A quale is the singular form of the plural qualia. Qualia are a linguistic attempt to describe the subjective experience of consciousness.
Pain and happiness are qualia. Physicist Max Tegmark argues that consciousness itself is a quale. Our experience of colour is a quale. Any subjective experience our consciousness allows us to feel is a quale: sadness, joy, wonder, epiphany.
We do not know what we are or how we work. We do not know whether mind and body are one and hence our mental states are merely a production of our physical mind and body. Or whether by contrast subjective consciousness is a law of nature – a physical “force” or object in its own right. Perhaps we are more than the sum of our physical parts.
I know that “I am”, but I do not know what I am. The question of consciousness and its nature has puzzled us for millennia and in some senses, we are no further forward in our understanding than we were back in the times of Plato and Aristotle.
We may have sent man to the moon. Man may have traced our origins to stardust. We may have posited the Big Bang and forecast Big Crunches or Big Chills but we are no further forward in understanding how, what, why or where we are.
As a matter of “belief” I think science will eventually give us all the answers we seek to the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Neuroscience is already using techniques such as MRI scanning to spot the neural correlates to qualia. We can already control machinery using thought alone. The Human Brain Project seeks to understand cognition and to map and simulate the human brain.
In the meantime, we are left wondering whether we are mere information processing systems and whether the processing of that information leads to subjective feelings. Has evolution given us pain and pleasure to secure the survival of the selfish gene? Or is there more to it than that? I don’t know and currently no one else does either.
Leading writers I have dipped into include: