Friday Philosophy: Mary's Room

Frank Jackson: The philosopher who put forward the Mary's Room argument for the non-physicality of the mind. Credit: Australian National University

In what I hope will be a regular series, I want to think about a new philosophical question each Friday. This isn’t stuff I’ve thought about deeply or for a long time, so please feel free to make suggestions or corrections.

I listen to the Philosophy Bites podcast, when I’m driving long-distance or taking flights. I came to it only last year, so I’m listening back through its back-catalog.

I was listening to an old episode this week on physicalism (David Papineau on Physicalism).

It was very interesting because I had largely written off cartesian-style dualism (the idea that the mind, or some part of it, is non-physical). I therefore didn’t expect to hear that it was a live idea in philosophy of mind.

I’d like to present one argument from the podcast that I found very difficult to be convinced by, although I can’t clearly articulate why. It is apparently a famous argument (though I hadn’t heard it) by Frank Jackson. Maybe you can be clearer, or maybe you find it a slam-dunk argument for the existence of a non-physical mind!

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 specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, 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 cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?

What was really depressing was that I found the interviewee’s argument against this thought experiment completely unconvincing too.

I should say that actually, I have a duallistic ontology of the world, but it is not a (mind/spirit/soul)-body dualism. But that’s a subject for another post! 🙂



Filed under friday philosophy

3 responses to “Friday Philosophy: Mary's Room

  1. Caveat: I have almost no philosophy or neuroscience background. Feel free to ignore and wait for knowledgable comments if I am completely out in left field on this!

    I don’t see how Mary’s Room is an argument for dualistic non-physicality of the mind. Yes, Mary will learn something new because the concept of color could not be formed the same way prior to actually experiencing color. But it does not *indicate* a dualistic scenario with a non-physical part of the mind required. It only shows that something (physical brain or otherwise) is being used in a way that was not used prior to the experience. Since we know (or if we can assume to know?) that a physical brain was the agent of her initial understanding of color, belief to the contrary (dualistic belief including a non-physical mind) concerning her new knowledge from experience is not required.

    Is this situation any different than positing a non-physical mind to explain *all* understanding prior to the ability of neuroscience to study the physical action of the brain?

  2. ian

    I think you’re right attr.

    I think the problem lies with the assertion that she ‘acquires all the physical information’ about seeing a tomato. If you believe just in a physical mind, and then go on to say she learns something, then she didn’t have all the information to start with.

    If you say that she both had all the physical information AND she learns something, then the new information she learns can’t have been physical. So the act of seeing color is non-physical.

    In my opinion, she didn’t have all the information to start with. So she could learn. In fact in those terms she could *never* have all the information, since she couldn’t know the mental effects of seeing the tomato on everyone who has ever lived.

    I’m with you 100%, it doesn’t sound a convincing argument to me.

  3. atimetorend

    Cool, maybe I understood something!

    As per your comment, in that case it seems the assertion she “had all the physical information” is just a definition of the scenario itself, either she does or she doesn’t have it all. One is defining the conclusion of the scenario depending on how one defines, “having all the knowledge.” If that is the case, the scenario is just a trick of logic however it is interpreted.

    How about this addendum: a machine is invented which can scan for activity in a portion of the brain which previously could not be scanned. Mary has this scan performed before and after seeing a real tomato, and sure enough the scanner picks up new patterns in that part of her brain after the experience. Are the scientists surprised by this new discovery, or are they calm because they expected it all along?

    Your comment looks at the logic of the philosophy, and my addendum looks at probabilities? If so, go figure, I’m an engineer. :^)

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