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Mary’s Knowledge Acquisition Essay

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Updated: Nov 2nd, 2019

Mary is unique because she grew up in a laboratory-like atmosphere. She was confined in a room that has no colors. It was all black-and-white for her. This includes not only the environment but also her education. She was educated using black-and-white materials only, no color was allowed to enter her dreary world.

The moment of truth came when she was finally allowed to leave her black-and-white room, and in the outside world she saw a plump ripe red tomato. It was her first time to see one but back in her black-and-white world she was taught that a ripe tomato is red. The question that confounds resesearchers is this: Did she learn new facts or is it merely the acquisition of a new ability to imagine?


A lady confined in a room all by herself is a strange thing unless she was imprisoned since birth. However, this study is not interested to know why Mary was forced to be in a situation that seems inhumane at first glance.

It has to be made clear that aside from the extreme seclusion that she had to go through, Mary was never given a mirror and she was in a sterile environment that prevented her from injuring herself such as being bruised or cut. If this is part of a human experiment then the authorities had to be contacted to put an end to this madness. Another way to deal with it is to go along with the discussion.

Pretend for instance that there is nothing wrong with this picture and the most important thing is that scientists and psychologists are given the opportunity to study how a human being the process of learning.

The question raised earlier can only be answered with a clear understanding of physicalism and how a person learns or acquire knowledge.

An assertion was made that if physicalism is true then Mary need not leave her prison cell or laboratory in order to know that a ripe tomato has a color and not just black-and-white. It seems to sugggest that physicalism is the phenomonon of knowng something based on the power of suggestion or teaching. Thus, if someone says that a delectable banana when ripe manifests a yellow color then automatically the mind can see the ripe banana in all its glory as a beautiful yellow fruit.

Knowledge Acquisition

Based on the case study there is proof to discredit the claim of physicalists. They contended that everything that can be known about the physical world is achievable through teaching and this includes teaching students using abstact concepts. For instance the color red can be taught. But in the experience of Mary, she had no idea about the concept of “red” as a color. It was her first time to see a ripe tomato, it was her first time to know that the sky is blue etc.

If physicalism is based on the idea that knowledge acquisition about the world and everything it contains can be achieved by simply understanding the three-dimensional attributes of an object then this theory is severely limited. The counter-argument to physicalism is easily rendered in the contention that not everythig can be learned by reading and listening to lectures. There are many things in this world that has to be experienced in order to be understood and appreciated in its totality.

This simply means that knowledge acquisition is not only done in the abstract realms but also in the sensory level. There are things that has to be processed by the five sense in order to be imbibed and made part of the conscious mind. Physicalism as a theory has to be modified to include the other facets of the physical world.

It is not just about shapes and sizes but also about color, texture, and even movement. A car can be perfectly described by a gifted speaker and Mary could listen to a speech about cars and leave the room with the full conviction that she knows more about cars than the average person.

Mary can walk out of that room with the confidence of a scholar convinced that everthing that can be studied about cars was already covered in the lecture. All of a sudden Mary is led outside the courtyard and right before her eyes is a gleaming red sports car with a galloping horse logo on the hood.

She is invited to ride with a race car driver and as a passenger she was taught the use of a seatbelt and instructed to sit back and enjoy the ride. The engine was fired up and in a few seconds the car went from zero acceleration to 60 miles per hour. Mary was convinced that there is more about cars than what she read in a magazine.

Physicalism versus Sensory Perception

Based on the idea of physicalism it has to be assumed that color and other attributes that can be observed in the physical world are excluded in the knowledge acquisition process. Thus, this is the main weakness of physicalism because it does not include the reality of sensory perception.

It makes one wonder why color is not part of the physical feature of an object. If this was included in the theory of physicalism then Mary’s knowledge acquisiotion experience, while she was confined in the black-and-white room should have been judged as imperfect and incomplete.

In other words the researchers should have immediately discovered the flaw in their methodology because it is not possible to teach someone about the truth concerning an object without allowing her senses to become a part of the learning process. The abstact terms that were thrown at her was inadequate for Mary to have a clear and complete grasp of what a ripe tomato means.

Her teachers could have used all the teaching techniques available to man and indoctrinate her about the wonderful qualities of a tomato but if she was never given the chance to hold one in her hands, to touch it, smell it, and finally to taste it then her learning experience is incomplete. It should not be a surprise for researchers to realize that her idea of what comprises a ripe tomato is different or lacking in details when compared to other people’s knowledge level regarding the said fruit.

A more complicated way to deal with this issue is to assess it using Leibniz’s Law. According to this law, two identical things posses the same qualities. Using this argument, sensations and the knowledge gleaned from using it is very much different from the knowledge acquired using mental cognition. It leads back to the argument that merely describing an object is an incomplete step towards total understanding and complete appreciation of the thing described.

It is therefore easy to make the conclusion that Mary learned something new. It was not a technique of imagining things. She could not imagine something that she is ignorant of. For instance, a student can be taught to imagine riding an airplane. Now, it is not important for a student to have had an experience riding airplanes.

But at least he or she has a similar experience such as riding a bus. But more importantly this student should have an acceptable knowledge base about airplanes and how it functions. For example the child had seen a real airplane flying on air. He or she could have had an experience watching an airplane take off on TV and at the same time saw some footages of what it was like inside the cabin.

The feeling and idea of riding an airplane can therefore be imagined without a prior experience. But a zero knowledge of related information makes it impossible for a student to imagine what it means to ride an airplane. More importantly the basic knowledge required must include knowledge gained trhough the use of the senses.

The same thing can be said of Mary. No matter how hard the teachers tried to teach her about the concept of “red” as a color, that it is diferent from yellow, blue, orange, and green, then nothing will register. For Mary, color is an abstract concept that is like a variable wherein one can associate different values. She can imagine color but only as far as the scale of black and white because this is the limit of her knowledge when it comes to the physical world. In fact, her mind was conditioned to think that everything comes in black and white.


Mary learned something new. She was able to acquire new facts. Her undestanding of a tomato was limited and so when she came out of her black-and-white room, her knowledge about a red tomato was upgraded.

Before there was no color but now she can distinguish that in the phsycial realm, living and non-living things are imbued with color. This is a dramatic proof that learning is not limited to imbibing facts about an object or a phenomenon but it also requires the learner to experience it using the sense of smell, touch, sight, hearing, and taste.

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"Mary's Knowledge Acquisition." IvyPanda, 2 Nov. 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/mary-learns/.

1. IvyPanda. "Mary's Knowledge Acquisition." November 2, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/mary-learns/.


IvyPanda. "Mary's Knowledge Acquisition." November 2, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/mary-learns/.


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IvyPanda. (2019) 'Mary's Knowledge Acquisition'. 2 November.

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