Structure of Explanation

When we explain a thing, we give a cause; we assign the thing an origin that explains it.

We can go into a little more detail here. When we ask “why” something is the case, there is always an implication of possible alternatives. At the very least, the question implies, “Why is this the case rather than not being the case?” Thus “being the case” and “not being the case” are two possible alternatives.

The alternatives can be seen as possibilities in the sense explained in an earlier post. There may or may not be any actual matter involved, but again, the idea is that reality (or more specifically some part of reality) seems like something that would be open to being formed in one way or another, and we are asking why it is formed in one particular way rather than the other way. “Why is it raining?” In principle, the sky is open to being clear, or being filled with clouds and a thunderstorm, and to many other possibilities.

A successful explanation will be a complete explanation when it says “once you take the origin into account, the apparent alternatives were only apparent, and not really possible.” It will be a partial explanation when it says, “once you take the origin into account, the other alternatives were less sensible (i.e. made less sense as possibilities) than the actual thing.”

Let’s consider some examples in the form of “why” questions and answers.

Q1. Why do rocks fall? (e.g. instead of the alternatives of hovering in the air, going upwards, or anything else.)

A1. Gravity pulls things downwards, and rocks are heavier than air.

The answer gives an efficient cause, and once this cause is taken into account, it can be seen that hovering in the air or going upwards were not possibilities relative to that cause.

Obviously there is not meant to be a deep explanation here; the point here is to discuss the structure of explanation. The given answer is in fact basically Newton’s answer (although he provided more mathematical detail), while with general relativity Einstein provided a better explanation.

The explanation is incomplete in several ways. It is not a first cause; someone can now ask, “Why does gravity pull things downwards, instead of upwards or to the side?” Similarly, while it is in fact the cause of falling rocks, someone can still ask, “Why didn’t anything else prevent gravity from making the rocks fall?” This is a different question, and would require a different answer, but it seems to reopen the possibility of the rocks hovering or moving upwards, from a more general point of view. David Hume was in part appealing to the possibility of such additional questions when he said that we can see no necessary connection between cause and effect.

Q2. Why is 7 prime? (i.e. instead of the alternative of not being prime.)

A2. 7/2 = 3.5, so 7 is not divisible by 2. 7/3 = 2.333…, so 7 is not divisible by 3. In a similar way, it is not divisible by 4, 5, or 6. Thus in general it is not divisible by any number except 1 and itself, which is what it means to be prime.

If we assumed that the questioner did not know what being prime means, we could have given a purely formal response simply by noting that it is not divisible by numbers between 1 and itself, and explaining that this is what it is to be prime. As it is, the response gives a sufficient material disposition. Relative to this explanation, “not being prime,” was never a real possibility for 7 in the first place. The explanation is complete in that it completely excludes the apparent alternative.

Q3. Why did Peter go to the store? (e.g. instead of going to the park or the museum, or instead of staying home.)

A3. He went to the store in order to buy groceries.

The answer gives a final cause. In view of this cause the alternatives were merely apparent. Going to the park or the museum, or even staying home, were not possible since there were no groceries there.

As in the case of the rock, the explanation is partial in several ways. Someone can still ask, “Why did he want groceries?” And again someone can ask why he didn’t go to some other store, or why something didn’t hinder him, and so on. Such questions seem to reopen various possibilities, and thus the explanation is not an ultimately complete one.

Suppose, however, that someone brings up the possibility that instead of going to the store, he could have gone to his neighbor and offered money for groceries in his neighbor’s refrigerator. This possibility is not excluded simply by the purpose of buying groceries. Nonetheless, the possibility seems less sensible than getting them from the store, for multiple reasons. Again, the implication is that our explanation is only partial: it does not completely exclude alternatives, but it makes them less sensible.

Let’s consider a weirder question: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Now the alternatives are explicit, namely there being something, and there being nothing.

It can be seen that in one sense, as I said in the linked post, the question cannot have an answer, since there cannot be a cause or origin for “there is something” which would itself not be something. Nonetheless, if we consider the idea of possible alternatives, it is possible to see that the question does not need an answer; one of the alternatives was only an apparent alternative all along.

In other words, the sky can be open to being clear or cloudy. But there cannot be something which is open both to “there is something” and “there is nothing”, since any possibility of that kind would be “something which is open…”, which would already be something rather than nothing. The “nothing” alternative was merely apparent. Nothing was ever open to there being nothing.

Let’s consider another weird question. Suppose we throw a ball, and in the middle of the path we ask, Why is the ball in the middle of the path instead of at the end of the path?

We could respond in terms of a sufficient material disposition: it is in the middle of the path because you are asking your question at the middle, instead of waiting until the end.

Suppose the questioner responds: Look, I asked my question at the middle of the path. But that was just chance. I could have asked at any moment, including at the end. So I want to know why it was in the middle without considering when I am asking the question.

If we look at the question in this way, it can be seen in one way that no cause or origin can be given. Asked in this way, being at the end cannot be excluded, since they could have asked their question at the end. But like the question about something rather than nothing, the question does not need an answer. In this case, this is not because the alternatives were merely apparent in the sense that one was possible and the other not. But they were merely apparent in the sense that they were not alternatives. The ball goes both goes through the middle, and reaches the end. With the stipulation that we not consider the time of the question, the two possibilities are not mutually exclusive.

Additional Considerations

The above considerations about the nature of “explanation” lead to various conclusions, but also to various new questions. For example, one commenter suggested that “explanation” is merely subjective. Now as I said there, all experience is subjective experience (what would “objective experience” even mean, except that someone truly had a subjective experience?), including the experience of having an explanation. Nonetheless, the thing experienced is not subjective: the origins that we call explanations objectively exclude the apparent possibilities, or objectively make them less intelligible. The explanation of explanation here, however, provides an answer to what was perhaps the implicit question. Namely, why are we so interested in explanations in the first place, so that the experience of understanding something becomes a particularly special type of experience? Why, as Aristotle puts it, do “all men desire to know,” and why is that desire particularly satisfied by explanations?

In one sense it is sufficient simply to say that understanding is good in itself. Nonetheless, there is something particular about the structure of a human being that makes knowledge good for us, and which makes explanation a particularly desirable form of knowledge. In my employer and employee model of human psychology, I said that “the whole company is functioning well overall when the CEO’s goal of accurate prediction is regularly being achieved.” This very obviously requires knowledge, and explanation is especially beneficial because it excludes alternatives, which reduces uncertainty and therefore tends to make prediction more accurate.

However, my account also raises new questions. If explanation eliminates alternatives, what would happen if everything was explained? We could respond that “explaining everything” is not possible in the first place, but this is probably an inadequate response, because (from the linked argument) we only know that we cannot explain everything all at once, the way the person in the room cannot draw everything at once; we do not know that there is any particular thing that cannot be explained, just as there is no particular aspect of the room that cannot be drawn. So there can still be a question about what would happen if every particular thing in fact has an explanation, even if we cannot know all the explanations at once. In particular, since explanation eliminates alternatives, does the existence of explanations imply that there are not really any alternatives? This would suggest something like Leibniz’s argument that the actual world is the best possible world. It is easy to see that such an idea implies that there was only one “possibility” in the first place: Leibniz’s “best possible world” would be rather “the only possible world,” since the apparent alternatives, given that they would have been worse, were not real alternatives in the first place.

On the other hand, if we suppose that this is not the case, and there are ultimately many possibilities, does this imply the existence of “brute facts,” things that could have been otherwise, but which simply have no explanation? Or at least things that have no complete explanation?

Let the reader understand. I have already implicitly answered these questions. However, I will not link here to the implicit answers because if one finds it unclear when and where this was done, one would probably also find those answers unclear and inconclusive. Of course it is also possible that the reader does see when this was done, but still believes those responses inadequate. In any case, it is possible to provide the answers in a form which is much clearer and more conclusive, but this will likely not be a short or simple project.

Necessary Connection

In Chapter 7 of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume says about the idea of “necessary connection”:

We have looked at every possible source for an idea of power or necessary connection, and have found nothing. However hard we look at an isolated physical episode, it seems, we can never discover discover anything but one event following another; we never find any force or power by which the cause operates, or any connection between it and its supposed effect. The same holds for the influence of mind on body: the mind wills, and then the body moves, and we observe both events; but we don’t observe– and can’t even conceive– the tie that binds the volition to the motion, i.e. the energy by which the mind causes the body to move. And the power of the will over its own faculties and ideas– i.e. over the mind, as distinct from the body– is no more comprehensible. Summing up, then: throughout the whole of nature there seems not to be a single instance of connection that is conceivable by us. All events seem to be entirely loose and separate. One event follows another, but we never can observe any tie between them. They seem associated, but never connected. And as we can have no idea of anything that never appeared as an impression to our outward sense or inward feeling, we are forced to conclude that we have no idea of ‘connection’ or ‘power’ at all, and that those words– as used in philosophical reasonings or in common life– have absolutely no meaning.

This is not Hume’s final word on the matter, as we will see below, so this has to be taken with a grain of salt, even as a representation of his opinion. Nonetheless, consider this caricature of what he just said:

We have looked at every possible source for an idea of mduvvqi or pdnfhvdkdddd, and have found nothing. However hard we look at an isolated physical episode, it seems, we can never discover anything but events that can be described by perfectly ordinary words; we never find any mduvvqi involved, nor any pdnfhvkdddd.

We could take this to be making the point that “mduvvqi” and “pdnfhvdkdddd” are not words. Other than that, however, the paragraph itself is meaningless, precisely because those “words” are meaningless. It certainly does not make any deep (or shallow for that matter) metaphysical or physical point, nor any special point about the human mind. But Hume’s text is different, and the difference in question is a warning sign of Kantian confusion. If those words had “absolutely no meaning,” in fact, there would be no difference between Hume’s passage and our caricature. Those words are not meaningless, but meaningful, and Hume is even analyzing their meaning in order to supposedly determine that the words are meaningless.

Hume’s analysis in fact proceeds more or less in the following way. We know what it means to say that something is necessary, and it is not the same as saying that the thing always happens. Every human being we have ever seen was less than 20 feet tall. But is it necessary that human beings be less than 20 feet tall? This is a different question, and while we can easily experience someone’s being less than 20 feet tall, it is very difficult to see how we could possibly experience the necessity of this fact, if it is necessary. Hume concludes: we cannot possibly experience the necessity of it. Therefore we can have no idea of such necessity.

But Hume has just contradicted himself: it was precisely by understanding the concept of necessity that he was able to see the difficulty in the idea of experiencing necessity.

Nonetheless, as I said, this is not his final conclusion. A little later he gives a more nuanced account:

The source of this idea of a necessary connection among events seems to be a number of similar instances of the regular pairing of events of these two kinds; and the idea cannot be prompted by any one of these instances on its own, however comprehensively we examine it. But what can a number of instances contain that is different from any single instance that is supposed to be exactly like them? Only that when the mind experiences many similar instances, it acquires a habit of expectation: the repetition of the pattern affects it in such a way that when it observes an event of one of the two kinds it expects an event of the other kind to follow. So the feeling or impression from which we derive our idea of power or necessary connection is a feeling of connection in the mind– a feeling that accompanies the imagination’s habitual move from observing one event to expecting another of the kind that usually follows it. That’s all there is to it. Study the topic from all angles; you will never find any other origin for that idea.

Before we say more, we should concede that this is far more sensible than the claim that the idea of necessity “has absolutely no meaning.” Hume is now conceding that it does have meaning, but claiming that the meaning is about us, not about the thing. When we see someone knock a glass off a table, we perhaps feel a certainty that it will fall and hit the floor. Experiencing that feeling of certainty, he says, is the source of the idea of “necessity.” This is not an unreasonable hypothesis.

However, Hume is also implicitly making a metaphysical argument here which is somewhat less sensible. Our feelings of certainty and uncertainty are subjective qualities of our minds, he suggests, not objective features of the things. Therefore necessity as an objective feature does not and cannot exist. This is not unrelated to his mistaken claim that we cannot know that the future will be similar to the past, even with probability.

What is the correct account here? In fact we already know, from the beginning of the conversation, that “necessary” and “possible” are meaningful words. We also know that in fact we use them to describe objective features of the world. But which features? Attempting to answer this question is where Hume’s approach is pretty sensible. Hume is not mistaken that all of our knowledge is from experience, and ultimately from the senses. He seems to identify experience with sense experience too simplistically, but he is not mistaken that all experience is at least somewhat similar to sense experience; feeling sure that two and two make four is not utterly unlike seeing something red. We want to say that there is something in common there, “something it is like,” to experience one or the other. But if this is the case, it would be reasonable to extend what we said about the senses to intellectual experiences. “The way red looks” cannot, as such, be an objective feature of a thing, but a thing can be objectively red, in such a way that “being red,” together with the nature of the senses, explains why a thing looks red. In a similar way, certainty and uncertainty, insofar as they are ways we experience the world, cannot be objective features of the world as such. Nonetheless, something can be objectively necessary or uncertain, in such a way that “being necessary” or otherwise, together with the nature of our minds, explains why it seems certain or uncertain to us.

There will be a similarity, however. The true nature of red might be quite strange in comparison to the experience of seeing red, as for example it might consist of surface reflectance properties. In a similar way, the true nature of necessity, once it is explained, might be quite strange to us compared to the experience of being certain or uncertain. But that it can be explained is quite certain itself, since the opposite claim would fall into Hume’s original absurdity. There are no hidden essences.

Generalized Kantian Dichotomy

At the end of the last post I suggested that the confusion between the mode of knowledge and the mode of being might be a primary, or rather the primary, cause of philosophical error, with the exception of motivated error.

If we consider the “Kantian” and “anti-Kantian” errors in the last post, we can give a somewhat general account of how this happens. The two errors might appear to be mutually exclusive and exhaustive, but in fact they constitute a false dichotomy. Consider the structure of the disagreement:

A. Common sense takes note of something: in this case, that it is possible to know things. Knowledge is real.

B. The Kantian points out that the mode of knowing and the mode of being are not the same, and concludes that common sense is wrong. Knowledge is apparent, but not real.

C. The anti-Kantian, determined to uphold common sense, applies modus tollens. We know that knowledge is real: so the mode of knowing and the mode of being must be the same.

Each party to the dispute says something true (that knowledge is real, that the mode of being and the mode of knowing are not the same), and something false (that knowledge is not real, that the mode of being and the mode of knowing are the same.)

A vast number of philosophical disputes can be analyzed in a very similar manner. Thus we have the general structure:

A. Common sense points out that some item X is real.

B. The Kantian points out that the mode of knowing and the mode of being are not the same, and concludes that common sense is wrong. X is apparent, but not real.

C. The anti-Kantian, determined to uphold common sense, applies modus tollens. We know that X is real: so the mode of knowing and the mode of being must be the same.

Once again, in this general structure, each party to the dispute would say something true (that X is real, that the mode of knowing and being are not the same), and something false (the denial of one of these two.) As an example, we can apply this structure to our discussion of reductionism and anti-reductionism. The reductionist, in this case, is the Kantian (in our present structure), and the anti-reductionist the anti-Kantian. The very same person might well argue both sides about different things: thus Sean Carroll might be anti-reductionist about fundamental particles and reductionist about humans, while Alexander Pruss is anti-reductionist about humans and reductionist about artifacts. But whether we are discussing fundamental particles, humans, or artifacts, both sides are wrong. Both say something true, but also something false.

Several cautionary notes are needed in this regard.

First, both sides will frequently realize that they are saying something strongly counter-intuitive, and attempt to remedy this by saying something along the lines of “I don’t mean to say the thing that is false.” But that is not the point. I do not say that you intend to say the thing that is false. I say that you give an account which logically implies the thing that is false, and that the only way you can avoid this implication is by rejecting the false dichotomy completely, namely by accepting both the reality of X, and the distinction of the modes of knowing and being. Thus for example Sean Carroll’s does not distinguish his poetic naturalism from eliminativism in terms of what it says to be true, but only in terms of what it says to be useful. But eliminativism says that it is false that there are ships: therefore Carroll’s poetic naturalism also says that it is false that there are ships, whether he intends to say this or not, and whether or not he finds it useful to say that there are.

Second, this outline uses the terminology of “Kantian” and “anti-Kantian,” but in fact the two tend to blur into one another, because the mistakes are very similar: both imply that the unknown and the known, as such, are the same. Thus for example in my post on reductionism I said that there was a Kantian error in the anti-reductionist position: but in the present schema, the error is anti-Kantian. In part, this happened because I did not make these distinctions clearly enough myself in the earlier post. But is it also because the errors themselves uphold very similar contradictions. Thus the anti-reductionist thinks somewhat along these lines:

We know that a human being is one thing. We know it as a unity, and therefore it has a mode of being as a unity. But whenever anyone tries to explain the idea of a human being, they end up saying many things about it. So our explanation of a human being cannot be the true explanation. Since the mode of knowing and the mode of being must be the same, a true explanation of a human being would have to be absolutely one. We have no explanation like that, so it must be that a human being has an essence which is currently hidden from us.

Note that this reasons in an anti-Kantian manner (the mode of being and the mode of knowing must be the same), but the conclusion is effectively Kantian: possible or not, we actually have no knowledge of human beings as they are.

As I said in the post on reductionism, the parties to the dispute will in general say that an account like mine is anti-realist: realism, according to both sides, requires that one accept one side of the dichotomy and reject the other. But I respond that the very dispute between realism and anti-realism can be itself an example of the false dichotomy, as the dispute is often understood. Thus:

A. Common sense notes that the things we normally think and talk about are real, and that the things we normally say about them are true.

B. The Kantian (the anti-realist) points out that the mode of knowing and the mode of being are not the same, and concludes that common sense is wrong. The things we normally talk about appear to be real, but they are not.

C. The anti-Kantian (the realist) applies modus tollens. We know these things are real: so the mode of knowledge and the mode of being must be the same after all.

As usual, both say something true, and both say something false. Consider Scott Sumner, who tends to take an anti-realist position, as for example here:

Even worse, I propose doing so for “postmodern” reasons. I will start by denying the reality of inflation, and then argue for some substitute concepts that are far more useful. First a bit of philosophy. There is a lively debate about whether there is a meaningful distinction between our perception of reality, and actual reality. I had a long debate with a philosopher about whether Newton’s laws of motion were a part of reality, or merely a human construct. I took the latter view, arguing that if humans had never existed then Newton’s laws would have never existed. He argued they are objectively true. I responded that Einstein showed that were false. He responded that they were objectively true in the limiting case. I argued that even that might be changed by future developments in our understanding of reality at the quantum level. He argued that they’d still be objectively approximately true, etc, etc.

On the one hand, a lot of what Scott says here is right. On the other hand, he mistakenly believes that it follows that common sense is mistaken in matters in which it is not, in fact, mistaken. The reasoning is basically the reasoning of the Kantian: one notices that we have a specific mode of knowing which is not the mode of being of things, and concludes that knowledge is impossible, or in Scott’s terminology, “objective truth” does not exist, at least as distinct from personal opinion. He has a more extensive discussion of this here:

I don’t see it as relativism at all. I don’t see it as the world of fuzzy post-modern philosophers attacking the virtuous hard sciences. It’s important not to get confused by semantics, and focus on what’s really at stake. In my view, Rorty’s views are most easily seen by considering his denial of the distinction between objective truth and subjective belief. In order to see why he did this, consider Rorty’s claim that, “That which has no practical implications, has no theoretical implications.” Suppose Rorty’s right, and it’s all just belief that we hold with more or less confidence. What then? In contrast, suppose the distinction between subjective belief and objective fact is true. What then? What are the practical implications of each philosophical view? I believe the most useful way of thinking about this is to view all beliefs as subjective, albeit held with more or less confidence.

Let’s suppose it were true that we could divide up statements about the world into two categories, subjective beliefs and objective facts. Now let’s write down all our statements about the world onto slips of paper. Every single one of them, there must be trillions (even if we ignore the field of math, where an infinite number of statements could be constructed.) Now let’s divide these statements up into two big piles, one set is subjective beliefs, and the other pile contains statements that are objective facts. We build a vast Borgesian library, and put all the subjective beliefs (i.e. Trump is an idiot) into one wing, and all the objective facts (Paris is the capital of France) into the other wing.

Now here’s the question for pragmatists like Rorty and me. Is this a useful distinction to make? If it is useful, how is it useful? Here’s the only useful thing I can imagine resulting from this distinction. If we have a category of objective facts, then we can save time by not questioning these facts as new information arises. They are “off limits”. Since they are objective facts, they can never be refuted. If they could be refuted, then they’d be subjective beliefs, not objective facts.

But I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to consider any beliefs to be completely off limits—not at all open to refutation. That reminds me too much of fundamentalist religion. On the other hand, I do want to distinguish between different kinds of beliefs, in a way that I think is more pragmatic than the subjective/objective distinction. Rather I’d like to assign probability values to each belief, which represent my confidence as to whether or not the belief is true. Then I’d like to devote more of my time to entertaining critiques of highly questionable hypotheses, than I do to less plausible hypotheses.

Again, this makes a great deal of sense. The problem is that Scott thinks that either there is no distinction between the subjective and objective, or we need to be able to make that distinction subjectively. Since the latter seems an evident contradiction, he concludes that there is no distinction between subjective and objective. Later in the post, he puts this in terms of “map and territory”:

The other point of confusion I see is people conflating “the map and the territory”. Then they want to view “objective facts” as aspects of the territory, the underlying reality, not (just) beliefs about the territory. I don’t think that’s very useful, as it seems to me that statements about the world are always models of the world, not the world itself. Again, if it were not true, then theories could never be revised over time. After all, Einstein didn’t revise reality in 1905; he revised our understanding of reality–our model of reality.

“Statements about the world are always models of the world, not the world itself.” Indeed. That is because they are statements, not the things the statements are about. This is correctly to notice that the mode of knowledge is not the mode of being. But it does not follow that there are no objective facts, nor that objective facts are not distinct from opinions. Consider the statement that “dogs are animals.” We can call that statement a “model of the world.” But is not about a model of the world: it is about dogs, which are not our model or even parts of our model, but things moving around outside in the real world. Obviously, we cannot concretely distinguish between “things we think are true” and “things that are actually true,” because it will always be us talking about things that are actually true, but we can make and understand that distinction in the abstract. Scott is right, however, to reject the idea that some ideas are subjective “because they are about the map,” with other statements being objective “because they are about the territory.” In the map / territory terminology, all statements are maps, and all of them are about the territory (including statements about maps, which refer to maps as things that exist, and thus as part of the territory.)

We can see here how Scott Sumner is falling into the Kantian error. But what about the realist position? It does not follow from any of the above that the realist must make any corresponding error. And indeed, in all such dichotomies, there will be a side which is more right than the other: namely, the side that says that common sense is right. And so it is possible, and correct, to say that common sense is right without also accepting the corresponding falsehood (namely that the mode of knowing and the mode of being are the same.) But if we do accept the realist position together with the corresponding falsehood, this can manifest itself in various ways. For example, one might say that one should indeed put some things in the category of “off limits” for discussion: since they are objective facts, they can never be revised. Thus for example James Larson, as in an earlier discussion, tends to identify the rejection of his positions with the rejection of realism. In effect, “My beliefs are objectively true. So people who disagree with my beliefs reject objective truth. And I cannot admit that my beliefs might be false, because that would mean an objective truth could be false at the same time, which is a contradiction.” The problem will not always be manifested in the same way, however, because as we said in the last post, each end of the false dichotomy implies a similar contradiction and cannot be reasoned about coherently.

Hard Problem of Consciousness

We have touched on this in various places, and in particular in this discussion of zombies, but we are now in a position to give a more precise answer.

Bill Vallicella has a discussion of Thomas Nagel on this issue:

Nagel replies in the pages of NYRB (8 June 2017; HT: Dave Lull) to one Roy Black, a professor of bioengineering:

The mind-body problem that exercises both Daniel Dennett and me is a problem about what experience is, not how it is caused. The difficulty is that conscious experience has an essentially subjective character—what it is like for its subject, from the inside—that purely physical processes do not share. Physical concepts describe the world as it is in itself, and not for any conscious subject. That includes dark energy, the strong force, and the development of an organism from the egg, to cite Black’s examples. But if subjective experience is not an illusion, the real world includes more than can be described in this way.

I agree with Black that “we need to determine what ‘thing,’ what activity of neurons beyond activating other neurons, was amplified to the point that consciousness arose.” But I believe this will require that we attribute to neurons, and perhaps to still more basic physical things and processes, some properties that in the right combination are capable of constituting subjects of experience like ourselves, to whom sunsets and chocolate and violins look and taste and sound as they do. These, if they are ever discovered, will not be physical properties, because physical properties, however sophisticated and complex, characterize only the order of the world extended in space and time, not how things appear from any particular point of view.

The problem might be condensed into an aporetic triad:

1) Conscious experience is not an illusion.

2) Conscious experience has an essentially subjective character that purely physical processes do not share.

3) The only acceptable explanation of conscious experience is in terms of physical properties alone.

Take a little time to savor this problem. Note first that the three propositions are collectively inconsistent: they cannot all be true.  Any two limbs entail the negation of the remaining one. Note second that each limb exerts a strong pull on our acceptance.  But we cannot accept them all because they are logically incompatible.

Which proposition should we reject? Dennett, I take it, would reject (1). But that’s a lunatic solution as Professor Black seems to appreciate, though he puts the point more politely. When I call Dennett a sophist, as I have on several occasions, I am not abusing him; I am underscoring what is obvious, namely, that the smell of cooked onions, for example, is a genuine datum of experience, and that such phenomenological data trump scientistic theories.

Sophistry aside, we either reject (2) or we reject (3).  Nagel and I accept (1) and (2) and reject (3). Black, and others of the scientistic stripe, accept (1) and (3) and reject (2).

In order to see the answer to this, we can construct a Parmenidean parallel to Vallicella’s aporetic triad:

1) Distinction is not an illusion.

2) Being has an essentially objective character of actually being that distinction does not share (considering that distinction consists in the fact of not being something.)

3) The only acceptable explanation of distinction is in terms of being alone (since there is nothing but being to explain things with.)

Parmenides rejects (1) here. What approach would Vallicella take? If he wishes to take a similarly analogous approach, he should accept (1) and (2), and deny (3). And this would be a pretty commonsense approach, and perhaps the one that most people implicitly adopt if they ever think about the problem.

At the same time, it is easy to see that (3) is approximately just as obviously true as (1); and it is for this reason that Parmenides sees rejecting (1) and accepting (2) and (3) as reasonable.

The correct answer, of course, is that the three are not inconsistent despite appearances. In fact, we have effectively answered this in recent posts. Distinction is not an illusion, but a way that we understand things, as such. And being a way of understanding, it is not (as such) a way of being mistaken, and thus it is not an illusion, and thus the first point is correct. Again, being a way of understanding, it is not a way of being as such, and thus the second point is correct. And yet distinction can be explained by being, since there is something (namely relationship) which explains why it is reasonable to think in terms of distinctions.

Vallicella’s triad mentions “purely physical processes” and “physical properties,” but the idea of “physical” here is a distraction, and is not really relevant to the problem. Consider the following from another post by Vallicella:

If I understand Galen Strawson’s view, it is the first.  Conscious experience is fully real but wholly material in nature despite the fact that on current physics we cannot account for its reality: we cannot understand how it is possible for qualia and thoughts to be wholly material.   Here is a characteristic passage from Strawson:

Serious materialists have to be outright realists about the experiential. So they are obliged to hold that experiential phenomena just are physical phenomena, although current physics cannot account for them.  As an acting materialist, I accept this, and assume that experiential phenomena are “based in” or “realized in” the brain (to stick to the human case).  But this assumption does not solve any problems for materialists.  Instead it obliges them to admit ignorance of the nature of the physical, to admit that they don’t have a fully adequate idea of what the physical is, and hence of what the brain is.  (“The Experiential and the Non-Experiential” in Warner and Szubka, p. 77)

Strawson and I agree on two important points.  One is that what he calls experiential phenomena are as real as anything and cannot be eliminated or reduced to anything non-experiential. Dennett denied! The other is that there is no accounting for experiential items in terms of current physics.

I disagree on whether his mysterian solution is a genuine solution to the problem. What he is saying is that, given the obvious reality of conscious states, and given the truth of naturalism, experiential phenomena must be material in nature, and that this is so whether or not we are able to understand how it could be so.  At present we cannot understand how it could be so. It is at present a mystery. But the mystery will dissipate when we have a better understanding of matter.

This strikes me as bluster.

An experiential item such as a twinge of pain or a rush of elation is essentially subjective; it is something whose appearing just is its reality.  For qualia, esse = percipi.  If I am told that someday items like this will be exhaustively understood from a third-person point of view as objects of physics, I have no idea what this means.  The notion strikes me as absurd.  We are being told in effect that what is essentially subjective will one day be exhaustively understood as both essentially subjective and wholly objective.  And that makes no sense. If you tell me that understanding in physics need not be objectifying understanding, I don’t know what that means either.

Here Vallicella uses the word “material,” which is presumably equivalent to “physical” in the above discussion. But it is easy to see here that being material is not the problem: being objective is the problem. Material things are objective, and Vallicella sees an irreducible opposition between being objective and being subjective. In a similar way, we can reformulate Vallicella’s original triad so that it does not refer to being physical:

1) Conscious experience is not an illusion.

2) Conscious experience has an essentially subjective character that purely objective processes do not share.

3) The only acceptable explanation of conscious experience is in terms of objective properties alone.

It is easy to see that this formulation is the real source of the problem. And while Vallicella would probably deny (3) even in this formulation, it is easy to see why people would want to accept (3). “Real things are objective,” they will say. If you want to explain anything, you should explain it using real things, and therefore objective things.

The parallel with the Parmenidean problem is evident. We would want to explain distinction in terms of being, since there isn’t anything else, and yet this seems impossible, so one (e.g. Parmenides) is tempted to deny the existence of distinction. In the same way, we would want to explain subjective experience in terms of objective facts, since there isn’t anything else, and yet this seems impossible, so one (e.g. Dennett) is tempted to deny the existence of subjective experience.

Just as the problem is parallel, the correct solution will be almost entirely parallel to the solution to the problem of Parmenides.

1) Conscious experience is not an illusion. It is a way of perceiving the world, not a way of not perceiving the world, and definitely not a way of not perceiving at all.

2) Consciousness is subjective, that is, it is a way that an individual perceives the world, not a way that things are as such, and thus not an “objective fact” in the sense that “the way things are” is objective.

3) The “way things are”, namely the objective facts, are sufficient to explain why individuals perceive the world. Consider again this post, responding to a post by Robin Hanson. We could reformulate his criticism to express instead Parmenides’s criticism of common sense (changed parts in italics):

People often state things like this:

I am sure that there is not just being, because I’m aware that some things are not other things. I know that being just isn’t non-being. So even though there is being, there must be something more than that to reality. So there’s a deep mystery: what is this extra stuff, where does it arise, how does it change, and so on. We humans care about distinctions, not just being; we want to know what out there is distinct from which other things.

But consider a key question: Does this other distinction stuff interact with the parts of our world that actually exist strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of distinction like this?

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that philosophers, possibly excepting Duns Scotus, have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable. If this type of interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite understandable with existing philosophy. Any interaction not so understandable would have be vastly more difficult to understand than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will understand such an interaction.

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of distinction, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra distinction stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that distinction stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if distinction stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that distinction stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

“Distinction stuff”, of course, does not exist, and neither does “feeling stuff.” But some things are distinct from others. Saying this is a way of understanding the world, and it is a reasonable way to understand the world because things exist relative to one another. And just as one thing is distinct from another, people have experiences. Those experiences are ways of knowing the world (broadly understood.) And just as reality is sufficient to explain distinction, so reality is sufficient to explain the fact that people have experiences.

How exactly does this answer the objection about interaction? In the case of distinction, the fact that “one thing is not another” is never the direct cause of anything, not even of the fact that “someone believes that one thing is not another.” So there would seem to be a “remarkable coincidence” here, or we would have to say that since the fact seems unrelated to the opinion, there is no reason to believe people are right when they make distinctions.

The answer in the case of distinction is that one thing is related to another, and this fact is the cause of someone believing that one thing is not another. There is no coincidence, and no reason to believe that people are mistaken when they make distinctions, despite the fact that distinction as such causes nothing.

In a similar way, “a human being is what it is,” and “a human being does what it does” (taken in an objective sense), cause human beings to say and believe that they have subjective experience (taking saying and believing to refer to objective facts.) But this is precisely where the zombie question arises: they say and believe that they have subjective experience, when we interpret say and believe in the objective sense. But do they actually say and believe anything, considering saying and believing as including the subjective factor? Namely, when a non-zombie says something, it subjectively understands the meaning of what it is saying, and when it consciously believes something, it has a subjective experience of doing that, but these things would not apply to a zombie.

But notice that we can raise a similar question about zombie distinctions. When someone says and believes that one thing is not another, objective reality is similarly the cause of them making the distinction. But is the one thing actually not the other? But there is no question at all here except of whether the person’s statement is true or false. And indeed, someone can say, e.g, “The person who came yesterday is not the person who came today,” and this can sometimes be false. In a similar way, asking whether an apparent person is a zombie or not is just asking whether their claim is true or false when they say they have a subjective experience. The difference is that if the (objective) claim is false, then there is no claim at all in the subjective sense of “subjectively claiming something.” It is a contradiction to subjectively make the false claim that you are subjectively claiming something, and thus, this cannot happen.

Someone may insist: you yourself, when you subjectively claim something, cannot be mistaken for the above reason. But you have no way to know whether someone else who apparently is making that claim, is actually making the claim subjectively or not. This is the reason there is a hard problem.

How do we investigate the case of distinction? If we want to determine whether the person who came yesterday is not the person who came today, we do that by looking at reality, despite the fact that distinction as such is not a part of reality as such. If the person who came yesterday is now, today, a mile away from the person who came today, this gives us plenty of reason to say that the one person is not the other. There is nothing strange, however, in the fact that there is no infallible method to prove conclusively, once and for all, that one thing is definitely not another thing. There is not therefore some special “hard problem of distinction.” This is just a result of the fact that our knowledge in general is not infallible.

In a similar way, if we want to investigate whether something has subjective experience or not, we can do that only by looking at reality: what is this thing, and what does it do? Then suppose it makes an apparent claim that it has subjective experience. Obviously, for the above reasons, this cannot be a subjective claim but false: so the question is whether it makes a subjective claim and is right, or rather makes no subjective claim at all. How would you answer this as an external observer?

In the case of distinction, the fact that someone claims that one thing is distinct from another is caused by reality, whether the claim is true or false. So whether it is true or false depends on the way that it is caused by reality. In a similar way, the thing which apparently and objectively claims to possess subjective experience, is caused to do so by objective facts. Again, as in the case of distinction, whether it is true or false will depend on the way that it is caused to do so by objective facts.

We can give some obvious examples:

“This thing claims to possess subjective experience because it is a human being and does what humans normally do.” In this case, the objective and subjective claim is true, and is caused in the right way by objective facts.

“This thing claims to possess subjective experience because it is a very simple computer given a very simple program to output ‘I have subjective experience’ on its screen.” In this case the external claim is false, and it is caused in the wrong way by objective facts, and there is no subjective claim at all.

But how do you know for sure, someone will object. Perhaps the computer really is conscious, and perhaps the apparent human is a zombie. But we could similarly ask how we can know for sure that the person who came yesterday isn’t the same person who came today, even though they appear distant from each other, because perhaps the person is bilocating?

It would be mostly wrong to describe this situation by saying “there really is no hard problem of consciousness,” as Robin Hanson appears to do when he says, “People who think they can conceive of such zombies see a ‘hard question’ regarding which physical systems that claim to feel and otherwise act as if they feel actually do feel.” The implication seems to be that there is no hard question at all. But there is, and the fact that people engage in this discussion proves the existence of the question. Rather, we should say that the question is answerable, and that one it has been answered the remaining questions are “hard” only in the sense that it is hard to understand the world in general. The question is hard in exactly the way the question of Parmenides is hard: “How is it possible for one thing not to be another, when there is only being?” The question of consciousness is similar: “How is it possible for something to have subjective experience, when there are only objective things?” And the question can and should be answered in a similar fashion.

It would be virtually impossible to address every related issue in a simple blog post of this form, so I will simply mention some things that I have mainly set aside here:

1) The issue of formal causes, discussed more in my earlier treatment of this issue. This is relevant because “is this a zombie?” is in effect equivalent to asking whether the thing lacks a formal cause. This is worthy of a great deal of consideration and would go far beyond either this post or the earlier one.

2) The issue of “physical” and “material.” As I stated in this post, this is mainly a distraction. Most of the time, the real question is how the subjective is possible given that we believe that the world is objective. The only relevance of “matter” here is that it is obvious that a material thing is an objective thing. But of course, an immaterial thing would also have to be objective in order to be a thing at all. Aristotle and many philosophers of his school make the specific argument that the human mind does not have an organ, but such arguments are highly questionable, and in my view fundamentally flawed. My earlier posts suffice to call such a conclusion into question, but do not attempt to disprove it, and the the topic would be worthy of additional consideration.

3) Specific questions about “what, exactly, would actually be conscious?” Now neglecting such questions might seem to be a cop-out, since isn’t this what the whole problem was supposed to be in the first place? But in a sense we did answer it. Take an apparent claim of something to be conscious. The question would be this: “Given how it was caused by objective facts to make that claim, would it be a reasonable claim for a subjective claimer to make?” In other words, we cannot assume in advance that it is subjectively making a claim, but if it would be a reasonable claim, it will (in general) be a true one, and therefore also a subjective one, for the same reason that we (in general) make true claims when we reasonably claim that one thing is not another. We have not answered this question only in the same sense that we have not exhaustively explained which things are distinct from which other things, and how one would know. But the question, e.g., “when if ever would you consider an artificial intelligence to be conscious?” is in itself also worthy of direct discussion.

4) The issue of vagueness. This issue in particular will cause some people to object to my answer here. Thus Alexander Pruss brings this up in a discussion of whether a computer could be conscious:

Now, intelligence could plausibly be a vague property. But it is not plausible that consciousness is a vague property. So, there must be some precise transition point in reliability needed for computation to yield consciousness, so that a slight decrease in reliability—even when the actual functioning is unchanged (remember that the Ci are all functioning in the same way)—will remove consciousness.

I responded in the comments there:

The transition between being conscious and not being conscious that happens when you fall asleep seems pretty vague. I don’t see why you find it implausible that “being conscious” could be vague in much the same way “being red” or “being intelligent” might be vague. In fact the evidence from experience (falling asleep etc) seems to directly suggest that it is vague.

Pruss responds:

When I fall asleep, I may become conscious of less and less. But I can’t get myself to deny that either it is definitely true at any given time that I am at least a little conscious or it is definitely true that I am not at all conscious.

But we cannot trust Pruss’s intuitions about what can be vague or otherwise. Pruss claims in an earlier post that there is necessarily a sharp transition between someone’s not being old and someone’s being old. I discussed that post here. This is so obviously false that it gives us a reason in general not to trust Alexander Pruss on the issue of sharp transitions and vagueness. The source of this particular intuition may be the fact that you cannot subjectively make a claim, even vaguely, without some subjective experience, as well as his general impression that vagueness violates the principles of excluded middle and non-contradiction. But in a similar way, you cannot be vaguely old without being somewhat old. This does not mean that there is a sharp transition from not being old to being old, and likewise it does not necessarily mean that there is a sharp transition from not having subjective experience to having it.

While I have discussed the issue of vagueness elsewhere on this blog, this will probably continue to be a reoccurring feature, if only because of those who cannot accept this feature of reality and insist, in effect, on “this or nothing.”