Friday, November 24, 2006

Strawson Continues His Journey

[UPDATE 16 March 2009: the link to the paper mentioned below is unfortunately broken -- Strawson has a new home page, but it no longer has the link; the JCS special issue is also available on amazon.]

The recent JCS consisted of Galen Strawson’s recent paper “Realistic Monism: Why Physicalism Entails Panpsychism” as the target article, a number of critical responses from other philosophers, and finally Strawson’s reply. Recall that this was the paper which argued that realism about experience, and a rejection of brute emergence of experience from non-experiential parts, leads to panexperientialism. Except that instead of simply replying to his critics, Strawson offered extended further arguments and speculations on the problem of experience in its full metaphysical dimension with, as a bonus, a lengthy digression on Descartes (arguing that the usual “substance dualist” label is something of a caricature – in various writings/correspondence he expressed a desire to avoid distinguishing substance from its attributes).

I thought the whole thing was a marvelous read and a great contribution: seemingly eccentric yet an honest and insightful inquiry. It is good to see him bring more attention to the arguments for panexperientialism.

I’m not going to try to do justice to the whole thing (nearly 100 pages!), but let me discuss some highlights. (Unfortunately, it is not online at this time that I can see).

The distillation of the problem is that he (and many of us) want to affirm that experiential and non-experiential truths are fundamental, and cannot be reduced to the other -- yet at the same time we would like to have a monism.

Strawson offers this definition of “Equal-Status Fundamental Duality monism” (ESFD monism for short):

Reality is substantially single. All reality is experiential and all reality is non-experiential. Experiential and non-experiential being exist in such a way that neither can be said to be based in or realized by or in any way asymmetrically dependent on the other (etc.)

The question is how reality can be fundamentally dual yet single. How can we develop such a view?

Before going on, I should mention a subsidiary thesis in Strawson’s thinking which was brought out in one of the commentaries, that is, a commitment to “smallism”: “All facts are (fully) determined by ultimates.” In other words, our tendency to view reductive explanations as good explanations is endorsed: the question is what sort of ultimate or ultimates can support reality (a post on this topic is here).

Also, to the extent that experience is determined to be an ultimate, Strawson doesn’t think that a separate subject of experience is required at the fundamental level (see Justin’s post at his Panexperientialism blog for more on this).

But, acknowledging the tension and possible incoherence in combining a duality and a monism in the above definition, Strawson next steps back to consider what happens if we give up on the fundamental duality. He asserts that if either experiential or non-experiential being has to “give way”, it cannot be the experiential which does so, given that it is what we know directly, at least in certain respects (Strawson also discusses the epistemology of this direct acquaintance later in the paper). If, for the purposes of our analysis, we let the non-experiential give way, we are left with the notion that the “energy-stuff that makes up the whole of reality is itself is something that is experiential in every respect. The universe consists of experience…arrayed in a certain way”. To be clear, we’re not talking about passive experiential content of some sort to be perceived by somebody, it is that the active energy of nature is intrinsically experiential. Strawson calls this position “pure panpsychism”.

(Terminological note: for Strawson there is no technical reason to distinguish between “panpsychism” and “panexperientialism” given his view that at the micro-level, there is no distinction between experience and a subject of experience. I think panexperientialism is to be preferred for clarity: no one is attributing human-style minds to more fundamental units of nature.)

So the 3 options are radical eliminativism about experience, ESFD monism, or pure panpsychism. The first is a non-starter, while the second is appealing but probably incoherent as stated. Can we make pure panpsychism work?

Strawson next considers challenges facing this notion of experience as the active energy of nature. He ponders that space must supervene on this ultimate energy/activity, rather than being a container for it. Causality and the laws of nature must also arise from this working of this ultimate experiential activity as well. The biggest challenge, though, is what is often called the combination problem, but which Strawson calls the composition problem.

The composition problem, dating to William James, is how the macro-level experience we’re acquainted with could be built from micro-level experiences.

Now, some commentaries on the target paper think that the composition problem argues decisively against panpsychism. One criticism of this type argues that Strawson’s assumptions about our epistemological acquaintance with experience implies we would be “privy to” the micro-level experiences themselves, and this is not the case. Strawson denies the need for any commitment to such a “full revelation” epistemology. We only are acquainted with some aspects of experience (partial revelation). (For a description of another critique based on the composition problem and a counter-argument, I refer you to another fine post at the Panexperientialism blog.)

Toward the end of the paper, Strawson puts forth some speculative thoughts on the composition problem and how things must be if panpsychism really describes nature. He ponders the fact that our acquaintance with experience is “from the inside”. It must also then, have an “outside”. This leads to a glimmer of how a kind of ESFD monism could be true, if the inside and outside are both essentially aspects of the being of an experience. But this “outside” can’t be something ontologically distinct from the experience.

His musings turn next to issues of causation and composition. We might say the outside of an experience is its relation with other experiences, including its relation to experiences which compose it, or of which it is a part. Key to thinking about how to characterize these ideas is to stress the active rather than passive nature of experience. Rather than an atom of experience as a fundamental unit, we might speak of an “experiencing”.

He says there would be a first-person ontology intrinsic to an experiencing, but experiencings must exist in a fashion which gives rise to what we think of as third-person phenomena. These two “perspectival” realities coexist with the monistic reality that all is experience.

With regard to the composition problem, it must work something like this: “…experiencings… can be as they are to themselves…compatibly with their having causal effects on other [experiencings] and compatibly with their part in constituting other…distinct [experiencings].” And given the “Laws of Experiential Nature, whatever they are,” when one constitutes part of another the second will not have access to the inside nature of the first in the same way the first does.

To summarize:

Experiential realities may be said to function as non-experiential but experience-causing realities for other experiential realities, and to function as non-experiential but experience-constituting realities for other experiential realities. Again, it may be said that although there is no non-experiential being absolutely speaking, there is non-experiential being relatively or relationally speaking.[Emphasis original]

He says while these thoughts are speculative, it is not uncontrolled speculation, more importantly it is not unwarranted. A commitment to the reality of experiential being, combined with a subsidiary commitment to “smallism”, leads directly to this kind of account.

Given the length of this post, I will offer some additional comments of my own in a follow up.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the summary of Strawson's response paper - it looks like a great read. It'll be interesting to see how his ideas develop.


MDM said...

Experiential realities may be said to function as non-experiential but experience-causing realities for other experiential realities, and to function as non-experiential but experience-constituting realities for other experiential realities. Again, it may be said that although there is no non-experiential being absolutely speaking, there is non-experiential being relatively or relationally speaking.[Emphasis original]

If the criterion of individuation of subjects is direct epistemic access to mental states (if you directly experience a sensation it's yours; I'm not you because I don't directly experience your mental states), then I'm not sure how much this view helps Strawson. So what if the cells in my body are experiential? If they impact me only in their non-experial aspect and I don't have access to their "inside", then how is this different from, say, emergent property dualism? And what's the point of insisting that the experiential can't arise from the non-experiential?

Steve said...

That’s a fair point. The key phrase was “non-experiential but experience-constituting”. This is a bit confusing, but based on reading the text surrounding this quote he wouldn’t mean “completely” non-experiential.

“Experience-constituting” is speculated to be different from “experience-causing” in that while we (as a composite experiencing system) would not have not full access to the inside experience of the constituting parts, we would have partial access. This partial access is to the aspect of the parts’ experience which contributes to the composition. (Somehow!).

Steve said...

Just to add another thought:

Biology and neuroscience are the fields where the composition problem resides. My interest in work which explores how non-trivial quantum effects are utilized in living systems is driven by the thought that this would be the evidence that micro-experientiality may be leveraged into macro-experientiality in a way which classically mechanical models would seem incapable of.

MDM said...

Thanks for the clarification. (Great blog, by the way.)

I suppose that the panexperientialist answer to the composition problem must take the form of a bundle view of the mind (or experiential manifolds). Would you agree? Or is micor-to-macro experiential constitution something else?

Steve said...

Thanks for your comments.
I'm thinking of mind as a composite individual. I'm not sure if bundle or manifold is a good term or not. I think of a bundle as not necessarily giving the idea of having a coordinated mode of existence at the unified level.