THE KNOWLEDGE ARGUMENT: A RESPONSE TO ELIZABETH SCHIER
(Article originally published in 2008 Journal of Consciousness Studies 15(4), 112-115: journal web page: http://www.imprint.co.uk/jcs.html)
I much appreciated Elizabeth Schier’s paper on Frank Jackson’s knowledge argument, published in the January 2008 issue of Journal of Consciousness Studies (Schier 2008) – in part, I confess, because of resonances with my gestalt argument for free will (Hodgson 2001, 2002, 2005, 2007a, 2007b). I would like to offer two comments on this paper.
I think the distinction drawn by Schier between representations that are fragmented and representations that are integrated is an important one, but I think she misplaces the precise correlation of this distinction with what may properly be called scientific representations.
I suggest that the distinguishing characteristic of scientific representations is that they can be elements of scientific hypotheses; that is, of hypotheses capable of being subjected to repeated testing. In order that hypotheses may be capable of being subjected to repeated testing, they must be expressed in terms of some generality, so that they can apply in classes of situations. That is, they must express or reflect rules associating types or classes of features and/or mathematical variables. Another way of saying much the same thing is to say that science is concerned with laws or rules about how the world works.
It may be reasonable to think that basic laws of nature deal with fragmented features of reality, such as energy, mass, electric charge, and so on, or with representations of them. But this does not mean that science, or the laws or rules with which science may be concerned, is limited to dealing with these fragmented features. Plainly, there may be other general laws or rules that can be derived from rules concerning fragmented features; and there may also be other general laws or rules arising from the unfolding of the world in accordance with laws of nature, for example laws or rules that develop by reason of evolutionary selection.
I find John Conway’s Game of Life very useful in thinking about issues such as these. Its basic rules deal with highly fragmented features:
Life occurs on a virtual [and potentially infinite] checkerboard. The squares are called cells. They are in one of two states: alive or dead. Each cell has eight possible neighbours, the cells of which touch its sides or corners.
If a cell on the checkerboard is alive, it will survive in the next time step (or generation) if there are either two or three neighbours also alive. It will die of overcrowding if there are more than three live neighbours, and it will die of exposure if there are fewer than two.
If a cell on the checkerboard is dead, it will remain dead unless exactly three of its eight neighbours are alive. In that case, the cell will be ‘born’ in the next generation (Levy 1993, 52).
However, there can be derived from these basic rules a rule that applies to an integrated feature, namely a five-square pattern called a glider; and this rule is that a glider will continually move diagonally across the checkerboard, progressing by one cell every four generations, unless it encounters any other live cells. Although the glider is an integrated feature and a representation of a glider is an integrated representation, a glider nevertheless may be the subject of a scientific hypothesis, and a representation of a glider may be considered a scientific representation.
As an example of a general rule concerning an integrated feature that can develop by reason of evolution, it seems that a simple gestalt suggesting features of a human face is regularly and reliably responded to as such by human beings, because evolutionary selection has so constituted human beings that patterns of that kind regularly and reliably produce an interested response.
However, although some integrated representations can be scientific representations, I contend that most gestalts of our ordinary visual experiences cannot be scientific representations. Although these gestalts have constituent features that have the generality required to engage with laws or rules and thus to be elements of scientific hypotheses, the whole integrated gestalts are often unique, and they are generally too feature-rich to be capable of engaging, as wholes and in full detail, with general rules of any kind; and thus they are incapable of being elements of scientific hypotheses.
So my contention is that while the distinction drawn by Schier between representations that are fragmented and representations that are integrated is important, it does not exactly correspond with a distinction between representations that are scientific and representations that are not scientific. The former includes some integrated representations, albeit far from all of them.
A strong argument against strict physicalism
It appears that Schier has argued elsewhere that, despite her analysis of the knowledge argument, physicalism can nevertheless be true, because the non-scientific representations are still representations of physical facts. My second comment on her paper is that her analysis of the knowledge argument in fact tends to support a strong argument against strict physicalism.
One important component of physicalism is the view that everything that happens in the world has sufficient physical causes, and so can be given a complete physical explanation. This requires that events unfold in the world precisely as determined by prior circumstances and physical laws of nature, or at least randomly within probability parameters precisely determined by prior circumstances and physical laws of nature. That is, physicalism is inconsistent with there being any distinct contribution by conscious experiences, as such, to the determination of how events unfold.
Now if it is the case that individual visual representations are not scientific representations and cannot, as integrated wholes, be elements of scientific hypotheses or engage with general rules, one is left with stark alternatives: either these visual representations, as integrated wholes, play no part whatsoever in the unfolding of events (that is, they are ‘epiphenomenal’), or else they play a part that cannot be fully explained by scientific hypotheses and cannot be fully explained or determined by laws or rules of any kind.
My gestalt argument for free will, first fully developed in an article published in Journal of Consciousness Studies in 2002 (Hodgson 2002) and subsequently presented in various ways and in various publications (for example Hodgson 2007a, 2007b), gives strong reasons for rejecting the former alternative and accepting the latter. Schier’s distinctions can thus contribute to a strong argument against physicalism, because the outcome of any part played by the non-scientific representations of visual experiences, in determining what happens, could not be wholly determined by physical laws or by rules of any kind. The reasonable conclusion is that, although physical processes and physical laws play a large and indispensable role in determining how visual experiences and/or their neural correlates affect behaviour, there can also be contributions to behaviour from responses of conscious subjects to these experiences, contributions that are not random yet not wholly determined by physical processes and physical laws.
My own belief is that, when Mary first sees red, she learns something new, that is, how red looks or what it is like to see red. But even if it were the case that in this respect Mary only becomes acquainted with a new form of information that she already had, Schier’s argument shows that she must learn something new as regards those cases where the colour red is an element in a broader integrated visual experience, which cannot itself be an element of a scientific hypothesis or engage precisely with laws or rules. What Mary comes to know in those cases is the integrated gestalt of this experience, to which the experience of red makes an indispensable contribution.
And this analysis in turn, I suggest, tends to support a powerful argument against physicalism, and in support of free will.
Hodgson, D. (2001), ‘Constraint, empowerment and guidance: a conjectural classification of laws of nature’, Philosophy 76, 341-70.
Hodgson, D. (2002), ‘Three tricks of consciousness’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 9(12), 65-88.
Hodgson, D. (2005), ‘A plain person’s free will’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 12(1), 1-19.
Hodgson, D. (2007a), ‘Partly free’, Times Literary Supplement, July 6, 2007.
Hodgson, D. (2007b), ‘Making our own luck’, Ratio 20, 278-292.
Levy, S. (1993), Artificial Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin).
Schier, E.. (2008), ‘The knowledge argument and the inadequacy of scientific knowledge’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 15(1), 39-62.