Red Mary

K’12 Watercolour sketch from a photo.
Trying Chris Carter’s Colour Scheme Game.
The die came up as Monochrome / Red-Orange.

I just read a blog-post taking up the story of Red Mary, a philosophical thought-experiment. Mary is a neuroscientist who has never seen colours, but has studied them scientifically. For the sake of the argument Mary is taken to have learnt everything that can be learnt about colours, without ever seeing them. The question philosophers now debate is whether Mary learns anything new when she is released from her monochrome prison and sees colour for the first time.

Intuitively, we agree Mary “learns” something new, namely “what it’s like” to see red etc. A similar conundrum “What is it like to be a bat” discusses the fact that we may know much about bats, but not what it’s like to be one. Both are intended to prove dualism, or the idea that there is something non-phyiscal in the world, the carrier of the so-called qualia – from qualis est  or lat. what / how is it, or  “how-ness”.

Reading these things feels a bit like watching a dog trying to catch its own tail. Of course, dogs eventually learn the trick of leaning against something…

Seeing is a skill

To make it easier, suppose Mary’s new experience is not seeing colour, but riding a bike, where she has no previous experience with anything wobbly on wheels. It’s fairly obvious that the outcome would simply be that she cannot ride a bike.

I would argue it’s the same with seeing colour. After a lifetime in monochrome Mary’s eyes might “see” the colours, i.e. the photo-sensitive cells might still be there, and they might react to the photons, but her visual apparatus would simply not have developed a reaction to it. Neurons that have never fired will not be connected to the visual cortex: she will not visualise or experience red at all.

We are not passive spectators of our experience; consciousness is a process, a skill that has to be learnt, just like riding a bike. We start with something quite basic and build it up as we develop. If we never use it, particularly in childhood, it atrophies and disappears.

This in itself is a fantastic quality of our brain. This is how we each develop an ear to detect and differentiate the sounds characteristic of our own language – how marvelous is that? And this is why our eyes are attracted to writing, as we’ve learnt this carries meaning, yet we ignore scratches on the pavement. In former times we’d have learnt to watch out for traces of sabre-toothed tigers…

Mental filing cabinet

An independent point is that seeing colour is a physical sensation. Neurons carry impulses to the part in my brain that maps information onto a body outline, to tell me what’s going on where. Knowing something theoretical, like “my phone number is 431234” is also an electrical impulse in my brain, but it’s in a completely different circuit. Everything I learn by reading, say, is put into the top mental drawer, body information is in the bottom one. This is brain-hardware.

No piece of information Mary can learn about colour is the same as “seeing” it in her visual cortex. Nothing you put in the top drawer is then in the bottom one. On a smaller scale there is no colour seeing which is “like” having a toothache (though some modern artists do try), and no smell is “like” a butterfly kiss. And no piece of information I learn about your height will make me believe you are a good cook (this one is brain software: I could, illogically, have learnt that the best cooks are 5’7” and vice versa).

That doesn’t mean we need to multiply metaphysical entities as carriers of the how-ness of smells, of colours, of touch etc. Not to mention of height and of being a good cook. If we have separate drawers in our mental filing cabinet, that is a quality of our brains, and it doesn’t imply that there is a top-drawer world separate from a bottom-drawer one, any more than the world we hear must be separate from the world we see.

Similarly, the reason I can’t know what it’s like to be a bat is simply that I don’t have a bat’s body. My body-feeling brain circuits are not built the way a bat’s are, nor are my cognitive processes.

What I find telling, is that in trying to prove the existence of “more than” the physical world, the dualist philosophers manage to ignore so much about the physical world. In particular the physical, very much awe-and-wonder-inspiring bodies we are so lucky to have.

P.S. Bats and colours

Bats obviously don’t see colours (different wavelengths of light) as they “see” by ultrasound echoes, i.e. sound waves. Biologist Richard Dawkins once speculated that bats might use what in our brains is used to visualise colours, to represent different textures of surfaces. I find this idea totally fascinating: would blue be smooth, and red be rough?

When Your Laptop Crashes, Does It Suffer?

Fred. His patience makes up for his wooden demeanour.
K’12 Ink & watercolour sketch. Triad, Yellow.

In 1995, David Chalmers stated what he calls the hard problem of consciousness: why do we feel alive, why do we experience the world? He separates this from what he terms the “easy” problems or functions like reportability, attention focus etc. He answers his own question by positing a new fundamental unit, not part of the physical universe. In Red Mary I explained why I disagree with the answer, but I do think it’s a good question.

A detractor of Chalmers’, Daniel Dennett, maintains that the functions of consciousness alone are the explanation of subjective experience. That’s clearly nonsense. We can replicate all the functions in computers or other machines without these being aware. Therefore the functions alone do not explain our subjective awareness.

Consciousness  It’s not a bug, it’s a feature
Chalmers’ list of “easy” problems
The ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli “Incorrect password. Please try again.”
The integration of information by a cognitive system CPU
The reportability of mental states “Insufficient memory. Please free up some disc space.”
The ability of a system to access its own internal states Going into sleep mode due to low battery.
The focus of attention Allocation of processors.
The deliberate control of behavior Control processes on production systems.
The difference between wakefulness and sleep Sleep mode
Dennett’s functions
Delight and dismay* Motor running smoothly vs. motor makes weird screeching noises.
Distraction and concentration Allocation of processors
Feelings of foreboding* “Are you sure you want to delete this?”
Disregard of perceptual details Cache not cleared
Obsessions Do you know how often an SAP run reads the company code customising? Talk about OCD!
Oversights Allocation of processors
Inability to hold more than a few items in consciousness Insufficient RAM
My ability to be moved to tears by X.* Plant watering automat – the rest is subjective “feeling”.
Inability to catch myself in the act of Y. “An unexpected error has occurred.”
*Delight, dismay, sinking feeling of foreboding, being moved to tears: these are subjective emotions, not functions. I’ve given parallels to what we may do functionally when these states occur.
Some of my own
Bad hair day / Getting out of bed on the wrong side. Processes stuck in loops, caches not cleared. This is why IT support tells you to “turn it off and on again” – a new day for the computer.
We’re stuck because we want to eat our cake and have it. Two processes are waiting for each other.

Now, I don’t believe my laptop is conscious. Nor will it become conscious when I add an app that measures things like available disc space, CPU capacity, and battery state, and says: “I’m feeling stressed out!” when the CPU is at more than 98% capacity, “I feel sick” when it’s out of disc space, and “I’m hungry” when the battery’s going. Actually, my iPod already does this: “Low battery,” it says mournfully.

But, I hear myself saying, that’s not how I work. I have no idea how high my blood-sugar is. But when it’s too low, I feel hungry. And that’s where the “extra” bit comes in. I feel.

Emotions have a function, or quite a few different functions. And we “feel” them. This is not a necessary consequence of the functions – we can write computer programmes that fulfill these functions without the computers suffering. But the path nature took to solve these issues is one that made us aware.

For my part: I’m happy it did. Aren’t you?