Mary is a brilliant scientist who specialises in colour. She knows everything about colour – the spectrum, wavelengths, properties of light, the mechanism of how human vision works… She knows exactly how a certain wavelength of light will excite the retina and what kind of electrical impulse it will send in the brain. However, Mary has never seen colour. She has lived all of her life in a black and white room and can only observe the world through a black and white TV screen. The question is: if Mary was to leave the room and see the colourful world for what it is, would she learn something new?
Considering that Mary already knows everything theoretical about colour, would her seeing colour change anything? Or is the experience of seeing a colour something that you cannot learn without actually experiencing it?
This was a thought experiment proposed by Frank Jackson to question the nature of knowledge. Is physical knowledge truly everything, or is there something more than that? In philosophy, there is a concept called qualia, which describes the subjective, qualitative properties of experiences. That is, experience is a unique type of knowledge that cannot be learnt without experiencing it first-hand.
A further expansion of this idea is the refutation of physicalism – the school of thought that argues that everything (including knowledge and the mind) is physical. The logic is that since Mary knew everything “physical” about colour before leaving the room, her learning “something’ (i.e. experience of colour) is a direct argument against all knowledge being physical, as she learnt something “new”.
Another way to look at it is this. Some things in life can only be learnt through experiencing it. It is not enough trying to learn about life and the world purely from stories and books. To truly learn everything, you must get out there and experience it yourself.
Humans have a tendency to think in a black-and-white manner, leading us to fall into the trap of the Nirvana fallacy. This is when one compares the real world to some perfect yet unrealistic alternative, causing reality to pale in comparison. Thus, it causes us to believe that many things are not worth doing as they are insignificant compared to this alternative.
For instance, the notion of the drop in the ocean means that we tend not to do altruistic things as we believe that it will not make much of a difference in fixing poverty or cure the world of cancer. Not only does the fallacy apply to how we see the world, but it affects day-to-day life too. People are so afraid of not being able to achieve an ideal, perfect future so ironically they do nothing. This is a major reason procrastination happens, as the person believes that if they do something now, it will be inefficient. They then plan for a perfect opportunity to start doing work, and a vicious cycle begins. Thanks to this way of thinking, people often miss out on a great job opportunity or a lovely girl or a chance to change their life just because it was not perfect and did not live up to their expectations.
In fact, people often fail to see the small steps and only see the big picture. So if someone tries to make an improvement (e.g. going on a diet), others will ridicule that person by saying that going to the gym every week is not going to turn you into an Adonis, ergo it is pointless.
The Nirvana fallacy is also useful in debates. One can create a false dichotomy (that is, a black-and-white argument) and compare someone’s argument to an unrealistic argument. When someone makes a suggestion, you can attack it by pointing out one flaw and show how it is clearly not a perfect solution (even better if you provide an example of the argument failing). This will automatically disintegrate their argument. For example, if someone proposes a new idea, you may point out how someone may abuse the new system or provide a case when a similar idea failed. However, be warned that this method can easily be rebutted with common sense, so one must use it in a convincing way and distract the audience from the fact that it is absolutely ridiculous.
(The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, click for larger image)