The Knowledge Argument (Mary the Colour Scientist)

Consider a woman, Mary, who has lived her entire life in a black-and-white room. In that room, she learns (e.g. through books and a black-and-white television) everything there is to know about colour and the perception of colour. She becomes a complete expert on all the facts surrounding colour perception. Then one day she is released from her black-and-white room and sees a red apple. What is her reaction? Is she surprised? How would she describe this experience?

This little story is part of what’s called The Knowledge Argument, and in the form just described was proposed by philosopher Frank Jackson. Other philosophers have made very similar arguments over the past few centuries. To see why it’s an argument and not just a story, we need to finish the story. We need to say that she experiences something new. She has the experience of seeing red, something she has never experienced, despite knowing all the facts about colour and colour perception.

So the claim that she experiences something new is the crux of the argument, and is controversial. If she knew all of the physical facts about colour perception, but then experiences something new when she sees the apple, that something new is hard to explain. It is meant to suggest that the physical facts she learned in the room cannot be the whole story, and that the subjective experience is something separate from the physical facts. As such, this is an argument against physicalism.

The philosopher Philip Goff offers an even more concise version of the Knowledge Argument:

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

Do these arguments succeed in refuting physicalism? One response is to claim that if Mary knew all of the physical facts about colour and colour perception, then she would have known in advance what the experience would be like, and so wouldn’t have been surprised when seeing the apple. Other responses focus on whether Mary really did learn something new, and if she did, what type of knowledge it was. I’m not going to dive into those arguments here, but there is an edited book by Sam Coleman coming out this month that is worth a read.

Here is my take, in brief:

  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.

If the goal is just to show that subjective experiences exist — i.e. that phenomenal consciousness is real — I think this could be done more convincingly with arguments around blindsight. You could make a more concise version of the Knowledge Argument, similar to Goff’s above, but based on blindsight or similar pathologies (e.g. deafhearing, numbtouch).

So how can we develop a coherent view of the Knowledge Argument that incorporates the three views listed above? I’ll explore this in a follow-up post.