Hard Problem of Consciousness

We have touched on this in various places, and in particular in this discussion of zombies, but we are now in a position to give a more precise answer.

Bill Vallicella has a discussion of Thomas Nagel on this issue:

Nagel replies in the pages of NYRB (8 June 2017; HT: Dave Lull) to one Roy Black, a professor of bioengineering:

The mind-body problem that exercises both Daniel Dennett and me is a problem about what experience is, not how it is caused. The difficulty is that conscious experience has an essentially subjective character—what it is like for its subject, from the inside—that purely physical processes do not share. Physical concepts describe the world as it is in itself, and not for any conscious subject. That includes dark energy, the strong force, and the development of an organism from the egg, to cite Black’s examples. But if subjective experience is not an illusion, the real world includes more than can be described in this way.

I agree with Black that “we need to determine what ‘thing,’ what activity of neurons beyond activating other neurons, was amplified to the point that consciousness arose.” But I believe this will require that we attribute to neurons, and perhaps to still more basic physical things and processes, some properties that in the right combination are capable of constituting subjects of experience like ourselves, to whom sunsets and chocolate and violins look and taste and sound as they do. These, if they are ever discovered, will not be physical properties, because physical properties, however sophisticated and complex, characterize only the order of the world extended in space and time, not how things appear from any particular point of view.

The problem might be condensed into an aporetic triad:

1) Conscious experience is not an illusion.

2) Conscious experience has an essentially subjective character that purely physical processes do not share.

3) The only acceptable explanation of conscious experience is in terms of physical properties alone.

Take a little time to savor this problem. Note first that the three propositions are collectively inconsistent: they cannot all be true.  Any two limbs entail the negation of the remaining one. Note second that each limb exerts a strong pull on our acceptance.  But we cannot accept them all because they are logically incompatible.

Which proposition should we reject? Dennett, I take it, would reject (1). But that’s a lunatic solution as Professor Black seems to appreciate, though he puts the point more politely. When I call Dennett a sophist, as I have on several occasions, I am not abusing him; I am underscoring what is obvious, namely, that the smell of cooked onions, for example, is a genuine datum of experience, and that such phenomenological data trump scientistic theories.

Sophistry aside, we either reject (2) or we reject (3).  Nagel and I accept (1) and (2) and reject (3). Black, and others of the scientistic stripe, accept (1) and (3) and reject (2).

In order to see the answer to this, we can construct a Parmenidean parallel to Vallicella’s aporetic triad:

1) Distinction is not an illusion.

2) Being has an essentially objective character of actually being that distinction does not share (considering that distinction consists in the fact of not being something.)

3) The only acceptable explanation of distinction is in terms of being alone (since there is nothing but being to explain things with.)

Parmenides rejects (1) here. What approach would Vallicella take? If he wishes to take a similarly analogous approach, he should accept (1) and (2), and deny (3). And this would be a pretty commonsense approach, and perhaps the one that most people implicitly adopt if they ever think about the problem.

At the same time, it is easy to see that (3) is approximately just as obviously true as (1); and it is for this reason that Parmenides sees rejecting (1) and accepting (2) and (3) as reasonable.

The correct answer, of course, is that the three are not inconsistent despite appearances. In fact, we have effectively answered this in recent posts. Distinction is not an illusion, but a way that we understand things, as such. And being a way of understanding, it is not (as such) a way of being mistaken, and thus it is not an illusion, and thus the first point is correct. Again, being a way of understanding, it is not a way of being as such, and thus the second point is correct. And yet distinction can be explained by being, since there is something (namely relationship) which explains why it is reasonable to think in terms of distinctions.

Vallicella’s triad mentions “purely physical processes” and “physical properties,” but the idea of “physical” here is a distraction, and is not really relevant to the problem. Consider the following from another post by Vallicella:

If I understand Galen Strawson’s view, it is the first.  Conscious experience is fully real but wholly material in nature despite the fact that on current physics we cannot account for its reality: we cannot understand how it is possible for qualia and thoughts to be wholly material.   Here is a characteristic passage from Strawson:

Serious materialists have to be outright realists about the experiential. So they are obliged to hold that experiential phenomena just are physical phenomena, although current physics cannot account for them.  As an acting materialist, I accept this, and assume that experiential phenomena are “based in” or “realized in” the brain (to stick to the human case).  But this assumption does not solve any problems for materialists.  Instead it obliges them to admit ignorance of the nature of the physical, to admit that they don’t have a fully adequate idea of what the physical is, and hence of what the brain is.  (“The Experiential and the Non-Experiential” in Warner and Szubka, p. 77)

Strawson and I agree on two important points.  One is that what he calls experiential phenomena are as real as anything and cannot be eliminated or reduced to anything non-experiential. Dennett denied! The other is that there is no accounting for experiential items in terms of current physics.

I disagree on whether his mysterian solution is a genuine solution to the problem. What he is saying is that, given the obvious reality of conscious states, and given the truth of naturalism, experiential phenomena must be material in nature, and that this is so whether or not we are able to understand how it could be so.  At present we cannot understand how it could be so. It is at present a mystery. But the mystery will dissipate when we have a better understanding of matter.

This strikes me as bluster.

An experiential item such as a twinge of pain or a rush of elation is essentially subjective; it is something whose appearing just is its reality.  For qualia, esse = percipi.  If I am told that someday items like this will be exhaustively understood from a third-person point of view as objects of physics, I have no idea what this means.  The notion strikes me as absurd.  We are being told in effect that what is essentially subjective will one day be exhaustively understood as both essentially subjective and wholly objective.  And that makes no sense. If you tell me that understanding in physics need not be objectifying understanding, I don’t know what that means either.

Here Vallicella uses the word “material,” which is presumably equivalent to “physical” in the above discussion. But it is easy to see here that being material is not the problem: being objective is the problem. Material things are objective, and Vallicella sees an irreducible opposition between being objective and being subjective. In a similar way, we can reformulate Vallicella’s original triad so that it does not refer to being physical:

1) Conscious experience is not an illusion.

2) Conscious experience has an essentially subjective character that purely objective processes do not share.

3) The only acceptable explanation of conscious experience is in terms of objective properties alone.

It is easy to see that this formulation is the real source of the problem. And while Vallicella would probably deny (3) even in this formulation, it is easy to see why people would want to accept (3). “Real things are objective,” they will say. If you want to explain anything, you should explain it using real things, and therefore objective things.

The parallel with the Parmenidean problem is evident. We would want to explain distinction in terms of being, since there isn’t anything else, and yet this seems impossible, so one (e.g. Parmenides) is tempted to deny the existence of distinction. In the same way, we would want to explain subjective experience in terms of objective facts, since there isn’t anything else, and yet this seems impossible, so one (e.g. Dennett) is tempted to deny the existence of subjective experience.

Just as the problem is parallel, the correct solution will be almost entirely parallel to the solution to the problem of Parmenides.

1) Conscious experience is not an illusion. It is a way of perceiving the world, not a way of not perceiving the world, and definitely not a way of not perceiving at all.

2) Consciousness is subjective, that is, it is a way that an individual perceives the world, not a way that things are as such, and thus not an “objective fact” in the sense that “the way things are” is objective.

3) The “way things are”, namely the objective facts, are sufficient to explain why individuals perceive the world. Consider again this post, responding to a post by Robin Hanson. We could reformulate his criticism to express instead Parmenides’s criticism of common sense (changed parts in italics):

People often state things like this:

I am sure that there is not just being, because I’m aware that some things are not other things. I know that being just isn’t non-being. So even though there is being, there must be something more than that to reality. So there’s a deep mystery: what is this extra stuff, where does it arise, how does it change, and so on. We humans care about distinctions, not just being; we want to know what out there is distinct from which other things.

But consider a key question: Does this other distinction stuff interact with the parts of our world that actually exist strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of distinction like this?

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that philosophers, possibly excepting Duns Scotus, have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable. If this type of interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite understandable with existing philosophy. Any interaction not so understandable would have be vastly more difficult to understand than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will understand such an interaction.

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of distinction, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra distinction stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that distinction stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if distinction stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that distinction stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

“Distinction stuff”, of course, does not exist, and neither does “feeling stuff.” But some things are distinct from others. Saying this is a way of understanding the world, and it is a reasonable way to understand the world because things exist relative to one another. And just as one thing is distinct from another, people have experiences. Those experiences are ways of knowing the world (broadly understood.) And just as reality is sufficient to explain distinction, so reality is sufficient to explain the fact that people have experiences.

How exactly does this answer the objection about interaction? In the case of distinction, the fact that “one thing is not another” is never the direct cause of anything, not even of the fact that “someone believes that one thing is not another.” So there would seem to be a “remarkable coincidence” here, or we would have to say that since the fact seems unrelated to the opinion, there is no reason to believe people are right when they make distinctions.

The answer in the case of distinction is that one thing is related to another, and this fact is the cause of someone believing that one thing is not another. There is no coincidence, and no reason to believe that people are mistaken when they make distinctions, despite the fact that distinction as such causes nothing.

In a similar way, “a human being is what it is,” and “a human being does what it does” (taken in an objective sense), cause human beings to say and believe that they have subjective experience (taking saying and believing to refer to objective facts.) But this is precisely where the zombie question arises: they say and believe that they have subjective experience, when we interpret say and believe in the objective sense. But do they actually say and believe anything, considering saying and believing as including the subjective factor? Namely, when a non-zombie says something, it subjectively understands the meaning of what it is saying, and when it consciously believes something, it has a subjective experience of doing that, but these things would not apply to a zombie.

But notice that we can raise a similar question about zombie distinctions. When someone says and believes that one thing is not another, objective reality is similarly the cause of them making the distinction. But is the one thing actually not the other? But there is no question at all here except of whether the person’s statement is true or false. And indeed, someone can say, e.g, “The person who came yesterday is not the person who came today,” and this can sometimes be false. In a similar way, asking whether an apparent person is a zombie or not is just asking whether their claim is true or false when they say they have a subjective experience. The difference is that if the (objective) claim is false, then there is no claim at all in the subjective sense of “subjectively claiming something.” It is a contradiction to subjectively make the false claim that you are subjectively claiming something, and thus, this cannot happen.

Someone may insist: you yourself, when you subjectively claim something, cannot be mistaken for the above reason. But you have no way to know whether someone else who apparently is making that claim, is actually making the claim subjectively or not. This is the reason there is a hard problem.

How do we investigate the case of distinction? If we want to determine whether the person who came yesterday is not the person who came today, we do that by looking at reality, despite the fact that distinction as such is not a part of reality as such. If the person who came yesterday is now, today, a mile away from the person who came today, this gives us plenty of reason to say that the one person is not the other. There is nothing strange, however, in the fact that there is no infallible method to prove conclusively, once and for all, that one thing is definitely not another thing. There is not therefore some special “hard problem of distinction.” This is just a result of the fact that our knowledge in general is not infallible.

In a similar way, if we want to investigate whether something has subjective experience or not, we can do that only by looking at reality: what is this thing, and what does it do? Then suppose it makes an apparent claim that it has subjective experience. Obviously, for the above reasons, this cannot be a subjective claim but false: so the question is whether it makes a subjective claim and is right, or rather makes no subjective claim at all. How would you answer this as an external observer?

In the case of distinction, the fact that someone claims that one thing is distinct from another is caused by reality, whether the claim is true or false. So whether it is true or false depends on the way that it is caused by reality. In a similar way, the thing which apparently and objectively claims to possess subjective experience, is caused to do so by objective facts. Again, as in the case of distinction, whether it is true or false will depend on the way that it is caused to do so by objective facts.

We can give some obvious examples:

“This thing claims to possess subjective experience because it is a human being and does what humans normally do.” In this case, the objective and subjective claim is true, and is caused in the right way by objective facts.

“This thing claims to possess subjective experience because it is a very simple computer given a very simple program to output ‘I have subjective experience’ on its screen.” In this case the external claim is false, and it is caused in the wrong way by objective facts, and there is no subjective claim at all.

But how do you know for sure, someone will object. Perhaps the computer really is conscious, and perhaps the apparent human is a zombie. But we could similarly ask how we can know for sure that the person who came yesterday isn’t the same person who came today, even though they appear distant from each other, because perhaps the person is bilocating?

It would be mostly wrong to describe this situation by saying “there really is no hard problem of consciousness,” as Robin Hanson appears to do when he says, “People who think they can conceive of such zombies see a ‘hard question’ regarding which physical systems that claim to feel and otherwise act as if they feel actually do feel.” The implication seems to be that there is no hard question at all. But there is, and the fact that people engage in this discussion proves the existence of the question. Rather, we should say that the question is answerable, and that one it has been answered the remaining questions are “hard” only in the sense that it is hard to understand the world in general. The question is hard in exactly the way the question of Parmenides is hard: “How is it possible for one thing not to be another, when there is only being?” The question of consciousness is similar: “How is it possible for something to have subjective experience, when there are only objective things?” And the question can and should be answered in a similar fashion.

It would be virtually impossible to address every related issue in a simple blog post of this form, so I will simply mention some things that I have mainly set aside here:

1) The issue of formal causes, discussed more in my earlier treatment of this issue. This is relevant because “is this a zombie?” is in effect equivalent to asking whether the thing lacks a formal cause. This is worthy of a great deal of consideration and would go far beyond either this post or the earlier one.

2) The issue of “physical” and “material.” As I stated in this post, this is mainly a distraction. Most of the time, the real question is how the subjective is possible given that we believe that the world is objective. The only relevance of “matter” here is that it is obvious that a material thing is an objective thing. But of course, an immaterial thing would also have to be objective in order to be a thing at all. Aristotle and many philosophers of his school make the specific argument that the human mind does not have an organ, but such arguments are highly questionable, and in my view fundamentally flawed. My earlier posts suffice to call such a conclusion into question, but do not attempt to disprove it, and the the topic would be worthy of additional consideration.

3) Specific questions about “what, exactly, would actually be conscious?” Now neglecting such questions might seem to be a cop-out, since isn’t this what the whole problem was supposed to be in the first place? But in a sense we did answer it. Take an apparent claim of something to be conscious. The question would be this: “Given how it was caused by objective facts to make that claim, would it be a reasonable claim for a subjective claimer to make?” In other words, we cannot assume in advance that it is subjectively making a claim, but if it would be a reasonable claim, it will (in general) be a true one, and therefore also a subjective one, for the same reason that we (in general) make true claims when we reasonably claim that one thing is not another. We have not answered this question only in the same sense that we have not exhaustively explained which things are distinct from which other things, and how one would know. But the question, e.g., “when if ever would you consider an artificial intelligence to be conscious?” is in itself also worthy of direct discussion.

4) The issue of vagueness. This issue in particular will cause some people to object to my answer here. Thus Alexander Pruss brings this up in a discussion of whether a computer could be conscious:

Now, intelligence could plausibly be a vague property. But it is not plausible that consciousness is a vague property. So, there must be some precise transition point in reliability needed for computation to yield consciousness, so that a slight decrease in reliability—even when the actual functioning is unchanged (remember that the Ci are all functioning in the same way)—will remove consciousness.

I responded in the comments there:

The transition between being conscious and not being conscious that happens when you fall asleep seems pretty vague. I don’t see why you find it implausible that “being conscious” could be vague in much the same way “being red” or “being intelligent” might be vague. In fact the evidence from experience (falling asleep etc) seems to directly suggest that it is vague.

Pruss responds:

When I fall asleep, I may become conscious of less and less. But I can’t get myself to deny that either it is definitely true at any given time that I am at least a little conscious or it is definitely true that I am not at all conscious.

But we cannot trust Pruss’s intuitions about what can be vague or otherwise. Pruss claims in an earlier post that there is necessarily a sharp transition between someone’s not being old and someone’s being old. I discussed that post here. This is so obviously false that it gives us a reason in general not to trust Alexander Pruss on the issue of sharp transitions and vagueness. The source of this particular intuition may be the fact that you cannot subjectively make a claim, even vaguely, without some subjective experience, as well as his general impression that vagueness violates the principles of excluded middle and non-contradiction. But in a similar way, you cannot be vaguely old without being somewhat old. This does not mean that there is a sharp transition from not being old to being old, and likewise it does not necessarily mean that there is a sharp transition from not having subjective experience to having it.

While I have discussed the issue of vagueness elsewhere on this blog, this will probably continue to be a reoccurring feature, if only because of those who cannot accept this feature of reality and insist, in effect, on “this or nothing.”

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Idealized Idealization

On another occasion, I discussed the Aristotelian idea that the act of the mind does not use an organ. In an essay entitled Immaterial Aspects of Thought, James Ross claims that he can establish the truth of this position definitively. He summarizes the argument:

Some thinking (judgment) is determinate in a way no physical process can be. Consequently, such thinking cannot be (wholly) a physical process. If all thinking, all judgment, is determinate in that way, no physical process can be (the whole of) any judgment at all. Furthermore, “functions” among physical states cannot be determinate enough to be such judgments, either. Hence some judgments can be neither wholly physical processes nor wholly functions among physical processes.

Certain thinking, in a single case, is of a definite abstract form (e.g. N x N = N²), and not indeterminate among incompossible forms (see I below). No physical process can be that definite in its form in a single case. Adding cases even to infinity, unless they are all the possible cases, will not exclude incompossible forms. But supplying all possible cases of any pure function is impossible. So, no physical process can exclude incompossible functions from being equally well (or badly) satisfied (see II below). Thus, no physical process can be a case of such thinking. The same holds for functions among physical states (see IV below).

In essence, the argument is that squaring a number and similar things are infinitely precise processes, and no physical process is infinitely precise. Therefore squaring a number and similar things are not physical processes.

The problem is unfortunately with the major premise here. Squaring a number, and similar things, in the way that we in fact do them, are not infinitely precise processes.

Ross argues that they must be:

Can judgments really be of such definite “pure” forms? They have to be; otherwise, they will fail to have the features we attribute to them and upon which the truth of certain judgments about validity, inconsistency, and truth depend; for instance, they have to exclude incompossible forms or they would lack the very features we take to be definitive of their sorts: e.g., conjunction, disjunction, syllogistic, modus ponens, etc. The single case of thinking has to be of an abstract “form” (a “pure” function) that is not indeterminate among incompossible ones. For instance, if I square a number–not just happen in the course of adding to write down a sum that is a square, but if I actually square the number–I think in the form “N x N = N².”

The same point again. I can reason in the form, modus ponens (“If p then q“; “p“; “therefore, q”). Reasoning by modus ponens requires that no incompossible forms also be “realized” (in the same sense) by what I have done. Reasoning in that form is thinking in a way that is truth-preserving for all cases that realize the form. What is done cannot, therefore, be indeterminate among structures, some of which are not truth preserving. That is why valid reasoning cannot be only an approximation of the form, but must be of the form. Otherwise, it will as much fail to be truth-preserving for all relevant cases as it succeeds; and thus the whole point of validity will be lost. Thus, we already know that the evasion, “We do not really conjoin, add, or do modus ponens but only simulate them,” cannot be correct. Still, I shall consider it fully below.

“It will as much fail to be truth-preserving for all relevant cases as it succeeds” is an exaggeration here. If you perform an operation which approximates modus ponens, then that operation will be approximately truth preserving. It will not be equally truth preserving and not truth preserving.

I have noted many times in the past, as for example here, here, here, and especially here, that following the rules of syllogism does not in practice infallibly guarantee that your conclusions are true, even if your premises are in some way true, because of the vagueness of human thought and language. In essence, Ross is making a contrary argument: we know, he is claiming, that our arguments infallibly succeed; therefore our thoughts cannot be vague. But it is empirically false that our arguments infallibly succeed, so the argument is mistaken right from its starting point.

There is also a strawmanning of the opposing position here insofar as Ross describes those who disagree with him as saying that “we do not really conjoin, add, or do modus ponens but only simulate them.” This assumes that unless you are doing these things perfectly, rather than approximating them, then you are not doing them at all. But this does not follow. Consider a triangle drawn on a blackboard. Consider which of the following statements is true:

  1. There is a triangle drawn on the blackboard.
  2. There is no triangle drawn on the blackboard.

Obviously, the first statement is true, and the second false. But in Ross’s way of thinking, we would have to say, “What is on the blackboard is only approximately triangular, not exactly triangular. Therefore there is no triangle on the blackboard.” This of course is wrong, and his description of the opposing position is wrong in the same way.

Naturally, if we take “triangle” as shorthand for “exact rather than approximate triangle” then (2) will be true. And in a similar way, if take “really conjoin” and so on as shorthand for “really conjoin exactly and not approximately,” then those who disagree will indeed say that we do not do those things. But this is not a problem unless you are assuming from the beginning that our thoughts are infinitely precise, and Ross is attempting to establish that this must be the case, rather than claiming to take it as given. (That is, the summary takes it as given, but Ross attempts throughout the article to establish it.)

One could attempt to defend Ross’s position as follows: we must have infinitely precise thoughts, because we can understand the words “infinitely precise thoughts.” Or in the case of modus ponens, we must have an infinitely precise understanding of it, because we can distinguish between “modus ponens, precisely,” and “approximations of modus ponens“. But the error here is similar to the error of saying that one must have infinite certainty about some things, because otherwise one will not have infinite certainty about the fact that one does not have infinite certainty, as though this were a contradiction. It is no contradiction for all of your thoughts to be fallible, including this one, and it is no contradiction for all of your thoughts to be vague, including your thoughts about precision and approximation.

The title of this post in fact refers to this error, which is probably the fundamental problem in Ross’s argument. Triangles in the real world are not perfectly triangular, but we have an idealized concept of a triangle. In precisely the same way, the process of idealization in the real world is not an infinitely precise process, but we have an idealized concept of idealization. Concluding that our acts of idealization must actually be ideal in themselves, simply because we have an idealized concept of idealization, would be a case of confusing the way of knowing with the way of being. It is a particularly confusing case simply because the way of knowing in this case is also materially the being which is known. But this material identity does not make the mode of knowing into the mode of being.

We should consider also Ross’s minor premise, that a physical process cannot be determinate in the way required:

Whatever the discriminable features of a physical process may be, there will always be a pair of incompatible predicates, each as empirically adequate as the other, to name a function the exhibited data or process “satisfies.” That condition holds for any finite actual “outputs,” no matter how many. That is a feature of physical process itself, of change. There is nothing about a physical process, or any repetitions of it, to block it from being a case of incompossible forms (“functions”), if it could be a case of any pure form at all. That is because the differentiating point, the point where the behavioral outputs diverge to manifest different functions, can lie beyond the actual, even if the actual should be infinite; e.g., it could lie in what the thing would have done, had things been otherwise in certain ways. For instance, if the function is x(*)y = (x + y, if y < 10^40 years, = x + y +1, otherwise), the differentiating output would lie beyond the conjectured life of the universe.

Just as rectangular doors can approximate Euclidean rectangularity, so physical change can simulate pure functions but cannot realize them. For instance, there are no physical features by which an adding machine, whether it is an old mechanical “gear” machine or a hand calculator or a full computer, can exclude its satisfying a function incompatible with addition, say quaddition (cf. Kripke’s definition of the function to show the indeterminacy of the single case: quus, symbolized by the plus sign in a circle, “is defined by: x quus y = x + y, if x, y < 57, =5 otherwise”) modified so that the differentiating outputs (not what constitutes the difference, but what manifests it) lie beyond the lifetime of the machine. The consequence is that a physical process is really indeterminate among incompatible abstract functions.

Extending the list of outputs will not select among incompatible functions whose differentiating “point” lies beyond the lifetime (or performance time) of the machine. That, of course, is not the basis for the indeterminacy; it is just a grue-like illustration. Adding is not a sequence of outputs; it is summing; whereas if the process were quadding, all its outputs would be quadditions, whether or not they differed in quantity from additions (before a differentiating point shows up to make the outputs diverge from sums).

For any outputs to be sums, the machine has to add. But the indeterminacy among incompossible functions is to be found in each single case, and therefore in every case. Thus, the machine never adds.

There is some truth here, and some error here. If we think about a physical process in the particular way that Ross is considering it, it will be true that it will always be able to be interpreted in more than one way. This is why, for example, in my recent discussion with John Nerst, John needed to say that the fundamental cause of things had to be “rules” rather than e.g. fundamental particles. The movement of particles, in itself, could be interpreted in various ways. “Rules,” on the other hand, are presumed to be something which already has a particular interpretation, e.g. adding as opposed to quadding.

On the other hand, there is also an error here. The prima facie sign of this error is the statement that an adding machine “never adds.” Just as according to common sense we can draw triangles on blackboards, so according to common sense the calculator on my desk can certainly add. This is connected with the problem with the entire argument. Since “the calculator can add” is true in some way, there is no particular reason that “we can add” cannot be true in precisely the same way. Ross wishes to argue that we can add in a way that the calculator cannot because, in essence, we do it infallibly; but this is flatly false. We do not do it infallibly.

Considered metaphysically, the problem here is ignorance of the formal cause. If physical processes were entirely formless, they indeed would have no interpretation, just as a formless human (were that possible) would be a philosophical zombie. But in reality there are forms in both cases. In this sense, Ross’s argument comes close to saying “human thought is a form or formed, but physical processes are formless.” Since in fact neither is formless, there is no reason (at least established by this argument) why thought could not be the form of a physical process.

 

Form and Reality

In a very interesting post Alexander Pruss discusses realism and skeptical scenarios:

The ordinary sentence “There are four chairs in my office” is true (in its ordinary context). Furthermore, its being true tells us very little about fundamental ontology. Fundamental physical reality could be made out of a single field, a handful of fields, particles in three-dimensional space, particles in ten-dimensional space, a single vector in a Hilbert space, etc., and yet the sentence could be true.

An interesting consequence: Even if in fact physical reality is made out of particles in three-dimensional space, we should not analyze the sentence to mean that there are four disjoint pluralities of particles each arranged chairwise in my office. For if that were what the sentence meant, it would tell us about which of the fundamental physical ontologies is correct. Rather, the sentence is true because of a certain arrangement of particles (or fields or whatever).

If there is such a broad range of fundamental ontologies that “There are four chairs in my office” is compatible with, it seems that the sentence should also be compatible with various sceptical scenarios, such as that I am a brain in a vat being fed data from a computer simulation. In that case, the chair sentence would be true due to facts about the computer simulation, in much the way that “There are four chairs in this Minecraft house” is true. It would be very difficult to be open to a wide variety of fundamental physics stories about the chair sentence without being open to the sentence being true in virtue of facts about a computer simulation.

But now suppose that the same kind of thing is true for other sentences about physical things like tables, dogs, trees, human bodies, etc.: each of these sentences can be made true by a wide array of physical ontologies. Then it seems that nothing we say about physical things rules out sceptical scenarios: yes, I know I have two hands, but my having two hands could be grounded by facts about a computer simulation. At this point the meaningfulness of the sceptical question whether I know I am not a brain in a vat is breaking down. And with it, realism is breaking down.

I am not completely sure what Pruss means by “realism is breaking down,” but he is looking at something important here. One question that needs to be addressed, however, is what counts as a skeptical scenario in the first place. In the rest of the post, Pruss makes an interesting suggestion about this:

In order for the sceptical question to make sense, we need the possibility of saying things that cannot simply be made true by a very wide variety of physical theories, since such things will also be made true by computer simulations. This gives us an interesting anti-reductionist argument. If the statement “I have two hands” is to be understood reductively (and I include non-Aristotelian functionalist views as reductive), then it could still be literally true in the brain-in-a-vat scenario. But if anti-reductionism about hands is true, then the statement wouldn’t be true in the brain-in-a-vat scenario. And so I can deny that I am in that scenario simply by saying “I have two hands.”

But maybe I am moving too fast here. Maybe “I have two hands” could be literally true in a brain-in-a-vat scenario. Suppose that the anti-reductionism consists of there being Aristotelian forms of hands (presumably accidental forms). But if, for all we know, the form of a hand can inform a bunch of particles, a fact about a vector or the region of a field, then the form of a hand can also inform an aspect of a computer simulation. And so, for all we know, I can literally and non-reductively have hands even if I am a brain in a vat. I am not sure, however, that I need to worry about this. What is important is form, not the precise material substrate. If physical reality is the memory of a giant computer but it isn’t a mere simulation but is in fact informed by a multiplicity of substantial and accidental forms corresponding to people, trees, hands, hearts, etc., and these forms are real entities, then the scenario does not seem to me to be a sceptical scenario.

A skeptical scenario, according to Pruss, is a situation where the things we normally talk about do not have forms. If they do have forms, we are not in a skeptical scenario at all, even if in some sense we are in a computer simulation or even if someone is a brain in a vat. On the face of it this seems a very odd claim: “form” seems to be a technical philosophical explanation, while asking if we are in a skeptical scenario seems to be asking if our everyday common sense understanding of things is mistaken.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of truth in his explanation. First let us consider what is meant by a skeptical scenario in the first place. In terms of his example, it is supposed to go something like this: “Is it possible that you are a brain in a vat without realizing it? If so, then almost everything you believe is false, since you do not have hands, the people you speak to are not real, and so on.”

In the post Pruss is pointing out a problem with the skeptical question. The skeptical question is like a skeptic in the remote past asking, “Is it possible that the earth is spinning without us realizing it? If so, then our everyday opinion that the sun rises every morning is false, since the sun does not move.”

The response to the second skeptic is evident: our everyday opinion that the sun rises every morning is not false, not even if the earth turns out to be spinning, because “the sun rises every morning,” is to be understood in whatever way is needed in order for it to be true. It refers to what happens every morning, whatever that actually happens to be.

Pruss is pointing out that we can answer the first question in the same way: our everyday opinion that we have hands is not false, not even if we are in a computer simulation or in a vat, because “I have two hands” is to be understood in whatever way is needed in order for it to be true. It refers to these two things in front of me right now, whatever they actually are.

Let’s suppose the skeptic tries to come up with a response. He might say, “Look, computer programs do not have hands, and brains do not have hands. So if you are a computer program or a brain in a vat, then you just do not have hands, period. So those scenarios do indeed mean that your common understanding would be false.”

It is certainly true that according to our common understanding, brains in vats do not have hands. So there is a tension here: the argument that it would be true to say we have hands even in that situation seems like a good argument, but so does the argument that it would be false that we have hands.

The answer to the difficulty is that we need to consider the meaning of “I am a brain in a vat.” Just as the word “hands” should refer to these two things in front of me, whatever they are, so the word “brain” refers to things inside of people’s heads, whatever they are, and the word “vat” refers to other things we sometimes experience in real life, at occasionally, or something very like them. But this means that just as “I have two hands” is to be understood in whatever way is needed to make it true, so also “I am not a brain in a vat,” is understood in whatever way is needed to make it true.

This means that correct answer to the original question was simply, “No, it isn’t possible that I will turn out to be a brain in a vat, regardless of any later discoveries, and it isn’t possible that the sun will turn out not to rise, regardless of discoveries about the motion of the sun and of the earth.”

The skeptic will want to insist. Surely events like those of The Matrix are at least conceivable. And if some such situation turned out to be true, then wasn’t it true that you were in a skeptical scenario and that your beliefs about hands and brains and vats were all false, and especially would it not be the case that your belief that you weren’t in a situation like that was false?

The correct answer, again, is that your original beliefs were not false. But in view of your new knowledge of the world, you might well want to adopt a new mode of speaking, and say things that would sound opposed to your original beliefs. They would not be opposed, however, but would simply be speaking about things you did not originally speak about.

Note however that “your belief that you weren’t in a situation like that” could now be taken in two ways. It could mean my belief that I am not a brain in a vat, and this belief will never turn out to have been false. Or it could mean a belief that there is not some larger view of reality where “he was a brain in a vat” would be a reasonable description, in the way that someone coming out of the Matrix would acquire a larger view. In reality I have the latter belief as well, as I consider it improbable that any intelligent beings would behave in such a way as to make that scenario probable. But I don’t think it is impossible for this belief to be falsified; and if it were, I would not say that my previous common sense beliefs had been false. This corresponds to what Pruss says at the end of his post, where he says that as long as things have forms, it is not really a skeptical scenario, even if in some sense he is in a computer simulation or whatever.

Why the insistence on form? This is related to what we called the Semi-Parmenidean Heresy. There we discussed Sean Carroll’s view, and noted that his position in essence is this: Metaphysically, the eliminativists are right. But it is useful to talk as though they are wrong, so we’re going to talk as though they are wrong, and even say they are wrong, by saying that common sense things are real.

This is ultimately incoherent: if the eliminativists are mistaken, they are mistaken in their metaphysics, since the position is just a certain metaphysical position.

It is not difficult to see the connection. According to a strict eliminativist, it would be literally true that we do not have hands, because there is no such thing as “we” or as “hands” in the first place. There are just fundamental particles. In other words, eliminativism would be even more of a skeptical scenario than the Matrix; the Matrix would not imply that your common sense beliefs are false, while eliminativism simply says that all of your beliefs are false, including your belief that you have beliefs.

And on the other hand, no scenario will be truly skeptical, even one like the Matrix, if it admits that our common sense beliefs are true. And as I said at the end of the post on Carroll’s view, this requires a metaphysics that allows those beliefs to be true, and this requires formal causes.

Alexander Pruss, however, seems to me to interpret this in a rather narrow way in his concluding remark:

If physical reality is the memory of a giant computer but it isn’t a mere simulation but is in fact informed by a multiplicity of substantial and accidental forms corresponding to people, trees, hands, hearts, etc., and these forms are real entities, then the scenario does not seem to me to be a sceptical scenario.

It is not clear what it means to be “real entities” rather than being unreal, given that you acknowledge them in the first place, and it isn’t clear to me what he means by a “mere simulation.” But this sounds a lot to me like, “If the world isn’t Aristotelian, understood in a very narrow way, then that would be a skeptical scenario.” This seems to me a kind of stubbornness much like that of James Larson. Disagreeing with you is not a war against being, and believing that your account of form and matter didn’t get every detail right, is not saying that our common sense beliefs are not true.

As an illustration of the narrowness in question, consider Pruss’s position on artifacts:

Suppose I am a plumber, and I take a section of pipe, insert a blowgun dart, and blow.  I just shot a dart out of a blowgun.  When did the pipe turn into a blowgun, though?

Did it happen when I formed the intention to use the pipe as a blowgun?  No: I do not have the power to make new material objects come into existence just by thinking about it.

When I picked up the pipe?  There are at least there is contact.  But surely it’s not the right kind of contact.  It would be magic if I could make a new material object come into existence by just picking up a material object with a certain thought in mind.

When I inserted the dart?  Presumably, not any insertion will do, but one with a plan to blow.  For I could just be doing plumbing, using the outer diameter of the dart to measure the inner diameter of the pipe, and that shouldn’t turn the pipe into a dart.  Again, we have some magic here–thinking about the pipe in one way while inserting the dart creates a blowgun while thinking about it another way leaves it a boring pipe.  Moreover, putting the dart into the pipe seems to be an instance of loading a blowgun rather than making a blowgun.

The solution to all this is to deny that there are pipes and blowguns.  There is just matter (or fields) arranged pipewise and blowgunwise.  And for convenience we adopt ways of speaking that make it sound like such objects are among the furniture of the universe.

Pruss is not simply putting out a position for discussion; this is what he believes to be true, as is easily confirmed elsewhere on his blog. Note that he is falling into the Semi-Parmenidean heresy here, except that he is even going farther than Carroll, and suggesting that “there are no pipes and blowguns” is a true statement, which Carroll would rightly deny. In this way Pruss is almost a pure eliminativist about artifacts. (He does also speak elsewhere more in the manner of Sean Carroll about them.)

To the degree that he is eliminativist about artifacts, he contradicts common sense in the same kind of way that someone contradicts common sense who says, “You do not have hands.” He just contradicts it about different things. And why about these things, and not others? I suggest that it is because under the ordinary Aristotelian account, it is likely that a man or a horse has a substantial form, but unlikely that a pipe has one. And although a pipe would have various accidental forms, the idea of a unified form of “pipeness” seems pretty unlikely. If this is actually his reason or part of it, then he is identifying skepticism with disagreeing with his philosophical opinions, even though his own opinions actually contain the skepticism: namely, disagreement with common sense.

My own response to this question would be different: being is said in many ways, and consequently also form and unity. And I reject any disagreement with common sense: men and horses are real, but so also are pipes. If I am not mistaken, all of these will have being and form in the way that is appropriate to them.