Preliminary: RoboMary is a robot, but so are we - large robots made of smaller robots made of smaller robots. She does not yet have the experience of color. Dennett puts forth a physicalist way for her to figure out what it's like to experience red before having done so.

Dennett: "Mary puts all her scientific knowledge of color to use and figures out exactly what it is like to see red (and green, and blue) and hence is not the least bit surprised when she sees her first rose" https://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/dennett/papers/RoboMaryfinal.htm

I am a physicalist, so I have no problem with RoboMary figuring out exactly the process behind color experience. Presumably physics will have an account one day.

But I also put experience first, before everything. It is the only way we interact and learn about the world, and all rational thought takes places within experience. Experiences are also rooted in definite patterns in the brain, akin to specific brain states or specific neurons firing in specific ways. Each conscious state has a definite, unique brain state.

This uniqueness of conscious states (conscious states are experience) tied to specific, unique brain states is how I think Dennett is wrong about RoboMary.

Once RoboMary thinks she has figured out what it is like/will be like to experience red, she is in the conscious state of carrying out a theory to its logical conclusion, but has not confirmed it yet.

Once RoboMary "fixes" her color-receptors and see's red, she is now in the state of seeing red, but also is in the state of confirming a belief, that is that redness works as she thought.

These conscious states are different. And thus physically we can say the physical states in her brain are different. Thus figuring out color experience and experiencing color are different in at least this respect.

And if we back out a tiny bit more, every experience is a different qualia. Experience is qualia. No experience can impinge upon any other experience in the way Dennett has done. Just like each time I experience the sun rising is unique - each time I see it I confirm even stronger my belief about the physical laws. No two experiences are the same, even if the laws of physics never change

So to me, figuring out color, seeing color are different experiences, different qualia, different physical brainstates.

Does this resonate with anyone? Have a I misunderstood anything? Am I way of base? Are there philosophers who might share this interpretation?

  • The Mary/color debates are usually over whether qualia produce new knowledge beyond the knowledge of physical facts, not over whether they produce something new, like new experiences. Dennett has a particularly radical position that goes beyond that, namely that even individual experiences can be manufactured ("imagined") from objective physical facts, and so Mary gets nothing new at all from them. Your less objectivist form of physicalism is similar to Howell's, see SEP, Knowledge Argument and Objectivism.
    – Conifold
    Jul 16, 2021 at 21:21
  • @Conifold Thanks Conifold. I never would have found that specific part of SEP on my own. How can one compare qualia if the physical facts are always different though? Like no two physical setups in the entire universe are repeated in the the forward arrow of time. Plus, for a trivial example Mary hasn't yet fixed herself. Presuming Mary has memory, she doesn't yet have the physical memory of fixing herself, or of confirming prior knowledge in her brainstate yet. A different physical fact, and thus different qualia/experience.
    – J Kusin
    Jul 16, 2021 at 21:35
  • @Conifold To a physicalist like Dennett, the physical setups of Mary pre vs post fix are different. Or he he some kind of dualist + physicalist, which seems hard to swallow?
    – J Kusin
    Jul 16, 2021 at 21:40


You must log in to answer this question.

Browse other questions tagged .