Thursday, May 26, 2005

Occam and Epicycles

A commonly expressed criticism of panexperientialism is that it is overly extravagant and violates Occam’s Principle that explanatory entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily . Thus, it is said, the cost of a panexperientialist explanation of human consciousness is the uneconomical view that experience extends into regions where it is not required and serves no explanatory function.

On the surface this sounds like a valid point - it is reasonable to ask whether the explanatory deficits of panexperientialism outweigh the gains. However, closer examination reveals that the supposed extravagance of panexperientialism is premised on physicalist and determinist assumptions about the nature of matter. These assumptions automatically exclude any possibility of experience playing a causal role in the world.

But at the margins of the physicalist world view, where its explanatory power and coherence begin to break down, it can be seen that panexperientialism can extend rational explanation into areas where physicalism has difficulties. Some of the areas where this could occur are quantum mechanics, human consciousness, the investigation of psychic phenomena and, at a more abstract level, the nature of causation and the problem of induction.

It may be interjected here that the mention of psychic phenomena signals a retreat into pseudoscience and reflects an inability to face up to the cold, hard facts of objective science. Yet under a panexperientialist framework, much of the world may be explained in the same fashion as under a physicalist, deterministic model. It is therefore entirely appropriate to focus on those areas where panexperientialism may interpret things differently from physicalism, rather than restricting enquiry to areas where they are the same.

In fact, when it comes to assessing the empirical evidence for psychic phenomena (which I personally have not read the literature closely enough to made my mind up about), panexperientialism is actually capable of a more objective assessment of the data than physicalism. There is an assumptional asymmetry between panexperientialism and physicalism whereby the verification of psychic phenomena falsifies physicalism, whereas the non- verification of psychic phenomena does not falsify panexperientialism. To elaborate on this:

Let physicalism be defined as the view that all observable phenomena can be explained by purely physical law and let panexperientialism be defined as the view that experience is a ubiquitous property of nature.

If psychic phenomena are true and are not the result of physical laws, then physicalism, as defined above, is false. However, if psychic phenomena are not true then it does not follow that panexperientialism is false - physicalism could be true and psychic phenomena be non-existent, yet panexperientialism could still be true. If this were the case then experience would be epiphenomenal, but panexperientialism would not be invalidated (although the assertion that Occam‘s principle is violated would then need to be addressed).

Thus, when it comes to assessing the veracity of claims about psychic phenomena, a panexperientialist standpoint is likely to be less subject to bias, as the truth or falsity of the such phenomena does not undermine the foundations of panexperientialism as it does with physicalism.

This can be approached from another angle. The assumption that all observable events can be accounted for by non- experiential physical laws can be described, using the framework of philosopher of science Imre Lakatos, as a hard core assumption of the physicalist research programme.

Under Lakatos’ schema, the hard core assumptions of a research programme must not be rejected or modified and are surrounded by a protective belt of auxiliary hypotheses, assumptions, initial conditions and so forth. For instance, one of the hard core assumptions of pre-Copernican astronomy was that the sun, stars and planets revolved around the earth. To explain perturbations in planetary movements without disturbing this assumption, a complex system of epicycles in planetary movements was postulated.

When a research programme wanes in it’s power to explain observational data it is said to be degenerating and may be replaced by another research programme (this is similar to Kuhn’s paradigm shifts).

In the case of physicalism, the denial of the possibility of psychic phenomena (assuming such phenomena are not explicable by physical law) is a hard core assumption of the physicalist research programme. Rather than admit this possibility, physicalism will postulate auxiliary hypotheses to invalidate evidence which purportedly demonstrates psyhcic events. In contrast to this, a research programme premised on panexperientialist assumptions is not threatened by the existence or non-existence of psychic phenomena, because such phenomena are not implicated in the hard core assumptions of panexperientialism.

One could argue that the grandest examples of physicalist epicycling are those breeds of modern philosophy which seek to deny the reality or primacy of subjective experience. That such weird and seemingly self-contradictory notions could gain such a firm stronghold within academia is a testament to the thickness of physicalism’s protective belt. Perhaps eliminative materialism could be called the ‘folk psychology’ of the physicalist research programme.

In summary, the charge that panexperientialism is unnecessarily extravagant and uneconomical in postulating the ubiquity of experience is a misconceived product of the delimiting assumptions of physicalism. Physicalism narrowly subscribes the supposed scope for rational, empirical enquiry by excluding, marginalizing or ignoring that which does not cohere with it’s hard core assumptions. In contrast to this, a panexperientialist framework can subsume all which physicalism can explain and can accommodate those areas where physicalism falters.

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