Russellian Physicalism

Chair: Rick Gawne, Western Michegan University

Presenter: Barbara Montero, The Graduate Center, CUNY

Barbara’s paper and (unnarrated) PowerPoint Slides


Commentator 1: Emmett Holman, George Mason University

Emmett’s paper


Commentator 2:  Daniel Stoljar, Australian National University

Daniel’s paper


  1. Thanks Daniel for your comments. Let me say a few words in reply.
    You bring up three arguments against the Via Negativa, but I’m not persuaded by them. The first is that the Via Negativa would count vitalism as physicalistic. But I think that it need not. I’ve argued in other work that physicalism should be thought of as false if and only if, roughly, there are no fundamental mental properties. But I also typically point out that this can be revised to accommodate whatever properties are thought to be antithetical to physicalism, such as normative properties and, if you take the vital to be nonmental, vital properties. (And in “Physicalism in an Infinitely Decomposable World” I revise this to take into account the possibility that there are no fundamental properties.) David’s paper made me realize that it might be wise to include on this list of properties that the physicalist rejects properties that, while not themselves mental at their most fundamental level, seem to have no other purpose but to form the dependence base for mentality.

    The second point you make is that one cannot formulate the identity theory given the Via Negativa. I’ve heard this said before, but I fail to see the problem. A physicalist identity theorist can say that pain is identical to c-fiber stimulation, given the Via Negativa, because all she is claiming (putting aside the complications mentioned above) is that pain, that is, c-fiber stimulation, is, at it’s most fundamental level, not mental. She never needs to say that something mental is not mental. Am I missing something?

    The last point you make is that a world with fundamental properties that are both mental and physical seems possible, or that, at least, this shouldn’t be ruled out as a matter of definition. But this seems to be the question at stake, namely, whether a fundamental physical property simply is a property that is a fundamental property that is not mental (or normative, etc.). So merely telling me that it is “certainly not impossible as a matter of definition” would seem to be begging the question.

    That said, I am sympathetic to your view that we should just drop the terms “physical” and “physicalism” altogether and simply state what we mean. Indeed, I think it is always good to state what you mean and then, if desired, also give a name, such as “physicalism,” to what it is that you mean. And besides, I think the Via Negativa can capture enough of the physicalist spirit—especially when the list of forbidden properties consists of ones that hint at a special pace for humans in the creation story—to make the name sit rather well.

    I’m also sympathetic to your ignorance hypothesis, which you lay out so deftly in your book. I think roughly that given physicalism, it is reasonable to hold that there is an explanation of the mental in physical terms, though we cannot now or perhaps ever fathom what this explanation could be, or even hold that there is no explanation at all. But I saw my project here as the much more modest one of simply showing how one can take Chalmers’ Russellian Monism and mold it into Russellian Physicalism.

    Finally, as for the hard problem, perhaps there is a sense in which our not currently having an explanation of how it is possible for creatures like us to be conscious is itself an explanation of the possibility of our consciousness. But I think that there is also another sense in which an appeal to ignorance in this way does not provide an explanation of the possibility of consciousness as it still leaves us asking, “but how?”

  2. Emmett, thank you for your comments. You make a number of useful distinctions and clarifications. I can see, for example, that although I didn’t mean to take inscrutables to be only those, as you put it, beyond-the-ken fundamental properties that ground consciousness, I didn’t make this clear. I also liked your discussion of the various ways inscrutables might turn up in one’s ontology.
    Emmett, along with Daniel, you take issue with my Via Negativa, questioning whether the mental/nonmental distinction is any better off than the physical/nonphysical one. I think that it is better off since I think that we at least have a pre-theoretical grasp of mental phenomena—beliefs, pains, emotions, and so on—and non-mental phenomena—rocks, tables, chairs, and what not—while we are at a loss, or at least I’ve argued elsewhere that we should be at a loss, to identify anything that would count as nonphysical (apart from how the nonphysical is understood given the Via Negativa). Yes, if panpsychism were true, everything would be in some sense mental but still I think a we would grasp the distinction between the mental and the nonmental since even if panpsychism were true we would still have an idea of, say, what a nonmental rock would be like. Moreover, even if you think that the mental/nonmental distinction is just as bad off as other physical/nonphysical distinctions, at least the via negativaist is only stuck with the mental/nonmental distinction, which is a distinction that everyone entering the debate of whether the mind is physical, save, perhaps for the eliminativists, already assumes. Others need to take on board a distinct physical/nonphysical distinction as well.
    As for whether Russellian panpsychism is more promising than Russellian physicalism, I merely meant to say that contra Block, Stoljar and others it is more promising in terms of solving the hard problem, if it were true. Yes, the subject combination problem is difficult, and I should have addressed this, but I would still say the problem of how to get mentality out of something that isn’t mental at all (and also not unified) is harder.

  3. Barbara,

    Thanks for your response to my comments. It gives me an opportunity to fine tune and elaborate upon my thoughts.

    You take issue with my claim that the mental-nonmental distinction isn’t much clearer than the physical-nonphysical distinction because you “think that we at least have a pre-theoretical grasp of mental phenomena…and nonmental phenomena…while we are at a loss, or at least [you have] argued elsewhere that we should be at a loss, to identify anything that would count as nonphysical (apart from how the non-physical is understood given the Via Negativa)”. Well, how about ghosts? Pre-theoretically one would think they would count as nonphysical. For that matter, how about some of the examples Dan gives in his comments? Of course, there aren’t any ghosts (I suspect we would all agree) and maybe there are none of the things Dan gives in his examples either (altho in the present context some of these are more controversial), but that’s beside the point for present purposes. And perhaps upon further reflection one could raise questions about the unambiguously nonphysical nature of these (apart from the Via Negativa). But then we would arguably be getting beyond the pre-theoretical.

    If we turn to the non-mental I agree that we can pre-theoretically cite things that are non-mental–i.e., the sorts of things you cite. But how about theoretically? Well, if the theory is Russellian, it’s not so clear. Both Russellian panpsychists and Russellian physicalists hold that the fundamental properties provide a metaphysical, non-gappy supervenience base for the mental, including consciousness. But to make this plausible, pan-psychists have to understand the mental (or at least consciousness) in such a watered down way that one wonders how their fundamental mental properties differ from the physicalist’s fundamental non-mental properties.

    This, of course, is going over old territory. But one reaction might be that if Russellian theory confuses what is pre-theoretically a clear-cut distinction this much, so much the worse for Russellian theory. Let’s just go back to the traditional theoretical framework in which you’ve got either physicalism or a kind of dualism in which the mental maybe causally suupervenes on the physical (or maybe not even that) but doesn’t metaphysically supervene on it. So we accept a metaphysical gap and then allow that anyting that is mental is clearly and unambiguously so, and ditto for the non-mental.

    But I’m not sure this would settle the issue, because one’s theoretical ruminations don’t have to be Russellian to see a problem here. Just consider the mixed reactions many people have when asked if lobsters thrown into boiling water feel pain, or roaches that scurry for cover when you turn on the kitchen lights experience fear or know that danger is imminent. (In fact, I first started thinking about this many years ago when I lived in an apartment that had roach problems. Every cloud has a silver lining, I guess) Maybe there are unambiguously right answers to these questions and we don’t know them yet. But maybe there aren’t and the mental-nonmental distinction is best treated via fuzzy logic. So one doesn’t have to get much past the pre-theortical level for confusion to set in on the mental-non-mental distinction.

    Of course, in my comments I have proposed a way in which we can make a clear-cut distinction between the mental and non-mental (or at least the conscious/phenomenal and the non-conscious/phenomenal). Heaven knows if it’s the right way, but let’s see how things stand with the hard problem assuming it is.

    The metaphor one most often tends to fall into in thinking about the hard problem is the metaphor of light and darkness. In a number of places David Chalmers says that, for zombies, “all is dark inside”. So, pushing this metaphor, the hard problem becomes one of how we can get light from darkness.

    But the foregoing reflections raise questions as to whether or not this is the right way of looking at it. If, as I have sugessted, what characterizes mentality (or consciousness) is not ‘light’ (in some demetaphorized sense of that term) but subjective unity, then we need to see the hard problem a bit differently. The problem now becomes how we get properties that manifest subjective unity from properties that don’t. At first glance this may seem to be such a large departure from the original intuition behind the hard problem as to be changing the subject. But I’m not sure that it is. Maybe that initial impression stems from confusing its being like something to be X with X’s knowing what it’s like to be X. In any case, if we stick with my proposal, then the pan-psychist is faced with what I think is an equally hard problem: How can we combine multiple micro-entities manifesting such subjective unity to get a single macro entity that manifests it?

  4. You say that you agree that we can pre-theoretically cite things that are non-mental, but then question whether we can do this theoretically given a Russellian panpsychist since “panpsychists have to understand the mental (or at least consciousness) in such a watered down way that one wonders how their fundamental mental properties differ from the physicalist’s fundamental non-mental properties.” I have something like the reaction you suggest: “ so much the worse for Russellian theory.” But I would emphasize that the problem is just with the pan- or partial-panpsychist versions of Russellianism. I would say that when the panpsychist says that everything at the fundamental level is imbued with mentality she means that everything at that level is mental in something like the way we think of our mental properties. If it seems impossible that a quark, say, could have any mental properties at all, I would take it as a reason to reject panpsychism not a reason to reject the idea that the distinction between the mental and the nonmental can provide a basis for formulating the mind-body problem.

    You also point out that the mental/nonmental distinction is fuzzy, but I take most concepts to be fuzzy, so I don’t take that to be a reason to think we cannot rely on it. (For example, we have this funny piece of furniture that is sort of like a stool but sort of like a chair. Our company certainly have mixed reactions to it, some placing their feet on it, some sitting on it, but I wouldn’t take this to show that we don’t have un understanding of what a chair is and what a stool is.)

    With the physical/nonphysical distinction, I think we have pretheoretical notion of neither the physical nor the nonphysical that is good enough for understanding the debate over physicalism. Of course, in everyday language people use the term “physical” for a variety of things: “you’ve been reading all day, go out and do something physical” or “give me a physical copy as well as the electronic version.” But neither of these uses captures what the physicalist means when she says that the mental is physical (for she certainly doesn’t want to say that physical just means not mental else how could a physicalist argue that the mind is physical and she doesn’t want to call something electronic not physical.) Yet, our everyday notion of the mental does capture what is meant by those who want to claim that the fundamental level is entirely nonemental, that is, it lacks beliefs, thoughts, pain, consciousness (understood as most understand this term) and so forth. And one might even include on this list some sense of the type of unity you talk about.

    You mention that ghosts should count as nonphysical pre-theoretically. Well, I’m not sure what ghosts are supposed to be. Perhaps they are things that pass through walls and make scary whoooing noises. Is there a pre-theoretical notion that if such things were to exist they would be nonphysical? I have no idea. My guess is that whatever it is that was found to cause whatever it is that we think ghosts cause would probably not be given the name “ghost” and that the properties that it manifests—being able to pass through walls and so forth—would be thought of as physical.

    As for parapsychology (which I’m assuming is one of the other examples you had in mind), if parapsychology were actually shown to exist, the man on the street might understand it as a not a physical process but this, as I said before, would probably be because the man on the street tends to take mental and physical to be opposites. But as to whether parapsychology would actually refute physicalism, I would say that it would depend upon on how it works. If it involved irreducible mental forces, I think physicalists should take that as a refutation. If it involved mental forces that were ultimately reducible to nonmental forces, I think that they shouldn’t.

    I could go on, but I better get to the dishes lest I come in contact with those repugnant and virtually indestructible little creatures responsible for your revelation.

  5. Although I’m a primary target of Barbara’s paper, my difference with Barbara are tricky to locate. I certainly allow that Russellian monism is a form of physicalism, as the disjunctive conclusion of my formulation of the conceivability argument suggests. So any residual conclusion concerns whether Russellian monism shares the “spirit” of physicalism or anti-physicalism. Here I’ve suggested the latter. But it is obvious that there are a lot of different things that might be taken to be the spirit of physicalism, or the spirit of anti-physicalism, depending on one’s motivations. So really I should say that it shares the spirit of my own anti-physicalism, while allowing that it may well share the spirit of other people’s physicalism.

    In “Consciousness and its Place in Nature”, the relevant aspect that I cite in favor of the anti-physicalist spirit of Russellian monism is: “an underlying duality between structural-dispositional properties (those directly characterized in physical theory) and intrinsic protophenomenal properties (those responsible for consciousness).” I think that this is certainly a sort of dualism-within-physicalism that is essential to this sort of physicalism about consciousness, and shared with most forms of dualism, without being essential to other forms of physicalism about consciousness.

    Now, as Barbara notes, this dualism would be mitigated to the extent that the intrinsic properties needed to ground consciousness are also needed to ground other physical phenomena. And as Barbara also notes, on Russellian physicalism, these properties may well form part of the metaphysical grounds of water, tables, and so on. But I think that an important asymmetry remains. A specification of these properties appears to play no crucial explanatory role in explaining the existence of water, tables, and so on. It appears that that sort of explanation will work equally well whatever the “inscrutable” properties are — and it’s arguable that it will even work on views that deny that such inscrutables exist, as with an ontology of pure powers. Here it’s the structural-dispositional properties that do the key explanatory work. In the case of consciousness, by contrast, the inscrutables appear to be needed to play a key explanatory role in explaining the existence and nature of consciousness. The explanation would not get off the ground without them. So here we have another element of the spirit of anti-physicalism: fundamental properties needed to play a substantive role in the explanation of consciousness that aren’t needed to play a substantive role in the explanation of other phenomena.

    All that being said, I don’t think that much of substance rests on the question of which views share or don’t share the “spirit” of physicalism or anti-physicalism. The important upshot of the conceivability argument, as far as I’m concerned, is the disjunctive conclusion: either the falsity of physicalism or the truth of Russellian monism. If someone accepts Russellian physicalism, then I take them to be on my side here.

  6. Directed at Dave C’s comments to Barbara, but also to Barbara: I think it would be really odd if the ‘inscrutable properties’ genuinely had nothing to do with the structural/dispositional properties they support. In fact I think a complete fundamental catalogue of ontology ought to imply all the detail about the levels above. Otherwise something extremely strange is going on, and the view loses much of its elegance.
    I don’t think we need to go as far as Dave C does to maintain the state of war with the physicalist: claiming that a Russellian view is actually a kind of micro-dualism. Rather, lets just be happy that the debate has reached the stage where physicalists are happy to be Russellians, something until recently regarded as lunatic! The possibility of a truce beckons (see footnote 5 of Papineau’s ‘Thinking about Consciousness’ p22) and we should be happy – and a little smug – about that. We can sort out who’s really won when we’re all done hugging and reconciling. (btw, it’s us anti-physicalists).

  7. Follow up: The real problem with Barbara’s paper, it seems to me, is that if the inscrutables are non-phenomenal, but only such as to yield phenomenality, then even a world including them plus the structural/dispositional properties they support could be imagined to lack consciousness. Simply stipulating that the physical inscrutables, whatever they are, are enough to put consciousness in place isn’t going to put the zombie intuition to bed. What this shows is that a proper Russellian solution will be panpsychic.

    However, I might add that I still consider even this solution to be physicalistic, in any sense that matters. Hence the possibility of the (somewhat one-sided) truce I mentioned.

  8. Let me see, Dave, if I’m getting your drift. There are at least two elements of the antiphysicalist spirit, as you see it. One would be exemplified in world whose fundamental properties were of two disparate kinds and the other in a world where an explanation of consciousness requires something significantly different from an explanation of anything else. You also point out that different people have different senses of what counts as being antiphysicalistic in spirit, and this is simply how you see it. OK, fair enough, my question is now not whether we should call these situations antiphysicalistic in spirit, but whether they are anything that is worth fretting over (yes, of course, different frets for different folks; and mine happens to be whether we should fret over your conception of the antiphysicalist spirit.)

    I don’t see what of philosophical interest turns on the first element. Yes, of course, it is interesting whether the fundamental properties can be naturally grouped into different kinds, but the interest, as I see it, seems like the type of interest we might have in whether loop quantum gravity or superstring theory is the correct theory of the universe, or, more to the point, whether ordinary matter and anti-matter are ultimately made out of the same kinds of things or different kinds things. In this latter case it would be natural to classify the world has having two different kinds of fundamental properties, but it would seem to me that nothing of philosophical interest turns on this. But, as your example includes more than just mere duality, you might agree with this.

    Now, I would see things differently if one of the two kinds of fundamental properties were relevant to consciousness, as would be the case if, as you point out, inscrutables would play a significant role in explaining consciousness yet not other phenomena. But I was trying to suggest—and I admit to being a bit tongue tied when it comes to making this clear—a way in which inscrutables would play a significant role in explaining everything. If we accept your view that from structure and relation we only can explain more structure and relation it seems that there is a lot to the world that remains unexplained after we’ve explained all of its structural and relational features, or so it seems one could argue. After we’ve explained all the relations we still have the things themselves. And one could say that inscrutables are needed in a substative way to get from the relations to the things.

  9. Hi Sam. I’m all for hugging, but, unfortunately, I’m not sure if there is cause yet. You seem to think that we cannot explain conscious at all; to account for consciousness we’ve got to start with consciousness (given this I can see why you are on the anti-physicalist-in-spirit side). Inscrutables are not conscious so, by your lights, they are not going to cut it, and thus won’t address the problem of the possibility of zombies. My response to this is perhaps there is no noncircular explanation of consciousness, but that we would need a reason for thinking that there is not some as of yet unknown noncircular explanation of consciousness. Dave gives us a reason for thinking that we’ll never get consciousness out of the physical (as construed as the structural/relational). This reason, as he points out, does not apply to why we can’t get consciousness out of inscrutables. So perhaps the ball is now in your court to provide your reasons for the stronger view that we can’t get consciousness out of anything but consciousness.

  10. Hi Barbara (and others):

    I hope this doesn’t interrupt the flow, but I wanted to go back to the issue of the via negativa (VN). (Sorry it took me little while to get to this btw.)

    On the interaction of the VN with the identity theory, the objection I had in mind says that if you define the physical as the non-mental (i.e. F is a physical property iff F is a non-mental property) then being in pain is both mental and not-mental, assuming the identity theory is true. In reply, Barbara says: “all she (i.e the person who holds the via negativa) is claiming (putting aside the complications mentioned above) is that pain, that is, c-fiber stimulation, is, at it’s most fundamental level, not mental.” I take this to mean that the VN is *not* the claim that F is a physical property iff F is a non-mental property. Rather it is the claim that F is a physical property iff F is a non-mental property “at its most fundamental level”. But what does that qualification mean? But what is meant here by “at its most fundamental level”? The suggestion seems to entail that being in pain, for example, is not mental “at its most fundamental level”. But that sounds pretty strange: how could pain fail to be mental at its most fundamental level?

    Now maybe what you mean Barbara here is that, properly formulated, the VN is that if F is a physical and fundamental property, then F is non-mental. But as you know I have an objection to that too, viz., that off-hand it seems possible that fundamental properties might be both mental and physical. Against this, Barbara says “But this seems to be the question at stake, namely, whether a fundamental physical property simply is a property that is a fundamental property that is not mental (or normative, etc.). So merely telling me that it is “certainly not impossible as a matter of definition” would seem to be begging the question”. Actually I didn’t follow this either! If we agree that some properties might be both mental and physical (e.g. pain according to the identity theory), I don’t quite see why fundamental properties might not be like that too. But if they can then it cannot be true as a matter of definition that if F is a physical and fundamental property, then it is non mental.

    I have the impression that I haven’t quite formulated the version of the VN that Barbara wants to defend here, and in particular I haven’t quite understood the way in which the VN person appeal to the idea of a fundamental property.

    Any thoughts?


  11. Hi Barbara,

    Actually the two elements you mention are linked. The relevant spirit is something like: two sorts of fundamental property, one sort especially relevant to explaining consciousness, the other sort especially relevant to explaining everything else. Now, of course there’s a sense in which the inscrutables have some role in explaining tables, water, etc, in virtue of being part of their metaphysical grounds. But in my comment I outlined a sense in which they play a much more central and essential role in explaining consciousness than in explaining the other things. For example, the inscrutables could be permuted as much as you like, and we’d still have an equally good explanation of water, tables, etc. And its arguable that if a pure-power ontology were correct, we’d still have a good explanation of water, table, etc. So this suggests that structural-dispositional properties are doing the core explanatory work for water, tables, etc, with specific hypotheses about the nature and distribution of inscrutables playing very little role (at best the mere existence of inscrutables plays a role, though even this is arguable via the pure-power point). In the case of consciousness, by contrast, hypotheses about the nature and distribution of inscrutables will be absolutely essential to the explanation of consciousness (on the Russellian view), and permuting or removing the inscrutables will leave us entirely without an explanation.

  12. Welcome Daniel and thanks for getting back to the via negativa (VN). Only in philosophy can two people’s views be so similar while they fail to understand each other utterly. Well, let me have another go at it.

    We can use the term “physical” narrowly or broadly. Narrowly it applies only to fundamental properties that are physical while broadly it applies to those properties and everything that is determined (in the right way) by those properties. The proponent of the VN, as you say, is not claiming that to be physical in the broad sense is to be non-mental, but rather that the fundamental properties are not mental. So someone who holds the VN view can say pain is mental and identical to c-fiber stimulation (not that I think an identity theory is the right way to go—so we’re in agreement there too—but that’s a different story). On this view, as I said, pain is not mental at its most fundamental level. I can see how this can sound strange, but I merely meant that the property of being in pain is ultimately determined by nonmental properties, such as the properties of quarks and leptons (assuming that these properties are not mental, that is, assuming panpsychism is false). Or to put slightly differently, pain (that is, c-fiber stimulation) ultimately decomposes into (nonmental) quarks and leptons.

    Not taking into consideration the issue of whether the VN should exclude protopsychic properties, normative properties, and other possibly outré phenomena, and also assuming that there is a fundamental level, one can formulate the VN as the claim that physicalism is true if and only if all fundamental properties are nonmental, or, to put it in other words, once you’ve set the fundamental nonmental properties, everything else comes along for free. Thus, the NV takes the physical, in the broad sense, to be that which is fundamental and nonmental as well as whatever is determined by this. So the question is (keeping in mind the previous qualifications about normativity and so forth) whether this is a good way of understanding what it is to be physical and what physicalism claims. To say that it isn’t because there could be fundamental properties that are physical is, as far as I can tell, just saying that it is not a good way of understanding the physical. This is why it seems question begging to me. (When a proponent of the VN says that pain can be both mental and physical she is using the notion of physical in a broad sense; she would not say that it could be fundamental and mental, which is what is excluded by the VN) So I want to know why our notion of the physical should (as some have argued) allow for properties that are fundamental and mental.

    My hope is that this is a bit clearer, but my experience with these sorts of things has taught me to expect the worst. Anyhow, if you have a chance, do let me know. And, by the way, I should tell you, Daniel, that I really enjoyed watching your video.

  13. I see your point, Dave. I guess one question is whether the pure powers ontology does provide a good explanation of tables etc. and I think one could argue that it doesn’t as it doesn’t even lead to tables, just how things stand in relation to tables. To make this argument, one might say something like this: it seems to us that our structural explanations are very successful in the nonmental realm but this is just because it is so obvious to us that tables are concrete objects that we don’t ask for an explanation of it. And that there being so is a central feature of their tablehood yet structural explanations don’t give this.

    I’ll have to leave it at this (not that more time would necessarily help me out here), but I need to pick up Hypatia from school (yes she’s only 2, but in NYC 2 year olds go to “school.”)

  14. There are several arguments around for the ‘only consciousness could yield consciousness’ conclusion. Some people hold that consciousness is the only absolutely intrinsic nature we know of, and that since, as such, it could only spring from another such nature, it must go all the way down through ontology. But this of course relies on the premise that a physical (as in non-mental) intrinsic nature couldn’t be found, which is exactly what you dispute.
    Strawson tries to argue that there’s a glaring disanalogy between most cases of getting x from a non-x base (liquidity from the non-liquid for example) and getting consciousness from the non-conscious. For some substitutions of ‘x’, such a move is just not on, in principle, so he thinks. Other examples are space from the non-spatial (space-time points anyone?) and mass from the non-massy. I’ve sympathy with his argument, but I think he’d accept that it’s little more than an expression of how strong people like us find the intuitions driving panpsychism, and which you again dispute. (I also don’t think mass is a good example, being ultimately relational, but anyway).
    Personally I try to mount an argument as follows: as before, consciousness is an absolutely intrinsic nature, and could only be metaphysically founded on another such nature. I then argue that to be absolutely intrinsic in nature, which I parse as absolutely qualitative being, simply is to be a phenomenal property. That’s a positive argument as to why consciousness will only come from consciousness. Anything up to the job just would be phenomenal: for this equates with the notion of the absolutely qualitative. That’s why it’s at least prima facie, if you like folk, conceivable that the world we visually perceive really is composed of block surfaces of colour, as it appears before we get into any puzzles about perception and qualities.
    That’s it in a nutshell (v small one). The paper itself is called ‘Mind under Matter’ and is in the new Benjamins collection on panpsychism ‘Mind that Abides’ (ed. Skrbina 2009), if that seems of any interest.

  15. Hi Barbara,

    Thanks a lot for your response. That does help. I had been ignoring the narrow/broad distinction, and you are quite right to bring it up. I still have some questions, though.

    As I understand it, as a proponent of the VN you want to say:

    (1) F is a physical property in the narrow sense iff F is (a) fundamental and (b) non-mental; and

    (2) F is a physical property in the broad sense iff either F is a physical property in the narrow sense or else bears the right kind of relation to to a physical property in the narrow sense.

    With that kind of proposal before us I can see how one might avoid the identity theory worry: being in pain (if the identity theory is true) will be a physical property in the broad sense, but not in the narrow sense. Notice that having c-fibers firing will then also be physical only in the narrow sense — I take this to a little odd but not overly odd.

    Still, the worry about fundamental properties remains it seems to me. Let us again imagine a world at which the fundamental properties are both mental and physical. One question we might have about such a world (assuming it exists) is whether physicalism (i.e. the thesis of physicalism) is true there. That is a good question, but I wasn’t raising it. Mainly because answering it depends on how exactly one defines physicalism, and (1) and (2) above are not definitions of physicalism, they are definitions of what a physical property is. More generally, I took it that the VN is a primarily a proposal about how to define a physical property, not a proposal about how to define physicalism. (Do you take it that way, btw? I ask because you seem to shift to discussing physicalism in your comment above.). So, the question I am asking is not whether physicalism is true at the world in question but whether the world in question is a possible world. So far as I can tell it *is* a possible world, regardless of whether physicalism is true at such a world or not. The problem for the VN is that (1) and (2) entail that it is not.

    Now you might say that this begs the question against (1) (and (2) but we can set it aside). But I still don’t see why. So far as I can see a physicalist might accept that the world I described exists (and so is a possibility) but might also insist that physicalism (i.e. the thesis) is false there. If so, then such a physicalist cannot hold the VN in the form you want to defend it. More generally, if (1) is supposed to be not simply stipulative but in some way answerable to our (perhaps solely philosophical) practice of talking about physical properties, then I don’t see why the case I imagined begs any questions. Off hand, the way we talk about the physical seems to permit us to entertain the possibility that all (or even some) fundamental properties are both physical and mental. But if (1) is true that is a straightforward contradiction.

    Not sure if that gets us anywhere. I hope so!

  16. We’re making progress, Daniel, but I think we still have some way to go. Let me try to respond to your worries.

    You say that on the VN definition of the physical, the property of having c-fiber stimulation would count only as physical in the narrow sense. But it’s just the opposite. Perhaps we understand “fundamental” in different ways. I take fundamental properties to be those properties that are not determined by any other properties. And I take it that having c-fiber stimulation is determined by lower level properties, e.g. by chemical properties and ultimately by the properties of fundamental physics. So assuming that the lowest level properties are not mental, the property of having c-fiber stimulation is physical only in the broad sense.

    As to your worry about a world with physical yet mental fundamental properties. I think we may actually be understanding “physical” differently here. I can’t ask any questions about such a world unless I know what is meant by physical. As I understand the narrowly (as well as broadly) physical, it excludes the fundamental mental; and given this understanding of the physical, such a world is impossible. But I fail to see that this causes any problems for the VN. Perhaps you’re using “physical” here to refer to the properties posited by fundamental physics. In that case, you are asking whether it is possible for there to be a world in which the properties posited by fundamental physics are mental. Someone who holds the VN thinks that such a world is possible and also holds that if physicalism is true, then such a world is not actual, where physicalism is understood as being roughly the view that everything is broadly physical, where “physical” is defined over the VN. (I see the VN as a definition of what it is to be physical in the context of debates over physicalism. And it is not a definition that is intended to capture how most philosophers use the term, but rather how they should use the term. Why should they use it as the VN proposes? In part because it escapes various problems that arise when we define the physical in other ways, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because, at least as I see it, it captures the spirit of the debate over the mind-body problem.)

    Still worried? Or perhaps even more so?

  17. Hi Barbara,

    Oops! On your first point, I meant that on the view you were describing c-fibers would count as physical in the *broad* sense, not the narrow sense. That was just a mistake by me. And you corrected it. That is what I call real progress!

    On the other point, you say that as you understand it the VN is “not a definition that is intended to capture how most philosophers use the term, but rather how they should us the term”. Here (I take it) what you are doing is stipulating a (narrow) meaning for ‘physical property’ namely: fundamental and non-mental, and then recommending that people use the term that way.

    One thing to say at this point is that there seems to be no disagreement in substance between you and me in our views about what is ‘really going on’ (as people say) in debates about (e.g.) the conceivability argument in philosophy of mind. Both of us think that that issue is about whether mental properties are fundamental or not, with one side saying that every fundamental property is non-mental with the other side saying that at least some fundamental properties are mental. Notice (and I take it that you would agree) that one can state all this without ever using the term ‘physical.’

    Of course that we *can* state all this without using the term ‘physical’ doesn’t mean are not also free to describe matters in those terms if it is helpful to do so. As I understand you, you think it is helpful. In particular, armed with your stipulation about ‘physical’, viz., that it means ‘fundamental and non-mental’ you can go on to say that the issue is really about physicalism: if the issue is really about whether some fundamental properties are mental, it is (in the light of your stipulation) also about whether all fundamental properties are physical.

    Should we go along with your stipulation, and therefore describe matters in these terms? Well, one reason to do so is that participants in the debates about the conceivability argument do routinely describe themselves as physicalist or non-physicalists. So that is a good-making feature of your recommendation.

    But I continue to think that the recommendation is not a good one. (This is why I prefer to replace ‘physical’ with something else as I explained in my original comments. ) There are various interrelated reasons for this. First, stipulating a meaning for a term that already is in use, and already has very powerful historical associations, looks pretty dangerous to me. Second, there is a grand tradition of thinking about materialism (physicalism) which your stipulation doesn’t capture. Third, there is a fairly stable set of judgments among philosophers about cases that your stipulation doesn’t capture. (I realize you are unmoved by the vitalism example, but historically this was a paradigmatic case of something whose truth violated physicalism. There are also further cases of possible things which are neither mental nor physical: primitive colors, chemistry a la Broad and so on.) Finally, I think your stipulation muddies the waters in terms of ‘what is really going on’ in debates about the conceivability argument. It looked like a significant clarification of those debates to frame then without introducing the word ‘physical’ — reintroducing it looks like regress rather than progress.

    Anyway, this is all a bit of distance from your main concern, i.e. Russellain Physcalism, but perhaps it is worthwhile anyway. I certainly find it helpful going through all of these things.

  18. Well, Daniel, I think we are now really getting to some issues that precious few may find of interest. But as you and I are interested in these issues, let us persevere.

    Before we get to the question of whether it is better for me to retain the vocabulary of physicalism, I’d like to ask you why you think it is even slightly odd to think of c-fiber stimulation as only physical in the broad sense? Certainly having c-fiber stimulation is not a fundamental property.

    Now to the main issue, which arose from parenthetical remark at the end of my last response: Is it useful to call (as well as think of) the debate between those who call themselves “physicalists” and those who call themselves “antiphysicalists” a debate over physicalism? You think it is not, for as you said in your original response you think it best to think that the basic schism between these two camps is not over physicalism at all (which, I must say, if we’re on the looking out for slightly odd sounding claims, this should count as one.) Your first reason is that “stipulating a meaning for a term that already is in use, and already has very powerful historical associations, looks pretty dangerous.” Well, I’m not sure what the danger is. Throughout the history of the debate over physicalism and materialism, philosophers have explained what they take “physical” or “material” to mean. For Descartes, for example, being physical meant being infinitely divisible. For some contemporary philosophers being narrowly physical means being accountable by a true and complete physics. For others, it means being accountable by today’s physics. And for others (e.g. Levine, Wilson, Papineau), being narrowly physical means not being mental. Given that there is a history of stipulating what is meant by “physical” and given that there are already a number of philosophers who stipulate that the narrowly physical is the non-mental. This doesn’t seem very dangerous to me.

    Your second point is that “there is a grand tradition of thinking about materialism (physicalism) which your stipulation doesn’t capture.” Now, I’m not sure what tradition you are thinking of exactly, however, it is true that my stipulation does not capture the tradition of tying the physical into the posits of physics, which, speaking of “odd,” does sound odd. But while aligning the physical with physics preserves historical grandeur—physicalism, as Putnam once said, gets its clout from physics—it doesn’t do justice to much of the contemporary debate. Some who call themselves antiphysicalists, for example, would like to uphold the spirit of dualism while leaving open the possibility of a physics that provides the true and complete fundamental theory of world and some who call themselves “physicalists” want to say that physics will never reveal the dependence base of the mental. Of course, I said that I am not out to capture what most philosophers say. And I’m not since most of those that fit in these two categories do not define the physical in terms of the VN, as most do not define it at all. However, I would like to capture the spirit, as it were, of today’s debate as much as possible, and if it departs to some extent from the historical debate, so be it.

    Your third point is that “there is a fairly stable set of judgments among philosophers about cases that your stipulation doesn’t capture.” Well, actually, you may have noticed that I didn’t put myself in the group that defines the narrowly physical as being fundamental and nonmental. This is because I prefer a somewhat different way of understanding the VN. And one reason for this is that I accept, as you point out, that there are a number of situations that are not captured by the VN, when the VN is thought of as excluding only fundamental mental properties. I guess you didn’t believe me when I responded to your original comment about vitalism by saying that the VN need not count vitalism as physicalistic (that is, when we put the VN definition of the physical into a definition of physicalism, vitalism need not turn out as being a form of physicalism.) I prefer to understand the VN as providing an open schema for defining the physical. It tells you to define the physical in negative terms, that is, in terms of what you want your ontology to exclude, and if you want to exclude fundamental vital (or normative, or abstract, or proptopsychic) properties you just include these in your definition of what it means to be narrowly physical. For example, someone like Barry Stroud who thinks that physicalism would not be true if there are irreducible abstract properties, could define the narrowly physical as those fundamental properties that are not abstract, not mental and not whatever else he wants to exclude.

    Is this departing too far from the (contemporary) spirit of physicalism to be worthy of the name “physical”? Well, it is true that Frank Jackson has said that serious metaphysics is not “big list metaphysics” and that physicalism is just the opposite of big list metaphysics. This is something I hope to think more about, and I’m currently writing a paper (or at least would be if I could find the time) entitled “In Defense of Big List Metaphysics,” in which I plan on defending this open schema notion of physicalism (and part of this may involve brining up problems with the unified/disunified distinction).

    Finally, you say that my “stipulation muddies the waters in terms of ‘what is really going on’ in debates about the conceivability argument” and that “it looked like a significant clarification of those debates to frame then without introducing the word ‘physical’ — reintroducing it looks like regress rather than progress.” Well, if one can simply term whatever it is you want to formulate the conceivability argument in terms of “physical,” then I can’t see what the difference is. In the past, I have also presented arguments related to physicalism without relying on the term “physical,” but this was before I came to think that the view I want to capture rejects not only fundamental mental properties and, moreover, that I would like to leave open the possibility of there not being a fundamental level. One can maintain the debate in terms of the mental and nonmental and shove those considerations into footnotes. I prefer to present a definition of the physical that captures these considerations and then use the term “physical” throughout my work since there is something worthwhile about connecting to an already established terminology. Moreover, I often find that many of my arguments do not turn on my specific understanding of the physical and so would like them to be attractive to those who reject my way of thinking of the physical. (Dave has pointed this out with my work a number of times and I think he’s correct.) Finally, and I don’t remember how you finesse this in your book, but one would like to have a term that identifies the view that is supposed to capture the spirit of physicalism. Yet the best I could come up with (in a paper entitled “Post-Physicalism) was “Fundamental Nonmentalism. And this is a bit awkward, to say the least.

    Well, so much for parenthetical remarks. Eventually we need to get to something else. But do respond, if you have a chance, as I’m finding it helpful as well.

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