Strawson’s Mary-Go-Round

I posted a couple of times recently about the Knowledge Argument (KA). In the first, I summarized my view as follows:

1. I’m not convinced this argument refutes physicalism.

2. I think it does show that subjective experiences — qualia — exist. Mary did experience something new.

3. Jackson seemed to think that accepting that Mary learns something new requires one to believe in a sort of epiphenomenal dualism. I don’t think this is necessary.

In the second, I discussed Goff’s concise version of the Knowledge Argument, and my own variant of it (based on stereo hearing).

So how can we claim that Mary does learn something new, but that this acknowledgement doesn’t refute physicalism? I think Galen Strawson’s new paper The Mary-Go-Round is very helpful here. It’s worth reading in full, and is very accessible. It’s also amazing seeing how many philosophers prior to Frank Jackson have made almost identical arguments, going back centuries.

In the paper, Strawson lays out 10 propositions put forth by various people when discussing the Knowledge Argument. Here they are:

[1] materialism or physicalism: everything that concretely exists is wholly physical
[2] physics can give an exhaustive characterization of the nature of the physical
[3] physics can give an exhaustive characterization of the nature of everything that concretely exists
[4] Mary learns something new about concrete reality when she leaves the black and white room
[5] physics cannot characterize the nature of colour experience
[6] Mary raises a difficult and perhaps insoluble problem for physicalism
[7] ‘x is physical’ entails ‘x’s nature is in principle fully characterizable in the terms of physics’
[8] colour experience is real, a concretely existing phenomenon
[9] colour experience is wholly physical
[10] physicalism doesn’t entail physics-alism.

Strawson says that [2] is accepted by most people on both sides of the KA debate, and is a mistake. And combining [2] with [1] yields [3], which he describes as “physics-alism.” Strawson himself accepts [1], [4], [5], [8], [9], and [10]. That is, he accepts physicalism but doesn’t accept physics-alism. Physics does not tell the full story.

I think this is pointing towards a form of panpsychism along the lines of Russell and Eddington, though he only explicitly mentions panpsychism in two footnotes. Physics tells us only about extrinsic relations and behaviours, and not about intrinsic natures. Consciousness is the intrinsic nature of physical matter. In other words, panpsychism of this sort is compatible with physicalism. This allows us to say that Mary experiences something new, and that physicalism is true. It doesn’t require dualism.

Whether or not you agree with his particular form of panpsychism, I think Strawson does show that it’s possible to have a coherent view where qualia are real and physicalism is true. So it’s very difficult to see how the KA could be seen as refuting physicalism.

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