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Seattle Analytic Philosophy Club Message Board › Mind/Body: Skepticism Concerning the Meaning of the Question of What Exists

Mind/Body: Skepticism Concerning the Meaning of the Question of What Exists

Adam
user 5627463
Kirkland, WA
Post #: 1
To study what ultimately exists requires that we first establish a clear understanding of what it actually means for something to have "ultimate existence". I don't get the sense that we have any such understanding that isn't circular in nature, much less one that we agree on. Without that understanding, it seems to me like it would be impossible to know how far distinctions such as those between physicalism, idealism, property dualism and neutral monism are even meaningful.

I certainly appreciate the significance of asking whether the brain corresponds to the mind. This is a scientific question, and I think we have a pretty clear answer. If the answer had been no, we might have been able to derive some interesting conclusions--of course, we'd apparently have been stuck with either substance dualism or neutral monism, in which case neither the mental nor the physical would seem to be any more real than the other. But even provided that there's an absolute correspondence between the two, I'm not convinced it's meaningful to ask which is the real stuff.

We can clearly study whether a given entity exists in a given sense. In the same way, we can study whether a substance exists in a given sense, e.g. psychic energy or the aether. We can study what substances underlie given entities, e.g. in this meetup topic the mind. On top of all that, I suppose I see nothing wrong with adopting physicalism simply for practical or scientific purposes (according to Victor's definition, I'd probably call myself a physicalist).

But I think we fall into a conceptual trap when we ask "what exists", i.e. what substances or kinds of stuff constitute reality. This seems like a misuse of language. It reminds me of the form of Moore's naturalistic fallacy, where "right" corresponds to "reality" and a particular end e.g. pleasure corresponds to a manner of existence, e.g. physicality. It can always be meaningfully asked: is this what we mean by the whole of reality?

Unlike "reality", "existence" has a linguistic role that pulls us towards modal usage. What I mean by this is that (Kant notwithstanding) existence acts like an attribute, and this makes us think in terms of substances or "kinds of thing". We might say impossibility is a real thing, but that it doesn't exist. We might say the mind and brain are both real, but be tempted to say that only the brain ultimately exists.

It seems to me that existence as a concept can't encapsulate the whole of our experience of reality, but only gives us a means to express it from various angles, so to speak. Existence in a particular sense might exhaust reality along a particular axis, but doesn't contain it. Loosely put, existence in a given sense gives us something like a core sampling or cross-section of reality. Substances or kinds of thing are means to various sorts of conceptual denomination (e.g. physicality -> the particle, mentality -> the thought).

We think there ought to be some enumeration available to us, some discrete set of mutually exclusive kinds of thing that will completely satisfy our experience of the world--but it just doesn't seem to be the case. This seems to be a trick the brain plays on us.

Once we establish an absolute correspondence between mind and brain, isn't the real question answered? And if not, was the question even meaningful? I'm not claiming no, I'm just asking how can we know?

So what precisely is it that constitutes existence in the ontological sense? Victor mentioned in a comment elsewhere that physicalism doesn't necessarily deny the existence of the nonphysical, but only denies that it plays any causal role. This seems to imply that in the narrower ontological sense, existence is that subset of itself that participates in causality. Among contemporary analytic philosophers, is this a generally accepted interpretation?
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 312


Once we establish an absolute correspondence between mind and brain, isn't the real question answered? And if not, was the question even meaningful? I'm not claiming no, I'm just asking how can we know?


Adam,

Interesting comments. As I mentioned in my comments, before asking about "what exists" the question is to ask what methods one can use to determine this. One cannot just assume this question is answerable by a priori, non-empirical reasoning. If the whole methodology of a priori metaphysics isn't valid, clarifying the meaning of existence may be beside the point. But if one chooses for whatever reason to play the "metaphysics game" then clarifying this is important. If it is difficult to clarify, then this might count as evidence against playing the metaphysics game. A simple answer, as you imply, is to say that science has answered this question (and scientific practice typically does not worry about what "really" exists but takes a pragmatic approach to this) and the rest is details. This needs justification, but surely less justification than a priori metaphysics, which to put it mildly, has not exactly triumphed over science.

But given my pragmatist approach to philosophy, which is anti-skeptical, and anti-foundationalist I tend to look askance at traditional metaphysics and epistemology to begin with. Having said that there is definitely a case to be made for discussing the traditional metaphysics of mind for a general audience.
Jon C.
JonCohen
Mercer Island, WA
Post #: 145
A simple answer, as you imply, is to say that science has answered this question (...) and the rest is details.

In what sense has science answered what exists? The most accurate part of science are the quantum field theories, and they show that what we intuitively think of as reality is flat out impossible according to experimental results. But science doesn't provide any alternative. Some theoretical physicists are working on theories to try to come up with alternatives to the Copenhagen interpretation, but those efforts seem to be driven by philosophical considerations rather than any problem with the evidence.

The definition of physicalism seems centered on the concept of measurability. (It isn't observability, because we can of course each observe one mind.) The problem is that the Copenhagen interpretation makes some pretty specific statements about measurement, and they are very much at odds with our intuition. For example, the wave function is held to not be a thing that exists, and yet it is the only thing that can be said about a system before a measurement is made. So basing an ontology specifically on measurement seems highly problematic at best. A physicalist might respond that physicists infer the wave function from measurements, but that is the same way that a dualist infers the mind, by noting that measurements indicate that the properties of physical objects are unable to explain our observations of the nature of the mind.
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 313
Jon,

I think that in several posts you may be mixing up the issue of scientific realism with the issue of physicalism. These are not really related. A scientific antirealist might believe that many of the unobservable entities postulated by physics may just be purely theoretical constructs, or useful fictions. But this has nothing to do with physicalism or non-physicalism, as the physicist postulates these entities using the methods of physics, not by using appealing to supernatural causation. If a theoretical entity in physics is fictional, there is no question as to whether it physical or non-physical, it just doesn't apply . For example, "widgets" in economics are not "non-physical", they are a fictional construct to which the term can't even apply. The non-physicalist clearly does not consider the entities he posits such as non-physical minds to be fictional. Now if the physicist postulated a force outside of known physics which could say, violate the second law of thermodynamics, that would be an example of non-physicalism.

Also, your general argumentative strategy seems to be pointing out areas where science is incomplete - and I don't think anyone would disagree with you. I'm not sure whether you are implying whether these issues might be solved by future science, or will require a non-physical explanation. You always mention QM but this is a physical theory so I'm not sure what that has to do with the issue. But as I pointed out on the other thread, the relevant question is how different positions compare with each other. So I'm not really sure what the point of the line of argument is unless some non-physicalist position has a better answer. From the perspective of someone who tries to understand the topic at a very high level of detail, if I adopt a non-physicalist approach, and want to go further than "can't explain this", I run into a dead end because there are no detailed theories of anything for me to study, so really what other practical option could there be but physicalism? I can certainly accept that one might have a commitment to dualism based upon what Alvin Plantinga calls warrant but I have difficulty seeing why - for those who lack this warrant - the practical resources of physicalism are not overwhelming compared to the alternatives.
Jon C.
JonCohen
Mercer Island, WA
Post #: 146
My point is not that the fields and wave functions and so on postulated by physicists are real or not, because of course they are only theoretical constructs used to predict the results of experiments. At this level, there is no danger of thinking of electrons and so on as real things as a realist might do. But the success of these constructs do tell us that the world is known through science to be to be very different from the intuitive notions of what reality is. I think that the intuitive notion that science can simply make very accurate predictions about the world is what drives the attractiveness of the notion of physicalism. What the intuition does not include is the nature of the postulates that those very successful theories entail. In order to develop the scientific theories that allow modern electronics to be made required scientists to give up on scientific realism. Clinging to physicalism without evidence when considering the question of the mind is simply a failure to recognize the philosophical leaps that physicists have already had to make to get us this far. Of course if science does eventually understand the mind, the physicalists will claim they were right all along, because at that point physics would have expanded, and then we will know whether or not the mind violates the second law of thermodynamics (almost assuredly it doesn't even apply, because the mind does not have particles that would enable it to have a temperature or do work).
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 314
Jon,

I'm not sure what your actual argument is here. Science can explain many things, and many things are not well understood. In general, it is quite reasonable to assume that the things that are not well understood will admit of a physical rather than a non-physical explanation. This can be inferred from the success of physical explanations compared to the non-physical explanations in the past. We may not understand cancer fully, but who thinks the best explanation will involve non-physical causes? Now if you think the mind is different, a detailed and rigorous argument should be offered why, rather than just asserting it. Many philosophers think that the "hard" problem is just epistemological and has no implications for ontology. As such, it is not clear to me why what human minds can or cannot understand well has any relation to the composition of the universe. Perhaps it does, but a rigorous argument should be offered why.

Also, thinking that the best explanation of mind will involve an expansion of physics is just pure speculation, what evidence do we have for that, based upon our current empirical knowledge?
Jon C.
JonCohen
Mercer Island, WA
Post #: 147
Gene,

One has to look carefully by what is implied by the word physical. In one sense physical means that the problem is within the scope of known laws. The other sense is that the phenomenon is measurable. Both senses are problematic in the context of the mind-body problem.

While it is true in hindsight that that physical explanations have been very successful, as is well know the concept of what is physical had to be expanded several times, and the process was often disturbing to those involved (see e.g. http://en.wikipedia.o...­. Given the radically different nature of the mind from other phenomena, it seems rather presumptuous to think that the mind-body problem can be solved without yet another very disturbing expansion in our concept of what is physical.

I think it was surprising to all concerned the role that measurement plays in quantum mechanics, especially since QM did not set out to explain the act of measurement, and still doesn't. But explaining the mind does seek to explain measurement and observation, and so the solution to that problem will necessarily have a lot to say about the deep nature of those and many other processes, and if the past is any indication, the answer will be very surprising.

The evidence that supports the idea that expansion of physics is needed to explain the mind is simply that qualia are completely unlike anything else known in physics. At beginning of the 20th century there was no indication of why objects had the colors that they do. People probably thought it was just the nature of things to have their color. That seems to be the attitude of of people who say that the mind is simply "what it is like to be a brain." The answer to why objects have the colors they do came about only after QM changed our notion of reality. How could understanding qualia of colors not require the same kind of rethinking in an even more fundamental way? It seems to me that solving the binding problem will be even more challenging, because that is where perceptions of objects and thoughts as whole things occurs.

I don't recall bringing up what the human mind can understand recently, but since you mention it, if we look at the mathematics needed to understand the nuclear forces, only very small percentage of people seem to understand that. Perhaps more could if the topic had more broad applicability and it warranted the time needed to study the subject, but the fact remains that the math is extremely complicated and is needed to solve a very specific problem. The mind seems to be a much more complex phenomena, and so I think it is reasonable to assume that its solution will require vastly more complex reasoning, in addition to the more immediate problem of simply measuring it.

While of course I don't have a detailed explanation of the answers, I think there is a lot of territory that could be covered just by carefully examining what the characteristics of the mind are and in what specific ways is the mind is different from what is currently known of the physical world.
Adam
user 5627463
Kirkland, WA
Post #: 2

One cannot just assume this question is answerable by a priori, non-empirical reasoning. If the whole methodology of a priori metaphysics isn't valid, clarifying the meaning of existence may be beside the point. But if one chooses for whatever reason to play the "metaphysics game" then clarifying this is important.

Thanks for the reply, Gene. Just to clarify, I wasn't claiming that science has answered the question of what exists--I was just saying we might be mistaken in thinking we're interested in that question. We might have in mind a real question or questions that we express as "what exists?", but I'm asking whether that expression is accurate--if there isn't something else we're wondering in any given context.

I also tend to lean towards a pragmatist approach to philosophy, but I get the impression we might disagree on one point here--I'd tend to think (although I probably can't produce a well-developed argument) that the question of what exists, if answerable at all, must be answerable a priori. The idea and/or knowledge that what exists is what is revealed empirically couldn't itself be empirically based, could it? In any case, I'd agree with you that this would seem to weaken the case for asking the question in the first place.

As a side note, I do think there's a case to be made for metaphysics in a narrow sense, if you were to define it less in terms of what it traditionally claims to be capable of, and more in terms of where it sits in the philosophical space. I wouldn't argue that metaphyics ultimately deals with anything other than language--but biology ultimately deals only with products of physics, yet it's simply a different field with its own subject matter.
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 317
Gene,.

I don't recall bringing up what the human mind can understand recently, but since you mention it, if we look at the mathematics needed to understand the nuclear forces, only very small percentage of people seem to understand that. Perhaps more could if the topic had more broad applicability and it warranted the time needed to study the subject, but the fact remains that the math is extremely complicated and is needed to solve a very specific problem. The mind seems to be a much more complex phenomena, and so I think it is reasonable to assume that its solution will require vastly more complex reasoning, in addition to the more immediate problem of simply measuring it.


I brought up this issue as the typical response in philosophy to anti-physicalist arguments - that epistemology does not have anything to do with ontology. If human minds find consciousness difficult to understand in some sense, this implies nothing about the ontological nature of consciousness, it is just about a limitation of the human mind. There is a philosophical strategy using "phenomenal concepts" which has been developed over the past 10 years or so which I think can answer the anti-physicalist arguments. In your mathematics example, if there are parts of mathematics that no one can understand, does that imply anything ontologically different about these parts of mathematics compared to the rest of mathematics, or is it just that our minds aren't built to understand it? Imagine a virus that makes everyone less intellligent, and renders parts our CURRENT mathematics incomprehensible to anyone - do these parts of mathematics now become non-physical? If someone thinks - I cannot imagine how science could explain concsiousness - does this have to do with the way that persons mind works, or the ontological nature of consciousness?

I suggest you read the book Mind and Cosmos, by Thomas Nagel - which is the probably the most discussed anti-naturalist book in recent times - and then read some reviews of this book.
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 318

One cannot just assume this question is answerable by a priori, non-empirical reasoning. If the whole methodology of a priori metaphysics isn't valid, clarifying the meaning of existence may be beside the point. But if one chooses for whatever reason to play the "metaphysics game" then clarifying this is important.

Thanks for the reply, Gene. Just to clarify, I wasn't claiming that science has answered the question of what exists--I was just saying we might be mistaken in thinking we're interested in that question. We might have in mind a real question or questions that we express as "what exists?", but I'm asking whether that expression is accurate--if there isn't something else we're wondering in any given context.

I also tend to lean towards a pragmatist approach to philosophy, but I get the impression we might disagree on one point here--I'd tend to think (although I probably can't produce a well-developed argument) that the question of what exists, if answerable at all, must be answerable a priori. The idea and/or knowledge that what exists is what is revealed empirically couldn't itself be empirically based, could it? In any case, I'd agree with you that this would seem to weaken the case for asking the question in the first place.

As a side note, I do think there's a case to be made for metaphysics in a narrow sense, if you were to define it less in terms of what it traditionally claims to be capable of, and more in terms of where it sits in the philosophical space. I wouldn't argue that metaphyics ultimately deals with anything other than language--but biology ultimately deals only with products of physics, yet it's simply a different field with its own subject matter.

One characteristic of pragmatism is anti-foundationalism. This rejects the view that we must find absolute grounding (such as showing in some absolute sense that what exists is based solely on empirical investigation) - because this is just not possible - and accepts that we need a starting point. What this starting point is can be of course debatable, but widespread acceptance, and "common sense" would contribute. For example, we generally accept empirical evidence to guide our behavior in daily lives, and in crucial situations such as courts of law, while a priori metaphysical argumentation is not generally not accepted to guide behavior or as evidence in courts.

On the comments for the meetup I've posted some material about the differences in how philosophers themselves view the roles of metaphysics. The view that metaphysics is just about language is typically part of a deflationary approach where there philosophical problems are just the "betwitchment" of language. Even philosophers who specialize in metaphysics do not seem quite clear on what metaphysics is really doing.

You would have to get a clarification from Victor as to what he means as it is his material you are referring to. For example, if we say that it is possible that dualism or panpsychism is true, without resorting to empirical evidence, what are we actually saying - if anything - about what exists, or are we actually asking a different question altogether? I take it that is roughly the gist of your question? However, in terms of presenting the topic of metaphysics of mind to a general audience it may just be easier to assume that we are playing the "metaphysics game" and go with it.
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