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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What is Russellian Monism?

That's the title of a recent paper I just read by Torin Alter and Yujin Nagasawa (Journal of Consciousness Studies 19, pp. 67-95; H/T ex-apologist).  It's an interesting and mostly very clear paper, at least for me, who has not read most of the source material they are discussing.  (They're primarily drawing on Chalmers, Stoljar and Pereboom.)

I was most surprised (and pleased) to see that Chalmers has made a significant qualification about the implications of the Knowledge and Conceivability Arguments.  I used to think he believed those arguments entailed the falsity of physicalism.  However, Chalmers now claims that they only entail the following disjunction:  Either physicalism is false or Russellian Monism is true.  Since there can be varieties of physicalism which are compatible with Russellian Monism, then Chalmers must be open to the possibility of physicalism.

Chalmers apparently accepts (or perhaps only strongly leans towards) a variety of Russellian Monism.  Specifically, one in which there are phenomenal or protophenomenal inscrutibles.  Inscrutibles are, by definition, elements which cannot be fully characterized in terms of structural/relational properties.  One of the theses of Russellian Monism is realism about inscrutibles.  Another is structuralism about physics.  That is the idea that physics is limited to structural/relational descriptions.  So Russellian Monism denies the thesis that physics can provide an exhaustive description of reality.

The third and final theses that distinguishes Russellian Monism is (proto)phenomenal foundationalism: the idea that "at least some inscrutables are either phenomenal or protophenomenal properties."

It might seem like these three theses constitute a rejection of physicalism, but Alter and Nagasawa identify good reasons why this is not the case.  They point to arguments that physics cannot describe all of the real physical properties, and they argue that phenomenal properties can be physical properties of a sort which cannot be described by physics.

I don't take issue with any of that.  I do wonder, though, why they claim (following Chalmers) that protophenomenal properties cannot be physical properties.  The idea of protophenomenal properties is just this:  that phenomenal properties result from certain sorts of combinations of other properties which themselves are not phenomenal.  I don't see any reason to think that physical properties cannot be protophenomenal properties.

Of the four candidates for inscrutables which Alter and Nagasawa discuss, the only one that is clearly incompatible with physicalism is neutral monism, as it says that inscrutables are neither physical nor phenomenal.  Whether or not phenomenal or protophenomenal properties can be physical properties depends, at least partly, on what we suppose it means for a property to be physical.  I'm not sure what Alter and Nagasawa have to say about that.

I'm curious about the arguments in favor of structuralism about physics.  The idea, I gather, is that physics gives us a kind of formula without telling us anything about the actual stuff that carries out the function.  I don't find that thesis compelling, let alone intuitive.

My more general point, building on the above, is this:  It is not clear what methodological principles are in play in this kind of philosophical argumentation.  I don't know what counts as a standard of reason or evidence when we are talking about what terms like "phenomenal property" and "physical property" entail.  It seems that Alter and Nagasawa are attempting to map out a logical space, but it is not clear that this space has any bearing on the real world.  That may be fine.  The logical space might be worth investigating in its own right.  However, since strong claims are being made about the nature of physics and the (possible) relationship between reality and consciousness, it is hard to know what to think.