The Unknowability of Knowing: What Qualia Can Tell Us About the Arts

When my eleventh grade English class had finished reading Plainsong by Keith Haruf, our teacher asked us what we thought of it. It was fine, I said. It didn’t change my life. 

The teacher found this amusing and immediately wanted to know what books had changed my life. I was stumped, which he took as proof of my grandiosity. But that wasn’t the case. I knew what books had changed my life as soon as he asked. The trouble was, I couldn’t explain the quantifiable change these books had created in my life. I knew that he wanted a cause and effect answer: I read The Bell Jar and I started therapy, I read To Kill a Mockingbird and started protesting for civil rights, I read Hamlet and I killed my uncle, etc. Those are certainly all legitimate life changes, but the effect that my most beloved books had had on my life were less easily quantifiable. Those books were important to me because I felt an emotional connection to them, a connection that was subjective and intangible. The effect was real, but inexplicable. 

So what if the human experience of art can be explained through the Mary’s Room Experiment?

Mary’s Room is a thought experiment created by Frank Jackson in 1982. He described the situation as follows:

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. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like “red”, “blue”, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence “The sky is blue”. … What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?

Essentially, Mary knows all the physical details of color vision, but has never experienced it. Will the experience of seeing color give her fresh knowledge? Will she learn something new? 

Jackson contends that she would. He suggests that just knowing the facts of color would not prepare Mary to experience it and that she could in no way expect or anticipate that experience. He contends that she would be surprised—and shock is the result of receiving new information, not old hat. 

…just knowing the facts of color would not prepare Mary to experience it.

That Mary would gain new information from experience, despite knowing all the facts of color, overturns Physicalism, or the belief that all of human experience can be explained in physical terms. Jackson refuted Physicalism, writing, It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then it is inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.

The incompleteness of Physicalism, therefore, implies a non-physical knowledge. Jackson called this knowledge “Qualia”, or individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. Knowing that light waves are interpreted by cone receptors is physical knowledge, or quanta, while seeing red is qualia. In other words, quanta says that I am human, while qualia says that I am a person. 

Now we come back to my books. 

It seems to me that there is no good reason why the Mary’s Room discussion should be limited to the example of color. Isn’t your knowledge of love, your knowledge of hormones and marriage laws, incomplete if you’ve never fallen in love? Doesn’t your knowledge of the cubist revolution and the chemical make-up of paint pale when you stand in front of Guernica? Is your knowledge of Shakespeare complete because you can recite his biography? Do you understand music by reading notes? If you mapped every neural-pathway in my brain, would you know what it’s like to be me?

…quanta says that I am human, while qualia says that I am a person. 

Art, literature, music, these are all framed as enrichments to life. Science and math are supposed to prove the universal physical truths of the human experience and improve the physical human condition. These are noble pursuits. However, that is only half of what it means to be human. The arts create those experiences that are necessary to completing our knowledge. Quanta alone cannot bring us understanding, yet the idea still remains that vague emotional experiences are not as intellectual or valid as cold, hard physicalism. 

This was the problem I was faced with in English class. I knew that the books that had increased my emotional knowledge, that they had produced in me an intimate and individual qualia, but I could not explain that understanding in terms of quanta. 

And how can we explain qualia? We know that a person who experiences art in a meaningful way is different afterwards, but we cannot prove it. We can quiz them on the shapes they saw, the artist’s name, the history of the painting, the colors used—but we cannot hope to articulate or prove their subjective experience. 

…we cannot hope to articulate or prove… subjective experience. 

This is the issue with qualia—its subjectivity. Much of quanta is general. Most humans have beating hearts, opposable thumbs, don’t lay eggs, etc. There are some completely individual aspects of quanta, like fingerprints, DNA, bellybuttons, but these are the exception to the rule. Most quanta is shared by the majority of a given group. Qualia, however, is necessarily individual. No one has the same emotional experience with a piece of art as somebody else and even if they did, there’d be no way to compare. 

This is why the arts are important. They allow us to experience catharsis. Science can prove we exist, but the arts help us bear existence. Not even psychology, arguably the most personal and subjective field of science, can scratch the surface of qualia. It is one thing to know the symptoms of OCD, it is still another thing to see your loved one’s bleeding hands. No knowledge is complete without experience, and no humanity is complete without emotion. In fact, the answer to the Mary’s Room experiment is probably that after so many years of deprivation, not just of color, but of any experience outside her own room, Mary would be too raving insane to care about red. 

Qualia and quanta are both important aspects of the human experience. With qualia we are mad and alone, without quanta we don’t exist. However, the qualia of art validates its place in our world as both essential and innate. Art is no less vital or… well, scientific than science is. One is subjective, one objective; one is individual, one general; one is physical, one metaphysical; and yet they both exist in our world and in ourselves. We are not Mary. We have a shot at complete knowledge. Let’s not throw it away.