Explain Jackson’s Knowledge Argument. How does this argument work against physicalism? Is the argument successful? Why or why not? Discuss.
This paper will explore Jackson’s knowledge argument. Although he uses two examples, I will focus on the one revolving Mary in the black and white room. I will first explain Frank Jackson’s knowledge experiment and explore how Jackson uses this as an argument against physicalism, which will be understood as the doctrine that knowledge of all physical information is knowledge of all information. I will look at why his argument is unsuccessful through what it is that Mary obtains when she leaves the room, whether that knowledge can be considered as new information, and whether what she obtains is in fact abilities rather than information. Finally, I will follow Lewis’ Ability Hypothesis and defend Lewis in his attempt to challenge the Knowledge Argument and I will conclude that the flaw in this presentation of Jackson’s argument is that the conclusion relies on the false assumption that all knowledge exists in the form of information.
Given the definition of physicalism presented above, it poses the question as to whether there exists information that is not physical information. If such information existed, then physicalism would be proven false, as knowledge of all physical information would not encompass knowledge of all information. Jackson attempts to use the Knowledge Argument to show that such information does exist in order to prove physicalism to be false.
The knowledge experiment Jackson uses in his Knowledge Argument follows a woman called Mary, a brilliant scientist, who studies the neurophysiology of vision in a black and white room with access only to resources that are black and white. She has acquired all the knowledge of the physical information about color in the physical world outside of her room, yet when she leaves the room and first sees a red object, she still seems to learn something new. This knowledge experiment is used in the Knowledge Argument and can be presented in a premise conclusion format. The first premise would be: if physicalism is true, then knowledge of all physical information encompasses knowledge of all information that exists. The second premise would be: Mary, who is in the black and white room, has knowledge of all the physical information about color in the world outside of her room. The third premise would be: After leaving the room and experiencing color for the first time, Mary obtains new knowledge. The assumption here is that new knowledge means knowledge of new information. Therefore, what Mary obtains must be considered both as information and as something new. The conclusion that follows is: physicalism is false because Mary still obtains new knowledge of color. Since new knowledge is assumed to be knowledge of new information, this would mean that there was more information that existed outside of the physical information of color.
Jackson’s argument against physicalism relies on the idea that there exists such information that is irreducible to physical information. He describes what Mary obtains when seeing red for the first time as the raw feeling of what it is like to see the color red, otherwise known as knowledge of qualia. Qualia are the subjective and internal raw feels of what it is like when experiencing a certain stimulus, such as seeing the color red. Qualia, which are irreducible to physical information, are also known as phenomenal information. However, the idea of the existence of phenomenal information is questionable because it has strange qualities, two of which will be discussed. These strange qualities make it tempting to consider whether what Mary obtains can be considered information at all or whether what she obtains is actually something other than phenomenal information.
The first strange quality of phenomenal information is that it is causally ineffective. By suggesting that what Mary obtains is phenomenal information, Jackson is directing us to the idea that there exists a form of information that is entirely non-physical and is not causally connected to the physical world. If this form of information were causally connected to the physical world, then non-physical information would be part of a causal explanation of a physical occurrence, and the non-physical information would have caused you to have physical information, causing a physical action. This would mean a non-physical piece of information has a causal role in the physical world and can now be described in terms of a causal role. If this were the case, then we could give lessons on its causal role and teach it to students who have not had the experience themselves. However, the students would still not really know what it is like to experience what is being taught, so the information being taught is not the same as the non-physical information obtained during the experience. Therefore, the non-physical information is independent from the physical information, meaning phenomenal information is causally ineffective. If Mary cannot explain to another person the knowledge of new information she has obtained after seeing red, then it is possible that this knowledge of phenomenal information would make no difference to how she thinks, acts or speaks. This would make it a strange quality for a type of information.
The second strange quality of phenomenal information is the fact that phenomenal information can’t be taught or learned. Let’s assume that there exists a study of all phenomenal entities, phenomenal causal processes, phenomenal laws of nature and all that’s needed to explain the things that we do and all the phenomenal causal processes and laws that govern the interaction between the physical and phenomenal. Even if Mary were taught all about this study too, she would still not know what it is like to experience seeing red. Being taught the phenomenal information of a type of food one has never eaten before does not help them know what the experience of eating that food is like. The existence of phenomenal information makes for a strange problem. The problem being that it is not just lessons providing physical information that are not enough for us to know about all the information in the world, including phenomenal information. Rather, lessons of any or all types of information would not be enough for us to know about all the information in the world. So it would either be the case that Mary could learn all the knowledge there is about phenomenal information and still not know about phenomenal information, or, phenomenal information is information that cannot be taught or learned. In both cases, it gives phenomenal information a strange quality.
Thus, believing that phenomenal information is a type of information leads us to believe in something that is questionable and basing an argument on it would make the argument questionable too. If we define information as facts about something or someone that can be taught or learned through study and research, and what Mary obtains is something that cannot be taught or learned through study or research, then what she obtains might be something that should not be considered as information at all. The Knowledge Argument comes across as initially very strong because it seems that Jackson assumes that knowledge only consists of information. If what Mary obtains is knowledge, but is not considered information at all, then the definition of knowledge as used in the third premise is false and the third premise would be false. Therefore, we should consider other options as to what it is that Mary obtains, if it is not information.
If we accept that not all knowledge comes in the form of information, then instead of trying to argue the existence of phenomenal information, we should look at an alternative of what it is that Mary obtains as new knowledge that is not a form of information, and see if it is a more plausible explanation. David Lewis approaches this by accepting that there is a form of knowledge that Mary cannot be taught when in the room and agreeing that experiencing seeing red may be the only method in which she can obtain this knowledge. If the knowledge that she obtains in the room can be described as “knowing that”, then the knowledge she obtains through experience will be described as “knowing how”. The “knowing that” knowledge can also be described as possession of information and the “knowing how” knowledge can also be described as an ability. Lewis refers to the Ability Hypothesis as summarized by Laurence Nemirow, that there exists some mode of understanding that does not consist of the grasping of facts, but rather in the acquiring of abilities. New experiences cause us to gain new abilities, specifically in the form of remembering, imagining, and recognizing. It is important to note that obtaining a piece of information, or as Nemirow describes as the grasping of facts, and obtaining an ability are not the same thing. However, it is understandable that the two may be confused sometimes because the term “knowledge” is used for both and one often comes with the other. The experience of meeting someone and gaining information about this person often come together as we gain information whilst meeting them and gain the ability to remember, recognize, and imagine this person after the experience of meeting them.
Mary’s mental experience differs when seeing red in comparison to seeing blue and this could be damaging to physicalism. This is because it would suggest that there is a property that physicalism cannot capture, which is information about the mental experience of seeing red versus blue. If we take into consideration the strange qualities that phenomenal information presented previously, the apparent differing information she obtains when seeing red versus blue would also have a similar problem. Upon seeing the two colors, she would not be able to tell us anything about the experience that she did not know before. She could say that the colors are different, but she would have already known that when studying the differences in physical information between the colors in the room. So whatever it is that she obtains during the differing experiences would again be information that Mary cannot learn or study, and it would be information that would not change the way she speaks, acts or thinks. If Mary’s feelings when she sees red are extended to be not just about what it is like for her to see red, but also about her obtaining information about her mental psyche in the form of a mental reaction to the stimulus of seeing a red object, then physicalism could also be unable to capture that. However, this is contingent on a mental reaction being defined as information about the mental psyche. If the Ability Hypotheses, as summarized above, is applied here and her mental reactions are instead defined as her brain’s process of registering her new abilities to recognize and visualize the colors red and blue, since these abilities are different, it could explain why her mental reactions are different. Also, since what she obtains are abilities, and abilities are considered different to information, then what she obtains is not information. This would mean the difference in her experience does not come from her obtaining different information when provided with the stimuli. Therefore, her mental experiences differ due to different neurons firing as a result of her brain obtaining the ability to recognize the different stimuli. According to the Ability Hypothesis, what she learns would not be considered information, so the differing experience when seeing blue versus seeing red would not threaten physicalism.
The previous doubts about the existence of phenomenal information due to its strange qualities and the plausibility of the Ability Hypothesis make it seem more reasonable to consider the Ability Hypothesis as the more convincing option. The Ability hypothesis is convincing because it is difficult to envision having the ability to remember, imagine, and recognize without having an experience beforehand. A person named Bob could learn everything there is to know about what an orange is, but without the experience of seeing an orange or an image of an orange, he would not be able to remember, imagine, or recognize an orange without being told what it is when one is put in front of him. Although his friend may try to help him imagine or recognize an orange by describing that it is the shape of a ball, is the same color as a carrot, and has a zesty smell like a lemon, this would still rely on Bob having the abilities to remember and imagine what a ball and a carrot look like, and what a lemon smells like. Without having the experiences of seeing a ball, a carrot and smelling a lemon before, Bob would still be unable to imagine or recognize an orange. Therefore, in order to be able to remember, imagine, and recognize an orange, Bob would need to have had the experience of seeing an orange. As long as the Ability Hypothesis is convincing, the Knowledge Argument is unsuccessful, because the former argues that the ability to remember, imagine, and recognize the color red is different to obtaining information about the color. So if we believe in the Ability Hypothesis, then what Mary obtains could be an ability rather than information. As Jackson argues in the second premise that what Mary obtains is knowledge, which is assumed to be in the form of information, the Ability Hypothesis would make this premise false.
However, the Ability Hypothesis refutes the Knowledge Argument based on the fact that what Mary obtains is only abilities and not any information. Yet when a person obtains knowledge of “knowing how”, it often entails knowledge of “knowing that” too. A person who obtains the ability to ride a bike when experiencing riding a bike for the first time may also obtain some “knowing that” knowledge too, such as how many wheels there are on a bike. According to Lewis, the definition of information is the elimination of possibilities, and in the case of the bike, obtaining the information that a bike has two wheels would eliminate the possibilities of a bike having less or more than two wheels. Therefore, it might be possible for Mary to obtain some “knowing that” knowledge whilst she obtains her abilities of “knowing how” to recognize red. However, there is an important difference about the person riding the bike and Mary. Mary is a brilliant scientist who has knowledge of all the physical information that exists about color. The bike rider, on the other hand, does not know all the physical information that exists about riding a bike. If he was like Mary and did know all the physical information about riding a bike, he would already know that a bike has two wheels. Thus, he would not be gaining any new information. We perceive people to obtain knowledge of “knowing that” when obtaining knowledge of “knowing how” because people generally don’t know all the physical information prior to the experience the way Mary does. So, it is still the case that Mary does not obtain any new information, which opposes the third premise if we use Jackson’s assumption of knowledge only consisting of information.
Jackson’s knowledge argument seems to be strong because it relies on the intuition that there is more to seeing red than the physical information about it alone. However, the success of his argument is not clear because it depends on what he includes under the term “knowledge” and whether what Mary obtains can be considered as knowledge at all. If Jackson’s definition of physicalism and the first premise interpreted physicalism in terms of physical knowledge encompassing all knowledge, then the fact that Mary does obtain new knowledge in the form of an ability would make it possible for his argument to be successful, at least when only considering the objection from the Ability Hypothesis. However, due to the first premise interpreting physicalism in terms of physical information encompassing all information, it means the success of his argument depends on supposing that the knowledge that Mary obtains comes in the form of information. If we assume that the Ability Hypothesis is correct and what Mary obtains is an ability, then this supposition would be wrong. Even though Mary does obtain new knowledge, Jackson’s argument against physicalism is still unsuccessful because the new knowledge she obtains comes in the form of an ability, which, according to the Ability Hypothesis, is not the same as information.
Jackson, Frank. “Epiphenomenal Qualia.” The Philosophical Quarterly 32.127 (1982): 127. Web.
Lewis, David. Papers in Metaphysics and Epistemology, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. 262-90. Print.