Inside the Mind of Frank Jackson: Part I

The Philosopher’s Stoned

In this regular column, Anthony Merlino seeks to capture the unique perspective of a different ANU philosopher each fortnight. In doing so, the column will act as a bridge between the School of Philosophy and the ANU student body.

IMG_4085 (1)Underneath the grey sky overshadowing the Coombs Building, perched in a wooden armchair sat Professor Frank Jackson. Darting across his computer screen was the word of the day: verisimilitude. In philosophy this word is taken to mean, most often, ‘closeness to the truth’. When a theory is inadequate, it is important to uncover the extent to which it is false. In many ways, this word encapsulates a central tenet of Jackson’s approach to philosophy; at every moment, he pauses to comprehend how close to the truth he actually is.

It is 1968, and Frank Jackson is zipping through traffic on a Honda 90 motorcycle, heading from his home in East Melbourne towards his first continuing position at La Trobe University. Having recently finished his one-year lectureship at Adelaide University, Jackson stepped into a thriving intellectual community. His time at La Trobe was marked, in particular, by the tumultuous political climate of the Vietnam War. For academic staff, this meant ‘teach ins’ at lunchtime ‘where spokespeople would present arguments for and against the Vietnam War.’ Ten years later, in 1978, Jackson accepted a chair at Monash University. Afterwards, he moved to the Australian National University, where he currently resides as Emeritus Professor.

After completing secondary studies, Jackson undertook a science degree at Melbourne University, where he primarily studied Mathematics. At home, however, his parents were philosophers. The more philosophical discussions he heard around the dinner-table – often heightened by visiting philosophers – the more he realised that philosophy tackled ‘especially important issues.’ Specifically, Jackson cites his ‘parents, and other students at university, and the lure of philosophy’ as factors that naturally pushed him towards completing his Honours in philosophy. It was from this milieu that Jackson’s career leapt.

Incidentally, Jackson also alludes to a subtler influence that sculpted his approach to philosophy. Whilst he studied at Melbourne University, the eminent philosopher David Armstrong taught in the philosophy department. He was, as Jackson retells, ‘charismatic, and a very good lecturer’ who was ‘very keen to promote the idea of physicalism, which he did very effectively.’ Physicalism, primarily, attempts to provide an account of the mind ‘with a relatively small number of ingredients’ from the physical sciences: biology, physics, neuroscience, and so on. Physicalists argue that these ingredients, and the laws governing these ingredients, provide a complete understanding of the mind. That is, the mind is completely physical. At the time, physicalism was ‘very controversial’ in the realm of academia. As a student, Jackson found it enthralling to be caught amongst this fervent exchange of ideas. Despite Armstrong’s vigour, however, Jackson resisted this ‘austere’ view of the mind.

H.G Wells’ short story, The Country of the Blind, follows a man who has the rare gift of sight in an isolated community of people who cannot see. It was this story that inspired Jackson to write his most famous thought experiment, ‘The Knowledge Argument’. The argument, originally published in Epiphenomenal Qualia, was based on a lunchtime lecture given to the Monash Psychology Department in support of the ‘dualist’ theory of mind. The thought experiment, essentially, seeks to highlight the phenomenal nature of sensory experience that physicalism cannot account for.

Mary has learnt every fact of the physical sciences – including the causal, relational and functional roles of the physical facts. Since birth, she has worn black-and-white goggles. It seems that, although Mary knows all of the physical facts, when she removes the goggles and sees colour for the first time, she will learn something new.

When published, this thought experiment elicited a huge response, and Jackson ascended to academic superstardom. Interestingly, Jackson never expected this reception: ‘I hoped people would read it of course; but I thought the basic point was clear enough without the thought experiment.’ Reflecting on this now, Jackson acknowledges the thought experiment crystallises the big issue facing physicalism: ‘Physicalists typically think of mental states as defined by their physical roles that can be accounted for by neuroscience and evolutionary biology.’ The issue with physicalism is ‘there is some sort of first person access to one’s own mental states that has a phenomenal nature that outruns all the talk of functional roles and states of the brain.’ The thought experiment vividly illuminates the intuition that phenomenal mental states, such as seeing colour, can not be sufficiently accounted for in the physicalist picture.

Since then, Jackson has returned on his argument, and now resides in the physicalist camp. In his original article, Jackson argued that mental states are causal by-products of physical occurrences – the epiphenomenalist view. But, following rumination, Jackson conceded that mental states, particularly phenomenal mental states, play a causal role. Having accepted this, therefore, he had ‘to be some kind of physicalist.’ Like Armstrong, Jackson ultimately accepted that physicalism was closer to the truth than the intuition underlying dualism.

Throughout Jackson’s prolific career, his beliefs have been mercurial. Even now, Jackson admits his current convictions may not hold. Regardless, Jackson’s ultimate aim, from the beginning, was to find a theory of the mind close to the truth. It this constant reflection, and struggle with verisimilitude, that makes him a truly influential force in philosophy.