Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Conceivability

Descartes famously invokes a conceivability argument for substance dualism in his Meditaions. In this argument he proposes that he can conceive of his mind existing in a universe that consists of no material things. It certainly seems possible to concieve of a universe that consists of no material entities but Descartes proposes that he can conceive of his mind existing in this universe. Of course Descartes proves that his mind is not a material thing since it does not contain any essential properties of material things, namely extension. Descartes concludes that the mind is not identical to the body since the body is a material substance. Granting the fact that conceivability implies logical possibility, Descartes is able to deduce this while sitting in his armchair by the fire. Descartes does not need to go out and do any experimental science in order to come to this conclusion. This was certainly intended due to the circumstances he created with his skeptical arguments.

Descartes of course assumed that since the mind was immaterial it was outside of the realm of science since science exclusively dealt with material things. The appeal of the materialist position was the fact that if the mind could be reduced to a material entity it could be studied under the realm of science. This would solve our intuition that the mind has some mysterious causal effect on our body. The problem now is that immaterial entities are part of the content of science, namely physics. This is what initiated the evolution of materialism to physicalism. Since materialism could only account for extended things it could not account for photons and other entities that are not considered to be extended. Of course we want these entities to be considered part of the content of science so the 'scientific' view of mind evolved into physicalism.

Now since immaterial entities are actually considered within the realm of science, the body can consist of immaterial entities. So the mere fact that the mind is immaterial does not deliver the conclusion that the mind is not identical to the body.

There are some problems at this point that seem to put the mind/body argument on hold. First is that even the best physicists and physicalists cannot pin down an essential property of physical substance. This leads to problems with physicalism because there is no way a physicalist will ever want to concede that fundamental mental entities are within the realm of physics and have causal power. But since there is no essential physical property known at this point, physics has no determinate content (this is one horn of Hempel's Dilemma) and therefore the physicalist cannot rule out fundamental mental entities from being within the realm of physics.

Second, the substance dualist seems to be in a position where he can no longer use the Cartesian conceivability argument in his favor. In order to use this argument he must know an essential property of physical substance in order to demonstrate that the the mind and the body have incompatible properties. The dualist could always say 'Well I can imagine my mind existing in a universe with no physical things, therefore they are not identical.' But in order to do this wouldn't he need to know a priori that his mind is not physical? The way Descartes knew a priori that his mind was not material was because he could imagine material things and from his imagination determine an essential feature of all material things. Is it possible to discover an essential feature of the physical by using our imagination alone? It seems as if this issue is no longer an a priori issue.

Jessica Wilson of U of M presented a paper in which she addressed the problems of Hempel's dilemma and concluded that a physicalist must have a physics-based NFM (no fundamental mentality) account of the physical in spirit of the intentions of the physicalist's position as a solution to the mind-body problem. According to a physics-based NFM account, in order for an entity to be physical it must be within the realm of physics and it must be non-mental.

I just added in this last part as an interesting attempt to solve the problem on the physicalist's side...

I also may be creating a problem for dualists that may not exist. I was just thinking about this today and thought I'd throw it out there.

24 Comments:

At 3:11 PM, April 18, 2005, Blogger Steve said...

Interesting thoughts.
For the dualist:"...seems as if this issue is no longer an a priori issue."
I think that's right. One is left arguing that the development of physics SO FAR lacks an adequate explanation of one or more essential features of the mental realm (which I would say is first-person experience). But not that what we call physics couldn't expand to explain it someday.

And on the other side, one hopes physicists actually think its OK to look for evidence of such a phenomenon in nature.

 
At 3:07 AM, April 19, 2005, Blogger Andrew said...

I'm still not convinced that physics has discovered anything within its realm that is not extended. Photons have a spatial location and Descartes would surely consider that as sufficient for extension. I'm also skeptical as to whether science can even consider a non-extended substance within its realm.

 
At 1:32 AM, April 20, 2005, Anonymous Alan said...

I'm confused. Is the Andrew who posted that last comment the same Andrew who wrote the original post? If so, are you arguing against yourself? Have you changed your mind? Or in the original post were you just reporting someone else's view?

In any case, I think the original post, although basically correct, is slightly misleading about the materialism/physicalism distinction. As I understand it, the more liberal term "physicalism" has been adopted in recognition of the fact that current physics includes critters like forces, fields, waves, etc. Given that a particle has location, it does seem like a poor candidate for a nonmaterial entity or principle of explanation.

Re your claim that "since immaterial entities are actually considered within the realm of science, the body can consist of immaterial entities": Wouldn't it be more accurate to say something along the lines of "our account of the body can include reference to immaterial entities"? It still seems implausible to hold that a the body consists entirely of physical entities.

Finally, I'm puzzled by the following:

". . . concluded that a physicalist must have a physics-based NFM (no fundamental mentality) account of the physical in spirit of the intentions of the physicalist's position as a solution to the mind-body problem."

Should that be "in spite of"? If not, I have no idea what that sentence is trying to say.

 
At 11:38 PM, April 20, 2005, Blogger Andrew said...

I was just posting a possible objection to the a priori nature of Descartes's conceivability argument. I'm not sure if I buy it though. From what I understand, and according to many leading physicalists, the evolution from materialism to physicalism was to account for entities assumed to be physical that did not satisfy the typical essential properties of material entites, namely extension. I'm not sure that a physicalist would consider some of the things you mentioned to be fundamental entities, that's why I used photons in my example.

The quote that you found puzzling is a reference to Jessica Wilson's view of physicalism. She believes that when we attempt to define 'physical' we must continue in the spirit of the traditional intentions of the materialist/physicalist. The traditional intention is an attempt to solve the mind body problem. She does this by incorporating the materialist/physicalist mind-body position into her definition of 'physical'...resulting in the physics-based NFM account.

 
At 9:29 AM, April 21, 2005, Anonymous Alan said...

Thanks for the clarification.

It seems questionable at best to say that "the traditional intention of the physicalist is an attempt to solve the mind/body problem." Isn't what makes physicalism physical that it bears some relation to physical theory, to physics, to what physicists do? Wilson's view might be plausible if you see physics as starting with Descartes, but I would argue it's more accurate and more revealing to see scientific physics as continuous with the investigations into nature conducted by, say, Aristotle or Democritus. For that matter, it's hard for me to see how even Galileo was concerned with the mind/body problem.

 
At 10:59 AM, April 21, 2005, Blogger Andrew said...

Yes I agree that the origin of physics probably did not come out of any attempt to solve the mind/body problem. Physicalism on the other hand is a doctrine within the philosophy of mind which utilizes physics/physical science as its motivation to solve the mind/body problem.

 
At 10:59 AM, April 21, 2005, Blogger Andrew said...

Yes I agree that the origin of physics probably did not come out of any attempt to solve the mind/body problem. Physicalism on the other hand is a doctrine within the philosophy of mind which utilizes physics/physical science as its motivation to solve the mind/body problem.

 
At 4:30 PM, April 22, 2005, Blogger Andrew said...

Yes I agree that the origin of physics probably did not come out of any attempt to solve the mind/body problem. Physicalism on the other hand is a doctrine within the philosophy of mind which utilizes physics/physical science as its motivation to solve the mind/body problem.

 
At 7:24 AM, April 23, 2005, Anonymous Alan said...

I'm more accustomed to hearing "physicalism" used to refer to a global ontological position: to use one common idiom, in "the God's-eye view of things," the physical facts are all the facts there are. Which seems to me to make it the business of physicists, not of philosophers of mind, to decide what the physical facts are. Moreover, it seems problematic to talk about "utilizing physics to solve the mind/body problem", when "the mind/body problem" only arises on a certain conception of the physical. I mean, Aristotle didn't have a mind/body problem.

To put the point another way, I don't think the term "mind/body problem" denotes a clearly defined philosophical problem, but rather gestures in the direction of a whole cluster of issues. More clearly defined, one way of stating the problem might be "Can physical science account for the facts of conscious experience?" On your account, I think we get a viciously circular definition of "physicalism": if we ask, "Can X explain Y?" and then make it part of our definition of X that it explains Y, we've presented ourselves with a pseudo-problem, since whatever we need to explain Y we can include for X. (Read "physicalism" for X throughout.)

 
At 7:26 AM, April 23, 2005, Anonymous Alan said...

I meant the last two words of my penultimate sentence to be "in X", not "for X."

 
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