Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Eliminativist relational dualism

Here is a combination of views that, as far as I know, is missing from the literature:

  • eliminativism about persons

  • multigrade relational dualism.

Let me explain the view. There are no people on earth. There are just particles arranged humanwise. No particle by itself has mental properties and there is no whole having mental properties. But there is irreducibly collective activity mental activity. The humanwise-arranged particles responsible for this post stand in non-physical mental relations, such as collectively being aware of the smoothness of the spacebar and collectively intending to communicate a novel philosophy of mind view. These relations are multigrade in the sense that there is no specific number of particles that are needed to stand in such a relation.

There are about 1028 (give or take an order of magnitude, depending on whether we count just the brain or the whole body) particles jointly responsible for this post, but some particles are always flying off and terminating their participation in the relations and others are joining, which is why the mental relation is multigrade.

The availability of the view shows that arguments, like those of van Inwagen and Merricks, for the existence of complex wholes based on our mental function need more work. As does Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”: perhaps all we can say at the outset is is “There is thinking so there is one or more things that individually or jointly engage in thought.”

The view has the very attractive feature that it is compatible with nihilism about parthood: there need be no part-to-whole relation. This allows for a very nice and simple ideology.

The view is a dualist view, and hence puzzles about phenomenal properties, the unity of consciousness and intentionality can be solved much like in property dualism. (E.g., consciousness is unified by joint possession of a consciousness property.)

But the typical property dualist has two things to explain: why a single entity arises from a bunch of particles arranged a certain way and why that entity gains mental properties. The eliminative relational dualist only needs to explain the latter.

At the same time, some of the difficulties with the more normal kinds of eliminativism about persons (think of Unger and the Churchlands) are neatly solved. The idea of thought without any subject of thought is absurd. But we can draw on reflections in social epistemology to get a model for thought with an irreducibly plural subject of thought.

As I think is often the case with metaphysical views, the main difficulties arise in ethics. There is no particular difficulty about being responsible. The particles that engaged in a joint action are jointly responsible. The problem, however, is with holding responsible. Particles are always leaving and entering the mental relations. Many of those particles that were responsible for the robbery last year are now scattered across the city, and while (at least for last year’s robbery) a bunch of them are still clumped together, it’s impossible to punish them without punishing a plurality of particles that includes a number of particles that had nothing to do with the robbery. And this is nothing compared to the difficulty of punishing cannibalism, since we will end up punishing many victimized particles.


Michael Gonzalez said...


When you say that the puzzles are resolved as normal with Dualist views, you imply that Dualism actually explains these things. It seems to me that it just punts to another mystery. How does "non-physical things just can think/feel/intend/etc." explain anything? We might as well make those things first-order powers of living creatures (the only ones we have any reasons or criteria to ascribe them to, I would add).

But, more importantly, I think this attempt is actually a great intuition pump to show what's wrong with this physicalist vs. dualist mentality altogether. It skips critical steps. A living thing has properties that none of its non-living parts have, and that cannot be explained by adding some non-physical thing that has them (a wellbeing or health, for example). Sentient/animate beings build on top of that with their capacities to see, hear, move voluntarily, etc. But, if you skip the step of "living thing" you lose all explanatory purchase and all connection with what we know to be true (indeed, what we take for granted in our language whenever we talk about these properties).

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think the puzzle is resolved by the mental properties being non-physical. I agree that it doesn't do much to resolve these puzzles to say that the _bearer_ of the properties is non-physical. (That doesn't mean that I am a property dualist. I think there are other reasons to think property dualism is not enough.)

Michael Gonzalez said...

I think I'm with Peter van Inwagen in asking what it means for a property to be "non-physical". After all, if a property is anything, it's an abstract object, and therefore non-physical. I mean, "horsepower" certainly isn't a physical object... but I don't think it's a "non-physical property" in the sense you mean. So, what about "health" or "wellbeing" or even "life"?