Qualia: looking through the eyes of Mary*

Qualia: The Sentience of Being
Qualia: The Sentience of Being

I’ve become something of a fan of Frankx Lefarve’s work over the last couple of years, and always look forward to his installations. They are invariably thought-provoking and beautiful in both design and execution.

This month, he is once more back at LEA18, the location for his last LEA piece, Insidious: the Spread of Ideas, which I reviewed here. Now, and open through until the end of the year, he brings us Qualia: The Sentience of Being, which takes as its basis Frank Jackson’s thought experiment, Mary’s Room.

Jackson, a philosopher best known for his primary focus of studying philosophy of mind, epistemology, metaphysics, and meta-ethics, offered Mary’s Room as a philosophical illustration of his argument against physicalism, the thesis that the universe is entirely “physical” in nature, consisting only of the kind of entities postulated by physics.

Qualia: The Sentience of Being
Qualia: The Sentience of Being

In Jackson’s experiment, Mary is a brilliant scientist forced to investigate the world from a black-and-white room. and via a black-and-white monitor. However, she is able to  acquire all the physical information she needs to understand the concepts of colour, and  the ability to comprehend the wavelength combinations from the sky which stimulate the eye and, in doing so, lead to the various nervous interactions which result in our uttering the phrase, “the sky is blue”, and so on. Thus, she has all the physical knowledge to understand the world beyond her monochromatic room, and to acknowledge the physical interactions that go on within it.  But is this really the sum total of the universe beyond her room, and in acquiring the physical knowledge, has she reached the fullest extent of her learning? Thus, Jackson asks:

What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a colour television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.

Qualia: The Sentience of Being
Qualia: The Sentience of Being

With Frankx’s piece, the visitor initially arrives in Mary’s room, beyond which lies a world of colour and movement, accessed by approaching one of four walls in the room, which will open automatically. Which wall you opt to open first is up to you; they are marked with various items: Buddha (which you face on arrival), clock, mosaic and lightning, but the order in which they are taken is not necessarily important. Be aware that the walls may be a tad slow in responding as you approach them.

Outside of each wall, set against the backdrop of the universe, are walkways, each of which leads to spaces, guarded by what might be called star gates through which you must pass to fully see see beyond them. In certain ways, these might be said to echo the discoveries Mary might have made following her exit from her observation space. Four example, in one, there are elements of red, perhaps signifying the ripening tomato Jackson mentions and, more subliminally in shape and colour, the heart, our engine of life; in others we see flashes of blues and yellows as we step into them, suggestive of the sky, and so on.

This is a deceptively complex piece, one slightly Bowman-esque in its leanings (Bowman as in, “My God, it’s full of stars!”) if handled correctly. The simplest route through the work is to travel back and forth from the black-and-white room, visiting each of the main segments in turn. However, there is another way, pointed-to in the introductory note card, and which I recommend.

Qualia: The Sentience of Being
Qualia: The Sentience of Being

There is a transparent path connecting each of the four main segments which leads one through the intervening geometric forms spaced in a circle between them. You may need to use CTRL-ALT-T at times to see the path (I recommend toggling on and off when needed; otherwise the red interferes with the installation). This will take you on an unfolding journey through the installation which may well lead to an entirely different perspective.

I have no idea if echoes of David Bowman’s journey through the star gate of 2001: A Space Odyssey is intentional or simply a case of my own projection onto the piece. However, it seemed to resonate with the overall theme of the work; that there is more to our universe than can be adequately explained by our understanding of the physical. Indeed, to go further, that our discovery of such other things – up to and including intelligences far superior to our own – might actually redefine our understanding of the “physical”,  just as in Jackson’s thought experiment, Mary’s experiences in the world of colour may have reshaped her perceptions.

Qualia: The Sentience of Being
Qualia: The Sentience of Being

Related Links

* With apologies to the Sutherland Brothers for the reworking of their lyric!

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