Galen Strawson Galen Strawson’s paper “Realistic Monism: why Physicalism entails Panpsychism” (to be the keynote of “Consciousness and its Place in Nature”, due out in September) has already attracted favourable attention. It’s certainly an amusing read – though the entertaining tone perhaps includes a hint of bluster here and there. In any case my own view is that it contains some dreadful pieces of argument, and in no way delivers what the title promises. It promises much, of course: that physicalism entails panpsychism? That merely by sitting and thinking quietly about the nature of physicalism we shall see that everything is or has a soul? Establishing that would indeed be a magnificent achievement. There are three small snags: Strawson doesn’t mean “physicalism”, he doesn’t mean “panpsychism” – and he doesn’t mean “entails”.

Strawson makes it clear that when he speaks of physicalism, he doesn’t mean what most people would mean: no, he means real physicalism, which acknowledges that experiences are physical, and that they are all we really know of in the world, the necessary starting point for any enquiry. Of course the objects and indeed the subjects of experience are often undoubtedly physical, but it’s an odd idea that experiences themselves are concrete physical objects with a definite spatial location. I’d like to see Strawson point to some of his sometime, or catch some in a jar to use as evidence.

He distinguishes true physicalism from physicSalism – the belief, utterly false, he says, that all of concrete reality can be captured in terms of physics. But every real, concrete phenomenon is physical according to Strawson: he must therefore believe that there are physical phenomena which lie outside the scope of physics. Physical phenomena which lie outside the scope of physics? What could those be? Never mind whether this is good philosophy – it isn’t even good lexicography. Perhaps it’s just that Strawson’s exposition has gotinto a bit of a muddle. Rather than giving a radically different sense to the word “physicalism”, it would be better to choose another term – as he partially acknowledges. He suggests we could call his theory “experiential and non-experiential monism”, but I think “experientialism” would be a fair description.

What about Strawson’s alleged panpsychism? He doesn’t seem, in fact, to believe that souls are everywhere: only that experience is the ultimate building block of the world, which we could better call panexperientialism. So the proud boast of the title is reduced to the claim that “experientialism entails panexperientialism”. How does the entailment work? Stripping away many twists and turns, we come down to the observation that unless everything is constituted by experience, there must be some other stuff around, and “I would bet a lot against there being such radical heterogeneity at the very bottom of things”. Well, here’s a fiver says you’re wrong, matey.

You’re entirely missing the whole point. First of all, Strawson is absolutely right to insist on the primacy of experience. People often suppose that science is about our real experience of the world, the things we know about for sure, while phiosophy is all about complex abstractions which we know of only through complicated pieces of reasoning. In fact, of course, it’s the other way round: phenomenology deals with the undeniable realities of what we experience, while the entities described by physics have to be inferred from those experiences – what else have we got to go on?

But what you’re wilfully ignoring is Strawson’s main argument. His point is that if experience is not fundamental, it must have arisen out of non-experiential stuff. Now he accepts the phenomenon of emergence, where in particular circumstances a particular arrangement or organisation of a substance can have properties which the substance in itself does not have. But, he points out, emergence cannot be brute: you can’t get new properties emerging at random. There has to be an intelligible account of how the emergent properties are constituted by the properties of the substrate. In the case of experience, it is clearly impossible to give any account of how experience could be constituted out of a non-experiential substrate: so experience must be fundamental. It might be the case that there is also a non-experiential substrate, but it’s more economical to assume that at a micro level the world is constituted entirely from experience. Put these micro-experiences together in one way, and you get a non-experiential rock, or table: put them together another way and you get a higher-level experiential mind.

I’m not sure that’s actually right, but it’s an appealing scheme.

I’m not ignoring anything: there is no argument to ignore. Strawson wants to resurrect the medieval principle that ex nihilo nihil fit – nothing will come of nothing. Five hundred years ago, he would have been saying that that proved our minds could only have come from the greater mind of God: now he wants to say they could only have come from a world full of micro-minds. But the principle is just wrong, or at least subject to the very large exception of emergence, which does allow something to come out of nothing after all.

Of course there should be an intelligible account of how the emergent phenomenon emerges: but the fact that we haven’t got that account for consciousness yet doesn’t prove it’s impossible. Virtually the whole subject of consciousness studies is an attempt to give an account of how experience emerges from non-experience. To assume there cannot be such an account just begs the question. What Strawson really wants to do is deny the possibility of emergence; but he knows that is totally implausible, so he behaves like an amateur conjuror – he talks around the subject, moves it around a bit, shifts it back, talks about something else, and then suddenly emergence disappears up his sleeve. I think I can point to the moment when it happens – he’s just been drawing our attention away with some talk about “Z properties”, and then all at once:

“For what we do, when we give a satisfactory account of how liquidity emerges from non-liquidity, is show that there aren’t really any new properties involved at all.”

There is no emergence, all explanations of emergent phenomena are eliminative, and ex nihilo nihil fit! Neither true nor supported by the preceding discussion.

Yes, all very rhetorical – but don’t you have to concede the primacy of experience, as I said before? And if experience is the only direct reality we know about, isn’t it a strong candidate for the basic buidling block of reality?

No: for two reasons. Strawson spends a lot of time waving his hands over how his opponents – he names Dennett, for example – deny the reality of experience. This “deepest woo-woo of the human mind” is to the lasting shame of philosophy as a whole, it seems. But I ask – isn’t Strawson weirdly denying experience himself? He talks about experience as though it were an isolated phenomenon, but in fact the strongest feature of experience is that it is about something, and in fact, about physical reality. We don’t just have experiences and then in our quieter moments think that, hey, these experiences could be clues to an external reality: we actually experience the world and then, in our quiet times, deduce that we know about the world through something we could label experience. Strawson talks as though experience came first, and then the tenuous hypothesis of a physical world came along later: but that actually denies the most salient features of experience.

In the second place, he chooses not to draw an important distinction between our experiences and those of other people. It’s only our own experiences we have first-hand, directly: from them we infer the details of the world around us, and then another step is required to believe that other entities out there are having experiences like our own. If Strawson were rigorous, he would conclude, not that the world is probably constructed out of experience in general, but that it is probably constructed out of his own experience: he would be a solipsist. Building our own experience out of the experiences of other entities is no simpler than building it out of non-experiential entities – perhaps a good deal less simple.

But what a feeble attitude anyway! Reality must be constructed out of the things I know best, as though the basic components of the world were human beings! The truth is that physics is indeed all about phenomenal experience: it simply provides a sophisticated and well-tested set of theories about the underlying, independent realities. To ignore all this and base your conception of the world on primitive experience is perverse.

One Comment

  1. 1. David Nyman says:

    I’ve read Strawson’s book, which of course includes a large number of comments and criticisms from other authors, and his responses to them. I must say that in the end, though he makes a number of good points, and some of his critics a number of bad ones, I’m not terribly happy with the overall cogency of the outcome. In particular, it’s rather unclear from his analysis at what level of explanation fundamental phenomenal properties are supposed to be situated. Surely “red” is not already to be found at the level of the smallest entities? But if not, what possible combination of non-red micro-properties (bearing in mind his own denial of emergence in this sense) could coherently be supposed to constitute a “red” experience? Having said this, neither I nor anyone else to my knowledge has any inkling of the explanation either, so it would perhaps be unfair to be too critical on that score.

    I have however one further comment to make. It seemed to me some of the distance between Strawson and his critics might be bridged by agreeing that reality is participatory – in the sense I think that Wheeler intended – and that this is fundamental irrespective of whether we are considering its mental or material aspects. In that case it would not be so much whether it is necessarily always “like” something to participate in such a reality (I agree with your deconstruction of this sense of “like”), but that it always IS something, with some ineliminable sense of “personal participation”. How such “isness” would ultimately apprehend itself under the appropriate conditions would inevitably be sui generis – incommensurable in some fundamental sense – but its structure and functions, for specific purposes, could potentially be abstractable more or less convincingly and to some degree of precision.

    What I’m saying amounts I suppose to a denial of an “arm’s length” view of reality, which poses the artificial problem of how to integrate our participation after the fact, as it were. It is perhaps this “view from nowhere” that leads to the apparent paradox of emergence. If instead we grant at the outset that reality IS participation, we could perhaps find more intuitive – or at least less nausea-inducing – the idea that such participation could eventually yield the sort of self-apprehension characteristic of mind, without the need to transcend a singular category of situated reality.

    This hardly amounts to a solution of the mind-body problem, but agreement on some such conceptual levelling of the playing field might help to make some of the detailed disagreements less confusing.

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