In my last post I argued that physicalism cannot be rejected simply because people assert there are nonphysical objects which are beyond specification. Some are, however, specifiable, and one commentator has identified the obvious ones: abstract objects like the rules of chess or numbers. I have dealt with these before in my “Pizza reductionism” post, which I invite you to go read.

Done? OK, then; let us proceed.

It is often asserted that there are obviously things that are not physical, such as ideas, numbers, concepts, etc., quite apart from qualia, I once sat with a distinguished philosopher, who I respect greatly and so shall not name, when he asserted that we can construct natural classifications because we can deal first with the natural numbers. I asked him “In what sense are numbers natural objects?”, meaning, why should we think numbers are entities in the natural world. He admitted that the question had not occurred to him (I doubt that – he is rather smart), but that it was simply an axiom of his philosophy. I do not think such abstract objects are natural.

This applies to anything that is “informational”, including all semantic entities like meanings, symbols, lexical objects, and so on. They only “exist” as functional modalities in our thoughts and language. I have also argued this before: information does not “exist”; it is a function of how we process signals. Mathematics is not a domain, it is a language, and the reason it works is because the bits that seriously do not work are not explored far[*] – not all of it has to work in a physical or natural sense, but much of it has to, or else it becomes a simple game that we would not play so much.

So the question of the incoherence of physicalism is based on the assumption (which runs contrary to physicalism, and is thus question begging) that abstract objects are natural things. I don’t believe they are, and I certainly do not think that a thought, or concept, for example, which can be had by many minds and is therefore supposed to be located in none of them (and thus transcendental), really is nonphysical. That is another case of nouning language. The thought “that is red” exists, for a physicalist, in all the heads that meet the functional social criteria for ascriptions of red. It exists nowhere else – it just is all those cognitive and social behaviours in biological heads.

I’m riding roughly over some fine grained philosophical issues here, I know; but we don’t need to resolve these yet. It’s enough to say that the abstraction objection (which deserves initial capitals: Abstraction Objection to Physicalism, or AOP, because philosophers love acronyms even though it impedes communication) simply fails on the face of it, and needs a whole lot more work to make a prima facie objection. But because we privilege the mental, linguistic and formal (as philosophers) over the physical, it appears to have some probative (i.e., evidentiary) force in the debate. But this has never to my mind been shown.

By the way, the view of abstract objects I prefer is that of Ed Zalta, who defines an abstract object as an object that is not located in space or time. If physicalism is true, abstract objects are only concrete objects without the location indices. And since everything has a location index under physicalism (even if vaguely), abstract objects are fictions we find useful. Much of the supposed counter instances to physicalism are useful fictions, like corporate personhood.

In the first post I dealt with the qualitative objection (sorry, Qualitative Objection), and now I have discussed the Abstraction Objection. Are there other objections to deal with? Our commentators have given us one, at least: the Purpose Objection. As Nagel (and Fodor) have argued, a naturalistic (that is, a physicalist) world view seems to have no place for irreducible purposes, and in a way that is true. The notion that purpose is a natural property of the universe is definitely not a physical notion. And yet, they say, living things have purposes, and without purpose there is no explanation of how the incredibly rare facets of life, and indeed life itself, could evolve.

But this is an asinine objection, again begging the question – since there is an assumption of purpose in the universe, the interlocutor has already rejected physicalism. Instead we should only ask if there is the appearance of this natural purpose, and there are satisfactory accounts of that. We might say that purposes are determined by functional success. But this is not the Nagel-Fodor objection as such. Instead they find the very existence of selection processes and their outcomes unlikely to the point of miracle. I can understand they find this unlikely. But their own incredulity about physical processes leading to functional life and selection processes is based upon ignorance, as it is for those of us who find life and its processes very likely given the right circumstances – we simply do not know enough to estimate the likelihoods. After the fact, if life arose naturally (that is, physically), then the likelihood is one. But if we presume the likelihood is low, then the existence of life is a problem.

Do you see the trick? Assume that some directive purpose is necessary and you will find the natural existence of life unlikely, which you can then use to deprecate natural accounts of life. Again, it depends upon privileging something human – in this case, intelligent purpose – in order to find processes that do not privilege the human somehow deficient. This, by the way, underpins (and the fallacy undercuts) the argument from design used by intelligent design advocates.

To summarise this already long post (sorry): if we assume that symbols are abstract then any statement of physics is a counter instance to physicalism; but if we are physicalists, then we do not assume that symbols are not physical. Physicalism is coherent, but you might need to revise some of your untested assumptions. And chance and necessity can deliver outcomes that we presume must be the result of design, since we are designing entities. Again, we beg our question.

One final point about design and directed purpose: the mere having of a purpose in no way guarantees that the outcomes will match it. As someone once noted, the lion intends to eat the gazelle and the gazelle intends not to be eaten, and yet the process that results is one of natural selection, which is an unsupervised process. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. The old saws cut best…

* Yes, I know mathematicians explore areas like group theory and spin glass and so on that later turn out to have practical implications. This should not surprise you. For a start, mathematics explores the implications of mathematics that does work, and also we mark it when bits of mathematics have applications. As Francis Bacon so rightly said, “Men mark it when they hit, but do not mark it when they miss”. In other words, the practicality of mathematics and all other logical formalisms is a Texas Target.

Every so often, we read about some philosopher or other form of public intellectual who makes the claim that a physicalist ontology – a world view in which only things that can be described in terms of physics are said to exist – is impoverished. That is, there are things whereof science cannot know, &c. A recent example is that made by Thomas Nagel [nicely eviscerated here by the physicist Sean Carroll], whose fame in philosophy rests with an influential 1974 paper that there is something like being a bat that no amount of physics, physiology or other objective science could account for.

Recent, Nagel has argued that the evolutionary view called (historically misleadingly) neo-Darwinism, is “almost certainly” false. One of the reasons is that “materialism” (which Nagel should know is an antiquated world view replaced by physicalism defined above; there are many non-material things in physics, not least fields of various kinds) does not permit a full account of consciousness; the subjective facts of being a particular individual organism. Another is that the chance that life would emerge from a lifeless universe is staggeringly unlikely. How this is calculated is somewhat mysterious, given that at best we only have (dare I say it?) subjective estimates anyway, but there it is.

But Nagel is not alone. Various nonreligious (apparently) thinkers have made similar assertions, although some, like Frank Jackson, who proposed the Knowledge Argument, have since backed down. What is it that physicalism must account for that these disputants and objectors say it cannot?

It almost entirely consists of consciousness, intentions, intelligence or some similar mental property which is entirely inexplicable by “reductionist” physicalism. [Reductionism is a term of abuse that means – so far as I can tell – solely that the person who makes such an accusation does not like the thing or persons being accused.] And that raises our question: is physicalism lacking something?

What I have been waiting for since I tricked independently upon a physicalist view aged 16 or so, is a reason to think that this is the case. What was once defined as irreducible (to physics), such as the fluidity or water or the ability to make abstract maps of the world and then to navigate it with some success, have been shown merely to be a matter of computational tractability, not logical or metaphysical impossibility.

Consciousness in particular strikes me as a ghostly strawperson. When one is asked to define consciousness, if it is done functionally, then we can understand that there are purely physical systems (including computers of some kind) that can replicate these functions. If it is done in terms of the subjective experience, then as I have argued before, even a digital camera has some degree of subjectivity. But if it is done in terms of ineffable experience, one has to ask why something that cannot be expressed clearly can act as a counterexample to states of affairs that can be expressed clearly and precisely.

Something that is inexpressible cannot exclude (or deny the completeness of) states of affairs that can be expressed. We may feel like there is a “what-it-is-like” to be conscious, but this alone doesn’t give us any reason to think that state is anything more than simply being conscious; in other words, of having a cognitive location, nature and capacity. What it is like to be a bat is just to be a bat; what it is like to be a human being is just to be a human being, and so on, right down to what it is like to be me (or any other individual) is simply to be that individual.

The ineffable states of consciousness, the qualia as they are called, strike me as a mistake of language. Once, Ludwig Wittgenstein noted that “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.” (§ 109, Philosophical Investigations). Merely because we have such terms as “seems”, “feels” and phrases like “What-it-is-like” is no reason for us to conclude that there are seemings, (irreducible) feelings and qualia; to think so is to confuse verbs for nouns, or functional terms for ontologies. That we are conscious (that is, that we do things in a conscious fashion) is beyond reasonable doubt. That conscious behaviour implies Consciousness (the substance or ontologically irreducible state) is beyond credulity. We are being bewitched by our language.


One major consequence of taking our verbing language as nounish is that we then tend to privilege our consciousness as the primary state of the world. I don’t mean panpsychism, although that seems to me a prime example of this mistake, but the idea that the world we experience is a mere construct of our [language | mind | worldview | etc.], as if we make the world in which we live. This mistake is rife in post-Idealist philosophy, and is perhaps an error assigned to the early empiricists, who asserted that all we know and experience is the evidence of our senses, making our senses primary to the world being sensed. This is akin to making the letter primary to the letter-writer, and even the postman. It appears in the claim that if two people have very different worldviews they literally live in different worlds (a view ascribed with varying justice to Thomas Kuhn, Immanuel Kant, and even Wittgenstein himself).

Where two principles really do meet which cannot be reconciled with one another, then each man declares the other a fool and a heretic. [On Certainty, §611]

Kuhn’s idea of paradigm includes this mistake, and generations of philosophers have repeated it, as if all that two different scientists who hold theories that are not reconcilable held in common was that they had theories, and not (as Wittgenstein noted) a form of human life, a shared culture and the rest. But anyway, back to physicalism.

One of the main criticisms of physicalism is that it leaves unspecified which physics is taken to be all there is. This depends upon the assumption, often repeated by philosophers, that what there is can best be derived from a formalisation of some theory in a domain, and as physics covers all domains, it must have all the objects. I do not think this. For a start, an ideal and final physics is very unlikely to be developed any time soon; each time we have declared that we now have the standard model of this or that we find things that undercut or extend our conceptions (dark matter, dark energy, etc.). But deeper than this, I think that no matter what we finally conceptualise the world to be, it is likely not to be the only formal theory that can do this.

Again, we verb our nounings.  If we have a descriptive model of the universe in some representation, it may be that we have cut nature at the joints that interest us, but that some other beings might find unintuitive and maybe even incomprehensible. So I cannot think that I must assume that what exists in the world are all and only the objects that have classifications in some theory, no matter how accurate, precise and universal that theory might be.

Instead, though I think that whatever does exist will be describable in a physics if we can only investigate it. For instance, were it the case that qualia existed, then I would expect them to have some physical, causal effect on other objects, in ways that were regular and manipulable. If there is no causal effect, then I cannot think that class of things is real. Any kind of coincidental parallelism between qualia and brain states, for example, strikes me as a scientific, not to mention a metaphysical, miracle, and miracles are the enemy of understanding. So I don’t exclude qualia because they are not physical, but because if they are physical, they are mysterious and miraculous and uncausal.

So, what ontology should we expect to get from a physicalism, and where might the gaps be? I might leave that until another post…

Humans evolved in tribes, our species’ equivalent of the general primate troop structure. This meant that members of the tribe benefited from shared resources, the protection of the group and the inherited knowledge of the tribe. It also meant that we will natively and naively defend our group against others, and demonise the other groups. You see it in sports, culture, nations and religions. You see it in class, gender wars (there’s a reason men tend to denigrate and discriminate against women and intersex) and age cohorts. And recently, Australia has been showing it in spades: beginning with the racist dog whistles of government policy towards refugees over the past decade (yes, Labor, I’m including your execrable craven cowardice too!). And right now that tribalism is being used to take away legal rights that Australians have enjoyed for over 60 years. We are giving up rights like the presumption of innocence, public accountability of government, and general human rights.

I also see tribalism in the attacks by the antireligious on all religious believers (in fact much of the tribalism of the skeptical community stems from attacks upon Islamic belief, just as the current rash of state sponsored racism does). The irony here is that the reason the West hates Islam is because it used to be a competition between Christendom and the Caliphates for control over territory; and now it is the competition for control of oil resources. That irony is lost on the supposedly progressive skeptics movement, almost all of the time.

The fact is, it is not progressive humanistic thinking to replace one set of tribalisms with another set; that’s just hypocrisy and self-serving behaviour. We can get that at the local store – why do we need to be skeptics to do that? Why do we need to promote sexism or anti-non-Western attitudes in what should be a rational movement?

I want to say that rationality leads away from these tribalisms, but in fact rationality is, as old David H said, a slave to the passions, and sometimes (most of the time?) those passions are self-interested in the extreme. Sure, there were the cosmopolitan rational thinkers like Russell, or Tom Huxley, but they would not even get a decent twitter following these days. You gots to hate if you wants the fans.

I’m sick of it. No more labels for me: there are people and their actions. If they act well, I don’t give a flying fornication what their label is. And if they don’t, I don’t care they are supposed to be my peeps. I’m an anti-semic from now on.

Err… wait a minute…

Adam Ford has added some more of the short videos he did with me a couple of weeks ago. I list them below. I might add that what missed the edit with respect to the Bayesianism versus frequentism video is that “This is not my field but I will give it my best shot”…

Bayesianism versus frequentism in epistemology

Scientific realism

Politics and Science

Maps and territories

Have fun. Criticisms welcomed, but understand I was doing all this ex tempore and without prior preparation.

As part of the Science Week activities that informed the last few posts, I will be giving a brief introduction to philosophy of science as well as talking about the relation between science and religion shortly. The organiser of this event (on 23 August, at the East Melbourne Unitarian Church) is Adam Ford, who interviewed me for a few hours in freezing cold but picturesque surroundings in the Melbourne Royal Botanical Gardens last Sunday (it rained, which is why I’m wearing a waterproof coat. I’m not trying to look outdoorsy). Here is the first of these pieces as Adam edits them and puts them up on Youtube:

More to come unless the decency police object to an old Australian…