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Ontology and the Mind/Body Problem: Part I - Physicalism

In preparation for a series of meetup topics we plan for the coming year on various aspects of mind including the nature of conscious experience, the meaning-laden aspect of things perceived by mind (sometimes referred to as "intentionality"), and the self, the next meetup will focus on what is available to form minds out of: what could a mind possibly consist of? We seem to have some idea (or think we do) of what ordinary physical objects are made of. Science---physics, in particular---is in the business of informing of us that. But what about mental experience?

This is the classic mind/body problem and we will begin by laying out the logical possibilities for what there is along with the arguments that recommend them and the problems with those arguments. (After all, this wouldn't still be a "problem" after thousands of years if we had unproblematic arguments.)

There are only a few real contenders---by my count, four---for what there is in the world:

1. Dualism: the world is composed of distinct physical and distinct mental entities.

2. Monism, of which there are three kinds:

a. Physicalism: all substance is material stuff. Mental things are either not real (in some sense) or reducible to material ones. (This will be the main topic of this meetup.)

b. Idealism: everything that is is a perception of a mind; "to be is to be perceived" (as Berkeley put it). Who needs realism about material things when perceptions of them will do?

c. Neutral Monism: the physical features of entities are real and so are the mental ones but there is really only one kind of thing in the universe which has them both in its nature. Panpsychism (or Panexperientialism) fits here and is the most discussed version of this possibility.

Physicalism is popular among philosophers these days. Dualism has been, too, in the past and still is in various forms. Idealism and panpsychism are distinct minority views, but a minority view in philosophy may not play the same role it does in science or politics. I think minority views in philosophy just bide their time.

Where we come out on questions about the nature minds perhaps depends on what we think it is possible the world is made of---or perhaps it works in reverse? We may start with commitments about minds which determine our ontology. We'll see...

Part I Physicalism

This meetup will begin with a brief overview of the ontological possibilities then focus on physicalism, what it is, arguments for, and against it.

Here's my writeup.


Metaphysics, modality and the mind

Gene will also present on these topics. See his writeup.

More readings and talks on physicalism:

Daniel Stoljar entry on physicalism at the SEP

Shelley Kagan engagingly discusses physicalism and dualism about half way through this lecture (in the context of personal identity).

A paper by David Papineau on the history of physicalism

Papineau and Philip Goff debate physicalism

David Chalmers briefly on consciousness as a problem for physicalism.

Much more to come when we move on to the other ontological possibilities...

From the Wikipedia entry on the mind/body problem

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  • A former member
    A former member

    Anyone going from downtown Seattle? I need a ride to and back...

    January 31, 2013

  • Victor M.

    Here's a write up on the focus of my part of the presentation:

    Gene may also present a different aspect of the topic.

    January 27, 2013

  • Gene L

    I may host a future meetup on the relation between physics and metaphysics/philosophy. This is of recent interest because of the controversy engendered by Lawrence Krauss's reaction to a negative review of his book.

    Some of you may have heard of Jim Holt's recent book Why Does the World Exist? which addresses the issue in Krauss's book in broader terms. But for the purposes of the upcoming meetup, it may be better to just assume metaphysics is possible :) - but that's Victor's call.

    January 23, 2013

  • Gene L Above is an interesting discussion between two philosophers about the purpose of metaphysics - if it has any - given that science is taken to characterize reality. Not directly related to philosophy of mind, but relates to the broad question of if it is valid to ask about ontology of mind separate from scientific investigation

    January 22, 2013

  • Gene L

    Here are some quotes for consideration:

    "One of the striking, even amusing, spectacles to be enjoyed at the many workshops and conferences on consciousness these days is the breathtaking overconfidence with which laypeople hold forth about the nature of consciousness, their own in particular, but everybody's by extrapolation. Everybody's an expert on consciousness, it seems, and it doesn't take any knowledge of experimental findings to secure the home truths these people enunciate with such conviction." - Daniel Dennett

    "People willing concede that when it comes to nuclear physics or kidney dialysis specialized knowledge is essential. But let the conversation turn to consciousness, and everyone chimes in, on the assumption that they are all entitled to their own pet theory in the absence of the pertinent facts. Nothing could be further from the truth."

    - Christof Koch Are they right? What do you thinK?

    January 20, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      I think the mistake here is the suggestion that professional expertise in a certain field (eg philosophy of the mind, theology or used car sales) should be as authoritative as professional expertise in another field (eg mathematics or particle physics). Regarding philosophy of the mind and particle physics, I see several reasons why professional experts in the former deserve less authority than professional experts in the latter.

      January 20, 2013

    • Gene L

      But Koch and Dennett are not talking about knowledge of philosophy but the scientific results relevant to consciousness

      January 20, 2013

  • Gene L

    Victor, I think it may be helpful at the outset to define clearly what YOU mean by physical and non-physical. These sorts of discussions tend to go off the rails at the outset if everyone has a different conception of the what the words mean. Also, a broader question is how one can study ontology in the first place. For example, here is the view of the philosopher of physics Tim Maudlin:

    "Metaphysics is ontology. Ontology is the most generic study of what exists. Evidence for what exists, at least in the physical world, is provided solely by empirical research. Hence the proper object of most metaphysics is the careful analysis of our best scientific theories (and especially of fundamental physical theories) with the goal of determining what they imply about the constitution of the physical world."

    In this view, the ontology of mind is just the science of mind, and philosophy is about careful analysis of what the science implies.

    January 19, 2013

    • Gene L

      Another clarification: there is no real relation between the realism debate in philosophy of science and the issue of physicalism. A physicalist could be an anti-realist. The anti-realist might say that the unobservable objects posited by science are theoretical constructs, or fictions - but these are clearly not non-physical. For a fiction, the issue of whether or not it is physical just doesn't apply. Sherlock Holmes isn't non-physical, he just doesn't exist outside of fiction.

      January 20, 2013

    • Gene L

      Scientists generally do not pay attention to the foundational concepts of their fields. Also, when they relate the results of science to issues outside of science, they can get things wrong. The recent issue of scientists claiming that free will doesn't exist discussed in a prior meetup is an example. It is here that philosophy can be helpful.

      January 20, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Would anyone be willing to offer a ride back to Seattle after the Jan 31st meet-up?...I would only need to get to a metro bus stop...thanks!

    January 1, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      any reading to do to prepare for this discussion?

      January 17, 2013

    • Victor M.

      Linda, I just posted some resources on physicalism--the first of the theories we will be surveying over the next meetups. A write up by me is coming soon, too.

      January 17, 2013

  • Gene L

    I just posted a brief overview of the issue on the forum from my perspective.

    January 2, 2013

  • Gene L

    I will try to post an overview also in the forum if I get the time.

    January 2, 2013

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