Sunday, January 27, 2008

Property Dualism - micro, macro and mystery

Fiona Macpherson in this article contends that Galen Strawson’s proposed panpsychist solution to the mind-body problem is no less of a mystery than other proposed solutions.

Macpherson accepts that mainstream physicalism is inadequate in explaining consciousness, but thinks that Strawson’s proposed solution (which she characterises as a form of property dualism, although Strawson would not describe it as such) is not superior to either substance dualism or a form of property dualism in which the kind of experience with which we are familiar is a fundamental property which ‘ is not reducible to, or does not emerge from, other properties.’

In this post I want to address the issue of whether the property dualism of the micropsychist kind as characertised by Macpherson, which I’ll call microexperiential property dualism (microPD) is indeed inferior to the alternative property dualism model proferred by Macpherson, which I’ll call macroexperiential property dualism (macroPD). ( I also do not think that substance dualism has more merit than either of these two options but will not argue that in this post).

The difference between microPD and macroPD is that microPD holds that experientiality is a property of at least some ‘ultimates’ (fundamental physical constituents), whereas macroPD holds that experientiality of the type with which we are familiar is the fundamental type of experientiality. That is, macroPD brutely posits experiential properties at the human level, whereas microPD brutely posits them at the level of fundamental particles or similar.

Both these views hold that experiential properties are not reducible to or entailed by physical properties. However, this is not to say that there is no dependency of the experiential on the physical under these positions. Rather, the two are linked by, using Chalmers terminology, psychophysical laws - contingent laws of nature which are independent of physical laws.

Part of the consideration of microPD and macroPD involves consideration of the likely form of these psychophysical laws.

Macpherson contends that macroPD has the disadvantage of not explaining why macro experiential properties only seem to attach to non-experiential matter arranged in certain ways. I discussed this disadvantage in a previous post and concluded that it seems implausible, arbitrary and unparsimonious to suppose that experience is fundamental yet also rare and wholly dependent on uniquely complex and specialised systems such as the brain.

That is, if experience is too be explained as a fundamental in naturalistic terms it would seem preferable that it has the same characteristics as other fundamental properties such as mass, charge and spin - widespread and associated with the simplest of systems.

The type of psychophysical law linking the experiential and the non- experiential under macroPD would appear to be of a form such as “when a system reaches X degree of computational complexity, experience will be associated with it.” This is wholly unlike any other fundamental property and it seems indeed to render the natural world mysterious, such that William Lycan (refer previously mentioned post) states that this form of property dualism “while coherent, is loony”.

So this disadvantage of macroPD is indeed a major one.

Turning now to the advantages macroPD has over microPD, Macpherson contends that macroPD has an advantage over microPD in ‘not positing further (micro) experiential properties, which are the properties of ‘ultimates’’.

In assessing this purported advantage of macrPD it is necessary to consider whether positing micro experiential properties which we are not directly acquainted with is actually a problem. Certainly it does not seem hard to envisage a gradation of experientiality in animals from humans down to other primates, dogs, other mammals, birds, reptiles and all the way down to insects. There is nothing inherently mysterious about this.

By extension, there should also be nothing mysterious about proceeding with this envisagement all the way down to ultimate particles. There does not appear to be a problem with conceivability here, although it is certainly strange and unfamiliar.

Further, from a naturalistic standpoint , from what we know about other systems it seems perfectly natural for complex properties to develop from simpler properties. So this advantage of macroPD is not overwhelming.

In her evaluation of the advantages of microPD, Macpherson quotes Strawson in saying that the advantage of microPD is that it “ recommends a general framework of thought in which there need be no more sense of a radically unintelligible transition in the case of experientiality than there is in the case of liquidity”. This underscores the points above re the disadvantages of macroPD and highlights it’s arbitrariness. If laws of nature are such that experience just happens to arise when brains arise then it would appear that ‘anything goes’ in the realm of natural law (keeping in mind that in the property dualist view experience is not an ‘emergent property’ of physical complexity and the complexity does not in any way cause or entail the arising of experience).

Turning now to the disadvantages Macpherson finds with microPD, she states:

"Yet, it has a great number of disadvantages. Other mysteries or problematic features of the account that are just as great, if not greater,replace the mystery that is solved:

(1) There are a large number of subjects of experience and these
include the fundamental particles.
(2) If fundamental particles are the subjects of experience then is
anything composed from them such a subject? If not, what is the
principle that makes creatures like us such subjects (at least during
our wakeful and dreaming periods), and other conglomerations
(3) The position says little about how macro experience (and different
types of such experience) arises from micro experience, other
than that it emerges in a wholly dependent way.
(4) Do the fundamental micro experiential properties have independent
causal powers? Do they abide by laws? If they interact
can they do so with non-experiential properties too?"

Dealing with each of these, briefly in turn:

"1) There are a large number of subjects of experience and these
include the fundamental particles."

The fact that there are a larger number of subjects of experience could be perceived as a problem if it violates Occam’s principle of parsimony. However if Occam’s principle that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily refers to the type of explanatory entity, not the number of times such entities are instantiated, then microPD seems to have an advantage. The choice is between a new class of fundamental property (one that is only present rarely and in complex systems) against a fundamental property of a similar class to others (widespread in simple systems). Thus, in this regard microPD is actually more parsimonious than macroPD.

Regarding the number of subjects including the fundamental particles, this does seem unfamiliar and strange, but, as Strawson attests, this is something one becomes accustomed to - as long as ‘subjects’ is interpreted in the most minimalist sense ( as previously discussed in this post).

"2) If fundamental particles are the subjects of experience then is
anything composed from them such a subject? If not, what is the principle that makes creatures like us such subjects (at least during our wakeful and dreaming periods), and other conglomerations not?"

This is something major which certainly needs to be addressed under microPD. But without understating the difficulty of the issue, coherent attempts have been made to address it. Charles Hartshorne made the distinction between aggregates of individuals which do not have experientiality (rocks, chairs, mountains etc) and true individuals which act as a coherent unit and are individually experiential (eg particles, atoms, molecules, cells, animals).

Alternatively, the subject associated with microexperience may be the only type of subject there is, and the character of our first hand experience is due to the nature of the environment it arises in, as suggested by the ‘actual occasions’ of Whitehead. On this view, the ‘macroexperience’ we are familiar with is really only another form of microexperience.

(Incidentally, the idea that particles and only particles are conscious proferred here had some discussion on the Journal of Consciousness discussion forum a while back. This view also has some resonances with Johnathon Edward’s theory of single cell consciousness - see here and here.)

"3) The position says little about how macro experience (and different
types of such experience) arises from micro experience, other
than that it emerges in a wholly dependent way."

This is another issue of importance which appears difficult. However, the explanation of something complex from other simple entities of the same type is something which occurs in nature all the time and would appear commensurate with naturalistic explanation more so than something complex appearing suddenly out of nowhere.

"4) Do the fundamental micro experiential properties have independent
causal powers? Do they abide by laws? If they interact
can they do so with non-experiential properties too?"

Again, these are issues which certainly are puzzling but which appear, if not explicable within a naturalistic framework, at least consistent with it.. Much of the same issues arise when considering the relationship between the macroexperience with which we are familiar (ie consciousness) and behaviour.

In summary, microPD may appear more strange and unfamiliar than macroPD but it also is less mysterious and more naturalistic in my view.

Macpherson’s states that Strawson ‘fails to make a fair assessment of his position relative to the others’. Making such a fair assessment is difficult and the weighing of various factors may depend to some extent on intuitional preferences (which view seems the least ‘loony’ perhaps).

However, I think a critical factor here is that the form of property dualism which states that experience is a fundamental property which occurs at the most basic levels of nature is more in keeping with what we know about the natural world than that which states that experience is a fundamental property which arises at the level of the brain.

A response to this could be that experience is a unique natural property with fundamental characteristics like no other - which may be the case, but this moves one further along the road to intractable mysteriousness.

So, if the laws linking the physical and the experiential are like other laws of nature, I think micro-experiential property dualism is a more reasonable inference than macro- experiential property dualism.
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Mike Wiest said...

Hey Justin,

Cool post. I did not read the target article but I have read Strawson some time ago. I found this post through a link from Guide to Reality.

I tend to agree with your assessment that micro-panexperientialism is superior to macro.

I would also suggest that quantum theory offers a framework for "natural individuals" that could be naturally mapped onto "subjects" of experience. That is, when parts of a quantum system are "entangled," they are parts of an ontological whole that cannot be thought of as made of independent parts. This gives us an objective way to predict which elementary particles are part of a single experience and which ones are separate AND it gives us way to conceive of a real physical correlate of the unity of our own consciousness.


Justin said...

Hi Mike

Interesting comments re entanglement. I noticed that parapsychologist Dean Radin uses entanglement in his book on psychic phenomena:
I'm still somewhat skeptical re whether PSI phenomena are real or not, but Radin's book looks interesting.

Anonymous said...

Lance Boyle here,
Any statement, to be
an assertion ---an act of assertion----of a state of affairs
treats the state of affairs as identical to the words used to state the state of affairs.
Let me try to clarify.
If I say "this dog is an Alsatian
Badger Hound. " I mean that the state of affairs is exactly as described. That is, I make the assertion that the words are the state of affairs. The assertion, and any assertion is an assertion because it is asserting, not that the words match a state of affairs, or are like a state of affairs, or resemble or represent a state of affairs, but is an assertion just because it does not posit words and a separate world that the words match; it is an assertion by the very fact that it makes no such distinction and the world is not split in any way--but whole. It is an assertion precisely because distinctions play no part in it.
Suppose someone says, "oh, I don't really think that this is an Alsatian Badger Hound, I have no idea what it is, and was just making a false statement before."
This is an assertion--it assumes there is no gap, no difference between the state of affairs and the words spoken.
This is the source of paradox then when it is stated that there is a difference between words and a state of affairs. Because it is presumed --via the mind body split --that words are separate from the world--out there-- or some such.
Because an assertion--as an act of assertion--- is in fact the erasure of any such distinction as words and thing-- when the statement made says that there is a distinction between word and thing--it is belied by the fact that in making that statement any such split is excluded--is excluded-- it is the exclusion that is the assertion.
It is similar to the paradoxicality of saying "This statement says nothing at all.".
If I say " this present statement assumes that there is a large gap between the words or concepts of the statement and the way the world is"-- it is paradoxical.
Why? Because in making the assertion--in the act of assertion--just the opposite is presumed--all distinctioins are forgotten and the world is exactly as communicated--identical.
The other part of the paradox comes from the fact that I must split the state of things into two--the world and the words-(part of the bedeviling mind body distinction)-and then say that they are the same---which is in conflict with the fact that I say there is no such distinction in assertion.
The important point is that
indeed, a statement, an assertion
makes one world---not two, no split. no world and words, mental physical, mind matter, subjective objective--no opposites--all unity.
This is true even of statements like "there is a big split between words and assertions
and the world.". In this assertion there is no split--the world, the state of affairs is one thing--this is what is asserted;
is really what makes an assertion an assertion.
All assertions are this way. Try it yourself.