from this qualia phenomenon.  How do qualia give rise to the qualitative “experience” of a perceiver?  A possible explanation is that biochemical and physiological structures exist, particularly in the brain, for synchronizing sustained coherence fields, analogous to the clock mechanism of a CPU, so that qualia are metaorganized into a large array of experiential modules, parts of which compose the self-aware mind.  Activity of these compound modules may manifest as the standing brain waves detected by EEG (electroencephalogram).

Based on the anatomy of macroscopic organisms, it seems that some level of constraint must be imposed on any ability of coherence fields alone to adequately manage their behavior.  Limitations would arise from the division of labor necessary for strong, efficient mobility in an environment influenced by gravitation, with systems that must be devoted exclusively to gas exchange (respiration) and distribution (circulation), excretion, access to nutritional sources, or defense from predation, precluding the presence of standing waves and clock mechanisms in many tissues.  Nervous systems resolve this structural complication as a means of integrating far-flung parts of the body by rapid electron coherence and tunneling within dense webs of nerves, comparable to the electrical conductance of electronic devices, allowing organisms to grow bigger without prohibitive sacrifice of motility and general responsiveness to the demands of ecosystems.  Extreme density of nerve cells in the brain hints that either some kind of upper limit exists to the possible size or synchronization of coherence fields amongst cells, requiring a further mechanism of connectivity, or the organization of nerves is key for amplifying coherence field effects, perhaps in conjunction with the chemistry of glial cells.  The vast variety of neuron and glia types in the brain may be an indication of why there are such widely varying classes of qualia – visual, aural, olfactory, gustatory, tactile – a gigantic miscellany in possibilities for additive resonance.               

These insights point to some definite theoretical conclusions.  Qualia themselves, as a basic facet of matter, may be more fundamental than the modular experiencing we term ‘mind’.  A bacterium or bacteria colony for instance could participate in an emergent phenomenon of qualia as a result of its molecular assemblages, even to the extent of remote analogy with the essence of human awareness, without a metaorganization sufficient to yield the kind of agency we call ‘self’.  It may also be possible to induce sustained coherence fields as qualialike states in inorganic matter by some unknown mechanism, so that awareness and perhaps self-awareness are not confined to carbon-based forms.  Unintuitive phenomena of the quantum scale such as retroactive causality in photon entanglement indicate that entangled systems, hypothesized coherence fields and probably substance in general exceed the boundaries of spatiotemporality, a nonlocality transcending particular places and times that organic processes and perceptual mechanisms have access to.  Ongoing synthesis of experimental science with introspective psychology can bring more clarity to qualia as we investigate the nature of our own experiencing bodies, those of additional species, and their interactions with the environment, contextualizing these dynamics in theoretical constructs.

If qualia and emergent experiential modules of the mind are this deeply rooted in the essence of matter, it shows human existence in a new light, not entirely unintuitive, but certainly not conventional for science.  Qualitative perception may have a multibillion year history, and qualia may be as ancient as the universe itself.  Even the slightest signs of what would become large-scale civilization by contrast, with its institutions for inculcating high-level reasoning as the foundation of a prediction-based social economy, appeared on this planet only ten thousand years ago.  From a historical perspective, qualitative perception is an unfathomably vast tapestry, while rationality in civic systems is like a single pixel.  Nevertheless, reasoning has transformed ecosystems globally and given humans unprecedented influence on terrestrial life’s destiny.  Humans are an intelligent species, but considering the colossal forces of nature that oppose this sliver of an opportunity for reflective pauses we have attained, it is evident we must never take planned society for granted.  The security of humanity’s civilized future demands that everyone make commitments towards advancing the precarious culture of rationality whenever possible, a conviction to distribute and put into practice conceptual tools that built, maintain and augment our humble edifice of sanity amongst the leviathan psychoactive essence of the material universe.                      

Science inclines in modern times to think of the human being as machinelike, a mechanistic system of coordinated parts analogous to our technological gadgetry.  In the Information Age, this has transitioned towards viewing consciousness as a massively complex device of computation.  The mind certainly calculates and predicts its surroundings, so in this respect it performs many of the same functions as a computer, but even if conscious experience does turn out to operate according to fixed mathematical laws that resemble human engineering, its mechanisms must far surpass any theoretical idea we have entertained.  Scientific revolutions we can barely imagine are no doubt possible, but we can stagnate from excessive attachment to precedential theories, or even make civilization inhospitable for our actualization by overreifying, assigning names and concepts to phenomena without a culture that provides for improvements in comprehension and practice.  We must achieve balance between dedicated thought and entrepreneuring flexibility so that reason remains one of our primary psychical instruments rather than becoming our oppressive structural master.

A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below.  Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.

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