The Heavy Metaphysical Commitments of Physicalism

Common to physicalism and epiphenomenalism is that they would agree that…

Q.Every observable and identifiable phenomenon about the bodies of conscious people is fully reducible to patterns of behavior of some “physical stuff” (you may include also the “stuff” from the surrounding) behaving according to some physical laws (or governed by physical laws maybe).

Physicalism further claims that from the facts about this physical stuff, we can a priori deduce the fact if there is conscious experience, and exactly what kind of conscious experience there is. Because there are no other facts than the physical ones, the physicalist claims.

In the past post, I took one of the commonly accepted ideas which go with the word “physical stuff”. That of of elementary particles whose behavior is governed by physical laws. And there the physicalist problem is that you can’t start from the idea of certain configuration/dynamics of particles, and deduce anything except yet different patterns of behavior of those particles. I want to reiterate that this is supposed to be a priori deduction, so you can’t in any step of the deduction bring in empirical data, or speculate identity of some of the pattern to some experience. And given what kind of idea that we related to “physical stuff” – that of elementary particles being governed by physical laws, all that we can deduce from it, is nothing but facts about that behavior, like statistical facts, or deduce the presence of some patterns of behavior. No matter the complexity of those patterns, what we have in our analysis of the facts are still just patterns. The idea of conscious experience, of redness, of smell, etc… doesn’t appear in the deduction. Appealing to complexity in this case, would be like saying that given two dimensional movement and sufficient complexity of the movement, we can deduce that it is three dimensional.

So, physicalism is weird, in the sense that it thinks it is possible to go through with such a deduction.

There seem to me three things physicalist can say there.

a)Rethinking the “physical stuff” idea
Though when we people say “physical stuff” usually they have idea of elementary particles governed by physical laws, it is not the idea that physicalist have when talking about “physical stuff”. First, physicalist can say that the idea is gross oversimplification of what actually the physical stuff is, as whatever it is, we already know from physics that this “physical stuff” includes phenomena as wave/particle duality and other quantum weirdness. Notice however two things:

First, Whatever physicalist ‘brings in’ as a complexity which might change the possibility of deduction, means giving up the claim that previous simplified idea of what “physical stuff” is, can provide explanation for consciousness. For example, physicalist will need to accept that quantum weirdness has something to do with consciousness if he appeals to the quantum weirdness to point that “elementary particles governed by physical laws” is oversimplified idea.

And second, without any reasonably clear and reasonably distinct idea of what this “physical stuff” IS (and instead e.g. giving very generalized descriptions like – everything that is causally efficient, or everything that exist in space and time), there won’t be a reasonably clear distinction between it, and some other views like dualism.

b)The way of Venus
The other approach is for the physicalist to avoid a priori and to go ‘a posteriori necessity’ way, which we may call “the way of Venus”… Basically, discussing the meaning of words, Kripke pointed that it may so happen that we use two words to refer to the same thing. For example… it so happened that people used both ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’ to refer to Venus, even they didn’t know they do. And if two words X and Y happen to refer to the same thing, the sentence ‘X is not identical with Y’ is clearly false and even can’t be true.

So physicalists will argue that this is the case with the terms “specific conscious experience” and “specific configuration/dynamics of elementary particles governed by physical laws”. It so happens that we use two words for the same thing, but same as people who unknowingly gave two names to Venus there is really just one thing, and through further empirical research we will find that it is just one thing.

Does this feel like cheating? Yes, and that is because it is cheating. Here is why…

We HAVE a clear idea of what it means for Hesperus to be identical with Phosphorus, because we can a priori deduce from the idea of Venus as a second planet from the Sun that is much closer than our planet to the Sun, and from the knowledge of the movement of planets, that to an observer on Earth , in the mornings Venus will appear as a star on the eastern sky; and also that in the evenings it will appear as a star on the western sky.
So, choose any of this kind of identities, where what we thought are two distinct objects or phenomena turned out to be the same object or phenomenon, and you will see that the identity only makes sense, only if you can from the better knowledge of that thing, a priori come to the phenomena in question. In another example like water=H2O (if you accept it at all), we can also given knowledge of H2O, deduce all the properties of what we are calling water. And so on…

So, the Kripkean a posteriori, isn’t an easy way out for a physicalist. That two words happen to refer to the same thing is incidental, and IF they do, that doesn’t mean that the requirement for a priori deduction is removed. In fact, such identites make sense only if some such a priori deduction is possible.

c)Being as Consciousness
Some time ago I was playing with the possible physicalist answer that consciousness is nothing but being of such and such system. That is, physicalist can say, that there are no other facts besides physical facts, but we should distinguish a description of those facts, and an existing thing for which those facts obtain. The physicalist will then say, that of course you can’t deduce the consciousness from some description of movement, but that consciousness is nothing but *an existence of a thing that satisfies that description*. It is to me very interesting response, and not just because in the relation to physicalism, but has very interesting possibilities to explore. I wrote few posts exploring this idea (here, here, here and here). Alas, while it might seem promising, this view seem to me exhibits the problems of epiphenomenalism of which I spoke in recent posts. Because it says that if we give a full description of the world, we will see how in it there will appear phenomenon of philosophers and epiphenomenalists discussing consciousness, but again it will not be because they are conscious! As, per this solution, the system of that description won’t exist, hence there won’t be consciousness.

Anyway, as I hope those people that romantically love science can see, physicalism IS NOT about empirical research through which we figure out what configuration/dynamics is related to consciousness. Physicalism isn’t about the simple claim that there are such correlations (which actually most of the views will accept happily), nor that certain configurations of physical stuff happen to be conscious. And physicalism isn’t to be equated with physics, nor with science in general, nor seen closer to it than other metaphysical views. It is a fairly and squarely a metaphysical view. And, as I hope I succeeded to communicate in this post, a weird one at that.

In the next post, I want to write about the other options, given that we accept that a)physicalism is weird, and b)epiphenomenalism is weird, in the context of the zombie argument against physicalism.