Monday, November 9, 2020

Restricted epistemic mysterianism

There are two forms of mysterianism about X (say, consciousness):

  1. Conceptual: It would not be possible for us to even conceptualize the true theory of X.

  2. Epistemic: It would not be possible for us to know the true theory of X.

Conceptual mysterianism about X entails epistemic mysterianism about X. In the case of typical Xs, like consciousness or intentionality or morality, epistemic mysterianism entails conceptual mysterianism. For if we could conceptualize the true theory of X, then God could reveal to us that that theory is true. (I restricted to “typical Xs”, for there are some truths that we could not know but which we could conceptualize. For instance, that the past existence of life on Mars is a reality unknown to me is something I can conceptualize, but I can’t possibly know it.)

However, one can weaken epistemic mysterianism to:

  1. Restricted Epistemic: It would not be possible for us to know the true theory of X merely by human epistemic resources.

Consider the following interesting conditional:

  1. If physicalism is true about consciousness, then restricted epistemic mysterianism is true about it.

Here is an argument against 4. Imagine that we find a new physics in the brains of precisely those organisms that it is plausible to think of as conscious (maybe cephalopods and higher vertebrates). For instance, maybe there is a new particle type that is only found in those brains, or perhaps some already known particle type behaves differently in those brains. Moreover, there is a close correlation between the behavior of the new physics and plausible things to say about consciousness in these critters. And when make a sophisticated enough AI, surprisingly that new physics also shows up in it. Given this, it would be reasonable to say that consciousness is to be identified with the behavior of that new physics.

But I think the following is true:

  1. If physicalism is true about consciousness and there is no new physics in the brains of conscious beings, then restricted epistemic mysterianism is true.

Here’s why. Assume physicalism. Some degree of multiple realizability of consciousness is true since cephalopods and mammals are both conscious, even though our brains are quite different—assuming the “new physics in brains” hypothesis is false (if it were true, the structural differences between cephalopod and mammal brains could be relevantly outbalanced by the similarities with respect to the “new physics”). Multiple realizability requires that consciousness be abstracted to some degree from the particular details of its embodiment in us. But there is no way of knowing how far it is to be abstracted. And without knowing that, we won’t know the true theory of consciousness.

If this is right, the true view of mind must be found among these three:

  • non-physicalism

  • restricted epistemic mysterianism (with or without conceptual mysterianism)

  • new physics.

On each of them, mind is mysterious. :-)


Brian Cutter said...

"Multiple realizability requires that consciousness be abstracted to some degree from the particular details of its embodiment in us. But there is no way of knowing how far it is to be abstracted."

I agree with this. But here's what I think a physicalist should say in response: it's merely a verbal question, without any determinate answer, how much we can abstract away from the details of its embodiment in us while preserving consciousness. It's just like life (assuming reductionism about life). We have paradigm cases of life and paradigm cases of non-life, and the former are distinguished by many different features---metabolism, growth, reproduction, homeostasis, and so on. When we find something (like a virus) that has some but not all of the relevant features, reductionists about life should say it's just a shallow verbal question whether it counts as alive, one that can be settled by semantic stipulation. Same for consciousness, if being conscious is just one more high-level physical property like being alive. (I'd prefer to argue in the opposite direction though: it seems intuitively obvious that it's a substantive question whether, say, a martian or an AI is conscious, so reductive physicalism about consciousness is false.)

also.. wouldn't the discovery of new physics in the brain just be evidence for novel effects of consciousness of the sort that interactionist dualists expect to find? I would have thought that this counts in favor of dualism, since it means we can accept dualism without biting the bullet of epiphenomenalism. And all the standard dualist arguments still apply even if there's novel physics in the brain (e.g., conceivability arguments, knowledge arguments, distinctness intuitions, and the thought that conscious states differ from mere configurations of particles w.r.t. their intrinsic value or other normative properties)

Alexander R Pruss said...


Regarding the verbal question, it seems to me to be quite a substantive question what conditions are needed for someone to have an experience that is qualitatively just like mine. A standard functionalist answer is: functional isomorphism is sufficient. But isomorphism always abstracts from some structure, so we have a substantive question of what level of structure we need to preserve.

New physics could be evidence of consciousness. So the options are not exclusive. But assuming for the sake of argument that we know physicalism is true, new physics would be good evidence of what it is that is identical with consciousness. For instance, we could imagine that there is a particle that only shows up in the universe in brains of beings that hear a middle C, and a particle that only shows up in brains of beings that feel a throbbing pain, and so on. If we noticed such correlations, it wouldn't be that unreasonable to think that these particles were identical with qualia.

Michael Gonzalez said...


I have so many concerns here, but I'll try to restrict myself to asking about 3 of them:

1) What would it mean for there to "be a theory" of X which we could not conceptualize? What is a "theory", if it is not a possible string of words, having meaning in a language, which would explain X?

2) When you talk of multiple realizability of "consciousness" in cephalopods and mammals, do you mean by "consciousness" something like "being awake vs. being asleep"? Or do you mean "having one's attention caught and held by something"? Is it "non-physicalist" to say that waking up, falling asleep, and having one's attention caught and held are all first-order active or passive powers of animate creatures? Is it "non-physicalist" to acknowledge that the vocabularies of physics or of neuroscience simply lack the conceptual/linguistic resources to talk about things like that (as they lack the resources to describe life, language, and Presidential elections)?

3) If a particle shows up whenever a being hears Middle C, the most that could be inferred is that there is some connection between the two events. What explanatory work do we imagine such a connection would do? And, if I understand the term "qualia" at all (and I'm not sure I do), how could a particle be a quale?? Isn't a quale some sort of individuation of qualitative experiential features (like red or pain)? Do people actually think that quale are substances? And, worse yet, that they may be particles?? Would the new account of my attention being caught by some red thing be that a certain particle came into being at the same time... and what? It just has the first-order power of experiencing redness? But then the particle would experience it, and not me, right?

Alexander R Pruss said...


1. A theory here is a set of a propositions. There are propositions which we can't conceptualize.

3. A quale is something such that its being present in something makes that thing have a certain phenomenal experience. Normally, qualia are normally not taken to be particles or substances. They are taken to be properties or tropes or the like. But if we found that there is a special particle that is present precisely when people have a certain phenomenal experience, then it would seem to be reasonable to conclude that that particle *is* the quale, or, if one insists on qualia being properties, that the quale is the property of possessing that particle. It is true that one might think that the particle's presence is merely correlated with the quale, but Ockham's Razor would make it reasonable to just identify the two.

Michael Gonzalez said...

1) Are there? If meaning is a precondition of truth, then how could a proposition without meaning be true?

3) I definitely don't understand qualia, so perhaps this is a stupid response on my part, but: When a property or trope is said to be "present in a creature", what is being expressed is a truth about the creature; not about some extra object (viz., "the property" or "the trope"). If a creature has the property of being sleepy, it's just the case that the creature is sleepy. "Having the property" has the appearance of a relation claim between the haver and what is had, but it isn't. So, it seems to me that there is no conceptual vacancy, so to speak, for this new particle to inhabit. If a creature has a property, then the creature is a certain way. But, if a creature has a particle, then the creature is a certain way and possesses an object of some sort.

B. FORSTADT said...

It does seem plausible for us to identity consciousness with the new physics, but why? Possibly because new physics would reflect an extremely natural and joint-carving kind, and we have reason to believe that consciousness carves nature at the joints. New chemistry would suffice as well. Perhaps we will find some natural organizational invariant in systems we tend to regard as conscious. This seems to be the approach of some in the “neural correlates of consciousness” program. Such an invariant couldn’t be as natural as new physics, or new chemistry, but this seems a matter of degree, not of kind.

As a separate point, the following view seems attractive to me: it is always a substantive matter whether or not something is having experiences that are qualitatively just like mine, but it not always a substantive matter whether or not something is having any experiences at all. There is a thing humans and human-uploads definitely have, and a thing worms and worm-uploads definitely have, and many things in between. But there is no one thing, “consciousness”. It is one thing to say we have a sufficient grasp on our own experiences that we know it is a substantive matter whether something is having them, it is another to say that we have a sufficient grasp on the broader category of having some experience or another.