Hearing in Stereo: More on the Knowledge Argument

I posted earlier about the Knowledge Argument, and have been thinking more about Philip Goff’s simplified version. Here it is again:

The Key Premise – A congenitally blind neuroscientist could never, through reading neuroscience in braille, come to know what it’s like to see colours.

While this avoids some of the technical issues in the Mary version of the Knowledge Argument (e.g. the exact conditions of her life in the black-and-white room), it highlights for me that such arguments do not seem sufficient to refute physicalism. Let me give an example from my own life that is similar to Goff’s.

For my entire life, I have been unable to hear in my left ear. This means that I cannot hear in stereo, and never have been able to. I also cannot tell where sounds are coming from, e.g. when someone calls my name. However, I think I have a very good sense of how stereo hearing works. Indeed, I think the facts surrounding stereo hearing are a lot simpler than all the facts that Mary would need to know about colour perception. I understand how it works, but I do not know what it is like to hear in stereo. When I try to imagine it, all I imagine is either a vague “that would be amazing” sort of notion, or I just imagine facts that I already know (“I could listen to songs in stereo,” “I could hear where sound are coming from,” etc.). No matter how much I learn about stereo hearing, I cannot know what it’s like to hear in stereo. And if something happened where my hearing in my left ear was fixed, and I could hear in stereo for the first time, it would be an absolutely new experience and probably an amazing one.

All this tells me is that subjective experiences — qualia — are real, and that there is a type of subjective experience that I am unable to have. What I don’t see is how to get from that recognition to refuting physicalism. Unless we define physicalism in such a way that it entails the nonexistence of qualia (i.e. unless physicalism entails illusionism), then I don’t see how this refutes physicalism.

(Of course, the Knowledge Argument is not the only argument against physicalism.)

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Chris

    I think physicalists broadly divide at the moment into two camps on theory of mind: (1) Illusionists and (2) pan-psychists.

    From the illusionist point of view, they already provide the argument from “qualia are real” to “refuting physicalism.” Since they argue from a physicalist description of mind to “qualia are illusions, not real”, then a proof of “qualia are real” turns their argument into a reductio ad absurdum against their physicalist descriptions of mind.

    From the panpsychist point of view, qualia are acceptable. So you’re quite right that there’s no argument there against panpsychism.

    1. Gabriel

      Chris — yes, I think you’re right. It clearly does pose a problem for illusionists. For panpsyschists, I think Galen Strawson’s new article is very helpful:


      Following that line of thinking, it’s not that the Knowledge Argument refutes physicalism (panpsychism and physicalism are compatible). It’s just that physics (in the broadest sense) does not tell the full story.

  2. quentin ruyant

    Nice example! It made me wonder if the knowledge argument really works, but for different reasons…

    You know what it is like to locate visual experience, for example, to see a flash appearing on your left at a certain distance. And maybe your brain already locates sounds in your experience, even if you don’t have stereo audition: when you see and hear a dog barking, you might represent the sound as located at the dog’s position, because it is the dog that is barking….
    So it might not be that hard to imagine what it is like to have stereo audition: just transpose the flash experience to sounds, or imagine the dog barking experience without its visual support.

    The route for a blind person to imagine colours, if it exists, is probably much more complex, but can we say with certitude that it does not exist? Maybe it’s only our lack of imagination…

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