Mary’s Room

The Australian philosopher Frank Jackson devised a thought experiment to represent a Knowledge Argument in 1982.

Mary is extremely smart, she is educated on neuroscience to the point where she is an expert on the subject. Mary has read about everything there is to know about the perception of colour in the brain as well as the physical facts about how light works in order to create the different wavelengths and colours and about how the brain processes visual stimuli. She knows every scientific fact about what happens when we see colour.

Except, Mary herself has never seen a coloured object. A red strawberry, a brown chocolate, colourful m&m’s, the blue ocean, the yellow sun… Mary has never seen any of these!

Mary has lived her entire life in a black and white room. Her books are black and white, her hair is black, her T.V is black and white, and even her clothes. She has never directly experienced or seen anything in colour, all she knows about colour is given in her textbooks.

But one day, the door opens to the outside world. Suddenly, she sees what she has been researching for all these years – colour! The question is, even though she knows everything about what should happen inside her brain now, does she learn anything new? Does she learn anything new by seeing a green tree or a red apple that she couldn’t get out of reading textbooks?

If she does, we’ll have to conclude that mental states like seeing colour cannot be perfectly explained by physical facts. There has to be more to it, something that’s dependent on conscious experience.

If she doesn’t learn anything new, we’ll have to go with the idea that knowing physical facts is identical to experiencing something.

I think that there are some non-physical properties and attainable knowledge that can only be discovered through conscious experience. A tiny bit like love – we have read about it and most of us even know the hormones like dopamine and serotonin involved. But when we actually experience love for the first time, it feels like something completely out of the world!

Is the way in which we experience the world more than just simple biochemical processes in the brain? Is our mind more than our brain? What do you think?

⁃ SaaniaSparkle 🧚🏻‍♀️

196 thoughts on “Mary’s Room

  1. Way more…
    like pigments raining on a painting;
    an ocean riding in through my eyes,
    lapping, tide-like on the shores of a conversation…
    and me,
    withered and spent
    like last year’s reconsidered thought….
    flayed open
    (and not for the first time)…
    Told all the details of what I am
    and given the forms to sign.
    But
    with part of me
    still chasing the last freight train out of town.
    Nowhere to run to…
    and only my unspoken soul
    between raindrops and masterpieces.

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    1. Great and interesting question mate but what we do know is that the light enters their eyes and is reflected and the data’s sent to their insect brain which interprets it, much like ears and the tune they send to our brain for analysis. All of our senses send data (having no clue what it is) to our brain, which will identify it for us.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks Paula, personally I’m not aware of the colour-vision of insects, but they and birds both find the bright red flower-heads of my Lachinalia plants quickly. The point of my comment was that our eyes and ears and other sensory detectors don’t know what the hell they are detecting, they just deliver the information to our brains, which decide what it means. The visual ability of other creatures would indeed be interesting to know !

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Super interesting post and topic in general! 😊 For me learning about something and experiencing it are two different things as there are (usually) emotions involved for the latter. If we take the same example but apply it to another sens (like hearing or taste), it is much clearer (at least for me)! 😊

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  3. I was shocked by this real story, and unfortunately there are many people who are surrounded by an ocean of colors, but their eyes are blurred, or their life is like a mist in gray. Your story made me shiver and taught me to look deeper into the color of people, nature, animals and even the rainbow in me .. 🤗

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  4. How very deep your expression~! I find it difficult to believe that such keen observation can come from a fifteen year old. But then I too would be monochromatic~!

    Most of our great philosophers were old men and women, did they think this way when young, but were afraid to express their selves~? What I saw here was the great philosophy in observation of all the people around us. That of those looking at the world in a monochromatic way.

    While many other persons posting seemed to be thinking about the physical reason of why other creatures face the world in actual monochrome, I saw your deep observation of people who live in a dark black and white world, not even gray~!. Unfortunately the world has too many who have this mental attitude~!

    If we could only convince them that there is a full colorful life outside that room. Then we all could have a much more loving, sharing, happy, world, instead of “oh woe is me~!”

    Thanks, you made my day, and I am going outside into the sunshine~!

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  5. Color must be experienced versus simply understood from esoteric descriptions. Ditto love. Because we are doing compound processing of data (visual, emotional, intellectual and hormonal), an understanding of the theory behind the concept of color, like the theory behind the concept of love, is insufficient to truly comprehend what color or love means to the individual.

    Because we are a sum of the educational data we have received through generally accepted theories on how something “should” be in the world, it does not mean that our emotional and hormonal reactions are always identical, nor does it mean our emotional reactions all follow identical responses.

    Then, we must add in the variables – is one highly analytical? Or, is one indifferent to the dry descriptions contained in the theories about how best to teach the concept, but that same person has a heightened sensitivity to pheromones, so the experience in feeling love or seeing colors is more instructive?

    Truly, a dictionary or a computer can teach us the generally accepted theories on any number of subjects, but until our senses are engaged to “learn” the topic via personal experience (is the color blue a rainy day? a windswept ocean? a starlight sky? the death of a loved one?) it’s an esoteric argument because one’s innate talents, weaknesses and past experiences will alway illuminate and elucidate whether we run to embrace love or run from it, or find warmth in color, or turmoil in both.

    While Mary may be an expert in the subject, her lack of first hand knowledge which involves all her senses leaves her lacking an essential piece of data – how she experiences color – so she is not as smart as she might otherwise be on e she has actual experience under her belt.

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  6. Let’s be honest, regardless of the nature of the input into her mind or brain or whatever you want to call it (so much of this is just semantics), she will think what she wants to think, believe what she wants to believe, no?

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  7. I think we could all agree that studying pain is not the same as feeling pain. You could probably argue that you couldn’t fully understand pain until you have first-hand experience of it.

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  8. So! She steps outside and into a New world of Colors!
    The only problem is now that she can SEE them, and yes it will be something new for her, but—she is seeing something she still can’t recognize! Yes, she is now seeing Red and Green and Yellow, but WHICH ONE IS WHICH? This is like showing a small child 24 UNLABELED different Crayons when they don’t know the names of any of them. They can see and draw with them, but is THIS one Purple, or is it this one, or this, or that one?

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  9. Incredible post! Makes me think of the convo I just had with my 15 year old. Trying to explain why parents make certain decisions. Dont do A because B will happen and we made this mistake so dont do this. My son says we are just dictators trying to control his life. I told my husband we can teach him, give him the answer but until he experiences the emotion of this situation he will never grasp our thoughts. The agony of parenting ha ha!

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  10. I think it’s self-evident that experience and abstract knowledge are not the same. However, I would not describe the difference as “learning” something.

    After seeing actual color, Mary does not “know” anything she didn’t know before, in the sense of knowing any hard facts she didn’t know before. However, the direct experience has an effect on her mind which makes it qualitatively different, even if no knew knowledge is gained.

    The bottom line is that what makes life interesting and valuable includes many other things than “learning” narrowly defined. When I studied Japanese, I learned a lot of new information. When I first arrived in Japan and had to speak it to a Japanese person who didn’t know English (and discovered that he could understand me), I did not learn any new facts about the language, but the experience nevertheless had a very different quality then being in a classroom.

    I hope this makes sense. As often happens in philosophy, a lot of the questioning resides in the exact meanings with which words are used.

    Is our mind more than our brain?

    Yes, in the sense that a computer program is “more than” a computer. The mind is a set of processes which the brain performs. But it is not a “thing” separate from the brain.

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    1. There is a distinction made by some philosophers between “knowing how” and “knowing that”.
      A bird knows how to fly but it does not know that it is flying. The bird is Designed to fly and does it almost automatically and with out much self-awareness. This is Know How. The bird does not know that flight involves all sorts of aeronautics and physics and chemistry, and does not need to.

      Usually, know how precedes and is the logical basis for its Analysis into Knowledge That, but in Mary’s Room is a highly artificial set up (a philosopher’s “Intuition Pump”) meant to shift our perspective on an issue.
      In this case, Mary would gain perspective and experience, Our Perspective on “color”. She would now be able to leave her room and Know How to get around and function in our society — like choose an outfit, or see the color emphasis of a Stop sign. Art must have been a very drab thing for Mary in her room, though not all of it involves experience of color.

      “Color”, like all things, is how we (our society) experience it and use it. On my site I wrote just recently about Brain and Mind.

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  11. For the purpose of this subject is the brain like ‘intelligence ‘, the mind like ‘wisdom’.
    One an absolute which, once developed, is a constant trait while the other always develops more through both experiences and static ‘learning’ from books and the like. Or is the difference from more simple semantics. I’ve said many times that I’ve changed my mind but I don’t think that I’ve ever said I’ve changed my brain.
    Or, friends, are both views right in their own way, are we all right and wise and beautiful? I kind of like that theory too.

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  12. Black is the absence of color whereas white is too much color. People’s personalities got colors too thus I think she aint gonna learn anything anew maybe just the societies basic color concepts

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  13. I love to think of these things. I often wonder if our individual brains interpret the data (colour) the same way? If not, perhaps that explains the outrageous (to my interpretation) colour combinations some people choose to wear 🙂 Never stop questioning

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  14. I believe that true “consciousness” exits independently of our physical bodies. Our bodies are mere vessels that hold our spirit. At the risk of simplifying a complicated matter, picture a flashlight without a battery, just a collection of wires and a bulb, right? The soul or spirit is the battery which causes the flashlight to work. But that’s just my belief.

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