Mary’s Room and Non-Reductive Materialism

              The Mary’s Room thought experiment is one that was presented by Frank Jackson in his paper “Epiphenomenal Qualia” in 1982 as an argument against physicalism.  Briefly, it postulated a super-scientist named Mary who was carefully sheltered from all experiences of color except black and white (and presumably some shades of grey[i]) in a room for her entire life[ii].  She has access to every possible physical fact about color vision, and after decades of intense study, and with every possible fact about color vision firmly resting in her intellect, she is allowed outside of the room and gets the chance to view color.  Is she surprised by the qualitative experience of seeing the color red, or does she shrug her shoulders and make a statement akin to: “obviously! This is exactly what I had expected red would look like”?  The conclusion that Jackson asserts, siding with the former of the two possible reactions, is that seeing red is not a physical fact, and thus physicalism is false.  This conclusion is of massive interest to philosophy of mind, but also to neuroscience and psychology[iii], because it throws into question the widely held position of philosophers and scientists who tend to adhere to some form of materialism or physicalism.  But is this merely a clever trick conceived by Jackson to give pause to the prevailing winds in philosophy and science, or does it deal a death blow to physicalism?  I will see if I can shed some light on the issue by dissecting Jackson’s core argument and analyzing its constituent parts.

Mary knows all the physical facts.

Mary doesn’t know what it is like to see red.

Ergo, what it is like to see red is not a physical fact.

First, it is necessary that we define the term physical facts.  There are a couple of ways we could define this phrase, but I would like to postulate my own definition that I believe meets the conceptual criteria that Jackson is trying to assert.  I define physical facts as objectively true statements about the world that are available to everyone, regardless of subjective beliefs, desires, dispositions or worldviews[iv].  Of course, I am sure some would choose to quarrel with my definition, but I think it gets to the point rather clearly, and in any event provides a good enough definition to allow us to proceed.

The first premise of this formal argument, “Mary knows all the physical facts”, can be subject to attack from someone who would claim that it is simply an impossibility to be privy to all the physical facts, for this would not only include the facts about color vision specifically, but would require knowledge of all the laws of physics as well.  It may very well be the case that the human mind has definite limits to its conceptual and intellectual capacities.  However, the obvious retort would be to assert that this is a philosophical thought experiment, and as long as it is possible in principle (meaning it is not logically incoherent to assume the possibility of being able to know all the physical facts) than the thought experiment may proceed unhindered by the hypothetical limits of our intellectual capacities.  I would argue, in fact, that it is principally possible to have knowledge of all the physical facts of color vision, although we have not gotten there yet.  Setting aside the above mentioned critique, the first premise, as it stands, is not very susceptible to death-blow refutations.

The second premise, on its face, seems permissible right away, but upon further investigation it actually poses a deeper problem than the critiques of the first premise.  Some would argue that Mary, being equipped with all the relevant physical facts, can indeed see red with her mind’s eye.  After assembling the seemingly indefinite amount of physical facts into a coherent intellectual constellation within her mind, which the thought experiment presumes, it could be argued that the seeing of red simply pops into her intellect.  Something akin to releasing an inflated balloon from the bottom of a lake, it simply rises to the top and presents itself.  I find this extremely difficult to believe.  In what other area of the mind does this occur?  For instance, I could read every book, every sentence, every word ever written about war; I could understand the history of war, I could understand the strategies of war, I could understand the human cost of war, ad inifinitum.  But it seems absolutely absurd to than present me with a war medal, does it not?  The actual experience of being on the battle ground with my life hanging by the most fickle of threads is something no amount of intellectual understanding could equip me with.  In the same way, I feel that no amount of intellectual understanding on the part of our heroine could equip her with the actual subjective experience of seeing red.

The conclusion presented by Jackson puts me in an uncomfortable position as a thinker, and more specifically as a materialist.  I consider myself a non-reductionist materialist, in the sense that I do not think qualia can be reduced to its physical properties in the brain without losing some essential fact or value of a given experience.  However, I am still a materialist who denies dualism in all of its forms.  How can I make the fact that I believe Jackson’s argument, is basically a valid one mutually compatible with my fundamental belief in materialism?  I believe the answer lies in the details of non-reductive materialism.  My position requires that I agree with the two premises of Jackson’s argument whilst disagreeing with his conclusion.  Therefore I posit the following idea, which I did not invent, but which I am strongly sympathetic to, which is the idea of having, fundamentally, two sides to any event which includes a conscious creature.  There is the physical, reductive, objective explanation on the one hand, and the qualitative, qualia-laden, subjective experience on the other.  The tendency is to tear these apart and pick a side, however I think that is a mistake.  In the case of color vision, there is the physical explanation of how color vision works and there is the corresponding subjective experience of that color, but both are essentially two sides of the same (physical) coin.  It would be a mistake to try and reduce one to the other; it is like trying to reduce day to night or to reduce love to hate[v].  However, and this is vital, both sides of the coin are rooted in material.  A brain can exist without consciousness, but consciousness cannot exist without a brain[vi]

So, I do not believe that the conclusion of this argument follows from the two premises, which I believe are valid in their own right.  What does follow from the premises, in my opinion, is that you cannot reduce experience to physical facts without losing something essential along the way; that essentialness being the “other side of the coin”, or subjective experience.  It is not physicalism or materialism that is false then, it is hardcore reductionist physicalism or materialism that is false.  

So when Mary steps out of her dark room into the vivid and sublime world of color, she is taken aback in amazement and has, I believe, a new sort of knowledge that she did not possess previously, namely the knowledge of subjective experience.


[i] Perhaps 50 or so. (sorry, bad joke, I couldn’t resist)

[ii] Although, it is arguably true that black, white and grey are not actually colors.

[iii] I have personally come across this thought experiment in neuroscience and psychology classes as well as philosophy classes.

[iv] Of course, it could be argued that some people, fueled by dogmatic religion for example, could not accept facts as such, but in the wise words of astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”   

[v] Therefore, it is possible to have only one side of the coin accessible to you for various reasons.  With Mary, she has the physical side available, but not the subjective, experiential side, and cavemen, for example, have the subjective, experiential side available to them, but not the physical, factual, explanatory side.  The full breadth of knowledge and experience would be in combining both sides of “the coin”, if you will.

[vi] I am NOT saying that this applies to Mary’s knowledge in this exact way, I am merely making a larger point about the mind/body problem.  It would be absurd to assert that the physical facts can exist with conscious experience, but that conscious experience cannot exist with physical facts.