Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Subject matter of science

I just finished reading Daniel Stoljar's "Physicalism" and David Chalmers' "The Character of Consciousness." Putting these two books together, here's my current impression of the state of consciousness studies. Chalmers' point always seems to be "Why is it accompanied by experience?" That is, he relentlessly asks why any theory should entail the presence of experience. This is a strong charge and almost forces us to consider experience to be fundamental. Galen Strawson, as we previously have seen, approximately follows this line, embraces panpsychism, and launches a broadside on emergence.

Stoljar's approach is more subtle and is the one that appeals to me. His book - distilled into a few lines - makes the claim that we don't have to abandon physicalism for the simple reason that physicalism has never been tried! There is no present theory that is worthy of the name. Why does he claim this? At the risk of distorting the technical contributions in the book, this is due to the fact that present day physics is so far removed from our daily experience that it becomes impossible to rule out fantastical entities - angels and ectoplasm for instance - while accounting for everything else.

Stoljar's characterization of physicalism gives us an avenue to proceed. The steps needed to build a new physicalism that can accommodate experience are: i) Tease out the fundamental characteristics of experience and work out the minimal requirements for a physicalism to entail experience. ii) Go underneath present day physicalism and build a new theory that can accommodate the requirements of (i). Obviously a tall order but if we don't do this, we'll be stuck with radical emergence, panpsychism and idealism which are all unappealing.

While both steps outlined above are challenging, the first step seems to be much more daunting than the second. After all, once we know what entails experience, we should be able to modify present day physics to account for it. Now, I obviously don't have a proof that the idea presented below is the only way to proceed, but it is offered as a possible approach.

The new idea that is very appealing to me at the moment is to consider subjects of experience to be fundamental physical entities. That is, instead of making experience fundamental, I wish to make subjects fundamental. This obviously raises the specter of idealism, but as long as the subjects of experience are i) many and not necessarily just one, and ii) momentary in the sense that they can pop in and out of spacetime, I think the threat of idealism is diminished. With fundamental subjects included in the physicalist base, we can answer Chalmers' question: Why is it accompanied by experience? Answer: "It is accompanied by experience because it is accompanied by experience." Unpacking this answer, for us, subjects are its and accompanied by experience. The immediate question then is: What about objects? For us, objects like fermions and bosons are no longer fundamental and become something more akin to computational entities. In other words, we (when we are a we) are subjects in a computational universe. But what is the universe computing? That will have to be another blog entry.

Why should a subject be accompanied by experience? That depends on how the word "subject" is unpacked. I believe that we can make progress by defining subjects in such a way that it becomes obvious that they are carriers of experience. And by eliminating all objects from the category of fundamental entities, we do not run the risk of objects being carriers of experience. We will later elaborate on this basic theme.