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Is Physicalism coherent?

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.


  1. A small point of criticism, I don’t think mathematics ia a language I think it is a group of languages.

    • John Wilkins John Wilkins

      All languages are groups of languages…

  2. jimhexis jimhexis

    May I put in my usual asterisk here? If you think of metaphysics as an attempt to sort out the various things it’s worthwhile to talk about, physicalism is obviously inadequate because most of the things we care about are not physical things at all, though they are all related to physical things in various ways. For example, I’m not my body, which, however, doesn’t mean I’m another thing besides my body, unless you construe body in a complicated way as a sort of dot object in analogy to a dot product in mathematics.

    Seems to me there’s a play here between two senses of entity, a distinction that is marked in some languages. I forget the Greek this morning, though I use to know it. I’ve heard the point made in German by calling one Sache and the other Gegenstand. Or you can talk about things that exist as the little circle in the big circle of beings. Hegel does something like that, and even Hegel was sometimes right.

    What I call Science with a Capital S, i.e., the ideological self-understanding of some scientists and others, in effect takes the view that the universe is a big room with objects in it, a rather disorderly warehouse or department store. Obviously there’s a lot more to this view than that, including a tendency to identify or, more accurately, mistake, the canonical catalogue of the contents of the big room for the things themselves even though, as is usually admitted, the canonical catalogue is a always work in progress. In effect, this outlook recreates Aristotle’s version of Platonic idealism: the Greek claimed that what’s actual in the world we encounter are the essences inherent in the ultimate particulars while the Science with a Capital S account imagines that the real in reality is its mathematical description. It’s rather like trying to eat the menu.

    This comment is getting too fat for an asterisk. On the other hand, the three of us are pretty big too. When Thony put out his the Horror, the Horror! post featuring a video and you put out your mini-lectures, it crossed my mind that the three of us could do a traveling show like the three tenors, assuming the engineers made sure the stage was sufficiently reinforced. To keep things Shakespearean, we could title the show: Horrible, horrible, most horrible.

    • DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

      As a parenthesis to your asterisk might I refer you to E-Prime (in Wikipedia in the first instance).- a modified version of English that avoids the confusion of differing uses of the verb ‘to be’. The play between two senses of identity you refer to, perhaps.

      I’ve often thought that a great deal of philosophical debate could be avoided by distinguishing between what ‘is’ and what I perceive to exist. Indeed, I seem to recall David Hume drawing some conclusions about such matters.

  3. TomS TomS

    Suppose that there were a perverse biologist (PB) who wanted all science reduced to biology. Could PB take all of your arguments and turn them mutatis mutandis into support for PB? Objects of physics would not be natural objects, but abstractions, so the PB would not be a physicalist but a biologicalist.

    • Well I haven’t yet given a motivation for privileging physics yet, so I suppose so; but I don’t know a biologist that perverse. The extent of their perversity seems to be that biology has some aspects that cannot be reduced to physics, either epistemically because of our limitations (and of course I agree with that) or ontologically in terms of emergence and functionalism (with which I do not).

  4. TomS TomS

    Why this linear hierarchy? Why is there not something which bears the same relation to physics which chemistry does? Or what if we discover something going on in space which is just as complex as biology but it isn’t anything like life? Or if Dark Energy has its own complexity which is nothing like chemistry?

    Which suggests this: What is someone pointed to the impossibility of reducing General Relativity to Quantum Mechanics as flaw in the in the assumption that there is universal reductionism? All within physics, but on a different branch than that leading to chemistry.

    As regards mathematics, who knows enough of what is going on to say that all mathematicians are doing something deserved to be called parts of the same discipline? Are there some mathematicians who say of one of their colleagues, “Jones isn’t even doing mathematics”?

    • DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

      If you start from accepting that ‘all there is’ is just fermions and bosons (at the levels of energy and size that we are comfortable with) then any hierarchy or level is just meanings you and I choose to assign to the sensations and concepts we interpret raw reality by. Useful, sometimes, but not necessarily factual.

      I’ve come around to the realization that the universe of raw reality is flat – there are no levels, no magic, no organisation, beyond the stuff and relationships being investigated by physics. All of the concepts like love, honour, beauty, morals, the divine, only exist because we are complex enough to make them up as explanations for our sensations.

      Which is why, I think, it is so difficult to reduce the ‘finer feelings’ to fermions and bosons. The relationship between fundamental reality and our interpretation of it is more complex than we can discipline our minds to achieve. Difficult, but less difficult than justifying our concepts as something special and extra to the natural world.

      • TomS TomS

        If fermions and bosons are the things that really exist, then I can’t imagine wha “exist” means. How do I “exist”, then, or my horse, Wally, or the Pacific Ocean? As I suggested elsewhere, a criterion like “measurable” doesn’t seem to be enough for existence: degrees (Celsus) per radian, the 9th derivative “hyperjerk” (in the sequence position, velocity, acceleration, jerk, …). I would not think of fermions existing more than a “sort”, “manner” or an “dint” exists. I don’t see how physics has been granted this privileged status – why not go all the way and say that the only things that “really exist” are mathematical objects: how about the categories of category theory?

        • DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

          The stuff that physics investigates is real, but ‘Physics’ is a concept and an interpretation of reality. Just as ‘I’ is, your horse Wally or the Pacific Ocean. If humans were eradicated by some storm of neutrons there would be no ‘I’, no horse labelled Wally and no body of water labelled ‘Pacific Ocean’. Nor any mathematical concepts. Fermions and bosons would continue to exist but the labels wouldn’t.

          This is not to say that ‘I’, ‘Wally’, the Pacific Ocean and mathematical formulae are not important to us, they are – it’s just that they are our concepts and not fundamental, nor necessarily accurate.

        • TomS TomS

          I don’t want to argue that “physicalism” is consistent. (Although one might wonder about quantum paradoxes.)

          As I see it, you are just insisting that the objects of physics are the only things that you are going to say exist.

          You draw up rules for existence based on your commitment to physicalism.

          I most surely don’t have a worked-out philosophy of “biologicalism” (although I do think that others have done that with “mathematicalism” or “sociologicalism”). I am only trying to point out that consistency is not enough to establish the priority of a given level. There might be others which are also consistent.

        • DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

          No, I understand what you are saying, but you are assuming a commitment to physicalism that I don’t hold.

          I argue that physicalism is a hypothesis, and that using this hypothesis appears to explain the world we see, so far. I don’t find that arguments about the priority of “mathematicalism” or “sociologicalism” challenge the hypothesis. Indeed if the physicalism hypothesis is provisionally true then there can be no other ‘levels’ of priority.

          This is not to say that concepts of “mathematicalism” or “sociologicalism” don’t have value to us, nor that the taste of chocolate cannot be meaningful, but they are dependent on physicalism (having no separable existence) – unless you can propose some alternative hypothesis.

  5. Brian Brian

    So the question of the incoherence of physicalism is based on the assumption (which runs contrary to physicalism, and is thus question begging)
    Is this akin to my understanding of Chalmer’s arguments about consciousness? He seems to start from a dualistic point of view, then declares non-dualistic explanations impoverished.

  6. In the last post, physicalism was “a world view in which only things that can be described in terms of physics are said to exist.” But here, where “abstract objects are only concrete objects without the location indices,” and a thought about what is red “exists” as “cognitive and social behaviours in biological heads,” the definition of physicalism has receded: things are said to exist even when they are not “described in terms of physics,” but simply when they are said to be physical. And I have a hard time seeing how that’s a useful outlook—whereof one can say that something is physical, one should. Well, okay.

    Sure, I agree that thoughts and abstract objects are, ontologically speaking, configurations of other things. And those other things are also, ontologically speaking, configurations of other things. And the most finely-grained configurations in our toolkit are the ones that people investigate with particle accelerators. Whether those are, ontologically speaking, configurations of other things, whatever they might be, or just pure structure, whatever that might be, I do not know. But following that trail of investigation in which everything is a configuration of, or structure in, something else doesn’t yield—that I can see—an ultimate ontology, or a metaphysics. It “just” yields an extraordinarily powerful system for situating ourselves.

    Maybe there’s a philosophical analogue to the idea that thoughts are “cognitive and social behaviors in biological heads,” where we say there is no real difference between an ultimate ontology and “an extraordinarily powerful system for situating ourselves,” so that the former and the latter are identical, or that the latter is what people always meant by the former anyway. (See, e.g., Lawrence Krauss on “nothing.”) And again I have a hard time seeing how that’s a useful outlook—except for the purpose of telling certain others to stop talking. But doesn’t that just make it a dogma?

    I guess I’m just skeptical that there’s any way to prevent ideas like “physicalism” from ultimately winding up in the same neighborhood as theology and supernaturalism. And I don’t think that has anything to do with whether theology, supernaturalism, or physicalism are true—although I’m inclined to say that they’re all false. The problem is that people are not very good at living well in contingency and uncertainty, and without reifying everything.

  7. LD LD

    As I understand your view, you’re saying that there aren’t any natural kinds — that when we “carve reality at its joints”, the joints are determined by our physiology, social convention, evolution, etc., and that reality itself doesn’t care about these distinctions.

    The way I understand physics with respect to the other sciences is that it focuses on particular kinds of natural kinds (namely, the most general, fine- or large-scale ones, like “body”, “system”, “energy”, etc.). This is perhaps something like what the image on the “Pizza reductionism” post is getting at.

    Putting these together, I don’t think I understand how your nominalism about natural kinds fits together with physicalism, which seems to be privileging one level of natural kind.

  8. AK AK

    Several thoughts:

    First, you still need mathematics, specifically WRT information. When I read ancient speculations about the “substance” of spirits, etc., the first thing that occurs to me is that that “substance” might be composed of information in some respect.

    Second, natural numbers ARE natural, in the sense that, for instance, if a predator sees three of some prey species, it’s three, not two or four. Many predators can count up to three…

    Third, following on the second, is that any for of abstraction the (“higher”) mammalian brain has evolved to perform on the universe can’t be considered an invention of the HUMAN brain. “Species”, for instance, and the categorizations and generalizations surrounding them, have enormous adaptive value to any evolving population capable of identifying them. “A big spotted cat will probably behave differently than a big plain cat” (leopard vs. lion) makes a valuable contribution to survival through appropriate reaction.

    • TomS TomS

      ISTM that the ability to count would be much more valuable to a potential prey.
      “I saw four predators. And now I see only three. Where is that fourth one now?”

      And I think that are several cross-species categories which are important: mother-with-baby (very dangerous to mess with, no matter the species), conspicuously colored (probably poisonous), health (it is said that stotting is a way of displaying that it’s probably not worth the chase), …

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