Being Mary

Document Type: 
ASSC Conference Item
Article Type: 
consciousness, phenomenal, qualia, knowledge argument, physicalism, Dennett, enactivism, colour
Deposited by: 
Mr. Lars De Nul
Date of Issue: 
Lars De Nul
Event Dates: 
23-26 June 2006
Event Location: 
Oxford, UK
Event Title: 
10th annual meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness
Event Type: 
ASSC Conference
Presentation Type: 
Number of Pages: 
Jackson’s colour-deprived neuroscientist Mary has conquered a central place in the reasoning of analytic philosophers struggling with the problem of phenomenal consciousness. The thought experiment captures the problematic relationship between the conviction that “everything is physical” and the seemingly non-physical nature of phenomenal experience. I will provide a short overview of two interesting and well-known rebuttals of the argument: the Churchland/Lewis/Nemirow ability hypothesis and Dennett’s (1991, 2005) flat-out denial of the argument’s conclusion. Using recent comments on these approaches by Crane (2003) and Beaton (2005), I will argue that the first of these solutions is less than convincing because of the vague distinction between ability- and propositional knowledge. As for Dennett’s account, Beaton thinks it fails to take the importance of Mary’s cognitive architecture into account. Crane believes Dennett surpasses subjective facts, facts that are only available from the situated point of view of the experiencing subject. Having an experience is a subjective fact and therefore falls outside of the scope of objective physics. This does not falsify physicalism as an ontological thesis –the threat of dualism is thus averted– but does refute an epistemological physicalist objectivism. I will build on these critiques and, by borrowing concepts from Noë’s (2005) enactive approach, will try to show that the phenomenal should not be understood as something that can be known the way the physical state of the world can be known. Rather, it should be interpreted as the fundamental representational basis that links abstract knowledge to the cognitive agent’s active being the world. Mary, while locked in the room, lacks this grounding of her knowledge of colours and is therefore unable to develop a human (phenomenal) understanding of what red looks like. Even when given a complete description of the world, Mary is unable to relate these descriptions to her direct, situated and specifically human understanding of the world.
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