Archive for December, 2015

whistlePhysical determinism is implausible according to Richard Swinburne in the latest JCS; he cunningly attacks via epiphenomenalism.

Swinburne defines physical events as public and mental ones as private – we could argue about that, but as a bold, broad view it seems fair enough. Mental events may be phenomenal or intentional, but for current purposes the distinction isn’t important. Physical determinism is defined as the view that each physical event is caused solely by other physical events; here again we might quibble, but the idea seems basically OK to be going on with.

Epiphenomenalism, then, is the view that while physical events may cause mental ones, mental ones never cause physical ones. Mental events are just, as they say, the whistle on the locomotive (though the much-quoted analogy is not exact: prolonged blowing of the whistle on a steam locomotive can adversely affect pressure and performance). Swinburne rightly describes epiphenomenalism as an implausible view (in my view, anyway – many people would disagree), but for him it is entailed by physical determinism, because physical events are only ever caused by other physical events. In his eyes, then, if he can prove that epiphenomenalism is wrong, he has also shown that physical determinism is ruled out. This is an unusual, perhaps even idiosyncratic perspective, but not illogical.

Swinburne offers some reasonable views about scientific justification, but what it comes down to is this; to know that epiphenomenalism is true we have to show that mental events cause no physical events; but that very fact would mean we could never register when they had occurred – so how would we prove it? In order to prove epiphenomenalism true, we must assume that what it says is false!

Swinburne takes it that epiphenomenalism means we could never speak of our private mental events – because our words would have to have been caused by the mental events, and ex hypothesi they don’t cause physical events like speech. This isn’t clearly the case – as I’ve mentioned before, we manage to speak of imaginary and non-existent things which clearly have no causal powers. Intentionality – meaning – is weirder and more powerful than Swinburne supposes.

He goes on to discuss the famous findings of Benjamin Libet, which seem to show that decisions are detectable in the brain before we are aware of having made them. These results point towards epiphenomenalism being true after all. Swinburne is not impressed; he sees no basic causal problem in the idea that a brain event precedes the mental event of the decision, which in turn precedes action. Here he seems to me to miss the point a bit, which is that if Libet is right, the mental experience of making a decision has no actual effect, since the action is already determined.

The big problem, though is that Swinburne never engages with the normal view; ie that in one way or another mental events have two aspects. A single brain event is at the same time a physical event which is part of the standard physical story, and a mental event in another explanatory realm. In one way this is unproblematic; we know that a mass of molecules may also be a glob of biological structure, and an organism; we know that a pile of paper, a magnetised disc, or a reel of film may all also be “A Christmas Carol”. As Scrooge almost puts it, Marley’s ghost may be undigested gravy as well as a vision of the grave.

It would be useless to pretend there is no residual mystery about this, but it’s overwhelmingly how most people reconcile physical determinism with the mental world, so for Swinburne to ignore it is a serious weakness.

brainsimAeon Magazine has published my Opinion piece on brain simulation. Go on over there and comment! Why not like me while you’re at it!!!

I’m sorry about that outburst – I got a little over-excited…

Coming soon (here) Babbage’s forgotten rival…

cosmosIs cosmopsychism the panpsychism we’ve all been waiting for? Itay Shani thinks so and sets out the reasons in this paper. While others start small and build up, he starts with the cosmos and works down. But he rejects the Blobject…

To begin at the beginning. Panpsychism is the belief that consciousness is everywhere; that it is in some sense a basic part of the world. Typically when people try to explain consciousness they start with the ingredients supplied by physics and try to build a mind out of them in a way which plausibly accounts for all the remarkable features of consciousness. Panpsychists just take awareness for granted, the way we often take matter or energy for granted; they take it to be primary, and this arguably gets them out of a very difficult explanatory task. There are a number of variants – panexperientialism, panentheism, and so on – which tend to be bracketed with panpsychism as similar considerations apply to all members of the family.

This kind of thinking has enjoyed quite a good level of popularity in recent years, perhaps a rising one. Regular readers may recall, though, that I’m not attracted by panpsychism. If stones have consciousness, we still have to explain how human consciousness comes to be different from what the stones have got. I suspect that that task is going to be just as difficult as explaining consciousness from scratch, so that adopting the panpsychist thesis leaves us worse off rather than better.

Shani, however, thinks some of the problems are easily dealt with; others he takes very seriously. He points out quite fairly that panpsychists are not bound to ascribe awareness to every entity at every level; they’re OK just so long as there is, as it were, universal coverage at some level. Most panpsychists, as he rightly observes, tend to push the basic home of consciousness down to a micro level, which leaves us with the problem of how these simple micro-consciousnesses can come together to form a higher level one – or sometimes not form a higher one.

Thus combination issue is a difficult one that comes in many forms: Shani picks out particularly the questions of how micro-subjects can combine to form a macro-subject; how phenomenal experience can combine, and how the structure of experience can combine. Cutting to the chase, he finds the most difficult of the three to be the problems with subjects, and in particular he quotes an argument of Coleman’s. This is, in brief, that distinct subjects require distinct points of view, but that in merging, points of view lose their identity. He mentions the simplified case of a subject that only sees red and one that only sees blue: the combined point of view includes both blue and red and the ‘just-red’ and ‘just-blue’ points of view are lost.

I think it requires a good deal more argumentation than Shani offers to make all this really convincing. He and Coleman, for example, take it as given that the combination of subjects must preserve the existence of the combined elements, more or less as the combination of hydrogen and oxygen to make water does not annihilate the component elements. Maybe that is the case, but the point seems very arguable.

Shani also seems to give way to Coleman without much of a fight, although there’s plenty of scope for one. But after all these are highly complex issues and Shani only has so much space: moreover I’m inclined to go along with him because I agree that the combination problem is very bad; perhaps worse than Shani thinks.

It just seems intuitively very unlikely that two micro-minds can be combined. Two of the things that seem clearest about our own minds is that they combine terrific complexity with a strong overall unity; both of those factors seem to throw up problems for a merger. To me it seems that two minds are like two clocks: you cannot meaningfully merge them except by taking them apart into their basic components and putting something completely new together – which is no use at all for panpsychism.

For Shani, of course, combination must fail so that he can offer his cosmic solution as an alternative route to a viable panpsychism. He sets out his stall with six postulates.

  1. The cosmos as a whole is the only ontological ultimate there is, and it is conscious.
  2. It is prior to its parts.
  3. It is laterally dual in nature, having a concealed and a revealed side (the concealed side being phenomenal experience while the revealed side is the apparently objective world around us).
  4. It is like a fluctuating ocean, with waves, ripples and vortices assuming temporary identity of their own.
  5. The cosmic consciousness grounds the smaller consciousnesses within it.
  6. Conscious entities’ are dynamic configurations within the cosmic whole.
  7. These consciousnesses are severally related to particular surges or vortices of the cosmic consciousness and never fully separate from it.

That seems at least a vision we can entertain, but it immediately faces the challenge of the Blobject. This is the universal cosmic object championed by Terry Horgan & Matjaž Potr?. They are happy with the grand cosmic unity proposed by Shani but they go further; how can it have any parts? They believe the great cosmic consciousness is the Blobject; the only thing that truly exists; the idea that there are really other things is deluded.

The austere ontology of the Blobject and its splendid parsimony can only be admired. We might talk more about it another time; but for now I’m inclined to agree with Shani that the task of reconciling it with actual experience is just too fraught with difficulty.

So does Shani succeed? He does, I think, set out, albeit briefly, a coherent and interesting view; but it does not have the advantages he supposes. He believes that starting at the top and working down avoids the difficult problems we encounter if we start at the bottom and work up. I think that is an illusion derive from the fact that the bottom-up approach has just been discussed more. I think in fact that just the same problems must recur whichever way we approach things.

Take the Coleman point. Coleman’s objection is that in combining, two points of view lose their separate identity, while it needs to be preserved. But surely, if we take his blue-and-red pov and split it into just-blue and just-red we get a similar loss of the original identity. Now as I said, I’m not altogether sure that this need be a problem, but it seems to me clear that it doesn’t really matter which way we move through the problem; and the same must be true of all arguments which relate different levels of panpsychist consciousness. Is there really any fundamental asymmetry that makes the top-down view stronger?