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Is the Argument from Knowledge a Compelling Argument Against


Physicalism is the philosophical school of thought that

everything is physical, that everything real can be reduced to purely
physical terms (Stoljar, 2001). According to Stoljar, the main
counter-argument to physicalism concerns qualia, ‘the felt qualities
of experience’ (2001). If qualia can be shown to be non-physical
entities, then physicalism cannot be true. This essay shall focus on
the Argument from Knowledge (henceforth AfK), one of the
strongest arguments in favour of the non-physical existence of
qualia, and hopes to show from the AfK that the non-physical nature
of qualia is self-evident.
Thomas Nagel produced a highly enjoyable and well formulated
article on this subject in 1974, in which he explicates the AfK well by
considering the perceptual systems of bats. His argument starts
with the intuitively reasonable assumption that all bats have
experiences, and thus that there is ‘something it is like’ to be a bat.
However, it is impossible for us to fully comprehend what it is like to
be a bat as a bats sensory apparatus are far removed from our own,
we can never know the qualia of a bat. Nagel sums up this position
well when he writes ‘even without the benefit of philosophical
reflection, anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space
with an excited bat knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally
alien form of life’ (1974; pp.438). He argues that the existence of
non-physical facts outside the realm of our experience is entailed by
our inability to really know ‘what it is like’ to be a bat, creating fatal
problems for physicalism if successful.
Nagel argues that there is no method we can use to
‘extrapolate the inner life of the bat from our own case’ (1974;
pp.438). He uses several examples from the bat/human distinction
to elaborate this point, the most compelling of which concerns sonar
perception. Whilst it can be reasonably assumed that bat sonar can
be compared to human sight in that they fulfil similar functional
roles, it cannot be assumed that the perceptual experience of sonar
is comparable with that of sight, not least because the inputs to the
systems are so far removed from one another. Thus the two
methods of perception can be described as functionally similar, but
are clearly qualitatively different.
It seems the closest we can come to knowing the qualia of bat
sonar perception is to imagine what sonar perception would ‘look’
like. This can be done by taking a method of sensory perception
familiar to us that is most functionally similar and altering the inputs
to mirror the inputs of a sonar sensory system; by imaging a sort of
visual picture comprised of sound waves rather than light waves.
This thought experiment clearly helps us to understand functionally
how a bat perceives via sonar, but it cannot tell us anything about
the qualia of the experience. To assume that sonar perception
actually causes bats to perceive in this imagined way requires that
the qualia of the two perceptual methods are essentially the same,
which they clearly are not; for example the bat is unlikely to be able
to perceive colour or even shade.
This unreasonable assumption is required because we lack any
experience of sonar perception upon which to base our imaginings.
We cannot imagine what it is like for a bat to be a bat by ’imagining
additions to my present experience or by imagining segments
gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of
additions, subtractions, and modifications’ (Nagel, 1974; pp.439) as
all of these methods are constrained by our own experience; none
of these methods enable us to go beyond these boundaries. Thus,
we can gather as much functional knowledge of what is to be a bat
as we like, but we can never gather experiential knowledge of what
is like to be a bat unless we were to somehow transform ourselves
into a bat and back again, an unlikely achievement.
The core of Nagels' argument against the physicalists is that
physicalism cannot account for the subjective character of
phenomenological features because ‘every subjective phenomenon
is essentially connected with a point of view’ (1974; pp.437). These
points of view necessarily cannot be explained in physical terms, as
they are non-physical personal interpretations of physical things or
events. Essentially, in order to know what it is like to be a bat, you
have to be a bat; such knowledge cannot be gained by any other
method. Nagel’s version of the AfK is particularly compelling
because it does not rest upon the privacy of experience to its
possessor, but rather upon the privacy of experience to a type of
creature with certain perceptual abilities. Thus these facts, those of
bat perception, are accessible from only one point of view, the bats,
and as such cannot be explained functionally but only subjectively;
‘what would be left of what it is like to be a bat if one removed the
viewpoint of a bat?’ (Nagel, 1974; pp.443).
A clearer but less detailed formulation of the AfK can be found
in Frank Jackson’s 1982. He introduces his version by asking us to
imagine a woman named Mary, writing ‘Mary is a brilliant scientist
who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a
black and white room via a black and white television monitor’
(Jackson, 1982; pp130). Mary has been able to gather all the
knowledge she can of the neurophysiology of vision, and knows all
of the physical information there is that has anything to do with
sight. She knows, for example, ‘just which wave-length
combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this
produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the
vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the
uttering of the sentence 'The sky is blue'’ (Jackson, 1982; pp. 130).
However, she has never actually seen blue sky, as she is trapped in
a black and white world.
The question is whether or not Mary will learn anything new if
she is released from her monochrome existence into the colourful
world and sees blue sky for the first time. If the answer is yes it
entails that her previous knowledge was incomplete, and thus that
there must be non-physical facts that can only be learned through
experience, and physicalism is false. The physicalist counter-
arguments to the AfK do not deny that Mary has a new experience
when released; they deny that such experiences can be considered
as factual, or propositional knowledge. If it can be shown that Mary
gains no new factual knowledge, the AfK is rendered ineffective and
physicalism is vindicated. This essay shall consider one of strongest
arguments to that effect, a conjunction of the functionalist
arguments explicated by Earl Conee (1994), David Lewis (1983,
taken from Nida-Rumelin, 2002) and Michael Tye (1986).
Conee (1994) argues that rather than gaining new factual
knowledge about colour, Mary merely becomes more directly
acquainted with the phenomenon of colour, as ‘experiencing a
quality is the most direct way to apprehend a quality’. That Mary
was not directly acquainted with colours during her captivity does
not entail that she lacked any kind of knowledge, it just entails that
she must have had to gain her complete knowledge of colours
through a medium other than her sight. Conee sums up his
argument well when he writes, ‘for instance, we who know how red
things look can, while neither seeing nor imagining red, have the
thought that some experiences are phenomenally red. This thought
does not then seem as it does when we have the same thought
while attending to phenomenal redness in experience. During the
latter thinking, the thought appears to be much more… colourful.’
(pp.148), that the latter thought appears much more colourful does
not imply that it is a different thought, it merely entails that it is a
more direct thought.
Lewis argues a very similar point but from a different angle;
coming to know ‘what it is like’ is merely the acquisition of a set of
abilities, such as abilities to recognise, remember and to imagine
the objects of the knowledge (Nida-Rumelin, 2002). This is clearly a
functionalist viewpoint, as it is heavily based in the assumption that
our mental representations of colour only exist to serve a function,
that of the ability to differentiate between colours. Whilst Nida-
Rumelin (2002) argues that ‘the following remarks by Levin are hard
to deny:
‘…it would be perverse to claim that bare experience can provide us
only with practical abilities…. By being shown an unfamiliar colour, I
acquire information about its similarities and compatibilities with
other colours, and its effects on other mental states: surely I seem
to be acquiring certain facts about colour and the visual experience
of it. (Levin (1986), p.246)’’
the examples of new information he gives here can all be reduced to
facts that could be learnt without ever being shown the colour. This
passage highlights the idea that the viewing of a colour is merely a
way of acquiring knowledge by another means rather than a way of
acquiring new knowledge, which serves to undermine the argument
from knowledge further, the idea upon which Tye (1986) bases his
counter-argument to the AfK.
Tye (1986) argues against the AfK by differentiating between
the discovery of a new fact and the discovery of what a new
experience is like. He uses the example of a man who discovers how
to balance a pencil on the end of his nose, arguing that whilst the
man clearly discovers something, what he discovers cannot be
described as a fact. To frame Tye’s objection in terms of Mary, he
argues that Mary merely discovers what the token and type of
colour experiences are like, thus only acquiring a new way of
knowing certain facts she already knew by other means, in this case
introspection. Tye is quick to clarify that he does not believe that
discovery of such new methods of acquiring knowledge never
involve a factual discovery, merely that the former do ‘not require
for their truth that a new fact be discovered’ (pp.16). He goes on to
provide a sound argument in favour of functionalism, supposing that
a being has created a world just like ours, but has not yet decided
what it will be like for the humans in this world to see colours. He
has thus dealt with all the physical facts, and only now has to deal
with experiential facts. However, having dealt with all the physical
facts means that the experiential facts are entailed, and thus the
being cannot nor needs to decide what the experience will be like,
as it is a purely functional phenomenon.
Together these three arguments provide a comprehensive
view of the ways in which it can be argued the Mary does not learn
any new non-physical facts after being liberated. They are all
reasonable arguments, as none of them deny that Mary does learn
something, which is obviously true. However, they are not
successful in vindicating physicalism. They all are founded in the
fact that qualia cannot be fully expressed propositionally, i.e. that is
not possible to fully express the token of a quale in words. This does
not entail that they cannot be considered as or be reduced to facts,
and thus these counter-arguments do not show that there are no
non-physical facts. Furthermore, they serve to highlight the non-
physical nature of such facts, because unlike physical facts that
have only one interpretation, they can be interpreted in a number of
different ways.
Upon her release, Mary does become more directly acquainted
with the phenomena of colour, she does acquire a new set of
abilities to recognise, remember and imagine colours, and she does
discover what seeing colours is like. However, none of this entails
that she does not learn non-physical facts about colour, nor does
the fact that she cannot fully verbally explicate the new facts she
learns. Thus, although there are several reasonable arguments that
such non-physical facts do not necessarily exist, none of these
arguments come close to establishing that they do not exist; they
merely try to avoid the necessity of postulating the existence of
non-physical facts by attempting to define the knowledge gained as
non-factual rather than non-physical. To conclude, the Argument
from Knowledge is a strong argument against physicalism. It shows
that there are many facts that cannot be known without being
directly perceived, facts that cannot be expressed in physical terms
and thus cannot be captured in the physicalist’s net.

Conee, E. (1994). ‘Phenomenal Knowledge.’ Australasian Journal of
Philosophy, 72, pp. 136-150.
Jackson, F. (1982). ‘Epiphenomenal Qualia.’ The Philosophical
Quarterly, 32(127), pp. 127-136.
Nagel, T. (1974). ‘What is it like to be a Bat?’ The Philosophical
Review, 83(4), pp. 435-450.
Nida-Rumelin, M. (2002). ‘Qualia: The Knowledge Argument.’ The
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Stoljar, D. (2001). ‘Physicalism’. The Stanford Encyclopedia of
Tye, M. (1986).‘The Subjective Qualities of Experience.’ Mind,
95(377), pp.1-17.
Citations taken from Nida-Rumelin:
Levin, J. (1986). ‘Could Love be like a Heat Wave?: Physicalism and
the Subjective Character of Experience’. Philosophical Studies, 49,
pp. 245-261.
Lewis, D. (1983). Postscript to ‘Mad Pain and Martian Pain’, In
Philosophical Papers, Vol.1. Oxford University Press.