Mary's room
What do you think about Mary’s room thought experiment? This experiment also made me think about the insights into the mind that Buddhist teachers say they have only with the practice of meditation. Can experience teach us something that science cannot?

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Well, in a certain way, this sounds a lot like Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which is easier to interpret. There will always be things that “trancede” our understanding and explanation, even in things like mathematics. The universe is vast as are the combination of working systems.
One thought experiment is about the nature of the universe itself. Could there be structures down below string theory, or superstructures beyond the multiverse? Obviously, there probably are, as we have only encountered these formulations in the 20th century. Once you think about that, all of a sudden, concepts like a googal [10^100] (the number of elementary particles in the universe 10^70) or a googal-plex [10 ^ googal] (the number of possible states that the elementary particles can take on) become small.
Well, a “googal-plex-plex” is the number of intellectual realizations of the googal-plexes that exists.

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Pfft. Another poorly asked question.
The question revolves around if you know thing A will you know thing B.
When the question poser asked: “If I know about the physical and neurological basis of sensation (thing A) will I know the experience of that sensation?” (thing B)

Of course not.

The whole point of experience is feeling the specific neurons learning the sensations and relaying that signalling to the cortex. Even if you described the changes to the system, (thing A) assuming that everyone was wired exactly the same (and we are not) you would still not be describing the sensation of experience; the feeling of experience. (thing B)

Language does not have the tools to convey or implant such a feeling.

So - nice try but still a badly worded question.


I don’t think she learns anything new about the apple, the red sensation is just a different way to encode what she already can know about the apple with other methods.

If you look at a big table of a picture, one with numbers for each color for each pixel you get the same information (raw data) as when you look at the coloured picture.

Information you get about the picture is the same, the inner “perspective” (model, representation) is different.

What she really learns is about her brain/sensory system being capable of another representation of the apple model. Maybe more useful, depends on what the model is needed for.

PS Can experience teach us something that science cannot?

Let’s not forget the science “gets in” and is known via a set or sequence of conscious experiences. There is no parallel path of learning/knowing that has nothing to do with the conscious experiencing of what you learn/know. Numbers/equations/ideas about the apple are also experiences as the feeling of red.


The problem have with Mary’s Room is this:

If she had gone through her entire life never seeing colors, her brain would not have formed the necessary ability to distinguish colors. When shown a color for the first time, she may be, in fact, functionally color-biind, or at the very least have a poor ability to actually perceive colours.

For the qualia to form, there must be stimulus early on.

Today, we have some that are tetrachromats. They can see 4 primary colors, so they can actually perceive more colors than the rest of us can. Colors that would be indistinguishable to us would look quite different to them.

How is this possible? Simple. Given more differentiated inputs from birth, their brains wired themselves to process the extra information.The neurons carrying the different primary colors are indistinguishable from each other. The brain does, during it formative years, differential processing to create the distinguishing qualia. Ocular Dominance Columns, where interdigitation takes place? I have not looked at this research in a very long time, so perhaps we know more about this today.

This is pure conjecture on my part, but how else can it be? I am not convinced that there is a direct encoding of the qualia phenotype by the genotype. It’s all about dynamic emergence with some sort of partially stochastic global selection mechanism in place.

For the same token, we can never be sure that my “red” is your “red”. You might see it as “green” and I know of no way to test this scientifically. We do not know if qualia differentiates to the same sensate in different individuals. All we know is that a differential mapping forms, and tries to be as bijective as possible.

So, um, I suppose I’ve taken Mary’s Room to a whole new level. It’s premise is most likely wrong, but the issue it’s trying to address has become that much deeper!

Having said that, there are random expanding ring patters the retina does during the 3rd trimester, if I understand that correctly. If this pattern occurs in a differentiated fashion with the cones, it is possible her brain may in fact have some sort of “wiring” for color after all, but I still would not expect that to be fully developed.


I didn’t know about Mary’s thought experiment, so thank you for bringing it up.

My perspective is driven by a form of dualism. I see the same question raised repeatedly throughout philosophy, literature, religion, and science, the postulate that human beings (all bilateral creatures) evolved two ways to process. These processing streams (theoretically) gave rise to two minds and two kinds of consciousness. The two processes are mutually exclusive (blind to each other). That’s why we have dual words spread across our knowledge base (we can’t decide what is real, so we oscillate, vacillate): objective/subjective, implicit/explicit, doing/being, inductive/deductive, belief/faith, quality/quantity, knowledge/experience, excitation/inhibition, ego/self, temporal/serial, space/time, causal/acausal. duality/non-duality, particle/wave, and on and on. I think Frank Jackson is asking if these two processing streams really exist. Is knowledge different from experience–are they processed differently? John Dewey built his philosophy around this question because education was so egoic (knowledge obsessed) and lacked a fundamental understanding of the importance of learning through the allocentric channel (my term).

I worked with color-blind kids during my career (with various degrees of color loss). New glasses recently enabled some people to see colors for the first time. So, we have a real world demonstration of Mary’s room. People who put on the new glasses are stunned (to tears) when they first experience color.

We get confused by our languaging–the ego often fights with the Self. When Socrates and Buddha talked about knowing the Self, they were discussing the experiential processing system.


I agree with you. Cells die when not stimulated. If one eye is not used, then amblyopia results and binocularity becomes impossible. Blind people who have gotten their sight restored (Mike May, for example, was blind 45 years and got sight back through stem cell surgery). After sight is restored, examinations reveal that facial recognition is not restored–those cells have died. Other functions of vision (like binocularity) are also permanently mpaired because of disuse.


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