Note: I’m not a native English speaker, so sorry in advance for any mistake. I’ve tried hard to translate this text into English.

I’ve recently had an interesing discussion about cualitative properties of things. We discussed whether Haiku, those 3-verse minimalist Japanese poems have “something special” or that “special scent” is actually a product of our mind and how we experience the reading of a Haiku.

Qualia are a term used to describe the subjective quality of conscious experience: for example, the reddish color of a rose, or the blue one in the sky. One thing is the word blue and another one is the “sensation of blue” we experiment internally in our mind. Even more, recent neuroscience experiments tend to confirm different people have really different sensations when perceiving the same phenomena. So when both you and me are seeing at the “blue” in the sky, we could be experiencing different “blues” in our minds. Even more, in the extreme case, it may happen that my favorite color was “blue” and yours “red”, but inside our minds we were experiencing the same “color” sensation (and calling the same sensation by different names).

This also applies to every sensation or experience: Is sugar “sweet” or are we who perceive them as such and “make it” sweet? The question about whether qualities are on things or in our minds is not a trivial one; it’s a philosophical debate still unsolved. At the end of past century (oops! :S) I read a book on artificial intelligence which also treated this topic:

Phenol-thio-urea is a substance that tastes intensely bitter to about 75 percent of people and is more or less tasteless to the rest. Is phenol-thio-urea bitter? This is an awkward question for someone who naively believes that a statement like ‘Sugar is sweet’ says something about sugar itself as opposed to the effect that sugar has on us. There is worse to come, though. A person’s response to phenol-thio-urea is genetically determined. This means that if those who find it bitter are – let’s imagine – prevented from having offspring, the substance will become tasteless to one and all after the passage of maybe a dozen generations (like blue eyes could be extinguished if people with blue eyes each generation were prevented from reproducing). Thus, the phenol-thio-urea would be a substance which changes from tasting bitter to most people to be a universally tasteless substance, all this without any change in the chemical or physical properties of the phenol-thio-urea.

Jack Copeland – Artificial Intelligence: a philosophical introduction, Ed. Wiley-Blackwell

So, in other words, there are two opposing schools of thought:

  1. A red flower, is “not really red”. It simply reflects a wavelength and we “see it red” (or gray-reddish if you happen to be daltonic). If you think that way, you or point of view is such of a physicalist: things are the way they are, and we have a subjective experience when observing them. That’s all.
  2. When we see a red flower, that flower “is really red”. The red color comes from a wavelength, but this is something external to our mind that it is on the plant and is part of its physical properties. In this case you are on the school of anti-physicalist, also called dualist.

Considering the above, I think I’m “mostly physicalist”, buy with some objections, since it might happen that some qualia have both mental and physical properties. This philosophical question is far from trivial, as it leads to deeper ones: Do two people have the same internal experience when observing the same phenomena? (reasearch seems to point “no, we don’t”) Will “intelligent machines” in the future have “qualia” experiences?

So what, Do haiku have some special quality (quale) by themselves? Or are they just ink drops on paper (or pixels in your computer screen) and the sensation we have when reading them exist just in our mind? (You can apply question this to every human art, word or creation). Again, this is not a trivial question, because even from the point of view of semiotic and linguistic, a haiku will be more than “ink drops” or “pixels”.

And finally, a Haiku by Yosa Buson (C. XVIII):

autumn rain;
walking in water
on grass