Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Does physicalism entail panpsychism?

Galen Strawson asks "Does physicalism entail panpsychism?" and answers in the affirmative. I don't think so. I used to think that it does but have since changed my mind. I'll explain why.

The problem of experience is one of the most challenging problems facing science and philosophy today. How does our first person experience - our qualia - relate to the physical world? It is a serious problem for physicalism - the view that everything is physical. And different approaches such as idealism, mysticism, emergence, and dualism do not help  since they have to first come to terms with the stunning effectiveness of physicalism.

I've always liked Galen Strawson. For a philosopher with his pedigree, his writing is amazingly accessible. If you're interested in the mind-body problem, read everything he writes. Strawson begins by arguing that everything is physical. This means that your first person experience is physical. This has unexpected consequences. If you accept that experience exists and must be explained, and not explained away as philosophers like Daniel Dennett are wont to do, you have to relate experience to the physical. Since, in this physicalist view, you are nothing but an arrangement of physical "stuff", it follows that an arrangement of physical stuff has experience - or has an interiority with events happening in the interior. Strawson follows this particular rabbit hole as far as it goes, and after rejecting radical emergence - the doctrine that experience emerges from the physical only at a certain level of complexity - he is forced to accept the conclusion that experience is a fundamental aspect of nature. That is, nature has an interior aspect which is fundamental. Panpsychism - the theory that fundamental constituents of nature have experiential aspects or properties - looms.

In a previous blog entry, I explained how Daniel Stoljar cleverly avoids panpsychism by appealing to our ignorance of the true physical. His argument essentially is that, even if our present physicalism - call it physicalism A - cannot accommodate experience, there is no reason why a new physicalism - call it physicalism E - cannot accommodate experience. Since this issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies has reviews and responses to Strawson's target article, I wanted to see Stoljar's criticism of Strawson and his response. Their exchange is disappointing. Stoljar argues that Strawson's belief that "there is no non-experiential fact n such that it is intrinsically suitable to wholly yield the experiential fact" [my edit] is wrong. Strawson accepts Stoljar's point but counters with "I will not be greatly troubled, for until more is said it amounts to simply dismissing of the considerations brought in favor of the intuition that the experiential cannot emerge from the non-experiential". What he means is that Stoljar cannot give a positive account at the present time of how a new physicalism can accommodate experience and since such an account is unavailable at the present time, one should accept that the "experiential cannot emerge from the non-experiential." And let's leave it at that for now.


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  2. I prefer to avoid the confusing term "physical" altogether: