The Explanatory Gap

hard-problem-by-jolyon-trosciankoImagine a world where everything is in black and white. From the green grass to the blue sky to the many colours of life that surround you, all of it and everything else, just a shade somewhere between black and white. You are a person that has just landed in this place of grey and you are the only one who has experienced a world of colour. None of the people around you has ever experienced the multi-coloured majesty that is a setting sun or the arching rays of colours that make up a rainbow.

Now imagine trying to explain to one of these people what colour is…

How would you do it? Do you even think you could?

No matter how hard you tried to put together an explanation you would fail to find words that are not exact representations of the colour itself.

We can explain a chair to someone who has never seen one by explaining its features and its purpose but we cannot find the same words that aptly describe a colour. Something is just red or blue. It can be a version of that colour by being lighter or darker but beyond that we rely on the visual cue itself and our past experiences to understand it.

We live in a world with colour. Our eyes are constantly taking in colours and other information that is around us and then processing it. Storing all the data up and building neural pathways based on the information and our experiences with it. This is how we learn and how we grow.

Say you are a experiencing some event with a group of friends, for example a concert. Even though you may be sitting side by side having a similar view and experiencing the exact same event your mind and their’s are processing the event in very different ways. While they may experience the same music at the same concert it is actually completely different. It is subjective. Each person at the concert is having their own experience and this individual instance of subjective, conscious experience that everyone is having is called qualia.

Qualia itself relates to the experience and how our perceptions of it are individual. Due to the fact that I cannot think the same way you, the reader, are thinking I cannot know how you view things or how you process them. I can only know my own mind and my own experiences and memories. But this doesn’t entirely segregate us from others and their mindsets. Using language we can communicate enough information to someone else to help them understand what is being experienced.

But have you ever tried to explain something and found that there were no words to describe it?

Well then you have experienced the explanatory gap. If we go back to the example of explaining colours to someone who only sees black and white we would experience the explanatory gap.

The explanatory gap also comes into play when you are at the hospital and a nurse asks how much pain you are feeling. Try as you might there is no way of really explaining the pain other than by describing its location, whether it is throbbing or not and how it started, even when asked to rate the pain on a scale of 1-10 is absurd as a 10 for me could be a 6 for you. Pain is completely subjective and based on my own experiences and because of that there are no words that can transfer my experience, or qualia, over to the nurse.

But why is it, that we cannot explain these things, what makes the explanatory gap occur?

There are a couple different explanations.

On the one hand it could be that there are words for that experience allowing us to describe the experience at hand but we are unaware of them, and if we pieced enough of these words together we could fill in the puzzle and create a perfect explanation letting someone else understand what we experienced.

This could be a possibility because, as we have previously discussed in “How Big is our Mental Vocabulary”, in the English language there are roughly 1.5 million words but the the average adult only has a mental vocabulary of around 30,000 words, only 2% of the entire Language. Therefore there could be a magic combination of words that do explain what we are feeling but we just lack the language skills.

Although, on the other hand there could plainly be a disconnect between the words we have and the emotions and other things that we are experiencing. While our language allows us to explain a great many things there could be limits to what we can put words to. There could be no way for us to really describe what a colour looks like to someone who has never seen one or tell a nurse about our pain. Our minds and our words may not line up past a certain point.

While this option is bleak and pessimistic it also means that there are things left for the individual. It would be nice to be able to explain anything to your best friend or your family but there is a beauty in the human experience and part of that comes from self-experience; grappling with life and learning without any books or guidelines or anyway to tell someone how past a certain point. What it does is leave room for the personal.

But when it comes down it, we just don’t know why the explanatory gap exists or if there is a way to breach it.

In some ways this shows us some of the follies of our language but it also shows us how much we rely on language for everything we do. While I may not be able to let someone experience an event that I just experienced I can explain to them what happened and tell them a story that resembles what happened. Using the literary tools we do have we can piece words after one another in seemingly limitless possibilities and when that is combined with the human imagination we can get pretty close to explaining many of life’s intricacies and nuances.

Words may fail us sometimes but more often than naught they are opening our eyes and our imaginations to things we could never experience.

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