Following up on his post about the simplicity argument for panpsychism, Philip Goff went on to defend  the idea that physical things must have an intrinsic nature. Actually, it would be more accurate to say he attacks the idea that they don’t have intrinsic natures.  Those who think that listing the causal properties of a thing exhausts what we can say about its physical nature are causal structuralists, he says, committed to the view that everything reduces to dispositions; dispositions to burn, to attract, or to break, for example.

But when we come to characterise these dispositions, we find we can only do it in terms of other dispositions. A disposition to burn may involve dispositions to glow, get hot, generate ash, and so on. So we get involved in an endless circularity. Some might argue that this is OK, that we can cope with a network of mutual definitions that is, in the end, self-supporting; Goff says this is as unsatisfactory as making our living by taking in each other’s washing.

There’s a problem there, certainly. I think a bit more work is needed to nail down the idea that to reject intrinsic natures is necessarily to embrace causal structuralism, but no doubt Goff has done that in his fuller treatment. A more serious gap, it seems to me, is an explanation of how intrinsic natures get us out of this bind.

It seems to me that in practice we do not take the scholarly approach of identifying a thing through its definition; more usually we just show people. What is fire? This, we say, displaying a lit match. Goff gives an amusing example of three boxes containing a Splurge, a Blurge, and a Kurge, each defined in terms of the next in an inescapable circle. But wouldn’t you open the box?

We could perhaps argue that recognising the Splurge is just grasping its intrinsic nature. But actually we would recognise it by sight, which depends on its causal properties; its disposition to reflect light, if you like. Those causal properties cannot have anything to do with its intrinsic nature, which seems to drop out of the explanation; in fact its intrinsic nature could logically change without affecting the causal properties at all.

This apparently radical uselessness of intrinsic properties, like the similar ineffectual nature of qualia, is what causes me the greatest difficulty with a perspective that would otherwise have some appeal.

7 Comments

  1. 1. Tom says:

    Causal relations are a kind of relations, and there can be no relations without relata. If there is attracting or breaking then there must also be something that is being attracted or broken. Although the relata themselves can sometimes be relations too (for example there can be a relation between the relation of “attracting” and the relation of “breaking”), there must ultimately be also relata that are not relations, otherwise the whole structure of relations has just as little sense as a house without foundations. And these relata that are not relations are the so-called intrinsic natures or identities or qualitative/non-relational/non-structureal aspects of things.

    “Those causal properties cannot have anything to do with its intrinsic nature, which seems to drop out of the explanation; in fact its intrinsic nature could logically change without affecting the causal properties at all.”

    Peter, why do you keep repeating this assertion? I would expect the exact opposite – that the intrinsic nature of a thing and its relations to other (intrinsic natures of) things depend on each other, because relations between things simply express how the intrinsic natures of things are related to each other. And so, if a thing’s relations change, I would expect that the thing itself – its intrinsic nature – would automatically change too. Or vice versa, if the thing itself changes, then its relations to other things automatically change too.

  2. 2. Peter says:

    It’s specified that the intrinsic nature of a thing is something apart from its causal properties. If you don’t get that you might need another look at what Goff says.

  3. 3. Tom says:

    If Goff believes that there is no dependence between the intrinsic nature of a thing and its causal properties I disagree with him. It’s actually difficult to see why it should be that way. Electrons have different causal properties than photons and presumably electrons are a different sort of thing than photons, with a different intrinsic nature. According to particle physics a photon can change into an electron and a positron, so a change of thing is accompanied by change of its causal properties.

    The intrinsic nature and causal properties of a thing are independent in the sense that one cannot be logically derived from the other. That’s because logic only deals with relations (causal relations are a special kind of relations) and not with intrinsic natures.

  4. 4. VicP says:

    Hi Tom,

    If I added the CAPS WORDS to your statement would it make more sense ?

    That’s because logic LEVELS only deals with relations (causal relations are a special kind of relations) AT THAT LEVEL and not with LOGIC AT intrinsic natures LEVELS.

  5. 5. Tom says:

    Hi VicP,

    I am not sure I understand. Please try again.

    Logical deduction doesn’t deal with intrinsic natures of things. It deals with part-whole and property-instance relations. Here is an example of logical deduction:

    All X are Y (in other words: All X have property Y; or: The set of all X is a subset of the set of all Y).
    All Y are Z.
    Therefore, all X are Z.

    X, Y, Z may be intrinsic natures of things, but logic is not interested in what they are, only in their relations. Logic cannot even describe intrinsic natures because they are indescribable. Descriptions deal only with relations.

  6. 6. Conscious Electrons – Conscious Entities | We Seek the Truth! says:

    […] being composed of the stuff. Peter Hankins distills how Goff opens the door for consciousness as an Intrinsic Nature, even for electrons. Or does he, since Philip attacks the idea that they don’t […]

  7. 7. Conscious Electrons – Conscious Entities | We Seek the Truth! says:

    […] being composed of the stuff. Peter Hankins distills how Goff opens the door for consciousness as an Intrinsic Nature, even for electrons. Or does he, since Philip attacks the idea that they don’t […]

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