The knowledge argument is used to disprove physicalism, which is the belief that everything in the world is physical. Physicalism (or materialism) states that a person’s experiences are subjective and based on their conscious mind. In other words, somebody could understand everything about the world just by using physical means.
Frank Jackson, an Australian philosopher and leading representative of physicalism, put forward the knowledge argument in order to argue against physicalism. The thought experiment goes as follows:
Suppose that Mary is a brilliant scientist who has worked out all the physical facts there are to know about colour. She grows up in a black-and-white room, and as a result, she knows nothing about what it is like to see colours. One day she is released from her room, and she sees a red rose for the first time. Jackson then asks what new knowledge Mary has gained from this experience.
Most people would say that Mary has learnt about the subjective experience of seeing red. Jackson argues that this is not the case; instead, he claims that Mary has learnt a new fact about the physical world. This new fact is that red looks a certain way to human beings. Jackson concludes from this that there must be non-physical facts about the world – in other words, physicalism must be false.
The problem with Jackson’s argument is that it conflates two different things: the experience of seeing red, and the physical fact that red looks a certain way to human beings. These are not the same thing, and Jackson’s argument relies on confusing them.
The knowledge argument is therefore unsound, and does not prove that physicalism is false. Jackson’s thought experiment does not show us that there are non-physical facts about the world; all it shows us is that there is a difference between the experience of seeing something and the physical fact that something looks a certain way.
Mary, the scientist in What Mary Didn’t Know, relates a fictitious scenario about a scientist named Mary who was credited with having comprehensive understanding of the world’s physical features.
Frank Jackson then went on to argue that there are truths about the world which Mary could not know simply through her scientific observations. This is because, according to Jackson, knowledge goes beyond mere observation.
One example Frank Jackson gave was of a color blind scientist who knows everything there is to know about the physical make-up of colors, but will never understand what it’s like to see the world in color because he is unable to experience it himself. Frank Jackson used this story to argue that there are some things in the world which cannot be known through observation or scientific study alone.
Rather, Frank Jackson believes that there is an irreducible element of subjectivity when it comes to knowledge. This means that human beings can never hope to know everything about the world, because our perspective is always limited. Frank Jackson’s argument has implications for both epistemology and philosophy of mind.
In epistemology, Frank Jackson’s argument challenges the idea that knowledge is solely based on empirical evidence. This is because, according to Jackson, there are some things which cannot be known through observation alone.
In philosophy of mind, Frank Jackson’s argument suggests that human beings can never hope to know everything about the world, because our perspective is always limited. This means that there is an irreducible element of subjectivity when it comes to knowledge. Frank Jackson’s argument has far-reaching implications for both epistemology and philosophy of mind.
She was isolated from colors and only sees and learns in black and white. She was able to see a variety of colors for the first time when she was taken out of her self-contained room (Jackson, 1986).
The possibility that Mary is a supernatural being, like the angels who inhabit hell, poses an additional problem for physicalism. Even if everything in reality can be explained through physical means (as is claimed by materialists), there is still room for doubt about whether or not knowledge of all physical facts about the world and learning something new outside might be anything non-physical (Jackson, 1986).
Frank Jackson’s “What Mary Didn’t Know” challenges the physicalist belief that everything in reality can be explained through physical means. The story posits that if Mary, who has knowledge of all physical facts about the world, learns something new once outside her self-contained room, then it must be something that is not physical. This would suggest that there is more to reality than what can be physically explained. Jackson’s story provides a thought-provoking challenge to physicalism and is an important contribution to the philosophy of mind.
In short, the argument goes like this: First, it was common knowledge that Mary knew a lot about physicality and people before she left her box. Second, once Mary saw more of the world for herself, she realized how much more there was to learn about other people and the planet.
Therefore, Frank Jackson is suggesting that there are things that we cannot know just by being in a room and learning about the physical world.
Frank Jackson’s “What Mary Didn’t Know” is a thought experiment that challenges the idea that we can know everything just by learning about the physical world. The story goes like this: there is a woman named Mary who has been raised in a black and white room her entire life. She knows everything there is to know about the physical world, but she has never seen color. One day, she is released from her room and experiences color for the first time. In that moment, she realizes that there is so much more to learn about the world than she could have ever imagined.
As a result, it is proposed that Mary has not yet used up all of her bodily knowledge about other people and the world since she has learnt something new outside her confinement.
Frank Jackson, in his article “What Mary Didn’t Know,” theorizes that there is more to knowledge than just having empirical evidence. Jackson believes that there is a distinction between propositional and non-propositional knowledge. The former is the kind of knowledge that can be conveyed through language while the latter refers to the know-how or ability-based information.
Jackson gives the example of a person who knows how to ride a bike but cannot explain it propositionally. In contrast, someone who has never ridden a bike before can learn the steps and procedures propositionally but would not be able to actually ride a bike. For Mary, she has only acquired propositional knowledge about colors but has no way of experiencing it herself which is why she does not know what it is like to see the world in color.