Mary, the brilliant color scientist…

I was teaching Hume last week and mentioned Frank Jackson’s well-known thought experiment about Mary, the brilliant color scientist from his paper, “Epiphenomenal Qualia.”  David Lodge, in Thinks…, makes mention of Mary as well:

It is a picture of another windowless, cell-like room, but crowded with furniture and equipment — a desk, filing cabinets, bookshelves, computers, and a TV set. Everything is painted in black and white or shades of grey, including the young woman who sits at the desk. She wears black gloves, black shoes, opaque black stockings, and a white lab coat. The image on the TV screen is monochrome. But the room is built underground; above the surface, shown in cross-section, is a smiling pastoral landscape, full of brilliant colour.

Lodge continues:

‘That’s Frank Jackson’s Mary, the colour scientist. The idea is that she’s been born and raised and educated in a totally monochrome environment. She knows absolutely everything that there to know about colour in scientific terms — for example, the various wavelength combinations that stimulate the retina of the eye in colour recognition — but she has never actually seen any colours. Notice there are no mirrors in her room, so she can’t see the pigmentation of her own face, eyes, or hair, and the rest of her body is covered. Then one day she’s allowed out of the room, and the first thing she sees is, say, a red rose. Does she have a totally new experience?’


‘That’s what Jackson says. It’s another argument for qualia being ineffable and irreducible.’

‘It seems like a good one to me.’

‘Well, it’s better than most. But again the premise asks you to accept an awful lot. If Mary knew absolutely everything there is to know about colour — which is much, much more than we know at the moment — maybe she’d be able to simulate the experience of red in her brain. By taking certain drugs, for example.’

Anyway, I was reminded of Lodge’s reference when I read the preface–the introduction is quite good as well– to There’s Something About Mary: Essays on Phenomenal Consciousness and Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument.

PS-Mary dies at the end of the volume, but here’s Lodge’s rendering:

Dearing observed the direction of her gaze and glanced down complacently at the flower, fingering the lapel of his jacket. ‘This is –‘ he began. But before he could say more she had collapsed at his feet.

‘Mary!’ he exclaimed in horror. He knelt swiftly beside her, felt her pulse, ripped apart the bodice of her dress, loosened the tight lacing of her corset, and pressed his ear to her breast. But to no avail. The redness of the rosebud had penetrated her brain like an arrow, and her fragile heart, overcharged by the intensity of the sensation, had stopped.

Poor Mary.

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