Think of a brilliant scientist called Mary made to live in a dark room unable to connect to the external world except via a screen through which she monitors the world and unfortunately the screen is only capable of displaying grayscale images. Mary, a neurophysiologist by profession, excels in the field of human vision, visual perception, and the science of colors. One fine sunny morning, she is released into the wide world that so far existed beyond her physical knowledge. Now the question that arises is whether Mary will learn anything new after being released into the wilderness.
This is a famous thought experiment, devised by philosopher Frank Jackson and published in his article Epiphenomenal Qualia in 1982. The author intends to argue against the philosophy of Physicalism that states that whatever exists in nature along with all its mental aspects are purely physical and can accurately be simulated via physical means. In his article, Jackson places the fictional character Mary in the shoes of an observer who gains all the knowledge there is to gain about a physical phenomenon but does experience the phenomenon itself and asks if it does make a difference. According to the author himself, yes it does make a difference. Mary will learn something new once she steps out of the room and experiences color vision for the first time, even though she attained all the knowledge about color and it’s perception while being inside the room.
The term qualia stems from the Latin word of qualias that in a literary sense means ‘of what kind’, which signifies an idea of being a part of a class.
Qualias are defined as an individual instance of experience, perceivable purely through the appropriate senses.
To illustrate the idea of qualia, scientist Feigl draws the example of an alien with perceptive abilities different from humans and unsurprisingly can not feel pain. Now, with so many resources available on pain and it’s the process of perception, the alien can easily learn about the pain, that it feels bad to humans, and even pass a biology test on the topic, without ever being able to be inflicted by pain. If that is the case, then the pain is a qualia, feeble to humans, in this case.
Try explaining what color is to a blind person. One common pattern in qualias is the only reliable explanation of qualia involves a reference to that qualia itself, a vicious cycle. For example, you may explain the color pink to a person who never saw the color as a lighter shade of red or the sound of gunfire to one who never heard one as being similar to that of a cracker only much louder. Notice that each of these explanations assumes the observer to have observed a different version of the qualia beforehand. You might try associating the red color with fire and hotness, blue with peace and cool, and so on. But these won’t make much of a sense to a person who never witnessed a color.
It seems there is something inherently different about studying a color or any other qualias like taste or hearing and actually perceiving them through the appropriate senses. More on this later.
Back to Mary
Though Frank Jackson, the author of hte article, concludes that Mary will definitely learn something upon expsoure to the color-world and that qualias exist, a number of alternate explanations exist.
Paul Churchland argues that all Mary learned while being in that hypothetical room are the brain states and their functionalities and nothing actually about colors. So it is natural for her to learn something new when exposed to the color vision.
VC Ramchandan and Edward Hubbard propose a total of three mutually exclusive paths the events might follow when she is released.
- She continues to experience the world in black and white, a situation indicating her retina hasn’t evolved to that stage of receiving color data or that the optic lobe hasn’t developed on processing that.
- She does actually experience color for the first time.
- She experiences blindsight where colors can not explicitly be differentiated but can be perceived via a vague inner sense.
Whichever the case, this proposition does seem to go in favor of Frank Jackson and indicates a new thing is learned.
We experience the world as far as out senses allow us to
The doctrine of naturalism states that the natural exists with or without conscious observers. We observe the world through our senses. The senses offer an abstraction of reality and not the reality itself. Sometimes this process of abstraction involves creating the entirely new perception that resides purely within the brains of the observer and is totally irrelevant to the actual physical world. For example, the color that we see is an interpretation of the wavelength of the incident light, the sound that we hear is the frequency at which the air column next to the eardrum vibrates. These are all irrelevant outside the head of the observer, unlike gravity or the earth, which exist irrespective of any conscious observer.
Human senses however have limitations, like we perceive a minute portion of the entire electromagnetic spectrum, which we call the visible spectrum, can hear a small range of frequencies from 20 Hz to 20 kHz. There are animals and living beings that can perceive Xrays, hear beyond 20 kHz, sense geo-waves, rotation of the earth, and so on.
In conclusion, it is worthy to note the fact that everyone is helplessly alone inside the head. No one can perceive the world in exactly same manner as you do. I claim the strawberry in the cover of the article to be red and you might to agree on ‘calling’ it red even though you see it as what might seem green to me and call it ‘red’ only because you learned that is what red means — and we might go home happily never knowing how different our visions are. I don’t have any means of verifying that my red is the same as yours. Do I?
Well, that could give you a profound feeling of uniqueness.