What does Mary learn, anyway?

On Friday, Nov. 9, as most people on campus were winding down and tuning their minds to the weekend frequency, a collection of students and professors opened their minds to a final challenge.

The annual Philosophy Colloquium took place in Welles, featuring Dr. Craig DeClancy - an associate professor at Oswego and author of the book Passionate Engines - who spoke on the nature of consciousness and the phenomenal experience.

DeClancy opened his discussion with the Knowledge Argument, a thought experiment proposed by Australian philosopher Frank Jackson. In the experiment, which is also known as Mary's room, he presented a hypothetical situation suggesting that descriptions of phenomenal experience are not functional.

In this situation, Mary is a brilliant scientist who is forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor all her life. Mary specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and, in Jackson's hypothetical, knows all the relevant physical facts. Constrained to these conditions through the years, what would happen if Mary left the room and saw a bright red tomato?

If Mary learns something new, it appears that scientific theories and historical descriptions are insufficient to explain phenomenal experience. After breaking down the argument in detail, DeClancy proceeded to challenge this conclusion and propose another. He agreed that Mary would learn something new, but refuted the claim that what she learned would come from anything more than physical evidence.

According to DeClancy, visual experiences (and other such phenomena) are extremely complex, and in fact too complex to compress into language. He presented the example of a few abstract paintings, which are entirely different but can all be described by the same words. In short, Mary learned something new, not because she transcended physical evidence but because she transcended the limits of description in her experience.

Nearly all of the professors in the philosophy department attended the event, and they tended to be the most vocal in their responses following the presentation. With free exchange of questions and critiques, students had the opportunity to hear their professors speak in a different forum than usual. While most are accustomed to scholars challenging the minds of students, here scholars challenged each other, in an intelligent debate over the nature of phenomenal experience.

Professors agreed that vision may be too physically complex to compress into words, but argued that similar experiences of consciousness, such as sudden pain, cannot suggest any measure of complexity. DeClancy held to his own argument, although his confidence seemed to decline as the discourse progressed.

While the understanding of Mary's room may remain ambiguous, the colloquium represented a few of the finest minds at Geneseo and accomplished the kind of intelligent discussion that any philosopher would find engaging.