The Thing About Mary

One of the cleanest and most compelling arguments against physicalism in the philosophy of mind is the “Knowledge Argument”. (Here is a quick summary. The response I am going to offer doesn’t show up there, though it fits in as a variant of the “No Learning” objection. It’s also the reply Daniel Dennett gives in Consciousness Explained.) According to this argument, thorough knowledge of the physical facts of a human being will not reveal any of the subjective states of that human being–what they feel, think, and sense. But this means there are facts about a human being that cannot be known by knowing all of the relevant physical facts. Hence, physicalism is false.

The argument is typically presented in a story about Mary. Suppose Mary is a super-smart brain scientist who is unable to see colors. She learns everything there is to know about the brain, including what the brain does when it sees colors. So Mary has all the neurophysiological facts. But then suppose she is given the ability to see colors. She sees a rose and exclaims, “Oh! So that is what red looks like!” She didn’t know what red looks like, even given her knowledge of the brain. Hence there was something Mary didn’t know about human conscious experience. Hence there’s more to it than physical facts can tell.

It’s a cute and somewhat compelling example. But it’s misleading, and the misleading part is the part in the story when it is claimed that Mary knows everything there is to know about the brain. Set aside the problem that that is quite a lot. The problem, really, is that that is not enough.

Suppose Mary is a super-smart leg-scientist. She knows everything there is to know about legs, including what legs do when they walk. One day someone asks her for the best route for walking to Las Vegas. She doesn’t know, as she has spent all her time studying leg physiology. Hence, there must be more to to walking to Las Vegas than just walking.

Well, yes, we should say, of course there is. One should consult a map of some kind, and it would be helpful to recommend sturdy walking shoes and so on. Just studying walking won’t tell you which direction to take. Similarly for studying the brain. The brain evolves and learns in a natural environment. Elements in the natural environment evolve as well, and sometimes in response to organisms’ abilities to process color information. The red stuff in the world tends to be stuff that commands attention, as red stuff is usually poisonous, or pretending to be poisonous, or yummy, or blood, or meat, or something else you should pay attention to. Part of what red is has to do with what things in the environment get perceived as red, and why. Color perception would not have evolved at all if it had not been useful for processing information.

So we should change the Mary case so that Mary knows even more. She not only knows everything there is to know about the brain, but also everything there is to know about colored objects in the environment, and what role they have played in evolution. So now Mary knows that seeing red evolved so as to alert organisms to threats and opportunities in the environment, and that seeing red things usually results in a charged experience–scary, appetizing, sexy, etc. Red is attention-commanding. As such, it had better stand out brightly against things that can usually be ignored in crisis situations – green and brown things, for example. Mary may as well learn all the ways that red and other color words have been culturally embedded as well, in poems and stories and religious ideas, so as to understand the extensive role red plays in human experience.

Now once Mary knows all that, is it as obvious that she wouldn’t know what red looks like? I’ll admit, it may seem like she still wouldn’t know exactly what it looks like. But I don’t think it is obvious that she wouldn’t know. She might well gain her color vision, see a red thing, and say, “Ah, that’s pretty much what I expected!”

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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2 Responses to The Thing About Mary

  1. olivecronk says:

    Hope you’re well. I tried replying but for some reason kept being shut out.

    I wrote: ‘Isn’t one problem for the whole argument that it presumes the distinction between physical/material and mental holds. But isn’t it the case that since Newton we haven’t got a clue about materialism really. It seems to hanker for the mechanical cosmos pre-Newton but since we now have spooky causation at a distance whatever counts as material isn’t anything like our intuitions give us. So there’s just the world and the stuff of the world can think. The so-called ‘hard problem’ occured with Newtonian gravity looking spooky and really supposing we know everything about the actual world (rather than have instrumental theories) doesn’t seem plausible if this is right. Locke, Hume and that crew back then seem to understand this better than we do. Doesn’t mysterianism still hold? I’d have thought Mary deluded if she thought she knew everything if what she knew was just our best theories so far. (Isn’t that what happened back then – we stopped asking about the world and just did better theories because the world was beyond us). After all as Chomsky (our best seventeenth century philosopher)tells us, we don’t even know how our own language woks. Isn’t it a fair assumption that we might find our minds can’t access much of their own workings etc?


  2. Huenemann says:

    Thanks for this comment! I’m sorry you were shut out–I don’t know why that happens!

    Excellent point. I would say that when we face a mystery–and especially when we face a mystery that looks utterly unsolvable–then we should ask ourselves whether the mystery is due to poor prior conceptions on our part. Our concepts don’t simply reflect our experiences, but get twisted and skewed by all sorts of other historical/cultural stuff. The problem in understanding gravity as a force acting at a distance, for example, was the result of conceiving gravity as a force; it isn’t, not really, though it seems like it is because of the effects of curved spacetime. I think there are similar problems affecting most AI efforts–the phenomena are being misconceived, and a lot of engineering effort is going down the wrong road. In the end, though, I think you are right that there must be a great many things we can’t understand; it would be amazing if that weren’t so. But we shouldn’t embrace mysterianism until we’re sure that our own concepts aren’t the source of the mystery.


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