Библиографическое описание:

Кускова О. Е. Mary the super-scientist and influence: methodological imperfection of the thought experiment // Молодой ученый. — 2014. — №17. — С. 626-629.

The article is devoted to consideration of one of the most famous thought experiments in the philosophy of mind — Mary's room. Insufficient methodological foundation of this experiment is analyzed, and the various approaches in methodology of mind research are considered on the example of Mary the super-scientist.

Keywords:philosophy of mind, thought experiment, methodology of philosophical research, the Knowledge Argument, subjectivity. worldview.

A thought experiment today is an integral part of the philosophy of mind, a way of comprehension of reality on the basis of formalized logic thinking. Reasoning with thought experiments gives rise to debate and discussion, leading to the advent of new mental constructs and theoretical models. Therefore, the luminary of philosophy of mind John Searle “created” the Chinese Room Argument — a thought experiment which shows the difficulty of the conception of strong artificial intelligence. Following a wave of criticism he improved it to the Chinese Robot Reply, witch also served as a stimulus for development and transformation of ideas, connected with the bases of strong AI. Most philosophical studies of AI today are not dispense with criticism or support of Searle’s thought experiment that testifies to the importance of this type of argumentation.

Argumentation with thought experimentation is not only a good way of illustrating the position of the author, but it also contributes to the development of methodological and conceptual studies. In 1982, in the paper “Epiphenomenal Qualia”, devoted to criticism of physicalism, a little-known Australian philosopher Frank Jackson formulated The Knowledge Argument — a thought experiment, which became known as Mary's room or Mary the super-scientist. Its essence is contained in the following: Mary is an excellent neurophysiologist, specialist in the questions of vision. But she investigates the world from a black-and-white room via a black and white monitor. Let us suppose that Mary has all the information about the process of vision, about what happens when a person sees a ripe tomato or the sky and speaks of “red” or “blue” color. “She discovers, for example, just which wave-length 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'” [3, p. 130]. Jackson asks, what will happen when Mary leaves her black-and-white research room or sees a color monitor for the first time. Will she know something new? The philosopher answers this question positively: yes, Mary will get new knowledge, because she will face qualia of color for the first time. This also shows the falsity of physicalists’ position, who believe that all knowledge lies in the plane of physical facts.

After the appearance of “Epiphenomenal Qualia”, Jackson was attacked by a wave of critical papers in an instant. The most famous philosophers of mind did not leave the physiologist Mary out in the cold. Most critics have focused on the fact that Jackson interprets the essence of knowledge, which Mary will get, incorrectly. For example, Daniel Dennett insists that she will know nothing new, because understanding how qualia is perceived through the senses is already laid in the knowledge that she has received in the room [2, p. 28].

Later Jackson changed his views, apparently agreeing with the critics of his position (Epiphenomenalism). Jackson outlined his new position as follows: sensory experience only gives the brain an additional way of comprehension of reality. Not actual qualia affect on perception, but a sensory experience gives the brain new data for neural functioning, gives the brain a stimulus to generate additional knowledge [4, pp. 291–295]. Within this approach, the ideas of physicalism remain inflexible.

It would seem that the issue with Mary's room is solved: the Knowledge Argument is rejected, the author of the experiment agreed with opponents’ criticism. But the question of validity and methodological adequacy of such thought experiment arises. What if we approach this experiment not from the point of the argumentum of property dualism or, on the contrary, physicalism? However we go beyond these issues and look at Mary from the point of view of influence of social and categorical attitudes.

In the thought experiment, we rejected all the cultural and social influence on Mary; questions about the way she works as a neurophysiologist, her research methodology, are taken out of context. However, in reality, it does not work. We assume in advance that in the black-and-white room Mary is working in the framework of scientific language and methodology adopted in the modern scientific community. Therefore, this thought experiment cannot be fully “clean”. On the one hand, we do not consider the impact of social reality, but on the other hand, we assign anticipatorily — we assume — such social impact.

Any person lives in a space of sociality and culture. It is impossible often in the ideal world of a thought experiment, to reflect all influence that exert on the participant of the experiment, due to thoughtness of that experiment. And if in physics, for instance, social influence on the processes in the experiment is methodologically unimportant; this issue is not idle for philosophy of mind. Social perception, methodological attitudes and conceptual worldview — are the basic concepts, without attention to which the study of consciousness should not be called philosophical. So what impact is Mary experiencing?

Our perception of reality depends on expectations in many ways. To some extent, this is confirmed by the experiment with monkeys, which had some areas of their brain that were responsible for visual perception artificially injured. Animals adapted to the environment rather quickly. This, however, cannot be said about people suffering from blind sight. Such people see themselves as the blind; therefore socialization as sighted is extremely difficult for them. Thus, how people perceive themselves and their environment affects not only human behavior, but also their awareness of themselves and their physical abilities. We don't know what Mary expects, what social attitudes are embedded in her mind; and therefore, it is impossible to say with certainty, what we will get at the output.

What sets expectations of an individual? Ludwig Wittgenstein has successfully shown that a child from a very early age learns the rules of “language games”. In his future life, a child will always associate certain words with the natural manifestation of their own feelings. Language game, in fact, is a part of social world in which a person lives. Feelings are not given to Mary in a vacuum. Moreover, expression of her feelings in scientific discourse is strictly subdued to the worldview, which is relevant at the current time and in the current circumstances. The whole terminology that is used by a person to describe the state of their consciousness is brought from outside and is not revealed in the acts of introspection. From this point of view, it is extremely important to clarify by what kind of language constructs Mary the super-scientist establishes her social reality.

Transformation of mental states into the language reality is one of the main issues of philosophy of language of the XX century. However, in application to the problems of philosophy of mind, this question turns into another problem — videlicet, the problem of methodology of exploration the subjectivity. Thomas Nagel actualized this problem, asking in the paper “What is it like to be a bat?”: does knowledge about the subjective perception of reality of the bat give us the knowledge of physical structure of the brain of the bat [7, pp. 422–428]?

Subjectivity of consciousness as its main feature sets all the methodological problem of philosophical study of mind. Consciousness is studied from the point of a third person view, whereas subjective experience is beyond objective analysis, and therefore cannot be considered as a part of scientific worldview. Nagel argues against physicalism, since within a framework of this tradition, we do not have knowledge about what it means to be any organism. Still the question arises of why this knowledge is in scientific discourse? Is such subjective knowledge necessary or will it be a knowledge-feeling that will not have weight for any other creature due to the limited nature of its public language (which is a part of social world, i.e. transmitted with the previously set attitudes about mental states) and inability to express their subjective knowledge objectively? If we apply this statement to Mary, the questions arise: can we reliably know about the changes in her qualitative states? Will this have a research meaning?

There are several possible ways to resolve such issues. For example, Colin McGinn’s mysterian position is notable. Between the explanation of physical and conscious processes there is always an explanatory gap (the term of Joseph Levine [5, pp. 354–361]). McGinn called the situation of existence of the explanatory gap — “cognitive closure” of a person. He also came to a conclusion that it is impossible to comprehend consciousness by modern methods of research. “I do not believe we can ever specify what it is about the brain that is responsible for consciousness… The problem arises, I want to suggest, because we are cut off by our very cognitive constitution from achieving a conception of that natural property of the brain (or of consciousness) that accounts for the psychophysical link” [6, p. 549].

Another way is a way of subjectivists, who called for the abandonment of those principles of scientific research that have developed in natural science from the XVII century to bring subjectivity to the foreground. In the beginning of XX century, representatives of the Würzburg School tried to act this way, but that did not yield significant results due to inconclusiveness of whether any of them were right or not. Wittgenstein also showed a failure of introspective method: we explain our mental experience, using well-established concepts; therefore any explanation is already objectified. We interpret our subjectivity within socially defined structure, a language game [9, p. 91e].

Many philosophers of mind have approached consideration of methodological problems. If Colin McGinn came to the conclusion of impasse of contemporary philosophical research in this area, there are also those who see an exit. John Searle, mentioned above, is among them. He criticizes philosophers of mind because they are in captivity of Cartesian categorical apparatus, while many of the issues cannot be resolved within these facilities. Searle also criticizes the devotion for classical methodology of science that sharply denies subjective intervention in the scientific worldview.

We can agree with Searle that we divide between mental and physical incorrectly, due to the imperfection of language. Under the mental we understand not what it is in reality. Searle gives an illustrative example: a cake and a cream on the cake. Using the traditional Cartesian view of consciousness, we understand a human brain as the cake, whereas consciousness is seen as a cream, which this cake is covered in. But in reality, the correlation between brain and consciousness lies in a different plane. According to Searle, if a brain is a cake, then consciousness is the state in which the cake lies, but is not some external detail [8, pp. 57–64]. The whole problem of consciousness studies, in this case, is to go beyond the limited understanding of mind, without giving rise to a new cycles of language limitations.

However here we bump into the conceptual methodological problem again. How will Mary be able to explain her feelings and her awareness of the first color she sees, if she uses habitual science categories and concepts? Speaking about the explanation of consciousness (here it is useful to recall Daniel Dennett's book “Consciousness Explained”), we are talking about those categories, which are adopted in the present world picture. To explain is to narrate comprehensibly. To narrate using a specific categorical apparatus. In this aspect, the subjectivity of consciousness has become very problematic. We can not be completely subjective in the framework of categorical apparatus. Even if it is a categorical apparatus that includes mental concepts. Any conceptualization of consciousness will bump into such worldview, in the context of which an author works. Besides, philosophical and scientific categories appear not on their own, but in the framework of culture and society. Reduction of mind to the objectified reality is possible and realized, but does this action make any sense? Is empirical research relevant when we talk about subjective experience?

Within these issues, it is impossible not to mention the position of Daniel Dennett. This philosopher also writes about the importance of language and linguistic point of view. His conception is different from the position of Searle, but the essence of it remains the same: consciousness cannot be considered without attention and reference to the conceptual apparatus and speech habits. It is impossible to consider consciousness “outside”, in the abstract, standing beyond the social attitudes and practices. But subjectivity for Dennett is an illusion of consciousness, so the question of research methodology of qualitative states for the Boston philosopher lies in a different plane than for Searle — the apologist of subjectivity. Dennett proposes to consider not only other people's consciousness from the perspective of a third person, but also our own mental states. He calls such methodology heterophenomenology, and, in his opinion, this is a great opportunity to leave from illusions of Cartesianism. Any mental act in person’s consciousness is subdued to language constructs and cultural semiotic system — cultural memes that form the “subjectivity” in the process of socialization and set the direction of development of the person’s “inner world” [1, p. 207]. Therefore, it is necessary to consider this state of affairs in a process of consciousness studies.

Therefore, if even an ardent physicalist Dennett talks about the importance of social experience and language environment, why are thought experiments made without this critical orientation? If we agree with Dennett about the illusory of subjectivity, however, we should consider Mary’s consciousness with taking into account the social and conceptual environment. This is only one way to transform Mary's room into the scientifically acceptable thought experiment.

Another way is to look at Mary from a perspective of the author of the experiment — Frank Jackson. For epiphenomenalist Jackson subjectivity of consciousness is not an illusion, however, subjectivity does not affect neural processes in a brain, does not affect the conscious acts, and, therefore, there is no necessity to study subjectivity [3]. If we take this point of view, the reason for existence of Mary the super-scientist is lost: instead of philosophical study of consciousness in the direction of subjectivity we should just wait for the empirical data of natural sciences, in particular, neurophysiology, with which researchers will tell philosophers, how the mind works.

The third methodological way of consciousness studies is to accept subjectivity, not to ignore the subjective perceptions of reality, but at the same time not to lose scientific character, not to mystify the mind. Such research is impossible without methodology of conceptual analysis, without attention to the categorical world picture, and without correlation between mental constructs and language and social attitudes. In some ways, linguistic phenomenology (philosophy of ordinary language, proposed by J. L. Austin in the middle of XX century) should be the basis of such methodology. Philosophical study of consciousness is reduced to scientific methodology without adequate perception of subjectivity. However, conceptual analysis, linguistic phenomenology and analytical hermeneutics can become a base that will allow the philosophers of mind not to erase subjectivity from scientific discourse, and at the same time to form adequate categorical attitudes for further research.

But back to Mary. The thought experiment of Frank Jackson lacks connection with reality, with social and conceptual worldview without which subjective component of Mary’s consciousness is not clear; nonetheless, subjectivity exactly is a central part in the matter of comprehension of mind. We cannot definitely state that in “given” of a thought experiment it is possible to lay all the socio-cultural influences that exist in reality. The question of whether a thought experiment will be methodologically adequate, or whether it would stay a relevant way of gaining objective knowledge and evidence still remains. However, it is possible to talk with confidence about the further development of thought experimentation. The emphasis on subjectivity of consciousness, attention to social constructs and conceptual models of the world — are the necessary elements in a construction of methodologically adequate thought experiment as an evidence of one or another philosophical position in relation to mind.


1.                  Dennett, D. (1993). Consciousness explained / Daniel C. Dennett; ill. by Paul Weiner. — [London]: Penguin books, 1993.

2.                  Dennett D. (2007). What RoboMary knows. In T. Alter and S. Walter (eds.) Phenomenal Concepts and Phenomenal Knowledge: New Essays on Consciousness and Physicalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

3.                  Jackson, F. (1982). Epiphenomenal Qualia. Philosophical Quarterly, 1982. Vol. 32, No 127.

4.                  Jackson F. (1986). What Mary Didn't Know. Journal of Philosophy, 1986. Vol. 83.

5.                  Levine, J. (1983). Materialism and qualia: the explanatory gap. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 64.

6.                  McGinn C. (1997). Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem? // The Nature of Consciousness. Cambridge (Mass.), 1997.

7.                  Nagel T. (1974). What is it like to be a bat? Philosophical Review 83:435–50. Reprinted in Rosenthal D.(ed.) The Nature of Mind. Oxford: Oxford Univer-sity Press, 1991.

8.                  Searle, J. (1983). Why I Am Not a Property Dualist. Journal of Consciousness Studies. Vol. 9, No.12 (2002).

9.                  Wittgenstein, L. (1953/2001). Philosophical investigations. — 3rd ed. 1. Logic 2. Analysis (Philosophy) Blackwell Publishing, Ltd 1958.

Основные термины: thought experiment, consciousness, Mary, consciousness studies, mind, subjectivity, Mary’s consciousness, categorical apparatus, Daniel Dennett, epiphenomenalist Jackson subjectivity, Epiphenomenal Qualia, reality, XX century, social attitudes, Knowledge Argument, scientific discourse, mental states, acceptable thought experiment, adequate thought experiment, language


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