l'm currently writing a fictional story involving a scenario put together by Frank Jackson back in 1982.

Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like 'red', 'blue', and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence 'The sky is blue'. (…)

What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.

I've discussed this scenario with a professor, who thought that in order to make the experiment more realistic (and believable for the reader) one could instead focus on the feeling of pain and not on the experience of colors. Furthermore, unlike the original thought experiment, l would like it to take place over a period of 20 years, instead of infinite time (which is required if one is to have infinite knowledge). The person would live in an environment that produces no harm of pain to him, while at the same time learning about the neuropsychology and the physics related to these experiences. After twenty years, he's let out and put through different sort of experiments where it would be expected that he experiences real physical pain. Again, the question would be, does he learn anything new?

My questions are, could one construct an environment where it could be realistic for this experiment to take place? Of course, one couldn't disprove materialism or dualism by conducting one such experiment, but could the outcome maybe be able to tip in favor of one of these philosophies? And is it possible the outcome could lay the basics for a new way of thinking (in this universe of course)? The latter question was more related to the character motivation on why one would choose to conduct this risky research. But most importantly, would this sound believable to a casual reader? It also has to mentioned, that the story neglects the ethical dilemmas related to the research, of obvious reasons.

  • "involving the scenario put together by Frank Jackson back in 1982" -- could you give us a link or at least a few more details?
    – user935
    Feb 5 '18 at 18:58
  • 1
    @barrycarter Also known as Mary-the-color-scientist argument for qualia, see SEP
    – Conifold
    Feb 5 '18 at 22:00
  • My understanding is that the problems associated with leprosy are mainly to do with numbness. That is, if we don't feel pain we accumulate injuries until it can cause serious damage, especially through not triggering appropriate immune response. People have been able to trigger burn blisters just from unheated contact, under hypnotic suggestion. I feel without pain we cannot fully healthily inhabit our being
    – CriglCragl
    Mar 9 '18 at 16:13
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it seems to be better suited to world-building.SE
    – virmaior
    Apr 8 '18 at 12:49
  • Yeah, l see what you mean. Will try do remove it from the philosophy section. And done. Now it's flagged.
    – user30782
    Apr 8 '18 at 16:57

This has already happened, with cochlear implants

What you are talking about already happens today, where deaf or near deaf people are given the ability to hear (nearly) as well as the rest of us with the help of Cochlear implants.

Example of an implant being turned on: Sloan Churman, age 29, hears for the first time

Did Sloan learn anything new? Well... it certainly seems that way.

Another example: blind man sees for the first time at age 68.

While it would be highly unethical to deprive a person of their senses just to do the experiment in an organised fashion, the experiment has already — inadvertently — taken place.


What you could do is to explore the full experience for your character of experiencing pain for the first time. There would be the novelty of experiencing pain but also puzzlement about what had happened, of encountering the variety of pains, of recognising the difference between mild and severe levels of pain. Also a reflection on the contrast between the pain-free world the character had lost and the new pain-imbued world. Would your character have experienced pleasure in her or his painless existence or just a neutral state ? If so, could there - would there - not have been some intimation, pale prefiguration, of pain when a preferred pleasure was replaced by one less welcome in the pain-free environment ?

  • @Martin Lie. You have an answer to your question.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Feb 6 '18 at 14:07
  • Indeed, that would be of great interest and would definitely help to give the story a philosophical perspective, which in itself is fun to explore, so thanks! But, l was still wondering why a scientist would choose to conduct this research? Is there anything useful one would find out through this experiment? Something that a reader or scientist could relate to?
    – user30782
    Feb 7 '18 at 11:31
  • @Martin Lie. Jackson had ideas about materialism, dualism, &c., and expressed them in the form of a story, an anecdote. He had already arrived at his conceptual viewpoint independently and simply used the story as a vivid and easily comprehensible way of conveying it. What is needed, I think, is an examination of the conceptual moves he makes in order to arrive at the scenario. The scenario was never meant to invite experimentation. It's clear that no story is coming easily to you, then why opt for a fictional presentation rather than a straightforward essay or paper ?
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Feb 7 '18 at 13:42
  • Well as l mentioned at start, l want to write a story related to this experiment, or rather a horror story. I thought about how a person would be affected by such an experience and how he could end up changing the people and the world around him. I just wanted an excuse to put this character inside this room, but l agree, it's very hard to see a reasonable point to do so. I have to say, that l'm studying mathematics, so l'm not motivated to write a paper or essay on the matter, but l see your point. So, is there nothing to gain from this research? No angle that works?
    – user30782
    Feb 7 '18 at 14:11
  • @Martin Lie. Thanks for filling in the background. It seems to me the story could divide into four parts : (1) description of the no-pain scenario. (2) exposure to the new pain-impacted conditions. Quite a lot of imaginative description could go in here. (3) Psychological crack-up as the person can't understand or withstand the new conditions.You could make this as terrifying as you like. (4) The denouement : not obvious but perhaps the person could come into contact with someone who shows her how pleasure is also possible and how to adjust to a life in which pleasure and pain bearably mix.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Feb 7 '18 at 15:07

We know that pain would be a new experience for the subject on their release into the world and I cannot imagine what the thought-experiment might add to our understanding. We all already know that pain is an experience and not an empirical phenomenon so running the experiment would seem to be a pointless exercise.

Even if we could run the experiment We will only ever have word of Mary the pain-scientist that she is or is-not feeling pain since no measurements are possible. We cannot even show that Mary is capable of feeling pain. Even at the end of the experiment we cannot be sure Mary is conscious.

As far as I can tell the experiment could produce no results that might make us change our view of anything. Jackson's colour-scientist thought-experiment changed nothing and replacing the colour red with a feeling of pain would make no difference to the outcome. Try as I might I cannot see the point of the experiment whether imagined or actualised. If this is just me being dense then no doubt someone will put me right.


In the story, Mary studies vision, which means she's stimulating certain neurons and changing them to hold memories. When she gets a color monitor, it stimulates the optic nerve and neurons that largely aren't the same as the studying neurons (although there is overlap). These are two distinct physical processes, distinguishable externally through different methods of measuring brains. Since Mary's brain is operating in different ways, it shouldn't be surprising that she has different experiences.

This is an entirely physical explanation, dealing with differences in the functioning of nerve cells. The story doesn't exhibit any problems with phsyicalism.

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