This video features a guy I'd not heard of before, Vilayanur S. Ramachandra, called "The Marco Polo of neuroscience," though I prefer "the great gesticulator," a title I just invented while watching this animated performance:
Rama states the common conception of qualia (from Frank Jackson): we can know all of the neurological facts about color and yet still learn something when we actually see the color itself. Yet he's also clearly a reductionist in that he thinks that physiological research is where it's at in explaining these qualia.
Rama ties qualia to the notion of self; he follows a Higher Order Theory of consciousness: he thinks that being aware and reacting to something ("access consciousness," is Ned Block's term for this) is not sufficient for having an experience with qualia in it, and that the missing element is self-consciousness, i.e. awareness of the awareness, which is something that only comes with the ability to objectify part of ourselves, which is tied to language use.
This raises a problem regarding animals: not having language, they would have no conscious feelings of pain. Contra Nagel, there is nothing at all that it is like to be a bat. This seems counterintuitive, as lots of animals can clearly suffer, contra Descartes's view that they're just acting out clockwork with no inner life. However, there is an alternative: Some part of what we mean by qualia, what we mean by suffering, could be unconscious.
When we consider our own present experience, we're of course being self-conscious. We have no guarantee that by this operation we're not changing the phenomena we want to examine. My analyzed experience of pain involves:
1. My behavior of jerking away from a painful thing
2. My awareness of the painful thing (or the experience of looking for the cause)
3. A certain emotion
4. The qualitative feel of the pain itself as painful
5. My awareness that I am in pain
Typically, a philosopher arguing against behaviorism doesn't distinguish 3 and 4. Thus, if an animal feels pain, it has qualia, and so is conscious. A higher-order theory of consciousness (which says 5 must always go with 4) would then imply that animals can't feel pain, though they may jerk away (1) or even register that there is something to be avoided and so avoid that thing in the future (2). I suggest that 3 and 4 are separable: an animal can actually feel pain without having qualia (phenomenal consciousness) of this pain. Note that unconscious pain seems to occur in humans.
This points to a problem with the term "qualia." It involves me obtaining some actual, fine-grained information about the "feel" of what's being experienced (e.g. is this pain a sharp pain or a mind pain? Is it more of a burning or a stinging?), but also is by definition phenomenally conscious, so by just talking about qualia you're sneaking in the theory that this fine-grained information about pain that goes into "what it's like" to be in pain must be conscious.