"What Mary Didn’t Know"

Categories: Short Story

The knowledge argument aims to refute physicalism, the belief that the world is entirely physical. Physicalism, also known as materialism, is the view that an individual’s experiences are subjective as it follows the strain of the conscious mind. It plays with the idea that an individual’s understanding of the world could be fulfilled through physical means. In the text What Mary Didn't Know, Jackson relays the hypothetical story of a scientist named Mary who was said to have developed a grasping knowledge about every physical aspect of the world.

She was also kept away from being exposed to colors and only sees and learns things in black and white. When it was decided that she should be released her from her self-contained room, she was able to see a myriad of colors for the first time (Jackson, 1986). Out of this scenario, Jackson posits a question that challenges the principles of physicalism: If Mary has knowledge of all physical facts about the world and has learned something new once outside, it must be something that is not physical, and therefore it would dispute that everything in reality can be explained through physical means (Jackson, 1986).

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The central statement of the argument flows in this manner: P1: Prior to Mary’s release, it is a known fact that she is knowledgeable about the physical aspect about the world and other people. P2 After releasing Mary from her confined space and out into the world of color, Mary realizes that she does not know everything there is to know about other people and the world as she has obtained additional information about them.

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Therefore, it is postulated that Mary has not exhausted all physical information regarding other people and the world as she has learned something new outside her confinement.

Clearly, this conclusion states that the notions about physicalism are false since there are certain truths that are not encompassed in the physicalist aspect of things (Jackson, 1986). The main conviction against physicalism is said to be the idea of qualia. According to Jackson, Qualia is said to be something that which is felt from experience. It is the notion that connects experiences to an idea or knowledge of a subject in a distinct way. Not everyone’s experience is the same as individuals are inherently different so one could denote that there are different ways to experience and interpret qualia.

Neverthelss, Qualia poses problems of its own such as the assimilation of consciousness, introspection, comprehension and familiarity. However, the thought that will be focused on here is the existing conflict between qualia and physicalism (Jackson, 1986). If a physicalist claims that Mary knows what it’s like to see colors while confined in her room, the physicalist must be able to explain why Mary appears to acquire that knowledge when she leaves. The physicalist may deny the claim of knowledge intuition but then it would have to disregard the postulates that follow it (Jackson, 1986).

There are many possible responses to support Jackson’s argument. One of which is the ability hypothesis from Ryle (1949) which illustrates a definite distinction between the proposed knowledge-that and knowledge-how. Knowledge-that is simply information which clarifies a statement based on the knowledge that has been obtained. Knowledge-how refers to a statement or information that is concerned with the process of how one obtains new knowledge. The knowledge argument only reinforces that Mary gains knowledge-how.

On the other hand, the second postulate in the knowledge argument would only be true if Mary gained propositional knowledge (O’Hear, 2003). Secondly, there is the notion of metaphysically necessary truths. A metaphysical necessary truth is something that which could have failed to be the case. Logical truths could provide clear examples of this. For instance, an argument which states that a hippopotamus cannot fly like birds is a necessary truth. However, if laws the laws of nature were different then a hippopotamus would be able to fly like birds in a metaphysical sense (O’Hear, 2003).

A metaphysically necessary truth is a truth that is narrowed down to the basics which does not simply rely on the existing nature of laws. Saul Kripke (1972) was notable for his argument regarding metaphysically necessary truths that disregards pure logic. For example, his view, that water is H2O is metaphysically necessary but he also recognizes that there are substances that resemble water or shares similar superficial qualities like its taste and visual appearance. However, he argues that such substances are not really water because it has a different molecular composition (O’Hear, 2003).

In connection with the metaphysical necessary truths argument, a third approach introduces the distinction between a priori and a posteriori physicalism. It assumes that if physicalism is true then the complete truth about a subject matter is a priori that is extracted from the complete physical truth (O’Hear, 2003). A Priori is the initial statement taken out of the context of the complete physical truth, which is the posteriori. As was mentioned, the crucial claim of a posteriori physicalism is that it asserts that in order to be aware of the knowledge or change, one must be able to experience it.

However, it is argued that Mary does not have relevant experience with regard to human color vision therefore she does not know. This argument would only be valid if the posteriori is not physically conceivable (O’Hear, 2003). A fourth draws from the conceivability argument of Descartes. The main argument emphasizes the dual properties of the mind and body. Descartes believes that if an individual can clearly and definitively visualize his or her mind without the body and his or her body without the mind, then both can exist without each other, which emphasizes the dichotomy between the two.

Contemporary versions of this argument is said to carry out the inversion of qualia wherein one’s view of a subject matter may be different to the view of another (O’Hear, 2003). The fifth anti-physicalist argument is derived from the explanatory thought. The contention begins with the premise that physicalist descriptions of consciousness justify only the structure of the thought and function or role of the experience, which is not enough to explain the consciousness at work.

For instance, if an individual learns about the Eiffel tower from a book, he or she envisions it through the descriptions in the book that describes its history and structure and its impact on the society. The knowledge the individual acquires from the book is limited since the actual experience of being in Paris to witness the structure has not been experienced (O’Hear, 2003). The sixth and final argument asserts the distinction of various conceptions of the physical.

The argument stresses that the properties which define information by the conception of physical theory differs from the attributes that define those which rely on the conception of objects. It suggests that the first premise is open to either of the two interpretations. The notions about inverted qualia definitely support this argument since it makes use of the special attributes that is missing in observations that is purely physical (O’Hear, 2003). Conclusion The knowledge argument of Jackson assess that there is a difference in the type of fact being presented and that it may not be entirely physical.

The succeeding anti-physicalist arguments and its derivative all question the essential assertions of physicalism that creates an abstract notion of reality. Jackson’s efforts in creating a stir on the drawbacks of physicalism have contributed a great deal of knowledge into exploring the depths of the subconscious mind. The arguments presented in the paper were long and confusing but it was very interesting to see different sides of the anti-physicalists streams of thought since collectively, the main premise of Jackson made much more sense.

However, it seems that supporters of physicalists are coming up with their own responses to such arguments which create a much more complex understanding of just how a human’s consciousness works to define the physical world.


Jackson, F. (1986). What Mary Didn’t Know. The Journal of Philosophy, 83(5), 291-295.

Retrieved March 11, 2009 from JSTOR database.

O’Hear, A. (2003). Minds and persons.

New York: Cambridge University Press.

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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"What Mary Didn’t Know". (2016, Nov 30). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/what-mary-didnt-know-essay

"What Mary Didn’t Know" essay
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