Mary, a scientist who exists in a black and white world where she has extensive access to physical descriptions of color, but no actual human perceptual experience of color. The central question of the thought experiment is whether Mary will gain new knowledge when she goes outside the black and white world and experiences seeing in color.
Some believe that Mary does gain new knowledge, and the knowledge is the experience of what it is like to experience seeing color. This is how qualia is often described.
This thought experiment is widely debated without a clear answer or an inclination of whether qualia is real.
Mary’s Pool Hall.
Consider, instead, the ability to play pool. Mary can be taught all of the mechanics of pool, but she is never allowed to touch the pool cue, the pool table, etc. The question then is: does she learn anything new if she is allowed to play pool? I believe this is the more appropriate hypothetical situation because it calls to question whether it’s possible for someone to become an expert in a skill without ever practicing said skill.
I posit that it isn’t possible because the neural pathways for the action itself hasn’t been laid out. No matter how well Mary understands the game of pool, without practice, she cannot be proficient at playing pool. It is these neural pathways that develop through practice that make up Qualia.
It’s obvious that through experience that Mary has gained some new insight about pool. However the critics of qualia would apply their critiques on this modified thought experiment as well.
I propose instead two things:
(1) that the thought experiment itself is not well defined; and
(2) people are not debating in good-faith.
The thought experiment is not well defined because it asserts conditions that directly affect the experiment. Because of this, it’s unclear what interpretation is being used when one thinks about this experiment. This type of confusion is often the origin of widely debated scientific or mathematical thought experiments. You also see this kind of confusion leveraged in riddles.
One widely debated thought experiment is of the “Plane on a Conveyor Belt”. Adam Savage recently explained the controversy on his YouTube channel. The experiment goes: If a plane was on a conveyor belt and the belt was moving as fast as the plane would move if it starts from a standstill, will the plane take off? The controversy comes from the fact that there’s confusion as to the actual conditions of the experiment. Those who believe the plane does not take off is assuming that the experiment is such that a mechanism is used to prevent forward motion of the plane; the conveyor belt is merely a contrivance to support such mechanism. Those who believe the plane takes off is considering the problem as is described; the belt’s motion does not affect the plane because the planes method of propulsion is disconnected from the wheels of the plane. The debate that results is not of what will happen but rather, it is actually debating the conditions of the experiment itself (they just don’t know they are debating that).
How does this confusion apply to Mary’s Room? The conditions described in her room asserts effectively that Mary is prevented from seeing color. However, are we to interpret this as the desired mechanism and that the setup itself is merely a contrivance to support the setup? (In some descriptions of this experiment, it’s merely stated that Mary cannot perceive color; in others, it’s that the entire room is black and white through external means such as paint, black and white monitor, etc) This question is very crucial because it presupposes that the experimenter has perfect understanding of color perception such that he can construct a mechanism that can prevent Mary from perceiving color. The setup, as is described, cannot do such a thing (we know this, even with our poor understanding of visual perception). Regardless of the fact that the room is all black and white, Mary’s eyes still have cones; color perception is more complex than only showing black and white photos. So I ask again, is this experiment requiring us to assume that we’re able to remove her ability to perceive color in a way where we would not affect any other structures in her brain; or is it simply stating that the room is entirely black and white?
If we’re to address this problem from the assertion that it’s simply a black and white room, then, in my opinion, the answer is obvious, Mary has already experienced color, showing her color won’t teach her anything new besides how we would react when we see a more vibrant shade of colors. The experiment fails here because if qualia is real, Mary would have already experienced in even in her drab room. Letting her “see color” (in accords to the experiment) is simply giving her a more intense experience of the experience she has already had.
If we’re to consider the problem from the contrivance perspective, then I assert that the experiment is too contrived for it to be even entertained. We’re calling to question the nature of qualia itself. That is inherently coupled with the ability to perceive color. The need to have a mechanism that can remove color perception would inherently require knowledge of whether qualia is real and how it can be removed as well.
It’s my opinion that it should have been obvious that Mary’s Room was a poorly thought out thought experiment. Those who continue to debate the experiment are either ignorant as to why it’s poorly thought out; or they are bad actors, knowing the issues with the experiment, but choosing not to correct the misunderstanding, rather to leverage it for their own arguments.
What they are leveraging to aid their own arguments is also the very same thing that makes the question poorly thought out: the contrivance mechanism.
Daniel Dennett relies on this contrivance mechanism to refute Qualia. He asserts that:
if she already truly knew “everything about color”, that knowledge would include a deep understanding of why and how human neurology causes us to sense the “quale” of color. Mary would therefore already know exactly what to expect of seeing red, before ever leaving the room.
Dennett also came up with the idea of “RoboMary” to further illustrate his idea of what it would be like if Mary actually had perfect knowledge of color perception. The contrivance mechanism that he uses is that Mary is effectively able to structure her brain in a way where it’s as if the brain of someone who has already experienced color. The confusion he leverages isn’t the same confusion I’ve noted before about the setup of the experiment. Instead, he introduces a new confusion: what does it mean to be a human actor in the experiment. Much like the issue with the color perception contrivance mechanism, Dennett is presupposing that we have perfect knowledge of how the brain works and that Mary would be able to consume knowledge in a way where her brain then becomes structured as if she had already experienced color. This is paradoxical because that would assume she already knows whether qualia is real.
Reformulated Mary’s Room.
Mary is an intelligent human being who is still just a human. She has access to any knowledge or processes that are at humanities’ disposal (impossible contrivance mechanisms are thus not allowed). She is able to learn any subject matter that is deemed important to the ability to play pool expertly and she will learn it to level of the smartest known person in that field. What she is not allowed to do is use materials or processes that would require her to view pool as if she is playing pool (she is free to imagine how it would look like through her perspective). This means she can watch videos of pool players, learn body mechanics, physical study of the motion of pool balls, etc; but she is absolutely not allowed to mimic the motions of playing pool, nor touch anything remotely resembling pool equipment.
Once she has learned as much as possible about playing pool, will she be able to play pool proficiently?
This reformulation basically asks the question: can someone be an expert at something without ever having practiced it?
Originally published at https://www.objectivelysubjective.com on April 14, 2021.