An Aggravating Mystery Named Mary

For the past few weeks I’ve been posting comments about some of the deepest mysteries of consciousness. I’ve been focusing particularly on “qualia,” the qualities of sensory experiences such as colors, sounds, tastes, and pains. In 1982 Frank Jackson published a paper called “Epiphenomenal Qualia,” following up in 1986 with “What Mary Didn’t Know.” In the past three decades more than a thousand scholarly papers and several books have responded to these articles. Jackson’s two little essays seem to have hit a very big nerve.

Jackson eventually decided that his argument was flawed, but many believe he was right the first time and should never have recanted. So here is Jackson’s conundrum, as I understand it:

Imagine that we can peer into the distant future, hundreds of millions of years from now. Science has advanced so far that many fields of study are essentially complete. And biotechnology has expanded our memory and intelligence so that a single individual can understand everything there is to know about some complicated subject. One of these people is Mary, a neuroscientist who knows all that can ever be known about color experiences by studying their physical aspects. Mary has soaked up everything about the physical aspects of color perception that books, teachers, and information technology can possibly tell anyone – but Mary has never seen a color. She grew up in a black-and white room, she was prevented from looking at her own skin, etc. Then one day she is released from her colorless home, free to see the whole range of hues for the very first time.

Let’s say that the first colorful thing Mary sees is a garden full of dazzling red roses. And here is the crucial question: When she sees a red rose for the first time, does Mary gain new knowledge? Jackson claimed that she does, and he cooked up the Mary scenario because at that time he was a dualist. Dualists believe that mind and matter are two very different sorts of stuff, and Mary helped Jackson argue that mind is not matter. He claimed that after her release Mary gains new knowledge over and above the complete physical knowledge she already possessed. She learns what colors are as we experience them.

If all things are physical, including our visual experiences, and Mary already knew everything about the physical aspects of color perception, then she would not have learned anything new when she walked into that garden. But if she did learn something new when she actually experienced color, then our experiences of color are not physical. They are not made of matter, and do not occur within the brain. This also implies that qualia in general are not physical.

“Physicalism” (sometimes called materialism) claims that everything that exists is made of physical matter, and so any facts about things that exist are facts about physical things. But Jackson’s argument implies that knowledge of physical facts is not complete knowledge, because after her release Mary learns new facts over and above the complete physical knowledge she already possessed. Therefore, physicalism is false.

So what do you think? Was Jackson’s argument correct? If not, what’s wrong with it?

Perhaps more importantly, do you see why this thought experiment is so challenging? Why has it stimulated so much discussion? When I have led workshops for the public on consciousness, many participants have a hard time understanding that it’s the qualities of conscious experience that are difficult to explain physically. Until one sees the depth of this problem, the mystery of consciousness may seem soluble, even trivial. Soluble it may be. Trivial it’s not.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Opening a Window into Philosophy of Mind

No doubt there are still cocktail-party conversations about Descartes, Nietzsche, and Sartre, but I wonder how many Bordeaux-sipping intellectuals discuss Dretske, Nagel, and Kripke. The relationship between academic philosophy and the general public is nearly non-existent. Professors mostly speak to each other, in a technical language full of confusing terms with multiple definitions – “qualia,” “intentionality,” “representationalism,” “epiphenomenalism,” and so on. A few, such as Daniel Dennett and Nicholas Humphrey, have written for a wider audience, but most seem comfortable remaining within their own ivory towers.

I have been a member of the American Philosophical Association for nearly 25 years, reading books and professional journals and regularly attending conferences and colloquia. So I have spent years as the proverbial fly on the wall, listening to professorial interchanges within these lofty retreats. I am impressed with the need for competent philosophical analysis, and one of my life goals is to open a window into contemporary philosophy of mind for interested non-philosophers.

But I have sincerely wondered whether this is possible. When I tell people about my book, Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You, I cannot sum it up in a sound bite. In the book itself, it takes the Introduction and the first five chapters just to explain the key problems.

Last Sunday, however, I had a very encouraging experience. I presented Part One of a workshop called Your Mysterious Mind: New Insights into Baffling Enigmas at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. The program concludes with Part Two on February 15. About 35 showed up, an excellent turnout for an early Sunday afternoon program, and participants seemed interested and engaged.

It was especially heartening to see that some attendees had an intuitive feel for the problem of consciousness and its possible solutions. One person (“K”) dealt with Frank Jackson’s Mary-scenario by proposing what academicians call the ability hypothesis – after seeing colors for the first time, Mary acquires new abilities but does not acquire new facts. “M” suggested that sensory experiences are memories, perhaps implying that they involve cognitive responses to recent (not current) perceptual inputs. And “E,” who has a strong science background, wondered whether some consciousness-conundrums are merely pseudo-problems. I could imagine Daniel Dennett cheering her on: “Right! There isn’t any special Problem of Consciousness. There just seems to be.”

I’m under no illusions that conveying contemporary philosophy of mind will be easy, but I am now more hopeful that my project will make a positive difference.

Roger Christan Schriner