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Littmann May 5, 2010 The Knowledge Argument and the Case Against Physicalism What does the statement, “Tom feels happy” mean? How about the claim, “Sally believes in unicorns”? With regards to consciousness, materialists would tell us that Tom’s happy feelings are due to chemical reactions in his brain that occur just so as to create a chemical feeling of euphoria. As for Sally, most materialists would say that she is not doing anything when she says she believes in unicorns or anything else for that matter. By a materialist’s account of consciousness, Sally would simply be mistaken about the state of her brain, and yet, Sally is emphatic about her belief in unicorns. These questions and others like them demonstrate the limitations of a materialist account of consciousness, that is, materialism, as the theory stands currently, cannot account for the subjective nature of consciousness. If a scientist removed Sally’s brain and dissected it, we would be no closer to knowing how she believes in unicorns. Similarly, a brain dissection cannot reveal how it feels to Tom when he says he feels happy. The nature of how things feel is what philosophers refer to as qualia. Qualia is the nonphysical component of consciousness, and the notion of qualia is the thorn that remains in the side of a materialist account of consciousness. In the least, the concept of qualia illustrates that the current materialist account of consciousness is incomplete, however, if nonphysical qualia exist, their reality would radically change the study of consciousness. Based upon the premise that a materialist account of consciousness is not able to explain all there is to know about the nature of consciousness, the existence of qualia seems reasonable. As such, the purpose of this
Bateman 2 paper is to explore the notion of qualia as understood through the knowledge argument against materialism. Put simply, the knowledge argument argues that there are aspects of consciousness that cannot be obtained by purely physical means, so consciousness must have a nonphysical nature. If materialism were true, we should, in theory, be able to explain all aspects of consciousness by physical truths alone, but as the examples of Sally and Tom demonstrate, we cannot. C. D. Broad touches on the limitations of materialism in his essay, “Mechanism and Its Alternatives.” In the essay, Broad offers a summary of what he calls “Pure Mechanism” or a purely physical account of consciousness. He writes: Thus the essence of Pure Mechanism is (a) a single kind of stuff, all of whose parts are exactly alike except for differences of position and motion; (b) a single fundamental kind of change, viz, a change of position...; (c) a single elementary casual law, according to which particles influence each other by pairs; and (d) a single and simple principle of composition, according to which the behavior of any aggregate of particles, or the influence of any one aggregate on any other, follows in a uniform way from the mutual influences of the constituent particles taken by pairs (Broad, 106). According to a purely mechanical model, all matter is made of the same material. Matter only differs in kinds by the number, arrangement, and movement of their particles (Broad, 106). Basically, we are all composed of nothing more than atoms and the only thing that differs one of us from another is the number of atoms we are made of, their configuration, and the way they bounce off of each other. According to a purely physical model, if we know the properties of our fundamental parts, atoms in our case, we should be able to reason the fundamental properties of the things
Bateman 3 composed of those particles. But Broad argues that is not the case. He offers the example of chemical compounds to demonstrate his point: we may know all the properties of the elements silver and chlorine, yet we have no way of knowing the properties of chemical compound silverchloride until we observe its behavior as a compound. We cannot say that the chemical compound silver-chloride will exist simply as the union of the properties of silver and chlorine. Properties of the whole compound cannot be deduced from the most extensive knowledge of the properties of the parts (Broad, 109-111). As it applies to human consciousness, Broad’s argument works like this: We know human beings are biological substances composed of the particles known as atoms. Science has discovered a great deal about the properties of atoms. Some would say we have an extensive knowledge of the properties of atoms. By a purely physical account of consciousness, if we know everything about the properties of what we are made of, we should be able to deduce everything there is to know about the properties of the compound human being, but we cannot. A study of the properties of atoms does not reveal what it feels like to be in pain or what the color red looks like to any one individual. Therefore, a purely physical account of consciousness does not reveal everything there is to know about the compound human being. Broad explains concepts like what it feels like to be in pain or why red seems blue to some people and red to others as emergent properties. He writes that such concepts as pain and perception are mental properties, other philosophers may call these mental properties qualia. According to Broad, mental properties are not reducible to physical properties. However, when physical properties are arranged in a certain order, mental properties emerge from them just as the properties of silver-chloride emerge from the union of the physical properties of silver and chlorine. In this way, mental properties, or qualia, are by-products of physical properties (Broad,
Bateman 4 114-115). By-products are not, though, a description of human consciousness, according to Broad, is incomplete without both the physical properties and the emergent mental properties. Frank Jackson is another philosopher who has argued in favor of the knowledge argument. In his essay, “Epiphenomenal Qualia,” Jackson addresses the fact that a physical account of consciousness is incomplete. He writes: Tell me everything physical there is to tell about what is going on in a living brain, the kind of states, their functional role, their relation to what goes on at other times and in other brains and so on and so forth, and be I as clever as can be fitting it all together, you won’t have told me about the hurtfulness of pains, the itchiness of itches, pangs of jealousy, or about the characteristic experience of tasting a lemon, smelling a rose, hearing a loud noise or seeing the sky (Jackson, 273). In the quote above, Jackson points out what he sees as the limitations of materialism. Like Broad, what Jackson thinks a physical account of consciousness lacks is the nonphysical component of consciousness or the qualia of consciousness. In presenting the knowledge argument as criticism of materialism, Jackson offers two thought experiments to make his point. The first is that of Fred and our ability to know his experience in seeing colors. Jackson’s account of Fred’s experience is as follows: Fred has the ability to see two colors, red1 and red2 , where we only see the color red. Jackson argues that we would like to know what colors Fred sees when he sees red1 and red2 but we cannot. And even if we know everything about how Fred’s brain and optical system work, we would still not know what Fred sees when he sees the two colors of red. Jackson writes that even if we find out that “Fred’s cones respond differentially to certain light waves in the red section of the spectrum that make no difference to ours (or perhaps he has an extra cone) and that this leads in Fred to a wider range of
Bateman 5 those brain states responsible for visual discriminatory behavior,” we still have not learned what we want to learn about Fred’s color experience (Jackson, 274). Despite knowing everything about Fred’s body, behaviors, internal physiology, history, and how he relates to others that we can possibly know by a physical account, we do not know everything there is to know about Fred. So, if we have all the physical information about Fred and yet we are still missing some facts about Fred, then a physical account of consciousness leaves something out (Jackson, 274). Jackson continues his argument by suggesting that upon Fred’s death, we are able to transplant his optical system into someone else. Only then would the recipient of Fred’s optical system be able to say that he knew what Fred was seeing when he saw red1 and red2. Perhaps, like Broad suggests, the mental state of seeing is an emergent property that arises from the culmination of physical properties. Regardless of the source of Fred’s mental states (or qualia), however, in their absence, we are unable to know everything there is to know about Fred (Jackson, 274). Returning to the opening example of this paper, we can make a similar claim about Tom. It is possible that we have all the physical knowledge of the properties that compose Tom. We have a thorough understanding of the ways certain chemicals interact in the brain. We know all about the role of serotonin in the brain, and yet we still do not know everything about Tom’s experience of being happy. We cannot know what Tom feels when he says he is happy based on a purely physical account of consciousness. Now, materialists would say that we can know, that all Tom’s happiness is is that series of chemical reactions, but that notion seems easily disproved. Assume, for example, a man is incapable of experiencing happiness but wants to understand what it means to be happy. He reads everything he can about chemicals, and brain physiology, and human behavior. He knows everything about the physical state of happiness that
Bateman 6 he can possibly know, and yet most people would argue that he still does not know what it is like to be happy. Happiness, like pain and color perception, seems to be a mental state just as much as it is a physical state. Another example Jackson gives as evidence that a materialist account of consciousness is incomplete is the example of the scientist, Mary (Jackson, 275). Jackson writes that Mary is forced to live in a black and white room and explore the world through a black and white television monitor. She is a neurophysiologist of vision and so learns all there is to know about the physical happenings when a tomato or the sky. Jackson writes that Mary is able to accurately use the terms red and blue because she possesses all knowledge about light wavelengths and color combinations. The question Jackson wants to answer, though, is what will happen to Mary if she goes out into the real world? Will she learn anything or not? It seems obvious that Mary will gain some new knowledge based on her experiences in the real world. But Jackson’s point is that not only will Mary herself gain new knowledge, but also Mary will gain knowledge about what the experiences of others had been all along (Jackson, 279). Consider this example: A young girl has always dreamed of going to Egypt to see the Great Pyramids. She has read everything there is to read about the Pyramids. She has looked at numerous photos of Egypt and the Pyramids. She has watched documentaries about Egypt. It is not too generous a statement to say that this girl knows all there is to know about Egypt and the Great Pyramids. If physicalism is true, then the girl will gain no new knowledge when she actually goes to see the Pyramids for herself. But the girl does gain new knowledge when she sees the Pyramids in person. She gains a knowledge that no amount of physical information or technical data could offer her. And, not only does she learns what if feels like to see the Great Pyramids of Egypt, but she also learns what others who were seeing the Pyramids were
Bateman 7 experiencing. Thus, she learns that the physical account of the Pyramids was lacking in some way. The physicalist account of the Pyramids was lacking qualia. Jackson makes a point of noting that the knowledge argument does not say that a person cannot imagine what seeing colors, in the case of Mary, is like without having seen the colors. He writes, “The contention about Mary is not that, despite her fantastic grasp of neurophysiology and everything else physical, she could not imagine what it is like to sense red; it is that, as a matter of fact, she would not know” (Jackson, 278). Not only could Mary not know about her own experiences, but more importantly, she could not know about the experiences others were having while she was in the room. Jackson writes: She (Mary) will realize that there was, all the time she was carrying out her laborious investigations into the neurophysiologies of others and into the functional roles of their internal states, something about these people she was quite unaware of. All along their experiences...had facts about them all along; hence, what she did not know until her release is not a physical fact about their experiences. But it is a fact about them (Jackson, 279). The idea that our qualia are facts about us just as our hair color and height are facts about us is a problem for a materialist view of consciousness. To say that there are facts about the world that are not facts about the physical is controversial, yet it is unclear as to how it can be avoided given the examples sited above. But some materialists argue that knowing what it’s like for the world to be a certain way is simply knowing how the world is. In his essay, “What Experience Teaches,” David Lewis suggests that what Mary gains when she steps into the world is not any new factual knowledge about the world but new abilities. Lewis proposes the ability hypothesis (Lewis, 292). He
Bateman 8 identifies knowing what an experience is like with certain abilities. He writes that if a person has a new experience, he gains new abilities like the ability to imagine, to remember, and to recognize. Lewis claims that there is no way to gain these abilities except through experience. According to Lewis, the knowing how that these abilities bring us is all that it means to know what it is like to experience something. He writes: Knowing how is ability. But of course some aspects of ability are in no sense knowledge: strength, sufficient funds. Other aspects of ability are, purely and simply, a matter of information. If you want to know how to open the combination lock on the bank vault, information is all you need. It remains that there are aspects of ability that do not consist simply of possession of information, and that we do call knowledge. The Ability Hypothesis holds that knowing what an experience is like is that sort of knowledge. If the Ability Hypothesis is the correct analysis of knowing what an experience is like, then phenomenal information is an illusion (Lewis, 293). But in Mary’s case, it is unclear as to what new ability Lewis thinks she is learning. She already has the ability to recognize the colors red and blue. She uses the words accurately when she describes the tomato and the sky. There is no reason to think that Mary does not possess the ability to remember what the colors red and blue are and apply them to the outside world when she sees them. Certainly, if Mary can recognize red and blue and she can remember red and blue, it is reasonable to assume that she could imagine what she considers red and what she considers blue when they are not immediately visible. Mary seems to already be in possession of the abilities Lewis would have us believe she learns when she steps out into the world and experiences the colors for the first time. What Mary seems to lack is an appreciation for the qualia that is seeing red. What she did not know was the experiences others had when they saw
Bateman 9 red all the time she was locked in the black and white room. It does not seem like Mary gained any new ability like Lewis proposes. It seems that Mary gained new knowledge through her experience in the real world. The knowledge Mary gained was what it’s like to see red in the real world. Thomas Nagel addresses the issue of what it’s like in his essay, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” In that essay, Nagel argues that consciousness is essentially a subjective phenomenon and, as such, cannot be explained in wholly physicalist terms. Nagel writes, “If physicalism is to be defended, the phenomenological features must themselves be given a physical account. But when we examine their subjective character it seems that such a result is impossible. The reason is that every subjective phenomenon is essentially connected with a single point of view, and it seems inevitable that an objective, physical theory will abandon that point of view” (Nagel, 220). Nagel’s claim is that, in the case of the bat for instance, we can never know everything there is to know about what it is like to be a bat unless we are bats. He writes, “I want to know what it’s like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications” (Nagel, 220). Nagel believes there is a component of consciousness that is subjective and cannot be explained by a strictly materialist account. Nagel then goes on to suggest that the subjective nature (or mental states or qualia) of consciousness is something that may be beyond human understanding. He writes: My realism about the subjective domain in all its form implies a belief in the existence of facts beyond the reach of human concepts. Certainly it is possible for a human being to
Bateman 10 believe that there are facts which humans never will possess the requisite concepts to represent or comprehend. Indeed, it would be foolish to doubt this, given the finiteness of human’s expectations...But one might also believe that there are facts which could not ever be represented or comprehended by human beings, even if the species lasted foreversimply because our structure does not permit us to operate with concepts of the requisite type (Nagel, 221). Nagel is suggesting that, given our biological make-up as finite beings, perhaps it is not the case that we have yet to understand the nature of qualia and the nonphysical aspect of consciousness. Perhaps, says Nagel, we are incapable of doing so. Nagel’s argument, on one hand, supports the knowledge argument in that it suggests that there is a component of consciousness that cannot be represented in purely physical terms. In that way, Nagel’s essay supports the idea that physicalism is false. But Nagel’s essay does something else as well. By suggesting that we are unable to understand the subjective nature of consciousness, Nagel leaves open the possibility that materialism may just be incomplete in that we are unable to understand how consciousness really works. If that is the case, then perhaps what Nagel suggests is that the subjective component of consciousness, the ‘what it’s like’ component, may not be subjective after all. It seems possible that what we call the subjective component of consciousness is, in fact, objective but we have no way of understanding it. Such a notion seems problematic when we return to Nagel’s bat. Nagel writes that even if we know everything there is to know about the biological make up of a bat, bat behaviors, bat psychology, etc..., we still cannot know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. The only way we could ever obtain that information is if we were to become bats. It seems like Nagel is saying that what it’s like to be a bat comes from somewhere inside the bat.
Bateman 11 Regardless of our abilities as humans, it does not seem feasible that any type of objective data could obtain such internal knowledge of the bat. So while Nagel suggests that physicalism may be true just our knowledge of it is incomplete, it seems impossible that, if in order to understand what it’s like to be the bat, we have to actually be the bat, we could obtain objective information about the mental properties of the bat. Let us return to the opening example of Sally and her belief in unicorns. Applying Nagel’s ‘what it’s like’ concept, the only way for us to know what it’s like for Sally to believe in unicorns is if we were to become Sally. We can try to apply Lewis’s notion of the ability hypothesis to Sally’s situation but we will be unsuccessful. Lewis would have us think that Sally’s belief in unicorns is based on her acquisition of new abilities. But, as in the case of Mary, one must ask what new abilities Sally has acquired. Sally, no doubt, came to learn about the idea of unicorns in books or television like the rest of us have. She has no greater imagination than any other average human being, and yet, Sally believes in unicorns when most of us do not. She has gained no new abilities and yet she seems to have knowledge about her beliefs that she did not have before she believed in unicorns. It seems Sally has gained qualia about her belief in unicorns. Addressing Nagel point that perhaps consciousness is entirely objective but we are unable to comprehend it, it seems unfathomable that there could exist a world where Sally’s belief in unicorns could be explained on a purely physical basis. Given what has been explored in this essay regarding C. D. Broad’s idea of emergent properties, Frank Jackson’s knowledge argument, David Lewis’s ability hypothesis, and Thomas Nagel’s ‘what it’s like’ notion, it seems most reasonable to conclude what this paper initially presumed. Consciousness cannot be described in its entirety by a purely physicalist account. Lewis’s ability hypothesis suggests we gain abilities when we encounter new experiences, but
Bateman 12 the abilities he suggests we gain are often ones we already possess. Nagel’s suggestion that consciousness may be purely physical but we, as humans, are unable to comprehend it as such seems to conflict with his idea of a subjective nature to consciousness. On one hand, he asks us to appreciate the possibility that consciousness has a nonphysical, subjective component, and on the other hand, he suggests that consciousness may not have a nonphysical, subjective component but may be entirely physical. While Nagel’s idea that our human capacity for understanding does not allow us to comprehend consciousness as it really is seems like a valid argument, his jump to the conclusion that physicalism may be true after all seems unnecessary. Perhaps human are incapable of comprehending consciousness and perhaps consciousness has a nonphysical component. Jackson’s argument that a physical approach to understanding consciousness leaves out the idea that some aspects of consciousness regard knowledge about facts that are nonphysical does seem to answer questions like why pain hurts and what it means to be happy. A physicalist approach leaves out the qualia of conscious experience or what Nagel calls the ‘what it’s like’ component. Through his thought experiments involving Fred and Mary, Jackson makes convincing arguments in favor of qualia. And Broad helps to understand one possible way in which qualia may come about in his concept of emergent properties. Maybe physicalists are correct when they describe conscious experience in terms of physical properties. Even Jackson does not dispute the reality of a physical component to consciousness. Perhaps what the physicalist account fails to consider is Broad’s notion of emergent properties. How we feel, how things taste, what the color red looks like to me- all these questions that a purely physical account of consciousness leaves unanswered could, in fact, be resolved under Broad’s theory. Qualia could emerge as a by-product of the joining of physical
Bateman 13 properties much like a newly formed chemical compound takes on properties that neither of its particular properties possessed. Regardless of how qualia come to be or what constitutes a nonphysical mental state, if we are to continue on a journey to understanding what consciousness is, who possesses it, and how it interacts with the world, we must consider their existence. It is irresponsible to assume that simply because we cannot see it or measure it, a nonphysical conscious component does not exist. The answer that eventually science will prove consciousness to be a purely physical entity is unsatisfactory. We have no more reason to think that science will prove physicalism to be true anymore than we have to think that science will prove dualism to be true.
Bateman 14 Works Cited Broad, C. D. “Mechanism and Its Alternatives.” Philosophy of Mind. Ed. David J .Chamlers. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. 106-115. Print. Jackson, Frank. “Epiphenomenal Qualia.” Philosophy of Mind. Ed. David J .Chamlers. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. 273-280. Print. Lewis, David. “What Experience Teaches.” Philosophy of Mind. Ed. David J .Chamlers. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.281-294. Print. Nagel, Thomas. “What Is It Like To Be A Bat.” Philosophy of Mind. Ed. David J .Chamlers. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. 219-226. Print.
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