Sunday, December 05, 2021

"Mary's Room"

Over the last weeks, I've thought frequently about a thought experiment called "Mary's Room," attributed to Frank Jackson. It's an illustration of the "knowledge argument." Basically, an imaginary Mary is a brilliant scientist who lives in a completely black-and-white room, one that she has never left in her life. She has all of the scientific knowledge of color and the spectrum of light and how the human eye captures and translates color to the brain. She knows how and why the brain "sees" red and green and blue and all of the other colors. Still, she has never experienced seeing color. Frank Jackson finishes his hypothetical scenario by posing the question: what happens when Mary goes outside into the colorful world? Does her experience of seeing color enhance her knowledge? Has she learned anything new? Or does the reality of color merely reinforce and affirm her prior knowledge, adding nothing to her prior understanding?

I believe Mary experiences new knowledge through experience. I think her abstract understanding of color and light only provides scaffolding for the less-quantifiable experience of color. These are "qualia," the non-physical components of knowledge that can only be learned through experience.

I first encountered Mary's Room after a long stretch of thinking about empathy and experience as vital components of human community. Some of the most comforting assurances I've received from others about a range of experience: parenthood, marriage, grief, etc. have come from people who have experienced the phenomena they're talking about. For instance, when my dad died, a friend of mine offered to talk (or not talk) about anything or nothing and provide a space where grief wasn't a present part of our discussions and activities. He had lost his own mother a few years before, and knew from experience that the grieving are often the hub of a wheel of grief with as many spokes as there are well-meaning friends offering condolences. He shared further that part of his epiphany about giving space and offering windows away from that ever-present grief came while he was in divinity school. He felt like the loss of his mom provided his fellow students with a learning lab to try out pastoral counseling and comforting, academic explanations of the experience of grief and meaning. At that point, the abstraction of a friend or acquaintance experiencing grief provided the chance for practical application--a laboratory for applying non-experiential knowledge. In my friend's experience, it was exhausting, a steady offering of pat answers and platitudinous, hollow assurances of the ultimate justice of God's creation. It was Mary's confident articulation of the reality of color without the grounding of her experience of color.

I learned from him and from my own experience navigating the grief at my dad's death. I can't and don't articulate a lot of the rote responses I grew up hearing: "God is good all the time" being chief among them. While abstractly and contextually true, I feel like those kinds of sentiments too often land as "Stop your grieving right now and move on." It's never intended that way, but the conflict between the abstraction and experience too often steals the grace from the sentiment. I find that people who have experienced that kind of grief themselves are slower to offer such ideas.

I've known for years that cancer would most likely take Allison from us. I tried to avoid imagining what life without her would be like, but I still wondered. I know academically and scientifically about grief and how it affects most people. I know Allison is loved, and that people would rally to all of us when Allison passed away. The reality of each and every component of the experience: having to share the news with family and friends, the acute physical pain of loss, the sleep disruption, the anger, the confusion, and the paradoxical joy and misery of seeing and hearing from so many loved ones constitute an experiential knowledge, a collection of qualia that together transcend whatever preparation and knowledge I might have had before. I imagine Mary being awed and overwhelmed and startled by the reality of the colors she encountered. How could she not be?

Today is one month since Allison died. This blog has been a place for sharing the full range of emotions and experiences we've navigated since becoming parents. We decided together not to chronicle the roller coaster of Allison's metastatic diagnosis and treatment here. Our writing has been more private for the last few years, or we've written in other places for other audiences instead.

I feel different now (at least as I feel led today). I want to make this a regular place for sharing and reflection again. It's now my intent to write here at least once a month, and to allow the subject matter and content to come naturally to me, as Mary's Room has today. 

Two values have especially guided the way Allison and I have traveled the last few years: 1) finding time every day to be grateful for the provisions and blessings of our lives, even when they seemed slight when contrasted with larger fears and concerns, and 2) being honest, even when it means being honest with Lauren, Evan, and Tobin about incurable metastatic disease and the reality of death and loss. It is my hope, today and every day, that I can continue to uphold those values, even when it's difficult to do so.

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