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Ashley Benham Yazdani (ashleyyazdani.com)

What Is It Like to Know? 

Ari N. Schulman

If I asked you about art you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo — you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling.... You’re an orphan, right? Do you think I’d know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you?


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.