Materialism vs Physicalism (and Strawsonian Physicalism) with David Pearce
David Pearce (interviewed by Adam Ford) discusses the difference between Physicalism & Materialism – and also discusses Strawsonian Physicalism – the idea that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. May answer which breathes fire into the equations.
What makes our minds distinctive – isn’t that we are composed of novel stuff (along the conjecture that we everything is made up of fields of experience) – is that they support bound phenomenal consciousness. A Neurosurgeon may detect modules in the brain that are responsible for many things (vision processing, auditory perception, etc) but they can’t – for whatever reason – find that they are bound in phenomenal objects apprehended by a unitary phenomenal self.
One reason that many philosophically literate scientists and scientifically literate philosophers describe themselves as ‘physicalists’ is that they recognize that – for example bosinic forcefields, dark matter, dark energy – aren’t matter in a conventional sense – nonetheless the positions are clearly (most philosophers and scientists would say are) close cousins. But if we are to be physicalists in that sense – then the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness’ arises and in ‘explanatory gap’ and there doesn’t seem to be any way to accommodate consciousness within this explanatory theme. But I think two separate claims need to be teased out from physicalism:
1) is the claim that physics discloses the actual nature of the stuff of the world – the fundamental entities – whether they are particles or fields or super-strings or branes.
2) the other is the claim that equations of physics and their solutions exhaustively describe the behavior of the stuff of the world
And they are distinct claims and should be separated because, for example a field in physics is defined purely mathematically and as the well known materialist – say outspoken materialist – like Stephen Hawking puts it quite poetically ‘We have no idea what breathes fire into the equations and makes there a universe for us to describe. So, yes, one conjecture that we might call ‘Strawsonian Physicalsim‘ (after one of it’s best known proponents) is the idea that consciousness actually discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical – that is it possible consistently to maintain (that as Hawking would do) that we have no idea what breathes fire into the equations, and at the same time claim that this fire has no phenomenal properties – this is a particularly pertinent question given that the one part, the one tiny part, of the fire in the equations – the intrinsic essence of the stuff of the world which we do have access, namely our own minds – has properties that are at radically in-variance from what one might imagine on a standard materialist ontology. And I would certainly argue that what makes our minds distinctive isn’t that we are composed of some novel kind of stuff – on the contrary that everything is ultimately fields of experience – but what makes our minds different I would say is that they support bound phenomenal consciousness – that a neurosurgeon that was inspecting your brain would reveal a distributively processed edges, textures, motions, colours etc in your brain – but somehow, for reasons that are not understood, the are bound into phenomenal objects apprehended by a unitary phenomenal self – you. And so, yes, if one is a Strawsonian Physicalist – which of course is a very bold claim, this is not animism or vitalism, it’s not claiming rocks or chairs or tables or trees are subjects of experience or anything like that – it’s a conjecture about the fundamental stuff of the world – could it be fields of phenomenal simples that the equations of physics exhaustively describes?
And I see a progress in the problem of consciousness and explaining why we’re not zombies is going to come by solving the binding problem – but a precondition of solving the binding problem – I think – is to accept something like Strawsonian Physicalism.
Adam Ford: Ahh that’s interesting – you mention ‘fields of experience’ – would that be compatible with a ‘panpsychist’ view of universe?
David Pearce: Yes, I think it’s – to some extent this is a stipulative definition – but I think it’s worth distinguishing panpsychism – the idea that, in some sense, experience is attached to the fundamental physical properties – all the fundamental physical properties of the world – and what sounds extremely similar to ‘idealism’ – the view that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, the intrinsic stuff of the world – so, yes there are clearly affinities between the two positions – but yes, it is in principle at any rate possible to reconcile physicalism and an ontology of idealism – so what we were discussing earlier on how physicalism and materialism being cousins, in fact there is no need for them to be cousins at all. Because this is a very bold claim if one uses the term ‘idealism’ most people will think of bishop Barklay “to be is to be perceived” – that reality is somehow mind dependent. Or alternatively perhaps the idealism of the German school of idealists in the 18th & 19th century – but this particular conjecture, as I said – it’s physicalist that accepts that the formalism of physics – the mathematical straight jacket of theoretical physics – is complete, but claims that the actual intrinsic nature of the physical is experience in it’s most rudimentary sense – which is wildly counter-intuitive. But as long as even physicists won’t claim that they know the intrinsic nature of the fire in the equasions – Kant’s Noumenal Essence of the world so to speak – then it’s very much up for grabs – and we know that something must be wrong with our conceptual scheme because currently we are quite incapable of explaining consciousness within a materialist framework.
Watch the interview with David Pearce video here.
A testable conjecture about the nature of the physical world.
Natural science promises a complete story of the world. No “element of reality” should be missing from the mathematical formalism of physics, i.e. relativistic quantum field theory or its more speculative extensions. The Standard Model is extraordinarily well tested. Within its conceptual framework, consciousness would seem not only causally impotent but physically impossible. Hence the “Explanatory Gap” and the Hard Problem of consciousness.
In recent years, a minority of researchers have proposed that the Hard Problem may be an artifact of materialist metaphysics. Contra Kant, but following Schopenhauer, Russell, Lockwood, Strawson, et al., the new idealists conjecture that the phenomenology of one’s mind reveals the intrinsic nature of the physical – the elusive “fire” in the equations about which physics is silent. Our ordinary presupposition that the intrinsic character of the physical is devoid of phenomenal properties is an additional metaphysical assumption. This is hugely plausible, for sure, but not a scientific discovery. Perhaps most tellingly, the only part of the “fire” in the equations to which one ever enjoys direct access, i.e. one’s own consciousness, discloses phenomenal properties that are inconsistent with a materialist ontology.
Untestability cuts both ways. Any conjecture that the world’s fundamental quantum fields – and, presumably, fundamental macroscopic quantum phenomena such as superconductors or superfluid helium – are intrinsically experiential would seem unfalsifiable too: just speculative metaphysics.
Rather surprisingly, we shall see this isn’t the case.
Also of interest is John Wilkins on Materialism & Physicalism.