What Is It Like to Know?
So says Robin Williams, as a world-weary psychologist, to Matt Damon’s callow boy genius in the famous park bench scene from Good Will Hunting. Meant as a rebuke to the young man’s conceit, the speech also inadvertently describes one of the most important thought experiments in contemporary philosophy, an experiment that itself scolds a central conceit of modern intellectual life.
Dubbed the “knowledge argument,” the thought experiment was proposed by Australian philosopher Frank Jackson in a 1982 paper. It was posed as a challenge to physicalism, the school of thought that holds that the mind is purely material, made solely of the stuff of rocks and meat, fully explicable by physics and chemistry. Physicalists regard the common-sense view that the mind is special — whether because it’s self-aware, can think and feel, or has free will — as an illusion.
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Ari N. Schulman is a senior editor of The New Atlantis.
Ari N. Schulman, "What Is It Like to Know?," The New Atlantis, Number 51, Winter 2017, pp. 45–62.