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The Knowledge Argument Against Physicalism

Discussion in 'Physical & Life Sciences' started by public hermit, Dec 19, 2019.

  1. durangodawood

    durangodawood Dis Member

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    Not so sure.

    The thought experiment says she knows every physical fact. (per wikip.: A fact is a thing that is known to be consistent with objective reality and can be proven to be true with evidence). Her experience of what red "is like" is therefor not a fact, as there's no way to transmit evidence of her internal experience.

    But if her experience is not expressible as fact... does that mean its necessarily not a physical event?

    I dont know. I'd think that all physical events should be expressible, at least ideally. But how do we know that subjective experience is - or isnt?
     
  2. public hermit

    public hermit Well-Known Member Supporter

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    Essentialsaltes brought up Daniel Dennett's counter-example. In his example Mary is shown a Blue Banana and she replies that she has been tricked. How does she know? She replies:

    "You have to remember that I know everything...I had already written down in exquisite detail exactly what physical impression a yellow object or blue object...would make on my nervous system. So, I already knew exactly what thoughts I would have..."

    Dennett on the Knowledge Argument on JSTOR

    Dennett seems to think that having the requisite physical knowledge would allow one to connect a detailed knowledge of the process behind a certain physical state with the experience of that state. In other words, Mary knows the physical effect of a blue impression and can imagine the phenomenal experience. I think Dennett is allowing his concept of functionalism to inform his thinking (he believes functional knowledge and experience are identical), but it is interesting to consider exactly what her complete knowledge would entail.

    Assuming she knows what physical process occurs when appeared to "bluely" (to use the phrasing of Chisolm), it still doesn't follow that she knows what blue looks like until she actually sees it. But, maybe I am making the mistake I believe Dennett is making.
     
  3. The IbanezerScrooge

    The IbanezerScrooge Well-Known Member

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    I've always thought of qualia as the sensational experience of collective over-lapping physical interactions in the body due to the cascade of chemical responses initiated by some external stimuli.

    i.e. it's a purely physical emergent property of our external experiences. The layering and feedback of various physical happenings create sensations that we experience internally and each is different though many may be similar or at least relatable between individuals.

    There's nothing philosophically or spiritually exceptional about the phenomenon, IMO.
     
  4. Tanj

    Tanj Redefined comfortable middle class

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    Right. Science is comprised of objective, independently observable facts/events, and I think people tend to assume that physicalism == science. It doesn't. The former is a superset of the latter. Just because an event is subjective and/or not independently observable doesn't mean it is supernatural.
     
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  5. durangodawood

    durangodawood Dis Member

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    Even so, my intuition remains that actual subjective experience is not material, even though all the apparatus for it is. I think its a non-material emergent phenomenon that "born" out of material events. But I dont claim to have a convincing argument for it. Its just intuition.
     
  6. hedrick

    hedrick Senior Veteran Supporter

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    Right. You've identified the problem with the OP. Physicalism does not claim that the only thing that goes on in the brain is the collection of facts. Mary hasn't gotten any new facts, but she has had a new experience. Surely a purely physical brain can be affected by experience.

    hmmm...... another way to look at it: the brain now has a new fact: the fact that Mary has had that experience.
     
  7. Bungle_Bear

    Bungle_Bear Whoot!

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    Knowing what the experience will do to her physically does not mean Mary must already know what the feeling will feel like. If she has never had certain chemicals released, or certain neurons stimulated she can know what physical changes will happen, but she may not know how that will feel. The physical state is not a new fact. I'd argue that her experience is simply another physical change in that Mary now has a new memory which is just a predictable physical change. No need for anything non-physical for any of this.
     
  8. FrumiousBandersnatch

    FrumiousBandersnatch Well-Known Member

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    I plump for the phenomenal concept strategy. I think this problem is due to confusion compounded from two simple failures - the failure to grasp that objective and subjective descriptions are describing the same thing in different ways, and the failure to take account of different levels of description (i.e. emergence).

    The 'complete physical knowledge' that Mary has is a complete objective description of the phenomena of colour vision at a mechanistic level. When she personally experiences colour for the first time, she gains new knowledge - of her subjective description of the same phenomena. This subjective knowledge is at a different level of description to that of her objective knowledge; it involves the information content of the physical activity described by the objective view, the abstract representations of the world it contains; in a mental context, its intentionality. This is an emergent view.

    One can view this as the difference between description and meaning, e.g. the difference between the physical description of letters and words on a page and the message they represent.

    A more explicit analogy for the discrepancy of descriptive levels in the objective vs subjective distinction is an adventure video game such as GTA (Grand Theft Auto). For this, we assume the screen and keyboard/controller are in another room, inaccessible to us (they are the subjective interface).

    In such a system, the objective, physical description is of a collection of interconnected electronic hardware - RAM, ROM, input/output, microprocessor, etc., running the game software. We can describe the system and its state in various ways. For example, the bits in the processor and memory that are on or off, and the way these bits move around the system; or in terms of the instruction words and how they cause the data to be processed, stored, retrieved, input, and output, and so-on.

    However, the physical description completely misses the emergent viewpoint, i.e. what the game is about. There's no way to know from examining the hardware and what it does when running the software, what's going on in the game. We might be able to see patterns in the movement of data around the system, but there would be no referents by which we could interpret those patterns. We could be given the game data that describes an aircraft and how it flies, but we wouldn't know what it was.

    On the other hand, the player that has the screen and keyboard/controller in the inaccessible room doesn't know about the physical description of the game we've studied; all she sees is the abstractions that the physical description represents - the details of virtual buildings, landscapes, cars, and people. If we were to insert a probe into the computer and change the state of a bit in the processor or RAM, we might see a slightly different pattern of electrical activity in the system, but the player would see her car change colour, or a building vanish, etc.

    These are clearly two different descriptions of the same phenomena; one physical & mechanistic, the other abstract & representational.

    You may say that's all very well, but a conscious entity with subjective experience is still necessary to interpret the game - but it's possible to imagine a mobile learning system that can explore its environment, building an internal model of what it encounters and how objects behave, so it can predict what might happen next and act appropriately, e.g. avoid moving objects, avoid falling into holes, etc. This system would not need to be consciously aware to navigate its environment using its internal model of the world - but it would do so at the level of its representations of the objects and behaviours in the environment, the level of that internal model, not in terms of whatever hardware and software it used.

    The remaining puzzle is only why some sophisticated systems of this type have subjective experience at all. The contents of subjective experience are not puzzling in themselves - such a system will monitor its activities in the world in terms of the abstract representations (models and maps) that it uses to interpret that world. Why do certain phenomena have particular qualia? because they must have some abstract representation, and those representations are generally useful because they are the products of selective evolution.
     
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  9. public hermit

    public hermit Well-Known Member Supporter

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    I have noticed that some commenters on this thread assume that if we allow for an aspect of reality that is non-physical (whatever that might mean), then it necessarily implies "supernatural." I am inclined to think by that they mean "related to the divine." As for myself, I have already stated that is not my intention in exploring this issue. If you are willing to be generous, then please accept that I had no apologetic intentions in posting this thread, I am not trying to argue for some Cartesian dualism, I am not hoping to convince anyone that we have a soul, much less that God is the cause of the soul.

    I am willing to accept that the "material" (in the Aristotelian sense) cause of our subjective experience is physical. The problem I have is with identifying our subjective experience with the physical. That may seem a distinction without a difference, but it is not.

    Two things are identical, if and only if, they share exactly the same properties. The fact that we can talk intelligibly about an objective cause of our subjective experience means that we understand that they are not identical, in the strict sense. Maybe the issue is that we have too narrow an idea of what "physical" entails. I really don't know. I am not claiming to know. I am trying to explore.

    If we develop a full physical account of the cause of our subjective experience, that still doesn't entail that they are identical. Because, they are not. There is something missing in our account of human consciousness. And if the reply is, "Well, it is physical" that doesn't say much. I am willing to accept that our subjective experience is epiphenomenal, that it arises out of the physical and has properties that do not obtain at the physical level. But that doesn't tell us much, either. It simply says they are necessarily related but don't share exactly the same properties. And, therein lies the issue. There are aspects of human subjective (conscious) experience that are not physical, or if it they are physical then we need to expand what we mean by that and include aspects of reality that are (?)
     
  10. hedrick

    hedrick Senior Veteran Supporter

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    I think you’re ignoring the distinction between matter and processes. It’s also worth looking up the concept of emergence. I believe those are sufficient to form the basis for experience.
     
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  11. public hermit

    public hermit Well-Known Member Supporter

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    I'll do that. Thank you.
     
  12. FrumiousBandersnatch

    FrumiousBandersnatch Well-Known Member

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    I broadly agree - and I think the problem is partly semantic, i.e. what, exactly, do we mean by 'physical'? For example, an object in a video game is the result of causal physical elements and processes, but is it physical in itself? A word that names a physical object may have a variety of different physical representations or implementations but is the word itself physical?

    Are abstractions physical?
     
  13. public hermit

    public hermit Well-Known Member Supporter

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    I agree that the problem may be partly semantic. Interestingly, Galen Strawson just uploaded a paper to academia.edu titled "What does "physical" mean?" I haven't read it yet, but I know that Strawson argues consciousness is a fundamental aspect of physicality, and does so without trying to reduce it to what we usually consider the physical to be. I'm inclined to think that's a step that many don't want to take.
     
  14. hedrick

    hedrick Senior Veteran Supporter

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    I wouldn't consider objects in a video game physical, but I'd say physicalism accounts for them. You might reasonably call it emergent, though I think emergence is a fairly general and abstract description. In the case of computers, we have a more specific concept available, virtual. So I'd call them objects in a virtual world hosted by a computer. But the example is a reasonable starting point for looking at emergence. However there are varying types of emergence, so the analogy will only get you so far.
     
  15. FrumiousBandersnatch

    FrumiousBandersnatch Well-Known Member

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    Thanks for that - I'll see if I can find it. Strawson usually has an interesting take on such things.
     
  16. FrumiousBandersnatch

    FrumiousBandersnatch Well-Known Member

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    Yes, that sounds reasonable. Analogies in this area are often tricky.
     
  17. expos4ever

    expos4ever Well-Known Member

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    I agree. And, at the risk of appearing patronizing, I think it is self-evident that the experience of seeing red cannot be fully explained by a physicalist model. This is because - and here I am stealing from David Chalmers - physicalist explanations are really, at bottom, explanations grounded in principles of structure and function that can be publicly understood and agreed upon. For example, the decay of an atom of uranium is story about how a system evolves from one configuration to another - it is a tale of how the structure of system evolves with time. All of us are on equal footing relative to such explanations - they are "public" in that sense.

    By contrast, if someone kicks me in the testicles there is a definitely something non-public going on. Even though the public can agree to an explanation of what happened based on signals traveling to the brain and triggered neuronal activity, I, and I alone, experience the pain.

    In short, "there is something it is like" (for me, of course), to be kicked in the testicles (again, I steal phrasing from the experts). And this is necessarily private - no one else has even the remotest access to my experience.

    A lot more could be written, but I think it is clear that physicalist explanations do not do any work at all in explaining why certain events in the brain - and I concede that the fact of those events taking place is indeed amenable to a physicalist explanation - are accompanied by subjective experiences: pain, pleasure, sensations of colour, sensations of taste, sensations of sound, etc.

    Note that I am NOT saying we have "souls".

    Agree.
     
  18. Kylie

    Kylie Defeater of Illogic

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    So if physicalism says that all emotional states, thoughts, etc, are just physical states, why can't we say that Mary seeing red for the first time creates a new physical state in her brain that corresponds to understanding what it is like to experience red?

    I'd also say that, with regards to number 4, Mary can see red before she leaves the room, and without the presence of any red object. If she understands everything about red, then she knows how the retinas in her eye will react to being exposed to red light. She can then build a machine which can stimulate individual retinal cells to cause them to fire in a way identical to the way they would fire if they were exposed to red light. Thus, her brain would receive the "red light" signal without her eyes actually being exposed to anything red. That way, she would have an understanding of seeing red even if she had not seen anything red.
     
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  19. public hermit

    public hermit Well-Known Member Supporter

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    I believe Daniel Dennett takes a similar line of argument in that her understanding includes knowing how her retina would react when exposed to something red.
     
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2019
  20. GrowingSmaller

    GrowingSmaller Muslm Humanist

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    I'm an "explanatory dualist" like this guy. Nicholas Maxwell.

    The Mind–Body Problem and Explanatory Dualism | Philosophy | Cambridge Core

    My argument is that any physical explanation is not adequate to account for "consciousness chatter" (c-chatter, or talk about inner life, qualia, mental events and pain etc.)

    The zombie scenario proposes we cant be distinguished from p-zombies, creatures like us in every physical way but without a mind.

    But there is a dilemma. How do they come to describe inner life (i.e. have c-chatter)? For a zombie it would be miraculous or inexplicable to say "I'm on pain" or " I have conscious experiences". Because they don't actually have them, I cant imagine a zombie realistically writing a quality text on conscious experiences.

    OTOH, a purely physical approach - by that same standard - can't account for humans c-chatter. If we were purely physical in terms of describability, then we may as well be zombies, but that's been shown to lead to an absurdity in the last paragraph.

    Therefore we have to posit an inner life to make sense of our c-chatter, but at the expense of physicalism. This ideas origin dates back to my hearing of W Dilthey's distinction between the natural and social sciences. Wilhelm Dilthey - Wikipedia



    I'm not saying were not actually physical - there may be more to the physical than can be observed or described physically in textbooks etc. We just cant say that physical science is adequate at present. We may, it seems, be physical but beyond physicalisms reach...!

    Yet, I still personally believe in some kind of dualism i.e. explanatory dualism.

    As for "mental substance" (is it physical, natural, supernartural, spiritual etc...?) I'm a philosophical agnostic.
     
    Last edited: Jan 3, 2020
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