Monday, March 2, 2020

Another variant of the knowledge argument

Let P be the pain center of the brain.

Suppose you knew all of physical reality and nothing else. Then you would know that stimulating P would cause squirming, shrieking and avoidance. But it seems you wouldn’t know that it’s bad for one to have P stimulated. Then, upon having one’s P stimulated, one would learn that it’s bad for one to have P stimulated. So, there are facts that go beyond physical reality.


entirelyuseless said...

If you know that something naturally causes avoidance, you know that it is bad, because that is just what being bad is, namely that it causes avoidance, just as good causes seeking.

Atno said...

1- But it seems there is a substantive difference between just "causing avoidance" and "being bad", as in, it *feels bad to be in pain*. So we're back at the problem of consciousness.

2- In addition, there might be no intrinsic connection between pain and avoidance. Why couldn't P lead to pain-states without avoidance? Of course, evolution would select for creatures which avoid pain, but that is only once the connections are there. Doesn't seem impossible for there to be a masochistic creature whose brain states of pain do not cause avoidance. So there's a difference there.

Martin Cooke said...

Alex and Atno, this argument is so simple, it seems to me that it must be either empty of meaning or else fail. For instance, people who think that there are no facts that go beyond physical reality (if there are such people) must think that the fact that pain feels bad is one of the facts of physical reality. Their conception of the physical will not be your conception of the physical, it seems to me (perhaps they are panpsychics, for example).

Michael Gonzalez said...

I think you'll have a hard time explaining even "avoidance" purely in the vocabulary of Physics (assuming that's what "physical reality" is supposed to mean).

If "go beyond physical reality" means "requires more than the vocabulary of Physics to describe", then I can give you a very large list of things that do that which have nothing at all to do with consciousness or pain.

This whole approach is conceptually nonsensical from the get-go, and will lead to apparent "mysteries", and so-called "problems" where there are none.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I should clarify. Avoidance is evidence of badness. The evidence might be good enough to count as knowing that pain is bad, but the inference from avoidance behavior to badness is ampliative. But if physicalism is true, then from the physical facts one should be able to get all facts non-ampliatively.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am assuming in this argument the plausible thesis, albeit one that I am not sure of, that pain is bad because of how it feels.

Grigory Aleksin said...

It seems to me that Michael Gonzalez, Martin Cooke and entirelyuseless have misunderstood the point of the exercise. We suppose that we only know the physical facts, these would be the publicly observable properties such as the rate at which neurons are firing, or what parts of the brain are active. Give only these properties, the claim is that one would not be able to tell whether the subjective experience of P is good or bad. The only way to learn that the experience is bad is through subjecting ourselves to it. This seems to be the basis for the "Mary the Neuroscientist" Arguments. The argument is intended to drive a wedge between the physical and the mental. I wonder, could this be a useful justification for defining mental properties as private, and physical properties as public?

Michael Gonzalez said...

I understood the purpose, but I think a deeper consideration of the terms being used causes the entire puzzle to simply disappear. The conceptual muddle comes in when we try to ask whether the pain (or its goodness/badness) is a "physical fact". I don't think such questions have any meaning at all, so I used Pruss' usual meaning, namely: "describable using only the language of fundamental Physics". With that definition, even "avoidance" is not a purely "physical fact". You could never fully describe "avoidance" in the terms of fundamental Physics. You could describe the position of the creature and how it changes as the position of the torturing implement changes, but never that the creature is "avoiding".

It's the most obvious thing in the world, unless you're stuck in the mistaken world picture. Just consider the most ordinary thing in the world: a college student drinks too much vodka and eventually blacks out (read: "loses consciousness"). Has some mystery occurred? Have we crossed the boundary of "physical vs. mental"?? Of course not. The only mystery would be if she could keep on drinking vodka all night and NOT lose consciousness.

Grigory Aleksin said...

The question is not really about avoiding. The problem arises because our subjective experiences do not appear to be the same or reducible to physical facts. It does not appear to be a conceptual problem but one of intelligibility. The claim that must be made by a physicalist is that it is possible to know everything about pain or other qualia from the third-person perspective- that is one should, in theory, be able to know "what it is like" to feel pain by only looking at the physical properties of the brain. However, this does not seem intelligible. Moreover, it seems clear that the phrase, my C-fibers are firing is not an exhaustive description of what it means to feel pain. The crux of the matter is that physical facts do not take the "what-it-is-like" factor into consideration.

Michael Gonzalez said...

My point is that the same core issues arise for the concept of "avoidance". One cannot give a description of "avoidance" using only the linguistic resources of Physics.

I'll leave the "what it's like" bit aside for the moment, as that is a whole other conceptual muddle (what on earth is it "like" to see a desk in front of me?). The problem we're discussing is indeed conceptual and linguistic, but I agree with you completely that it ends up unintelligible. That's the result. The cause is that we started with nonsense and so that's what we ended up with. For example, we do not "have" "subjective experience" in the way that we "have" a coffee cup. This is just an unfortunate Germanic holdover into English. You can reword the whole statement without any "having" and without any substantives (so that we don't mistakenly go looking for the substances that we are supposed to "have"): "We subjectively experience things". Even then, there is no clear use for the term "subjective" here (do we sometimes "non-subjectively" experience things?), and even the word "experience" is quite unclear. So, perhaps there is no real question there at all?

Now you mentioned the brain. Pain is, I agree, not a feature of the brain. It is a property of the living animal as a whole. To look for pain in the properties of a brain is like looking for the time-keeping capacity in the great wheel or "fusee" of an old clock. Time-keeping is a capacity of the clock; not of its fusee (though it surely could not keep time without it's fusee). It is a simple mereological fallacy to ascribe properties of animals (like being in pain) to their body parts (including their brains or any other organs).

This issue about "knowing everything" and "third-person perspectives" is misguided. We do not have any perspective at all on our pains and we do not "know everything" about them either. To be in pain is not a matter of knowing anything. If it were, then it would make sense to be in pain but fail to know it or be ignorant of it; but that is clearly meaningless. You are confusing "knowing" with simply "being able to say how things are with us". I can certainly say when I am in pain. A pain might even catch my attention and hold it (thus, I am conscious of it). But, there is no question of knowing or not knowing. And there is no perspective from which I discern or judge or find out that I am in pain.

I'm leaving "qualia" and "what-it's-like" out of it, just because my post is already too long. Sorry. The main point is just that these seeming mysteries and dichotomies dissolve completely when we analyze the conceptual framework in which the terms we're using actually make sense. Quite often, we are stuck in a self-mystification because we are using words in ways that have no sense.

entirelyuseless said...

"Doesn't seem impossible for there to be a masochistic creature whose brain states of pain do not cause avoidance"

It is impossible. Saying "this feels painful" is a behavior, just as avoidance is a behavior, so if the brain state did not cause avoidance because it did not have the usual effect on behavior, it would also not cause saying that it feels painful, i.e. the person would not say it was painful, and it wouldn't be.

There is some approximation to that now, e.g. with people who eat extremely spicy foods. Some of the physical aspects of pain are present, but they enjoy the experience, and they do not say it is painful or avoid it. But notice that this directly implies that their *subjective experience* is different from the experience of people saying they are in pain and avoiding it.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Brain states do not cause avoidance, nor do they cause statements like "this is painful" at all. Living animals avoid things, and language-using animals can say how things are with them (including statements like "this is painful").

That being said, I think "entirelyuseless" is quite right that a creature that enjoys a situation is having a different experience from a creature who doesn't.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Some people avoid good stuff, too.

entirelyuseless said...

Yes, some people avoid good stuff.

But I suspect that what you are confused about here is the same thing you seem to be confused about everywhere on this blog: namely, the existence of vagueness.

We get the idea of desire for food from noticing that when we feel a certain way, namely the way we call "hungry", we are very likely to eat something soon if it is physically possible. We get the general idea of desire in a similar way.

We also notice that the things we desire have certain similarities, and from that we get the idea of "good": namely what is in common to the things we usually desire.

Both of those, the idea of desire, and the idea of good, are vague ideas, and the experiences that give rise to those ideas are not perfectly coherent; for example, even though we usually eat food when we feel that way (hungry), we do not always do so. Similarly, even though we get the general idea of a tendency from the fact that the result is usually a certain way, we might notice two opposite tendencies at the same time, even though you cannot have two opposite results at the same time. That can happen because you can say both "when I feel X, I usually do Y," and "when I feel Z, I usually avoid Y." Both can be true statements in general, but nonetheless you can get in a situation where you feel both X and Z. So will you call Y good or bad? It is unclear, but it is not so much that there is some objective fact of the matter that you need to determine, as that you need to decide how you are going to use the word "good," and the way you got the idea does not tell you.

I don't think physicalism is very well defined, but I don't think you have a good argument against it here.

Eutychus II said...

Perhaps I founder on the definition of 'know,' or on my imagining of a mind that knows 'all of physical reality and nothing else,'but if that is the case, then my stimulating P would only 'cause' (or 'correlate.' I'd very likely conclude that one data-point is not enough to conclude and so I must repeat the experiment) the physical reality of 'squirming, shrieking and avoidance'. I cannot feel the other's pain, so I can infer only that the other reflexively responds thus to my stimulating of P. This would be a fact, but would it be 'bad'? Is all that is physically undesirable 'bad'? Would I necessarily have to conclude something outside of physical reality that would include the concept of 'bad'? If 'pain' is a physical reality, and if physical reality is all that is, why would it be 'bad'? Would I even be able to comprehend the concept of 'bad,' and why must I apply it to this case?

If I can or do comprehend 'bad,' then is physical reality truly all that I know?