Thursday, September 06, 2007

Against Mind-Body Physicalism

I find the following argument persuasive:
  1. I have an intrinsically first-person awareness of myself as a self, i.e., as a center of first-person awareness.
  2. All purely physical phenomena can be wholly understood in strictly third-person terms.
  3. The self qua self (first-person qua first-person) cannot be wholly understood in non-self (third-person) terms.
  4. Therefore, I am not purely physical. (from 1-3)
Premise (1) seems to me undeniably obvious. I am aware are myself as a self. I am not merely sentient, i.e., aware of my surroundings. I am aware that I am aware of my surroundings. I am not merely conscious, I am self-conscious. And I am not only self-conscious, but I am self-consciously self-conscious. This is the point of Descartes' famous cogito argument - "I think, therefore, I am." He invites us to simply notice ourselves qua selves. When we do so, we find that the objectivity of our own existence as selves ("I am") is given in our own self-reflexive subjectivity ("I think").

Interestingly, not everyone accepts (1). David Hume famously denied that he was aware of himself as a self. He claimed that when he introspected all he observed was a fleeting "bundle of impressions". Essentially the same position is taken by Buddhists who affirm the anatta or "no-self" doctrine. According to this doctrine, if you are able to realize that you, as an abiding center of self-consciousness, do not exist, you will have achieved enlightenment and freedom from suffering. (After all, there's no one there to suffer.)

Frankly, what Hume and many Buddhists might wish to call "enlightenment", I call blindness to the obvious. The reason why Hume finds only a "bundle of impressions" is because he's a shallow phenomenologist. When he introspects he focuses on the intentional object of introspection and forgets the intending subject, the "I think" (to use Kant's phrase) that makes introspection possible in the first place. In other words, when he looks for the self he wants to get it completely "out in front" so that he can view it as an object, from a third-person perspective, as it were. But this can't be done. To try to view the self as an object is to hide from view its very character as a self.

Premise (2) seems right as well. Setting panpsychism aside as incompatible with physicalism ('panpsychism' is the idea that all things, from humans to quarks, have intrinsic, irreducible "mental" properties), it seems that all fundamental physical concepts - e.g., mass, charge, momentum, force, velocity, field, space-time, quarks, bosons, etc. - are also entirely third-person concepts. Take any purely physical object, say, a rock. Give as complete a description of the rock's intrinsic properties as you care to. There is no reason to think that we will ever have to drag in any irreducibly first-person concepts in characterizing the rock. The reason is simple: The rock isn't a 'self'; it doesn't have an 'ego' or 'I'. It seems that the same goes, mutatis mutandis, for any other purely physical system, including the human brain.

By now the rationale for (3) should also be clear. Notions like 'person' and 'self' are intrinsically first-person concepts. The only reason why I can understand what it is to be a 'self' is because I am one and because I am aware of myself as a self. It's a concept that can only be understood from the inside and not, as physicalism implies, in third-person terms.


At 9/06/2007 2:46 PM, Blogger tanas said...

Hi Alan,

While I'm not a physicalist, I think that physicalist can draw distinction between description of the physical phenomena in the strictly third-person terms, and the *being* of that phenomena.

The description according to physicalism could then capture all the characteristics of the being, and as it would probably not deny being, say that the subjectivity is result of *the being* of that phenomenon.

At 9/06/2007 5:30 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Tanas,

Thanks for the comment. In response to your suggestion I would ask what the distinction between the physical phenomena and its *being* amounts to. Until this distinction is explicated it looks to be a merely verbal distinction that fails to mark out a real difference.



At 9/06/2007 10:20 PM, Blogger Ian said...

Hi Alan, I'm having a little trouble understanding your argument. What is an "intrinsically first-person awareness"? What do you mean by "wholly understood"? How exactly are you understanding "third-person terms"? What is it for a concept to be "intrinsically first-person"? And how is that supposed to relate to whether the concept's extension is physical or not?

The reason I ask is that I see interpretations of all your premises that a physicalist can accept and that will definitely not entail your conclusion.

I'm deeply skeptical of physicalism but I think a lot of anti-physicalist arguments aren't so good (the Knowledge Argument for instance). It'd be nice to have more good, clear ones out there!

At 9/06/2007 10:32 PM, Blogger tanas said...

The distinction would be between the description of the physical phenomenon and its being.

A description of a physical system doesn't include the fact of its being. It can describe system that is, or that is only possible.

So,physicalist can say that description in physical terms is third person, but that actually system according to that description exists. And that there is nothing third-person about its being.

Further, physicalist can say that the subjectivity, should be not searched for solely in the description of the system, but in the fact of its being. The being is something that is possessed "subjectively", so to say, by the system.

At 9/07/2007 3:48 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Ian,

I'll try to clarify a bit. By an "intrinsically first-person awareness" I mean the awareness I have of myself as a self, as an "I", a first-person center of awareness. If you grasp Descartes' cogito then you have what it takes to get my drift.

I'm not simply appealing to consciousness (first-person awareness), nor even to mere self-consciousness (first-person awareness of oneself), but ultimately to the phenomena of being self-consciously self-conscious (having a first-person awareness of oneself as a self).

In the end you either get it "from the inside", so to speak, or you don't. I can't describe the "self as self" as such because anything I could say would inevitably represent it in third-person terms. Instead of "self as self" or "subject as subject", you'd have a "subject as object". In other words, you'd have a third-person representation of an "I", which is no longer an "I" but a "he" or a "she" or a "that person over there".

Anyway, I hope that helps.

BTW, you suggest that a physicalist could reinterpret my premises to avoid the conclusion. How would that go exactly, especially for the first premise?

At 9/07/2007 4:02 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Tanas,

I'm afraid I still don't see how that helps the physicalist.

Your distinction between something's 'physical description' and its 'being' sounds rather like the Thomistic 'essence'/'existence' distinction. I doubt that a thoroughgoing physicalist would be sympathetic to that (though perhaps one who was merely a mind-body physicalist could get some mileage out of it). The problem for the thoroughgoing physicalist is that the 'being' of a physical system is not, on your account, something that physics can account for.

But more fundamentally, I don't see how the 'physical description'/'being' distinction can account for my being self-consciously self-aware (being aware of myself as a self). 'Being' in your sense seems to apply equally to all individual things - e.g,. this rock, that tree, this cat, that person, etc. - so how can it account for why I am an 'I' and this rock is not?

Don't get me wrong. I think your distinction, or something like it, is an important one in other contexts. I just don't see how it helps the physicalist out in this context.

At 9/07/2007 9:52 PM, Blogger Ian said...

Hi Alan, forgive me if any of this totally misrepresents what you've said (I'm a little dense and still trying to understand exactly how it works - I still don't know what a "third person term" or "first person term" is supposed to be), but here's one way a physicalist could understand the argument:

First, keep premise 1 pretty much as it is. Quite a lot of physicalist philosophers of mind, if I understand premise 1 right, would be all for it actually. If I get it right, it means something like "I am self-consciously aware of myself as myself being the subject of first-person thoughts and attitudes" (or something like that). Lots of physicalists will admit that. Now lets go to premise 2. They might interpret that as something like "All purely physical phenomena can be understood in such a way as to leave out no facts about the phenomena, where this understanding is represented in strictly functional or physical terms". So far so good. Now we come to premise 3. They might interpret that as something like "Myself as myself cannot be understood in such a way that this understanding leaves out no true description of any facts about myself and the connections between all these true representations if this understanding is represented in strictly functional or physical terms". In other words, "wholly understood" is understood in two different ways in each of these premises. In premise 2 it is about the facts represented, not the representations or terms used to represent them, whereas in premise 3 it is about the representations themselves. So I can wholly understand myself as myself (so the physicalist may say) in purely physical or functional terms in the sense that a complete physical or functional description will leave out no facts. But in another sense, I cannot wholly understand myself as myself purely using these terms in that, even though I have all the facts represented, I will have left out true representations of these same facts (namely, the first person ones) as well as a number of appropriate functional connections connecting these representations to other representations or to action, etc. But then the conclusion just doesn't follow.

I hope that was fairly clear - I've had a long day. The physicalist, of course, would have some work to do to explain how any representation is possible in the first place but that's both a well-known problem and a slightly separate issue.

At 9/10/2007 4:43 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Ian,

Okay, I can see your point on premises 1 and 2, but I still don't get how a physicalist could honestly claim, as you suggest, to "wholly understand myself as myself in purely physical or functional terms" in the sense of leaving out no facts. It seems quite clear to me that the very fact that we were trying to understand - how I can be self-consciously self-aware - has been left out of such an account.

My awareness of my "self qua self" is a necessary condition for the possibility of self-conscious self-representation and therefore it cannot itself be fully captured by any set of representations. So, contrary to the claim of your physicalist to "have all the facts represented", I say that there is another fact that has not been, and cannot be, represented, namely, the "I" itself.

At 9/10/2007 10:16 PM, Blogger Ian said...

Well, of course, you could disagree with them that they have all the facts represented, but isn't that what the argument was supposed to show in the first place? So don't you need some additional argument to show that they in fact do not capture all the facts? You would need to defend the claim that an awareness cannot be cashed out in physical/functional terms. But once you've done that, it doesn't matter too much at that point what the awareness is an awareness of since you've already shown that there is a mental state that can't be captured in physicalist terms. But I think showing that would be a bit difficult - you'd have to take on all the physicalist literature on this sort of stuff (where they do have (attempted) accounts of these things), which includes some pretty heavy duty stuff. Let me know if I didn't catch the right meaning of your comment.

At 9/12/2007 3:07 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Ian,

There's no way to construct a valid argument wholly from premises that are consistent with physicalism to show that physicalism is false. The same thing applies to any other philosophical debate. Accordingly, my concern is not to convince entrenched physicalists, but to appeal to the uncommitted, the agnostics. If my argument has a chance of reaching them, I will count it a success.

What I'm appealing to is phenomenologically basic and is something that each person can verify for themselves by attending to the phenomenon of their own self-conscious awareness of themselves as attending to their own self-consciousness (subject qua subject). Now consider any theory of mind, physicalist or otherwise. Any theory, as a possible object of thought, necessarily leaves out the intending subject qua subject. It is simply a contradiction to say that the subject qua subject is represented as an object. Hence, the subject qua subject cannot be understood in terms of any theory, much less a physicalist one. Indeed, it is a transcendental condition for the possibility of there being any theories of any sort about anything whatsoever.

If that's right, then my argument goes through. If hard-core physicalists aren't persuaded, so be it. As I see it, they are living in denial of the very transcendental subjectivity that makes possible their philosophizing in the first place.

At 9/12/2007 9:24 PM, Blogger Ian said...

Hi Alan, I'm still really not sure what it is exactly that you are taking as phenomenologically basic here or why that's supposed to show that physicalism is false. I just don't understood what it is to treat a subject as an object - how could we treat it as anything else? Do you mean a MERE object (that is, something that is only an object and not also a subject)? It sounds like you are saying that there's this thing out there which is not a thing and which you cannot say anything about (even though in saying this you are saying something about it). I'm not sure that that's what you mean, though, since that sounds like a rather self-defeating view to me.

At 9/15/2007 2:04 PM, Blogger Enigman said...

Hi Alan,

Is Russell's claim relevant, that from the cogito one should only deduce that thinking exists? Much of what we regard as special about the way we think (how we regard ourselves) might be explained away (or regarded as explicable) by a physicalist, via the evolved structures of our brains. What if, instead of an inexplicable subject being left (once the details have been explained), we are left with thinking, with lots of brain-states, tied together in those thoughts of ours only because of how we evolved, as social animals (and other details)?

I'm thinking of Tanas' comments, and how for anything (or for any stuff at all), there is presumably something that it is like, to be that thing (or that stuff). For a rock it will presumably not be mental (assuming the falsity of panpsychism), or anything else that we could identify, but since the rock is real there will be something (even if it seems like nothing to thinking things like ourselves, so to speak)... so to speak, because why should we be unities? What if we only regard ourselves as units? Although our thoughts seem (to us) to be the thoughts of individual subjects, is it not possible that there is really only the thinking (in such a way), towards which each set of particle-positions would contribute its own thing-that-it-is-like-to-be-that...

Your argument seems to require that that is not just prima facie implausible and hard-to-state (so are relativistic space-time) but impossible (?)

At 9/20/2007 12:40 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Ian,

I've busy quite busy, so this reply's coming a week late.

You say, "I just don't understood what it is to treat a subject as an object - how could we treat it as anything else?"

I must confess I find your puzzlement a bit perplexing because the subject-qua-object/subject-qua-subject distinction seems "blindingly obvious" to me.

If I may venture to diagnose why you don't find it so obvious, I'd say that it's because it is of the nature of intentionality to direct attention toward its object. Hence it's easy to lose sight of the fact that intentionality is a double-sided relation. In addition to the intended object, there is also the intending subject. But the subject as such can never come into view as the accusative of the intentional relation. To get a fix on the subject-qua-subject one has to attend not to the intentional object but to an intrinsically conscious intentional act.

Anyway, I hope that clarifies. If it doesn't then I apologize that I'm not quite sure what else to say to convey myself to you.

At 9/20/2007 12:46 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi enigman,

I think Russell's critique of the Cartesian cogito reveals the same sort of blindness to the intending subject that Hume suffered from.

You ask, "why should we be unities? What if we only regard ourselves as units?"

To which I respond: Who is doing the "regarding"? If there is no unitary "I" behind the appearances, then we have the (to my mind) incoherent situation of there being appearances without anything that is "appeared to".

At 9/23/2007 8:35 PM, Blogger Ian said...

Hi Alan, as far as I understand the distinction, I don't know how it gets you anything you'd want against the physicalist or how you can say that you can't represent a subject as a subject. A subject, as far as I understand it, is just something that has mental states or intentional states (and maybe a point of view). I don't see why I couldn't think of something that happens to be a subject qua subject (that is, qua thing with intentional states). After all, if I can't do that then I don't see how I could contend, as you do, that the physicalist has left this out (since I cannot specify what is being left out since, by your lights, to do so is to represent the subject as something other than the subject - and that IS something that, by your lights, the physicalist may be able to do). So I can't point to anything the physicalist has left out. So why should the physicalist or anyone else think that the physicalist has left anything out of his account? The physicalist account can't make you BE the subject when it REPRESENTS the subject - but that's hardly the same thing as leaving out any sort of facts, etc. Let me know if I'm still not understanding your point.

At 9/24/2007 9:45 AM, Blogger Ian said...

Let me a bit clearer about what it appears to me that you're doing. It looks like you're running together multiple notions of treating X as an F, specifically multiple notions of treating X as a subject. On one notion, one treats X as an F when one is aware of or represents X under the description, name, or concept "F". On another, one does so when one is aware of or represents X in such a way that one is aware of or represents some fact that is identical with the fact that X is F. On still another, one treats X as an object when one is aware of or representing X while one treats X as a subject when one IS X and doing some representing (that is, it is treated by as an object when it is represented and treated as a subject it is doing the representing). I think you've been latching onto this last notion and saying that a physicalist description cannot, in this third sense, treat the subject as a subject. But no theory can do this, and it's no surprise. So it's hardly a blow against physicalism - physicalism never claimed that a mere theory (a linguistic or propositional or abstract sort of object) could make you be a subject. What physicalism claims is that it captures all the facts - it treats the subject as a subject in the second sense and hence leaves out no facts. And to do this it need not even treat the subject as a subject in the first sense either since it may represent the same facts just under a different form. But that's perfectly compatible with failing miserably in the third sense.
What you seem to be doing is going from the "failure" of physicalism under the third notion, sliding thence to the first notion and concluding that it fails under the second. But this would need some serious argumentation as these are moves which have received quite a lot of criticism from physicalists and non-physicalists alike. Just because I am treating X as an object in the third sense (it is the object of an attitude or shows up in its propositional content) doesn't automatically imply that I'm representing it under that description or that I'm leaving out any facts about its subjecthood by treating it as an object in that sense.
Let me know if that's seriously misunderstanding you.

At 10/01/2007 3:08 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi Ian,

Thanks for the comments.

I'll reply briefly and then graciously bow out of the conversation to get on with other things.

The physicalist claims, as you put it, to capture "all the facts". I'm arguing the physicalist can't do that because (1) physicalism entails that all facts are "third-person" facts, whereas (2) there are irreducible "first-person" facts. The physicalist you seem to have in mind is someone who tries to get around the problem by maintaining an identity between those two facts. I just don't see how that could possibly work because it amounts to collapsing the third-person/first-person distinction.

At 2/16/2008 1:34 PM, Blogger Billie Pritchett said...

Here is your argument:

1. I have an intrinsically first-person awareness of myself as a self, i.e., as a center of first-person awareness.
2. All purely physical phenomena can be wholly understood in strictly third-person terms.
3. The self qua self (first-person qua first-person) cannot be wholly understood in non-self (third-person) terms.
4. Therefore, I am not purely physical. (from 1-3)

There are two ways to approach the argument. I can either take the argument as sound but having no deep consequences as a result, or I could challenge the second premise. The problem with the argument is that there is an ambiguity over the word 'physical.' Let me take the first route first.

You write in your second premise, "All purely physical phenomena can be wholly understood in strictly third-person terms." If you take 'purely physical' to be physical phenomena that do not have about them the property of mentality, then I would agree, and I think premise 2 is true. But the reason why it would make the argument have no deep consequences is that although you would have a sound argument, it would not be a sound argument against (all types of) physicalism.

Some physicalists believe that mental phenomena are constituted by physical phenomena, but they are not reducible to the physical phenomena that constitute them. This is because the physical phenomena determine the new properties of the mental, in the same way that the constitution of certan molecules constitute or determine the properties of water, one among them being wetness, a property the lower-level phenomena would not have if it were not for their constitution. So again, in this case you would have a sound argument, but it would be no argument against at least this kind of physicalism.

There is another way of taking your argument, though, in which the second premise is false. We have a fair amount of empirical research that demonstrates that mentality is just a feature of certain physical systems, namely human beings and other animal organisms. Anyone can try this out on himself; one need only get drunk and realize that his mental life is temporarily altered. What would make the second premise false, then, would be that there just is such a physical phenomenon that cannot be understand in third-person terms, and that is mentality. In which case, we must understand the separation of 'mental' and 'physical' as a false dichotomy.

I'm not sure the way in which you intended the argument. Either the argument is sound, but it has no deep consequences for some physicalists, or it is unsound.


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