Panentheism.  Revisionism.  Anarchocapitalism.


David Ray Griffin

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Essays by Me

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Panexperientialist Physicalism

and the Mind-Body Problem


V: Some Criteria and the Failure of Dualism and Materialism

My own brief statement of the chief criteria for an acceptable solution to the mind-body problem—that it be (1) naturalistic, (2) parsimonious, (3) internally coherent, and (4) adequate to the relevant facts—corresponds closely to Chalmers” brief list (1995, pp. 201, 211-12). 

His formulation of the fourth criterion, however, speaks not of “facts” but of “coherence with theories in other domains,” which might be thought to reflect nervousness about the idea of theory-transcendent “facts” to which a theory should be “adequate.”  Chalmers does, however, seem to presuppose the reality of such facts in saying, against eliminativists, that experience “is the central fact that any theory of consciousness must explain” and also in adding, as a further criterion, “overall fit with the dictates of common sense” (pp. 206, 212). 

It is, in any case, this final criterion, under a particular construal, that I would make the primary aspect of “adequacy to the facts.”

Due in part to an ambiguity as to its meaning, common sense has fallen on hard times.  As Searle (1987, p. 215) says, “the general form of the mind-body problem has been the problem of accommodating our common-sense and pre-scientific beliefs about the mind to our general scientific conception of reality.” This accommodation can often seem more plausible than it is, thanks to the aforementioned ambiguity. 

Two very different kinds of beliefs, Searle (1992, p. 48) points out, often get subsumed under the rubric of common-sense (or “folk”) beliefs, especially by eliminativists: “[T]hey claim that giving up the belief that we have beliefs is analogous to giving up the belief in a flat earth or sunsets.” To clarify and emphasize the distinction at issue, I employ a terminological contrast between hard-core and soft-core commonsense beliefs, only the latter of which can intelligibly be rejected in the name of science (or anything else, such as mystical experience or revelation, for that matter). 

Hard-core common-sense beliefs are those that we inevitably presuppose in practice, even if we deny them in our theories.  Indeed, if we try to deny them, we presuppose them in the very act of doing so.  If there are any such beliefs, they would be “common” in the strongest possible sense, being common to all human beings of all times and places.  If such beliefs exist, denials of them in our theories would involve us in violations of the law of noncontradiction: we would be simultaneously denying (explicitly) and affirming (implicitly) the propositions in question.  Far from being candidates for elimination in favour of supposedly more certain ideas, accordingly, a cluster of such beliefs would itself provide the most fundamental criterion for judging other candidates for belief. 

Soft-core common-sense beliefs, by contrast, are beliefs that are considered commonsensical by some group but that are not necessarily presupposed universally and that can be explicitly rejected without pain of self­contradiction.  Examples have already been given: the belief that the earth is flat, that the sun goes around the earth, that the ultimate units of nature are vacuous, and that these alleged vacuous actualities exert all the causal efficacy in the universe. 

To rephrase Searle’s statement: the mind-body problem has seemed hard, even intractable, because modern philosophers have tried to accommodate hard-core to soft-core common sense, rather than vice-versa. 

Putting it this way, of course, presupposes that hard-core common-sense beliefs do indeed exist.  Hume famously provided two examples.  Although, thanks to his version of empiricism, he could provide no theoretical justification for belief in the external world and causation (in the sense of real efficacy, not simply constant correlation), he pointed out that, in “practice,” he had to presuppose these beliefs.  (Hume, of course, used these presuppositions of practice to supplement his theory, not, as I am advocating, to revise it.)

Chalmers (1995, p. 206), saying that “[e]xperience is the most central and manifest aspect of our mental lives" has pointed to a third.  I would insist upon at least three more: our awareness of norms and mathematical truths, the efficacy of conscious experience for our bodily behaviour, and genuine freedom (in the sense of choice among alternative possibilities). 

With regard to the first of these latter three, Jaegwon Kim (1993, p. 215) points out, against eliminativists, that our activities of deliberation and evaluation presuppose that “we regard ourselves as agents capable of acting in accordance with a norm.” The norms that we presuppose can be classified in terms of the traditional trinity of truth, beauty and goodness. 

With regard to truth, we presuppose that there is such a thing, that it is (generally) good to know and speak the truth, as distinct from falsehoods, and that there are various sub-norms (roughly, the rules of logic) for ascertaining truth, or at least detecting error.  Closely related is our ability to perceive “the Platonic, mathematical world,” recently discussed by Roger Penrose (1994, pp. 22-3). 

With regard to beauty and goodness, no amount of awareness of the relativity of aesthetic and moral judgments can eliminate our presupposition that some things really are more beautiful than others, some actions and attitudes really better than others. 

Although much effort has been expended to try to portray all values, including logical and mathematical truths, as creations (rather than discoveries) of the human mind, we cannot live apart from presupposing otherwise—a fact that Nagel (1986, pp. 143-5) well brings out (in spite of holding a worldview that is doubtfully compatible with the genuine objectivity of normative values). 

With regard to the efficacy of consciousness for bodily behaviour, William Seager (1991, p. 188) observes that “it presents the aspect of a datum rather than a disputable hypothesis.” Explicitly bringing out the hard-core common-sense status of the “axiom of the indispensability of the mental,” Ted Honderich (1987, p. 447) says that its main recommendation is “the futility of contemplating its denial.” In a phrase reminiscent of Charles Peirce’s criticism of “paper doubts,” Honderich says of epiphenomenalism, “Off the page, no one believes it.” Likewise Searle (1992), who includes “the reality and causal efficacy of consciousness” among obvious facts about our minds (p. 54), endorses the “common-sense objection to eliminative materialism” that it is “crazy to say that .  .  .  my beliefs and desires don’t play any role in my behavior” (p. 48). 

More controversial is freedom, in the genuine (incompatibilist) sense.  For example, McGinn (1991, p. 17n) says that “it is much more reasonable to be an eliminativist about free will than about consciousness.” Even Honderich (1993) and Searle, in spite of denying epiphenomenalism, affirm determinism.  However, in Searle’s case at least, this affirmation is coupled with a recognition that it cannot be lived in practice. 

Pointing out that we can give up beliefs in a flat Earth and literal “sunsets,” Searle (1984, p. 97) says that “we can’t similarly give up the conviction of freedom because that conviction is built into every normal, conscious intentional action.” After saying that “[s]cience allows no place for the freedom of the will,” he adds that “we can’t act otherwise than on the assumption of freedom, no matter how much we learn about how the world works as a determined physical system” (pp. 92, 97). 

Nagel’s (1986) position is similar.  In spite of seeing no way to give a coherent account of freedom (pp. 110-7), he says: “I can no more help holding myself and others responsible in ordinary life than I can help feeling that my actions originate with me” (p. 123). 

I turn now from the criteria themselves to the question of whether materialism or dualism can fulfil them, beginning with materialism. 

With regard to the issue of our awareness of norms, McGinn (1991, p. 23n) includes as one of the major problems of a (materialist) physicalist account of consciousness the question: “how a physical organism can be subject to the norms of rationality.  How, for example, does modus ponens get its grip on the causal transitions between mental states.”

The problem can be phrased in terms of causation: given the acceptance by McGinn (1991, p. 55) of billiard-ball causation as paradigmatic, it follows that “causal relations between .  .  .  abstract entities and human minds .  .  .  [would be] funny kinds of causation” (p. 53). 

The problem can also be posed in terms of perception: from a materialistic perspective, we perceive only by means of our sensory organs, which can perceive only other physical things.  Norms and other nonactual entities—whether they be called ideas, ideals, possibilities, abstract entities, conceptual entities, eternal objects, or Platonic forms—are clearly not physical.  The ability to know moral, aesthetic, mathematical, and logical principles seems to presuppose that we have a nonsensory mode of perception, which materialism cannot allow. 

To turn to the other issues: McGinn, Nagel and Searle all agree, as we have seen, that freedom is not consistent with materialism.  Indeed, evidently the only materialists who think otherwise are those, like William Lycan (1987, pp. 113-14), who construe freedom to be compatible with determinism, which, as Nagel (1986, pp. 110-17) and Searle (1984, pp. 87, 92, 95) see, is not to speak of freedom as we presuppose it. 

With regard to the efficacy of conscious experience (which is a necessary condition for the affirmation of human freedom), the writings of Jaegwon Kim are revealing.  At the end of a recent book containing essays devoted to this problem written over a period of nearly twenty years, Kim (1993, p. 367) concludes by saying that materialism seems “to be up against a dead end.” With regard to the very existence of consciousness, several materialists, as we have seen, are now admitting that they cannot explain how it could have arisen. 

McGinn (1991, p. 45), explicitly connecting the difficulty with the criterion of naturalism, says:

[W]e do not know how consciousness might have arisen by natural processes from antecedently existing material things.  Somehow or other sentience sprang from pulpy matter, giving matter an inner aspect, but we have no idea how this leap was propelled .  .  .  .  One is tempted, however reluctantly, to turn to divine assistance: for only a kind of miracle could produce this from that.  It would take a supernatural magician to extract consciousness from matter.  Consciousness appears to introduce a sharp break in the natural order—a point at which scientific naturalism runs out of steam. 

Searle, to be sure, thinks he has solved this problem, but, as pointed out by several fellow materialists, such as Seager (1991, pp. 179-80), there is no analogy between the unproblematic types of emergence (or supervenience) cited by Searle (1992, p. 14) and the (alleged) emergence of conscious experience out of wholly insentient matter.  Besides the fact that the very existence of consciousness is problematic, furthermore, “the unity of consciousness,” says Nagel (1986, p. 50), “poses a problem for the theory that mental states are states of something as complex as a brain,” and Searle (1992, p. 130) agrees.  Nagel’s statement points to the feature of materialism that most accounts for its distinctive problems: its equation of the mind with the brain. 

By virtue of conceiving of the mind as a full-fledged actuality, dualists have several advantages over materialists.  They are able to affirm the reality, unity, and self-determining freedom of conscious experience.  The distinction between mind and brain also opens up the option of affirming the mind’s capacity for nonsensory perception—an option exercised by some dualists (e. g.  , Beloff, 1962; 1994).  Finally, dualism’s (numerical) distinction between mind and brain provides a necessary condition for affirming causal interaction between them, which most dualists do affirm—both the causal efficacy of the body for the mind and (epiphenomenalists aside) the efficacy of the mind for the body. 

However, due to the fact that this numerical distinction is also an ontological difference of kind, implying that the mind in the body is like a “ghost in a machine,” dualists cannot explain how this interaction is possible.  For example, Geoffrey Madell (1988, p. 2) admits that “the nature of the causal connection between the mental and the physical, as the Cartesian conceives of it, is utterly mysterious.” He also concedes the “inexplicability” of the emergence of consciousness, both in the course of evolution and in the development of each embryo (pp. 140-1). 

Other dualists essentially agree (e.g., Lewis, 1982, pp. 38-9).  Some dualists, in fact, use the impossibility of understanding mind-body interaction naturalistically as an argument for the existence of a supernatural deity (e.g., Swinburne, 1986, p. 198); but that, of course, is to violate the naturalistic criterion.  Dualism, in sum, while not failing as completely as materialism, is far too inadequate to be considered an acceptable theory. 

As suggested by this summary of the problems of the two hitherto dominant theories, an adequate theory would need to combine the strengths of each.  Like dualism, it would affirm the (numerical) distinction of mind and brain, but, like materialism, it would not think of mind and brain as ontologically different kinds of actualities. 

The next and final section will briefly sketch such a position under the rubric of “panexperientialist physicalism.” Although it has usually been assumed that materialism and physicalism are equivalent (e. g.  Kim, 1993, p. 266n), or at least that physicalism entails materialism, I am here proposing a nonmaterialistic form of physicalism. 


VI: Panexperientialist Physicalism


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