Monday, November 27, 2017


It’s notoriously hard to characterize the physical precisely enough to attack or defend physicalism. To attack physicalism, however, it is enough to attack a characterization broader than physicalism, and to defend physicalism, a narrower characterization will do.

Here’s a suggestion along the “broader” lines. We can characterize reductive physicalism over-broadly as:

  • Reductive first-orderism: All facts about the concrete (variants: contingent, spatiotemporal) features of the world reduce to first-order facts.

This may take in some theories other than what one intuitively counts as reductive physicalism, but if the object is ciriticism, that’s all we need.

Note how this characterization nicely shows how paradigm examples of magic would violate reductive physicalism: for paradigm examples of magic involve causation irreducibly by virtue of the meaning of a spell, gesture, etc., and meaning is a higher-order property. It also shows why irreducible Aristotelian teleology has no place in a reductive physicalist story: for teleological properties are second-order (I think).

Moreover, if we see reductive physicalism in the above way, it’s also easy to see that it’s false, by an argument of Leon Porter. For any first-order fact can be expressed in a first-order language. But, famously, the property of truth cannot be reduced to properties expressible in a first-order language (Tarski’s indefinability of truth; or, more simply, note that if you could express something equivalent to the property of truth in a first-order language, you could express the Liar Sentence in a first-order language). And some concrete objects, namely inscriptions, have this property of truth. Hence, some concrete objects have a property that cannot be expressed in first-order terms, contrary to reductive first-orderism.


Heath White said...

My own view is that "naturalism" (or anti-supernaturalism) is the view that persons reduce to non-persons and "theism" is the view that they do not, plus maybe some other things.

Alternatively: "theism" is the view that intentional explanations are fundamental, while "naturalism" is the view that intentional explanations are not fundamental, plus maybe that the fundamental explanations are of some other (e.g. nomological) character.

This leaves room for some interesting middle-ground cases: can explanations be teleological, or moral, without being intentional? The law of karma, and the Marxist idea that history tends toward a certain (good) state of its own accord, are cases to consider. I think these are neither properly speaking theism nor naturalism.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I could imagine a view on which persons reduce to non-personal but still minded things. And maybe intentions reduce to more fundamental mental states. If there are fundamental minded things or fundamental mental states, that seems enough for anti-physicalism.

So, one could say that the mental is fundamental, but I am not sure if that's enough. Maybe there is something that's proto-mental that the mental reduces to, but where the proto-mental isn't physical.

I think teleological explanations need not be intentional. Aristotle's teleological explanations are not all intentional. The moral case is interesting, too.

Rob Koons and I have thought a little about reducing the mental to the teleological. I doubt it can be done, but it has a lot more hope than reducing the mental to the physical.

Heath White said...

I do not know how you could have a mind without a person, unless what you mean is something like an animal. (A sub-personal mind.) If that thing is fundamental, it strikes me as suitable for neither naturalism nor theism, so another intermediate case.

Consciousness seems like the best candidate for "mental or protomental, fundamental, but not yet intentional" (maybe)--something like Chalmers' panpsychism. Another good candidate for intermediate case.

I agree teleological explanations need not be intentional. Marxism is another case of non-intentional teleological theories; maybe also something like Teilhard de Chardin, where evolution gets a purposive gloss.

Anyway, my interest stems in this from the fact that you often get the dichotomy "either theism or naturalism" in philosophy of religion (e.g. the fine-tuning argument), and then I have heard scholars of religion complain that this is a false dichotomy, very West-centric, etc. It seems to me that it would be useful to have some distinction that captured what was right about the dichotomy while making clear where the room for other options was.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Cartesian dualism is a paradigmatic non-physicalist theory. But on Cartesian dualism human persons are not fundamental. Human persons are constituted of mind and atoms. The mind is fundamental as are the atoms, but the persons constituted of them is not. (God is fundamental, of course. So at least one person is fundamental--indeed, three are.) And the human mind isn't a person, or else there are two persons where I am.

Heath White said...

Fair enough. Maybe I should say that naturalism requires that minds reduce to non-minds and theism requires that they do not.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Or, more precisely, naturalism requires that all minds reduce to non-minds and theism requires that at least one mind not reduce to a non-mind.