Archive for April, 2009

Picture: bike. Sam Coleman returned in a recent paper (JCS vol 16, n0 2-3) to the old perennial of Mary the colour scientist.  As you may know, Frank Jackson’s story about Mary was intended to establish that there was something important – qualia – which the simple physical account of the world omitted. Mary, we’re told, knows everything that could possibly be known about colour from a scientific point of view (far more than any living scientist knows, or could know).  She knows all the physical facts. But she has never experienced colour; when she sees a red rose for the first time, doesn’t she learn something new – ie what red looks like? If you agree, then, it is argued, you must agree that there are things in heaven and earth not dreamt of in physicalist philosophy.

One standard riposte to this line of argument is to deny that Mary learns any new facts when she sees red for the first time:  instead, she merely acquires a new ability. Now she can recognise red, when she couldn’t do before; but she doesn’t actually know any new facts about redness or the human optical system. (After all, the phrase ‘she knows what red is like’ literally suggests that she can give a list of things which are like a red object, and say whether the colour of a given object resembles red or not – which sounds a lot like recognition.) We might mention other abilities; the ability to remember or imagine redness, in particular – but none of these involve new knowledge in the ordinary sense, any more than acquiring the ability to ride a bike involves learning new facts. You can read as many books about bicycles as you like: you’ll still fall off the first time you get on one.

Coleman aims to knock this line of argument on the head, not by refuting it but by showing it to be irrelevant. Most attacks on the Ability Hypothesis, he says, address what he calls its inner face directly. They seek to show that what happens to Mary cannot be boiled down to the gaining of an ability – perhaps because all such abilities involve factual knowledge – or they set out to show directly that Mary does indeed learn new facts.  These strategies tend, he says with some justice, to end up mired in a clash of intuitions with no clear way forward.

Instead, then, he concedes that if we wish, we can see what happens to Mary as the acquisition of some new abilities; he addresses instead what he calls the outer face of the problem. What about the analogy of bike-riding? Proponents of the Ability Hypothesis say it does not depend on factual knowledge, and it’s true it doesn’t come from academic book-reading. But what does it involve? Surely it’s all about keeping our balance? That’s a matter of teaching your muscles how to respond quickly and appropriately to certain sensations of tipping over.  So hang on, it actually involves knowledge of what it feels like to wobble – what certain kinds of phenomenal experience are.  Is this kind of knowledge factual knowledge?  Never mind the answer for the moment – all we need do is notice that this is exactly the kind of question we were asking about Mary’s experience of redness in the first place. The Ability Hypothesis has merely taken us back to where we started – so we need not waste our time on it.

A neat piece of footwork, I think, and Coleman’s analysis of the phenomenal element in abilities such as bike-riding, ear-waggling, and the use of chopsticks provides an interesting new insight, worth having in its own right. (Readers may be interested in the Phenomenal Qualities Project, whose three-year mission is due to begin next month; Coleman is co-investigator to Paul Coates and the list of project members includes some stellar names.)

Where are we left with Mary meanwhile, though? Should we now accept the refutation of physicalism she represents? No, I would say, but then again yes.

One thing that’s sure about Mary is that if she does acquire new knowledge, it is knowledge of some special kind. It isn’t the sort we can write down and transmit in words – that much is true ex hypothesi, because if it were that kind of knowledge, it would be among the things Mary already knows. It’s tempting to denounce this kind of knowledge as metaphorical or worse, but let’s merely ask whether it’s fair to expect the theory of physicalism to include it.  Theories, after all, are expressed in words, and typically written down; if we’re dealing with facts that can’t be dealt with that way it seems only reasonable to conclude that no theory could deal with them and that they must remain extra-theoretical.  Physicalism might then be incomplete in some sense, but we have no reason to think it isn’t as complete as any theory could be.  How much is it reasonable to ask?

And yet, and yet…  We’re talking here about what things are like;  this somehow still feels like a problem where more could be said after all. We can’t expect that our theories should deliver ineffable reality itself, but doesn’t it seem that there is some tantalising last elucidation obtainable here, if only we knew how to go about it?