Posts tagged ‘Strawson’

Picture: substance. Mostyn W Jones might seem to be leading with his chin a little when he offers us, in the JCS, “a clear, simple mind-body solution”. His “clear physicalism”  is meant to banish many of the “obscurities” (a favourite word) involved in other accounts, especially reductionist and functionalist ones.

One problem with functionalism, according to Jones, is that it requires us to believe that conscious sensations are multiply realisable. So long as it embodies the right functions, any physical thing can have consciousness. But functions are abstract; what have they got to do either with my physical brain or with my vivid actual experience? These relations are surely “obscure”. Another problem is that none of these reductive theories can deal with qualia (the inherent phenomenal redness of red, hotness of heat, etc). Once you’ve reduced consciousness to computation, to non-computational functions, or to anything similar, you can no longer explain why it is that real inward experience occurs, or what causal relations that experience has with anything, or how it contrives to have them. Jones sympathises with Strawson and Stoljar: he would like to be able to say that qualia are just the reality of experience: science gives an outside account, and qualia are how it looks from the inside.

In some ways this is an appealing position to take, but there are a number of pitfalls. If all you’re saying is that science is the third-person perspective and qualia are the first-person perspective, you’re just re-stating the problem: why is there a first-person perspective, anyway? And if qualia are just the reality, you have two options. One is to find an explanation of why they don’t crop up all over the place, but seem only to arise in the presence of appropriate brain functions; the other is to bite the bullet and say that in fact they do crop up all over the place, and that panexperientialism is correct. Strawson, if I’ve understood correctly, leans in this latter direction; Jones, in spite of his hostility to functionalism, seems to lean back the other way: he describes consciousness as a neural substance arising from highly active, highly connected neural circuits; so there still seems to be a broadly functional explanation of why these phenomena are confined to brains.

“Substance” is a treacherous word: in ordinary parlance it suggests a lump of stuff, simple physical matter: but in philosophy, especially older philosophy, it has a much more slippery meaning as a basic element, one of the things that remains when analysis is complete. By pursuing this idea of a substance as something unanalysable to its logical conclusion, Leibniz produced the bizarre relativistic ontology of the Monadology:  Jones certainly doesn’t mean monads, but what does he mean? He says “Clear physicalism avoids this obscurity by treating qualia as electrochemical substances that underlie observable brain activity and do work in brains”.  The combination of both underlying observable physics yet doing work – causal work, we assume – seems very problematic. It would be odd but compatible with physics if Jones were merely saying that qualia are aspects of the physical world that run along with – perhaps over-determine – the causal effects specified by physics: but that doesn’t seem to be quite it.

If we take a step back, the idea of making consciousness a physical substance of any kind seems difficult to accept; consciousness, after all, comes and goes, but matter is conserved. If we take a more flexible view of the notion of substance and allow the substance of consciousness to come and go in line with certain vigorous firings of interlinked neurons it becomes a little hard to see what our quarrel with some sort of functionalism can be. Pain, it turns out, is not the firing of C-fibres (or whatever), but it is a substance that occurs in perfect correlation with the firing of C-fibres. Hmm.