The Mary-Go-Round

CFS Lecture by Galen Strawson, Professor at the Department of Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin and Affiliated Professor in Philosophy at the Department of Media, Cognition and Communications, University of Copenhagen.


Physicalism is the view that [1] everything that concretely exists is wholly physical. The debate about Jackson’s Mary rotates round a mistake shared on both sides: the idea that endorsing [1] requires one to believe that [2] physics can in principle give a full or exhaustive characterization of the nature of everything that concretely exists.

Consider the adamantine truth that [3] on leaving the black and white room Mary learns something new about the nature of concrete reality (sc. her own conscious experience). On one side of the carousel [3] couples with [2] and [4] physics cannot characterize the nature of red-experience (colour experience in general) to produce the mistaken conclusion that [5] Mary raises an insoluble problem for physicalism. On the other side of the roundabout [2] couples with the endorsement of [1] to produce the mistaken conclusion that [3] is false—that Mary does not learn something new about concrete reality when she leaves the black and white room.

The solution is simple: give up [2], which is provably false. The argument that [2] is false develops [i] the Poincaré-Russell point that physics only gives knowledge of the structure of concrete reality and [ii] the connected Kantian/neo-Kantian point that when we consider physical reality we only ever have access to appearances. (Except in one case, the case of the experiential-qualitative character of our own conscious experience, which is itself wholly physical if physicalism is true.)