[Note added later: A version of this argument was first discovered by Kahane.]
Consider the famous story of Mary, the neuroscientist raised in a monochrome environment who finally sees an instance of red. It has famously been argued that no matter how much science she knew before she saw red, she learned something new when she saw red, and hence there is something more to the mental life than what science says. I've always been rather sceptical of this line of argument: it just didn't seem to me that a fact was learned.
But I am now thinking--as a result of a social experience--that there is an interesting way to argue that at least in some cases like Mary's one is learning a fact when one experiences a new quale. To know the answer to a why-question is to know a fact. After all, the answer to a why-question encodes an explanation, and explanations are given by means of facts.
Now suppose that Mary instead of leading a monochrome life led a charmed life and never felt any pain. One day she stubs her toe. She learns something by stubbing her toe: what pain feels like. But again we ask: is there a fact that Mary has learned? Here then is an argument:
- By learning what pain feels like, Mary learned why pain is bad.
- One learns why something is the case only by learning a fact.
- So learning what pain feels like is learning a fact.
I give the pain version of the argument not because I find it very plausible, but because I think some readers will find it plausible. I myself am not inclined to think that pain is intrinsically bad, and the reasons why pain is extrinsically bad were available to Mary prior to her stubbing the toe (she knew that pain distracts people from worthwhile pursuits, that it tends to go against people's desires, etc.) But even if I am not convinced by the pain case, I find it pretty plausible that there will be some value-based case where by learning what a quale is like one learns the answer to a why-question. I find particularly plausible aesthetic versions of this. Here's a case where I've had the relevant aesthetic experience: "Why is dark chocolate gustatorily valuable? Because it tastes like that!" Here's one where I haven't. Being largely insensitive to music (more a matter of the brain than the ears, I think), I don't experience music like other people do, and so I don't know why Beethoven is a great composer, though I know on the testimony of others that he is a great composer. But there are possible experiences--namely, those that normal people receive upon listening to Beethoven--such that the what-it-is-like of these experiences answers the question of why Beethoven is a great composer.
Of course, these examples won't help a value-nihilist. But why would anyone be a value-nihilist? (A question with a hook.)