Can clouds love?

Following the death of his wife Helen Joy, C.S. Lewis wrote some reflections which were gathered up into A Grief Observed.  In one section he wrote,

If H. ‘is not,’ then she never was.  I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person.  There aren’t, and never were, any people.  Death only reveals the vacuity that was always there.  What we call the living are simply those who have not yet been unmasked.  All equally bankrupt, but some not yet declared.

But this must be nonsense; vacuity revealed to whom?  Bankruptcy declared to whom?  To other boxes of fireworks or clouds of atoms?  I will never believe–more strictly I can’t believe–that one set of physical events could be, or make, a mistake about other sets (1989, 41)1

It seems to me that this is a powerful objection to a naturalistic worldview.  I do not understand how it could be that the physicalist accounts for the identity and individuation of persons.  In fact, I think that if physicalism is true, there could be no persons to know it is true.  I would argue as follows:

1.  If physicalism is true, then there are no objective criteria for individuating and identifying persons.

2.  If there are no objective criteria for individuating and identifying persons, then no persons exist.

3.  If no persons exist, then I cannot experience love for my wife.

4.  If I experience love for my wife, then there must be persons.

5. I experience love for my wife.

6.  Therefore, physicalism is false.

In other words, if the physicalist is to convince me that my experiences belie reality, they still must appeal to me and “my experiences”.  If my experiences are to be false and I am mistaken, then there must be criteria for individuating and identifying me from the rest of the physical universe.  These criteria cannot be subjective, arbitrary, and ad hoc.  Rather, they must be objective, essential, and real. But, I think we have good reason to think premise 1 is true.   Organisms constantly change in that which they are physically composed.  The physicalist might say that the pattern remains the same, but they really mean that patterns are similar.  Consider the physicalist who supposes that a transporter might copy a human, decompose the matter at one location and reproduce the pattern perfectly elsewhere.  The physicalist might say that the human has been transported like a faxed message.  But if the original is not destroyed when the copy is produced, the physicalist struggles to explain what has happened.  Are both the copy and the original the same person?  The struggle reveals the point that even if all physical facts of a person are copied and reproduced in matter elsewhere, there is still something non-physical through which a person is identified and individuated as the self-same person. So, I would challenge the physicalist to supply these objectively real criteria.  For, without such an account, I could hardly be faulted for thinking that these real and objective criteria are found in non-physical realities–in what the supernaturalist calls the “soul”.

1C.S. Lewis. (1961). A Grief Observed. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Posted on August 16, 2011, in Philosophy of Mind and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Challenge accepted. I challenge premise one, but not because physicalism is true. The reason why we say there are individuals and persons is because our language divides it up. We call a university a “university”, but it has many parts and we can talk about many part within this university. But there is no glowing essence called “university”; it’s just something that we call this collection of buildings, students, and teachers. In the same way, if I go to a party with you, I introduce you as Dan. If we’re in the science lab, you are simply quarks, elections, and empty space, and in the church, you are a soul + body. It’s just how we talk.

  2. So if I go to church in the morning and then the science lab in the afternoon, my soul exists for part of the day and then is dissolved by mere language conventions? How could language have such metaphysical power?

    I would respond this way: if physicalism is true, language does not exist. There would be utterances. There would be ink marks. I do not even think there would necessarily be corresponding thoughts and ideas to the soundwaves and scratches taken to be symbols of language. So if language exists as anything beyond utterances and ink blots, physicalism is false.

    • No. Language does not break up the metaphysical realm. Instead, language shifts our perspective on what we want to talk about. I talk about you when I introduce you to someone, but in a legal realm, I can talk about you as a bearer of rights. When we are talking in a scientific manner, then we can talk about you as a system of atoms and empty space. When we are talking in a religious sense, then we can talk about souls and immaterial things. Language doesn’t break apart the metaphysics. It’s a shift in our linguistics. It’s similar to the duck-rabbit picture. Talking about the picture as a rabbit no way destroys the duck; it’s just that we don’t see it as a duck at that context. But when we say it’s a duck, the rabbit portion gets ignored, but it doesn’t destroy the rabbit. Yet, we cannot see the rabbit or the duck at the same time. So I would say that Lewis was only talking about his wife in a physicalist sense, but that’s inappropriate because she isn’t just Helen qua physical matter. Saying that I mistook a cloud of atoms as a person doesn’t make sense in his context because he’s playing equivocating language games: the scientific one, and the relationship one.

      I’m not sure what you mean by physicalism being true, then language doesn’t exist. Do you mean the meaning behind the language?

  3. Yes. I am not entirely convinced language exists at all, but I am entirely convinced that if physicalism is true, language would be nothing more than marks and sounds. I do not think signs and signification exist if physical reality is all that exists. If I did not believe in the soul and the supernatural, I would be a hard determinist and also deny the existence of human consciousness. I suppose I would be something like a behaviorist, determinist. I would explain language as marks and sounds which strike the sense organs of humans and which can influence behavior in various ways. But that is not what most people mean by language.

  1. Pingback: You Make Your Own Meaning? | vexing questions

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