Thought experiment: Frank Jackson’s Mary the colour scientist.

Before putting forward today’s thought experiment. It can be useful to briefly mention the philosophical views that brought this thought experiment about. In the philosophy of mind there two main competing views: physicalism and dualism. Physicalists believe that all of the human mind is physical. There is nothing in the mind which is non physical. Dualists believe there are both parts of the mind which are physical and other parts which are non physical. With those views mentioned, let’s begin the thought experiment.

Today’s thought experiment comes from Frank Jackson. Imagine a woman named Mary. Mary is a brilliant colour scientist. In fact, she is so brilliant she knows all the physical facts there are to know about colour. She knows how light interacts to make all the different colours and how they interact with the biology of the human eye to produce the image of various colours. She knows all that is to know about colour.

However, Mary has lived her entire life in a black and white room. She has never in her life seen any colour. Only black and white. One day, she leaves the black and white room and experiences colour for the first time.

The question Frank Jackson asks us is: Has Mary learned anything new? If yes, what has she learned?

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

3 thoughts on “Thought experiment: Frank Jackson’s Mary the colour scientist.”

  1. Based on my limited knowledge of physical science, I am inclined to say it’s unlikely that Mary will perceive the colour. For her it may appear as a distortion of some sort. Therefore she may not be able to comprehend anything at all. There are so many variables to consider in a situation unique as this one, that it may not be possible for a person without sufficient context to answer Frank’s question aright. On the other hand, besides possible distortion and stomach sickness, she might learn or come to the conclusion that this new environment is oddly different from her own. In addition, if she sees a clear sky with the sun at its peak, it’s likely that she’ll extrapolate from her prior studies what the colour blue looks like, so in this instance, yes, it is probably safe to say that she would learn something new; i.e. if we assume that learning has to do with making new neural connections and so forth. Does this answer your question or did you have something else in mind?

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    1. Thanks Jason,
      That’s a really interesting answer. Yes my reaction is similar to the thought experiment. Regarding answering the question, my approach to these thought experiments is to try to get a response from others. So, these thought experiments are embracing what’s called ‘experimental philosophy’. This is because most of these thought experiments when read in the literature involve the author putting forward what they think is the intuitive answer. However, us philosophers can be a weird bunch at times, so by putting forward the experiment without our answer helps tell us whether the general public shares our intuitions. In this case, Frank Jackson originally believed (he changed his mind on this years later) that Mary did learn something new, and that something new was the subjective experience of seeing colour. And since this knowledge was obtained whilst having all knowledge of the physical facts about colour, the knowledge of subjective experience must be non-physical. Therefore, there are non-physical parts of the mind. I don’t think Jackson’s conclusion follows, since I think subjective experiences can also be explained in physicalist terms (something he concedes later in life). But regardless, I like the thought experiment due to it probing us on the different ways we can get knowledge.



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      1. Andrew, I also think subjective experiences can be explained in physicalist terms. For instance, when so called enlightened monks are experiencing transcendental bliss in their little monasteries, their brains are releasing chemicals that would probably make both you and I as high as a kite. Even though they might ascribe their bliss as drawing them closer to some kind of deity, you and I might see this as an expression of poetry. Either way, the myths we employ to explain our physical experiences need not be a bad thing, but just one of many modes or ways of understanding something. Mind you some myths might be out to lunch all together and there are some that are more down to earth. So if we study the various modes of understanding a subject – modes as in a scientific lens, philosophical lens, theological lens & so forth – we could say that we are learning, and depending on what our objective might be, logic or philosophy might be the least effective tools to apply to such a case. However, with a thought experiment we are free to draw upon all the various ways to ascertain knowledge; looking forward to the next one bro!

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