Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Golden Rule and Physicalism

[Philosophical Musing Alert… the following is an idea that I have had, which I would like to expose to the light of day, feel free to find the flaws and point them out.]

In a previous post, I considered Plantinga’s modal argument for dualism.  The argument is essentially a refinement of the those put forward by Descartes, though perhaps a bit more rigorous in its appeal to the principle of the indiscernibility of identicals along with some modern notions of modality.  However, the whole argument really comes down to the intuition that if something is conceivable, then it is logically possible.  Some of my commentators countered Plantinga’s argument by saying that while it might be prima facie  conceivable that I inhabit another body, it may in fact be logically impossible for this to occur.  I countered with Chalmers‘ discussion of the conditions by which conceivability would entail logical possibility and that conceiving one could inhabit another body would fit those conditions.  Here I would like to offer a slightly different argument for the logical possibility of inhabiting a different body.  Basically, this is a reductio based upon one of the most universal moral intuitions there is: the Golden Rule.  Since the Golden Rule is accepted by almost every culture and religion, I would say that it is intuitively known to be an objective truth.  I think this insight goes far to dispel physicalism, but we have to consider what the Golden Rule entails.

The Golden Rule states something like, “one should love and treat one’s neighbor as oneself.”  It seems to me that the Golden Rule depends upon the conceivability of thinking that I could inhabit the position relative to my neighbor and/or that my neighbor could inhabit my position.  So, for instance, I determine that I ought not to steal my neighbor’s food, since I could conceive of myself as standing in my neighbor’s position and that his food is my food.  Since, I would not want my neighbor to steal my food, I can imagine that if I were him, I’d not want it to be stolen either.  So, the underlying empathy that the Golden Rule appeals to hinges on counterfactually conceiving oneself in another person’s position.  It is not enough to say “I don’t want my food to be stolen”.  That doesn’t get you far.  Nor can you say, “If I were my neighbor, I wouldn’t want my food to be stolen” because you don’t really know what your neighbor wants or desires.  The key to the Golden Rule is maintaining the “how you want to be treated” clause with a consideration for your neighbor’s situation.  You must bring yourself into his position not by imagining that you ARE him, but that you could be where he is.

But now consider this: ought I to cut my neighbor’s arm off?  If I apply the Golden Rule, I must be able to conceive of the possibility that I inhabit my neighbor’s body.  I certainly would not want the arm to be cut off were I to inhabit such a position, so I cannot cut his arm off. The issue then comes down to this point: when the Golden Rule is be applied to questions of the body, it seems that one must be able to conceive of the possibility of inhabiting one’s neighbor’s position, and in many cases this means his body.  This conception is certainly prima facie conceivable.  But if the conception is ultimately logically incoherent, then the application of the Golden Rule depends upon a logical impossibility.  This means that one cannot really conceive of what it would be like to be a neighbor’s body and so the empathy evoked is unjustified.  Thus, the appeal to how we want to be treated is improperly assumed to apply to our neighbor, since nothing really must be the case once an logical impossibility is admitted.

However, it is plainly obvious that the Golden Rule can be applied in moral considerations considering the treatment of the human body.  And it would be absurd to think that a rule to which so many often appealed when justifying non-violence against another person’s body is,within its core assumptions, logically impossible. Therefore, it must be conceivable and also logical possibility.  But then, if I could be my neighbor’s body, then I am not my body.  This is because while it is possible that I could be me and in a different body at the same time, it is logically impossible that I could be me and also a different me at the same time.  Thus, the empathy that lies at the core of the Golden Rule requires a discernible difference between myself and my body.  Since physicalism posits that I am my body, it must be false.

There are a couple of objections that I could anticipate to this argument:

1.  The most obvious objection is that the empathy that lies at the heart of the Golden Rule needn’t depend upon the logical possibility of counterfactually conceiving oneself in another person’s position.  A physicalist might give an entirely naturalistic account of empathy which avoids such reasons.  For instance, a man stubs his toe and screams and moans.  Those sound waves evoke brain states in me whereby I  come to believe that I understand that there is a person other than myself experiencing pain and I feel bad about that belief.  No mystery, no ghosts in the machine, nothing “spooky” is going on at all in this account.  Furthermore, it seems that we have not applied counterfactual thinking to explain empathy.  And indeed, I would agree that we could explain empathy without appeal to counterfactuals.  But an explanation is very different from a justification.  If the Golden Rule can be explained, but not justified, then it is not an adequate ground for moral reasoning.  So often in debates between physicalists and non-physicalists the distinction between explanation and justification is missed.  The physicalist claims only to be able to give an account for something purely physically.  The non-physicalist demands not a physical explanation, but a physical justification for something like empathy or the Golden Rule.  At least to me, there can be no justification of the principle unless it is assumed that there are not just other bodies, but other minds and that it is at least possible to think of minds as separate from bodies so that a switching of positions is conceivable.  The Golden Rule requires a “bringing-together” of “how I want to be treated” with the other.

2. It could be objected that it is logically possible to imagine that I am my neighbor’s soul.  In other words, shouldn’t the Golden Rule apply to cases where I consider whether I ought to cause harm to the soul of my neighbor.  I’d have to be able to conceive that I am my neighbor’s soul, which would mean, by an analogous argument, that I am not identical to my soul.  So it seems that I must argue that the Golden Rule only prima facie  applies to cases where harm might be caused to a neighbors soul, but that it is really logically impossible to apply the Golden Rule in such cases.  I think this would mean that, ultimately, the Golden Rule could not be applied to cases where one might directly harm a neighbor’s soul.  Why might this be?  Perhaps it is because it is impossible for one  to harm another person’s soul directly–one can only harm one’s own soul and only another person’s soul indirectly.  But this does not mean that one cannot cause harm to another person’s soul in another sense.  For instance, suppose I were to tempt my neighbor into stealing an automobile.  We might suppose that becoming a  thief is damaging to a person’s self, or soul, rather than to his body.  But, am I really causing harm directly to my neighbor’s self or soul when I tempt him?  No.  What I am doing is making use of my neighbors ears, by whispering tempting words into them.  I am using words to alter my neighbor’s emotional states, or passions.  I am altering my neighbor’s body in an attempt to influence his will.  In such a case, I am responsible for affecting my neighbor’s body in a way that I would not want my own body to be affected, so I have done my neighbor wrong–but it is a wrong to his body.  Thus, if the Golden Rule applies to cases of harm to the soul, it is only insofar as one can do harm to a body, which affects the soul.  I cannot harm another person’s soul directly, but only through the other person’s cooperation.  So in the case of temptation, I only take the position of my neighbor’s body.  If I were also to take the place of his soul, then I am really not imagining the situation properly to derive reciprocity.  For if I were to imagine that I were his soul too, then I could not use any of my own intuitions about how I would want to be treated so as to apply those intuitions to his case.  Deriving reciprocity depends upon keeping some aspect of myself while counterfactually exchanging some non-essentials between neighbors.

3.  A physicalist friend of mine has prompted me to consider a third possible objection.  Though perhaps practically infeasible, suppose a complete brain transplant were possible.  One might be able to imagine oneself as “conscious” in another person’s body if one were to imagine that one survives a brain transplant into a new body.  Thus, the counterfactual imaginings central to the Golden Rule need not be anti-physicalistic at all, if physicalists can meaningfully speak of a person being conscious at all.  I think this is an important objection because it gets at the heart of the physicalist problem for me.  Suppose I were to imagine that such a surgery took place–that my brain has been transferred into my neighbor’s body.  Is the result a switch of position?  Is my conscious-self in a new body?  I would say no.  The result is far from my possessing or inhabiting my neighbor’s body.  Rather, the result of the surgery seems to be some sort of chimerical Frankenstein’s monster, at least that is how the thought strikes me.  Thus, the result of such a thought experiment allows for no application of my intuitions as to how I want to be treated if I were in my neighbor’s position.  Instead, given the veridicality of physicalism and a successful brain transfer, two humans are destroyed and something new has been made.  The Golden Rule question is lost and instead one is mired in a sorties paradox of how much of you is necessary for you to remain yourself.  I don’t think there is a good answer to this question under physicalism, so the paradox cannot be resolved.  Rather than providing a good counter-example as to how a physicalist might counterfactually imagine him or herself in another person’s position, such thought experiments reveal only deeper metaphysical problems for the physicalist.  Rather than pumping our moral intuitions about how we ought to treat our neighbors, we are left scratching our heads without a good account of what makes a person self-same.  No, I don’t think a brain transfer thought experiment will help us to be able to appeal to the Golden Rule and also be physicalists.

To sum up, my argument would run something like this:

(1)  The Golden Rule is moral principle that can truly be applied to a case if and only if counterfactually conceiving myself in another person’s position is logically possible.

(2)  If the Golden Rule can truly be applied to cases of the human body, then conceiving myself in my neighbor’s body is logically possible.

(3)  If I am my body, then it is not logically possible to conceive myself in my neighbor’s body.

(4)  If physicalism is true, I am my body.

(5)  The Golden Rule can truly be applied to cases of the human body.

(6)  Conceiving myself in my neighbor’s body is logically possible. 3,5 MP

(7)  I am not my body.  3,6 MT

(8)  Physicalism is not true. 4,7 MT

It all comes down to the price you have to pay.  If you want to maintain physicalism, you have to deny the logical possibility of inhabiting a body other than your own.  This means that you cannot coherently apply the Golden Rule to cases of the human body.  Since nearly every ethical and religious moral theory appeals to the Golden Rule on some level, this is a very high price to pay.  I have to give up on physicalism so that I can continue to use a moral principle that has not only served me well, but I think lies at the core of any conception of morality.

Bauer on Sense-Data

Dr. Fred Bauer’s lecture on sense-data helps to expose many of the bad habits of thought that result from 1) not completely eschewing naive realism, 2)  unthinkingly accepting the useful fictions found in many scientific models as if they were descriptive of what exists, and 3) compartmentalizing and cataloging our thoughts as if they belong to separate and independent domains of “knowledge”.

Much of his lecture is based upon his book The Wonderful Myth Called Science, which I recommend highly to all of my readers.  This is one piece of the puzzle as to why I think physicalism is ultimately a misguided metaphysical position.  The first step is getting clear on what we sense, then we can work on figuring out what exists. 

Talking with Dr. Bauer is what I’d imagine it would be like to talk with Rene Descartes and Socrates if they were rolled up into one person.

Tolle Lege: Essays on Augustine and Medieval Philosophy in Honor of Roland J. Teske, SJ

Tolle Lege: Essays on Augustine and Medieval Philosophy in Honor of Roland J. Teske, SJ is now available at Amazon.  I had a small hand in the editing process of this Festschrift, so I thought I would spread the word about it.

There are some really great essays in this collection!

Description from Amazon:

With his clear and accessible prose, impeccable scholarship, and balanced
Judgment, Roland Teske, SJ, has been an influential and important voice in
Medieval philosophy for more than thirty years. This volume, in his honor, brings together more than a dozen essays on central metaphysical and theological themes in Augustine and other medieval thinkers. The authors, listed below, are noted scholars who draw upon Teskes work, reflect on it, go beyond it, and at times even disagree with it, but always in a spirit of respectful co-operation, and always with the aim of getting at the truth.

Essays on Augustine contributed by Gerald Bonner, Charles Brittain, Joseph Koterski, SJ, Joseph T. Lienhard, SJ, David Vincent Meconi, SJ, Ann A. Pang-White, Frederick Van Fleteren, Dorothea Weber, and James Wetzel. Essays on Bernard of Clairvaux, William of Auvergne, and other medieval themes contributed by John P. Doyle, William Harmless, SJ, John A. Laumakis, Edward P. Mahoney, and Philipp W. Rosemann.

If you have an interest in Augustine or Medieval Philosophy, I recommend it!

It’s A Duck… No, A Rabbit… No, It’s Physicalism!

I often argue that physicalism is false, but this is because I assume a reductionistic picture of physicalism based upon our current understanding of the physical universe.  I do not think that our current physical sciences can justify non-reductive physicalism with its exotic supervienences, panpsychisms, etc.  But I should put it this way, either physicalism is reductive and false, or non-reductive and trivial.  I say that non-reductive physicalism is trivial because it simply a priori defines any existing phenomenon as physical so as to preempt the discovery of some future phenomenon that lies outside of our current understanding of physical reality.  Essentially, I endorse Hempel’s dilemma on this point.  Daniel Stoljar (2009) writes the following of the dilemma:

One might object that any formulation of physicalism which utilizes the theory-based conception will be either trivial or false. Carl Hempel (cf. Hempel 1970, see also Crane and Mellor 1990) provided a classic formulation of this problem: if physicalism is defined via reference to contemporary physics, then it is false — after all, who thinks that contemporary physics is complete? — but if physicalism is defined via reference to a future or ideal physics, then it is trivial — after all, who can predict what a future physics contains? Perhaps, for example, it contains even mental items. The conclusion of the dilemma is that one has no clear concept of a physical property, no concept that is clear enough to do the job that philosophers of mind want the physical to play.

One response to this objection is to take its first horn, and insist that, at least in certain respects contemporary physics really is complete or else that it is rational to believe that it is (cf. Smart 1978, Lewis 1994 and Melnyk 1997, 2003). But while there is something right about this, there is also something wrong about it. What is right about it is that there is a sense in which it is rational to believe that physics is complete. After all, isn’t it rational to believe that the most current science is true? But even so — and here is what is wrong about the suggestion — it is still mistaken to define physicalism with respect to the physics that happens to be true in this world. The reason is that whether a physical theory is true or not is a function of the contingent facts; but whether a property is physical or not is not a function of the contingent facts. For example, consider medieval impetus physics. Medieval impetus physics is false (though of course it might not have been) and thus it is irrational to suppose it true. Nevertheless, the property of having impetus — the central property that objects have according to impetus physics — is a physical property, and a counterfactual world completely described by impetus physics would be a world in which physicalism is true. But it is hard to see how any of this could be right if physicalism were defined by reference to the physics that we have now or by the physics that happens to be true in our world.

A different response to Hempel’s dilemma is that what it shows, if it shows anything, is that a particular proposal about how to define a physical property — namely, via reference to physics at a particular stage of its development — is mistaken. But from this one can hardly conclude that we have no clear understanding of the concept at all. As we have seen, we have many concepts that we don’t know how to analyze. So the mere fact — if indeed it is a fact — that a certain style of analysis of the notion of the physical fails does not mean that there is no notion of the physical at all, still less that we don’t understand the notion.

One might object that, while these remarks are perfectly true, they nevertheless don’t speak to something that is right about Hempel’s dilemma, namely that for the theory-conception to be complete one needs to say a little more about what physical theory is. Here, however, we can appeal to the fact that we have a number of paradigms of what a physical theory is: common sense physical theory, medieval impetus physics, Cartesian contact mechanics, Newtonian physics, and modern quantum physics. While it seems unlikely that there is any one factor that unifies this class of theories, it does not seem unreasonable that there is a cluster of factors — a common or overlapping set of theoretical constructs, for example, or a shared methodology. In short, we might say that the notion of a physical theory is a Wittgensteinian family resemblance concept, and this should be enough to answer the question of how to understand physical theory.1

While Wittgensteinian family resemblances might be the best we can do to “define” physical theory, it is still inadequate to answer the charge of this dilemma.  The point is that we cannot anticipate what future member of this family might come about, so we cannot be sure what ought to count as physical.  Furthermore, it is precisely with regard to the boundary cases, the mind, and what is now called the supernatural, that may alter an change what is “defined” as natural or physical.  We must operate within the family resemblances we now have, not an ideal set of family resemblances.  Thus, I do not think Wittgenstein provides an out for this dilemma.  So I am content to say that physicalism is either false or trivial.
1D. Stoljar. 2009. Physicalism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved September 4, 2011.

Paradox of Omnipotence

It is sometime alleged that the concept of omnipotence is logically self-defeating and therefore impossible.  If omnipotence is an essential attribute of God and impossible, then God cannot exist.  But are these paradoxes any real threat to orthodox theistic belief, or is the threat overblown?

Perhaps the most common example of the paradox of omnipotence is posed in the following dilemma: Either God can create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift, or God cannot create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it.  If God can create such a stone, then there is something an omnipotent being cannot do—namely, lift the stone.  If God cannot create the stone, then once again an omnipotent being lacks the ability to do something.  So, no matter what, it seems omnipotence is impossible.

The traditional theistic response has been to embrace one of horns of the dilemma while denying that the horn leads one to the conclusion that omnipotence is impossible.  To understand this, we first must understand what “omnipotence” means.  Most traditional theists define “omnipotence” as the ability to do anything logically possible.  So an omnipotent being could create stars, black holes, and even unicorns.  But such a being could not draw a round square, since roundness and squareness cannot cohere in the same object at the same time and in the same way.  But what about a really heavy stone, what is so logically incoherent about it?  Notice that the stone is attributed not with merely being super heavy, but with being so heavy that an omnipotent being cannot lift it.  We might put it this way: a being that can create anything and lift anything is tasked with creating something that a being that can lift anything cannot lift.  If there is no weight that is too heavy for an omnipotent being to lift, then it is simply not possible for an omnipotent being to create such a stone.  No such stone can exist.

There have been some other interesting examples of omnipotence paradoxes.  For instance, it appears that an omnipotent being cannot create legal U.S. currency.  Why?  Because in order for currency to be legally made, it must be minted at one of the dozen or so authorized mints around the United States.  So, if God were to just bring a dollar into existence, having not been minted legally, God would be guilty of counterfeiting the bill.  A clever theist might come up with a way around this, i.e. God could incarnate himself as man and then apply for employment at the U.S. mint.  Then he could be said to have at least been a part of the process of minting real money.  Still another theist might say something like, since God is the creator of all matter and energy, God is the remote cause of U.S. currency—though not the proximate cause.  Really the legal currency example really boils down to a logical incoherency.  An omnipotent being cannot create something that is defined as not having been created by an omnipotent being.  So if legal U.S. currency is, by definition, currency not created by omnipotent beings, there is little God could do, short of becoming the building, the printing machine, the employees, and the U.S. treasurer, so that God could be said to have fully created the dollar bill all by himself.  And even if he did all those things, there would still be some question as to whether the minted bill was really created by a genuine U.S. mint of a counterfeited one.

My interest in this puzzle is with those who might find this first solution dissatisfying.  They might insist that omnipotence is the ability to do anything, including the logically impossible.  So, if God cannot make a stone so big that even God cannot lift it, then omnipotence is impossible and so is God.  So rather than insist that the previous definition of omnipotence is the only one on the table, I would like to offer the following counter-dilemma to those who might think that these paradoxes are real defeaters for theism.  The dilemma is as follows:

Either omnipotence is the ability to do anything but the logically impossible or omnipotence is the ability to do anything including the logically impossible.  If omnipotence is limited to doing the logically possible, then God cannot make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it simply for the reasons stated above.  If omnipotence is not limited by the logically impossible, then God CAN make a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it.  But this is not very problematic either.  For if one insists that omnipotence ought to include the ability to break the laws of logic, then it must be reassessed as to whether the inability to lift a stone qualifies as something which precludes an entity from being omnipotent.  I argue that we have no logical footing from which to make such an assessment.  If there is a logically impossible world where omnipotent beings can create objects so heavy that they cannot be lifted, then we are just as likely to infer that an omnipotent being is unlimited in action as we are to say that such a being is limited in action.  The laws of logic no longer apply to such a being, right?  So, if an omnipotent being could make a stone so heavy that a being that can lift anything cannot lift it, then the same omnipotent being certainly would have the power to stipulate the definition of omnipotence around any objections.  If one were to object to such a move as illogical it’s just too bad, for the objector has already insisted that an omnipotent being can do that which is illogical.

Is the ability to do the logically impossible logically impossible?  Squared-circles cannot exist because squareness and circularity are contrary attributes that cannot cohere in the same object at the same time.  But, is the ability to make squared-circles itself logically impossible?  So it might not be the case that the ability to do the logically impossible it itself logically impossible.

These questions aside, the theist is perfectly within her right to insist that omnipotence means only that God can do the logically possible.  If the atheologian insists that omnipotence requires the ability to do the logically impossible, then it is the atheologian who has walked through the dialethistic door of admitting the possible impossible.  And if the only reason for insisting that omnipotence means the ability to do the logically impossible is to conclude that omnipotence is itself logically incoherent and cannot exist, then one has merely begged the question through stipulating omnipotence in this manner.  That is, one has stipulated omnipotence to be defined as an impossible attribute which cannot exist.  That is not a very compelling reason to think omnipotence doesn’t exist, especially since there are competing definitions out there.  So I think a theist is perfectly within his or her rational right to think omnipotence can and does exist.