Physicalism, true or false?

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Physicalism, true or false?

Postby Dave_C on February 14th, 2016, 3:04 pm 

The question: Is physicalism true or false?

A quick overview of physicalism:
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Physicalism is the thesis that everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on the physical. … Of course, physicalists don't deny that the world might contain many items that at first glance don't seem physical - items of a biological, or psychological, or moral, or social nature. But they insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are either physical or supervene on the physical.”

I think it's worth stating the obvious – that every THING in the world is physical. I don't think any intelligent individual can argue against that. If there is something in the world, it is a physical thing. Some might suggest ghosts for example, are souls that float around in the world but who's existence does not supervene on anything physical. They are not 'things' made of those elements on the periodic table. Let's dismiss ghosts. Every THING is physical.

Perhaps less obvious - morality for example, is a concept which picks out things that happen in the world. What occurs supervenes on the physical and creates the concept of morality. If people were not in the world to judge it, morality would not exist. I think we can say that there is nothing over and above the physical on which morality supervenes - morality supervenes on our judgements. We don't need to theorize a deity of morality, without whom morality would cease to exist, for example. Morality is a concept that each of us has and does not consist of anyTHING more than what is physical.

We can find other concepts that are not physical THINGS, but I would argue that concepts are not things. Concepts exist only in our heads and can be explained by explaining those objectively observable occurrences in the world as long as we have the ability to conceptualize.

There has also been a lot said about non-reductive physicalism - whether or not the special sciences are reducible. But I think we can all agree that there is no evidence that these special sciences can't be fully explained in objective, physical terms. We may believe there are higher order physical laws but even here, we have to agree that these physical laws describe things that are objectively observable.

We might also embrace causal closure and so, claim that everything in the physical universe that happens not only supervenes on the physical, it is caused by the physical. In the case of causal closure, every phenomenon that occurs not only supervenes on the physical but should also be explainable in physical terms. If what happens is purely due to the causal relationships between physical things, and if physical things are objectively observable, then a description of what occurs should be sufficient to explain everything about any given phenomenon. It is to this point that Frank Jackson looks at physical information, and here is where support for physicalism tends to falter.

Jackson states, “It is undeniable that the physical, chemical and biological sciences have provided a great deal of information about the world we live in and about ourselves. I will use the label 'physical information' for this kind of information.” I would contend that this simply means that physical information is the information about objectively observable interactions between things, including that information that describes these causal interactions. Jackson goes on, “I do not mean these sketchy remarks to constitute a definition of 'physical information', and of the correlative notions of physical property, process and so on, but to indicate what I have in mind here. It is well known that there are problems with giving a precise definition of these notions, …

I am what is sometimes known as a “qualia freak.” I think that there are certain features of the bodily sensations especially, but also of certain perceptual experiences, which no amount of purely physical information includes. Tell me everything physical there is to tell about what is going on in a living brain, the kind of states, their functional role, their relation to what goes on at other times and in other brains, and so on and so forth, and be I as clever as can be in fitting it all together, you won't have told me about the hurtfulness of pains, the itchiness of itches, pangs of jealousy, or about the characteristic experience of tasting a lemon, smelling a rose, hearing a loud noise or seeing the sky.”

I won't go over the argument regarding Mary in the black and white room since I'm sure anyone interested in the topic is familiar with the argument. However, in a more recent paper by Jackson, he elaborates on a few things and points out, “If physicalism is true, [Mary] knows all there is to know. For to suppose otherwise is to suppose that there is more to know than every physical fact, and that is just what physicalism denies.
Physicalism is not the noncontroversial thesis that the actual world is largely physical, but the challenging thesis that it is entirely physical. This is why physicalists must hold that complete physical knowledge is complete knowledge simpliciter. For suppose it is not complete: then our world must differ from a world, W(P), for which it is complete, and the difference must be in nonphysical facts; for our world and W(P) agree in all matters physical.”

Tye wrote the article, “Qualia” in the SEP. There he reviews Jackson's argument and points out arguments supporting physicalism. The first argument against he calls the Ability Hypothesis.
“Some physicalists respond that knowing what it is like is know-how and nothing more. Mary acquires certain abilities, specifically in the case of red, the ability to recognize red things by sight alone, the ability to imagine a red expanse, the ability to remember the experience of red. She does not come to know any new information, any new facts about color, any new qualities. This is the view of David Lewis (1990) and Lawrence Nemirow (1990).”
From my understanding after reading Tye, the Ability Hypothesis suggests that we can't identify exactly a perceptual experience such as a specific shade of red. We might look at one shade of red one day and believe it is a different shade on another occasion. This is similar to what Dennett (Quining Qualia) talks about when suggesting our qualia vary over time and so the claim goes, these phenomenal experiences do not legitimately pick out anything physical in the world. But the fact that these experiences occur without some large and noticeable variation such as recognizing blue as red or recognizing the taste of sugar as red would seem to indicate these experiences are sufficiently consistent to warrant our recognizing them as qualitative information if not perfectly quantitative. Tye recognizes the Ability Hypothesis is not one that everyone can agree to.

Tye recognizes a second physicalist defense in the literature, “An alternative physicalist proposal is that Mary in her room lacks certain phenomenal concepts, certain ways of thinking about or mentally representing color experiences and colors. Once she leaves the room, she acquires these new modes of thought as she experiences the various colors. Even so, the qualities the new concepts pick out are ones she knew in a different way in her room, for they are physical or functional qualities like all others.” I think Tye's final words on this second defense are most clear in my view. He says, “… the very idea of a phenomenal concept, conceived of as a concept very different in how it functions from concepts applied elsewhere, is itself confused. On this view, physicalists who have appealed to phenomenal concepts to handle the example of Mary's Room have been barking up the wrong tree (Tye 2009).” Tye is saying that qualia are not even concepts in any way, so this notion is flawed from the beginning.

Hopefully, the concept of “physical information” is clear. Physical information that is capable of describing qualia is one way of looking at this and perhaps the best way. Personally, I like the concept that these phenomenal experiences are phenomena as opposed to something else. There is something that occurs in a living brain that debatably, is or is not explainable in physical terms. Further, I believe phenomenal experiences to be the ONLY phenomena that are not potentially explainable using purely physical information. If we don't find a way to describe these experiences in purely physical terms, we are left with dualism.

SEP, Physicalism:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/physicalism/

SEP, Qualia:
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qualia/

Jackson, “Epiphenomenal Qualia”
http://philosophyfaculty.ucsd.edu/facul ... nphil1.pdf

Jackson, “What Mary Didn't Know”
http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber/analytic/Jackson.pdf
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby moranity on February 14th, 2016, 6:07 pm 

So, the question is, first off, does anything exist but the physical?
what do you mean by physical?
and do you mean "exists" objectively?
or, do you mean "exists" to a human being, because to a human being all that exists is sensation, these sensations are generated physically, objectively, but that is not provable and sort of irrelevant from the human point of view.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby Serpent on February 15th, 2016, 12:37 am 

Try to find something that exists with no physical cause or manifestation. Then try to explain how, without sensory input, or bodily senses to receive such input, one could become aware of them. Or how, were non-physical phenomena happening all around, a physical being (e.g. a human) could find out about them. And then ask: If we can't ever know about something, does it really matter whether such a thing can exist?

True - to the extent that it's relevant.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby BadgerJelly on February 15th, 2016, 2:33 am 

Truth is subjective .. unless you are on the side of pure physicalism in which case there is an absolute distinction between truth and falsehood.

XD

This is one question that I am sure you'll find a major chasm due to personal perspectives. It is a subject that I have much trouble communicating here because it is somewhat beyond scientific analysis. Pretty sure Dennett denies that there is an explanatory gap which I find utterly ridiculous ... but hay maybe he knows something I don't!?

I am pretty much inclined to phenomenology. What is an object/thing is the main concern for me and that in itself is something that we can investigate scientifically by studying our early years before verbal language influences our view of what is and what what is! :)

I think this area is on the fringes of our current ability to find a validity of information that can be interpreted in an objective discipline.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby Eclogite on February 15th, 2016, 4:36 am 

I always hesitate to engage in any philosophy thread lest I appear like a neophyte in a science discussion who thinks it is possible to travel faster than light, or that below the crust of the Earth are vast pools of molten rock. So those with a grounding in philosophy feel free to castigate me for my foolishness.

I am reminded of the apocryphal tale that in the Middle Ages much serious discussion was devoted to how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. This topic appears to me to have about as much value. Moranity has, for me, asked the pertinent questions - what is meant by physical and what is meant by exist. If one sets ones definitions wide enough then physicalism becomes, through those definitions completely valid. If one uses a more restrictive - and to me more natural set of definitions - it becomes clear it is a nonsense.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby wolfhnd on February 15th, 2016, 4:44 am 

There seems to be a growing number of people that think we are looking at the world wrong. I think what answers Dennett's troubling dismissal of the persistent impression that there are absolutes such as truth and falsehood is that information and what we perceive as the physical world may be a false dichotomy. If experiments that show energy is released when a bit of (data) information is erased holds up to future investigations I would find that interesting. This may be a bad interpretation of the Landauer's principle, I'm not sure. It does however seem to be the case that modern physics describes a very alien world to the one we experience.

Dennett could be described as a compatibilist but I would describe him as a realist. When asked what he thought of IQ scores he simply replied there are things we don't need to know. He isn't saying that it is theoretically impossible to measure intelligence, which I think is a common logical error, he is simply saying that we do not need to know relative intelligence to make progress in human affairs. I think this may be the difference between a scientist and a philosopher. A scientist can happily go about measuring what is while only asking why when it is needed to find the next level of what.

I think many of you know I'm a fan of Dennett. I like him precisely because he focuses on the questions that can be answered not the "big" questions. Science has provided plenty of information for philosophers to chew on without dealing with absolutes. Once you go down the rabbit hole of absolutes your philosophy is going to natural disconnect from science which has proven to be far more effective at answering the what is questions than philosophy. Dennett remains firmly anchored to an understanding of his own limitations. He may like to debunk other peoples absolutes but I think he does it in the spirit of refocusing on what we already know.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby TheVat on February 15th, 2016, 12:44 pm 

Well, some philosophic questions are more reasonable than others, perhaps. I agree with Eclogite that some of these arguments hinge on semantics, i.e. how the physical is defined and what epistemological limits are construed by humans. I am certainly on board with monism, which is that, however we divide up our experience of the phenomenal, the world out there is composed of one sort of stuff. Monism arises from a common sense view of causality, that things which causally interact with each other must be made of the same sorts of fundamental elements. If we could interact with ghosts, then it would make sense to presume that ghosts are physical phenomena but of a nature previously hidden from scientific observation and analysis.

I think there can be an epistemic duality between the holistic interpretations that a brain creates and the actual objective goings-on of bosons and fermions and such, but this is no threat to physicalism. "Red" is a holistic interpretation that our neural nets create when when trillions of 620 nanometer photons impinge upon certain pigments in cells of our retina and excite their outer electrons. The photons can be understood reductively, but the sensation of "red" really can't, and that's just how it is. Same with assemblages of H2O molecules and the sensation of "wetness." As Dennett suggests, our feel of wetness doesn't pick out anything physically real, but is rather a handy summary of an encounter with water molecules that the brain generates so that we can get on with our day and not be stuck there doing a molecule census. Another creature might summarize those molecules as "what feels good running through my gills" or "hot burning poison that is found on Earth and makes it uninhabitable for our species."

So, uh, "true, but not if we require it to be completely reductive in all matters of inquiry."
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby Dave_C on February 15th, 2016, 6:01 pm 

Thanks for the responses, and my apologies for not responding to each one individually. Hopefully this will encourage a few more thoughts.

So what does it mean to be physical? I think we can accept the common definition which is something along the lines of what is objectively observable, made up of those elements on the periodic table plus things like dark matter, dark energy, neutrinos, etc... Regardless of whether or not one accepts physicalism, all things are physical. So what I mean by that is, let's say I believe physicalism is false. In that case, I still accept that all objectively observable things are physical. I might also accept as most dualists do, that all phenomena supervene on the physical. The question is whether or not one can describe all phenomena (Jackson calls this "physical information") in physical terms.

I'm reminded of a YouTube video with Christof Koch who was discussing consciousness with a couple of philosophers. Christof was trying to defend what he thought was his physicalist position when one of the philosophers asked him a straightforward question. His response was along the lines of qualia not being describable in physical terms, to which the philosopher said, "Well then, you're a dualist!" Yes, Christof Koch, like many computationalists are dualists!
https://reluctantdualist.wordpress.com/ ... stof-koch/

The question isn't whether or not all things are physical. The question is whether or not everything can have a physical description. For example:
1. Can we find a physical description of qualia (also called "phenomenal experiences")?
2. Can we find a physical description of economics?
3. Can we find a physical description of morality?
I think we can find physical descriptions of economics and morality except where those descriptions have to include our experiences of something such as our experience of the value of money or our experiences of good or bad when it comes to morality. But we could still describe the physical behaviors involved such as someone hording gold while using paper money would tend to show that person is undervaluing gold while overvaluing paper currency (ie: Gresham's law). People's behaviors clearly have a physical description. People's phenomenal experiences when thinking about value or thinking about good or bad need not have a physical description in order for economics or morality to have a physical description.

So do qualia have a physical description? The experience of red for example, or the experience of pressure waves in air that we experience as sound, the sensation of pain, or any phenomenal experience are all phenomena which occur inside our brains. If we say that pain is C-fibers firing, does that describe the experience? If we say that a brain has a physical state P1 made up of physical descriptions of each neuron, and if we then calculate the causal interactions which lead to subsequent physical brain states P2, P3, ... Pn, then have we described what it is like to feel pain? If we know everything about how every neuron, every molecule, and every atom interacts in the body, and if we describe that state using physical terms, have we described what it is like to experience something such as color (per Jackson's argument).

For that matter, can we provide a physical description of what it is like to be a bat? Can we provide a physical description of what a bat feels when using his sonar to locate bugs? "If physicalism is to be defended, the phenomenological features must themselves be given a physical account." (Nagel, "What is it like to be a bat?")

Note also that being a dualist does not mean you reject causal closure. Jackson accepts causal closure which is why he entitled his first paper "Epiphenomenal Qualia" as opposed to "Causal Qualia" or something along those lines.

Many computationalists are also dualists.

You are a physicalist if you believe you can describe all phenomena using purely physical terms or believe there is some reason to suggest such as Dennett that there's no need to explain qualia.
You are a dualist if you feel qualia need an explanation but they can never be described nor explained in purely physical terms.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby Serpent on February 15th, 2016, 6:47 pm 

You can find a physical description of unicorn, even though they don't have a physical manifestation.

Words refer to the world of physical objects, their experiences, which are perceived through physical senses, and their actions, which are performed by physical bodies, and their interactions, which are performed by more than one physical body and thus become events, which can be recorded in various physical media.

Words also refer to the products of a physical brain which are not themselves objects or events, but concepts and descriptions, plans, desires, schemes and illusions, ideas and stories. Can you have a physical description of a description or a fiction or a notion? No. Can you conceive of anything non-physical without a physical brain? No.

Does the distinction mean anything? NO.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby moranity on February 15th, 2016, 9:39 pm 

when you write a word on a page, does that word physically exist on that page?
or, is it just some graphite and cellulose with some other stuff thrown in.
That word is not objectively verifiable, because some may not agree it's a word, and most would not be able to read it if it was not in their language, some may even think it was a purely accidental marking, or a picture.
a purely physical explanation is available for the existence of the graphite and the cellulose, most would agree.
a purely physical explanation is available for the existence of the word, but it's more complicated and must involve a lot of studying of human beings and most wouldn't agree on the details.
nope i'm still lost as to what physical means, i mean what is a non-physical object? A word? as i said, a word is a word to some and not others, it is not objectively verifiable.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby Serpent on February 15th, 2016, 10:57 pm 

Words existed long before any could be written down, just as other vocalizations exist. They're electrical impulses in neurons that are expressed through vocal cords and received by eardrums. All quite physical and measurable. The concepts and emotional impulses that give rise to the desire to communicate in words and other sounds are no-physical in themselves but are made by physical entities.

And not - ever - made by unphysical entities.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby wolfhnd on February 16th, 2016, 12:05 am 

Despite my defence of Dennett I still think everyone is looking at the problem wrong. When we describe the physical world we are describing the "laws" that make it possible for us to interpret it not the thing itself. You don't have to have a humiculum explanation to see that consciousness is not a physical process in the way most people see it. Information exists and it interacts with the physical world but our understanding of what information consists of is practically non existent. All of these discussions are essentially a priori.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby BadgerJelly on February 16th, 2016, 3:05 am 

Serpent » February 16th, 2016, 10:57 am wrote:Words existed long before any could be written down, just as other vocalizations exist. They're electrical impulses in neurons that are expressed through vocal cords and received by eardrums. All quite physical and measurable. The concepts and emotional impulses that give rise to the desire to communicate in words and other sounds are no-physical in themselves but are made by physical entities.

And not - ever - made by unphysical entities.


Heresay.

I've had this kind of discussion numerous times. Some people see no problem where others do. Phenomenal experience is impossible to explain in purely physical terms. We can guess at explanations that cater to physicalism because physicalism is the scientific approach that helps us understand and agree.

At the end of the day no one here, or anywhere, can explain in physical terms why I see and feel the way I do. Simply pointing to various neurons doesn't dissolve the explanatory gap it merely side steps it (which for science is absolutely necessary). Science is a method we use not a law of nature.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby moranity on February 16th, 2016, 5:21 am 

Hi Serpent,
we can see thoughts and emotions, they are physical, through MRI etc, we may not know their meaning, but that is a "language" problem, a deciphering problem, thoughts and emotions are physical.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby Dave_C on February 16th, 2016, 9:33 am 

moranity » February 15th, 2016, 8:39 pm wrote:when you write a word on a page, does that word physically exist on that page?
or, is it just some graphite and cellulose with some other stuff thrown in.
That word is not objectively verifiable, because some may not agree it's a word, and most would not be able to read it if it was not in their language, some may even think it was a purely accidental marking, or a picture.
a purely physical explanation is available for the existence of the graphite and the cellulose, most would agree.
a purely physical explanation is available for the existence of the word, but it's more complicated and must involve a lot of studying of human beings and most wouldn't agree on the details.
nope i'm still lost as to what physical means, i mean what is a non-physical object? A word? as i said, a word is a word to some and not others, it is not objectively verifiable.

I would agree that the right way to look at a word written on a page is that it is physical, made of graphite and cellulose or whatever. It is a physical object. But I think what you're trying to get at is whether or not a word's meaning is physical. Agreed, the word may not even be intentional (it may be an accidental smudge) and it may have multiple meanings, so is the meaning of a word physical?

What was referred to above as a physical 'thing' regards the word as it appears made of graphite and/or other materials. The meaning of the word however, is a concept which requires in my opinion, phenomenal consciousness to interpret however, we can still have meaning expressed such as by a dictionary or a recording of a person's voice, without having meaning in anyone's head.

We might for example, have p-zombies in the world who express concepts. In such a case, what additional phenomena are required to explain anything? Behavior is easily explained ie: the easy problem of consciousness. All things and phenomena are objectively observable by observing the physical changes in state. You have meaning being expressed without conscious experience so there is nothing more going on to explain.

If unfamiliar, a p-zombie is just a person with no experiences but behaves identically to a person. It is often said that a p-zombie is therefore "dead as a rock inside". A recording of someone's voice has as much experience or meaning as a p-zombie.

we can see thoughts and emotions, they are physical, through MRI etc, we may not know their meaning, but that is a "language" problem, a deciphering problem, thoughts and emotions are physical.

What we see in an MRI are the physical phenomena. We are not observing the phenomenal experience the person is having. For a clarification of phenomenal consciousness, see the definitions posted here:
viewtopic.php?p=275401
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby TheVat on February 16th, 2016, 12:38 pm 

I wonder if there is a semantic illusion built in our human language that makes us expect that the phenomenal aspect must be "explained." This idea always leads to tears, because it is so apparent that reductive causal explanations don't really address "what is is to" see red or be a bat. When something is fundamental, we often accept that there isn't some deep ontological map for it. We seem to be able to get past the fact that once, say, we've reduced electricity to moving electrons that the electron isn't going to usher us into some inner sanctum of ontological meaning within the electron. Perhaps consciousness is the elementary particle that our language-thinking won't let us get past and just accept that it is. Maybe a different creature with a different sort of brain could easily say,

"Some fundamental things have spin. Some have charge. And some have awareness. We measure one fundamental with magnets and phosphor screens. We measure another with probing questions. All are basic aspects of the physical."

Wolfhound said,

"Information exists and it interacts with the physical world but our understanding of what information consists of is practically non existent."

Perhaps a better language would allow us to say, rather, that "information is just a unit of being informed. It is a piece of a concept, a quantifiable aspect of being conscious."

OK, I'm sorta working through this.....work in progress.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby moranity on February 16th, 2016, 1:55 pm 

Dave_C » February 16th, 2016, 1:33 pm wrote:What we see in an MRI are the physical phenomena. We are not observing the phenomenal experience the person is having. For a clarification of phenomenal consciousness, see the definitions posted here:
viewtopic.php?p=275401

we are not observing any object in itself, ever, that does not mean that the object in question experiences things non-physically?
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby Serpent on February 16th, 2016, 4:45 pm 

BadgerJelly » February 16th, 2016, 2:05 am wrote:
Heresay.

I've had this kind of discussion numerous times. Some people see no problem where others do. Phenomenal experience is impossible to explain in purely physical terms. We can guess at explanations that cater to physicalism because physicalism is the scientific approach that helps us understand and agree.

At the end of the day no one here, or anywhere, can explain in physical terms why I see and feel the way I do. Simply pointing to various neurons doesn't dissolve the explanatory gap it merely side steps it (which for science is absolutely necessary). Science is a method we use not a law of nature.


And you can explain "why I see and feel the way I do." in non-physical terms?
I don't think so.

The explanatory gap doesn't need to be dissolved; it needs to be closed - or at least, some people are convinced that it needs to be closed. I submit that it's narrower now than it was a year, a century or a millennium ago.

On the other hand, I have heard no non-physical explanations that are more plausible or better-documented now than they were 2500years ago.

In any case, "how Badger feels" is the description of functions performed and stimuli perceived by a physical entity. Each process has a physiological basis and could not take place outside of the physical entity, or in its absence, or after its biological disintegration. Just because concepts and descriptions don't exist in a capturable (as of this moment) form, you don't have to place them in a whole separate realm of existence.

What I don't understand is what purpose it serves to do so.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby Dave_C on February 16th, 2016, 9:03 pm 

Braininvat » February 16th, 2016, 11:38 am wrote:I wonder if there is a semantic illusion built in our human language that makes us expect that the phenomenal aspect must be "explained." This idea always leads to tears, because it is so apparent that reductive causal explanations don't really address "what is is to" see red or be a bat. When something is fundamental, we often accept that there isn't some deep ontological map for it. We seem to be able to get past the fact that once, say, we've reduced electricity to moving electrons that the electron isn't going to usher us into some inner sanctum of ontological meaning within the electron. Perhaps consciousness is the elementary particle that our language-thinking won't let us get past and just accept that it is. Maybe a different creature with a different sort of brain could easily say,

"Some fundamental things have spin. Some have charge. And some have awareness. We measure one fundamental with magnets and phosphor screens. We measure another with probing questions. All are basic aspects of the physical."

I always enjoy your posts BiV. Funny, but I think we have some agreement here. I do accept phenomenal experiences as being as fundamental as electrons, and I do accept these experiences are entirely natural. They are part of nature. I simply can't accept that they are objectively observable in the way physical phenomena are which is a violation of physicalism. If a phenomenon doesn't have a physical description, we need to stop calling it a physical phenomenon - but that doesn't mean it doesn't supervene on the physical.

And that's a very scary thought, I know...
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby Serpent on February 16th, 2016, 11:00 pm 

Dave_C » February 16th, 2016, 8:03 pm wrote:I always enjoy your posts BiV. Funny, but I think we have some agreement here. I do accept phenomenal experiences as being as fundamental as electrons, and I do accept these experiences are entirely natural. They are part of nature. I simply can't accept that they are objectively observable in the way physical phenomena are which is a violation of physicalism. If a phenomenon doesn't have a physical description, we need to stop calling it a physical phenomenon - but that doesn't mean it doesn't supervene on the physical.

And that's a very scary thought, I know...

Why is that scary? Some things, you can't describe because you're inside them; some things you can't describe, because they're inside you - either way, you can' find a perspective from which to observe them or the senses to apprehend them. So what? If you know you can't, why keep fretting over it? Even a Jack Russell eventually figures out that he can't jump over the house and stops trying.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby TheVat on February 17th, 2016, 1:37 am 

I think that's what I was getting at. Red is the physical description that is obtained from inside a brain. 620 nanometers is the physical description obtained by an objective instrument not inside a brain. "Red" is a summary generated in the visual cortex. Holistic, non-chunky, permits rapid response by a self-replicating bbiological entity. "620 nm photons emitted by excited electrons dropping to lower energy state in chitinous exoskeleton of neurotoxin secreting arachnid, absorbed by molecules of pigment in retinal cone cells and chemically converted to depolarization wave along axon of...." takes too long. The spider bit you and you're dying. All descriptions trace back to the physical, but some are on different levels of data compression and summarizing. And if the summaries are stored for later retrieval, error creeps in. We are made of signals with lots of noise mixed in.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby moranity on February 17th, 2016, 8:20 pm 

If a phenomenon doesn't have a physical description, we need to stop calling it a physical phenomenon - but that doesn't mean it doesn't supervene on the physical.

And that's a very scary thought, I know...

so do you mean if a phenomenon is not explained by known physical laws it is not physical?
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby T. Burbank on February 17th, 2016, 11:08 pm 

Very interesting to read the discussion of this topic here. And my own quick answer to the question is... False. But I admire physicalism's efforts to resolve a question that may be unresolvable.

Here is how I have tried to resolve that same question:

To be physical s.th. must 1) have mass, and 2) take up space. And I don't believe either of these to be true of my mind. They are both true of my brain, and of the neurons in my brain, and of the molecules forming those neurons, and of the atoms forming those molecules, and of the local assemblies of quarks and electrons and whatever that I have heard it claimed are what constitutes those atoms. But they are not true of my mind. Which makes me a substance dualist, I suppose. Although I am not one who believes (as DesCartes is said to have said) that the mental and the physical are independent of each other.

I am not nearly well enough read on this subject, so I know I'm behind on some important things. I hear the term "emergence" used - with the mind said to be an emergent property of the body (the brain). I can understand water emerging (can we say this?) from hydrogen and oxygen, but all three of them are physical. My mind is not physical - you can't drink it, gravity doesn't cause it to flow down the hill if it sloshes out my ears when I'm running to catch the bus... How can activities in my brain that are physical cause my mind to emerge?

Physicalism, as I understand it, insists that everything which we know to exist must be physical. Because (in a question similar to the one I just asked above) how can something non-physical ever even hope to interact with this physical world? But when we zoom in on the subatomic level aren't there entities that 1) do not have mass, and 2) do not take up space? I have read that some bosons might fit this description, but for me T. Burbank to pretend to know anything about bosons is patently absurd so forget about that. But how about electric charge? It is a property of quarks, electrons, etc., which are themselves of course physical, but does electric charge on its own have mass, and/or take up space?

As far as I can tell the answers to both questions are no. And yet electric charge seems to be something substantial in and of itself, and it does interact with the physical world. Always and everywhere; there wouldn't be a physical world without it. But I don't think anyone would ever suggest that electric charge "supervenes" on the physical world.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby Serpent on February 17th, 2016, 11:12 pm 

moranity -- so do you mean if a phenomenon is not explained by known physical laws it is not physical?


I'm also perplexed by the word 'description'. What is a physical description and how does it differ from some other kinds of description? What other kinds are there? What would be an example of a non-physical description?

What I don't understand that's most relevant here is the distinction between 'description' and 'explanation'. I'm not sure how those words are being used in the discussion of processes generated by, perceived by and experienced by physical entities, and how processes are distinguished from phenomena.

T. Burbank - - I can understand water emerging (can we say this?) from hydrogen and oxygen, but all three of them are physical. My mind is not physical

Emegence doesn't take up space or have mass; neither is/does hydrogen bonding, photosynthesis, or watching a movie. These are processes performed by matter that does take up space and have mass. We have no problem attributing single actions or easily traceable processes to a physical cause, and we can see and measure the physical result. Data reception, data storage, data-processing, risk-assessment, plotting, responding, etc. are all perfectly comprehensible physical activities when undertaken by a machine - even though not one operation can be weighed or sized.
Putting a collective name - mind - on a very long and complex series of actions performed over a long time by a great many co-operative micro-organisms doesn't put that process onto a different plane of existence. Mental process shouldn't present such a big obstacle. The problem is a superficial semantic one. Use verbs instead of nouns and you're fine.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby BadgerJelly on February 18th, 2016, 12:40 am 

Serpent and all -

And you can explain "why I see and feel the way I do." in non-physical terms?
I don't think so.


The point is I don't need to. I feel it all the same I know I feel it it is undeniable.

Physicalism is how we interact in the everyday sense of being-in-the-world. I am not denying that at all.

The explanatory gap doesn't need to be dissolved; it needs to be closed - or at least, some people are convinced that it needs to be closed. I submit that it's narrower now than it was a year, a century or a millennium ago.


It cannot be closed. At least not by physicalism, it more than likely a misrepresentation due to language or the boundary of our understanding capabilities (again we are bound to physical representation of the universe - not a bad thing or a good thing just the way it appears to be).

I certainly don't think we can rightly say the gap is narrower or broader because I think we are too linear in our thinking to estimate. We can certainly say that today we have a better understanding and application of natural sciences than we did 100 or even 10 years ago.

We look for physical explanations because we model the world we perceive as physical. If we perceived it as something other then we'd likely find ourselves flailing around in the dark and making false or hopeful assumptions. This is why science exists. To differentiate between assumptions and objective observations.

In any case, "how Badger feels" is the description of functions performed and stimuli perceived by a physical entity.


I am glad you said this. My number one problem is how limited I am in describing how I feel to someone else. The limits of language are often glossed over because we assume common ground where there is so little actual evidence. Words that have been brought up already here can often shift in meaning very easily. The simple rhythm of a sentence can alter someones view, the artistry of words can make the simple seem complex. I have had people say here to me many times that this language is the best we have to communicate. In my view it is the place of philosophy (especially metaphysics) to refine and expand our language. Sadly this is a very long slow and drawn out process that often fails and rarely leads to anything that expands global understanding and communication.

Scientific questions can be answered by science and philosophical questions can be answered by philosophers ... I think over time questions have and will move between the two and in such cases there is much confusion whilst we desperately try to keep our information in tidy little boxes.

Just because concepts and descriptions don't exist in a capturable (as of this moment) form, you don't have to place them in a whole separate realm of existence.


Never said any such thing. It is this kind of direct opposition to physicalism that brings out the polarity of peoples thought process. From my view the question posed in the post is not asking about another realm of reality beyond our comprehension (quite possible and obviously unknowable by definition, ergo irrelevant to science, logic and everyday experience). It is asking about the limits of our understanding what is reasonable to consider and what is not reasonable to consider. I think there is also a rather large psychological question at hand here that is asking how our physical view of the world influences how we choose to look at this or that thing.

As an example, something brought up by Heidegger before, we view the world. By this simple statement and many others we are naturally inclined to focus on what something looks like and this is embedded in our language too when we can "see" someones point of view.

Is physicalism true or false? It is irrelevant because it works for us. If we chose to view the world as an ethereal entity (which when you start to look at the boundaries of current thinking in physics is probably more appropriate) the world around us can be viewed differently even though we cannot see it that way directly. We can of course say maybe there is something "beyond" the physical but so what ? We cannot know it and if we could then one day the only route we'll ever have to it is through the physical so we concentrate on the physical and remain open to what it says. I really don't think it matters much because we can only work with what is knowable and strive towards what is currently unknowable. The direction of our gaze may often be wrong and I guess the best we can do is try to gaze towards questions we can expect some kind of usable answer from.

Explanations are only explanations. I can explain to someone what a bike is, how to operate it but those explanations are only explanations they are not experiences. To explain an experience is to represent an experience in a colourless and flat way with the hope that the person listening has enough information and prior experience to give colour and depth to what you are saying ... they may even see more than you ever can without even ever having seen or known of a bike.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby moranity on February 18th, 2016, 9:29 am 

T. Burbank » February 18th, 2016, 3:08 am wrote:To be physical s.th. must 1) have mass, and 2) take up space. And I don't believe either of these to be true of my mind. They are both true of my brain, and of the neurons in my brain, and of the molecules forming those neurons, and of the atoms forming those molecules, and of the local assemblies of quarks and electrons and whatever that I have heard it claimed are what constitutes those atoms. But they are not true of my mind. Which makes me a substance dualist, I suppose. Although I am not one who believes (as DesCartes is said to have said) that the mental and the physical are independent of each other.


according to your definition light is non-physical
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby Serpent on February 18th, 2016, 10:28 am 

Badger Jelly - - We look for physical explanations because we model the world we perceive as physical. If we perceived it as something other then we'd likely find ourselves flailing around in the dark and making false or hopeful assumptions.

Yea. So why do it? Why keep on doing it, when you keep failing to come up with an intelligible explanation?
Scientific questions can be answered by science and philosophical questions can be answered by philosophers ...

Yea. The scientific ones yield tangible results - as long as they remain in the observable physical realm. Once they go down the rabbit-hole of speculative mathematics, they turn into philosophers... but at least they don't keep citing Ptolemy or Copernicus as the ultimate cosmological authority. The philosophers go around in circles, still leaning on Plato and Kant.
I think over time questions have and will move between the two and in such cases there is much confusion whilst we desperately try to keep our information in tidy little boxes.

What will change tomorrow that hasn't changed in the last three thousand years?
Have you ever tried to find a useful piece of information in an archive that wasn't arranged in tidy boxes?
My number one problem is how limited I am in describing how I feel to someone else. The limits of language...

I have c. 7,000 books that seem to contradict this view. Google estimates 129 million altogether. That's not even counting the horrific quantity of communications, entertainments and recordings in other media. We're constantly, at the top of our lungs, keyboards, microphones, newspaper presses and television cameras, telling one another how we feel. (Mostly, we're not that interested in how all the other life-forms on the planet feel, but they're expressing themselves all the time, too.) If verbal communication were ineffective, would it have multiplied to its present volume?

We can of course say maybe there is something "beyond" the physical but so what ? We cannot know it and if we could then one day the only route we'll ever have to it is through the physical so we concentrate on the physical and remain open to what it says. I really don't think it matters much because we can only work with what is knowable and strive towards what is currently unknowable.

That's all I've been saying the whole time.
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby TheVat on February 18th, 2016, 12:56 pm 

There's a lot we don't know about neutrinos because they barely interact with fermionic matter and any given neutrino has a 50% chance of passing unnoticed through a light-year of solid lead. And yet the latest estimate is that there are a billion times as many neutrinos as all the other elementary particles in the universe. And they play a key role in making the universe run. There are observatories around the world now, like one at the South Pole, which detects them by inference. A neutrino passes through over a mile of solid bubble-free (due to glacial compression) ice and once in a while a muon is generated when the neutrino strikes a water molecule, and the muon's passage causes a tiny flash of blue light which is picked up by one of thousands of optical sensors embedded in the ice. So, without ever "viewing" a neutrino, we know one passed by and we learn things about it. And, by a causal chain, that neutrino has interacted with our physical eyes and our physical brain. What more do we need to define this "ethereal" thing as physical? Physicality is all about causality, so yes, we limit ourselves to the study of things that can interact, however indirectly or weakly, with us. It's truly challenging to imagine any conscious entity of any kind that does not experience that same limit. Enhancement of our senses just moves the goalposts a bit. (I live about 30 miles from a neutrino observatory but not, I'm happy to report, the one at the South Pole)
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby mtbturtle on February 18th, 2016, 6:48 pm 

What difference does it make?
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Re: Physicalism, true or false?

Postby moranity on February 18th, 2016, 7:13 pm 

Hi MtbTurtle,
well Decarte coming up with the duality of body and soul freed science from the confines of religious dogma and allowed it to grow in europe, that's quite a big difference. It drew a line over which neither science and religion were allowed to cross and allowed science abit more freedom from the church
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