Dream Come True: Dennett vs. Mary

In honor of the passing of Daniel Dennett, I offer the following foray into my misspent youth, in which I assess Dennett’s materialist critique of consciousness in some detail. Read at your own risk.


Daniel C. Dennett’s Sweet Dreams,1Daniel C. Dennett, Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2005). All page citations in the text are from this book. though concluding with some positive suggestions regarding avenues of future consciousness research, exists primarily as a clearing house for his most developed efforts to bury the dreaded “qualophiles” (or at least their qualophilia) once and for all. Indeed, chapters 2 through 5, which form the book’s heart, and present its most continuous and internally coherent argument, are devoted entirely to a critique of what Dennett considers the strongest cases for the irreducibility of some sort of “immaterial” phenomenality of consciousness — that is, of a “quale” accessible only from a first-person perspective, and therefore recalcitrant to his heterophenomenological approach. At the culmination of this critique, in Chapter 5 (entitled “What RoboMary Knows”), Dennett revisits a long-standing debate over Frank Jackson’s thought experiment concerning Mary, the all-but-omniscient color scientist who has never actually seen color.2Frank Jackson, “Epiphenomenal Qualia,” Philosophical Quarterly 32 (1982): 127-136. I will show that Dennett fails in his exhaustive attempt to undermine the foundations of this thought experiment, though not necessarily due to the inherent solidity of the Mary scenario itself, as much as to the epistemological over-reaching of his attempt.

Let us begin with a simple recounting of the thought experiment that Jackson initiated, and the difficulties that it appears to raise. Mary, super-scientist, has achieved all-knowing expert status regarding the neurophysiology of color vision. She has discovered exactly what happens in the brain of one who sees red, for example, and in addition knows the precise nature of the external influences which cause these internal effects, and of the sequence of motions involved in converting these effects into sounds like “This is red.” She has, however, been forced to conduct her research while living in an entirely black-and-white environment, and has therefore never actually seen red for herself.3To avoid spiralling off into the infinite regress of peripheral nonsense, I leave aside the “practical” questions about whether, in order to have lived without any experience of color, she has always worn white gloves, never cut herself, had her hair bleached, etc. One day, Mary’s hypothetical masters introduce an actual red object into her hitherto black-and-white world. Upon seeing the color, Jackson asks, won’t Mary be discovering something previously unknown to her concerning color vision? “But,” he proffers, “she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.”4Jackson, “Epiphenomenal Qualia,” 130.

Mary, in other words, will know something about consciousness as a result of this introduction to “real” color that she could not have known through her third-person research alone: she will, as is typically said, know “what it’s like” to see color. This what-it’s-like-ness, it is suggested, is an essential feature of consciousness, and can be achieved only through direct experience. Dennett, in defense of heterophenomenology, focusses his attack on the last clause of the preceding sentence. What exactly, he counters, does experience contribute to Mary’s knowledge? Initially, he reiterates his own alternative ending to the Mary scenario, dating back to 1991. In this version, Mary’s first color experience is of a blue banana, introduced to her precisely to establish that her materialist’s expertise is insufficient to the recognition of colors. But Mary shocks her “captors” by immediately detecting their trick, and correctly identifying the banana’s color as blue (105).

To the potential charge that his variation on Jackson’s scenario merely asserts that Mary’s material knowledge entails knowing the what-it’s-like-ness of seeing blue, without actually demonstrating it, Dennett simply agrees, though on the condition that he be allowed to make the same critique of the original version’s alleged demonstration of some elusive non-physical quality to consciousness:

My variant was intended to bring out the fact that, absent any persuasive argument that this could not be how Mary would respond, my telling of the tale had the same status as Jackson’s: two little fantasies pulling in opposite directions, neither with any demonstrated authority. (105)

In other words, the claim that Mary will learn something new from seeing an actual color is not proven by the original thought experiment, but rather derived from the traditional folk psychological assumption that consciousness just is the operation of an ineffable Subject, and hence that there just must be something ineffably subjective (or subjectively ineffable) about it. Indeed, Dennett devotes an entire subsection of Chapter 5, entitled “‘Surely’ She’ll Be Surprised” (107-116), to the identification and ridicule of various recent applications of this (in his view unwarranted) assumption. Leaving the dirty details to Dennett, I will merely say that against all the cases he cites, his response is the blunt reiteration that materialism and third-person research are enough: if we are willing to grant that Mary knows everything about the physical aspects of seeing red — which, as Dennett readily admits, is difficult if not impossible to imagine (105, 111) — then her first encounter with red, contra Graham and Horgan,5George Graham and Terence Horgan, “Mary Mary Quite Contrary,” Philosophical Studies 99 (2000): 72. will not occasion “surprise and delight,” but merely recognition.

Though I chose that last noun quite naturally, as the most obvious English word for the alternative to “surprise and delight” that Dennett’s argument requires, the decision to leave it there upon reconsideration is a bit of calculation on my part. For I note with some delight, though little surprise, that Dennett himself manages to avoid using the word “recognition” in this connection throughout his discussion of Mary’s (unfazed) response to her first sight of color. He says that she is “not in the slightest surprised” by seeing color (105), that she “has nothing left to learn” (110) — negative expressions, and accurate enough (for Dennett’s position) — and yet never offers the simple positive expression of this same point, namely that Mary’s materially exhaustive knowledge of colors allows her to recognize them at first sight. I submit that while “recognition” might be the most apt word for (Dennett’s account of) Mary’s state upon seeing red for the first time, it would be a most inapt — or, rather, complicating — word for Dennett’s theoretical position on this subject.

Consider this explanation of Dennett’s judgment regarding Mary’s first encounter with color: “She’s been there, done that, in her vast imagination already, and has nothing left to learn” (110). That “imagination” is very convenient, but doesn’t it give the game away? A defender of qualia might say that knowing what goes on in the matter of one who sees color is not identical (from the point of view of knowledge) to having experienced it oneself, just as knowing what happens to a mouse as it is trampled by an elephant does not allow one to know the pain of one who is squished. Presumably, Dennett would answer “Yes it does” on both counts, assuming that the material knowledge in either case is total. If Dennett is right, however, and the third- and first-person accounts are (informationally) identical, then what else does this mean than that Mary is not surprised by her first experience of red because it is not her first experience of red. Her knowledge of the material aspects of the experience is so comprehensive that it has allowed her, to use Dennett’s words, to “deduce” (107) or “infer” (116) what red looks like, i.e. to see red. Dennett seems to be sensing this when he refers to her “vast imagination”; she has somehow imagined red, without first having encountered it from the outside, as it were, the way most of us (presumably) must do before we can imagine it.

In other words, Mary has in fact, though in a peculiar and unlikely way, had a “first experience” of red, just not at the moment when her traditional proponents have suggested. But then the question, which Dennett is seeking to discount, remains: Wasn’t Mary delighted and surprised the (real) first time she encountered red? Dennett’s critique seems only to push Mary’s first encounter with red back in time, and to make it a product of her research, rather than primarily of her eyes. For it was still her experience of red, not that of one (or all) of her research subjects, and hence it cannot simply be identified with the material conditions she had observed, and which led to her imagination’s revelation of the color. Those conditions may have been the premises of this “deduction,” but the concluding “inference” belongs to Mary alone. The question is whether this inference bears more resemblance to a scientist’s objective conclusion or to a conscious subject’s qualia. After all, despite all the talk of inferences and deductions, what we are really talking about here is an image — a mental picture — of red. For what else can Dennett mean when he uses the word “imagination” to describe the principle of Mary’s knowledge of what-it’s-like-ness? And if he does mean something else, then is he not guilty of taking advantage of the unavoidable associations of the word “imagination” in order to mask an assailable weakness in his argument? If, as I take to be the case, he means, in effect, that Mary has achieved a recognizable image of color, such that she cannot be surprised by her subsequent “first” encounter with it, then he has to explain how an image — a vision, if you will — of red, which is “inferred” from a careful observation of the neurophysiological activity of another person who is seeing red, is any less “magical” than the immateriality ascribed by some to the phenomenal character of consciousness.6See, for example, Chapter 3 of Sweet Dreams, pp. 57-75, wherein Dennett seeks to undermine such ascriptions.

In lieu of an actual explanation, Dennett offers a counterexample to the opposing view–specifically to his characterization of William Lycan’s claim that what it is like to experience blue is not amenable to deduction from “a body of impersonal scientific information” (Lycan, personal communication with Dennett, cited in Sweet Dreams, 114).

Someone who has never seen or touched a triangle can presumably be told in a few well-chosen words just what to expect, and when they experience their first triangle, they should have no difficulty singling it out as such on the basis of the brief description they had been given. They will learn nothing. With blue and red it is otherwise — that, at any rate, is the folk wisdom relied on by Jackson’s example. (He wouldn’t have gotten far with a thought experiment about Mary the geometer who was prevented from seeing or touching triangles.) But if what it is like to see triangles can be adequately conveyed in a few dozen words, and what it is like to see Paris by moonlight in May can be adequately conveyed in a few thousand words (an empirical estimate based on the variable success of actual attempts by novelists), are we really so sure that what it is like to see red or blue can’t be conveyed to one who has never seen colors in a few million or billion words? (114-115)

Let us begin with the example of triangles. I suppose it may be true that one “who has never experienced triangles” could learn enough about them in “a few dozen words” to be able to recognize one in a police line-up. I will banish to a note the question of whether this adequately conveyed understanding of triangles answers to the description of “knowing what it’s like” to see one.7Here is Lycan’s position on the identity of a quale, presented in a recent form: Someone asks you, “How, exactly, does the after-image look to you as regards color?” You reply, “It looks yellowy-orange.” “Yes, but,” the questioner persists, “can you tell me, descriptively, what it’s like to experience that ‘yellowy-orange’ look?” At this point, if you are like me, words fail you, and all you can say is, “It’s like . . . this; I can’t put it into words”–but you have indeed introspected a higher-order property of the yellowy-orange look. That is not only a perfectly good sense of “w.i.l.”. . . . [I]t is a sense in which w.i.l. can be an object of consciousness; we can know, even if we cannot say in English, w.i.l. to have a particular experience. (Lycan, review of The Nature of Consciousness, by Mark Rowlands, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 70 [2005]: 748.) The question is whether Dennett’s triangles example answers to this notion of what-it’s-like-ness. I suggest that this example reveals that Dennett is still susceptible to a charge raised years ago by David Chalmers: There is a phenomenal sense of “seem,” in which for things to seem a certain way is just for them to be experienced a certain way. And there is a psychological sense of “seem,” in which for things to seem a certain way is for us to be disposed to judge that they are that way. It is in the first sense that a theory of experience must explain the way things seem. But it is in the second sense that Dennett’s theory explains it. (The Conscious Mind [New York: Oxford University Press, 1996], 190-191.) Let us assume that it does. In fact, it makes little difference, since the example is of no use to Dennett in this context. For the analogy he draws is between seeing a triangle for the first time when one has never seen a triangle and seeing blue for the first time when one has never seen color. Stated this directly, it should be immediately apparent that his argument falls flat. For whereas Mary has never had experience of the phenomenal brethren, if you will, of blue — namely other colors — Dennett’s example allows its subject access to everything needed to observe the possibility of a triangle even without verbal description. Had he constructed his analogy properly, his parenthetical gibe at Jackson should have read: “He wouldn’t have gotten far with a thought experiment about Mary the geometer who was prevented from seeing or touching lines, surfaces, or angles.” To which any half-sentient qualophile would have been able to reply: “Oh really?”

(The properly framed version of Dennett’s triangles scenario, incidentally, would be practically infeasible to a degree that would make Mary’s predicament seem like the most plausible idea in the world by comparison. For in order to make it workable as a thought experiment analogous to Jackson’s, Dennett would have to deny to his geometer any first-person knowledge of space.)

Having used this faulty triangles analogy, Dennett then adds the playful example of literary accounts of “Paris by moonlight in May.” It is playful, presumably, because he believes the triangles example has done the hard work for him already. He includes it, I suppose, to appease those who might object to the use of triangles on the grounds that geometrical objects are, as tradition has it, “abstract” by nature, and hence the triangles example almost constitutes cheating. In fact, as we have seen, we may simply strike the “almost” from that objection, though for more fundamental reasons than Dennett appears to have foreseen. As for the “Paris by moonlight” comparison, it is too cute by half. For the issue at stake here is not whether such novelistic accounts can convey a great deal of information about Paris, any more than Dennett’s opponents wish to deny to Mary a great wealth of knowledge concerning color vision. The question is whether such written accounts can ever perform the epistemological function fulfilled by that in experience which can perhaps be expressed only by such mediated, quasi-interpretive sounds as “Ahhh” (or “Yuck”) uttered by the readers upon first seeing Paris by moonlight for themselves. For this is “what it’s like” to see Paris by moonlight.8Nothing is changed by the fact that I might, upon seeing Paris, think “Gee, what it’s like to see Paris is remarkably similar to what it’s like to read X’s book about it. What a good writer.” The what-it’s-likeness evoked by the book is evoked by the book, not by Paris.

And allow me to re-emphasize the importance of Dennett’s failure here. He is trying to prove that Mary can learn everything about so-called conscious experience from a third-person perspective. He has clearly felt the need to provide examples in which Mary would have been able to learn the what-it’s-like-ness of an experience without having had the experience, in order to buttress his claim that it is not impossible that she might do so in the case of color vision. He needs, in other words, to show that the mind is, in principle, capable of accomplishing such a feat in order to establish, minimally, that his version of Mary has “the same [scientific] status” as Jackson’s (105). But this is what he has failed to show. A “folk theory” cannot be trumped by a non-theory.

Returning to Paris, however, I note that Dennett’s example seems to have lost the thread of his own argument. For what it means for his hypothetical literary account to be successful is that it achieves its aim of evoking an accurate image in the reader’s mind, such that the reader, upon first travelling to Paris, will respond to it as the picture that, albeit in a different frame, he has already seen.9The image in this case, of course, need not be a literal, visual image, but rather any sort of mental ‘drumming-up’ of the results of (hypothetical) sensory experience.¬†Once again, we see Dennett’s argument depending on the notion of an image in the mind that is somehow merely a deductive inference from third-person research, and not itself a subjective experience irreducible to its material correlates or precursors.

This argument, relying heavily on the unhelpful counterexamples discussed above, leads Dennett to the conclusion that the burden of proof is on his opponents to establish that Mary would learn something upon her first sight of colors. At this he offers

. . . an invitation to philosophers to call my bluff and construct an argument that shows, from unproblematic shared premises, that Mary cannot figure out what specific colors will look like to her. (116)

First of all, it is not at all clear to me, given the difficulties we have just seen, that the qualophiles owe Dennett an explanation of anything. Is it not rather that Dennett, who has unsuccessfully attempted to establish a precedent for Mary’s a priori knowledge of the phenomenal character of seeing a color, owes his opponents an argument showing that their assumption must be wrong, precisely because it has, as he says, “nothing but tradition — so far — in its favor” (116). That “nothing but” is still better than nothing at all. Twice during his discussion of Mary, Dennett compares his materialist account of consciousness to Copernicus’ heliocentrism, with regard to its counterintuitiveness in the eyes of tradition (108, 129). But Copernicus (along with the other famous philosopher to compare his project to the Copernican revolution) understood that he needed to demonstrate — to prove — that his counterintuitive theory could more than satisfactorily explain the very thing that the traditionalists would regard as most counterintuitive about it. He understood, in other words, that the burden of proof was on him.10Perhaps the difference has to do with the fact that neither Copernicus nor Kant were inherently disdainful of the relevant traditions. “Tradition” was not, for them, a dirty word, whereas Dennett, perhaps due to the legacy of the rubric of “folk psychology,” seems to regard the phrase “traditional theory” as virtually self-contradictory — scientific tradition is, for him, the enemy of science, rather than a challenge to it. For a “traditional” account, however frustrating or nebulous, is “surely” preferable to an absolute blank, even if that blank comes with a vague promissory note regarding its possible eventual filling. Dennett’s transference of the burden amounts to declaring that, given how many things he can explain in a way that is consistent with a materialist presupposition, we simply owe him the benefit of the doubt on those things which he cannot explain.

A second observation regarding Dennett’s challenge to the traditionalists, qualophiles, or what have you, to provide an argument against Mary’s ability to “figure out what specific colors will look like to her,” is that it seems subtly to alter the field of play. That Mary might, in principle, be able to achieve an accurate simulation of what happens when one’s eyes encounter blue only establishes that the “phenomenal” experience can be achieved by alternative means, if only by omniscient researchers. That the phenomenal character of the event (Mary’s revelation: “This is what it’s like to see blue!”) is reducible to her knowledge of the material conditions remains to be shown, and is exactly what must be shown before Dennett can legitimately shift the burden of proof from his own shoulders.

To his credit, Dennett seems to suspect as much, which, I presume, is why he does not let the argument lie with his aforementioned challenge to his opponents, but proceeds to address something like the issue I have raised here, although he couches it differently.

Another unargued intuition exploited covertly by the Mary intuition pump . . . is the idea that the “phenomenality” or “intrinsic phenomenal character” or “greater richness” — whatever it is — cannot be constructed or derived out of lesser ingredients. Only actual experience (of color, for instance) can lead to the knowledge of what that experience is like. Put so boldly, its question-beggingness stands out like a sore thumb. . . . (116)

Consider the following argument: The true relationship between the square of the hypotenuse and the sum of the squares of the right-angled triangle’s remaining sides is comprehended by what we call the Pythagorean theorem. Suzie, a five-year old math prodigy, has discovered, by her own means, the true relationship between the hypotenuse and the other two sides. Therefore, Suzie has come to understand what we call the Pythagorean theorem.

Does modus ponens beg the question? And yet it seems to me that this is all Dennett’s repeated accusations of question-begging (112, 116, 119) amount to. If the position that Dennett has “so boldly” put into the mouths of his opponents appears to be more confused than this, it is only, I suggest, because Dennett has inadvertently conflated two separate questions. The question of whether something describable as “experience” can be “constructed or derived out of” third-person material knowledge — which is the real issue raised by Dennett’s dependence on the notion of “imagination” in his critique of Jackson — is logically distinct from the question of whether one can know what an experience is like without having had it. Dennett thinks he is asking the second question when he is in fact only asking the (interesting, but contextually tangential) first. The conflation is the result of Dennett’s agnosticism (aka fudging) on the matter of whether or not his notion of “figuring out” what an experience is like involves imagining the experience, which is the model on which his initial arguments lean so heavily. If it is imagining, then, if we grant the stipulation that imagining is a kind of “actual” first-hand experience, there is nothing untoward about the hypothetical qualophile’s argument. And no, that stipulation does not compromise the argument, since the argument is not seeking to prove anything about the “consciousness-status” of imagination per se, but rather (if anything) about the “consciousness-status” of a particular type of knowledge:

If one knows the what-it’s-like-ness of experiencing color, then one has experienced color.
Mary knows the what-it’s-like-ness of experiencing color.
Therefore, Mary has experienced color.

The argument may be trivial, but it is valid.11David Pitt makes a similar point in defending the view that conscious thought, like perception, has phenomenal properties, in “The Phenomenology of Cognition Or ‘What Is It Like to Think That P?'” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 69 (2004): 2-3. The question, which Dennett has mistakenly conflated with the question of “inferred images” in his argument, is whether it is true that one can only know the what-it’s-like-ness of color vision by actually experiencing color. Since Dennett’s own account of Mary’s knowledge of what it is like — his notion of “figuring it out” — seems to be plausible only insofar as it is indistinguishable from her having imagined it, and since I see no reason why a conscientious qualophile would have a strong objection to regarding imagining something as a form of conscious experience of that thing, though perhaps a subsidiary or derivative form, I do not see how Dennett’s case thus far has made a dent in anyone’s qualia. But, needless to say, Dennett has not emptied his bag of tricks.

Continuing on this theme of circularity, he attempts to foist the problem of imagination onto his opponents, just as he had tried to do with the burden of proof.

According to the original thought experiment, it is the subjective internal experience of color, however produced, that is held to be a prerequisite for knowing what it is like to see red, but now that we recognize that there are paths to such experience other than that of the standard eyes-open-and-awake, the experience of color cannot so readily be distinguished from other states of mind that have many of the effects of experiences of color without clearly being experiences of color. What, for instance, is the difference between imagining you are experiencing red and experiencing red? If you actually succeed in imagining you are experiencing red, do you thereby succeed in experiencing red? If so, the circularity of the thought experiment looms. We are told that Mary in her cell can’t imagine what it’s like to experience red, try as she might. (118-119)

The “imagine” in that last sentence is clearly a colloquialism for “know,” and is used here to foster the illusion that Dennett’s opponents, should they count imagining red as an experience of red, would be contradicting their own terms. Not wishing to get caught up in a debate over sophistries, however, let us overlook this linguistic cleverness, and note instead that the first part of the argument quoted above seems confused; Dennett appears to be arguing that a first-person experience of color is not the only way to learn what it is like to see color, on the grounds that there are other, non-standard first-person experiences of color that can also teach us what it is like.

Perhaps it is to escape this difficulty that in the second half of the argument he interjects that odd locution, “imagining you are experiencing red.” The phrase serves Dennett well here, as it drives a semantic wedge between imagination and experience, such that to imagine is by definition not to experience. But what can the phrase actually mean, other than “imagining red”? Dennett’s subsequent argument seems to revert to the latter sense, leaving one to wonder what he was hoping to achieve, beyond the rhetorical point. For if imagining yourself experiencing red is to mean anything other than imagining yourself having “experience X” (as I might imagine myself sitting in a movie theatre without thinking anything at all about what film might be playing), then it can mean only one of two things. Either I am thinking accurately about what red might look like to me were I really seeing it, or I am thinking inaccurately about it. The latter case obviously has no bearing on learning what the experience of red is like, so presumably Dennett is referring to the former case. And if so, then “imagining you are experiencing red” is just a peculiar way of saying “imagining red.” Thus we are back to the question raised by the first part of Dennett’s argument. Is “imagining red” an experience of red? If by “experience” we mean simply “instance of encountering something,” then the answer is at least a qualified yes. By analogy, I have heard it said that you have not really seen Citizen Kane until you have seen it on the big screen. I had watched the movie several times, over many years, on 20-inch television screens, before I finally had a chance to see it in a movie theatre. Did I know what it was like to see Citizen Kane before I “really” saw it? The answer is no, if we mean, “Did I know what it was like to see it on a particular scale, from a certain angle, and in the manner in which its makers intended?” The answer is yes, if we mean, “Did I know what it was like to encounter this particular combination of sights and sounds, presented in this precise order?” If we take the “no” side, then Dennett’s argument fails, because on this view only the “true” experience can teach what-it’s-like-ness. If we take the “yes” side, then Dennett’s argument also fails, because in this case we are saying that an “unreal” or non-standard iteration of a specific type of first-person experience bears the universalizable what-it’s-like-ness of its type.12I ignore, in this context, the larger ‘metaphysical’ question implicit within, but rarely discussed during, this long-standing debate over qualia, namely whether qualia are universal in the sense in which experiences are universalizable, but particular in the sense in which experiences are particular. Knowing what it is like to experience red without having experienced red might be untenable, but knowing what it is like to experience this or that particular instance of redness, under such and such particular conditions, and so on, is, it seems to me, the real issue at the heart of the qualia debate. For in the end, must not a consistent qualophile maintain that each moment’s experience has its own peculiar and irreducible quale?

As for the alleged “looming circularity,” insofar as it is not a mirage, it seems to depend on the unexplained idea half-revealed by the phrase “imagining you are experiencing red.” Again, the suggestion is that there is a way of grasping what it is like to see red without in any sense experiencing it, so that the what-it’s-like-ness itself, independent of an image of red — of an image of the property we would commonly label “redness” — can be known by a third-person researcher. That this is inconceivable to a qualophile is hardly a case of question-begging. As we shall see, Dennett’s own ultimate attempt to make sense of it is self-defeating. At this point in his argument, however, he seems to want the benefit of this more extreme position without being willing to work for it, as he carries on with the discussion as though there were no practical difference between imagining red itself and imagining the what-it’s-like-ness. For the time being, then, we may carry on with the more straightforward question of whether Mary’s imagining red constitutes an experience of red.

With regard to this latter problem, I suggest that the qualophiles’ denial that Mary will be able to imagine red is based precisely on their intuition that imagination is a kind of what-it’s-like-ness-bearing experience. Thus, Mary’s hypothetical success in imagining red in the absence of any environmental color is not a compromising concession on the part of the qualophiles, but merely a relatively painless gift to Dennett, as it does not substantially alter their case. They will say: “If — and, as we have seen, that is a very big ‘if,’ in spite of Dennett’s effort to make it appear less magical — Mary can somehow ‘derive’ an image of red from her third-person investigations, then so be it; she has in that case had an experience of color, which explains why she is, according to Dennett, unsurprised by our subsequent presentation of a tomato. Problem solved. There is still, however, Dennett’s problem of establishing that this derived experience of red was in no new way instructive to her.”

Dennett, of course, presents Mary’s hypothetical discovery of the image of red in a different light, claiming that we must draw one of two conclusions from it.

A. Jackson was wrong; Mary can figure out what it’s like to see red in the absence of red; or
B. Mary didn’t figure out what it is like to see red. . . . By imagining red, she was actually illustrating Jackson’s point. As her example shows, you can’t know what it’s like before you’ve actually experienced what it’s like. (119)

Obviously, Dennett advocates conclusion A, although he has yet to offer a persuasive account of, let alone an argument for, the distinction he now wishes us to accept between imagining-as-“figuring-out” and imagining-as-“seeing”-an-image-with-the-mind’s-eye. That imagining red is a different experience from perceiving it with one’s eyes is obvious. That it is in no sense an “experience of red” is difficult to fathom. That Dennett thinks he can fathom it seems to be the product of his vague contention that Mary can achieve an image of red without ever having had a first-hand experience of red. That this conjecture might be no more rationally compelling than my claiming that color scientists are not subject to gravity because I can think of Mary leaping into the stratosphere, is apparently unimportant. Let a qualophile take one charitable step toward granting Dennett’s image-from-nowhere, and he will say “Gotcha.” But has he? The reason he believes he has is that if you choose conclusion B, above, namely that Mary’s imagining red counts as an experience of red, and hence illustrates Jackson’s point, “then we philosophers have been spending a lot of time and energy on what appears in retrospect to be a relatively trivial definitional issue: nothing is going to be allowed to count as knowing what it’s like to see red without also counting as an experience of red.” (119-120)

This is too loose. The point is not that knowing what it’s like to see red is necessarily an experience of red, but that knowing what it’s like to see red requires having had such an experience. The “knowledge” and the “experience” are two different things, but the second is a necessary condition of the first. Furthermore, it is not that “nothing is going to be allowed to count.” Rather, it is that nothing does count. As we have seen, the claim that knowing what it’s like to experience color entails having experienced it is the major premise of the (implicit) argument underlying the position Dennett is criticizing. I am certain that no honest qualophile researcher would refuse to “allow” something to count as knowing what it’s like without counting as having experienced it, if Dennett could provide a feasible suggestion as to what that something might be. The point here, if I may speak on behalf of the honest qualophile, is simply that imagination cannot be that something. For to present to oneself an image of the color red is to have a conscious experience the content of which is red; hence it is an experience of red, and consistent with the qualophile’s premise.

Dennett says that this “trivial definitional issue” is “an embarrassing outcome” (120) for those who choose conclusion B, above. I must confess that I chose it, and have not yet had the experience of red, if you will, upon my skin. As for Dennett, who chose option A, the question as to how one can imagine red without thereby experiencing it remains outstanding. And it continues to remain so for several pages of Sweet Dreams, as Dennett chooses to digress before reconsidering this matter upon which, to my mind, his entire argument stands or falls.

I note, before proceeding to Dennett’s final assault on Jackson’s version of Mary, that the stakes seem to be much higher than those with which we began. For, as I have explained, Dennett tells us that in his initial rendering of an alternative ending to the Mary thought experiment, his modest goal was merely to point up the illusory force of Jackson’s scenario by presenting a no less (or more) reasonable account which would show choosing between them to be a matter of ungrounded preference. Now, however, he has expressly tried to corner the qualophiles into forsaking their preferred version, represented by conclusion B, in favor of his own, A, which bluntly states that “Jackson was wrong.” He apparently thinks he has the qualophiles where he wants them now, and can finish them off by using the Mary thought experiment against itself, or rather by offering a far more challenging alternative version. No longer content to match one unproven assertion with another, he is now seeking proof. That proof, ultimately, comes in the form of RoboMary.

One of Dennett’s most endearing traits as a researcher is his intellectual honesty. In spite of his materialist bias, he seems, over the course of an argument, to be continually irked by any perceived shortcoming or ambiguity in his own reasoning, and to be anxious to tweak away all that is irksome, regardless of whether his allies would share his concerns. Indeed, throughout my first reading of Sweet Dreams, I was repeatedly finding myself objecting to a premise or presupposition in his argument, only to see him addressing my concern himself, two pages later. Though I believe that in the end Dennett’s honesty paints him into a corner, I must say that his philosophical adversaries would do well to measure their own presentations against this standard of self-critical re-examination.

As I have explained, Dennett’s argument in Chapter 5 proceeds gradually from a questioning of the usefulness of the Mary thought experiment to a critique of that which the experiment is meant to prove, using the experiment’s own terms as his means of attack. And as I have sought to demonstrate, his critique repeatedly bogs down in a conceptual confusion over his reliance on the notion of imagination. He begins with the simple assertion that Mary can imagine red without having experienced it. Checking that assertion, however, against a fair understanding of qualophilia, he is forced to lean toward the less evocative notion that Mary can “figure it out.” Led, presumably, by the descriptive inadequacy — that is, the unconvincingness — of this idea, he begins flagrantly to conflate the two terms, until at last he is working with a model of imagination that, as I have noted, somehow detaches imagining-as-“figuring-out” from imagining-as-“seeing”-with-the-mind’s-eye. The problem now is that for those who are skeptical about the possibility of such a distinction, Dennett’s evolved account seems mired in the same untenability that lay at the heart of his incipient account. The difficulty had been that his alternative version of Mary only became less plausible as he sought to clarify it, for his clarification seemed to require that Mary, in order to know the what-it’s-like-ness of color vision, incorporate a first-hand conscious experience of color into her understanding — precisely what his opponents wish him to concede.

The awkwardness seems intractable. Dennett, in trying to unpack his original alternative, has confronted the difficulty that everything he pulls out of the box seems to vanish into thin air upon contact — or at least to dissolve into qualia, which, for him, amounts to the same thing. It is not that his thesis is wrong, but that he cannot support it (to turn his own phrase around) “from unproblematic shared premises.” That he himself senses the intractability of the problem he has tackled, and that he recognizes the problem’s hub to be his (implicit or explicit) ascription of color-imagination to Mary, is evidenced by his final argument on this subject.

He introduces RoboMary in a “deliberately simpleminded version, for clarity,” to wit:

RoboMary is a standard Mark 19 robot, except that she was brought online without color vision; her video cameras are black-and-white, but everything else in her hardware is equipped for color vision. . . . [S]he learns everything she can about the color vision of Mark 19s. . . . She learns all about the million-shade color-coding system that is shared by all Mark 19s. . . . Using her vast knowledge, she writes some code that enables her to colorize the input from her black-and-white cameras . . . according to voluminous data she gathers about what colors things in the world are, and how Mark 19s normally encode these. So now when she looks with her black-and-white cameras at a ripe banana, she “sees it as yellow.” . . . (122-4)

Needless to say, he infers, when RoboMary finally has her color cameras installed, and sees colored objects for the first time, she “has learned nothing. She already knew exactly what it would be like for her to see colors” (125).

Because we do not live forever, I will dispense with any quibbling over the details of this “simpleminded version” of the RoboMary thought experiment. It obviously steps into the usual “imagination” quagmire (microchip edition), but Dennett is granting this. So let us resist the temptation to dismiss RoboMary’s achievements as irrelevant to our understanding of human experience — Dennett will accuse us of begging the question again (125) — and proceed to his real point here, which is to nullify the imagination-is-experience objection entirely, by means of “Locked RoboMary.”

I don’t know how Mary could be crisply rendered incapable of using her knowledge to put her own brain into the relevant imaginative and experiential states [assuming, as Dennett does, though without a helpful explanation, that Mary could ever be capable of doing this], but I can easily describe the software that will prevent RoboMary from doing it. . . . [W]e arrange for RoboMary’s color-vision system . . . to be restricted to gray-scale values. (126)

Having locked her in this state, we have made it impossible for RoboMary even to imagine color. RoboMary’s solution: she creates an internal computer model of herself whose color-vision system is not locked, and which therefore

. . . readily goes into the state that any normal Mark 19 would go into when seeing a red tomato. And since this is her model of herself, it then goes into . . . the state she would have gone into if her color system hadn’t been locked. RoboMary notes all the differences between . . . the state she [herself] was thrown into by her locked color system, and . . . the state she would have been thrown into had her color system not been locked, and . . . makes all the necessary adjustments and puts herself into [the latter state, which] is, by definition, not an illicit state of color-experience (or even color-imagination); it is the state that such an illicit state of color-experience normally causes (in a being just exactly like her). But now she can know just what it is like to see a red tomato. . . . (127-128)

What is Dennett actually arguing for with this scenario? It seems to me that if RoboMary’s final “state” is in no way to be understood as the occurrence of an image of red (and Dennett says it is not), then the thrust appears to be this: RoboMary knows what it is like to see red because she has put herself into the physical state of a robot who knows what it is like to see red. No argument is offered as to why this achievement of the physical state should be sufficient. Of course not. I will not turn the tables on Dennett here, and level the accusation he so frequently levels against his opponents at moments like this. I will merely draw attention to the fact that, for all the diverting detail of his Locked RoboMary scenario, all it constitutes, in the end, is a bald assertion of materialism. There is nothing wrong with such assertions, in principle, as long as we never mistake them for something else.

The qualophiles’ assertion is, in a nutshell, that while there may be — while there undoubtedly is — a brain-state coincident with the discovery of what-it’s-like-ness that one achieves when one experiences red, simply knowing that brain-state does not constitute knowing what it’s like. Dennett, clearly wishing to do more than merely assert the contrary, has attempted to introduce a new wrinkle into the scenario, intended to answer the vexing question of how a third-person researcher can get from knowledge of someone else’s brain-states to knowledge of what it’s like, formerly the question of how one “deduces” an image from observed material conditions. RoboMary, as we know, “artificially” produces the relevant sequence of “brain”-states in her model, and then replicates the appropriate one in herself. Let us pretend that there is, in theory, a way that the human Mary could achieve a similar replication. This scenario highlights the essential problem that has — though I doubt he would see it this way — chased Dennett into this hypothesis. For, from a materialist perspective, what does it mean for RoboMary to put herself into the physical state of one who knows what it’s like to see red, other than that she has adopted a first-person point of view? Simply knowing what state her model was in upon seeing a red tomato was not enough to guarantee that she would have nothing to learn when her color vision system was unlocked, and color cameras installed. She had to be in that physical state herself. What clearer definition of first-person learning could be offered by a strict materialist? What Dennett needed to show was that there is, in principle, a third-person perspective — a third-person brain-state — which constitutes an understanding of what-it’s-likeness without itself being the brain-state of one who knows what it is like due to first-person experience. At best, all he has shown is that a nearly omniscient third-person researcher can complete her knowledge of color-vision by incorporating the results of first-person “research,” achieved by other than normal means.

(Dennett’s compromising slip here is revealed by a comparison of this final argument with his 1991 alternative version of the Mary scenario, in which he has her respond to the incredulity of her captors upon her correct identification of color by saying, “I already knew exactly what thoughts I would have. . . .” (105) This is precisely what he must establish — that Mary can somehow know what thoughts she will have, before she actually undergoes the corresponding first-person brain-states, and that this knowledge obviates any new knowledge that might be attained by actually having those states in her own brain. In the end, however, his RoboMary scenario gives up on this notion, by conceding that she must have the actual states of one who is seeing red in order to know what it is like to experience red. He has given up on an anticipatory understanding of what something else would be like, in favor of a mere prior first-person experience of what it is like — which somehow simultaneously does not count as a genuine first-person experience.)

But even this, of course, merely assumes that materialism is the whole story. One who does not accept this assumption, as I have said, need not even grant that RoboMary does know what it is like to see red once she has achieved the appropriate “brain”-state, unless that state entails “seeing” an image of red. In either case, heterophenomenology appears to be in a precarious position. Perhaps this dispute over presupposition sets is insuperable by means of demonstrative argument. At the very least, it is not superable by Dennett’s arguments.

Dennett concludes this assault on qualia by defending himself against the hypothetical criticism that his materialism is counterintuitive.

Of course it is counterintuitive; nobody ever said that the true materialist theory of consciousness should be blandly intuitive. . . . That’s the trouble with “pure” philosophical method here. It has no resources for developing, or even taking seriously, counterintuitive theories, but since it is a very good bet that the true materialist theory of consciousness will be highly counterintuitive . . . this means that “pure” philosophy must just blind itself to the truth and retreat into conservative conceptual anthropology until the advance of science puts it out of its misery. (128-129)

Let us allow that his equivocation on the notion of “truth” in this argument falls within the bounds of legitimate philosophical rhetoric. I am more concerned with what he means by “counterintuitive.” Is it accurate to say that “pure” philosophical method “has no resources for developing . . . counterintuitive theories”? What has the discipline of philosophy ever been but a series of attempts to defend conclusions that were widely regarded (both within and beyond the discipline) as counterintuitive? Is not idealism, for example, every bit as counterintuitive as materialism? (And if your knee-jerk reaction to that last question was “Idealism? Who takes that seriously anymore?” then you have answered the question in the affirmative.) Dennett seems to wish, for all practical purposes, to treat counterintuitiveness as coextensive with the phrase “true materialism.” But isn’t counterintuition more relative than that? Dennett is convinced that there is no “quale” — no subjective, experience-derived aspect — in consciousness which can only be known from a first-person perspective. He cannot prove this conviction; indeed, his attempts to prove it can be interpreted as buttressing the opposing claim. And yet his conviction remains, because, from his materialist position, the existence of qualia is counterintuitive.

In this light, might not one who is unwilling simply to grant the truth of “true materialism” respond to Dennett’s final point as follows: While it may be true that philosophers investigating consciousness would benefit from knowing what is going on in the current scientific research in this field, is it also true that they must accept without reflection the predominant presuppositions from which that scientific research proceeds, and that such reflection upon the grounding assumptions of the science is to be identified with “blinding oneself to the truth,” and retreating into “conservative conceptual anthropology”? If so, then Dennett’s warning comes too late and science already has put philosophy out of its misery.


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