Tuesday, February 6, 2024

The hand and the moon

Suppose Alice tells me: “My right hand is identical with the moon.”

My first reaction will be to suppose that Alice is employing some sort of metaphor, or is using language in some unusual way. But suppose that further conversation rules out any such hypotheses. Alice is not claiming some deep pantheistic connection between things in the universe, or holding that her hand accompanies her like the moon accompanies the earth, or anything like that. She is literally claiming of the object that the typical person will identify as “Alice’s hand” that it is the very same entity as the typical person will identify as “the moon”.

I think I would be a little stymied at this point. Suppose I expressed this puzzlement to Alice, and she said: “An oracle told me that over the next decade my hand will swell to enormous proportions, and will turn hard and rocky, the exact size and shape of the moon. Then aliens will amputate the hand, put it in a giant time machine, send it back 4.5 billion years, so that it will orbit the earth for billions of years. So, you see, my hand literally is the moon.”

If Alice isn’t pulling my leg, she is insane to think this. But now I can make some sense of her communication. Yes, she really is using words in the ordinary and literal sense.

Now, to some dualist philosophers the claim that a mental state of feeling sourness is an electrochemical process in the brain is about as weird as the claim that Alice’s hand is the moon. I’ve never found this “obvious difference” argument very plausible, despite being a dualist. Thinking through my Alice story makes me a little more sympathetic to the idea that there is something incredible about the mental-physical identity claim. But I think there is an obvious difference between the hand = moon and quale = brain-state claims. The hand and the moon obviously have incompatible properties: the colors are different, the shapes are different, etc. Some sort of an explanation is needed how that can happen despite identity—say, time-travel.

The analogue would be something like this: the quale doesn’t have a shape, while the brain process does. But it doesn’t seem at all clear to me that the quale positively doesn’t have a shape. It’s just that it is not the case that it positively seems to have a shape. Imagine that qualia turned out to be nonphysical but spatially extended entities spread through regions of the brain, kind of like a ghost is a nonphysical but spatially extended entity. There is nothing obvious about the falsity of this hypothesis. And on this hypothesis, qualia would have shape.

To be honest, I suspect that even if qualia don’t have a shape, God could give them the additional properties (say, the right relation to points of space) that would give them shape.


Heavenly Philosophy said...

I'm very convinced of dualism, but I'm having a difficult time understanding dualism under Aristotelianism. It seems like the functionalist Aristotelianism you have developed makes more sense. What would the mind be under dualist Aristotelianism? It doesn't seem like it can be the form, because things without minds have forms and you can have a form without a mind as a fetus. There's also a problem with you thinking and the form thinking, so there are too many thinkers. I think the best alternative is that mental states are non-physical states and processes of the substance as a whole rather than the form. However, how would these states and processes interact with the physical brain? Cartesian dualism makes the most sense of dualist interaction to me, where the soul is connected with the brain by psychophysical laws. It might be the case that mental processes and physical processes interact in the same way that two physical processes interact. I'm still thinking about this.

Don said...


Aristotle (and Aquinas) held to hylomorphism. All substances are matter/form composites. The (substantial) form of a living thing is its soul, which is simply the principle of life, not some ghostly substance. The "mind" of a rational substance is its intellectual potency/power/capacity. On Cartesian dualism it's arbitrary/ad hoc why my soul interacts with my body. It's also unclear why (or if) a corpse is substantially different from the body of a living person.




Fr M. Kirby said...

For me, the key points are these:

1. The quale qua "conscious experience" does not have a shape as sensed.
2. Even if the quale is wholly caused by a "shape" or dynamic pattern in the brain, being physically a property of it, it then HAS a shape but one cannot say it IS a shape simpliciter.

This is compatible with a materialist property dualism, but it does not allow what I term naive materialism or physicalism which is a kind of mathematical monism contending that the mathematical laws of physics explain everything without remainder. Once this is recognised, the only plausible materialism is one that combines surprisingly disparate elements in a less coherent and simple framework than pure physicalism/reductionism. As such, the explanatory virtues supposed to attach to materialism, marking its "obviousness" to many, decrease substantially.

Or so I am presently arguing in a paper I hope to finish soon!