Sunday, January 07, 2007

The chasm and qualia

When I was an undergraduate student studying Physics in Tokyo, I took a particular joy in the calculation of complex mathematical formula. I remember sitting for hours in the lecture room of the Physics department and deciphering the universe of special functions, oblivious of what was going on in the outside world.

When I was done with the calculations, I would sometimes walk through the Ueno park and go to a concert in the Tokyo Cultural Center, and listen to my favorite music. As I listened to the beautiful sound of the violin or a soprano, I could tell that I was moving into a completely different state of mind.

At that time, one thing was puzzling and worrying me. From my childhood I was interested mainly in two things, science and the arts. In addition to listening to the music and looking at paintings, I was fond of reading novels. As a raging youth, I was very envious of the novelists. Here is the reason why.

As you grow up, you experience things. Love triangles, farewells, encounters, regrets, etc. I was puzzled and worried why all these incidents in life did not have anything to do with the professional life of a Physicist as I understood it at that time.
If you are a novelist, you could reflect your real life experiences in your work. If you have a hard time in a love triangle, you can write about it in your work and have some justification at least. A lot of achieved Japanese novelists had actually done just that in the genre of the so-called "private novels".

When you are a Physicist, on the other hand, you cannot really make a professional use of what you experience in your private life. A clumsy translation from the real life into physics theory or vice versa usually ends in tears and disappointments. It is laughable to try to account for the complexity of what happens in a love triangle in terms of three-body equations. There was this deep perceived chasm between what a Physicist experiences in the private life and what he or she is professionally supposed to do.

As I was walking through the Ueno park to go to the concert, I was experiencing a transformation from the objective to the subjective. At that time, it seemed that there was no means of bridging this particular gap, the wide open "valley of death" between the spiritual and the materialistic. So it came as a personal redemption as well as a complete rewriting of my world view as a scientist when I realized in a moment of flash the problem of qualia as I was riding on a train on my way back from the research institute one cold night in February 1994.

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