The Grayscale Dungeon

In one of the more horrific examples of virtual personal enslavement in the service of philosophy, another classic conundrum of consciousness involves a woman confined for her entire life to a deep dungeon with no color and no windows to the outside. Everything is black, or white, or a shade of gray.

The enslaved misfortunate Mary has a single ray of monochromatic (artificial) light in her dreary existence: She has an electronic reader — with a black and white screen — that gives her access to all the world’s knowledge. In particular, she has studied and understands everything there is to know about color and how humans perceive it.

Then one day someone sends Mary a red rose.

(Quite accidentally, the package is missed by the massive security apparatus around Mary that keeps her confined and prevented from seeing color — for instance, those daily inspections to insure no hint of tint, nor faded shade, ever appears.[1])

The question is: Does Mary experience something new upon seeing red for the first time?

She knows everything there is to know intellectually about the color red and how humans process it visually. She knows about qualia. She even knows she experiences qualia when she looks at shades of gray.

But she’s never actually seen red before. (Or any color.[2])

The central idea is that Mary gets a new kind of knowledge from seeing the color red than it is possible to get intellectually.

In other words, knowledge alone cannot replace actual experience.

§

Well… Um… Duh? And, yet…

The deeper point is the idea there’s no way to give Mary the necessary brain states without going through the actual experience.

The suggestion is that Mary’s brain experiences something special — the qualia of red — that it can’t experience in any other way except by actually viewing a rose.

No matter how much knowledge we have about the physics of color and the physiology of human visual systems, it can’t replace the personal subjective phenomenon of actually seeing the color red.

On this account, qualia form different brain states than knowledge can.

Experiencing is different from knowing.

§

Well… Um… Duh? And, yet…

§

Take a moment to consider how brains work.

Experiences in life — whether phenomenal or intellectual — alter brain’s neural network, sometimes temporarily, sometimes long-term. The changes, whether in the moment or memorial, reflect what we know, what we are.

That we can identify a vast variety of “red roses” (from simple cartoons to a dozen fresh long-stems) is because we’ve seen enough different kinds of red roses to build a “fuzzy” mental model that can match that vast variety.

Given the brain receives all input — phenomenal and intellectual — from the outside, our memories, learning, and experiences, ultimately amount to the same thing.

On this account, there’s nothing special about actually seeing a red rose (other than it’s the only way we know to induce the needed changes to a human neural net).

And other than there is something it is like to see a red rose.

But there is also something it is like to study color physics and human physiology. I’m not sure I see much difference.

It’s all part of the something it is like to be a human, and on that account is part of the larger discussion about consciousness.

The question here is: How special are qualia?

§

What if we could alter Mary’s brain so it was in the same state it would be if she saw a red rose?

It’s hard to see why, in principle, that wouldn’t give Mary the experience of having seen a red rose. If it were possible to steer Mary’s imprisoned brain through the various states in real-time, she might even experience the seeing.

If that were possible, it seems reasonable to believe the mind would be as if it had experienced those things.

If it could be done in real-time, it could be like being in a fully immersive 3D movie. (Presumably your normal inputs would be overridden with the movie inputs.)

Such technology could offer two choices: Change the brain all at once so you remember learning Spanish. Or enjoy the real-time experience of climbing Mt. Everest from the comfort of your chair.

Wholesale memories!

But it’s probably not possible. The neural net is far more complex than any snowflake or fingerprint and far more unique.

As with the weather, predicting the exact future state may be effectively impossible. The system may be too big, too complex, and too chaotic, to predict a future state.

Or to predict the necessary altered state such that a memory or skill can be applied.

Since no two neural nets are quite the same, memories from one brain’s network won’t line up with the network of another brain.

Any putative memories or skills to be installed have be tailored exactly for the neural net involved.

§

Unless the right set of signals is applied to the inputs of the network.

Then the network reacts to those signals and installs the experience or skill or memory on its own. We wouldn’t have to worry about the exact wiring — just use the brain’s natural operating system.

Given the brain’s biological speed (by which I mean slow), it seems reasonable the inputs would need to be limited to real-time for the brain to really make sense of them.

Of course, I’ve just described real life: Inputs received in real-time causing the brain to alter itself, to install new memories.

That may be the only way possible to alter our neural nets.

The dream of a Spanish language pill may be pure SF.[3]

§

As an aside, I think we all have first-time experience of things we knew only intellectually.

The first time we try a food we’ve heard about but never had is a simple example. The first time we have sex often comes after a great deal of thought and discussion (and frantic reading).

A striking example for me is skydiving. I’d read about it, talked to people who’d done it, imagined it many times.

I was Mary. My red rose was actually jumping out of an airplane.

Certainly the nature and content of experiential brain states are different from the nature and content of intellectual brain states.

There is a strong real-time component to the former, for one thing. One can push pause on learning something.

§

“Mary’s Room” is an argument due to Frank Cameron Jackson and is from his article, “Epiphenomenal Qualia” (1982).

The argument meant to refute physicalism and support epiphenomenalism, although it’s an attractive argument to anyone who denies physicalism. It speaks to the “hard problem” in that it centers on qualia.

Jackson even considers philosophical zombies in the paper, although he doesn’t call them that. He just spells out what he means:

Consequently there is a possible world with organisms exactly like us in every physical respect (and remember that includes functional states, physical history, et al.) but which differ from us profoundly in that they have no conscious mental life at all.

I do agree there are mental states that arise from experience, and that they are different in content from intellectual states, but it’s possible they could be induced by essentially “magic” technology.

I haven’t given epiphenomenalism a great deal of thought, so I may have to return to that aspect of this. I do think qualia are special in that they are subjectively experienced. They’re part of the “consciousness from the inside” nature of this confounding topic.

I don’t know that I think they’re any special sauce above physicalism, but my definition of physicalism includes emergent phenomena.

§

As far as the basic mystery of consciousness, it keeps coming back to the “hard problem.” It’s not hard to see how evolution generated an intelligent life form capable of navigating its environment very successfully.

Primates do it; crows do it; cetaceans do it; lots of animals do it to one degree or another (birds do it; bees do it). But we got an extra dose of something, and look what happened in just ten-thousand years or so.

Stay colorful, my friends!


[1] The cooks making colorless food, the tailors making clothes with no color, even the carpenters making furniture. I said it was horrific.

[2] A variation on this might be a situation where Mary has a genetic vision defect in the lens of her eyes that adds a color filter (cyan) such that Mary has seen color, but never the color red.

(And at least she’s not in a dungeon all her life!)

[3] Which isn’t to say we won’t find ways to hugely speed up learning. The brain can be stimulated in ways that make it faster or more prone to create strong memories.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

11 responses to “The Grayscale Dungeon

  • Athena Minerva

    They cover this in ex machina like all of the other arguments like the Turing test and Chinese room test.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    “The cooks making colorless food, the tailors making clothes with no color, even the carpenters making furniture. I said it was horrific.”

    I always wonder what they did with Mary’s skin, or eye color. She might have grey eyes, but the whitest white or blackest black skin are still shades of beige / brown. Or maybe someone applies and maintains makeup and contact lenses while she’s asleep. Although I can see color splotches by rubbing my closed eyes. It seems like to do it right, they’d need to force Mary to wear something like a VR headset her entire life, one that only showed black and white video.

    From a blog post I did on this a while back:
    The takeaway idea from this thought experiment is supposed to be that, since Mary knows “all the physical information there is to obtain” about seeing color, what she learns when having her first actual sensory experience of color must be non-physical.

    But this assumes that it is possible for Mary to actually know everything physical about seeing color, without actually ever seeing color. It seems clear she does get new knowledge when she leaves the room, the knowledge of what it’s like to actually experience color. The question is what the nature of that new knowledge is. Like so many of these types of exercises, the premise essentially assumes the conclusion, that raw subjective experience isn’t physical. But if the raw experience actually is physical, then the premise is a contradiction, positing that she has all the information, then going on to describe what information she doesn’t have.
    https://selfawarepatterns.com/2017/03/09/why-about-subjective-experience-implies-anything-non-physical/

    My view on epiphenomenalism is that the fact that we’re discussing it refutes it, unless we want to go in for something like psychophysical parallelism.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Although I can see color splotches by rubbing my closed eyes.”

      You’re not the first to question how improbable the scenario is (on many levels)! I think seeing color when rubbing the eyes, or in dreams, is a scenario killer.

      (I think the skydiving analogy might work a little better. Most people have some knowledge from movies and TV. The reality is hugely different.)

      “From a blog post I did on this a while back:”

      I’ll have to check it out. (That was during my year off.)

      “But if the raw experience actually is physical, then the premise is a contradiction, positing that she has all the information, then going on to describe what information she doesn’t have.”

      I think, under physicalism, it’s possible to know about an experience without (subjectively) knowing what it’s like to have that experience.

      Absent magic technology the only way for our neural nets to have had an experience is to actually have that experience. There’s no amount of intellectual knowledge that can provide the same changes.

      Given magical technology capable of imposing the right brain changes, then, in principle, experience can be “learned” (“installed” is a better word) without actually experiencing it.

      (But as I pointed out in the article, the technology is probably impossible or very nearly so.)

      “My view on epiphenomenalism is that the fact that we’re discussing it refutes it,”

      Ha! 😀

      I think I know how they would answer that (but I’m guessing). It ties in to free will discussions and how we register decision brain changes before conscious awareness of those decisions.

      So our fully deterministic brain machinery is amusing itself by engaging each other in this discussion, and our epiphenomenal minds are just watching the movie made by that machinery.

      My question, then, is: Who is watching the movie?

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “But as I pointed out in the article, the technology is probably impossible or very nearly so.”

        Electrodes applied in certain brain regions can evoke sensory experiences such as tingling, feeling suffocated, a burning sensation, or even hallucinations, as well as movements, and emotions. It’s all very primitive and imprecise at this stage, but “impossible” might be hasty.

        “So our fully deterministic brain machinery is amusing itself by engaging each other in this discussion, and our epiphenomenal minds are just watching the movie made by that machinery.”

        The problem is that when we’re talking about the redness of red or the painfulness of pain, what is causing us to talk about those things? What causes the muscles that generate the speech, or in this case the fingers that type these words? Somehow the redness of red has causal influence on the language centers and movement centers of the brain.

        At least unless we go with psychophysical parallelism, where there are two causal frameworks that just happen to match up perfectly. In that case we’re powerless shades watching zombies from the inside.

        “Who is watching the movie?”

        The movie is an illusion. >:D

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “It’s all very primitive and imprecise at this stage, but ‘impossible’ might be hasty.”

        Of course, hence the qualifiers.

        “In that case we’re powerless shades watching zombies from the inside.”

        Yep. That’s pretty much how I read epiphenomenalism, too.

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