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.

Posted on September 18, 2011, in Philosophy of Mind and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I’m skeptical as to Chalmers’ insistence that our conceivability tracks logical possibility in any accurate manner. Given what we know about the way the human brain works, it seems that this feat is far beyond the expectations of a human brain. While we can certainly track explicit logical possibilities in this manner (square-circle, married bachelor), I have a hard time believing we can track implicit contradictions or even more complex explicit contradictions with the same strength.

    I would question premises (3) and (4). With (3), I don’t see why we ought to assume that we have to actually conceive of ourselves in another person’s body in order to properly assimilate the Golden Rule. I can merely imagine my own body in their predicament, and act accordingly. Why should I have to imagine my consciousness inside their body?

    As for (4), while we are certainly no more than our body in physicalism’s estimation, I think it is safe to say that I am not my “body”. If I lose a finger, it wouldn’t be intelligible to start referring to me by another name. I retain my self-hood (if there is such a thing as the ‘self’, but I’ll save the nebulous skepticism for another time) despite losing parts.

  2. Matt,

    I think you are right to attack premise (3) as I think that is the weakest point in the deduction. I am trying to work out my defense of this a bit more carefully, but part of the problem is that it is that it is hard to conceptually analyze notions like empathy.

    However, I think that Imagining your own body in another person’s predicament only makes sense if you assume that there is something analogous between your body and their body, which is the point that I am ultimately driving towards. To say my body and my neighbor’s body are analogous is not merely to say that they are roughly morphologically the same, but that my neighbor’s bodily experiences are similar to my own, i.e. qualia or phenomenal experience. I imagine that my neighbor experiences the world in ways that are not too different from my own experiences and that if I were to experience being in my neighbor’s body, the experiences I would have would be perfectly sensible to me, no pun intended.

    Could there be an analogy between experiencing body A and experiencing body B if the person who experience body A cannot even possibly imagine experiencing body B at all, but only thinks she does in a confused sort of way? The resulting analogy would be ill-founded since even imagining what body B is experiencing is supposedly logically incoherent on physicalism, lest the modal argument obtains!

    If one rejects physicalism, the problem becomes much easier to explain. When body B stubs her toe and shouts, body A hears her and so person A remembers a time when he experienced his toe being stubbed — the throbbing pain, the frustration, etc. Person A then reasons by analogy that, if body B is anything like his body, then there is a person B that is having similar thoughts and feelings to those he has had in the past. Person A imagines that if he were body B, those are the types of thoughts and feelings he would be having. Person A does not merely imagine he is Body A stubbing his toe, as that would not evoke empathy, and it is the notion of empathy that I think is really crucial to understanding my rationale for (3). The Golden Rule is not just about imagining yourself in positions that others find themselves, it is about feeling for them… quite literally. That requires a consideration of the other person’s experience of being “incarnated” so to speak… to feel for their bodies as if you were their bodies possessor.

    A bit of contrast might draw this out. We all remember the Three Stooges and their use of slapstick. Why is slapstick even remotely funny? It is only funny when we detach and not think of what it would be like to be Curly’s or Larry’s body. We see their bodies as separate from our bodies and we do not conceive that we are in their position in any way. We do not feel for them at all. If physicalism were right, then I think we would only see slapstick, and never empathize. But even the physicalist grows weary of the Three Stooges after a while. And who hasn’t accidentally laughed at someone who fell off their chair only to discover that they really hurt themselves. That sense of guilt that creeps inside of us at that moment is because we are able to imagine ourselves in their position.

    The physicalist cannot have his cake and eat it too. If it is logically impossible to imagine yourself with a different body, then there is no warrant behind any inferences of what others think or feel on the basis of behavior. If such inferences are unwarranted, then any analogies built upon them are utterly groundless. So imagining your body in your neighbor’s predicament might make you sweat, or feel uncomfortable, but you logically would not be able to provide a rationale to employ analogically reasoning. You’d have to be agnostic, inferring only how you would want to be treated. As you can see, this means that physicalism logically leads to a kind of solipsism where there is absolutely no warrant for thinking there are other minds.

    As for your rebuttal of (4), I suspect this does more harm than good for you. Premise (4) gives some sort of an attempt at identifying and individuating a human person given physicalism. If we reject (4) and cannot provide an adequate account of the self, then physicalism fails. I think you are correct, if I am my body, then all sorts of sorties paradoxes ensue. If we take you apart piece by piece, which part is really you and which are just parts that you possess? It’s not very coherent.

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