Mary in the Black and White Room Dramatized

A classic philosophical thought experiment from the philosophy of mind is dramatized and explained in a way that is helpful, vivid, and a little cheesy:

H/T: Pete Mandik

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • sean samis

    The solution seems clear to me.

    Suppose Mary is simply given a color “swatch”; does Mary learn anything new? Yes, because Mary lacks three pieces of information:

    1: How will Mary’s retina and central nervous system respond to color?

    2: At the precise moment of observation, how will Mary’s retina and central nervous system actually respond to color? and,

    3: What color is Mary actually observing?

    Not all brains respond to colors identically, so if Mary scanned her own brain while looking at a color swatch, she would only be able to deduce what color her brain would “sees”. If Mary is color blind, she would not know it even when looking at the color swatch and scanning her brain.

    If Mary used some kind of spectral analyzer, she could determine what color the swatch is, but since she’s been living in a black-and-white room, she has no experience actually using the device. If her device said “red” but the swatch was labeled “green” she’d not be able to be sure which was right.

    So, unless someone tells her what color the swatch is, she cannot be sure, or sure she herself is not color-blind. When someone tells her what color it is, then she learns something new.

    sean s.

    • sean samis

      … so to be clear, in the video clip, Mary cannot just walk up to the wall with colored rectangles and identify any of them. When she can do that, then she has learned something she did not know in her room.

      Ditto for a computer; I could program it with all knowledge of color and light, but when I hook up a camera for the first time, it will not know what colors it’s looking at unless the programmer has told it.

      sean s.

  • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com/ Shira Coffee

    It seems to me that the problematic aspect of this intuition pump is the statement of the problem. The first guy who speaks says things like “She knows everything about the physics of color vision.” Then he says, “The people who think that there’s no problem about consciousness… say that there’s nothing she doesn’t know about color.”

    The first of these statements is incoherent. As you discussed earlier in the problem of omniscience, it’s impossible to say you know everything (or everything about X). But because it’s a common way of expressing expertise, it SOUNDS like a reasonable thing to say. When we use it to express expertise, we don’t mean it literally. If someone says of a pet store worker, “He knows everything about parrots!”, that person will be rather put out if I point out that he probably doesn’t know the word for parrot in Swahili.

    In other words, British-accent-philosopher-dude (Frank Jackson?) is using a statement with two meanings, and he switches back and forth between those meanings, depending on what is useful for his argument. Furthermore, by insisting that people he disagrees with insist on the more literal (and impossible) meaning, he is setting up a straw man to argue against.

    He is also, I think, pulling a trick in assuming that Mary will be blown away by the perception of color when she steps out of her room. Among several problems, he ignores the fact that she might be unable to perceive color if she did not get a chance to perceive it at some critical period of development. We know from experiments with, for instance, kittens, that the brain rewires the visual perceptions to deal with what is actually in the environment, so that kittens raised for their first month in a room where only vertical lines (but no horizontal lines) were visible were forever unable to perceive horizontal lines.

    Fortunately, experiments like that are not performed with human infants. But it raises the question of what Mary would see. And again, some of the salience of this thought experiment involves inviting a normal (color-seeing) person to imagine being deprived of color and then getting back one’s ability to see color. This is a hidden emotional lure that, to some extent, poisons the insight derived from the intuition pump.

    • Rosie

      Experiments like this are not conducted on human infants, but similar things have happened when first-world people contacted isolated tribes. (My family has quite a long history with missions groups who do just that so I’ve heard plenty of anecdotes, though of course they never did scientific research as their focus was on proselytizing.) It seems that often these people have no experience with printed photos, and it takes a while for them to be able to perceive the images. Fortunately, even adults were eventually able to do so, but it took a little while for their “eyes to hatch” as they said so expressively. I suspect that Mary would eventually be able to perceive color, especially if she were in contact with people who already could, but it might take a little while. Are adult human minds more plastic, more able to adjust, than adult feline minds?


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