Fresh AiR SciPhi - Youtube Show
Fresh AiR SciPhi - Youtube Show

Dave and Joe continue their walk through thought experiments, and tonight they discuss Mary’s Room.

Below are Dave’s notes from the night, which might be a nice accompaniment to read whilst the stream is on.

Frank Jackson (1982) ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’

The Mary’s Room thought experiment

‘Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specialises in the neurophysiology of vision, and acquires all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘the sky is blue’. (It can hardly be denied that it is in principle possible to obtain all of this physical information from a black and white television, otherwise the Open University would of necessity need to use colour television.)

What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a colour television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?’

Questions about Mary

Does Mary learn some new fact about the world when she first sees colour?

Is having all of the physical facts the same as having all of the phenomenological facts?

Are phenomenological facts about the world facts at all?

Does the existence of phenomenlogical facts debunk physicalism?

Think of this in terms of sound also. If a deaf person learned all there was to know about the physical facts of hearing, and how music interacts with our eardrums, nervous system, and emotions, would she know what it was like to hear Beethoven?

Mary’s Room syllogism

P1) If physicalism is true, then any person who knows all the physical facts about colour vision knows all the facts about colour vision.
P2) It is not true that any person who knows all the physical facts about colour vision knows all the facts about colour vision.
C1) Therefore, physicalism is not true.


A physicalist response to the Mary’s room argument:

One could argue here that Mary gains new knowledge, but not new facts. Think of the distinction between knowledge of facts (propositional knowledge) and knowledge of how to do something (practical knowledge). Knowing all of the facts about riding a bike does not equal the ability to ride a boke. Seeing colours could be considered knowledge how and not knowledge of. This is the ‘ability hypothesis’. This was first put forward by Laurence Nemirow in a review of a book by Thomas Nagel. Nemirow denies premise 2 of the above syllogism.

The ability hypothesis claims that Mary acquires new knowledge, knowledge that could not be gleaned from the physical information previously available to her. It is know-how rather than factual knowledge though. If this is the case then Mary does not grasp any extra facts, meaning that the knowledge argument does not prove there are extra facts over and above the physical facts. Knowing what an exprience is like just is the possession of these abilities to remember, imagine, and recognise something. It’s not the possession of any kind of fact, ordinary or peculiar. It isn’t knowing-that, it is knowing-how.

The Fred’s Red thought experiment

‘People vary considerably in their ability to discriminate colours. Suppose that in an experiment to catalogue this variation Fred is discovered. Fred has better colour vision than anyone else on record; he makes every discrimination that anyone has ever made, and moreover, he makes one that we cannot even begin to make. Show him a batch of ripe tomatoes and he sorts them into two roughly equal groups and does so with complete consistency. That is, if you blindfold him, shuffle the tomatoes up, and then remove the blindfold and ask him to sort them out again, he sorts them into exactly the same two groups.

We ask Fred how he does it. He explains that all ripe tomatoes do not look the same colour to him, and in fact, this is true of a great many objects that we classify together as red. He sees two colours where we see one, and he has in consequence developed for his own use two words ‘red1’ and ‘red2’ to mark the difference. Perhaps he tells us that he has often tried to teach the difference between red1 and red2 to his friends but has got nowhere and has concluded that the rest of the world is red1-red2 colour blind – or perhaps he has had partial success with his children, it doesn’t matter. In any case, he explains to us that it would be quite wrong to that because ‘red’ appears in both ‘red1’ and ‘red2’ that the two colours are shades of the one colour. He only uses the common term ‘red’ to fit more easily into our restricted usage. To him, red1 and red2 are as different from each other and all the other colours as yellow is from blue. And his discriminatory behaviour bears this out: he sorts red1 from red2 tomatoes with the greatest of ease in a wide variety of viewing circumstances. Moreover, an investigation of the physiological basis of Fred’s exceptional ability reveals that Fred’s optical system is able to separate out two groups of wavelengths in the red spectrum as sharply as we are able to sort out yellow from blue.’

Questions about Fred

Should we admit that Fred can see one more colour than we can if red1 is as different from red2 as blue is from yellow?

Even understanding all of the physical facts that go into making Fred see these different colours of red, can we ever know what Fred is seeing?

If we somehow managed to learn how to alter someone’s nervous system to act in a similar manner to Fred’s, or even managed to transplant Fred’s system into someone else, would that person learn a new fact about Fred, or even about the world?


What is Physicalism?

Physicalism is the idea that all facts about the universe are physical facts. There are no facts over and above the physical facts. This is a view that most sceptics and atheists today hold to. It is the view that everything is scientifically explainable, and that there are no supernatural elements to the universe. Everything that happens is causally explicable by scientific principles and laws. Some make a further assumption, which is that natural phenomena form a kind of hierarchy and higher-level explanations can be explained by reference to more basic ones, down to the level of chemistry and physics. This is known as ‘reductive explanation’.

This is not the same as something like reduction, which is the idea that a property can be reduced to a lower-level one and that it can be identified with this across the board. They are essentially the same property but under different names. Water can be reduced to H2O, but most properties can be realised in more than way. This is known as ‘multiple realisability’. A clock cannot be reduced to its physical properties, because the important property is that of its ability to tell the time. However, just because this higher-level property cannot be reduced to its lower level one does not mean that it cannot be reductively explained in lower-level terms. How the clock works is explicable in lower-level terms.

So, just because the higher-level phenomenological properties exist, and have different explanatory properties, does not mean that their function cannot be reduced to lower-level properties. Brain-states create mental-states, and are identical as such, but are explained in a different way.

If we consider something like a hurricane. A hurricane can be reduced entirely to physical properties. It is ontologically physical properties. However, we would not discuss it using simply those physical properties, we discuss it in terms of phenomenological properties, or phenomenological facts. We do not describe a ‘strong wind’ in terms of its physical properties, we describe it in terms of how it feels.

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