Tuesday, 22 March 2016

A Challenge to Materialism in the Philosophy of Mind


Brain


Certain positions in contemporary physics provide anti-materialists (in the philosophy of mind) with grist for the mill. 

For example, are there non-physical objects that are quite acceptable to contemporary physicists? Jeffrey Poland thinks that there are. He writes:

It should be understood that the primacy of physics in ontological matters does not mean that everything is an element of a strictly physical ontology… physicalism… allows for non-physical objects, properties, and relations… physicalism should not be equated with the identity theory in any of its forms… I prefer the idea of a hierarchically structured system of objects grounded in a physical basis by a relation of realization…” [813]


All the above is quite acceptable, even on a physicalist picture of the world. However, does any of the above help in the mind-body problem or does it somehow justify attacks on materialism?

For a start, the non-physicality of (abstract) objects, properties and relations aren't of the same logical order as the ostensible non-physicality of mind or consciousness. The above can be seen as abstract objects, properties or abstract relations. We surely can't say that mind and consciousness are abstract in nature. Sure, they're non-spatial, and perhaps non-temporal; though does this make them equivalent to abstract objects like propositions, universals, etc.? Even Quine (an arch-naturalist and physicalist) accepted the existence of numbers. And if anything is an abstract object, a number is!

Thus I think that Poland has actually set up a disanalogy between the abstract objects, properties and relations accepted in physicalist philosophy and the putatively abstract nature of mind or consciousness.

The passage above finishes off with a statement of Poland's belief that he prefers the “idea of a hierarchically structured system of objects grounded in a physical basis by a relation of realization”. This too is acceptable to most philosophers of the physicalist kind. Perhaps, more importantly, it's acceptable to scientists because there is a way in which (like mentality) we can see meteorology, biology, anthropology, palaeontology, geology, anatomy, etc. as ‘higher-level’ sciences – or at least sciences which study higher-level phenomena. How does this concern the scientific question of consciousness or mentality? John Heil writes:


If you threw out “higher-level” mental states or properties solely on the grounds that they depend in a mysterious way on lower-level material phenomena, you would have to toss out all the special sciences as well. [813]
 
Yes, the sciences mentioned above do grow out of physics, as, for example, chemistry does and biology grows out of chemistry to a large extent: though does consciousness or mentality really grow out of the physical in the same - or even in a similar - way to all these acceptable scientific examples? Are these higher-level states and properties of the special sciences ‘emergent’ states and properties in the way that the states and properties of mentality can be seen as emergent or, at least, ‘supervenient’? Surely the parallel is far from exact.


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