Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Widening the Trail

Well, to follow up on the last post, I liked Strawson’s new paper a lot, but will take note that his “journey” took us to some places which seem pretty familiar.

His realism about experience led to a rejection of materialist monism, and thinking about how both experiential and non-experiential being can co-exist in any naturalistic way led him to consider panexperientialism (see Chalmers, 1996). He discussed the notion of inside and outside perspectives as a way to explain why reality may seem to have dual modes (Nagel 1974). He outlined the idea that the experiential could seen as the categorical basis of reality, while the non-experiential is the dispositional/relational dimension of reality investigated by physics (Russell 1927). At this point, trying to make further sense of these ideas took him outside the arena of philosophy of mind, strictly speaking, to a discussion about how the panexperientialist view relates to the topics of causality and the composition of individuals (see Rosenberg 2004, and, of course, Whitehead 1928).

I don’t mean this comment to be too critical: I think all this is a good thing. Strawson’s work, presented in his unique style, helps widen the trail and thus bolsters the case for these ideas.

[Updated 16 March 2009 for broken links]

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.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Modal Realism and the Cosmological Argument

It seems to follow from a certain kind of realism about metaphysical possibilities that a version of the cosmological argument goes through. The idea is that if the space of possibilities exists, then it exists necessarily. The actualized concrete events of the world are contingent and depend on the necessary space of possibilities.

There are many variations, but the cosmological argument states that the chain of events needs a necessary first cause to get started. Or else it is cast in terms of arguing that contingent things ultimately must depend on a necessary self-existent thing. In the model under consideration here contingent things (events) are actualizations of possibilities. A given event is subject to causal constraint by prior or adjacent events but is always also dependent on the space of possibilities.

There seems to be no well motivated reason to consider an objection involving, say, an infinite chain of meta-modal spaces upon which the first-order space of possibilities depends. So, the space of possibilities would be a self-existent necessary entity and the argument goes through.

[UPDATE: 5 February 2009 -- This modal realism-inspired cosmological argument should not be confused with other arguments which goes by the name "modal". These arguments (which doesn't work IMO) try to use modal logic to imply theism: see discussion here for instance.]

Friday, November 10, 2006

Modal Realism, Modal Rationalism

The case for modal realism can be motivated in a few ways. It often begins with contemplating the everyday modal propositions we make about the world. We seem to know that things might have been different, after all, and there are different ways the world could be in the future. Some dinosaurs might have survived the meteor catastrophe. I might have tried to avoid traffic by leaving earlier this morning. It’s possible that I might stop writing this post now, and finish it later. By virtue of what can these propositions be considered true or false? Being of realist persuasion, I think there must be something in the reality outside our minds to provide truthmakers for these propositions (my prior posts on modality and modal realism can be found here).

Modal realism also seems linked to realism about causality, when the causal connection is seen as a counterfactual dependence. I might not have checked my e-mail: if I hadn’t, I would not have seen your message.

In a deflationary metaphysics where there exists one world subject to deterministic laws, all connections are necessary. Possibility and contingency would only be illusions. They would only exist in our minds. (Likewise it seems to me that the directional flow of time and causality would have no parallel in the world; necessary connections are symmetric.)

But given a naturalistic worldview, our minds arise from the same stuff as the rest of the world. Is it plausible that a world which lacks real possibility would give rise to creatures for whom the notion is indispensable?

Of course, we know strict determinism is false, given the real indeterminism present in quantum mechanics. I have argued elsewhere for an interpretation which sees the quantum states as incorporating real (although not concrete) possibilities, while measurements are concrete actualization events.

Leaving aside for now the tough problem of describing the modal space in any detail (see note below), I am intrigued by the notion that the modal propositions and modal reasoning we employ are grounded in a modal reality.

The thesis of modal rationalism, as explored by David Chalmers in section 10 of this paper, is the idea that our notion of what is conceivable (logically possible) does indeed match what is metaphysically possible. He examines and argues against proposals that these need be distinct modal spaces.

If I couple modal rationalism with a modal realism which posits that metaphysical possibilities really exist (outside the cranium), this creates what I think is a fascinating picture. We, along with all natural phenomena, are continually actualized from a space of possibilities: our roots in this space form the basis of our evolved faculty for modal reasoning.

Note: For a great discussion of how to flesh out the space of metaphysical possibility, and related issues including modal rationalism, I recommend Richard Chappell’s recent draft paper.  [UPDATE 25 January 2010:  here's a link to a pdf of the final paper from Chappell's website.]