The mind-body debate addresses one of the oldest philosophical and scientific questions in human history. In very general terms, the debate is between those who view the mind as nothing over-and-above the body (or the brain), and those who think that the mind cannot be merely just another manifestation of the physical world, along with quarks, trees, and stars. One influential argument for the latter stance was presented in Jackson (1982). This paper will discuss this paper, and then briefly compare one of its themes to Dolan (2007).
Jackson presents an epistemological argument for the view that qualia—which are roughly qualitative mental phenomena, such as pains and after-images—cannot be viewed as simply one more physical phenomenon among the many others. The argument is epistemological in the sense that it turns on the knowledge that a person could have, given only a certain limited input, about the mind. Jackson’s thesis is the no amount of knowledge about the physical world could tell one what it is like to have a certain quale (a single unit of qualia).

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He imagines a person, that he calls ‘Mary’, who learns everything about colors while imprisoned in black-and-white room for her entire life. That is, she learns everything that the physical sciences can teach us about color, including reflectances, cones and rods, and the rest of it. Jackson asks this question: When Mary finally emerges from her room, and finally actually sees colors, does she learn anything? The physicalist (or materialist) position would say no. Mary knew before all about the physics of color, and that is all there is to color. So actually seeing color cannot teach her anything. But Jackson thinks this is wrong: Mary does learn something when she sees (for example) the color red. This shows that the physicalist position is incorrect. There is more to at least some mental states (perception of color) than merely the physical aspects of them.

This argument connects interestingly to that in Dolan (2007). For Dolan is concerned to point out how, throughout history, the brain/mind has been associated not only with theory, but also with practice. And Jackson provides a good illustration of Dolan’s point. Mary knows all the theory about the mind, but lacks (before she exits her room) practice or experience of some mental properties. [For some critical discussion of Jackson’s argument, see Chalmers (1995) and Harman (1990).]

  • Chalmers, D. J. (1995). Facing up to the problem of consciousness. Journal of consciousness studies, 2(3), 200-219.
  • Dolan, B. (2007). Soul searching: a brief history of the mind/body debate in the neurosciences. Neurosurgical focus, 23(1), 1-7.
  • Harman, G. (1990). The intrinsic quality of experience. Philosophical perspectives, 4, 31-52.
  • Jackson, F. (1982). Epiphenomenal qualia. The Philosophical Quarterly, 32(127), 127-136.