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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss


Now here is a word most of us may never use or even know, Qualia. I stumbled on it the other day and learned that it is the subjective sensation of our sensory perceptions. In other words, it is how we create coherency among the many inputs our brains receive from our eyes, ears, touch and so forth. At random here are some qualia: the feeling of laying down on crisp clean sheets; the itching sensation we get when we encounter an unseen spiderweb; the serenity of a sunset; the taste of a perfectly fried potato. You get the idea.

Faster than we are aware, our brains process volumes of sensory input—match it against our library of past experience and cause us to respond. It’s virtually automatic which is why we may not notice how we are programmed. But stop a minute and randomly access your memories—find some experience: the smell of new cut grass; the warmth of the sun on your body on an early Fall day, and you can summon up the feelings. Almost immediately your brain begins to replay a host of those feelings—good or otherwise-first associated with that experience.

If we needed proof that feelings of themselves are not the most reliable metric by which to judge reality, there it is. Literally out of thin air we can conjure an emotional context simply by recalling a perception. But make no mistake—the feelings seem very real. Recently I wrote about the feeling fallacy—the façade of emotion that shapes our thoughts and actions assigning good or bad values. I needn’t go down that path again. Knowing that our brains are hardwired to our senses—that they cannot exist without them for very long we rarely consider the degree to which subtle influences predispose us.

It’s likely you have not tried sensory deprivation. Although it can be of some benefit in addressing anxiety, depression, and other emotional disorders when used in a limited way, long exposure does just the opposite. It can cause dissociative disorders and even pathalogic behavior. Consider people who are deprived of a limb, or a sense. The body and brain work to try to compensate—and may in fact do so in startling ways. But the universe which the brain has assembled still recalls what no longer exists.

You might wonder where I am headed with this post. If you guessed it was about faith, your perceptions are dead on. The essence of faith is our prevailing belief in something—some agency greater than ourselves. Call it the Universe, God, our higher selves—it matters little. By definition we have no evidence for faith, no qualia on which to rely. If we believe, it appears that our faith is entirely a function of our consciousness unaided by our senses. I don’t know about you, but I was struck by the paradox. Faith is a function of our mind, divorced from credible perception—yet we humans question it while accepting as real, emotions that are nothing more than the brain’s attempt to create coherency out of qualia. Why is it we trust our emotions to tell us what is real but mistrust our minds?

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