Qualia is the term used to describe subjective characteristics of an individual’s sensory experiences, e.g., one’s own unique way of experiencing sensations such as taste and smell, color and sound, etc. The inherent problem with science accepting the validity of qualia is the question of measurement, so requisite to science. Measuring and quantifying are crucial practices necessary to enable controlled repetition of experiments.
How do we measure or compare the differences between the experiences of two people describing the color of an automobile if one sees the color of the car as blue/green while the other sees it as greenish blue? Sure, we can get a corporeal densitometry reading to quantify the amount of blue and green in the color of the paint, but we cannot measure the perceptions of the individual, which resulted in their dissimilar estimations.
If gaining insight into the qualia of perceiving a measurable color is daunting, how can we possibly attempt to understand the qualia of ineffable love? Reasons for who, how and why we love another person are unique to every individual. The same quality that attracts one person may very well repulse another. In considering the qualia of love, we must consider the mechanics of love and the innumerable factors involved in our choices, many of which exist in and act from the realm of our subconscious.
In order to explore the qualia of love in our conscious as well as our unconscious, I look to fiction, scientific research and a memoir for insight. The memoir, To Love What Is by Alix Kates Shulman portrays an example of what I consider to be healthy, romantic love. Shulman and her husband, Scott, enjoyed a dysfunction-free, compassionate and loving relationship. Their idyllic life was shattered when Scott suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him irreversibly changed. Intrigued by her tenacious perseverance, I pored over the pages of her memoir hoping to articulate the components of their successful relationship. Shulman and Scott shared compassionate as well as passionate romantic love. The passionate aspect of their relationship emphasizes the powerful role of oxytocin in forming attachments and developing loyalty.
Science provides insight into the roles of oxytocin on our feelings of love and attachment. While we look to science to explain the biological factors influencing our feelings of love, scientific explanations leave us feeling flat. It is literature, and its ability to place us firmly in the experience of another, that will provide the platform from which we are able to vicariously feel love. The pain of losing a loved one is manifested in Van Booy’s short story, “Distant Ships”: “My mother slipped on some ice and broke her hip, then without any warning she died in the hospital. It was like the closing of a book I never thought could end” (Van Booy66). Science may be well-documented and fact-based but, in the case of love, it is literature that offers a realistic perspective on the qualia of love.
Literature illustrates depictions of love better than any scientific study because literature expresses the qualia of experiences. Literature empathically embodies not only the joys, but the pain, angst, quandaries and vulnerability that accompany love. One cannot discuss the qualia of love without nodding to the vulnerability inherent in loving another, be it romantic love, love for a child, a friend, or a pet. Additionally, any scientific explanation of love, which fails to consider vulnerability, would be refutable.