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Frank Jackson's "Mary the Neuroscientist" thought experiment, from his "Epiphenomenal Qualia" paper, has been continually debated since its publication in 1982, and appears to be a significant motivation for believing physical science alone will never explain consciousness (the 'explanatory gap') and in seeking non- or extra-materialist explanations of consciousness.

Recently, panpsychism, in some form or another, has been gaining some acceptance as a viable counter to materialism in matters of the mind (if not beyond!) This raises an obvious follow-on question to that posed by Jackson (and does so regardless of whether you are much influenced by the original): If we substitute Panpsychist Mary, who knows all of the knowledge that panpsychism could ever reveal, for Jackson's Neuroscientist Mary, will she be surprised (or have her curiosity answered) by what it is like to see colors when she first does so? In particular, for those who feel that her curiosity could be entirely satisfied by the knowledge gained through her studies, do you feel that this knowledge would be outside of the scope of that available to Neuroscientist Mary, and if so, why?

Update:

I find it difficult to select one particular answer here, as none seem to encompass all the possible responses being given collectively. Nevertheless, I feel obliged by the Stack Exchange format to make a choice.

Most of the replies approach the question from a physicalist point of view. Given that physicalists of all stripes reject the claim that the Knowledge Argument succeeds, it does not seem surprising when they find the Panpsychist Mary variant to be uninformative. No single reply considers both panpsychist and physicalist viewpoints, but Dcleve's reply covers a range of possible panpsychist replies, and I have selected it on that basis. In doing so, I am most definitely not adopting any of them as my own or advocating that anyone should do so, and nor am I rejecting those made in the other replies. I urge anyone who is interested in the question to look at all of them.

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    This is a very relevant question -- Jackson's thought problem is intended to highlight how implausible it is to say that qualia have no causal effect on knowledge, as materialism appears to be forced to assert. But none of the panpsychist models give qualia causal efficacy for knowledge either. Causal efficacy for qualia on knowledge basically only shows up in interactive dualism -- be it spiritual dualism or strongly emergent psycho-physical dualism.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Jun 3, 2022 at 20:34
  • No kind of knowing will help you know.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 4, 2022 at 12:35

4 Answers 4

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There are significantly different panpsychisms, and the answer is different for them.

For Mind at Large Perennial Philosophy panpsychism, causation comes through the idealist path, and matter is derivative. Mary unconsciously blocks panpsychist knowledge of everything, available thru Mind At Large, and meters this knowledge to be in sync with her "studies". Everything one learns in life in this version of panpsychism, IS just reaccessing knowledge we already had available to us, but which our minds had unconsciously suppressed. So when Mary finally perceives color, she will only be remembering prior blocked knowledge. She will still THINK she is surprised, but will not "really" have been surprised.

For neutral monism panpsychism, causation runs through the neutral ontology that spawns both matter and mind. Her lack of access to colors, and lack of knowledge of the experience of color, are both caused by some more fundamental reality, which is then corrected, leading to both her exiting her black and white world, AND experiencing color. She will be legitimately surprised in this panpsychism.

Property dualism panpsychism operates similarly to neutral monism, in that experiences are maintained in parallel to physical events, by some TBD property of matter (similar to the TBD neutral ontology). Per David Chalmers version of this, matter is causally closed, and knowledge is encoded in neurons, and comes from the material events only, so the actual experience does not lead to the knowledge of that experience (Chalmers pan-psychism is epiphenomenal). But this epiphenomenal aspect of this pan-psychism does not change the event that one will have actual "surprise" when one gains knowledge of color experience.

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  • If we stopped being surprised by our experiences, there wouldn't be much point in hanging around. There have been a few SciFi stories of AIs who spontaneously shut themselves off. Nothing left to learn, I guess.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 4, 2022 at 12:14
  • I appreciate that you have considered a range of panpsychist viewpoints. With regard to Mary only thinking she has been surprised, however (and putting aside my doubts that this anything other than just simply being surprised), is that not the same, for the purpose of the Knowledge Argument, as really being surprised? It seems to me that the only distinction that matters to this argument is whether her reaction is a Dennettian "just as I expected", or anything else - surprise, a curiosity satisfied, etc.
    – A Raybould
    Commented Jun 7, 2022 at 12:37
  • @ARaybould -- Under Perennial Philosophy panpsychism, we have access to all knowledge in the universe, but deliberately step down our knowledge to avoid mental overload. And prior to incarnation, we were bathed in universal knowledge, and have to "forget" to operate in our local focused environment. In this worldview ALL knowledge is seen as "remembering", and no knowledge is "really" a surprise. But yes, Mary will THINK she is surprised. I wasn't sure what you were trying to ask about panpsychism with the question, and PPP basically asserts a variant of Delusionism vs knowledge and surprise.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Jun 7, 2022 at 15:56
  • @Dcleve It is not entirely clear to me what you mean by any of the words you put in quotes, or whether "having access to" is to know, but as far as I can tell at this point, you seem to be saying that, according to Perennial Philosophy Panpsychism, Mary does not learn anything from either studying said panpsychism or from seeing colors, as she already "had access to" everything that could be learned by those means - is that correct? If so, what about second-order knowledge - learning what it was she "had access to" but had suppressed?
    – A Raybould
    Commented Jun 8, 2022 at 12:13
  • @ARaybould -- Delusion theories basically operate with two sets of books. For PPP, in the public book, Mary learns and is surprised. PPP holds that reality is in the second set of books, where Mary is remembering, and is not really surprised. I don't think that studying PPP would grant the knowledge that would prevent the surprise, but I don't hold by PPP. In most eastern traditions, sufficient study would allow one to transcend the limits of ones delusions, and Mary could perceive colors directly from her room, I don't believe this happens, and that may be skewing my description of PPP.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Jun 8, 2022 at 14:07
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Mary is supposed to know "everything" about colors. This includes knowing how they are processed by her visual cortex and the rest of her brain, i.e. knowing her own reaction to perceiving the color. But what does it mean for her to know her own reaction?

Well, here is one way to know her own reaction. If her brain contained neural structures recording the aftermath of her own reaction to perceiving the color, then we could say she knows it. Those neural structures would be false memories of having perceived the color.

So if she has memories of having perceived the color (before actually perceiving it), she would not be surprised when she walks out of her room and perceives it for real. What she experiences on walking out the door would correspond with her already-present artificial memories, so there would be little new information to remember about the experience, and no surprise to be felt.

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    One of the points of Jackson's article was to point out the difficulties of forcing our actual conscious experiences into the physicalist model. Treating qualia as "false memories of having experiences" definitely fits into the category of "forced" model fitting. As Quine noted, theory is always under determined by evidence, so the existence of a forced method of accounting for qualia and the knowledge we gain from them is expected. Theories are judged not by refutations, but by their degree of "forcedness" (Occam). The "forced" nature of the explanation, is still strong counter-evidence.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Jun 4, 2022 at 16:02
  • 1
    @Dcleve Why do you say it's forced model fitting? In the physicalist model, remembering having experienced a qualia can be done regardless of whether the memory corresponds to an event that happened or not; this is something that falls out of the model, rather than an additional complexity tacked on to it, so it isn't penalised by Occam's Razor.
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Jun 4, 2022 at 16:40
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    @Dcleve I maintain that qualia do serve a causal role, because qualia are nothing more than an alternate way of looking at some parts of physical reality, and therefore they have the causal role of the physical things they are equivalent to. This is the view of panpsychism; mind is matter, and matter is mind, and causation among matter is causation among mind, and vice versa.
    – causative
    Commented Jun 4, 2022 at 19:14
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    A separate point: the event of Mary experiencing surprise is a physical event, which is to say, it has physical effects like Mary saying "I am surprised," and it is embodied in Mary's neurons. So the physicalist perspective is to say that Mary's surprise has physical causes, based on how the prior contents of Mary's brain interacts with the new information coming in through Mary's senses. If (counterfactually) Mary is surprised, it would only be because her visual cortex fails to trigger the neural structures encoding the memories of Mary having seen something like that before.
    – causative
    Commented Jun 4, 2022 at 19:16
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    @Dcleve It doesn't fail predictive tests. In what way is "multiple realizability" a predictive test? It's not a test, it's a theory about how the same consciousness can be implemented in multiple ways, as long as the causal structure is preserved. In what way is "100% correlation" a predictive test? Anyway, regarding the claim that Mary's surprise is a physical event - this is the physicalist's internally self-consistent answer to the "Mary the color scientist" scenario. You can argue it's dubious if you wish; but the "Mary the color scientist" scenario isn't something that refutes it.
    – causative
    Commented Jun 4, 2022 at 20:41
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Mary can (by assumption) only reach certain mental states—states corresponding to the experience of color, or the memory of the experience of color—by shining colored light into her eyes.

This is alleged to tell us something fundamental about the nature of consciousness. It clearly doesn't. The most plausible reason why human beings work that way is that it's maladaptive to experience things that aren't there (such as a color) or to remember things that one didn't experience (such as a memory of the experience of color). Selective pressure would naturally lead to the brain being wired that way. There is nothing to suggest that evolution was forced into making qualia work that way by the nature of qualia, whatever that might be. So the argument tells us nothing about the nature of qualia.

Some computers with a secure boot process have a physical debug-mode switch that can be flipped to make them run unsigned software. Flipping that switch puts the computer into a state that can't be reached by any other form of input (key presses, network data, etc.). That doesn't tell us anything deep about the nature of computing. It just tells us that the computer was constructed that way for some reason. (The reason was security—which is basically the evolutionary reason too.)

If Panpsychist Mary is like Neuroscientist Mary except that she reads about panpsychism instead of neuroscience, she won't learn what the experience of color is like. The content of what she reads is irrelevant. Her mind is wired to prevent that state from being reached by that form of sensory input.

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  • I couldn't agree more
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Jun 3, 2022 at 20:29
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    It is not whatever Mary reads that grants knowledge of color experience. Experience provides a form of knowledge that "study" cannot. The point of the thought experiment is to note that this experiential knowledge cannot be readily fit into a physicalist worldview. Studying panpsychism is irrelevant to the question. The question is how does this type of knowledge fit into a pan-psychist worldview.
    – Dcleve
    Commented Jun 3, 2022 at 22:46
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    @Dcleve Study is of course a form of experience, so I suppose you mean that different forms of experience can produce different forms of knowledge. I agree, and that was the whole point of my answer. This can be readily fit into a physicalist worldview. I don't know why anyone would think otherwise. The question asks about the original Mary experiment with panpsychism substituted for neuroscience. The original Mary didn't have a "neuroscientific worldview", she just knew a lot about neuroscience, because she studied it.
    – benrg
    Commented Jun 4, 2022 at 6:55
  • People seem to have a lot of 'maladaptive' thoughts these days.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 4, 2022 at 12:21
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    @Dcleve panpsychism is not necessarily dualistic. At least some important versions are not eg sjsu.edu/people/anand.vaidya/courses/c2/s0/…
    – Nikos M.
    Commented Jun 5, 2022 at 15:11
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There are a couple of reasons why Mary the Panpsychist wouldn't learn anything different - one being that the Mary-the-Neuroscientist thought experiment doesn't really address the qualia issue either, the other being that panpsychism is about a different issue.

Panpsychism avoids the problems of understanding what is physically special about humans such that they experience qualia by asserting that everything experiences qualia. Physicalism says the brain follows the same laws of physics as rocks and trees; there is no magic that causes the atoms to move differently just because they happen to be in a human brain. So physicalism only tells us that either both can experience qualia or neither can. Since we know that humans do experience qualia, to be consistent we should therefore deduce that rocks and trees can too. (To be more precise, we can deduce it about systems that manipulate information, in the technical Information Theory sense.)

Thus, Panpsychism is only making novel assertions about non-humans. As regards Mary's own experiences, it makes no difference. Panpsychism says Mary can experience qualia too, but we already knew that. So being a panpsychist tells Mary nothing extra about her own experiences. She might be able to have a go at questions like what it would be like for a computer to have a colour camera plugged in for the first time, though.

Separately, the knowledge argument is really about the limitations of simulation. We can experience involuntary and uncontrollable sensory impressions of the outside world. We can also use our imagination and memory to internally simulate the sensory experience, and verbal/textual descriptions can be used to guide the process of building such a simulation. Language maps words to sensory experiences, and patching the words together tells to what simulated experiences to combine and how. But learning the meaning of words relies on us having memories of the relevant experiences to call up. On reading that a unicorn looks like a horse with a single horn coming out of its forehead, we can patch together a memory of a horse and a memory of a horn and imagine what it looked like, and thus not be surprised when we meet one. But you need a base vocabulary of remembered experiences to assemble. The fact that you can't understand the word "red" without having experienced it is thus a limitation of language. The assumption being made here is that physicalism allows us to completely simulate the world using language alone, which can be understood without any need to have experienced any of it. Thus, the fact that language about colour cannot produce a complete simulation of the experience without any previous memory of it refutes this version of physicalism.

Mary the Panpsychist might therefore ask whether a computer with a camera would be able to do this. Suppose the computer is told that 'colour' is when you get an 'image file' where the 'red'/'green'/'blue' fields at a point have different values. Could the computer simulate the experience? Well, it depends how it has been programmed. It might be wired so that the only way it can create image files is with the camera, or by cutting/pasting areas of existing stored image files together. In that case, it wouldn't be able to simulate 'colour' either, until it had some files to work with. Or maybe it is wired so that it can construct colour images even without any examples to work from. We could likewise imagine a human brain wired with full internal control so that a particular mental effort triggers the experience of colour - we just stimulate those particular neurones in our own brain. It's not a fundamental limitation of how the universe is able to work. It's just an accidental property of how our brains are wired - that we don't have full internal control of it.

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  • I think it's no accident. If humans had full internal control of their brains, that would be stable for about 3 seconds. But for a look at what it might be, see the movie "LUCY".
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 5, 2022 at 12:21

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