Learning and Knowing it All

Here’s a new (or at least new to me) schema for solving the Mary problem. For reasons that will become clear below, it isn’t yet a solution. But someone who knows more about consciousness will be able to convert it into a full solution. The following ideas grew out of some discussions after Derk Pereboomís talk here last Thursday, and he (and the discussants at the talk) probably deserve the credit for what value there is in it.

We start with some facts about defeaters.

At t1, S knows that p, and indeed knows that she knows that p. At t2, she acquires some kind of defeater for her knowledge, and recognises this fact, so she now takes herself to not know that p. It won’t matter if this is an undercutting or rebutting defeater, but let’s say it is a rebutting defeater, say some strong (but inconclusive) evidence that ~p. It is a common human failing, indeed I donít know how one could really avoid it, for someone in Sís position to infer that she didn’t know that p at t1. This is a failing because it is compatible with what’s happened to her that she really did know that p, and she merely now fails to know it. But it is hard not to think that the defeater defeats not only her current claim to knowledge, but by rebutting her old evidence, defeats her old claim to knowledge. Iíll assume from now on that this is how we fallible humans react to acquiring defeaters.

Now imagine a very special case of this. At t1, Suzy knows that ∃x Fx, because she knows that Fa, and has inferred ∃x Fx. At t2, she acquires strong evidence that ~Fa & Fb. This defeats her old claim to knowledge that ∃x Fx, while simultaneously giving her new reason to believe, indeed possibly grounds to know, that Fb. In fact both Fa and Fb, and Suzy was acquainted with these two facts at t1 and t2 respectively, to know that ∃x Fx. Nevertheless, from Suzyís perspective it will seem that she learned that ∃x Fx at t2, not at (or before) t1, when she really came to know it. Note that if learning that p at t requires not knowing that p at least for a short time before t, then Suzy is just wrong to think she learned that p at t2, no matter how much that seems to be the case from her perspective.

The application to Mary should be obvious. When sheís in the black and white room, she knows what itís like to see red. She knows p, that seeing red is like this (for a suitable perceptual demonstrative). When she comes out of the room, her visual acquaintance with a red thing simultaneously defeats her Ďoldí knowledge that p and provides her with strong evidence that p. She learns nothing new, but like Suzy she takes herself to have learned that p when she came out of the room, not when she last came to know that p. The crucial idea here is that a single experience can simultaneously defeat knowledge that p and ground knowledge that p. We know that such a thing is possible, as in Suzyís getting strong evidence (from a single event) that ~Fa & Fb. The hypothesis here is that seeing red performs both of those roles.

Why might we think this? I donít know, which is why this is a schema not a solution. My position is that we have no idea what it would be like to be Mary, so we shouldnít be leaning too hard on her for philosophical wisdom. But to the extent I can peer through the fog of philosophical war, the following tripartite reasoning seems at least plausible.

Case One: Mary is never a physicalist
If inside the room Mary never takes physicalism for granted, then she wonít really take herself to know that p. At most sheíll know that if physicalism is true, then p. But if she thinks there are possibly non-physical processes going on in consciousness, then sheíll be sceptical that all there is to seeing red is grounded in whatís happening in the brain, so she wonít believe that p. In this case she really might learn that p when she leaves the room, but thatís because knowing all the physical facts isnít enough to know that p. No physicalist should ever have said it was Ė some facts rely on there being no non-physical facts, and p might be one of them. (In fact I rather suspect that it is.)

Case Two: Mary is a physicalist, but loses her nerve on seeing red
The intuition behind the knowledge argument is that conscious states donít look like physical events. Letís run with that seriously. Mary knows the physical events that are going on in her brain when she sees red, but she now has at least prima facie evidence that there is something non-physical going on as well. Not compelling evidence, say we physicalists, but prima facie evidence. In this case Mary will know p when in the room on the basis of physicalistic reasoning, this reasoning will be defeated when she sees red, but sheíll instantly Ďregainí the knowledge that p through perception. This case mirrors the case of Suzy. Mary thinks she learns something, but sheís making the mistake all defeated knowers make.

Case Three: Maryís physicalist nerve holds
Itís really hard to imagine this case (which is why the argument has force) but I take it in this case Mary wonít really take herself to come to know anything. I suspect this is the most likely case, and I have no idea what it would be like to be like that, because I have no idea what it would be like to know that much about the workingís of oneís own brain. (Would one feel like a free agent if one knew how one made decisions? I donít know, because I really donít know how that feels either. But I have a better sense of that than I have of what itís like to be Mary.)

2 Replies to “Learning and Knowing it All”

  1. Interesting solution schema! This and Derkís new paper are valuable contributions to the debate. One small thought about the solution schema. The Suzy case seems to concern justification/evidence: she already knew that there exists at least one F because her belief was justified all along (on the basis of Fa, despite her coming to think not-Fa). I take it that thereís no issue about whether Suzy can grasp/comprehend/understand the existential proposition in question (likewise for Fa and for Fb). By contrast, the comprehension issue is usually thought to be pretty central to the Mary problem. Before she leaves the room, she doesnít even grasp the epistemic possibilities for what itís like to see red (or so the argument runs). So, application to the Mary case is not straightforward.

  2. Quite frankly I don’t see how this helps at all. The concern in the what Mary didn’t know argument is that there is something which she learns on coming out of the room. How this affects her beliefs in physicalism and the like are utterly irrelevant.

    In other words the force of the argument relies on mary coming to know what it is like to see red. It in no way relies on her having good reason to believe in physicalism or anything else about her philosophical beliefs.

    In fact Mary should be fully able to appreciate the force of this argument while she is in the room. If the ‘What Mary didn’t Know’ argument is valid she is never justified in believing p while she is in the room and hence doesn’t know that p while she is in the room. Thus if the argument in question is valid there is no defeater at all, if Mary believed in physicalism or that she knew what it was like to see red, that belief was not justified and hence was never knowledge. If she didn’t believe these things there is no knowledge to be defeated.

    Perhaps I’m missing something basic here but I just don’t really see the point of getting all technical about aspects of knowledge in this case. Maybe I am misunderstanding what you take p to be in the Mary case (you never really specified it…is it what it is like to experience red?). The heart of the ‘What Mary didn’t Know’ argument is that facts about experience don’t seem to be exhausted by facts about neurons and brain activations. I don’t really see how the above considerations deal with this issue. Then again I just thought the Mary argument was just a fancy way of dressing up an obvious fact in the first place.

    P.S. What plugin/config option lets you turn astericks in comments into bold. I can do this on my blog in entries but I would like to enable it in comments as well.

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