What ‘Physical’ Means?

When we speak about the distinction between physicalism and other views on the mind-body issue, the understanding the distinction depends on what people mean by “physical”. So for example, when physicalist says that there is no difference without physical difference, or when dualist says that there is something besides physical things, what do they mean by “physical”?

To make sense of the distinction, we need a reasonably clear and reasonably distinct idea related to ‘physical’.

So, in the past post I proposed that the idea of people relate to ‘physical’ when they get into the discussion about mind-body issue is that of elementary particles affecting each other as determined by physical laws.

And given this idea of particles which show certain behavior, the claim that one can a priori deduce such thing as presence of conscious experience, or the exact type of conscious experience, from the patterns of behavior of those particles, is weird. It is weird, as I said, because through a priori deduction, we can’t get from that particular idea (of patterns of behavior of particles) to nothing but facts about those patterns. So, it seems, physicalists haven’t moved away from behaviorism, but they moved into something even more weird. The consciousness is supposed to be now, not a name for particular behavior of the whole person, but for a particular patterns of behavior of the elementary particles.

But, now, the physicalist will say – “IT IS not just an idea. It is real particles, or.. it is real physical stuff, and what you hold in your mind when you think of it, is not all there is to it!”

And really most of the arguments against Zombie argument object this relation between what we think and what is the case. It is said that we can’t say what is possible on base of what is conceivable, because we don’t know a lot of things about this physical stuff.

Brandon at Siris, in his recent post An Anti-Zombie-Argument Argument for example says:

(3) To know that no part of description A entails any part of description B we must know that no part of either description is overlooked.
: Suppose part of the description is overlooked. Then, for all we know, the part of A that entails B may be that part of the description that is overlooked.

But, now here we swapped the tables for a moment. Because, we point that physicalism is a claim that one can a priori deduce the presence of consciousness, and exactly what kind of consciousness there will be, just given the physical facts. So, we can point now, that we can choose:

Either we can say that we have some reasonably clear and distinct idea of what “physical” is, in which case, we CAN discuss the possibility of such a priori deduction, or we can give up making distinction between views like physicalism, dualism, idealism, and such… And having said that, I again think that what most people have on mind when they talk about “physical” in relation to this issue is the idea of the elementary particles whose behavior is governed by physical laws.

I want to explore this issue of meaning of ‘physical‘ for physicalists somewhat more. I’m not in doubt that for physicalists ‘physical‘ can be taken to mean ‘everything real and actual‘, or that they equate those two categories. But as a base for distinction of the physicalism from dualism, and other things, this kind of definition of physical just won’t cut it.

Also, I guess that for physicalists, ‘whatever we perceive through seeing, touch, etc…‘ is a category which coincides with ‘physical’. But then, again, same as the previous, it either makes the whole distinction of different views as impossible, or is just begging the question against those other views.

Much better I think is to connect of ‘physical‘ with what can be subject of physical laws. That would allow for physicalism to keep the doors open for “overlooked parts” that Brandon mentioned. But, it should be kept on mind ,that if physicalist points in this direction, it can’t be just any overlooked thing that will change the situation. It has to be something relevant, and not just yet another property that can be quantified. Such “overlooked things” won’t change anything, we will still be deducing just facts about complex behavioral patterns. And also if the physicalist points to some different phenomena like quantum weirdness, and some such things as the things which were overlooked, it imply also that these phenomena have some role in existence of the conscious experience.


Chris at Mixing Memory presents a very cool re: Your Brains song (“as if”) performed by zombies , and
Clark also wrote a post about zombie argument, but in context of more general analysis of those kind of arguments.