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Monday, March 29, 2010

Mary and The Problem of Qualia or John and His Ketchup Problem

On the tail of Dink's last post on layers and our discussion of consciousness I thought I might offer what I have felt to be perhaps the most compelling argument against complete understanding of such experiential phenomena. It was first put forth by the philosopher of mind Frank Jackson in the early 1980's. This is a thought experiment so we must have a bit of latitude with it. It goes like this: Mary is born. From the second she exits the birth canal she lives only and is raised only in a world without color. She is not allowed outside nor is she exposed to anything but black and white indoors. Mary is a very bright child and is educated by those who care for her. Again this education takes place through a black and white TV and in a room with no color. Mary is an exceptionally bright child. Her teachers teach her EVERY conceivable bit of information about color. She is an expert in optics and the behavior of light and acquires all that can possibly understood about how color is created in the eye and transmitted to the brain. Again on every level there is no more physical information about the process of colors being created and visualized by human beings that Mary can absorb. Her understanding of the physical process of human color visualization is complete. After this occurs, Mary is released out into the yard behind the place where she has been raised and acquired her complete knowledge on color. She visualizes color for the first time after. Just prior to her experience of color she has already acquired all possible knowledge about the process of color experience but can it be said that Mary really knows everything about the perception of color before she goes into the yard? Change the story to a boy named Dr John who is not nearly as bright but instead has devoted his life to the the study of ketchup and the physiologic process of the taste sensation of it. Again, can it be said that John knows everything about ketchup until he has experienced it? And than after what can both Mary or John offer to others in regards to truly shared knowledge about what their experience "is" and what it is to see color or taste ketchup ? ....It was good for me. I hope it was for you. John


Dink said...

First time at bat and he knocks it out of the park! Nice job, Dr John!

"the most compelling argument against complete understanding of such experiential phenomena"


"she has already acquired all possible knowledge about the process of color experience but can it be said that Mary really knows everything about the perception of color before she goes into the yard?"

Welllll..... its tough. The actual sensation..., um, getting stimulus from actual receptors is awesome. On an individual level its much more satisfying than the abstract modeling of the intellect. But without some really incredible leaps in technology we're never going to be able to share that.

So we'll have to make due with the abstract, even though admittedly inadequate, when interacting with each other. We can try real hard to use precise communication to get as close as possible.

*tangent- there is this book called A Stroke Of Insight. A neuroanatomist had a stroke that effected her left hemisphere. It took a couple years to recover, but she had a great story to tell. I'll get back to this and how it relates later.

*tangent- I always like the analogy of submarines when discussing inner world and outer world. Each of us is a submarine filled with a lively crew. When we speak with the other submarines we have to surface and we can only do so a few hours a day. And even during those hours we have to have the crew agree what to say since there is only one radio. So which is the real world; our life on the sub with the crew or our life for the few hours we surface? Both really, but I would argue since the surface (ie physical world) is more life-threatening we ought to give it priority.

And therefore Mary's surface-world perception of color was priority.

Wow, looking back over this comment it seems like rambling stream of consciousness. But I'll swallow my pride and hit "publish".

Debra said...

ah, the old direct and indirect experience problem...
Theodore Roszak in "Where the Wasteland Ends" does an excellent job of working with this in beautiful, vivid language to boot.
We were talking about this in the last comments section re the idea of disincarnation.
Sensual experience of the body gives us an incarnated life. Indirect experience with abstraction cultivates the mind. Too much mind cultivation can be bad for your health, right ?
One way that we can "communicate" is to share the same sensual experience together... i.e. "communion"... And communion, the Eucharistie is designed (ideally, of course..) to incarnate abstract language IN sensual experience, with others. To create a sense of community around a shared sensual experience.
Can reading the same book create the same sense of community ? I don't think so.
So, your post holds not only for "knowing" but also for "communicating" (hate that word) what we know/are/feel.

Dr John said...

Are people doing the same thing such as taking communion having the same experience? I know this is what we are shooting for but having hosted countless dinner parties I don't think it turns out like that. I have spent about 25 years drinking and collecting wine. Less in the last year do to some health issues but prior I have had the good luck to drink the finest vintages of wines like d'Yquem, Latour, Mouton,DRC along with cult wines from California, Grange and so many I could go on for hours. I have never run across a "shared experience" that is so obviously not really shared as being at a group wine tasting in particular when they are done blind and people do not know what they are drinking. It is never clear to me if people are all tasting something different, using different frames of reference to put it in perspective or just using different language to describe it. Regardless, it is a good example as to the profound limits to such shared sensual experiences and how much they can really be shared and this can be communicated to others.

Debra said...

Jesus, Doctor John, you don't drink millesimed Bordeaux wine for communion !!
Shame on you.
That's not the point now, is it ?
And communion is not just your little ole dinner party/wine tasting fest either...
Wine vocabulary is highly... codified and consensual. That means that people who use the same words THINK that they're sharing the same experience, BUT WE KNOW BETTER, right ?
A little bit like trotting out the old "psychosis" word in a professional group meeting and seeing how many people are close to having the same general definition of it.

Dr John said...

Help me understand than Debra. What is the sense that is being "shared" at communion?

Dr John said...

Also if people who use the same words are likely to get confused about sharing the same experience how in the world can those who are not do any better? Here again as always I will defer to Wittgenstein and say this us unknowable.

Debra said...

There is an excellent scene in Marion Zimmer Bradley's book, "the Mists of Avalon" (her first book) that gives a pretty good idea of what communion is.
And Marion does it much better than I.
It is the scene where Morgaine goes around the room bearing Cerwiden's cup which the attendance sees as the Holy Grail, and each person present drinks from the cup and each has a DIFFERENT, intensely personal experience of what is IN the cup (related to memory) but ALL AGREE on the extraordinary/miraculous nature of the experience itself.
The name of the game ALWAYS is intricating individual and social body. So that one does not triumph at the expense of the other, but both come out ahead.
I think that the idea of Catholic communion hinges on our willingness to accept what our reason finds highly improbable/impossible and does not understand (the realm of belief...) : that Christ's body and blood are PRESENT in the wafer and wine. The wafer and wine are not simply... symbols of Christ's body.
That is... the Protestant way. The.. RATIONAL way of looking at things. Convenient. Comfortable. Not intellectually demanding of people like you and me, right ??

Debra said...

One of these next times I am going to have to do a post on how I'm working REAL GOOD FOR FREE on my loony forum.
Everyone is really doing much much better.
And while it is definitely a team effort, I am very very instrumental in helping to bring this about...

Dr John said...

So your telling me the best example you can come up with is a work of fiction where everyone has a different experience but it is shared and extraordinary and hence similar? This is why I gave up Catholicism and fiction. Wittgenstein was indeed correct. Being as I am new I look forward to your post on how people are better.

Debra said...

Like... fiction is a.. LIE, maybe ?
That supposes that... "reality" is the "truth"...
How far are you going to take us with that one, Doctor John ?
Decidedly our times are rather... indigent ones, despite our breathtaking arrogance about our "technical" achievements...
Over there in that enormous Salon where you sometimes hang out (I wasn't looking for you, but you popped up one day...) there is an article about the longstanding debate as to whether the bard actually was the author of his plays.
Counting angels on the head of a pin...
Every age has ITS way of counting angels on the head of a pin.
What makes us think that OUR way is any better ?
Any.. closer to the "truth" ?

Dr John said...

You sure blame Plato for a lot. I am not sure you are being fare Debra. What age has not lamented their own times as being devoid of the soul, thought and spirit of the age before them or some greater past age? I have read Plato enough to know he bitches about the same stuff you do.

Debra said...

I blame Plato for contributing to casting eternal opprobrium on fiction, and for equating it with a lie.
I blame Plato for framing the debate in that way.
Blaming Plato does not mean that I release our age, or any other age from its responsibilites, but I think that Plato is particularly responsible for THIS problem.
Platonic thought runs all the way through our culture.
And we DON'T see it.
(And once again, I am not an expert on this. Not at all..)

JP said...

Faustian thought runs through our entire civilization.

Plato's civilization died with the Western Roman Empire.

But it was already dead when it finally died.

Just an endlessly repeating fractal with declining amplitude at that point.

Fortunately for us, Magian civilization was rising at the same time. See the Eastern Roman Empire for further details.

JP said...

Dr. John says:

"Again, can it be said that John knows everything about ketchup until he has experienced it? And than after what can both Mary or John offer to others in regards to truly shared knowledge about what their experience "is" and what it is to see color or taste ketchup?"

Yes, Dr. John, we really do need all of our senses, plus a functioning mind, to truly experience ketchup, and many other things.

But, then again, I prefer to see with my mind rather than my eyes. Makes life more comrephensible that way.

The Most Fabulous Objects In The World

  • Hitchhiker's Guide To The Universe trilogy
  • Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • Flight of the Conchords
  • Time Bandits