This is a paper that I will be presenting soon. I would appreciate any constructive criticisms you all might have to offer.
The “‘she’ll be surprised damnit!’ intuition” is the appellation that Daniel Dennett gives to the intuitive expectation of what will happen when Mary, an neurologically omniscient scientist, has her first experience of color. Dennett disparages the aforementioned intuitive response because he believes that the intuition results from a thought experiment that “encourages us to misunderstand its premises.” He proceeds to “elucidate” these misunderstandings by “turning the knobs” in the thought experiment, i.e., by altering the circumstances of the thought experiment to show the folly of the intuitive response to Mary’s first experience of color.
What follows is a more precise representation of Jackson’s attempt to argue for the spurious nature of physicalism, a critical examination of Dennett’s supposed exposure of the sophistry of Jackson’s argument (via “turning the knobs” in the thought experiment), and an altered version of Mary’s first experience that shows that Dennett’s “Mariology” (a term coined to describe theoretical study of Mary’s first encounter with color) is in need of revision. Specifically, this altered Mary-esque thought experiment shows that the cause of Mary’s epistemological limitation of experience is physiological in nature. I will argue that it is physically impossible for Dennett to be correct in saying that Mary will not learn something new when she has her first experience of color. Finally, I will briefly respond to, what seems to be, a plausible objection to my argument, and conclude with some remarks on the broader philosophical significance of the argument.
Meeting Mary: A Brief Representation of Jackson’s Knowledge Argument
First, it is important to get a grasp on the original argument that Jackson put forth. That argument is presented below largely in its entirety,
Mary is a brilliant scientist who is…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…all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes…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? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then it is inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and physicalism is false.
This is the argument that Dennett claims is founded on a “mistaken base” and meager intuition. He describes it as “one of the most successful intuition pumps ever devised…”, and then asks, “But is it a good intuition pump?”
Dealing with Dennett: A Critical Look at Dennett’s Mariology
Following the advice of Douglas Hofstadter, Dennett suggests that we find out the answer to the preceding question by considering variants of the thought experiment. Dennett devises a variant he calls, “Mary and the Blue Banana,”
And so, one day, Mary’s captors decided it was time for her to see colors. As a trick, they prepared a bright blue banana to present as her first color experience ever. Mary took one look at it and said ‘Hey! You tried to trick me! Bananas are yellow, but this one is blue!’…How did she do it? ‘Simple’, she replied. ‘You have to remember that I know everything…that could ever be known about the physical causes and effects of color vision. So of course before you brought the banana in, I had already written down, in exquisite detail, exactly what physical impression a yellow object or a blue object…would make on my nervous system. So I already knew exactly what thoughts I would have…I was not in the slightest surprised by my experience of blue…I realize it is hard for you to imagine that I could know so much about my reactive dispositions that the way blue affected me came as no surprise.
For now, it is useful to distinguish two aspects of Dennett’s claim: 1) complete physical knowledge of an experience is epistemologically equivalent to having that experience (Mary will not be surprised when she sees color) and 2) complete physical knowledge is enough to interpret the experience itself, i.e., to place that experience in the larger context of what is known (e.g., recognize that bananas are not supposed to be blue).
Although Dennett’s claim is broken into two aspects, it is important to remember that the interpretation of an experience is actually an important part of having that experience. Not many would say that someone actually heard Mozart, if that person was unable to describe what he heard, distinguish/compare it from other things he had heard, or recognize the music from a previous hearing. Indeed, this is precisely Dennett’s point in imagining that Mary can tell the difference between a blue banana and a yellow one. It is to show that she has full knowledge of the experience of color. The distinction between the two aspects of Dennett’s claim will be important later. For now, let us continue examining Dennett’s argument.
His point in telling such an incredible tale was that, “absent any persuasive argument that this could not be how Mary would respond, my telling of the tale had the same status as Jackson’s: two little fantasies pulling in opposite directions, neither with any demonstrated authority.” Dennett is interested in arguing that Mary won’t be surprised because, for Dennett, supposing that Mary cannot have knowledge of the experience of color by having complete physical knowledge about the experience of color requires that philosophers posit the existence of something that is not physical, which contradicts physicalism, a position that Dennett is committed to. He recognizes that “it seems to many people that there is this extra ‘richness’, this ‘experiential basis’ over and above all the [physical] details” but claims that “they are just wrong about this.” Dennett then proceeds to engage in a rather disappointing attempt at arguing this point,
…if what it is like to see triangles can be adequately conveyed in a few dozen words, and what it is like to see Paris by moonlight in May can be adequately conveyed in a few thousand words…are we really so sure that what it is like to see red or blue can’t [sic] be conveyed to one who has never seen colors in a few million or billion words?
But this seems little more than an argument from ignorance: since it has not been proven that color experience cannot be adequately conveyed via millions of words, then we have no reason to doubt that it cannot be. Indeed, this poor argumentation leads Dennett’s position to sound no more philosophically probative than frustrated statements like, “She will not be surprised damnit!”
Virgil’s Lesson for Mariology
If the above criticisms of Dennett’s argument are correct, then we are left with a seemingly intractable debate about what will happen when Mary first experiences color. This is, perhaps, a more helpful alteration to the thought experiment: suppose that Mary is entirely blind, and that soon she will receive her sight. Now we have a case that is not entirely unlike ones that have been explored empirically. Oliver Sacks provides an interesting case study on blind people who receive their sight late in life, and his discoveries have a hitherto unrecognized bearing on this Mariological discussion. The “name” of Sacks’s patient is Virgil.
Virgil was a middle aged man who had been blind all his life due to the cataracts that covered his eyes. Eventually, the cataracts were removed thereby allowing him to see. An interesting thing happened when Virgil began to “see:” although he was physiologically capable of seeing, he was unable to interpret what he was “seeing.” Here is Sacks’s account of Virgil attempting to see,
…he could not form any overall impression of the animal[s]…Virgil was curious to see the gorilla…he thought that, though it moved differently, it looked just like a large man. Fortunately, there was a life-size bronze statue of a gorilla in the enclosure…his face seemed to light up with comprehension as he felt the statue. ‘Its not like a man at all’, he murmured…And now, in a way that would have been impossible before, he described the ape’s posture, the way the knuckles touched the ground, the little bandy legs, the great canines, the huge ridge on the head, pointing to each feature as he did so.
Since, as a blind person, Virgil understood the world tactilely, he was unable to recognize what he was looking at or describe it unless he was able to feel the object he was looking at. This is not an isolated case. Sacks describes another patient who underwent a similar operation, and he was unable to describe a cutting lathe until he felt it. After he felt it, he said, “Now that I’ve felt it I can see.” One final detail of Virgil’s condition is important. Virgil had a perennial problem of distinguishing his dog from his cat, “both animals as it happened, were black and white, and he kept confusing them…until he could touch them.”
The case of Virgil exposes a recondite distinction that has eluded Dennett’s Mariological discussion. There are two things to know when one has an experience, stimuli knowledge and constructed knowledge. Virgil lacks the latter of these two. Virgil has the stimuli knowledge, i.e., he sees the same objects in the same way that others see them, yet, he lacks to constructed knowledge, the interpretation of his experience, the ability to truly see. Dennett’s speculation on Mary’s ability to distinguish the blue banana from the yellow one fails to take this distinction into account. Dennett seems to be only worried about communicating the stimuli knowledge of experience (e.g., using a million words to communicate “what it is like” to see the color red), and he seems to think that stimuli knowledge of experience is easily translated to constructed knowledge of experience. Although Dennett’s argumentation seems poor, it may very well be that physical knowledge can provide the stimuli knowledge of experience, but the constructed knowledge that allows the interpretation of those stimuli is off limits to Virgil (even if he has exhaustive physical knowledge of sight). Sacks’s etiology of why Virgil could not interpret his experience reveals why this is so.
Sacks explains that Virgil could not understand what he saw because he lacked the stimuli knowledge of sight while his brain was at its highest plasticity, i.e., at the time of infancy when his brain would be most affected by his experiences of seeing. Virgil was different from, “…The normally sighted… [who] have been making such visual constructs [shapes, boundaries, objects, and scenes from purely visual sensations]…from the moment of birth…Normally, half of the cerebral cortex is given over to visual processing.” So, Virgil lacked the neurological/physiological brain power to understand/see what he was “seeing.” In other words, because he had not been exposed to the stimuli knowledge of sight from birth, he was physiologically unable to experience the constructed knowledge that is present in a typical person’s experience of sight. Not only is Virgil epistemologically challenged by his previous lack of sight, but he is also physiologically challenged.
At this point, let us imbue Virgil with all of the physical knowledge of sight (like Mary), and take him back to the moment when he first received his sight. Virgil would not have any luck noticing that a blue banana was supposed to be yellow when he began seeing since, as noted above, he lacked the neurological brain power, and the continued exposure to the stimuli knowledge of sight itself was not enough for Virgil to interpret what he “saw.”
These are important facts for the following formal statement of my argument: 1) interpreting experience is an insuperable part of having that experience, 2) Virgil’s stimuli knowledge of sight itself was not enough to allow Virgil to interpret what he was “seeing” because of physiological limitations, and 3) Dennett’s claim is that exhaustive physical knowledge is epistemologically equivalent to having that experience (both stimuli knowledge and constructed knowledge). Virgil’s case allows the usage of a premise that completes the following proof by modus tollens that exhaustive physical knowledge of sight is not equivalent to having the experience of sight in the strictest sense of the word. The argument is as follows:
1) If exhaustive physical knowledge of an experience is epistemologically equivalent to having that experience (both in the sense of receiving stimuli and interpreting that experience), then Virgil would be able to interpret what he “saw” when he began “seeing” (because of his physical knowledge of experience).
2) Virgil cannot interpret his experience, i.e., he lacks the constructed knowledge of normally sighted persons because of physiological limitations.
3) Therefore, exhaustive physical knowledge of an experience is not epistemologically equivalent to having that experience.
Indeed, Dennett would have to claim that complete physical knowledge of an experience has a greater physiological impact than having the stimuli knowledge of sight itself in order for Virgil to recognize the blue banana, but this seems even more incredible than his original claim. Virgil, as a hypothetical prominent neurologist, certainly would not support this notion.
Responding to the “Robinson Objection”: Defending Virgil’s Lesson on Mariology
At this point, it may be tempting to think that this alteration of the thought experiment is somehow inappropriate; therefore, the aforementioned argument has no bearing on Mariology. In other words, the reader might wonder if Virgil and Mary really are fair comparisons given the fact that there is a physiological handicap in Virgil’s case. Since, as far as I know, precisely this objection appeared first in the discussion about Robinson’s deaf scientist, I will name this objection the “Robinson Objection.” Addressing the “Robinson objection” is the aim of this section.
The concern over the difference between Mary and Virgil seems to be, when all things are considered, misplaced. To be sure, Virgil’s situation is different from Mary’s. This difference, however, is not important for any of Dennett’s or for my claims. Focusing on these claims will alleviate concern about the difference between Virgil and Mary. Recall that Mary is merely an example for a broader claim that is being made, which, again, is this: exhaustive physical knowledge of an experience is epistemologically equivalent to having that experience. If it is the case that exhaustive physical knowledge of an experience is epistemologically equivalent to having that experience, then Mary/Virgil would not be surprised (if she/he knows all the physical facts about that experience) for any experience. In other words, if Dennett’s claim is true, then it should not make a difference whether Mary is color blind or entirely blind.
Those who are swayed by the Robinson objection might object further by asking, “What about the fact that Virgil ‘lacks the neurological brain power’ to interpret his experience of color? What reason do I have to suspect that if Virgil wasn’t physiologically handicapped, he would have no problem interpreting his experience?” On this point too, however, the Robinson objection seems to be founded on misplaced concerns.
Essentially, this question asks us to imagine the impossible. Virgil cannot lack experience of sight his entire life and not have the lack of “neurological brain power” that is associated with life-long blindness. Dennett is, after all, concerned with how real individuals would actually respond to this type of “first experience.” His project in Sweet Dreams is to offer a theory of actual human consciousness, and it is precisely this supposed actual response to the first experience of color that gives Dennett’s thought experiments any philosophical weight in the first place. In other words, if the thought experiment featured an alien instead of Mary, I suspect that not many would take its conclusions seriously insofar as they are meant to be conclusions about how human consciousness works. Thus, considering what might happen if Virgil was not physiologically handicapped when he first experienced sight may be an interesting question to ask, but it has no place in a discussion of how actual human consciousness works.
In summary, my response to the Robinson objection can be broken into two aspects. First, focusing on Dennett’s claim reveals that the physiological handicap of Virgil is irrelevant to the claim that Dennett is making. Dennett’s claim should apply even to Virgil’s first experience of sight. Second, “Robinson-objectors” cannot escape Virgil’s lesson by asking what would happen if Virgil was not physiologically handicapped because to do so would be to turn Virgil’s experience into an impossible one (i.e. it would demand that Virgil’s brain works in a way that it doesn’t), and impossible experiences have little to say about actual ones.
Applying Virgil’s Lesson: Concluding Remarks
To be clear, hammering out the definite implications of this argument on the truth or falsehood of physicalism is outside the scope of this paper, for there are still plenty of things to be said on either side. Physicalists can still object in a way that Dennett disparages. They can opt to, in Dennett’s words, “go along with the gag that Mary learns something” while attempting to show that Mary’s incomplete knowledge of color does not necessarily prove that physicalism is false. It seems that this is their only left over conceptual option.
Although this argument has not resolved the perennial debate about the validity of physicalism, at least it has elucidated a lesson that we can learn from Virgil’s first experience of sight, thereby eliminating potentially irrelevant talk of what will happen when Mary first experiences color. Again, the lesson is this: The cause of the limitations (or lack thereof) of Virgil’s knowledge of experience is physiological, not ontological; therefore, exhaustive physical knowledge cannot be epistemologically equivalent to having that experience. I have attempted to prove this point by arguing that if Dennett’s claim is true, then when Virgil was imbued with neurological omniscience (as Mary typically is), the exhaustive physical knowledge of the experience of sight would give Virgil a “neurological boost in brain power.” His claim essentially asks us to believe something incredible: that this exhaustive physical knowledge of sight would result in a massive remapping of Virgil’s cerebral cortex.
Assuming that Virgil’s lesson is a valid one, applying it to the larger philosophical discourse means that philosophers should explore other means of evaluating the claim of physicalism. Hopefully this will lead to discussion that will be more illuminating and apposite than the debate over Mary. Virgil’s lesson is a modest one, but perhaps even Dennett would find the lesson more philosophically satisfying than, “she will be surprised damnit!”
1 Daniel Dennett, Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2005): 105.
2 Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Boston: Little Brown and Col, 1991): 398.
3 Frank Jackson, “Epiphenomenal Qualia,” in There’s something about Mary: Essays on Phenomenal Consciousness and Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument, ed. Peter Ludlow, Yukin Nagasawa, and Daniel Stoljar (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004): 42-43.
4 Dennett, Sweet Dreams, 104.
5 Ibid. 105 (emphasis original)
6 Ibid. 105
7 If this inference sounds “fishy” to the reader, it should. There have been several good points made by other philosophers that challenge this inference. Indeed, Jackson himself later admitted that this could be a problematic aspect of his argument (see “Forward: Looking Back on the Knowledge Argument,” in There’s Something about Mary: Essays on Phenomenal Consciousness and Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument, xvii). Dennett, however, to my knowledge does not seem to take these challenges seriously. Rather than entering into another debate about the validity of this inference, the argument in this paper seeks to tackle the issue differently.
8 Ibid. 111
9 Ibid. 115
10 Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars (New York: Vintage Books, 1996): 114.
11 I use quotes for words like “saw”, “seeing”, and “sight” to differentiate mere receiving stimuli via the eyes and truly seeing, which involves contextualizing and understanding that visual information.
12 Sacks, 132-133.
13 Ibid. 121.
14 Ibid. 133-134.
15 Ibid. 121.
16 Dennett, Sweet Dreams, 115.
17 Ibid. 135. (emphasis added)
18 Daniel Stoljar and Yuijin Nagasawa, “Introduction” in There’s Something about Mary: Essays in Phenomenal Consciousness and Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument, ed. Peter Ludlow, Yukin Nagasawa, and Daniel Stoljar (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004): 12.
19 Dennett, Sweet Dreams, x.
20 This may not seem to be a fair or relevant response considering the fact that it might be impossible for anyone to have exhaustive physical knowledge of the experience of sight. However, supposing that Virgil could have exhaustive physical knowledge of the experience of sight is different from supposing that Virgil could be without sight his entire life and not have a “lack of neurological brain power” in that the former may be impossible only because it stretches the limits of human’s capacity to think. On the other hand, the later supposition asks us to imagine an impossible brain that functions in a fundamentally different way from a human brain.
21 Dennett, Sweet Dreams, 108.