The Qualia Problem

If you have spent any time in or around a university philosophy department, or even much time in the company of anybody who has ever belonged to one, you’ve encountered some version of the qualia problem. If you haven’t heard that formal name before, you’ve perhaps heard an informal version, like Ok man, but does the computer really see blue? The Qualia Problem is—imprecisely—the issue which arises when you begin to distinguish the robust description of an experience from the what-it’s-like-ness of experience itself. You can tell the computer every physical fact about the color blue: what kind of light produces it when refracted against what kind of surface, what other colors it pairs well and poorly with to human eyes, what other colors it can make through combination. You can show it every example of a ‘blue thing’ until the computer will never fail to recognize a blue object. You can even train it in color theory and aesthetics and get your computer painting landscapes remarkable for their subtle use of blues, but still, we have some intuition that the computer cannot ‘see’ blue in the same sense that we see it. Qualia are those subjective mental events—the seeings, the feelings, the experiencings—that are phenomenologically distinct from pure data.

Academic philosophy still debates the seriousness of the qualia problem (and whether there really is such a distinct thing as ‘qualia’ at all), but it is difficult to dispute that the gulf between experiences and mere descriptions of those experiences constitutes a central difficulty in human relationships. We even have a name for the skill we use to try and cross that gulf in our dealings with other people: empathy. A capable empath, we say, doesn’t merely understand, on a factual level, the feelings or experiences you’re describing to them. They don’t merely sympathize with you. Rather, they can, in some sense, “feel” your feelings with you, or at any rate experience some echo of your feeling through force of imagination and sensitivity. In other words, “empathy” is precisely the ability to grasp not just the data of another person’s life, but the qualia, too*.

The Qualia Problem is even trickier in literature. One of the central values we ascribe to fiction, memoir, essay and at least some poetry is the opportunity it affords us to inhabit another person’s subjectivity, to “see the world from a different perspective”, or to feel ourselves thinking along with someone whose intuitions, reasoning, and associative leaps are unlike our own. “Good” writing, we tend to believe, does not merely describe experiences and feelings we haven’t had. They create echoes of those experiences and feelings in the reader. That is, they give us qualia-by-proxy.

Consequently, literature has a qualia problem: how, precisely, do you somehow cause other people to understand subjective, mental experiences which are not their own, and do so without knowing your readers personally, or their own wildly variable experiences and points of reference. How do you do this on a page written before an audience ever sees it, without the ability to rephrase and clarify and try again if the first attempt fails? Of course, some people will argue (and have argued) that you can’t — at bottom, literature is an illusion — but again, it certainly feels as if the best literature overcomes the qualia problem. I don’t intend to cover every way that every author has ever approached the issue, or every trick that might be employed — analogy and metaphor are common tactics, as are surprise, suspense, dramatic irony, and deft control of pacing; the whole of literary high modernism is itself an extreme effort to achieve precisely this goal — but I am interested, as you might have guessed, in a particularly tricky case of qualia in literature: psychosis.

It’s obvious enough why psychosis poses a particularly difficult problem in literature, even (or especially?) in memoir and auto-theory written by those of us who have experienced it. Insanity is so foreign to ordinary life that the usual reference points no longer do much good. If you’re skeptical, just imagine trying to describe precisely what being stoned feels like to somebody who has never been stoned, and then multiply the difficulty by an order of magnitude. It’s one thing to reproduce the qualia a mood disorder. Most people, after all, have had moods, even extreme and persistent and irrational ones (This is perhaps why the most celebrated severe mental illness memoirs tend to concern bipolar disorder. There isn’t really a book about schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder as valorized for its capacity to relate the experience of illness as The Quiet Room. is for BP). But what do you do when the experiences you are attempting to force an audience to ‘have’ are confused, internally illogical, and defined by the fact that they defy justification, coherence, and sense? Describing what it is like to have a psychotic episode isn’t too difficult, nor is explaining the particulars of any given patient’s delusion. Even psychology textbooks can do that. But how does one recreate the qualia on the page?

I’ve never seen an attempt that I’ve found entirely satisfying. Some authors, like Esmé Wang, do an excellent job articulating particulars, but are so clearly in-control by the time of writing, that some essential part of the qualia is lost: surely, at the time of these episodes, the narrator was not able to see so clearly, and so in reading the later account, we are less given access to a psychotic mind as we are to a sane mind remembering psychosis. That extra degree of difference is significant, and frustrating. But the opposite approach might be worse. An attempt at mimesis would fall almost by default into an imitative fallacy. Attempting to recreate the confusion and fear and incoherence of the psychotic state, the essay (or story) would itself become confusion and incoherent—not, as it happens, something that you want in your own writing. There’s an intriguing possibility in Sandra Allen’s A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise — a book about Allen’s uncle’s schizophrenia, set in two type-faces, alternating between the uncle’s all-caps type-written autobiography (which he mailed to her near the end of his life) and Allen’s own narration and interpretation — but that project benefits precisely from the fact that the afflicted mind and the mind doing the interpretive work of essay are different minds. A now-sane patient, looking back, might be able to apply the same interpretive distance to their own experience but…now we’re back at my frustration with parts of Wang’s book** (and many, many others.)***

In my own work, particularly in the more lyric book I’ve written for my masters thesis, I’ve largely dealt with this problem by articulating it and simply saying that I’m failing to really convey the experience. For example, here’s a section from chapter five:

Every day during my first year after college, I left my apartment at precisely the same time, ate precisely the same meal at a coffee shop two blocks away, and then walked precisely the same circuitous route across two neighborhoods to reach a theater complex where I mainly pretended to write. I had the sense that if I went any other way, or at any other time, that I would die. Or more accurately I might be killed. 

It is possible to describe a single delusion. I have here already and I will later on. But it’s difficult to describe an interlocking constellation of bad beliefs, of false premises, and fear. They have no interior logic. The way that they make sense inside your head can’t be reproduced in a string of English words and sentences; even if they could, they would be dull. They’d be a series of overblown tropes and senseless clichés. I can tell you that at this time I became convinced that I was, in some sense, the dead Judean prophet Elijah. I can tell you that I believed, at the same time, that I did not exist. I can tell you that I thought the Holy Ghost lived inside my body and that was very passive-aggressive and that there were so many tedious, small habits I had to keep or He would abandon me to poison and car crashes and sudden cardiac arrest. But even telling you these things misses some essential property. It imagines that these facts were active and considered—that they defined the contours of reality as I experienced it then – when they were just the simple, underlying assumptions. Like my age or what city I lived in or my plans for the year: barely worth articulating, just facts to build a work schedule and a social life and the appearance of (more or less) ordinary behavior around. There is a qualia problem here. I can tell you what I believed and I can tell you how I felt but I cannot reproduce the what-it-felt-like-ness of any of it.

Imagine yourself in a room full of strangers at a party. Nobody is paying any attention to you at all, but you are suddenly very aware of your hands. You are suddenly very aware of how you’re standing. You are very suddenly aware of how you’re holding your drink, where you’re looking, how you are not in any of the small circles talking. Imagine the small and ultimately unimportant nervousness such situations bring on. It is a little bit like that, all of the time.

This approach works well enough in the context of the book, but as I start on the next project — a far more straightforward and outward-looking collection of essays about mental illness which this journal is mainly designed to let me think out loud about — I’d like to find a better answer than refusal. Maybe there is a way to create mimetic psychosis. Maybe there is an analogy or a metaphor or a syntax trick so deft that it will leap the gulf between my qualia and your qualia without losing style or aesthetic pleasure. I don’t know. I expect I’ll return to this problem—and its variations—fairly regularly in this space.

*This is a rabbit hole not worth plunging into here, but it’s interesting that the epistemological limits of empathy have become such a contested topic in cultural discourse. Consider, for example, the rise of ‘lived experience’ as the gold-standard of credibility when speaking to the broad historical or sociological conditions affecting this or that group of people. This is at bottom a claim about qualia: to be a member of a group is to have the subjective mental phenomenological experience of being-a-member-of-that-group. While one can describe that experience to others (and, it seems, generalize from it), any resistance is not a failure on the part of the describer, but a failure on the part of the audience. They’re like the computer—perhaps able to grasp what ‘blue’ is in some objective sense, but incapable, ultimately, of ‘seeing’ it. Something about this way of looking at the world is intuitively appealing — who knows better what it’s like to be something than a person who is that thing? — but it is, in its “strong” form, fundamentally at odds with the concept of genuine empathy. If you haven’t lived an experience, you’re incapable of understanding it. Given that all people are ultimately idiosyncratic in their particular experiences, it might follow that nobody, having lived anybody else’s life, can truly grasp anybody else’s qualia at all. That feels like too strong a claim, but it does have its appeal as a rhetorical strategy. Particularly with qualia as unusual as severe mental illness, it can be tempting to see every disagreement I have with doctors, researchers, cultural critics writing on mental illness, and more or less all sane people, as their failure to bow to my superior epistemological access to the ‘lived experience’ of being a lunatic. They don’t know my truth! On the other hand, this is a famously dangerous attitude to take if you’re prone to hallucinatory experience, paranoia, and delusions.

** I’ve mentioned Wang’s recent The Collected Schizophrenias twice now, both times in a context where I’m using it as an example of some failing or inadequacy. But I don’t want to give the impression that it’s a bad book. It’s an excellent collection, one that gets as close as I’ve ever seen to solving this problem. But precisely because I don’t think the literary qualia problem of psychosis has been solved yet, I don’t think Wang quite solves it. The book is still very much worth reading.

***I realize, of course, that these are three examples out of hundreds of possible cases, not just in memoir, but in fiction and poetry too (e.g. the Septimus sections of Mrs. Dalloway do seem to succeed in their mimetic ambitions without falling apart, although in that case, I think the particular mental state Woolf is trying to reproduce is a bit more straightforward than full-blown psychosis). This entry is just meant as a primer to the problem with a few light examples. If a particular case I find (or you send me!) feels worth considering at greater length, I’ll do a post about it.