Black and White Mary

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Just a Dream.”


"I need to peer into your mind." "Why?" "To see if you want milk in your tea." "Why don't you just ask me?"

“I need to peer into your mind.”
“To see if you want milk in your tea.”
“Why don’t you just ask me?”
“How will I know that what you say is what I hear?”
“Just pour the milk.”

So, I was having this nightmare, and there were these three doors, and I picked the door in the middle and found… BLACK AND WHITE MARY! AIIIEEEEEEeeee…

There is an area of philosophy called “philosophy of mind” and which, basically, has to do with the nature of reality and what we can or cannot perceive or know about any alleged reality. I am not a philosopher in any official or accredited sense, but then neither was Socrates. I am not comparing myself to Socrates, but what I am saying is all you need to study, or better, to do philosophy is a mind, a body, and reality. The mind assesses the information received from the body. The body receives information from reality. That is, unless you are just a body interacting with reality in pretty much the same way a thermometer reacts to changes in temperature. When the mercury falls, does the thermometer feel cold? Do we really feel cold. Or is that just something we say?

Philosophy of mind basically attempts to arrive at whether or not minds, bodies, and reality even “are”, and if they are, how are they “are”? Or maybe, how are are they? Sound ridiculous?

I have this image of two guys in Colorado smokin’ a fatty, and saying “Duuude” knowingly to each other, smiling and nodding.

What keeps the philosophy of mind discussion from devolving into a haze of legally prescribed medicinal herb induced oneness with reality where all boundaries are revealed to be illusory, I think, is that any serious discussion of the topic at least presumes that something exists in some manner, and that somehow it can be experienced and explained by some other something.

Probably most of us have had the question posed, “how do we know that when I look at something and see green, and you look at something and see green, and we both call it green, how do we know that my green is the same as your green? What if my green is your red?” This is a kind of thought experiment and has to do with objective vs subjective experience.

The phenomenon of the blue and black dress is an interesting addendum to this. However, it would appear that has more to do with computer monitors and differences in how our eyes perceive the computerized image and “fill in the gaps” based on a starting referent color. I haven’t seen anywhere that this happens when people are all looking at the same actual photograph in their hands; that would be more interesting. I was able to change the picture from white and gold to blue and black by tilting my laptop monitor.

While it adds something to the discussion, not in any immediate way is it relevant to the question. Why? Because, the question isn’t why do we see different colors, it is how do we know that things we all agree are the same color are being experienced as the same color. And does it matter? We know that color is a specific range of wave lengths of the electro-magnetic spectrum. Our eyes are sensitive enough to differentiate between these bands of the spectrum. But, what, really, is color?

Enter Black and White Mary.

Black and White Mary is about “qualia” and is an argument against physicalism, a type of materialism or monism, that claims everything, including thinking, is simply a function of materiality or physicality and can be completely explained without any appeal to the immaterial. There is nothing over and above the physical, which of course also means there is no God, unless of course God is physical and not immaterial.

We may know where the activity takes place but until the person speaks, we don't know what the thought is.

We may know where the activity takes place
but until the person speaks,
we don’t know what the thought is.

The argument that there is the immaterial has often pointed to mental phenomena as being immaterial. This position was more easily defended before we had MRI, CT and PET scans. These tools, mapping the physical brain and able to ‘see’ activity in the different parts of the brain lent credence to the idea that mental function is in fact just physical.

Yeah, but, only the person that has that brain in their head knows what their thought is. Or how they feel. Is “red” merely physical? Or is there something over and above that? Black And White Mary is a very prominent example of one side of this debate.

Here is the argument in Frank Jackson’s own words:

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’.… What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.

One add to this that I’ve read is that when Mary sees a red rose, she says, “So, that’s what ‘red’ looks like.” One could imagine a similar thought experiment with texture, etc., with the final outcome being, “So that’s what a cheese grater ‘feels’ like.”

So, are there really such things as ‘qualia’? Things immaterial? What does it all mean?

I never found out because I woke up from the nightmare.

Or, did I?

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1 Response to Black and White Mary

  1. Pingback: Poem / Poetry – “Any Dream Will Tell You” | toofulltowrite (I've started so I'll finish)

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