Tuesday, March 03, 2009

John Heil Gets Very Close…

…to solving the mind/body problem.

John Heil’s 2003 book From an Ontological Point of View consists of roughly three components. The first part is a thoroughgoing critique of analytic philosophy based on the central role it gives to language. The second part is his positive ontological account: this is centered on his theory of power-properties. The third section discusses the application of his ontology to philosophical problems, notably the mind/body problem.

Being a blogger, I’m only going to discuss one aspect of how his account of properties (as part of a substance/property ontology) gives him a leg up on solving the mind/body problem, although I think he ultimately falls short of the goal. For an appreciation of his overall approach to philosophy, see this paper by Ross Cameron and Elizabeth Barnes. A Notre Dame book review penned by Gary S. Rosenkrantz is here. (There is also a whole volume of collected responses to the book available -- I have not read this).

Powers and Qualities

For Heil, properties are powers (or dispositions). Properties are distinguished by their contribution to the causal powers of their possessors. There are many potential advantages for this approach in constructing a realist account of ontology and causation. One advantage as it relates to philosophy of mind is that the ubiquity of powers offers a natural home for intentionality in the world. Powers have an “aboutness” – they are always directed towards their manifestations (I discussed this at greater length in my posts on George Molnar’s powers ontology).

But the biggest innovation in Heil’s account compared to other treatments of power properties is his treatment of qualities. Qualitative properties are usually considered to be separate from dispositions. They are often identified with the so-called categorical properties of objects. Heil proposes that qualities and powers are the same thing. He calls this the identity theory: “If P is an intrinsic property of an object, P is simultaneously dispositional and qualitative… (p.111 – page references are to the paperback edition)” Furthermore, this is not to be seen as a dual aspect theory: P’s nature is truly and simultaneously dispositional and qualitative. (Heil gives credit to the late philosopher C.B.Martin for this idea).

Heil’s defense of this identity theory was persuasive, in my opinion. He starts by giving some homely examples (size, shape, color) of how objects can be seen as having effects by virtue of their qualities. He then notes that while physics is silent on the subject of qualities, this in no way contradicts the identity theory. If middle level objects have qualities, it makes sense that their constituents do as well. (Heil strongly objects to ontological accounts which feature distinct “levels” of reality).

Qualities in the Brain

Turning to the mind/body problem, we can see that if properties which are both dispositional and qualitative make up the world then there is no special problem with the fact that conscious experience seems to possess qualities. Still, Heil wonders, could it be that these qualities are just qualities of, say, neurological activity? He notes that the qualities we should focus on in considering this question are not the simply representational qualities of experience, but the “diaphanous” qualities associated with having an experience. The qualities of experience outstrip their representational qualities, and these residual qualities are key to the question.

P.229: “The what-it-is-likeness of conscious experience stems from the nature of the representational medium…” as well as what is being represented. Heil makes use of a thought experiment based on an actual apparatus developed for the blind whereby a camera impresses images via pressure on the skin of the back or chest. After a while, the subject using such a device mostly forgets the nature of its implementation and just processes the images. But certainly the residual, non-representational experiential qualities are different between vision and this touch-analogue of vision.

So, do these “what-it’s-like” qualities differ from material qualities, or can we say that they are no different? Can we locate them in the brain? Well, Heil asks, why not? Perhaps these qualities are just are neurological qualities.

What about the First-Person Aspect?

The remaining question relates to the different way we are acquainted with these putative neurological qualities. P.234: “…we do seem to have something like ‘direct acquaintance’ with neurological qualities.” This means there still is a distinction here between the what-it’s-like qualities and other material qualities. Heil gives us an account that deals well with the qualitative character of experience -- after all qualities are ubiquitous in the world. But what about the subjective character of experience (my term)?

One might ask: is this subjective character also ubiquitous? Alas, Heil doesn’t want to take that leap. After all: “You might be worried that a conception of this kind leads to panpsychism or worse. (p.234)” Heil wants to maintain that all of the qualities of experience are perfectly ordinary qualities of brains. He concedes that it remains to be understood how this could be the case. But he hopes we’ll know more in the future as we learn more about neuroscience.

There’s one additional passage where Heil ponders this issue of the subjective character of experience (pp.237-9). He discusses the privacy of mental states, and acknowledges the difference between being in a state and observing the state. But he objects to treating this as indicating an ontological divide between subjective and objective properties. Conscious people are, after “objective” in the sense of being natural entities in the world. But again: “What, then, distinguishes conscious states from those that are not conscious? (p.239)” Could it be that there is a different functional role? This can’t be an explanatory strategy for Heil, since causal and qualitative roles are constituted hand-in-hand. I give Heil credit for raising the issue, but for him the privacy/subjectivity issue remains unexplained.

What about Zombies?

In his Chapter 20 (pp.240-249), Heil looks at the conceivability, or “zombie” argument against materialism. The bottom line is that zombies are not conceivable given Heil’s ontology: “The zombie possibility arises only against a particular ontological background, one according to which powers and qualities are only contingently related. (p.248)” Heil is right -- IF you define the zombie problem as being about qualia, rather than being also concerned with the subjective character of experience. As an aside, this is why I personally don’t use the term qualia when discussing the mind/body problem: first-person experience possesses both qualitative character and subjective character – discussions of qualia often ignore the latter issue (on this point see also a quote from philosopher Uriah Kriegel in this old post).


So, Heil comes close to solving the mind/body problem. By virtue of an ontology which places qualities in the world, the qualitative character of conscious experience is accounted for. The other dimension to experience, its subjective character, is left without an account. I think the only way to address this is to place subjective points of view into the natural world as well.

PS: My thanks go to Gualtiero Piccinini of the blog brains for his post on C.B.Martin, also suggesting Heil as a route to helping to understand Martin. This prompted me to read the Heil book, which I had been meaning to do. Martin's book is in the queue.


Thoughts said...

Interesting discussion. What puzzles me here is how one moment gives rise to the next in this ontology. Can we have an ontology that does not fully explain change?

Steve said...

Good question. Heil doesn't deal with the metaphysics of time and change in this book. Although i would say that one thing a "powers" ontology does better than some others is describe causation (which is at least a related topic). Powers are causal properties always directed toward their manifestations, which in turn are directed beyond themselves in causal sequence.