Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Physicalism and Experience

Daniel Stoljar in his book "Ignorance and Imagination: The Epistemic Origin of the Problem of Consciousness" argues that consciousness is logically supervenient on the physical, i.e. experiential facts can be "read off" from more basic physical facts and laws.

David Chalmers in his book, "The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory" argues that consciousness is not logically supervenient on the physical, i.e. experiential facts cannot be read off from more basic physical facts and laws.

On the surface, these two statements are contradictory and yet there are grounds for believing both. Obviously, there must be some ambiguity. And it turns out that the ambiguity is in the usage of the word "physical." Dave Chalmers has in mind our good ole third person physicalism with its third person facts and abstract laws. On the other hand, Daniel Stoljar has in mind something much more radical. His physicalism, if you can even call it such, is a physicalism that entails first, second and third person facts. He cleverly uses our own ignorance of the relationship between first person facts (experience) and third person facts (neuronal spike patterns, brain imaging, etc.) to posit that there must be a basic physicalism that we are not yet aware of. If we were, we would not have the problem of experience.

I used to believe after metabolizing Dave Chalmers [the book, not the person :-)], that experience was basic and that some form of panpsychism or dual aspect theory was true. That is, I believed that either experience was fundamental (panpsychism) or that nature itself had a fundamental division between interior and exterior (dual aspect). I read Wilber in "Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution" as upholding a dual aspect theory. Later when Gregg Rosenberg came out with his brilliant book "A Place for Consciousness: Probing the Deep Structure of the Natural World" which laid out a sophisticated, panexperientialist foundation for consciousness and causation, I thought that the problem of experience was solved - finally.

And then everything started to unravel. I started wondering why everyone assumed that physicalism meant third person physicalism, i.e. a physicalism with "objective" facts and laws with no room for "subjective" facts. Didn't this already assume a distinction between interior and exterior (dual aspect) and therefore leads to a circular argument where a basic distinction - interior versus exterior - is assumed, leading to a distinction between first person facts and third person facts? (Never mind the second person or the fourth person... for the moment.)

Daniel Stoljar came out with his ignorance hypothesis at just the right time for me. I had been mounting a defense against the "new physics mysterianism" of my colleagues for years. This is mentioned in Chalmers' book as a way to avoid his logical supervenience argument above. Misgivings started to mount when some of them would question the a priori commitment to a dual aspect theory.

if we do not a priori assume a distinction between interior and exterior, then physicalism ceases to be third person physicalism. In fact, it need not even be called physicalism. Better words might be naturalism,  truthism(?) etc.  Most people think third person physicalism when you mention the word physicalism and so the criticism - at the level of what word to choose to call this hypothetical theory - is very valid. Stoljar has tried to clarify some of the terminological issues in his new book "Physicalism" which I'll try and cover soon.

1 comment:

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