The Distressing Swiftness of Contemporary Philosophical Argumentation

David Chalmers recently posted a paper about panpsychism to his blog. Like an addict returning to the source of their troubles, I can’t help but read almost everything Chalmers writes when it comes to consciousness. He calls his argument for panpsychism “Hegelian” because it works using a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis structure. The thesis is materialism, the antithesis is the conceivability argument against materialism, and the synthesis is panpsychism. Because the paper is focused on panpsychism, Chalmers sets up the thesis and antithesis quickly. Using his finely honed but slightly worn stock pile of arguments against materialism, Chalmers is deftly able to dismiss his opponents in a single sentence! Consider this paragraph after presenting the antithesis:

Materialists do not just curl up and die when confronted with the conceivability argument and its cousins. Type-A materialists reject the epistemic premise, holding for example that zombies are not conceivable. Type-B materialists reject the step from an epistemic premise to an ontological conclusion, holding for example that conceivability does not entail possibility. Still, there are significant costs to both of these views. Type-A materialism seems to require something akin to an analytic functionalist view of consciousness, which most philosophers find too deflationary to be plausible.

For those not acquainted with Chalmers neat taxonomy of everyone who disagrees with him, “Type-A materialism” is that view that zombies are not conceivable. Chalmers created the Type-A concept basically as an honorary category reserved especially for Dan Dennett’s writings on qualia. Crudely stated, Dennett’s Type-A materialism amounts to the view that serious scientific (or philosophical) theorizing about qualia is misguided and confused for innumerable reasons and that people who use the term in the way Chalmers does generally don’t know what they are talking about, or if they do they can’t explain it to anyone else, and that we’re better off denying qualia exist or replacing the qualia concept with some better, more fruitful way of thinking about minds.

But notice the incredibly swiftness of Chalmers dismissal of Type-A materialism as high-lighted by the above bolded statement. He says Type-A materialism is not worth our time because “most philosophers find it too deflationary to be plausible.” However, Type-A materialists are a minority position in consciousness studies precisely because they are equivalent to the phlogiston naysayers who argued that the concept “phlogiston” is an empty symbol, like “the present king of France”. So of course most philosophers are going to “find it too deflationary”! But that’s not an argument! That’s just citing a sociological fact that as a matter of course most people who study qualia disagree with the people who say it’s a bad idea to try and study qualia! The dismissal amounts to nothing more than doing philosophy by survey. Because “most philosophers” find it implausible, it can be dismissed in a single sentence, which is equivalent to saying “A minority view is not held by a majority of philosophers, therefore the minority view is not worth our time.”

This curtness of dialectical engagement with critics who are skeptical of the basic presuppositions surrounding talk of qualia highlights what I see as a critical weakness in the “normal science” of qualia studies: insufficiently precise definitions of concepts. For example, look at how Chalmers sets up the theory of panpsychism:

I will understand panpsychism as the thesis that some fundamental physical entities are conscious: that is, that there is something it is like to be a quark or a photon or a member of some other fundamental physical type.

In defining what it means to call protons conscious he appeals to another concept: what-it-is-likeness, which is left completely undefined under the tacit assumption we know perfectly what it means. But, what exactly does it mean? I have no idea. No one who seriously uses the concept has ever given me a satisfactory answer when I press them to define it without appeal to concepts that are equally mysterious e.g. “awareness”, “experience”, “phenomenal”, etc. At this point my interlocutors will just try to get me to sound “weird” and ask “C’mon Gary, are you seriously denying there is something it is like to drink that beer you’re sipping?” And yes,  I will deny it but only because I am unclear what that term means and don’t wish to say nonsensical things and thumping the table and appealing to crass intuitions is unlikely to convince me that our discussion is on firm ground.

P.W. Bridgman anticipated this problem when he wrote in his 1927 book The Logic of Modern Physics that:

It is a task for experiment to discover whether concepts so defined correspond to anything in nature, and we must always be prepared to find that the concepts correspond to nothing or only partially correspond. In particular, if we examine the definition of absolute time in the light of experiment, we find nothing of absolute time in the light of experiment, we find nothing in nature with such properties.

Bridgman’s diagnosis is that these “empty concepts” are often not defined  in a sufficiently operational manner in order to be amenable to empirical inquiry, the heart and soul of science. If you cannot devise or imagine an experiment that would determine if there is anything in nature corresponding to your proposed theoretical entity, then your theoretical concept is unfruitful to scientific progress in the highest degree. Bridgman cites the following as a good example of a “meaningless” question i.e. a question that cannot be operationally defined so as to be resolvable by means of the physical measurement instruments used in science to conduct experimentation:

Is the sensation which I call blue really the same as that which my neighbor calls blue? Is it possible that a blue object may arouse in him the same sensation a red object does in me and vice versa? 

Bridgman doesn’t actually claim this question is meaningless, but suggests “The reader may amuse himself by finding whether [it has] meaning or not”. My guess would be no.

Bridgman’s work is like a breathe of fresh air after wading through the foggy mires of qualia studies. I am intent on studying Bridgman more, so don’t be surprised to see his name being mentioned on this blog more frequently henceforth.


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Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy of science

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