English philosopher C.D. Broad hypothesized that if a mathematical archangel endowed with unlimited mathematical skills and knowing exactly the microscopic structure of ammonia would not be able to predict the smell of ammonia in a human nose. The most that such a being could predict would be certain changes that would occur in the mucous membrane and olfactory nerves and so on, but not the actual sensations that ammonia would bring about in terms of taste and smell. What this suggests is that there is a profound difference between matter and mind. Whatever qualities a sentient being can experience apart from physical structure seem to exist in a dimension uniquely and alluringly non-physical. Not necessarily ghostly or disembodied, but indefinable according to the measures and instruments of science. This domain of phenomena is referred to in the plural as qualia and in the singular as quale. Qualia refer to the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives. They are what give life its heat and charm.
Science is concerned with empirical data. Art is concerned with ineffability. Phenomena that cannot be easily categorized. Phenomena such as sand. Geology can tell you what causes sand, where the sand is from, how old the sand is, the exact number of grains in a vial, but not the sensation of sand in your shoes, the feeling of it beneath bare feet, the fineness of it as it slips your fingers, the slant of it in a castle pounded into place with the palms of the hand.
Marcel Proust was exceptionally gifted in this area. His entire work is concentrated on the intensity of focus and attention he brought to sensation, emotion, experience. This is particularly true of the volumes titled À la recherché du temps perdus (In Search of Lost Time). The work begins with a sensation: the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea.
In the volume titled In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (translated by James Grieve), there’s a magnificent paragraph in which the narrator (presumably Marcel) sits at a table in the Grand Hotel of Balbec, which in actuality is the town of Cabourg located on the northern coast of France. He has been spending several days in the company of a well-known painter named Elstir, who has introduced him to a group of village girls with whom he has grown quite infatuated. He becomes particularly enamored of a girl named Albertine. These experiences of art and romance combine to give his time at the table a flavor of intense sensationalistic splendor. Here is the paragraph:
At the end of lunch, I was inclined now to stay on as the tables were being cleared; and if it was a moment at which the little gang of girls could not be expected to pass, my eyes looked on things other than the sea. Since seeing such things in the watercolors of Elstir, I enjoyed noticing them in reality, glimpses of poetry as they seemed: knives lying askew in halted gestures; the tent of a used napkin, with which the sun has secreted its yellow velvet; the half-emptied glass showing better the noble widening of its lines, the undrunk wine darkening it, but glinting with lights, inside the translucent glaze seemingly made from condensed daylight; volumes displaced, and liquids transmuted, by angles of illumination; the deterioration of the plums, green to blue, blue to gold, in the fruit dish already half plundered; the wandering of the cloth draping the table as though it is an altar for the celebration of the sanctity of appetite, with a few drops of lustral water left in oyster shells like little stone fonts; I tried to find beauty where I had never thought it might be found, in the most ordinary things, in the profound life of “still life.”
The cumulative effect of Proust’s words is stunning. Details work symphonically to create a lush experience of gustatory communion. This is unqualified quale.
“We have ground to hope,” observes Saul Bellow in his novel Herzog, “that a life is something more than such a cloud of particles, mere facticity. Go through what is comprehensible and you conclude that only the incomprehensible gives light.”
I could not agree more. We have similar experiences, but never identical experiences. There is no one pure sensation that is absolute in its effect on a living organism, be it a frog, a shark, a penguin, a grasshopper or a human being. Real problems begin in communicating such phenomena. Communicating the incommunicable is precisely the mission of art. Of poetry.
“Experiences and feelings,” observes Michael Tye in a section titled “Qualia and the Explanation Gap” for the online edition of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “are as much a part of the physical world as life, digestion, DNA, or lightning. It is just that with the concepts we have and the concepts we are capable of forming, we are cognitively closed to a full, bridging explanation by the very structure of our minds.”
Maurice Blanchot presses the situation further. He expresses the impossibility of experiencing the totality of any phenomena. “We rarely encounter the world,” he avers somewhat pessimistically, “we rarely touch existence, we do not experience our own situation as a being who is seized utterly and likewise seizes everything there is to know and feel in the event.” As pessimistic as this may sound superficially, it also galvanizes in its challenge, gives one further scope in its admitted limitations. It leaves one feeling wow, what else is out there? I want to find out. I want to give it a shot. Break on through to the other side as Morrison sang.
Proust lends further drama to this immersion in phenomenality. In The Guermantes Way (translated by Mark Treharne), the volume which follows In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, Proust describes the spectrum of emotions and sensations of staying in an unfamiliar hotel room. Here is the paragraph:
Inside my hotel, I retained the same fullness of sensation I had experienced out of doors. It gave such a full and rounded appearance to the surface of things that normally seem flat and lifeless - the yellow flame of the fire, the crude blue paper of the sky on which the evening light, like a schoolboy, had scrawled wiggly pink chalkmarks, the oddly patterned cloth of the round table where a ream of essay paper and an inkpot awaited me in company with one of Bergotte’s novels - that, ever since that moment, these things have continued to seem laden with a particularly rich form of existence, which I feel I could extract from them if I were given the chance to set eyes upon them again.
How do we apprehend such quale? Is this why at times we feel lost, or something precious has been lost, a keener sense of the world blunted by daily habit? How do we gain this “fullness of sensation,” this ability to penetrate the “surface of things that normally seem flat and lifeless?” Elsewhere within the same volume Proust writes that “the same is true of sleep as of our perception of the external world. It needs only some modification in our habits to make it poetic.”
Paying attention helps. “Now there is indeed one human act which at one stroke cuts through all possible doubts to stand in the full light of truth,” observes Merleau-Ponty in his Phenomenology of Perception. “This act is perception, in the wide sense of knowledge of existences. When I begin to perceive this table, I resolutely contract the thickness of duration which has elapsed while I have been looking at it; I emerge from my individual life by apprehending the object as an object for everybody.”
We make perceptions out of things perceived. This seems absurdly simplistic, but what it entails is profound. It means that our delimiting sensation is integral to the experience itself, that the quality of such attention is as rich and mysterious as the object reveals itself to be. “Even if what we perceive does not correspond to the objective properties of the source of stimulus,” writes Merleau-Ponty, “the constancy hypothesis forces us to admit that the ‘normal sensations’ are already there. They must then be unperceived, and the function which reveals them, as a searchlight shows up objects pre-existing in the darkness, is called attention. Attention, then, creates nothing, and it is a natural miracle…”
But what in tarnation is a “constancy hypothesis?” The constancy hypothesis makes the claim that the basic inputs to consciousness have a constancy in their correlation with stimuli such that the same stimulus will produce the same sensation. But this can only be true if our sensory apparatus is precisely the same for everybody, which is not entirely correct. We all have noses and ears, fingers and nerves, tongues and eyes and ears and thumbs and skin. It’s all pretty much the same thumbs and noses and eyes, etc. But they’re not. No two eyes are the same. No two noses are the same. The variations are crucial. Nerves aren’t wires. We’re not zombies hooked up to the same power grid. That is to say, if you’re eyes are focused on these words chances are good that you’re not a zombie. A zombie is a molecule by molecule duplicate of a sentient creature, a normal human-being, but who lacks any phenomenal consciousness. The zombie experiences nothing at all. A zombie has the ability to process stimulus and produce similar patterns of behavior. A zombie might have recognizable beliefs, thoughts, ideas, desires, etc. But if we reject the idea that phenomenal states are identical internal, objective, physical states and that there is more to experience than fixed microphysical facts than we must open ourselves to the importance of introspection. This is where quality (i.e. qualia) are processed and distilled into poetry and art.
The qualitative features of mental states, that which we call qualia, and which authors such as Proust base volumes of writing upon, are supplied to us by introspection. It is more than a cluster of idiosyncratic dispositions. It involves a disposition toward contemplative incandescence. The stoking of an inner light.
I would like to conclude with this paragraph from Proust’s The Guermantes Way:
If I wished to go out or come in without taking the elevator or being seen on the main staircase, a smaller, private staircase, no longer in use, offer me its steps, so skillfully arranged, one close above the next, that their gradation seemed perfectly proportioned and similar in kind to that which in colors, scents, and tastes often arouses a special sensuous pleasure. But the pleasure of going up- and downstairs was one that I had had to come here to learn, as I had once learned in an alpine resort that the act of breathing, to which we habitually pay no attention, can be a constant source of pleasure. I was exempted from effort, an exemption usually granted us only by the things with which long use has made us familiar, the first time I set my feet on those steps, familiar before I even knew them, as if they possessed something that had possibly been left and incorporated in them by former masters whom they used to welcome every day, the prospective charm of habits I had not yet contracted, which could only pale once they had become my own.