Frank Jackson, James Garvey, Mary and the Awful Knowledge Argument

James Garvey of TPM has this piece on an interview with Frank Jackson, where Jackson seems to have turned to physicalism, but I still don’t think he gets it yet.

A point to make at the outset: Refuting the Knowledge Argument does not in itself make the case for physicalism. A physicalist point may be used in an explanation of the physicalist understanding of the phenomena the Knowledge Argument is trying to describe, but the refutation of the argument is a logical one, and the physicalist comment only supports that refutation, by offering the physicalist view as an alternative.

The Knowledge Argument

Garvey kindly reminds us of this ‘astonishing’ argument, with a summary of it:

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specialises in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes…. What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a colour television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?

The “who is, for whatever reason” is a whopping big clue that the whole thing isn’t well thought out. This argument is using a thought experiment set in a magical world, and so one shouldn’t be surprised when magic comes out at the end.

Some practicalities first. These aren’t pertinent to the basic argument but do show how easily philosophers can ditch aspects of reality to invent a magical world factory that manufactures magical worlds that have no bearing on the real world.

Does Mary have a normal evolved human brain and body? Does she have red blood in her vessels and blue blood in her veins? Does any pressure on her eyes not stimulate her brain so that she sees what we take to be red, such that when she comes out the room she recognises red.

Was Mary brought up in this room so that she never experienced colour at all? How did her education proceed? By machines? How well could her brain have developed to engage in the science necessary to show she knows all there is to know about the physical nature of colour as experienced by humans? How exactly do you justify anything in this thoughtless experiment that makes it at all realistic, or even remotely pertinent to the problem?

I know, much of this isn’t the point of the argument. We are supposed to take it on face value that such a Mary could exist. Well, why come up with any arbitrary un-real conditions at all? The purpose of the exact conditions that Jackson describes has a sole purpose of refuting physicalism, so the conditions are set up to do just that.

But, let’s play the game. The results of playing the game are the following possibilities:

If Mary really did know everything about colour then she knew enough to stimulate in her own physical brain the experience of colour, even though coloured light didn’t enter her eyes. I take it you, dear reader, hasn’t seen pink elephants, but enough imagination, or with psychedelic or alcoholic inducement your brain can conjure them up. Well, if Mary really does know everything then she knows how to experience red internally, and when she sees the red tomato it’s just as she imagined.

Alternatively Mary didn’t know everything, and here we come to what amounts to Jackson’s bad definition of knowledge. We’ll come back to the Mary argument when we see what Garvey and Jackson make of it following Jackson’s conversion.

We have this other troublesome philosophical cock-up to deal with now – knowledge and the rather pitiful philosophical attempts to define it – JTB and all that crap. We have a lot to learn about knowledge, but here’s a simple understanding of it.

Knowledge and Consciousness

I think the problem for Jackson starts with an inadequate view of what knowledge might be. This is my view. I won’t beat about the bush justifying every aspect of this, but here’s a quick attempt to define knowledge, in my terms, as a physicalist. Ask questions if you want more.

Human brains are physical biological systems that react to input signals. These ‘signals’ in a broader sense are more varied than just the sense inputs. There are the DNA signals that contribute to brain development, and the physical-chemical-biological environment in which that development occurs – as food is transformed into chemicals that are transported and processed by cells, for example, or as psychological pressures alter the young brain. The brain is already a dynamic developing system from the start. On top of that comes the stimulation through the nerves: the internal ones from the body, the way they react to the external physical world through our many senses. All this builds a brain.

The brain forms patterns of neuronal connections, and they are a combination of static and dynamic conditions – connections come and go, but some connections are sustained by repeated triggering and maintained by dynamic processes at the junctions. The physics of atoms, ions, electrons, is churning at every point, chemistry is ongoing, the biological processes live on, even in what appear like static neurons that exist over time, and synaptic connections that remain in place for a long time. The static appearance belies the dynamism.

In this system patterns form and can be re-triggered. Memory is knowledge. But at the basic level of neurons and synapses it is only meaningless data. Zoom in on a tiny region of active computer memory and you won’t be able to tell if the states of its bits represent points on an image or parts of a number on a spreadsheet. The bits have meaning only in a ‘context’. So too with neurons in the brain.

And context is what meaning and knowledge is all about.

A person blind from birth has his sight restored. He looks at his wristwatch and can tell the time using sight, because his brain has built a contextual map where this thing on his wrist, through touch, has meaning, and it doesn’t take much for his brain to put the visual stimulus into that context. Someone points out a wall clock to him and from the context of his wristwatch he can tell the time.

As a personal experiment watch that common panel show game of zooming out of a close-up on some object until someone recognises what it is. This is the use of context. What might start as a small patch of colour, becomes a shape, but only a shape of no consequence, but as the zoom out continues other shapes and lines come into play, until BANG!, the Eureka moment, your brain has suddenly found a context for all those lines and shapes, as the image has reached sufficient content to be recognised.

Watch a skilful artist compose a picture with broad messy brush strokes, and then marvel when the picture starts to trigger meaningful components and at last you realise he is painting a landscape. Or watch with comic effect the emerging image as a cartoonist appears to have draw a naked women, only with last few brush strokes it becomes a face and you are shamed into admitting to having a filthy mind.

Knowledge is nothing but data in a larger contextual framework.

Humans emerge into the world knowingly, knowing they have knowledge, through the use of their brains. This feeling of having a mind is our first self-aware view of the world, and we take ‘the mental’ to be the primary way of seeing the world. It’s hard to know when this arises in infancy, because one has to go through lots of preliminary stages to acquire the brain function to be able to contemplate the notion of self-awareness, and by the time you get there you have left behind the unaware self in which that recognition was formulated.

It’s difficult to say how much we rely on language to help us better frame concepts in clear ways – might non-linguistically assisted concepts be more like an animal’s view of the world? Hard to say, because the human brain has evolved the capacity for language – though the specific language may not matter. Some apes can acquire limited language that is not up to the human level of capability, but still goes beyond the the natural capability of their species. To what extent does language contribute to knowledge? It appears quite a lot. But what is knowledge like in an animal without language? The origins of knowledge and of the development of knowledge understanding in the brain is so lost in infancy (and as a species lost in our evolutionary past) that we appear to ourselves as somewhat fully formed thinkers – albeit young naive ones.

We watch our children grow and become independent thinking minds – it’s a fascinating time from about one year old, to maybe about five, from where their learning becomes increasingly more like that of an adult. Repetition is used to fix knowledge in the brain – the words of songs, the names of characters on TV and in books. Working with favourite picture books is fascinating. We see a ‘mind’ evolve and emerge. Is this the process of creating an early context from within which future data takes its place to become knowledge in turn?

What we learn later is that we, the species, evolved from simpler creatures that had an entirely physical interaction with the world: the physical interaction caused by the electromagnetic forces that prevent atoms passing by each other – this is what gives physical contact it’s effect in such a small scale vacuous world of atoms, and later through chemical signals crossing cell and multicellular boundaries.

But, the action of sensory neurons and brain neurons is just more of the same. The brain neurons are, in all significant respects in this regard, the same as sensory neurons, but within the brain their greatest interaction is with similar neurons inside the skull, and there are relatively a few points of contact with peripheral neuron channels. The brain is as much a physically empirical entity as any single celled organism. On mass, they interact in such a way that the brain as a whole senses its own neutrons sensing itself, observes itself observing itself, and the end result is consciousness and self-awareness.

To figure out what consciousness is, don’t ask what it feels like to be a bat. Ask what it feels like to be a self-monitoring complex system that acquires data and stores it in complex contextual patterns such that when a pattern is retriggered by an external sensory event the ‘context’, the knowledge, is sparked into life, and in doing that the system ‘knows’, it is observing its own observing of a pattern, and the context of the pattern gives it meaning, illustrating to itself its knowledge. So, what is it like to be such a system? It is like this, like you and me being conscious, acquiring, reflecting upon and using knowledge.

This is quite different from the philosophical traditional view of knowledge. This sort of knowledge does not have to be true or justified, and I’m not so sure the holder of it has to actually believe it – not knowingly, for we seem to have a lot of knowledge that emerges from the depths, sometimes remarkably right, and often laughably wrong. So that gets rid of the need for JTB in its entirety.

The religious have knowledge when they tell us all about their religion. They use their scriptures to justify it, they believe it, generally, and they think it is true, generally. This is knowledge, about their religion. It may be that the propositions that their religions make about gods, miracles, and other stuff, do not correspond to a reality out there beyond their brains. This is a correspondence theory or truth, where truth relates to how well knowledge in someone’s head (the contextualised patterns that cause conscious ideas to have contextual meaning) corresponds to the external world. But that does not mean they have no knowledge of gods; but rather means that their knowledge of gods are inventions.

I think of religious knowledge and theology debated in seminaries as being nothing more that Star Trek conventions that result in offshoots of comics and stories not in the original, they expand on the original fiction with yet more fiction. Apologies to all the Trekkies I might have offended, because when you listen to what some religious people say you realise that they are in total fantasy worlds rather than science fiction ones – at least in science fiction there is often some requirement that there be some credibility to the inventions.

What about scientific knowledge? Scientific theories and explanations that help us understand the world are our inventions too. But they have that essential correspondence with the world that gives us a far greater claim to their truth and utility.

I accept all the problems of such a contingent correspondence theory. It is entirely contingent on the persuasiveness of evidence. And theists, among others, find it hard to deal with that. Problems for another time. As I said, I won’t justify every aspect of this here. I am simply presenting my view, in order to set a context of what follows. In that context, dualism is a necessary feature of most religions. But I’m amazed that any non-religious scientist of philosopher would fall for it.

The Garvey Interview

As Thomas Huxley vividly put it, such properties don’t do anything in the physical world, just as “the steam whistle which accompanies the work of a locomotive engine is without influence upon its machinery”.

Well, that’s a load of crock. The steam whistle is a very direct influence on the locomotive’s machinery – it’s part of that machinery. It’s effect on the primary locomotive function is simply minor, without ‘significant’ influence, but not without influence.

You can see how this is a simple error for a dualist to make. If you are of a dualist persuasion you can imagine that things and events might not have any physical impact in some situations. One might, for example, dismiss the physical effect of light on an object – light seems far too ephemeral, in that it appears to present no obvious physical force; it does not move objects. But of course it does. It moves electrons into raised energy states, it imparts energy that on a large scale results in motion. A laser of sufficient intensity can quickly burn away surfaces of matter – in effect move by vaporisation – and yet the dull light from a candle in a room appears not to have any physical impact on the room. But it surely does – hold your hand over it and you’ll feel convected heat, but hold your hand close enough in front and you’ll feel the radiant heat.

The ‘mind’ is a model for that aspect of the brain’s working that appears superficially to have no influence on the actual physical nature of the brain, and under dualism the non-influence is mutual – except that as if by magic the mind causes the body to do things. As an abstract model of some functionality of the brain the mind only appears distinct. But the brain consumes energy as it thinks. Thinking is a physical electro-chemical, biological, thermodynamic process of the brain itself. This is more obvious now than it once was, and so it is becoming harder to hold to a dualist detachment. Everything we experience in the world has physical effects on it. The world, the universe, is a total interacting system. Even the vacuum of space is at the very least permitted by photons from the stars, and nobody doubts the radiant power of the sun on a clear summer’s day. Materialism forces itself upon us, and dualism has no supporting evidence.

If you think that Mary knew all the physical facts but learns something when she first sees red, then there’s more to know than just physical facts

No. You simply didn’t include the brain functions of perception of red in the knowledge Mary had. That’s still a physical theory about the brain perceiving – even if as yet still a poorly understood one. This is dualism of the gaps. And it illustrates the fault of the Knowledge Argument. The statement that Mary knew everything there is to know, is false, if physicalism holds.

If there is something extra, then either it’s physical and she didn’t know it, or you have neglected to include the hidden premise of there being some non-material knowledge unavailable to her that isn’t part of the physical science, in which case you are affirming the consequent.

Remarkably, Jackson has since somehow talked himself out of it all.

Not very convincingly if Garvey’s piece is any sign.

He now resolutely rejects dualism. I wonder how hard that must have been …

Why is Garvey not wondering how hard Jackson must have worked his cognitive wonders to remain a dualist for so long, if Garvey is not a dualist? What sort of non-dualist is he?

Jackson explains away his change of heart:

I had been a dualist for years. I was taught by Michael Bradley, and he had some good arguments for dualism. I always thought it was a plausible view. As I say in the beginning of ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’, we dualists don’t really need an argument to say that consciousness doesn’t fit into the physicalist world view. It’s just intuitively obvious.

This is abysmal philosophy. This is going right into my piece on ‘obvious’ screw ups. Stating the Bleeding Obvious. Why do philosophers insist on appealing to the obvious? Have they learned nothing from psychology and neuroscience, let alone a long history of illusions and delusions.

After explaining the origins of the original article Jackson says:

The follow up article (‘What Mary Didn’t Know’) came about after Paul Churchland wrote a not terribly friendly piece about the knowledge argument. I thought it was a bit offhand. I didn’t worry about him saying he didn’t believe it, that’s fine, but he sort of suggested it was making some kind of elementary error which anyone could pick up. Not quite as bad as affirming the consequent but pretty bad all the same.

Well, it is pretty much affirming the consequent when you piece the bits together. But interestingly here we see the very human Jackson responding to a perceived insult rather than a rational criticism.

That riled me slightly, and I regret to say the slight tone of irritation shows in the piece.

And Garvey says:

He actually says that with a slight tone of irritation. He looks a little riled now.

I wonder if that’s irritation at Churchland, or irritation with himself that a purveyor of reason could be so easily moved by inconsequential tone.

Garvey tells us more from a re-read of the papers, and in particular Churchland’s criticism:

Jackson is equivocating, using “knows about” in two different ways, talking about two different kinds of knowledge, and this renders the argument invalid. Once you spot this, Churchland beams, the argument is “a clear non sequitur …. Such arguments show nothing”. God, he even has a bit of fun with a parallel argument about ectoplasm. It doesn’t quite call for pistols at dawn, but I can see how Churchland might be read as being dismissive of the misguided little dualist. Maybe Jackson did well to be merely riled.

I can understand it might be frustrating to have made a mistake, but to be irritated by the fact that the mistake was pointed out, in some ‘tone’?

Garvey gives us a bit more, and includes Nagel’s bat thing:

“That’s the biographical background to it,” he continues. “Now, exactly why that particular version of the knowledge argument popped into my head – I do not know,” he says, genuinely mystified. Maybe he read Broad’s short argument many years earlier, and although he forgot about it, it might have exerted some unconscious influence. But he certainly had seen Thomas Nagel’s 1974 essay, “What is it like to be a bat?”, and maybe that did figure in somehow. There, Nagel writes about batty subjectivity – what it’s like to be a bat and experience a sonar image of the world – which he argues is only accessible to bats. He concludes that “it is a mystery how the true character of experiences could be revealed in the physical operation of that organism.” The conclusion is importantly different to Jackson’s: it’s not that physicalism is false, but that we can’t understand what it might mean to say that it’s true. Jackson says something of Nagel might have been on his mind, maybe he was trying to make a similar point without all of the complexity of Nagel’s piece.

The subjectivity of our personal view of our consciousness is a red herring when it comes to studying consciousness. We can study cosmology, using science to tell us much about the universe, but looking up at the stars, enjoying a sunset, reading the digital data from a deep space observation, …, all that humans do in science is done through the personal perspective of our personal consciousness, but we don’t let that get in the way of finding out how it all works.

Why is the brain any different? Why must one presuppose there is a dualist mind just because it feels like there is one? It is one of the dumbest philosophical remains of pre-scientific times – excusable back then, but not now.

Garvey continues to quote the interviewed Jackson’s take on that original argument:

“Although I now think it’s mistaken,” he begins, “the essential thought behind the argument is simply that when Mary has colour experiences, her conception of the kinds of properties that are instantiated in our world gets dramatically expanded. In theory it’s no different than coming across a new sort of animal. How many different sorts of dogs are there? People think they’ve gotten on top of it, but they turn the corner, and the see a completely different dog from any dog they’ve got on their inventory. So they enlarge their conception of how many kinds of dogs there are. What happens to Mary is that she has a certain view of what the world’s like, a black and white view, and all the stuff that comes to her from the physical sciences. And when she sees colour for the first time I think the plausible thing to say is that she gets an enlarged idea of what kinds of properties there are to be encountered in the world. She comes across new properties.”

And Garvey tells us:

When Jackson lays it out like that, crystal clear, it’s hard not to feel a certain insecurity about physicalism. What else can you say, except that Mary learns about a new part of the world when she sees colour for the first time? But Jackson is a latter day physicalist. How did he talk himself out of dualism?

What? The dog analogy is totally bogus. To use the dog analogy correctly you’d have to use it in the way the knowledge argument puts things: Mary knows all breeds of dogs there are. When she leaves the lab she does not see any breed of dog she hasn’t seen before. But, using the erroneous knowledge argument: Mary knows all breeds of dogs (except the one we are hiding from her) and when she leaves the room she sees a breed she hasn’t seen before, therefore Mary could not have seen all breeds of dog, and so physicalism is false.

The original knowledge argument does some dog breed, sorry, colour knowledge, hiding from Mary. It hides that breed of knowledge called personal acquired experiential knowledge but makes the false claim that Mary knows all there is to know about breeds of colour knowledge. By excluding the experience of colour the argument is presupposing that such an experience is not included in all knowledge, that it is not part of the physical world, and that, hey presto, the argument proves there is more than the physical: affirming the consequent.

Jackson again, reflecting on his dualism:

We know enough about the world to know that these extra properties which I believe in aren’t guiding my pen as I write the article saying qualia are left out of our physical picture of the world. In ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia’ I explain why it’s not such a disaster being an epiphenomenalist, but I came to think of this as a triumph of philosophical ingenuity over common sense. This is what someone who’s done a good philosophy degree can somehow make seem all right, but if you look at it in a more commonsensical way it’s actually pretty implausible. So the epiphenomenal stuff was just very hard to believe.

I’m afraid I am stumped by my (our) lack of understanding of brains, a failing that is preventing me from understanding how a supposedly good mind can fall for utter fantasy: “these extra properties which I believe in aren’t guiding my pen as I write the article saying qualia are left out of our physical picture of the world” – No they are not. They are very much in it as a mechanistic view. All that’s missing is an appreciation and an understanding of what complex mechanisms, as instantiated in human brains, can actually do.

For a while I was at the stage of people who say, there must be something wrong with the knowledge argument. It’s not obvious, despite the fact that some people jump up and down and say it’s obvious, because look at all these smart people giving quite different diagnoses of what’s wrong. That tells you it’s not obvious what’s wrong with it.

It isn’t obvious experientially, because we feel dualistic, because the brain’s self-monitoring doesn’t go so deep as to reveal the biological mechanisms to itself. But following science and all it exposes about the nature of the world, and the total lack of anything actually dualistic outside this ‘apparent’ dualism, and with lots of other brain anomalies to give us a clue that feelings on the matter might be mistaken, isn’t that enough to make the dualist stop and think?

Apparently not. Dualists, like their theological comrades, seem to be stuck with inescapable biases. Except now, Jackson seems to be escaping. Let’s see how he’s doing.

I was in that situation, thinking there’s got to be something wrong with it but not sure what it was. And then I decided that the best way out is to think in representationalist terms about phenomenal experience. When you think in those terms, what you’re thinking is that when something looks red to you, don’t think of that as a relationship between you and an instance of some special property. Think of it as representing things as being a certain way. You don’t think of it in relational terms, you think in propositional terms, as a kind of intentional state.

Well, that may be the decline of his dualism, but it’s a long way off the simplicity of physicalism. In physicalism as I see it the brain is a mechanism that monitors itself monitoring the world, and monitors itself monitoring itself, possibly through many channels. What emerges is a process or collection of processes that reports to itself. And, this is what it feels like when the brain does this. Conscious experience is a much higher version of what it feels like to be a bat, or what it feels like to be a computer program, to be a thermostat.

We only label it consciousness in the way we label a storm a storm, without labelling any rain drop or moving molecule of air a storm. The storm emerges as something that human brains can recognise and categorise through experience of seeing storms. Consciousness emerges somewhere as we progress from forming our first differentiated brain cells to the stage of passing the self-awareness test of an infant and going on to be a self-contemplative adult.

The odd thing about consciousness that’s different to a storm is that the storm is categorised by the brain as being something outside the brain, while consciousness is being categorised by the very brain experiencing the consciousness internally, such that it becomes the brains identity, and mistakenly thought of as a dualist mind.

Of course, that early zygote consists of cells that are experiencing their world too – just not in the silly way in which the religious imagine a soul to be inhabiting it, and not with the complexity and self-referential experience of a fully formed brain.

Jackson doesn’t seem interested in any of this real physicalist stuff. His focus is not the brain but this mysterious self-reflective view of a dualist mind trying to think of itself as a physicalist thing. He seems confused to me:

When you think in those terms, it’s a mistake to wonder where the special redness is. What you have to ask yourself is, when something looks red, how am I representing the world to be? And if you’re convinced that you’re representing the world such that it has some special property outside the physical picture of the world, and you think physicalism is plausible, then of course you think it’s a case of false representation. Then you better have some story about how looking red represents things to be, and what that to be is, and how it can be found in a physical picture of what the world’s like.

When I’m talking about representation I’m talking about a state where you’re invited to have a certain view about how things are. Of course you may reject it. When you have those famous perceptual illusions, and you know they’re illusions, you’re in a state which invites you to think that some line is curved. You know perfectly well it’s not curved. Nevertheless you’re in a state which sort of says to you, ‘This is the way things are! This is the way things are!’ That’s what I mean by a representation.

There are two types of effect we think of as optical illusions:

  • Optical Effect – The bent pencil as it passes from air to water. This is a genuine effect of optics that delivers light to the eye in different ways according to the medium. This is just what a telescope does. Light passes through a medium such that distant small looking objects appear nearer and so larger.
  • Brain (Mental) Illusion – These are not strange optical effects. The light coming from the parallel lines that Jackson refers to is genuinely representing parallel lines, but they appear not to be parallel. Dangle a wire frame Necker cube, rotating, at a certain distance, an maintain your view and it will appear to change direction. The former is caused by the brain’s interpretation of the lines as being non-parallel. The latter is caused because the light coming from the Necker cube is consistent, to without our perceptual capacity, with rotation in either direction, and the brain can’ make up its ‘mind’.

The problem I see Jackson having is he’s still trying to deal with this in non-physical terms, in philosophical language terms that do not use any knowledge about brains. He’s working in the wrong domain. And if he can see illusions so clearly, why can’t he see the ‘mental’ nature of illusions such that they make dualism ‘obviously’ and illusion rather than obviously true?

Garvey asks Jackson for his physicalist view of Mary:

Mary clearly enters a new representational state when she leaves the room. That should be common ground. If you’re a physicalist, then you’ve got two things to say. You’re either going to say, why doesn’t she get new knowledge? Well, she already had it. If she already had it then you have to answer the question, what property do her newer experiences represent things as having which she knew about in the room? Maybe she didn’t know about it under the name ‘red’, but if she’s in a new representational state, and things are as they’re being represented to be, and she doesn’t learn anything new about the world, you need to give an answer to what looking red represents things as being, where the content of the representation can be expressed in physical terms. Alternatively, you can say it’s a false representation. Colour is an illusion. You have to say one or the other.

Or, you could say that colour experience is part of colour knowledge, possibly the main part – how could we come to the other colour knowledge that the Mary problem speaks of, formulate theories of colour, understanding the science of colour, had we been blind animals?

When the knowledge argument claims Mary knows everything there is to know while in the room is not only false, it’s missing the biggest physicalist example of colour knowledge, the acquisition through the eyes of colour data.

The other flaw with the Mary problem is that Mary is an evolved human being and as such may well have internal brain experiences that correspond to seeing colour – such as when one has a bump on the head, presses on the eyelid or eye, stimulating the visual areas of the brain. Is it the case that blind people see colour because they have colour capable brains but don’t recognise the colour experience for what it is? Many questions go unanswered with the Mary knowledge problem.

So, another option is that Mary has a colour capable brain and actually does see colour, and that with all the other science data does in fact have a brain that experiences colour, so that when she leaves the room and sees her first colour object she says, “Oh yes, that’s red. I’ve seen that in my internal experiences.” In which case Mary does not learn anything new on leaving the room.

Yet another option is that the science information is so good that it is able, without introducing colour light through the eyes, to cause brain events that Mary experiences as colour, such that when she leaves the room and encounters red she gets has the same sort of brain experience. But, I suspect that furturistic notion of the capabilities of brain stimulation would be too much for a poor old philosopher stuck in the philosophical dark ages.

I’m not impressed with Jackson’s physicalism at all.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I go for the illusion view,…

So, not really clear on it then.

But if we do the physics … but that’s mostly a matter for physics, not philosophy.

Along with neuroscience, biology, psychology, … Exactly.

Garvey chips in with his perspective, and it all sounds very wooish:

That thought about science brings us neatly to another point against physicalism made by Jackson in his dualist days. Physicalism is an extraordinarily optimistic view of our mental capacities – in principle, we’ve pretty much got a grip on all that there is, the physical stuff that makes up our world, and we’re on our way to understanding it. But if our understanding is shaped by the need to survive – our brain is an evolved thing, after all – isn’t it likely that there are vast parts of the universe that we’ll never get a grip on, just because it never mattered in our evolutionary history? Doesn’t this suggest that physicalism almost certainly leaves some of the universe out? Maybe the mental side of us or some part of it?

Oh for crying out loud. Physicalism is neutral, neither optimistic or pessimistic – it’s prersepctive of the reality of the brain-mind issue, weighing up evidence and argument. Why do philosophers cloak their arguments in emotive terms so often?

Show that there is any evidence whatsoever that there might be anything to any ‘mental’ dualist ideas. While you’re doing that, reflect on how our ideas of the mental world probably came about because we didn’t have an understanding of small physical scale large time scale changes such that evolution could result in complex biological mechanisms that do this thing we do.

There never was any need to pretend that consciousness is something fundamentally different from physical stuff in action. We simply made a mistake because that’s the only perspective we had. As a species and as individuals we sort of woke up after a long empirical non-thinking past and started thinking, and one of the things we thought was, wow, I think, therefore I’m a mind.

Yes, there are unknown reaches of reality that we haven’t and maybe can’t ever explore. But we know as much as we do thank’s to the physical sciences. And I include what are perceived to be mental sciences like psychology: psychology is a black box science that came before white box neuroscience. Think of psychology to neuroscience as the ideal gas laws are to particle physics – large scale science based on external appearances without any information on the small scale action. Except that we’re talking about the different between a balloon and a brain, so the brain is far more complex.

Garvey goes on to bring up the ‘slugist’ analogy from Jackson’s past, as Garvey seems keen to rescue dualism. It’s another dumb analogy. The slugists go on to discover more of the same type of physical stuff far above the sea bed. They might even discover very clever human automata. They don’t discover woo. So, no, the mistake the slugists make isn’t the same as Garvey imagines physicalists make. On the other hand the soft-minded sluggists make exactly the kind of mistake dualists make: imagining there’s something for which there is no evidence, and that pulling crap analogies out of their asses to support the idea. Never any actual evidence though. Of course the slugist is yet another sort of affirming the consequent.

And so Jackson responds to Garvey’s prompt for what this story tells us:

i.e. We don’t know everything …

What it says is this. Isn’t it common sense that there are things that we don’t know about the world? Even the most enthusiastic physicalist has to say there are gaps in our knowledge. It’s at least plausible that it goes much beyond that – it’s not just that there are problems in quantum mechanics. It might be that there’s a whole range of properties that we don’t and can’t know about because they don’t impinge on us.

Yes, it is common sense to think that there are things that we don’t know about the world. But dualism amounts to giving up on physicalist on the off chance there might be fairies. This is exactly the game that the religious play.

Theist – We don’t know everything. There might be a God. So I think there is one.

Dualist – We don’t know everything. There might be a dualist mind. So I think there is one.

Fairyist – We don’t know everything. There might be fairies. So I think there are.

Chopra – We don’t know everything. There might be a fundamental consciousness everywhere. So I think there is.

Homeopathist – We don’t know everything. There might be a real beneficial effect of my woo meds. So I think there is.

Repeat, for unicorns, ghosts, the afterlife (religious or not), …

These are exactly comparable positions of picking one’s favourite woo, and from the fact that we don’t know everything assume ‘my’ pet woo is true.

It is embarrassingly shamefully awful philosophy.

There’s an interesting paper by David Lewis called ‘Ramseyan Humility’ … there might be a whole range of properties we can’t know about, because permuting them doesn’t make any difference at the level in which we interact with the world.

Fine, but just as long as you accept that you are letting fairies and astrology. Perhaps fairies are so mysterious that they only interact with this world by moving my keys from where I left them. Perhaps the effects of astrology are so imperceptible that we can live our lives as if it’s total bollocks. Seriously Frank, just play out these silly interpretations of basic epistemological uncertainty the way you do with the dualist mind.

We act as if there are no fairies, not because we have refuted every crackpot notional story about them that makes them sound feasible, but because no positive evidence exists for them.

Astrology has not been proven beyond all doubt not to work, it has been proven beyond all doubt that it appears not to make a blind bit of difference is there’s anything in it. Saying that astrology doesn’t work at all is just a learned shortcut for making this same point but skipping the unnecessary over humility that you are appealing to.

It’s a bit like that thought experiment: maybe there’s a matter version of our world, and an antimatter version, and there are duplicates of you and me, but one’s made of matter and the other’s made of antimatter. You can’t know whether we’re in the matter world or the antimatter one.

No it isn’t!

The matter v anti-matter dichotomy is arbitrary. What we call anti-matter they call matter, and we are their anti-matter (I’m ignoring the total bollocks of ‘other worlds’ that supposes someone like us. Another day.) They are arbitrary by definition. Like 1/0, true/false, +/-.

So the arbitrary nature of that dichotomy is nothing like the scale of epistemological uncertainty about unicorns or minds.

Garvey tries to take it in but remains puzzled at jacksons conversion:

I take the point that a physicalist can be humble, but I’m still left with doubts about Mary. In the end, somehow, I don’t entirely buy Jackson’s new reply to that old question: does she learn anything or not? I’m still back where he was some years ago – I’ve got the feeling something’s wrong with the argument, but I don’t know what it is.

Because he’s right for the wrong reasons. His isn’t physicalism in its strictest sense, but using some vague airy fairy philosopher language with outdated concepts to try to come to terms with the appreciation that the knowledge argument is full of holes.

Jackson might have talked himself out of the knowledge argument’s conclusion, but I still don’t know. I’m no dualist, but there’s something about Mary.

No, there isn’t. It really is very simple. Start with this:

1 – Colour is experiential knowledge. It’s brain states and the conscious processes of multiple levels of feedback recycling signals. It’s the brain knowing what red is.

Then some possible interpretations of what’s going on in the room:

2a – It was incorrect to claim Mary learned everything about colour while in the room, from her black and white screen. Her brain, never having seen red had no knowledge of it, so she was lacking complete physicalist experiential knowledge.

2b – It was incorrect to claim Mary learned everything about colour while in the room, from her black and white screen. Her brain, never having seen colour in the room, did experience rods and cones being stimulated by her rubbing her eyes such that her brain experienced and gained knowledge of red, because she has an evolved brain and eyes with that capacity. This is contestable, based on any experiments about depriving eyes and brains of the correct stimulation during development. However, I know how thought experiments stretch truths to make exactly the point the author wants them to make, so maybe skip this. Hence …

2c – It was correct that Mary knew everything because the screen emitted science included mesmerising signals that stimulated an experience of red.

And corresponding events outside the room:

3a – From 2a, Mary gains the physicalist experience of red on the eyes and its corresponding stimulation of the brain. But since the full knowledge premise was false, the knowledge argument fails.

3b – From 2b, Mary sees red on leaving the room and says, “Oh, there’s some red.” No new knowledge is gained. The argument fails.

3c – From 2c, Mary recognises red on leaving the room. The argument fails.

Is the conclusion of all this that physicalism is necessarily true? No. Because my interpretation above presupposes colour experience is a phsyicalist mechanistic brain effect and that consciousness is a process of such a brain.

All this goes to show is that the Mary colour scientist knowledge argument is entirely useless at showing us anything except how poor philosophy can be. It shows us how philosophers can waste years on such a poor thoughtless experiment.

8 thoughts on “Frank Jackson, James Garvey, Mary and the Awful Knowledge Argument

  1. The problem with the history of Qualia is that some basics are missing in the discussion: People see just Physics and Ideas. But for all these problems you have to consider the “thing” in between – its the software. It is just as with a silicon-based computer: If you see just transistors on one side and the face-recognition at the other side, this is only mystery. A dualism is not sufficient – you need a trialism with software (and information) as independent column. Then the qualia and the knowledge-argument vanish.
    (I see the software argument implicitly in the preceding discussion).

    And one big suggestion to philosophers: Draw diagrams with function blocks and system boundaries! In this case, e.g., for sensor input (B/W and or Color), physical processing, pattern recognition and objects recognition. This hierarchical model helps in the discussion by taking out the (wrong) mystery.

    PS can be skipped by the editor: I try to write a book on the philosophical role of Software.

    1. I’m a physicalist, as a working conclusion from what data we have.

      I see no evidence of anything immaterial or otherwise non-physical, with regard to the ‘mind’.

      All I do see, from simple life to humans, is varying degrees of complexity of function. In simpler systems the complexity of function appears entirely physical – it’s just dynamic localised collections of physical stuff.

      Going from simple organisms to humans there is no evidence of anything being injected that is not physical.

      On top of that the world appears deterministic. There are some discrepancies, with regard to quantum stuff, but even that has a deterministic effect on the world. But humans are so epistemically challenged that we can’t be sure we fully understand the details of that. We are so challenged that the world seems indeterminate to us, either on various scales of space, or in time. There seems to be a range of measures that we appear to have evolved to cope with, and in that range we can make predictions quite well enough. But things like the weather, or economics, or social engineering, are beyond us outside some trivial range. And we are only just learning how to use computers to make out predictions better.

      In that context I see no reason to infer the ‘mind’ is anything other than a model that a physical brain constructs for itself. The brain didn’t do this voluntarily – the model, extended to the theory of mind with regard to other people, is something that may have emerged as a brain process. However, cultural influences have caused us to enhance that model in many ways, but some of those models are no more than speculative fantasy – souls, for example.

      These models cloud our thinking, on the matter of free will. Some people are outright dualists, whether religiously motivated or not. Some seem to hanker after free will, and try to re-invent it, conflating free will with freedom to act on the will. The will is not free will but caused will, and then once a machine has a willed intent, freedom is the measure o the extent to which that intent can be actualised. This freedom may be freedom of physical movement – restrained by chains, or gravity. Or it might be political freedom, restrained to some extent by political forces – which means restrained physically in a different context, which might include coercion rather than immediate physical restraint.

      So, we are physical automata. With our component parts playing out a physical existence. But, to us, it seems like something quite different.

      1. Thank you Ron Murphy for your well balanced and clear reply. I appreciate it.

        I actually do not have any problem with determinism or physicalism in the way you put it.

        About Q.M., perhaps it comes to this that how reality or existence will appear will be affected by the conditions of observation (which includes the kind of cognitive faculties of mind which is observing). I do not know.

        See, it is like this, what exists,let us call it X, then x is whatever it is. But what ever any apparatus of cognition (for example, a human mind), will cognize it to be, will also depend on that apparatus. So no apparatus of cognition sees reality or whatever is actually existing as it really is but only from a certain perspective. So X will be cognized differently by different cognizers. And actually no body will know what X is in itself. That is the relation of all cognizers to what is actually existing or happening.

        The crucial point is that what ever is actually existing, let us call it X and not a table, chair,atom or molecule etc. because a chair is what results after cognition. When you try to find out what X is, you use your apparatus of cognition and what the result comes out that you call a chair etc.

        To pick up ontologicalrealist’s point, “It would be good to remember that human understanding (including sciences and philosophies) of all what exists and is happening is only from a certain perspective only,” I agree, in the following sense. We are dominated by our human 1-POV, our introspection. My view is that the way philosophy has historically treated knowledge has been dominated and skewed by this perspective.

  2. In Q.M. ‘observation’ does not mean observation by ‘cognition’ of a human mind, which we agree is already remote from what it is observing. When a human mind ‘observes’ a QM event what is happening there (we presume) is that some external interaction is taking place, and through a chain of instrumentation is being presented to a human mind as light – reading numbers of a monitor, seeing a pattern of dots on a screen behind two slits, … So, ‘observation’ merely means interaction with other stuff. It’s all too tempting to lose sight of that.

    And, whatever we perceive reality to be, whatever limits there are on it, because human perception of light consists of signals and patterns in the darkness of a skull, applies just as much to those that would theorise on the more ‘mystical’ ideas about reality.

    So, take someone who really holds to solipsism. They start with what amounts to a perceived existence in a material world, and they wonder if the material world does not exist, and that ‘we’ are immaterial minds inventing this apparent reality.

    Well, why think of a ‘we’? What if there is just one solipsist mind? What if there is just my mind? That begs the question of what are you, my interlocutor? Well, ‘you’, and your communication with ‘me’, must all be a part of my solipsist mind’s imagination. I am imagining you. You do not exist.

    But then I wonder, using the theory of mind, what if you are the one and only mind. What if I am part of your imagination? I feel like a real me. And I have thoughts that I know you can’t have, about the colour of my cat, for example. But then even under the materialist model of brains I think there are subconscious elements that the conscious self does not have access to. So, under solipsism, what ‘I’ think are my personal conscious thoughts, the ones you can’t see, might in fact be your subconscious thoughts, subconscious thoughts of your solipsist mind. My whole imagined material existence might be a figment of your subconscious mind.

    Or, of course, your whole existence might be a figment on mine. Or we might both be figments of some other mind.

    This is the rabbit hole we go down when we wonder ‘what if’, but then don’t back it up with any attempt to test it.

    Material reality is just as susceptible to this sort of extreme scepticism. And its only justification is that we test it and it works. Gods, solipsism, idealism, rationalism, various realisms, …, these are all speculative extreme scepticisms.

    I accept only what I find, and I accept it on face value, unless I have reason to do otherwise. Sunsets I accept on face value. But a history astronomy tells me that they are not quite what they seem, and the support for astronomy is far more rigorous than just looking at a setting sun.

    Is the sun a setting ball of fire moving across the sky, or a distant object seen from the surface of a rotating planet? How can we tell the difference. Both would give the same cognitive perception. Science separates the (contingent) reality from the fantasy magic of the imagination.

    It doesn’t matter if X is perceived differently inside human skulls, as long as we construct consistent references for it, so that when you say X I understand that to be the X I’m used to perceiving.

    And we are already quite capable of dealing with discrepancies. Two people, A colour blind, B not, can look at and see two objects. A sees only one colour, but B sees two colours. They build an instrument that measures reflected light and converts it to numbers. A has to acknowledge he is colour blind and perceives colours differently. We know there are ‘colours’ we humans cannot perceive at all, but we can see the effect of those ‘colours’ – sun burn, for example.

    The science based materialist perspective that tells us there is a reality out there and we are perceiving some reasonable representation of it works very well. Even if we have to use instruments to transform that part of reality we can’t see into something we can, it still works pretty well.

    Note that I’ve never perceived directly or had any instrument show anything like gods or consciousness. I have no experience of gods at all, and every explanation of experiencing gods I’ve come across has a very simple material explanation. Consciousness is only every a personal subjective experience, but any idea of it being something immaterial is contradicted by all known science. Outside those two subjects I’m not sure what else there is that causes so much of a fuss.

    There is morality, of course, but that’s correlated with the degree to which one treasures consciousness – so a materialist perspective on morality is that it is a collection of very strongly held opinions influenced by powerful emotional evolutionary drives and put on a romantic pedestal by a history of mistaken philosophy and theology.

    So, for me, X is X, for now. If X turns out to be something other than X (and note here that it is always material science that pulls back the screen to reveal the magician) then I’ll adapt my perspective accordingly.

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