Today’s post contains an example that I find amusing, but which some may be offended by. But, if you are that easily offended why do you even have an internet connection?
Here I use the word concept to mean a category that groups labels our perceptions, the mechanism for which is unconscious. For example possessing the concept of “tree” allows one to see trees as trees, instead of simply some specific color patch. This is not quite the standard use of concept, which tends to include facts about the subject into what concept covers, and without keeping this distinction in mind what follows may not make complete sense. With that out of the way let me ask my question: does possessing a concept imply that we know something about that object or objects the concept is about that is unavailable so someone without the concept?
Imagine then someone who knows everything there is to know about homosexual people. However this person is unable to recognize homosexual people when they encounter them; they don’t have the “homosexual” concept (remember, as defined above). Let us say then that to remedy this deficiency they invent a “gaydar” (we have to assume that in this world there is some physiological characteristic that such a machine could detect, like a unique protein, which is not the case in real life). Possessing such a machine would give that person the appropriate concept “artificially”. But since they built the machine using their pre-existing knowledge about homosexual people the machine isn’t telling them anything new about homosexuality (although it does inform them about who is homosexual, but that knowledge is not required to understand homosexuality itself). We can also imagine this device somehow being incorporated into their mind, giving them the “homosexual” concept. But simply integrating the machine into their brain doesn’t add to their knowledge about homosexuality, and so we conclude that developing the concept of “homosexual” doesn’t inform the person possessing it about homosexuality. We could imagine implanting the “gaydar” into someone who knew nothing about homosexuality, and even after its implantation they would still be ignorant, and would have no idea what this new concept was picking out.
Concepts then are more like mental abilities than knowledge, a distinction which admittedly can be confusing at times. And this is not to say that a concept can’t result in us possessing some new knowledge, the important point is what that knowledge is about. Having a concept like “tree” allows us to know which objects in the world are trees, it doesn’t inform us about what trees are. Of course, like any normal concept, our knowledge about trees is easily confused with our tree concept, since when we see something as a tree, using our concept, we are also able to say why it is a tree, using our knowledge about trees. But this knowledge is not part of the concept or derived from it, although it likely had a role in the formation of that concept.
So why do we care? Well, as pointed out last time, what concepts tell us about is essential to unraveling the “problem” of Mary the color scientist. By hypothesis Mary knows all the physical facts about color perception there are to know, but still when she departs from her colorless room she learns more about qualia, showing that there is more to qualia than just the physical description. But does she really learn something more about the qualia? From within her room Mary could already have built a color-detector. She knows what frequencies of light are which colors. She also knows how her brain will react to each frequency. Thus she can build a device that monitors her brain state and tells her what color she is seeing. This is basically the same thing our “gaydar” builder did above, and we agreed that having such a device didn’t increase his knowledge about homosexuality. So, likewise, Mary could have implanted her color detector into her brain and know upon first leaving the room which colors were which. And thus we conclude that Mary didn’t really learn anything about color experience upon leaving the room, she just developed a new concept. She learned to tell which objects were red, which were green, ect, but she didn’t learn anything new about the experience of seeing color itself.
Of course some will object, saying that I have missed the point, that Mary learns what colors “feel” like to her upon leaving the room. But my contention is that the “feel” of a color is not a fact about qualia/color perception but a concept. Certainly there is no reason to flat out deny that the “feel” of a color is a concept, and there are independent reasons to believe it (besides the fact that our theory about qualia requires it). For one other concepts present themselves to us as similar “feelings”. When you look at a tree it simply “feels” like a tree, you don’t have to deduce it from other experiences. Of course, in contrast to colors, we can analyze our judgment that a certain perception is a perception of a tree in terms of color and shape perceptions, but in contrast those color and shape “feels” seem simple, even when reflecting on them. Of course, it may simply that they may be the most fundamental visual concepts which other concepts are based on, at least that is how I see it. In any case being primitive certainly doesn’t disqualify them from being concepts. A person with a “gaydar” in their brain won’t be able to explain their “feeling” that someone is homosexual, it will feel simple and unjustified, just like our color feels, but we know that it is really just a concept. Another reason to believe that color “feels” are concepts is that like concepts they are “universals”. A particular color “feel” is something that can be experienced of different objects at different times, which certainly suggests that it is one concept that is deployed to identity a certain class of visual inputs.
So, to reiterate my conclusion from last time, what Mary learns upon leaving her room is how to use a new concept. This concept might inform her about the color of objects, but it doesn’t give her more information about color experience itself. And thus there is no reason to believe that Mary can’t know everything there is to know about color experience from within her room. And finally from this we can conclude that there is no problem with defining qualia / experience in terms of physical properties, or at least no problems that arise because of the thought experiment with Mary.