Empiricism and Physicalist Monism – How To Do It

In a comment on a previous post Neil wonders if empiricism, defined as the use of the senses and reason, is a dualistic notion. It isn’t. The identification of sense and reason is merely a convention in discussions about empiricism. Humans have customarily come to talk in terms of reason and senses because they appear as distinct experiences to us, subjectively. But they are both physical experiences, according to the following.

You will think dualistically if you start with ‘perception’ and confine yourself to human ‘mental’ experiences without considering more science. But even so I think it’s worth emphasising that this dualistic nature that is being referred to here isn’t the same thing as the dualism of mind/body, Cartesian Dualism.

My route to physicalist monism is straight forward, and covered here, here, here. In summary it’s as listed below – and here I’ll start with perception in order to pick up Neil’s starting point. Now obviously this isn’t the actual detailed route we take personally, but I’ll get to that eventually. And nor are these distinct steps. This breakdown is used just to emphasise specific points.

1) We perceive, and wonder what our perceptions involve. I’d normally assume that all this is understood and go right to point 2.

2) We follow Descartes back to the Cogito and observe that I think therefore I am a thinking thing, at least. This need not be an absolute certainty. Certainties are not necessary.

3) If at this point we accept everything as being in the mind then we can reflect on what the mind observes, and go on from there.

4) This mind perspective, this pure Rationalism, can concoct any story it likes: panpsychism, solipsism, various combinations of the physical and supernatural – pretty much anything. And we have no means of checking which is true. Any imagined possibility is an actual possibility, according to the mind. At this point we could branch off anywhere, but I think that if we continue to analyse all the possibilities we can always get back to some form of solipsism – all Rationalisms lead to Solipsism. But even then we have no means of distinguishing some specific detail: are you a figment of my imagination, or am I a figment of yours, for example; or, if we are part of some grand consciousness, why do we disagree?

5) But, the mind observes one particular set of perceptions that are strikingly persuasive: the ‘physical’ world – using the particular term ‘physical’ from convention, because at this point there is no knowledge about what this actually means. It is only a persistent perception. Later, ‘physical’ becomes a mere label, but the perceptions are so persuasive we start to think the ‘physical’ is at least one aspect of reality. It appears we have various ‘senses’, in that these perceptions consistently come to us through what we perceive as various sensory modes. All this is still possibly only a mental perceptual phenomenon. There is no guarantee that these perceptions of the physical world relate to any actual physical world – it just feels that way, so much so that it feels more real and persistent than most if not all other mental phenomena.

6) Now, we seem to be stuck at (4), but (5) is very persuasive. It seems impossible for a human to switch off these ‘physical’ perceptions, or to mentally influence many of the physical experiences we perceive – I can imagine that I can make my car rise off the ground under mind control, but the physical perception is that this is not possible, no matter how much I try with my mind. All human attempts at telekinesis seem to fail. Now, it could be that there are some unknown limitations to our mental capacity to control our mental experiences, so that it may still be that the ‘physical’ is nothing more than a solipsist perception. But, instead of fighting this why not take the tentative step of accepting that there is something to this ‘physical’ reality. Will that help?

7) As it happens it does seem to help. The more seriously we take these physical perceptions the more consistent our overall perceptions become. It really does seem like there are other entities out there, just like me, that are reporting similar internal mental perceptions, of mind and of externally existing other entities and physical objects. They report that they observe me just as I observe them. Furthermore, as we cooperate, using science, we discover so much specific and extremely persistent detail about a whole external universe (external to our minds) that we can’t help but be persuaded that this is at least a very useful and satisfying interpretation of our perceptions. It is far more consistent than any of our Rationalisms; with the exception of the very unsatisfying solipsism. The significant point is that if we treat this perceived physical reality as if it is real and not just a mental phenomenon we seem to be able to make progress with it that we can’t if we assume it is a mental figment, because the latter leaves forever imagining details that we can only verify by imagining more stuff about the imagined physical reality. It’s as if the maintenance of the solipsist view takes more effort than just accepting the physical perceptions as being somewhat representative of a real physical world. There’s no need to assume our perceptions are perfect – and in fact if we ever do that we seem to get into more trouble: if we take seriously the perception of an inner voice instructing us to kill people, it seems to cause a lot of pain in the world. There are lots of good reasons to accept the physical world, in spite of the difficulties involved in accessing it reliably. At this point we can accept we have a rather erratic inner mental life that has a slightly misty window on some physical reality.

8) Taking the real world seriously, and appreciating our fallible access to it, and the fallibility of our mental capacities, we develop science in order to overcome some of these inadequacies. We come then to perceive the results of Evolution. If we continue to take all this science seriously Evolution tells us that our ancestors did not have brains and did not have minds. Evolution demonstrates a very clear link between brain and mind, where the capacity of mental phenomena seems to match physical characteristics of the brain quite consistently. Then, we also have Neuroscience. This shows us even more specifically the link between physical changes to the brain and corresponding mental changes. It also shows us that there is no sensory faculty in the brain whereby it can sense itself in a way that corresponds to touch or pain. The brain cannot ‘feel’ itself in the same way as it can ‘feel’ one’s finger touching one’s nose. We cannot detect our own brain physically, we cannot feel its processes in action. All of science, but Evolution and Neuroscience specifically, leads us to think that the brain and its mental faculties are an evolutionary development, and that the specific lack of internal sensory perception of one’s own brain makes it feel like the mind is separate. Add to this all we know about infant development and it appears also that the mind seems to awaken at some point in our individual young lives. For all these reasons dualism seems to be the natural first perceptual experience; but all the science then explains why this is, and why this is an illusion. We are physical beings, individually, and as an evolved species, long before we have a brain that starts to think.

9) The thinking faculty seems to be an add-on, an upgrade. All the mental phenomena (1) to (4) can now be explained in terms of the physical universe. We even have a reasonable understanding of concepts like the second law of thermodynamics as well as all the other physics and chemistry that explain how such complex physical systems can become chemical, biological, organ, organism. As contingent as all this is upon our accepting the physical experiences it all fits together very well. Currently we seem to have some difficulty sewing up some loose ends. We haven’t yet been able to come up with a detailed theory of how we connect the subjective conscious experience to the physical neurons upon which we think it is based. But the simple and consistent hypothesis is that there is such a connection, particularly since there is no evidence of the alternative: a separate mind.

10) The pure Rationalism now seems misplaced. At the very least this should give Rationalists a far greater problem than any Rationalist argument does for science, for physicalism. It is often said that there are no true outright solipsists. Even the most strident Rationalists don’t live by their own philosophy: they still eat drink and sleep. Or, those that don’t soon find they succumb to the very physical world they deny, and die. All experiences that supposedly transcend the physical world are only ever transitory, and the mental experiences reported can still be explained as physical events in the brain. Or at least that’s how it appears to those of us that embrace the physical world. As much as it is philosophically unsound, the comment by Dr Johnson, “I refute it thus!”, is sufficiently persuasive that the pedantry of any counter Rationalist philosophy is not the least bit convincing. Once you go down this route there’s actually a lot of philosophy that then seems to be nothing but fatuous nonsense.

Of course some of the more pragmatic of our fellow humans don’t bother with this arduous route to an empirical epistemology and physical monist ontology. They don’t need Descartes to tell them that they think and so exist, they just accept the physical world as the primary one and assume the mental world is a behavioural artefact of the brain. And they treat many of the more bizarre philosophies, such as the theologies, as utter tripe. There’s a lot to be said for this pragmatic approach. Of course others do think there are separate realms, because that’s what it feels like. Without some form of investigation it just becomes a shouting match.

Those that do like to check out other possibilities tend not to come by our physicalist persuasion by this route either. It’s very much a post hoc rationalisation of what we pick up along the way. But then all philosophy and science is. We do hear the Rationalist arguments, and superficially they sound as though there might be something to them. I cannot refute solipsism. But nor can any Rationalist refute physicalism. They can only offer alternative possibilities. The distinction is that empiricism and the consequential physical monism are very pragmatic and produce a lot of results. Take a Rationalist living in any century prior to the 19th and sit him beside a Rationalist in the 21st, and ask them to compare their lives and thoughts. You’ll find their Rationalist thoughts have barely changed, but their view of the physical world will be utterly different, to the extent that our older Rationalist may well be convinced that he is experiencing a lot of magic no matter how it is explained (Rationalism can cause its own blind persistence).

In this analysis, where uncertainty rules, physicalist monism is the tentative conclusion, and mental phenomena, rather than representing some dualistic alternative, are just part of this physical world. Senses and reason are not really a dualism, they are both different aspects of a human physical experience. All mental phenomena, including reason, are physical processes: processes that result in behavioural experiences that because of the apparent physical sensory disconnect seem to be something additional.

One problem for many Rationalists, particularly the theists, is that they are looking for certainties. But whether they take their particular Rationalism as being reality, or the physical world as an additional reality, there are no certainties anywhere. Claims to certainty are bogus and are easily shown to be so. Asserting some particular point does not make it so. No amount of logical argument will be convincing because it will always rely on asserted premises, and so are easily countered by some counter assertion. All logical arguments are contingent; they are conditionals. If the premises are true then …

And this is where many Rationalists are quite disingenuous in their approach. They want certainty and some even claim they have it, in their own view of reality. But whether they claim it or not, whether they embrace uncertainty or fear it, they will be very quick to point out the uncertainties of science and quite abysmally assert (with some certainty) that the empiricist science proponent is the one claiming certainty. They demand a greater certainty from science than they do of their ideas, glossing over the vague and nebulous nature of their own. But read any modern book written by a scientist. I can’t think of one I’ve read that has been written since the 1990’s that hasn’t had to counter this objectionable misrepresentation and state very clearly, usually in the introduction and with reminders throughout, the very specific uncertainties, limitations, and openness of science.

The good news is that the science of the physical world embraces uncertainty – to the point now that it looks like uncertainty is the greatest certainty we have. Though of course we have no way of being certain, even about that. There is no sign of dualism. There is no sign of any of the Rationalisms providing a fruitful route to knowledge. As uncertain as this empiricism and physicalist monism is, as contingent as it is, it’s the best show in town. And science is the best way of dealing with it, for the purpose of acquiring knowledge.

5 thoughts on “Empiricism and Physicalist Monism – How To Do It

  1. 1) We perceive, and wonder what our perceptions involve. I’d normally assume that all this is understood and go right to point 2.

    You are taking perception to be a magic deliver of propositions (or a magic deliverer of percepts or of something – you don’t exactly say what).

    Berkeley would be proud. Your ten point account is entirely consistent with his idealism – esse est percipi. And keep in mind that Berkeley was an empiricist, not a rationalist.

  2. Neil,

    My 10 points are also consistent with solipsism, any theology that allows all this, where God is instrumental in causing evolution and the physical world, … I’ve already conceded that there are some philosophies that I can’t refute. The 10 points would also be consistent with Berkeley, but are not quite the same. I’m not claiming esse est percipi, though it’s one of these many possibilities, because an alternative possibility is that the physical reality that appears to be may not be reliant on being perceived. I’m actually saying that I elect to act as if this latter possibility is the case, because the arguments and evidence are more persuasive and it is of greater utility than any of the other philosophies.

    And just to be clear on this, I also think some God hypothesis is reasonable, since we don’t know anything about the business of universe creation, but I reject it pragmatically on the grounds of there being no good argument or evidence to support it.

    The same goes for Berkeley’s specific esse est percipi. If everything stopped existing at a point when a final perceiving being finally stopped perceiving, who would be around to verify that everything else stopped being too? It’s a curious but pointless idea, as far as I can tell. I’ve ended up rejecting idealism.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “magic deliverer of propositions”. Where have I invoked anything remotely similar to magic, unless you’re using ‘magic’ in some metaphorical sense that I don’t get. The perceptions are just there, and other than the 10 point explanation I’ve given that contingently concludes that perceptions are the result of physical processes, I have no explanation for them, only the observation of them – my perceptual experience is that I perceive.

    Your statement still seems to smack of an assumed dualism, as if you have already decided that the perceptions are something magical that I am invoking in addition to the physical. I’m not. Many of your posts also seem to revolve around ‘higher level’ faculties, in the realm of propositions, concepts and so on, as if they are something other than shadows of physical activity. Where do you see the difficulty?

    1. I’m not sure what you mean by “magic deliverer of propositions”.

      I am using “magic” because you leave too much unexplained.

      The perceptions are just there

      Isn’t that pretty much the same as saying that they magically pop into your head?

      Where do you see the difficulty?

      As best I can tell, you are not connecting the perceptions to reality, other than by assertion.

      AI people typically want to start with signals picked up by sensory cells, and proceed from there. The problem for AI, is that these signals seem to be meaningless. The AI claim is that they will be able to compute meaning out of patterns found in the meaningless signals. I am quite skeptical of that, but at least they recognize that something is missing.

      In jumping straight to perception, you seem be evading that question of meaning by a sleight of hand.

  3. “I am using “magic” because you leave too much unexplained.”

    I did say that this is all contingent of accepting that our perceptions are telling us about something real, and that this is all inference from what evidence we do have, because there is evidence for nothing else, nothing extra. I’ve pointed out where the gaps in this explanation lie, which is mainly at connecting details of how physical neurons work and our subjective experience of concepts and meaning. Nowhere have I offered an iron clad scientific theory.

    “Isn’t that pretty much the same as saying that they magically pop into your head?”

    If you’re using the the term ‘magically’ as a metaphor for unsensed, then yes, that is how they appear to us. We can’t detect, introspectively, where individual perceptions come from, or how they are formed from seemingly quite unrelated signals entering the brain. To us as individuals the whole experience of consciousness does seem like magic, so much so that we have invented ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ and a God to provide them, which itself is more magic.

    But the point is that, given the veracity of our perception of a physical world, and how, even shared among us (unless we are all part of a solipsist mind), our working with that particular experience all of science implies that what we experience as magical perceptions are the result of unconscious events in the brain appearing as conscious, without any hint to the subjective consciousness as to how. Introspection fails to provide answers dramatically. We have only science to look to for answers. If all the answers aren’t available yet, then so be it, we have to wait for that work to be done.

    “As best I can tell, you are not connecting the perceptions to reality, other than by assertion.”

    I am suggesting all this, by inference, as the best available explanation. Given how much I keep stressing our uncertainty, even about our consciousness, our mind, our possible solipsist existence, then I think it’s stretching it to say I’m asserting it. Of course, using the terminology of philosophical language, you could say I’m asserting this is a possibility, rather than I am asserting it is all true.

    “AI people typically want to start with signals picked up by sensory cells, and proceed from there.”

    Traditionally this is true, because early on a more simplistic computational model of the brain was anticipated.

    “The problem for AI, is that these signals seem to be meaningless.”

    Our input signals seem to be meaningless, but we seem to be able to create meaning from that. The challenge for AI is to come up with a system that that creates its own meaning, as we appear to do. Of course it’s possible this might be achieved without understanding what we are doing. This isn’t unusual. Plenty of science and technology proceeds and succeeds ahead of a more complete understanding, and it’s only the doing and the achieving, and sometimes significantly the failing, that helps us to figure our which are the important aspects that we need to understand further, and so lead to greater understanding. The steam engine worked, to some extent, before we had any idea about the details of thermodynamics. That understanding grew out of the doing and the questions raised by the doing.

    So, in AI there may be no need for the AI developers to compute meaning themselves and to impose it on the AI system. Early AI attempts seem to be trying to do just this, to do the work for the AI, then implant the result. But they only need to build a system that creates its own meaning, even if they are still left in the dark about how the system does that. Once this is achieved, assuming a detailed explanation doesn’t come from biological brain sciences first, they can then go on to experiment with it and try to understand it.

    “In jumping straight to perception, you seem be evading that question of meaning by a sleight of hand.”

    But, from your comment on my previous post:

    “My starting point is perception. That is, I am examining how perception could possibly work (from a theoretical point of view). As best I can tell, there could be no senses and there could be no reason prior to perception.”

    So, how can you tell that there are not senses?, And what is the theory? You seem to be looking at personal subjective experience, as if that is the starting point, when all of science suggests that it is not. Starting with the mind and accepting its perceptions at face value has been tried for millennia, with no new news as yet. Our introspection conflicts directly with science. Starting with ‘perception’? Isn’t that philosophy, and even a sort of metaphysics of the mind? I ask because you go to great length on your blog saying you don’t do metaphysics, and you’re not a great fan of philosophy. I see you doing just those things.

    I understand the difficulty with ‘meaning’. I hope to put up a post on that soon.

    1. I did say that this is all contingent of accepting that our perceptions are telling us about something real, and that this is all inference from what evidence we do have, because there is evidence for nothing else, nothing extra.

      This is fine for everyday life. But it is not sufficient as a basis for a theory of knowledge. For that, we need to know something about how perception actually works.

      But the point is that, given the veracity of our perception of a physical world, …

      There’s a big difference between our views. I do not accept that as a given. I am inclined to believe that the expression “veracity of our perception” is entirely without meaning.

      So, how can you tell that there are not senses?

      If there are “senses” that deliver data to perception, then our perception is vastly underdetermined by that data. So it could not work that way unless there is a huge amount that is innately specified. And the amount that would be required to be innate is substantially greater than the carrying capacity of the DNA.

      Starting with the mind and accepting its perceptions at face value has been tried for millennia, with no new news as yet.

      Quite. So that is the wrong way to start.

      When I say “starting with perception”, I do not mean “starting with the results of perception.” Rather, I mean “starting with attempts to understand how perception works.” My starting assumption is an organism that needs to obtain useful information about its world.

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