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Philosophy 101: Is the Physical World All that There Is?

Following on from the first philosophy 101 series this second in the 101 series takes a look at the relationship between experience and the physical world. Specifically, a close inspection of the famous thought experiment devised by the Australian philosopher, Frank Jackson in 1982. 'The knowledge Argument'

Philosophers have been debating questions about Qualia and physicalism since time immemorial. The former term relating to individual subjective experiences that are completely unique to a person, and the latter meaning that all things in our physical world, including facts about the human mind, are reducible to physical processes. It is a hotly debated topic and one which fascinates anyone with a curious mind. In the early 1980s, Australian Philosopher Frank Jackson developed a thought experiment intended to question the validity of physicalism.

Philosophe. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Philosophe.

‘The Knowledge Argument’ or ‘Mary’s Room’ as it is sometimes referred to, is a story about a girl who grows up in a monochrome room. All Mary knows about the material world is that all objects appear to be in black and white. However, Mary is a neuroscientist and an expert in colour vision. The scientist has exact knowledge of what happens when the brain experiences colour from the physical processes that take place as soon as the eye receives information and relates back to the brain. For example, Mary knows every single process that occurs in the brain when someone experiences the colour red. But, she has never experienced seeing the colour red. Then, one day, Mary is released from the monochrome world and can now experience the real world like everyone else. Mary can now experience red.

Jackson posits the notion that because Mary, until the release from the monochrome room, was unable to experience seeing red, does the scientist now experience something new by dint of the fact that the girl now has a true experience of physically seeing the colour red? Jackson argues that if the girl does learn something new, then this refutes the idea of physicalism. That there is more to this world than just physical materials. That having conscious subjective experiences go beyond the physical realm of reality. In other words, that physicalism is independent of experience, and therefore, does not offer a full explanation that all things in the world are material.

Greek Philosophy. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Greek Philosophy.