Defying Intuition in The Knowledge Argument for Qualia

Dylan Sapienza
8 min readNov 18, 2019


Intuition is one of the most widespread forces across humanity. Some of our intuitions help us solve problems in what seems to be an unconscious way. Intuition is this almost spooky force that compels us to believe certain things as bold as a god-like creator or as simple as opening a door. Intuition allows us to experience instinct like feelings about certain actions we take and things we believe. Without our intuitions, or if they were significantly reduced, the most basic things we take for granted to know would require extensive explanation to understand. So, with this essential trait we possess is there any weakness we invite into our lives by being intuitive creatures? Unfortunately, some of our instincts and intuitions can be hijacked in an often-anonymous way. Certain fallacious arguments can play to our intuitions by using the strong force of our intuition against us. Also, the study of sciences like biology and psychology have factually shown many instances of our intuitive shortcomings or where it can lead us astray. In philosophy, intuitions are some of the most fundamental sorts of reasoning we often work with. We may hear an argument and instead of analyzing the cogency of premises and tracing them to a strong conclusion, we may be lured into considering the situation using reasoning that illicit phrases like “common sense”. An example of a philosophical paper that attempts to leverage our intuitions for a philosophical end is Frank Jackson’s Epiphenomenal Qualia. In the paper, Jackson presents The Knowledge Argument against physicalism. This argument appeals to our intuitions and attempts to put readers in a situation where they have no choice but to accept his conclusion or else, they must betray their most sturdy intuitions. However, I believe and seek to show that if we are able to peel back our intuitions and analyze the argument physicalism can be defended.

To understand and discuss Jackson’s argument it will be important to define some relevant terms. The first and most central to the argument is the mind-body concept of physicalism. Physicalism is a theory about the mind, body and the world that says everything is physical. It’s positioned across from the more traditional Dualism which asserts a non-physical substance exists atop the physical. When Physicalists say they believe everything is physical they can be better understood by a view in which all things can be explained and accounted for in exclusively physical terms. Another important definition is Qualia. Qualia is defined as a subjective conscious experience. A better way to describe qualia may be to give examples. Examples of qualia would be the experience we have when we see colors, feel pain, taste food; A sort of abstraction off of our physical states that we identify as a part of our consciousness.

In Frank Jackson’s Epiphenomenal Qualia, he introduces something he calls The Knowledge Argument for Qualia. He puts forth a thought experiment that attempts to use the concept of Qualia to disprove physicalism. “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 chords 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.”[1] While the experiment is very effective at getting its idea across it is riddled with many vague and pretty inconceivable premises that we must reconcile before going further.

One such premise is when Jackson asserts that Mary is able to acquire all the physical information there is to obtain. This idea that somehow a human being like us could know all physical information seems very farfetched. It’s merely hard to conceive of the concept of all physical information. Consider what all physical information means. This would include the movements of particular atoms, spins of electrons, all the laws of physics and everything that is made up of these fundamental pieces. Additionally, this would include all the physical information we don’t know, and the information that we don’t even know we don’t know. Once you think you have a grasp on the sheer magnitude of this information, then Mary would have to have a very intimate and encyclopedic understanding of it all. While we can all see that this premise is practically inconceivable for a human, we will still grant it to Jackson. Additionally, we can easily imagine that while Mary is in her black and white room with all black and white items there would be ways for her to see color for the first time. If Mary were to look down at her own body she would be able to see and experience colors. Consider if she looked down, she would be able to see her purple veins in her arms and if cut would reveal red blood. This would challenge the other premise that the true black and white world is even possible too. Although we can slightly adjust the circumstances to keep Jackson’s argument standing. We can imagine Mary is born with a monochromatic vision and instead of walking outside and seeing color she gets surgery to fix the monochromatism. Here I have tried to build up and strengthen Jackson’s argument so that when I do attempt to disprove it, it will stand stronger against any counter-arguments.

The strength of his argument comes from the fact that it plays into our intuitions. Following the Black and White Mary argument puts us in a very uncomfortable position in which we feel compelled with nowhere to turn, but to accept a non-physicalist view of the world. There are a few reasons for this, one of which is the argument is fairly straight forward. The premises and conclusions could be reduced to a couple of sentences and still retain most of its strength. Mary understands all possible physical information especially regarding color and human vision in a black and white world. When she leaves the black and white world to see color for the first time, she learns new information. Therefore, not all information is physical and implies that physicalism is false. However, while the argument is easily truncated, the premises are still very complicated. The intuition of this argument follows something this: We can all seem to imagine what it would be like to know all the physical information about human color vision. This conjures a line of thought of someone who can recite every nerve fiber firing and all the complex mathematics and physics behind vision. Then we can also imagine this person finally walking out and pointing to the sky and exclaiming something along the lines of “Wow that’s what blue looks like!”. Intuitively we can reflect and know what it’s like to see blue and all the words we associated with it. We are then quick to say and believe things such as an experience or quale such as color is inexpressible through physical mediums alone. It makes perfect sense to us. My attempts at explaining blue and using language to do so, we lose this innate “blueness” all those with color vision can identify with. It lines up with the idea of explaining color to a congenitally blind person. This all is what makes Jackson’s argument so compelling. It would be dishonest to deny that this doesn’t feel intuitively true. However, as we discussed earlier our intuitions are not without fail.

I think if we are willing to pull back our intuitions, we are able to see through to a way to potentially address Mary’s Black and White Room experiment while preserving physicalism. The penultimate moment in the experiment is the reveal when Mary sees color for the first time. I want to assert that while it is certainly undeniable that Mary does have a new experience, I don’t think she is learning any new information about the world. This is because I don’t believe the subjective qualia of viewing a color contributes to any factual knowledge about the world. I don’t believe this for a few reasons. According to physicalism the quale experience of seeing color can allow for no influence on the external world. It allows us to say that the “greenness” of green is purely an illusory byproduct of the physical process of your brain firing in a certain way and is very feasibly nothing more than that. This certain way as we have expressed it would be covered by Mary’s infinite knowledge of physical information and neuroscience. Additionally, whether or not Mary had this subjective experience we would not be able to know because qualia, as it is explained, is this sort of inaccessible information that exists somewhere private only to the agent. So, this would lead us with no choice but to never be fully sure whether Mary is having a green experience at all. Furthermore, the factors that cause Mary to say a statement like “Wow that’s what blue looks like!” when she sees a sky could be completely analyzed physically with no need to refer to any sort of mental and conscious causation or intervention. This is because when blue light rays hit her eyes for the first time it triggers a chain of neural events that cause this reaction in her. All of this exists fully in the realm of a complete and understood neuroscience, which Jackson grants us here. So as it goes according to Jackson’s experiment we are supposed to be convinced that when Mary sees the sky she learns new information. If this information bears no impact on the world, is completely inaccessible to anyone but Mary, we can’t even know if she is having the experience at all, and her relevant actions can be completely explained by only using physical terms and information, what warrant do we really have to be calling this new non-physical information? It would seem following these claims that it would be misguided to call what Mary’s experiencing strong enough evidence to disprove physicalism and supposed a sort of entire separate non-physical realm of reality.

In retrospect, we can see the gravity in which our intuition holds over much of our reasoning and beliefs. Through a close analysis of an argument that deals with a reader’s intuition, we can see how effective and persuading it can be. By looking at Jackson’s knowledge argument and recognizing our natural intuitions we are able to account for this and analyze it in a way that keeps our mind open to multiple possibilities than just the first one that feels to make intuitive sense. We saw that by breaking down Jackson’s premises and steel manning them we can question his underlying points more authoritatively to yield in a stronger counter-argument. This allows us to conclude that qualia are insufficient for supplying us with any non-physical information fit for disproving physicalism.

[1] Jackson, F., 1982, “Epiphenomenal Qualia”, The Philosophical Quarterly, 32: 127–136.