Physicalism bad, panpsychism good

Tim asks:

I was interested  in a specific response to a question that was previously answered by Geoffrey Klempner. He says:

“There’s no other way to put it: materialists believe in magic. Something magical happens when sufficiently many pulleys and cogs and rubber bands are assembled together. YOU come into existence. How utterly ridiculous!”

In response to this I am thinking yes that it is “magical”. I think how does a “you” come into existence through a physical process, whose “you” (THE YOU? The one you of the universe living all different lives spontaneously through different subjective experiences?). If this line of reasoning does not work, I am interested in how physical processes can create an “observer” that believes he is the “owner” of these experiences. What is the “owner” of these physical processes? Is it a portion of the brain, literally the brain matter working in conjunction with the rest of the brain, and body, that forms this conception of being a person with legs and arms and a face but in reality I am this small cluster of brain cells being self aware and the illusion is that I am a person when in reality I am the portion of self aware brain cells extrapolating an identity of a person that has a face and hopes and dreams?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Yes, physicalism now gets a hammering by some people as a “ridiculous” explanation of the mind.

It seems only yesterday (excuse the old-timer musing) that dualism was ridiculed by Ryle as the “ghost in the machine”, referring to the intractability of explaining how an immaterial mind could possibly interact with a physical body making it move. Descartes struggled with it, suggesting interaction occurred in the pineal gland, but he failed to explain how it was done or why it should be easier in one bit of the body rather than in the whole body. Modern attempts at explanation invoke chaos theory, stochastic processes, quantum effects in dendrites and so forth, but none succeeds, or indeed can succeed in my view. Substance dualism is out, slain by the interaction problem.

As for physicalism, the enthusiast for it says that the “miracle” view of consciousness is much the same as life was viewed in the 19th century — how could an assembly of interacting dead chemicals possibly be ALIVE, how ridiculous. But we now know that life just is integrated assemblies of chemicals exhibiting overall stability, And so, when we understand the details, we will likewise grasp how mind arises from integrated electrochemical processes. I don’t buy this argument. Life is a complex physical process, I agree, but mind or consciousness is radically different from any purely physical processes. And another point worth stating. How can we expect physics to explain mind when the mind aspect of the world is excluded from physics by design? When Galileo started modern physics he made it clear that the subject was a mathematical treatment of the primary qualities of the world, such as mass, charge and motion, but that colour, sound and other sensations and feelings were in the mind and not the concern of physics. If he time-travelled to the present he would be surprised that, having excluded mind from physics, we now expect physics to explain mind. So I’m with Klempner here — physicalism fails.

So, if dualism and monism (physical) fail, what might work? I want to quickly reject two views. First, monism (mental) or idealism — all that exists is mind and ideas, material things are really ideas in minds (including God’s). This is wonderfully defended by Berkeley, but as Hume said, these views “admit of no answer and produce no conviction”, and I’ve never met anybody who believes idealism. The second view I want to reject is eliminativism — the idea that consciousness doesn’t exist, it’s an illusion. When you look into this you find that the proponents are not really saying consciousness doesn’t exist, they are saying that it isn’t as we naively think it is e.g. we think we see a rich detailed picture of the room in front of us, whereas really our eyes continually move over the scene so we are conscious of only one bit at a time, and the whole-picture view is an illusion.

So if dualism, physicalism, idealism and eliminativism are out, what’s left? Panpsychism of course, the idea that the fundamental units of the world (be they quarks, strings, quantum fields or whatever) have a mental as well as a physical aspect. Physics, as I’ve said, deals only with the relational or extrinsic properties (mass, charge, spin etc) and has nothing to say about intrinsic, nonrelational properties. And it’s the latter which, in suitable aggregation and integration, as in brains, produce consciousness in humans, some animals, and eventually computers I suppose. Be aware, the literature here is full of fancy names and fine distinctions within this viewpoint — neutral monism, Russellian monism, panprotopsychism, constitutive panpsychism, and so forth. Don’t get bogged down. The view is that the fundamental elements of the world have physical attributes which aggregate to make matter, and mental attributes which aggregate to make minds. Naturally, there is the question about how all the micromentals combine to make a unified mind.  However we seem happy to accept that the microphysicals can combine to make highly structured entities such as trees, bees and chimpanzees rather than just heaps of atoms, so no doubt the combination problem for minds will yield to science in due course.

As regards your question about your SELF being in a special brain module (so that if it were damaged YOU would be destroyed and the rest of you would would live out life as a zombie), there is no evidence of this. All evidence suggests a non-localized SELF distributed between brain, body and environment, constructed from babyhood onward, but developed throughout life, a narrative you and others tell about yourself, an insubstantial thing (of course), a virtual entity or fiction if you like, but one we live and love.

Materialism, thought, infinity

Raheem asked:

If the universe and everything in it is consisted of matter, are my thoughts consisted of matter also? And if so, is anything and everything really possible? Does everything have a certain equation to make into reality? And if not, what are my thoughts, and why are Numbers infinite?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Materialism is a theory as old as philosophy itself — or at least Western philosophy. The Presocratic philosophers Leucippus and Democritus first proposed a picture of the universe as consisting entirely of ‘atoms and the void’. Human thought and perception are nothing but movements of atoms. (Aristotle in his critique of atomism remarks that thought atoms were held to be quick moving and slippery, like the mercury that Daedalus was fabled to have used to make his statues self-moving. Aristotle thought that was a hoot.)

The true diehard materialist takes the nominalist side in the nominalism-realism debate. In Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953), nominalism transmogrified into the ‘meaning is use’ theory, giving nominalism a whole new lease of life. Words are no longer just labels we pin on material things — always a rather implausible theory — but rather counters in the ‘language game’, and there are many games besides the ‘label-pinning’ game. Contemporary truth conditional semantics is the heir to Wittgenstein, dovetailing neatly into a worldview where all that exists is ultimately the objects of physics.

‘And if so, is anything and everything really possible?’ If you mean, can materialism account for everything we talk about — not just thought, but meaning, truth, possibility and necessity, numbers and abstract objects — the materialists would say, yes. They would say that, wouldn’t they?

‘And, if not… why are numbers infinite?’ It was the mathematical Intuitionist Brouwer whose 1928 Vienna lecture first provoked Wittgenstein to return to philosophy. Specifically, the problem of grasping propositions about the infinite led the Intuitionists — under the influence of Kant — to deny the validity of the Classical laws of double negation elimination and excluded middle. Numbers and numerical formulae are ‘free creations’ of the finite human mind rather than timeless Platonic entities to which mathematical propositions correspond.

I would have thought that a diehard materialist, on the other hand, ought to have no truck with infinities of any sort. If the material universe is infinite, then you could fit an infinite number of guests into an hotel with an infinite number of rooms, all occupied, just by getting each guest to move from room number x to room number 2x. (The thought experiment is known as Hilbert’s Paradox.)

Then again, if you think of a universal formula as a ‘rule’ which mathematical language users ‘follow’, then it seems you can have your cake and eat it. You can say that a universal formula is ‘true’ for all numbers (i.e. proved, justified) while at the same time denying that the rules we follow are ‘rails stretching to infinity’ as the Platonist believes.

‘And if not, what are my thoughts…?’ You don’t have be able to say what something IS, in order to be pretty sure what it is NOT. So, frankly, I don’t know. However, my present view inclines towards the notion that thought is mental action, and action is prior to everything else in the universe. The ultimate reality. What ultimately IS life, your life, my life, but the things one does, and the things the world does in response? The rest is just things ‘we’ say in our common discourse (as Heraclitus would have remarked). On this view, materialism is as unthinkable as solipsism.

— Raheem, I don’t know if this answers your question or not. (I wasn’t altogether sure what you were getting at.) I hope it helps, at any rate.

Acting dutifully and acting well

Dzmeb asked:

To act out of duty, is it necessarily to act well?

Answer by Paul Fagan

In order to answer this, I would hold that some philosophers are of the opinion that one may do one’s duty without necessarily acting well. I will attempt to demonstrate this by using an example inspired by the philosophical creed of deontology.

Now, imagine you are in Calais and have just bought some lovely croissants from a boulangerie. Then, you come across a starving refugee in the street. You give a croissant to the refugee and thereby save her life. Here, I would think that most people would agree that saving another’s life is acting out of duty.

On the face of it, you have acted well. But the question remains, have you actually acted well? To explain, if you gave a croissant to the refugee because you felt sorry for the refugee and it makes you personally feel better, then you have really used the refugee as a ‘means to an end’: you have used the refugee in a process that gratifies your own needs.  In essence, you have acted well but only because your self-interest accidently coincided with acting well.

For some philosophers, it would be better if you intended to consistently treat others as ‘ends’ in their own right: in the scenario described, this would occur if you appreciated refugees as persons, wished for them to flourish, and donated a croissant to contribute to this. Therefore, for some, treating people as ‘ends’ and acting accordingly would constitute living ‘well’. That said, it should be noted that this reasoning has its detractors as those adhering to this sort of reasoning are often criticised for being impractically rigid, not providing a theory sophisticated enough to prioritise between differing situations, and also attempting to distance persons from their intuitions and emotions.

Overall, an enormous amount of literature has been written on this type of thinking and the most perfunctory surf of the internet will uncover many situations of this ilk with accompanying discussions. However, if this has whetted your appetite for such philosophising, then the reader may like to visit the entry for ‘Deontological Ethics’ in Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy (

In concluding, I would hope that a point has been made quite clearly: that according to some philosophers, one may act dutifully whilst not necessarily acting well.

Doubts about materialism

Tim asked:

My name is Timothy Fuller. I am a Philosophy and Economics B.A Graduate. I currently run my own business and continue to learn and research and aspire for Graduate Studies. Thank you for taking my question.

I am interested in the question of how physical inanimate objects can create an experience of being and living as something in real time. To take it further, how can the ‘electrical storm’, firing synapses etc, all physical create something it is to be something to be that INDIVIDUAL. To take further what would we say we are as an individual? We are not the cells of our bodies or any individual atom. We are the thing that experiences. What is that ‘thing’?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Well, Tim, as Morpheus says to Neo, ‘I know exactly what you mean.’ It’s absurd, ain’t it, the very idea that the person called ‘Tim’, as an ‘individual’, just IS some physical thing, an object in the world, physical processes happening, causes and effects, all building up to make YOU?

It’s good that you took a joint degree. At least you’ve learned something useful. To pass Philosophy, you had to submit to ideological brainwashing, as all undergrads do. You learned what a ‘good argument’ or a ‘bad argument’ is, and how to tell the difference. You were punished (with bad marks) if you wrote essays that didn’t conform to the accepted view of a ‘good’ essay in philosophy, that is to say, an essay developed from, based upon the ‘correct’ assumptions and argued according to the accepted canons of ‘good’ argument.

And one of the things you were taught is that materialism — the materialist view of the self — is a perfectly reasonable theory, and that any arguments based on your subjective sense or intuition that ‘it just can’t be true’ are irrelevant, or just an expression of your mental incapacity. I know how you feel, because I went through this too.

First, let’s get rid of the aura around ‘electricity’. (‘Elastic trickery,’ as I remember it being called in some TV comedy program.) Ever since Galvani succeed in making frog legs twitch when he applied a current, electricity and electrical processes have had an inexpressible mystique. Electricity goes its own way invisibly up and down silver wires and round and round printed circuits. Nothing moves, yet everything is happening.

I was once the proud owner of an original Sony radio with nine transistors. Nine! A marvel of the modern age. That was the 60s. (Wish I’d kept it, it would be worth a fortune on eBay.) Today, an ordinary desktop computer contains hundreds of millions of transistors. The mind boggles.

Get rid of all that. Put it out of your mind. Numbers are just numbers. Imagine instead that the thing you call ‘you’ was made of wooden cogs and pulleys, twisted rubber bands, paper, plasticine et cetera. It’s long been an accepted axiom of AI that the ‘program’ is all that matters.

Neural networks are the latest thing, but they are just a minor variant. It was always suspected that computers could do a better job of programming themselves than we can do, using our limited human knowledge. Hence the remarkable success of AlphaZero. If the supercomputer running AlphaZero was made of wood and rubber, etc. how big would it have to be? How long would it take to calculate a chess move? As I said, numbers are irrelevant.

I am not going to repeat arguments I’ve given in other posts on this topic. (Just do a search through these pages.) There’s no other way to put it: materialists believe in magic. Something magical happens when sufficiently many pulleys and cogs and rubber bands are assembled together. YOU come into existence. How utterly ridiculous!

Is religion superstition?

Richard asked:

Given that religion is a subset of superstition, why is there no philosophy of superstition?

Answer by Gershon Velvel

There’s a scene towards the end of Deepwater Horizon (2010), a dramatization of the 2010 offshore BP drilling rig disaster, when the rescued survivors all kneel and recite the Lord’s Prayer. Which got me thinking: what about the Atheists? weren’t there any? If you were there — cut, bruised, burnt, half dead from exhaustion — would you be so churlish as to remain standing, stuck right out there in the middle, spoiling the vibe?

Probably not, and what does that mean anyway. To kneel requires a tiny self-sacrifice, in the larger scheme of things. Let others enjoy the comforts of their ‘superstitious’ beliefs.

There is a ‘philosophy of superstition’. The classic text is David Hume Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) which includes a compelling description of the way human beings seem to have a irrepressible bias towards believing in the improbable and the fantastical — the very opposite of the way you would expect beliefs to be formed in response to experience.

From an evolutionary perspective this seems strange. What use is a belief-forming mechanism that leads us to form false beliefs? That is a question that Freud addressed in his account of the stages of human development from the ‘omnipotence of the ego’ to the ‘reality principle’. A crude way of stating this would be that those who are more tempted to belief in the fantastical — whether it be the doctrines of religion, or Illuminati, or crop circles, or the Law of Attraction — haven’t quite made it in their cognitive development.

However, I don’t accept your premise that religion is superstition. That’s not even close. Marx was getting warmer when he said that religion is the ‘the soul of soulless conditions, the heart of a heartless world’. If the world wasn’t so bad, the oppressed wouldn’t need to drug themselves with religion.

Humans seem to have an innate tendency towards needing someone or something to thank, when thanks are due, or call for help when help is needed. Each and every one of us was once a helpless infant, and dire circumstances bring out the helpless infant in all of us. Those feelings are genuine and real. It doesn’t mean that you are infantile.

As the movie illustrates, humans also like to pray together. It gives them a warm feeling of solidarity, the celebration of communion as  the British existentialist John Macmurray called it in his Gifford Lectures (Persons in Relation, 1961).

Despite those undeniable facts, it has been proved sufficiently many times to not require further proof, that a person can live a full human life without the crutch of religion to lean upon, and many in fact do.

As an atheist, I hold that religion is a serious challenge, which needs to be overcome if the human race is to move forward and take responsibility upon ourselves for making the world better for every living being. Regardless of its touted benefits, religion has all the hallmarks of an infectious and debilitating mental illness. Finding the correct diagnosis is crucial for achieving a lasting cure.

No Marx for Positivism

Brian asked:

Why and on what basis Marxism regards Positivism as an idealist philosophy?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

Brian, here’s my take on the issues. I’m not sure that Marxists regard Positivism as an Idealist philosophy. Rather, it is regarded as a variant of Empiricism — a philosophical approach connected with ‘bourgeois’ philosophers such as John Locke, August Comte and the like.

Firstly, Lenin in his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism argued against fellow Bolshevik Aleksandr Bogdanov’s ‘Empiriomonism’ which, attempted to incorporate Ernst Mach’s philosophy of Empirio Criticism into a Marxian world-view. That is, Mach maintained that all human beings could know were isolated sensations — much in the same way as George Berkeley held that human knowledge consisted only of immaterial ideas. On this basis, the materialist element of epistemology was downgraded and the ‘idealist’ element emphasised. Further, the examination of existing material conditions — the hallmark of the materialist conception of History or Historical Materialism as it became known — was bypassed in favour of emphasising human will and action. Revolutionary change became a matter of ‘Willing’. This was dismissed as vacuous Voluntarism which ignored an appreciation of and analyses of, actually existing socio-material conditions.

Secondly, Positivism is used by Marxists such as George Lukacs (see his History and Class Consciousness esp: the essay ‘What Is Orthodox Marxism?’ and Karl Korsch Marxism and Philosophy) to describe the methodology of ‘bourgeois’ sciences which they were critical of. The latter emphasises the recognition and analyses of ‘Positives’ (see Auguste Comte) or ‘Facts’ in the summation of social analyses. These are subsequently constitutive of immutable, universal Laws. This empirical approach took an atomised, particularist approach to phenomena without connecting them to the larger social totality.

As Lukacs remarks in ‘What Is Orthodox Marxism?’, in Capitalist society, ‘Fetishism’ (the apparent independence of creations, relations from their human creators) encourages the quantitative abstraction of ‘things’ so that isolated facts, complexes of isolated facts encourages the establishment of separate, specialist disciplines to analyse such ‘facts’ (economics, law, sociology and so on). Here we have ‘bourgeois’ sciences and their empiricist, positivist approach.

For Marxists such as Lukacs, the underlying ‘essence’ or connections between such ‘facts’ must be discerned from the isolated, immutable ‘factual’ appearance. This following Marx’s words that ‘the whole of science would be superfluous if the appearance of things coincided with their essence’ (Capital III, p. 797). The inter-connection between phenomena cannot be accounted for by Positivism but can be accounted for by the Dialectic. The latter recognises and accounts for the transitory nature of social and historical life i.e. that such phenomena change, exist in a process of movement or becoming. As Lukacs writes:

“Only in this context which sees the isolated facts of social life, as aspects of the historical process and integrates them into a Totality, can knowledge of the facts hope to become knowledge of reality. This knowledge starts from the simple (and to the capitalist world), pure, immediate, natural determinants described above’ It progresses from them to the knowledge of the concrete totality i.e., to the conceptual reproduction of reality.” (p. 8 ‘What is Orthodox Marxism?’)

Finally, Positivism is used by Marxists to critically describe the writings, theories of other Marxists. More specifically, it is used by Hegelian Marxists to condemn as wrong, those Marxists who rely on the Natural sciences as evidence for the existence of a Dialectic of Nature (Engels’ Dialectics of Nature for example) which then supposedly justifies the operation of the Dialectic in social and Historical phenomena. Thus ‘Dialectical Materialism’ the Philosophy of Marxism — underpins Historical Materialism. So for example, Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology and Theory and Practice from the standpoint of Dialectical Materialism by Nicolai Bukharin were judged to exhibit Positivistic tendencies. They relied too heavily on the natural sciences as a justification for the correctness of the Marxist Dialectic. This Positivist approach is taken to be wrong as it subsumes human activity and consciousness under ‘scientific laws’ when, the issue is much more complex than ‘vulgar Marxists’ can appreciate. Indeed, many Marxist Philosophers dismiss the attempt to justify Dialectics of Nature as Positivism.

On a purported objection to Hempel’s D-N model

Nana asked:

Let’s say that there’s a disease with a 2% mortality rate (2 out of 100 people who contract it die). Imagine that someone contracts the disease and dies (picture it as an evil dictator if that makes the example easier to bear). Why does the D-N model of explanation not offer an explanation for the dictator’s death? (think about the law that is involved, think about deductive arguments, think about the link between prediction and explanation).

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

This is what I would call a ‘chestnut’.

Someone, years ago, thought up your example as an objection to Carl Hempel’s ‘Deductive-Nomological’ model of explanation, and ever since philosophy instructors have routinely trotted these out.

Firstly, to get the historical perspective: it was the great Scottish philosopher David Hume who proposed ‘regularity’ as the basis for all causal explanation, in his book A Treatise of Human Nature (1738-40). As part of his analysis, he gave a list of ‘rules for judging causes and effects’. Cause-effect relationships aren’t something that you just see. They are something you have to judge, on the basis of all you see and know.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that not every perceived regularity is an ‘explanation’ or tracks ’causes’ and ‘effects’, and not every cause-effect relation can be defined precisely in terms of regularity, or ‘law’.

There are two points here: One concerns what is, or is not an adequate empirical explanation. The other concerns our notion of a cause. I don’t see any meaningful distinction here, and neither did Hume.

Elizabeth Anscombe, one of the leading 20th century British philosophers, gives the case of contracting a disease as a purported counterexample to the analysis of Humean causation in terms of regularity, in her 1971 lecture, ‘Causality and Determination’. What she was really objecting to, I surmise, is the over-optimistic use of Hempel’s model. There are so many times when we think we have offered a ‘full explanation’, when in reality the facts remain forever beyond our grasp.

Consider the following exchange:

‘Why did Bill die?’

‘He contracted Blank’s Disease.’

‘But Jill contracted Blank’s Disease and she didn’t die.’

‘Well, Jill was lucky, Bill wasn’t.’

There you have a complete and adequate explanation of why Bill died, given what we know. You can elaborate on this, say, if you like, that Bill smoked and drank heavily, which increased his chances of dying from the disease, but there are heavy drinkers and smokers who survive.

In terms of Hempel’s D-N model:

1. If x contracts Blank’s Disease, x’s chance of dying is one in fifty.

2. Bill contracts Blank’s Disease.

3. Therefore, Bill’s chance of dying is one in fifty.

How’s that an explanation? There is much we don’t know and never will. The precise configuration of Bill’s immune system when the bacterium first entered his body, what he had for lunch that day, and so on. To track the actual causes and effects, you’d need a total scan of Bill’s body, down to microscopic detail, and then a supercomputer to analyse the results. And even after all that you could miss the crucial ‘regularity’ or causal link.

The fact is, we accept, in so many cases, that explanations are not just ‘relative to interest’ as Hilary Putnam famously claimed but also relative to what we can know.

Consider another example:

‘Why did Bill die?’

‘Jill aimed at him with her high-velocity rifle and accidentally pulled the trigger.’

‘But Jill misses forty-nine shots out of fifty at that range.’

‘Well, Bill was unlucky.’

In this case, we can do better. Bill didn’t die just because Jill pulled the trigger, Bill died because a high velocity rifle bullet hit him straight on in the middle of his forehead as a result of Jill’s pulling the trigger, and everyone who is hit by a high velocity rifle bullet straight on in the middle of the forehead dies.

See the difference? Duh!

Your instructor’s example only looks like an objection to Hempel’s D-N model because it invites you to give the wrong explanandum (‘thing to be explained’). If you substitute for 3. above, ‘Therefore Bill dies’ then the conclusion doesn’t logically follow. Obviously. So what? Because human knowledge is necessarily limited, we can’t explain everything down to the finest detail. The rest is down to chance, or luck. We give, and accept, the kind of explanation that is available in any given case.