- Series: New Problems of Philosophy
- Hardcover: 264 pages
- Publisher: Routledge; 1 edition (March 12, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0415452627
- ISBN-13: 978-0415452625
- Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.5 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #17,191,025 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Physicalism (New Problems of Philosophy) 1st Edition
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'The book is accessible to the advanced undergraduate and covers all the basic lines of thought surrounding materialism. But it also contains controversial theses (there is no physicalism, Hempel's dilemma is a mistake) that will grab the attention of and demand replies from the most advanced researchers. It's all done in crystal clear modus ponens style. Physicalism gives us everything for which we could reasonably ask, and more.' - Australasian Journal of Philosophy
'Physicalism should serve not just to stimulate debate but to help clarify what questions are most pressing when it comes to physicalism, and this is on its own a most welcome contribution.' - Metascience
'An elegant and insightful introduction to one of the most puzzling dogmas of contemporary metaphysics - much needed and highly recommended.' - Huw Price, University of Sydney, Australia
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He makes no mention of what I had always taken to the classic rationale for physicalism – the Occam’s Razor advantage relative to more complex worldviews. The reason for the absence of the Occam rationale is never mentioned – but it can possibly be inferred from the complex rationalizations that physicalists have invoked, including Identity laws, the contingent necessity, the apparent acceptance of logic and math as non-physical, and functionalism as a further non-physical feature of the world. I am inferreing that this world assumed by physicalists has become so complex, that they seem to recognize that “simple” no longer describes it.
Ultimately, Stoljar rejects physicalism as an inappropriate remnant view left over from the 19th century, when the matter we knew was all similar to the macro-scale objects we manipulate in every day life. Physicalism is best understood as a thesis that all matter is like macro solid matter. He concludes in his final chapter that physics has revealed the world to work so differently from our macro scale intuitions that physicalism is simply false, and the efforts to preserve the doctrine by recasting it to include the bizarre discoveries of modern physics have robbed the term of any useful content.
The above reasoning from the concluding chapter is fundamentally empirical – the nature of our world, and what types of stuff it consists of, is ultimately an empirical question, and one should expect empirical observations to play a major role in evaluating the possible options, and in determining the truth, or usefulness, of physicalism. But this is the only empirically focused chapter in the book. Instead, Stoljer explicitly says in the intro he will avoid discussing physics, and that (contrary to his conclusion) philosophers should be able to evaluate physicalism without referring to actual physics! The rest of the book then focuses on definitions, and thought problems that philosophers have constructed out of their intuitions. Neither defintionalism, nor intuitive thought problems are a particularly useful way to evaluate an empirical question. They will only lead one to a correct conclusion if actual physics has become embedded in the imaginations of the philosophers engaged in this exercise. As Stoljar concludes that physicalism contradicts the very non-intuitive nature of physics itself, and physics became non intuitive with the Quantum and Relativity revolutions of ~1900-1920, and physicalism became the philosophic consensus in ~1960 – one can actually conclude from this that the intuitions of philosophers do a very poor job reflecting the reality of physics knowledge. Stoljer claims that the efforts of philosophers from 1960 to today to solve the “problems” that what we know about consciousness, ideas, willing, causation, etc seems to directly contradict physicalism have not been pointless. WHY he thinks that, when the methodology used is non-empirical but applied to an empirical question, the intuitions of philosophers were so manifestly wrong, and physicalism itself is incorrect, is difficult to understand.
Digging into the details of the book provided me an in depth review of what is wrong with much of contemporary philosophy. In chapter 1, Stoljar lists the questions that provide challenges to physicalism:
• Perception and sensation
• Speaking and thinking
• Meaning to words
• Sensation properties to objects (color, taste)
• Dimensional and non-superposition properties to objects
• Reasoning and normative thinking
• Apparent free will
• Sociology affecting behavior
• Mathematics and logic, and our knowledge of both
But in this work, he only discusses issues with perception and sensation, except for a bare few paragraphs each on meaning and morality. It doesn’t matter how one parses the definition of physical and causal closure (parsing these terms is the primary content of this book), if physicalism could not deal with the reality of the above list, then it is refuted by test, regardless of whether modern physics is intuitive or not.
When he gets to the defining process, Stojar initially posits a definition: “absolutely everything whatsoever is physical” which he quickly rejects. This is an exception to his not doing empirical tests, as he rejects this claim due to numbers and the Supreme Court not being plausibly physical (the last two bullets in the above list) – and he immediately vitiates physicalism from a global claim to a mere claim about a “certain salient class” of objects/phenomena. As I consider materialism to be a coherent philosophy, and one which needs to be taken seriously, I found this concession, that basically materialism IS NOT TRUE, right off the bat, to be startling, as was the lack of content to the argument pro/con this concession. I have not found non-philosophers who lean toward materialism to be willing to make this concession without putting up quite a fight. If Stoljar is representing materialist philosophers correctly here, then materialism itself has basically lost all its advocates.
Another issue I was startled by was the insistence by Stoljer that emergent property dualism is not physicalism, and the unacceptability of including property dualism in the definition of physicalism played a significant role in his discussion of various possible definitions. From the point of view of spiritual dualists, and of idealists, the efforts by property monist physicalists to define property dualist physicalists out of their club seem like an argument between bigenders and littlenders.
Stoljer decided to define physicalism based on properties. This struck me as a fundamentally confused approach. Whether a property is physical, perceptual/mental, or a logic/relational/idea property seems far less subject to intuitive understanding than the physicality of items. Relationships appear to be intrinsically non-physical, and he basically conceded this, vitiating his definitiona bit further by asyign that physicalism holds that all properties are physical properties, or dependent on physical properties. This would have been a good opportunity to address the math/logic point of the bullet list of questions, and try to explain how math and logic can exist in a purely physical universe, or if they lead to matter/idea dualism, but he did not discuss the metaphysical consequences from his added clause. Presumably he was holding that all relationship properties are derived from logic, plus physical objects – making logic an only semi-independent phenomena.
Even worse, Stoljar used color and shape as examples of “physical” phenomena. But neither are physical at all – they are ascriptions by our minds. The weakness of his non-empirical approach to an empirical question is painfully apparent, as the study of neurology has made very clear that we have four frequency ranges of photon detector in our eyes, and our eyes do scanning and image integration over time and the sensor grid, and our perception of color is an interpretative attribution by our neural processing. Reflectivity and or/re-emission of photons in a particular wavelength can be a property of an object, but color isn’t. Shape – is mostly perceptual with a logic/category aspect. Squareness is a logic category binning of perceptions we are visually good at cuing on. Blockishness would be the related physical property – but the underlying blockish nature of objects is often not discernable by us in visual scanning – the perception , the categorization, and the physical properties are three very different things. I also assumed that blockishness, and reflectivity, should be considered physical properties, but they are also plausibly relational, not physical. Which brings to the fore the lack of clarity of a ”physical” property. IMAGINE a red brick, and imagine touching it to establish its resistance and roughness, and scraping it to establish its hardness. Are the redness, brick shape, resistance, roughness, and hardness of this imaginary object -- PHYSICAL properties? I think this question, if pursued -- will lead pretty quickly to incoherence. All of this confusion could have been avoided by sticking to objects, but Stoljer apparently wanted to avoid an even worse set of problems with that.
Ultimately, the definitional problems that Stoljar, and the materialist philosophers whom he discusses suffer from, are directly due to their use of an incorrect mode of thinking. Rationalism starts with definitions. One must define terms precisely or one can get nowhere, as precise terms are needed for logic operations. But in empiricism, definitions are always loose until a subject has been thoroughly understood. It is only after the science investigation is done that precise definitions are available to a field. One could define physicalism as the belief that everything is the stuff that is subject to einstein’s matter/energy equivalence, and everything that appears to be non-physical is somehow dependent upon or emergent from this substance. The definition is loose, because its purpose is not to do logic operations , but to inspire experiments. An empirical approach to physicalism would spend almost no time on definitions, but instead explore the test data relative to the bullet list above.
Much of the book is focused on “necessity” arguments, that rely upon the concept of metaphysical necessity – defined as something true in all possible worlds. The intuitions of philosophers who developed this idea seem to rely upon several invalid premises. The original example of metaphysical necessity is that Water must be H2O. Necessity is a very strong claim, and there is a very high burden to demonstrate the validity of a necessity claim – one not met in this book, where necessity claims are thrown about fairly casually. Worse than not meeting its burden these claims share a set of weaknesses that shown them to be refuted! This “necessity” claim relies upon “water” actually being something, and not a mere arbitrary label to be affixed to H2O – hence there is a hidden Platonism behind the claim. Additionally, the “laws of Physics” are presumed to themselves be necessary and inviolable – but physics itself has refuted this intuition. M-theory holds that the fundamental forces that create H2O in its current form could have been otherwise – IE H2O could combine in another world, and have very different properties from what we call water. Additionally, all of the “laws of physics” are the result of symmetries, and every one of the symmetries can be broken (gauge symmetry) – so even in THIS world H2O need not behave like water. Metaphysical necessity is required to be a credible concept for about half of the discussion in the book, and presumably about half of the published philosophy on the subject, and it is not, as it has been refuted by physics.
The “Arguments Against Physicalism” chapter did not even raise the fairly devastating concern that Quantum Mechanics theoreticians are pretty much all idealists. Or the equally devastating one that Biologists, Psychologists, Sociologists, and Mathematicians all hold that their disciplines are not reducible. Nor the equally devastating observation that evolutionary selection for multi-feature consciousness refutes the Identity Theory. Of course not – these would be empirical tests of the idea. Instead, this chapter focused on the Conceivability Argument – various thought problems that reflect the preconceptions of philosophers about what might or might not be possible relative to consciousness. Conceivability arguments have no weight for empiricists.
Ultimately, this book did not achieve Stoljer’s goal of replacing physicalism with a scientific naturalism. While physicalism likely cannot serve as a valid descriptor of our world, for the reasons given in the conclusion, the lack of empirical focus in the rest of the book prevented Stoljer from assembling the evidenced to support his thesis. Along the way, his discussion highlighted the similar failure of his fellow philosophers to apply empiricism to these empirical questions, and the resulting futility of most of their thinking. While Stoljer’s thesis that physicalims is either untrue or cannot be defined is likely true, the primary takeaway from his book should have been the need for philosophers to radically change their methodology to avoid irrelevance and futility.
In conclusion, I don't necessarily agree with the way Professor Stoljar has presented the argument, but that's my problem, not his. In fact, he is quite forthcoming in the Introduction when he states: "...at this point it is worth issuing a word of warning about the discussions to follow. This is that while I certainly take myself to be a reliable narrator. I am not an unopinionated one. And my opinions have certainly affected how I present the issues, what I think is plausible and not plausible and so on. Whether my opinions are correct or not is a matter about which you will have to make up your own mind. My best advice - though here again I am being opinionated! - is to follow up the readings I have suggested at the end of each chapter (and the references contained in those readings) and, even more importantly, to think through the issues yourself." This is good advice, even if it easier said than done! At any rate, if you enjoy science and philosophy like I do, then reading this book should be well worth your time and attention. Lastly, I would recommend reading, The Waning of Materialism, and The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty, to develop a more well-rounded view of what Physicalism is.