Max Velmans has produced Reflexive Monism as a valiantly renewed effort to sort out the confused story of the relations between observer, object, and experience. This is one of those subjects that really ought to be perfectly straightforward but in fact has descended into such a dense thicket of philosophical clarification that the scope for misunderstanding and talking past one another is huge. In my more pessimistic moments I wonder whether the issue is really reclaimable at all, at least by means of further discussion.
Velmans’ view apparently stems from a revelation he experienced when he noticed that the world he had heretofore regarded as the public, objective, external one – the world we all experience, full of cats and a number of other things – was in fact a phenomenal world, a world as experienced by him. Those things out there are our experiences of the world, and so reflexive monism belongs with the externalist theories that seem to have become popular recently. It is also a dual aspect theory; that is, the one underlying stuff in which all monist s must believe expresses itself in two ways, as the objective physical world and as the consciously experienced phenomenal world we actually see out there.
Dual aspect theories seem attractively sensible, and very probably true as far as they go; but I think one can be pardoned for still feeling slightly unsatisfied by them. Okay, so the world doesn’t consist of two kinds of stuff, it just has two aspects; but to round that out into a proper explanation we need an account of what an aspect might be. Ideally we also want an account of the nature of the one underlying stuff which would explain why on earth it expresses itself in two different ways. These accounts are not easy to give: in fact it is quite difficult to say anything at all about the fundamental stuff, much as all good metaphysicians must wish to do so. I don’t think these issues are quite so problematic for the poor benighted dualists, who have a good reason why things might appear in two different guises, or the more brutal kinds of monist, who can as it were, just tick all the ‘No’ boxes on the form. Velmans, in fairness, has given us a helpful hint in the name of his theory: the reflexivity of his monism refers to the idea of the Universe becoming aware of itself through the medium of conscious individuals, which at least suggests where the two aspects might spring from.
Velmans brings out well what I think is the main attraction of externalism: that it eliminates the idea that the objects of perception are entirely in the head, that all we ever really experience are representations in the brain. Some of Velmans’ assaults on this idea, however, are a little dubious. Take his ‘skull’ argument: the phenomenal world extends as far as we can see – to the horizon and the dome of the sky, he suggests. Now if the phenomenal world is all inside my brain, my real, non-phenomenal skull exists beyond that world: beyond the dome of the sky. How ridiculous is that? Rhetorically, this conjures up the idea of the real skull floating in outer space, or perhaps enclosing the world like a second, bony sky. But really, in saying that the real skull is beyond the phenomenal world, we don’t mean it’s geographically or spatially a bit beyond it: we mean it’s in another world altogether; in a different mode of existence.
There’s a similarly questionable treatment of location in Velmans’ references to those materialists who would see experience as constituted by functions or patterns of neuron firing in the brain. Velmans again attributes to such people the belief that experience is actually located in the brain. They might well agree, but perhaps with some reservation: I think many or most functionalists, for example, would distinguish between a particular instantiation of a function, which certainly exists in a physical place in the brain, and the function itself, which could be run by other brains, and which exists in some Platonic realm where spatial position is irrelevant or meaningless.
The main problem for me, as with some other versions of externalism, is whether reflexive monism delivers the simplification it seems to promise or merely relocates the problem. Velmans provides diagrams which illustrate the difference between a dualist view, where the phenomenal perception floats above observer and object in a mental/spiritual world, a reductionist view where the percept is similarly dangling, and his own, where we have the object (a cat, as it happens), the observer, and nothing more than a couple of arrows. The trouble is, we still actually have the real cat and the perceived, phenomenal one: Velmans has pulled off a sly bit of legerdemain and shuffled one under the other.
Velmans spends some time expounding the idea of ‘perceptual projection’ – that the phenomenal world is projected out there into physical space – and defending himself against the charge of smearing real cats with phenomenal cat-perception stuff; but I think there is a worse difficulty. The phenomenal experience may have been projected out of our skulls, but it’s still all we get to deal with, and that seems to leave us dangerously isolated, close to the beginning of the broad and easy downward path which leads to solipsism. It’s not so much that the danger is inescapable – more that I’m left wondering whether taking all those phenomenal experiences out into the external world actually changed things all that much.
Velmans wraps up with an exposition of how his view impinges on the hard problem. In essence, he thinks that when we’ve grasped reflexive monism properly, we will see that the fact that the world has two different aspects is just one of those features which, although they are slightly mysterious, there is no need to worry about. We don’t agonise, he suggests, over the “hard problems” of physics – why does an electric current in a wire give rise to a magnetic field? Why do electrons behave like waves in some circumstances and like particles in others? Why is there any matter in the Universe at all?
Actually, I think people do agonise over those problems, as it happens. I must have spent a considerable number of shortish and frustrating periods of time wondering in vain why there was anything.
Steve Lehar, who has carried on a long dialectic with Max Velmans, kindly wrote to express sympathy for some of the points above. There is a charming exposition of his views in cartoon form here.
Gestalt Isomorphism and the Primacy of Subjective Conscious Experience gives a more formal version, with a response from Velmans here and more here.