Jackson’s Mary Argument against physicalism versus Hierarchical Construct Theory

In considering Jackson’s Mary Argument, the first thing to acknowledge is that conceptualising about the phenomenon of reality is not equivalent to experiencing the phenomenon of reality. I say “conceptualising”, because I equate Jackson’s interpretation of ‘physical knowledge’ with ‘conceptual knowledge’, since our scientific understandings are based exclusively on conceptual principles that most accurately reflect our experience of reality. In other words, everything that Mary might read about colour would be a conceptually constructed derivative – the formal mechanism for the communication of concepts being languages (which incidentally includes mathematics).

Mary Argument - why physicalism is not false

The phenomenal experience of B&W ain’t so far removed from colour


Phenomenal experience is not a conceptual construct. We can conceptualise about phenomenal experience but concepts do not generate qualitative parallels with the phenomena. This would seem to be the point of the thought experiment; that a complete conceptual knowledge would not tell Mary everything there is to know about the actual feeling of phenomenal experience – a complete conceptual understanding of ‘red’ cannot substitute the experience ‘red’. But from this realisation, one need not come to Jackson’s conclusion that physicalism is false. Concepts are but one format by which reality – physical reality – can be represented. Physicalism is not encapsulated only by this one form of representation.

As a solution to the argument, one needs to understand that different physical explanations are required to explain representation that is physiologically constructed, representation that is phenomenally constructed, and representation that is conceptually constructed. (Incidentally, according to HCT, matter in and of itself, is representational too, but the merits or otherwise of this idea are not of relevance here). The first is an innately acquired representation of environmental relevancy, the second is a realtime assessed qualitative representation whose process is felt, and the third is an interpretative representation of experiential value whose process grants meaning. These types of representation are informed about reality but in different ways – they are different classes of knowledge by virtue of the type mechanism by which they interact with the world. With a full understanding of these mechanisms and the underlying unity that unites them, Mary would anticipate the qualitative characteristics of the phenomenal experience of colour and therefore would not be surprised that a qualitative feeling would ensue on first experiencing them. This is not to say however, that the experience itself would not have a novel qualitative impact when first experienced.

How does Hierarchical Construct Theory (HCT – formally Hierarchical Systems Theory) help us reflect on the Mary Argument thought experiment?


Part 1

HCT informs us that the mechanisms that create conceptual representation transcend the mechanisms that generate phenomenal representation. However, HC T also informs us that conceptualising is hierarchically dependent on phenomenal experience i.e., it is not possible to have concepts without there being some underpinning phenomenal capability in the first place. Humans are driven to conceptualise because they possess the related mechanisms of phenomenal experience. One might say as a generality, that levels of conceptual sophistication are dependent on the richness of phenomenal experience. If one imagines an individual that is sight, then also sound, and then also touch deprived, one should find it increasingly difficult, whilst communicating with this individual, to come up with concepts that satisfactorily depict, not merely experience itself but the conceptual principles underlying our reality.

To illustrate this briefly, imagine there is an individual entity that can hear your thoughts. This eavesdropper, called Raymond, is envious because he has never experienced any sensory input – having never possessed a body. Since the beginning of time Raymond has been alone, eager to find out what it is like to feel experience. Mindful of how unpleasant total sensory deprivation must be, you wish to inform Raymond about what it is like to be a human experiencing the world, so you entertain a dialogue with him in your head:

“Some experiences are best not experienced”, you say to the eavesdropper in your head: “I hit my thumb with a hammer… It really hurt”.

Raymond asks: What is pain like? what is a hammer? What is experience? What is a thumb?
The more one tries to answer these questions, and to answer the questions that arise because of your initial answers, the more one comes to realise that Raymond needs some phenomenal experience in order to connect with the answers; Raymond needs some level of experience in order to evolve a network, or more accurately, a ‘construct’ of conceptual realisations, because all that is relevant to conceptual understanding comes from qualitative experiential relations. Whilst one can have phenomenal experience without concepts, one cannot have concepts without phenomenal experience. Any degree of experiential deprivation has some degree of impact on the potential boundaries of conceptual realisability. Similarly, and more obviously, one cannot have concepts without physicality impeding its influences upon the material existence from which conceptualising can arise in the first place.

An all knowing non-physical being such as Raymond is not viable, because such an entity possesses neither the physical nor the phenomenal equipment necessary to institute conceptual knowledge. So the very idea of Raymond is invalidated by the pretext of the thought experiment. This is also true, but more subtly so, of Mary:


Part 2

If I want to imagine what it would be like to see infrared or ultraviolet, or even to see X-rays or Gamma rays, I have to call upon my current understanding of phenomenal experience in order to extrapolate conceptual parallels. I image them to ‘resemble’ such things as a ‘glowing red’ or an ‘iridescent purple’. But of course, I have no true qualitative reference to these spectra, because my thoughts are only imaginings. I am assuming with creative imaginings what the phenomenal experience of infrared and ultraviolet might be. Even though I know what it is like to experience ‘red’, I cannot know what it is like to actually experience ultraviolet or infrared. To see is to experience qualitatively. For me to suddenly see infrared or ultraviolet would be to possess a unique phenomenal experience.

What is it to have a true phenomenal experience?

HCT informs us that to have true phenomenal experience is to possess ‘an understanding regarding the qualitative relevance of environmental experience’. In this context, “understanding” is a type of informed construct which, importantly, is non-conceptual in its construction. This notion of physiological mechanisms that are responsive to the qualitative nature of environmental experience enables us to consider two possible actualities in relation to the Mary Argument:

In the first theoretical actuality, Mary has a conceptual understanding of the minutiae of ‘red’ in the absence of any background sub-conceptual understanding regarding its qualitative relevance. But with the background physiology absent, the sighting of red for the first time would be an event lacking any qualitative relevancy, and therefore would be a sighting lacking any phenomenal experience. Consequently, she would experience nothing qualitatively. This is the zombie scenario.

Alternatively, in the second actuality, to possess this background would have been to have actually possessed it all along, even prior to the ‘actual’ experience of the ‘red’. Whilst Mary, is denied the actual experience of ‘red’ at the earlier stages of the thought experiment, she nevertheless possesses the background qualitatively relevant physiology. This is the Jackson’s Mary Argument scenario.

To summarise these two actualities, to experience ‘red’ entails possessing the physiological construct that determines red’s qualitative relevance: if that physiological construction is absent, it can never be switched on simply by virtue of ‘red’ being ‘sighted’; alternatively if that physiological construction is present, it must be present even when seeing ‘red’ is denied through sensory deprivation. In like fashion, I could taste my first mango tomorrow and be amazed at its flavour. Nevertheless, I would not be shocked to learn that I might be amazed by novel phenomenal experiences of this nature.

Given the above, to combat Jackson’s conclusion one needs to answer the following question:

How does experience become qualitatively relevant non-conceptually?

HCT informs us that the qualitative feeling of experience is grounded in innate physiological mechanisms which are acquired over generations in response to their survival relevance (c.f. examples below). In a way, qualitative relevance is biochemically and biomechanically hot-wired. These mechanisms cannot be accessed by conceptual thought, for the mechanisms of conceptual thought transcend both the physiological mechanisms that respond to environmental characteristics, and the cognitive mechanisms that utilise this physiological background in order to assimilate and evaluate the realtime qualitative relevance of every nuance of experience.

Nature has ensured that all forms of sensation have facilitated the evaluation – the informed evaluation – of qualitative relevance in response to survival pressures:

Example 1
One might describe the smell of a rose as divine, and the smell of faeces as disgusting. But why? Flies find faeces irresistibly attractive and my cat is indifferent to the smell of roses. Why the difference among different species? Evolutionary pressures ensure that a species’ physiological mechanisms are appropriately responsive to environmental stimulations. Thus, innately acquired physiological mechanisms are appropriately responsive to threatening, toxic, nutritional etc sensations. This is a survival precedent. Sophisticated animals with a neural network are able to assimilate and evaluate to the changing experiences of the environment in order to respond to the qualitative relevance of sensation. It is this changing reflexivity that grants them the feeling of a changing phenomenal landscape of experiences – some of which are nice, others horrid, unpleasant, delicious etc.

Example 2
Many animal species experience sounds. With loud articulated sound, animals invariably become fearfully and alert. Conversely, gentle, gradual, lilting noises are reassuring or comforting, like the sound of wind in trees or grass, the bubble of water in a stream. The qualitative relevance of these types of noise is obvious. Sudden noises tend to be associated with attacking predators and demand immediate flight or fight responses with their accompanying adrenaline rush. Gentle articulation may indicate a water source for bathing or quenching thirst. The phenomenal feeling is linked to an innately acquired physiological response that is of qualitative relevance. Note, that this relevance is not informed by way of concepts, but by way of physicochemical mechanisms.

Example 3
From a physical standpoint, an object might reflect light in the frequency 526–606 THz whilst a second object 400-484 THz. That these objects reflect light in these frequencies is objectively the case. As to the identified frequencies themselves, they are a correlative concept that humans have invented by associating spectral frequencies (quantified by physics laws) with particular qualitative colour phenomena.

Let us assume that on earth, surfaces that reflect frequency 526-606 THz are ubiquitous (for complex reasons that we shall not explore here for the sake of brevity) and that these surfaces are of no material evolutionary benefit to a particular organism species. Conversely, some rare objects that reflect frequency 400-484 THz are highly prized by this particular organism species for their nutritional content. It would be qualitatively pertinent, and responsive to survival pressures, for that species to evolve mechanisms (innate mechanisms) that are hyper-alert to 400-484 THz reflecting colourations, as these mechanisms would enable the organisms of that species to locate those nutritional, highly prized objects more efficiently. Conversely, it would be pertinent for innate mechanisms to be indifferent to the ubiquitous 526-606 THz reflecting objects. Additionally, if those desirable 400-484 THz objects had the added characteristic of possessing the contours of a sphere, rather than jagged contours, this would supplement the role of shape in the qualitative identifications of those objects and further benefit those individuals that possessed innate mechanisms capable of making the distinction with automated efficiency. In themselves, these coloured objects have no phenomenal identity, but the organism will tend to evolve innate mechanisms that are phenomenally and qualitatively distinctive and relevant. Their mechanisms might remain innately acquired and therefore, appear both non-representational and “hardwired” – much like computational mechanisms. But these appearances would be deceptive as the innate physiologies would be representative of the environment’s qualitative relevance to that organism species. Thus, it makes sense to interpret each of these frequencies (whose colours we experience as green and red), and each shape (spherical and jagged), as qualitatively differentiated and observer-dependent phenomenologically, in this particular species. The organism’s innately acquired mechanisms are an observer-dependent phenomenological representation whose qualitative relevancy is engaged anatomically outside of any processes of associative learning, introspection, feeling, or emotion.


Part 3

How can mechanism create qualitative representation?

Before I respond to this question, it is important to note that it is not necessary to identify and explain the nature of innately acquired mechanisms in order to disarm Jackson’s claim from the Mary Argument that physicalism is false. One need merely have to point out the obvious, which is that a full and complete conceptual knowledge of physiological mechanisms tells you all you need to know about the physics of phenomenal experience, but this conceptually constructed knowledge does not invoke phenomenal experience. The reality is that physicalism is not shown to be false, but that it entails different layers, types, or classes of representational constructs: fundamentally, knowledge is not just multiple layers of thinking via conceptual representation. Our knowledge of the science of physics is conceptual in its construction, but this form of knowledge does not embody physicalism. Other informed representational constructs that are non-conceptual, whilst qualitatively relevant to conceptual interpretation, importantly cannot be analysed through conceptual thought, because the mechanisms of conceptual thought do not have first-person access to the mechanisms that generate them. There is a transcendent gap between the function of these distinct physical mechanisms.

Why do maggots love a carcass? Why do worms hate light? Why are dung beetles attracted to dung? Why does water taste so great when we are very thirsty? Why does one have thirsty feelings? Why do leaves turn to face the light? The mechanisms behind these case scenarios are likely to be varied and in most cases very complex. Some will be chemical, pheromonal, or will include cognitive mechanisms and combinations of these and others. Furthermore, whilst the neurone is a biochemical mechanism, its function has transcendent potential. Nevertheless, there are principles of both biochemical and cognitive mechanism that share similarities.

Feedback mechanisms
In general terms, feedback mechanisms are very important in assimilating and evaluating experiential relevance. For example, a beetle might taste the air continually for dung scent. (Dung scent is attractive because evolution has deemed it nutritionally relevant to survival through the dung beetle’s evolved physiology – the innately acquired physiology of the creature is geared around prioritising dung acquisition.) A feedback of chemical potency might institute neuro-mechanical responses. (Resulting behaviours are indicative of the attractive appeal of dung; the beetle seems to ‘feel good’ about dung). A cognitive mechanism evaluates competing behavioural possibilities through feedback of their evaluated importance (such competing behaviours may include the relevancy of heat and/or humidity – the biochemical mechanisms of which may be similar to the scenting of dung). Prioritisation of behaviour occurs in accordance with the sophistication of the beetles cognitive feedback mechanisms. The beetle zigzags along toward the dung with a smile on its face.

Negating mechanisms
Another type of mechanism that will be important are those that nullify saturating stimuli. Stimulation saturation is disadvantageous to survival. Where nullification of stimulation fails to occur (as I believe is the case with some insects) behaviour enters a cyclic catch 22 and the creature gets stuck, like an automaton, in repetitive behaviour. More advanced animals have mechanisms that nullify or de-prioritise or de-sensitise feedback loops. This feature would be important as a means for prioritising one potential behaviour over another.

Threshold mechanisms
Mechanisms that determine threshold values would also be ubiquitous features that help to determine qualitative relevancy. Chemical threshold in neurone operation determine firing frequency setting up potential channels of qualitative evaluation.

Of course a key development is the biochemical structure of the neurone. It has the unique feature of being able to transmit sensory stimulation across significant distances and at speed. Imagine if pheromone transmission by colony ants was both targeted and instantaneous. The mobilisation of the colony to realtime conditions would be very powerful and move the evolutionary goalposts. Mechanisms could evolve to take advantage of the realtime assimilation of experience.

An important transcendent development made possible by the neurone is the evolution of cognitive mechanisms that enable the qualitative distinction of macro features of the environment. Whilst chemical mechanisms might facilitate photosensitive behaviours in less complex creatures, only neurones have the potential to assimilate the colours and contours of space and shape. Such neural mechanisms would consist of many layers of processing that entail conjoining neural frequency patterns, assigning relevancy through frequency re-enforcement gates, reward feedback re-enforcement etc. I am no neuroscientist, but I think it is clear that the potential mechanisms are there that would assign qualitative prioritising roles to patterns and colours through threshold, re-enforcement, nullification processes etc all of which are sub-conceptual in function.


Conclusion – The first-person perspective

As humans, we introspect about the continually changing consequences of our own underlying physiological and cognitive mechanisms. Should we be surprised that they possess certain unique ineffable characteristics? The innate function of these mechanisms in their totality, is to determine what they deem to be qualitatively relevant and pertinent for survival – by virtue of their accurate, environmentally reflective function. Consequently, we experience a continually changing and rich phenomenal landscape of qualitative non-conceptual impressions; a functioning knowledge that remains mysteriously intangible in its processes of operation. And yet the mechanisms form the indispensable bedrock of our conceptual thought whose construction defines our individual sense of personal identity – an identity we find subjected, rather curiously, to this subjective “qualitative” phenomenal experience. Is the process physical? Yes: it is just that we cannot explore phenomenal feeling with our constructed network of relational principles. Conceptual thought cannot invoke phenomenal experience, so the experience must always remain amazing even though we might understand the phenomenon in its totality. So what must we learn from its uniqueness? We must learn that information constructs – knowledge constructs – come in more than one guise; there is more to knowledge, representation and intentionality than concepts.

A word of thanks to members of the paracast.com forum, Constance, Soupie, and smcder, who’s discussion and feedback helped me put this post together.

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