Critique of Physicalism

Physicalism
“is the philosophical claim that only what is physical is real, where physical means: To be found or inferred by measurement and reason as existing in the world observable by the outer senses (mainly sight, hearing and touch). Physicalism is distinct from physics. Physics is (a) an activity based upon observing the world (by means of the outer senses), theorizing, experimenting and testing and (b) a body of knowledge which consists of truths established by this activity. This essay does not deny the truth of any established proposition of physics. Physicalism, on the other hand, is the ontological position which asserts that only that which is the subject of physics can be held to be real, or in other words, that reality consist only of what can be observed by means of the outer senses or can be shown to exist by the investigations of physicists.”
(Peter Meyer, Physicalism: A False View of the World)

Critique 1: Failure to Account for Consciousness
“A major objection to physicalism is that it cannot explain the existence of consciousness. Since consciousness indisputably exists (as shown by the fact that you are now conscious of reading this) physicalists can only assert that somehow consciousness “emerges” in “sufficiently complex” physical systems from the atoms, subatomic particles and electromagnetic radiation which is all that a physicalist allows to be real. In the words of Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), “Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly complex interconnections of physical entities within the brain.” (Italics in the original.) Physicalists thus label consciousness as an “emergent property” of complex physical systems (they have to italicize “emergent” so as to slip this past one’s critical faculties). But to label it in this way is not to explain how this “emergence” could possibly occur.

Physicalists can talk as much as they like about neural structures, resonant patterns of brain activity and the like, but in fact they have no explanation for the “emergence” of consciousness from “complex interconnections of physical entities within the brain.” This is actually an article of faith, comparable to Christians’ faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. A Christian who understands their faith says, “I have chosen to believe in Jesus resurrected from the dead.” A physicalist also chooses to believe, that consciousness “emerges” from complex networks of neurons, but is usually not aware that they have chosen to believe.

Attempts by physicalists to explain consciousness are actually attempts to explain it away. “Consciousness explained” by a physicalist is really “consciousness denied”. Physicalists must accept the dilemma that either consciousness does not “really” exist or that the existence of consciousness is inexplicable. Neither horn of the dilemma is satisfactory.”
(Peter Meyer, Physicalism: A False View of the World)

Critique 2: Failure to Account for Free Will
“If physicalism is true, then human free will does not exist. Instead, determinism is true. If I am just a physical system, there is nothing in me that has the capacity to freely choose to do something. Material systems, at least large-scale ones, change over time in deterministic fashion according to the initial conditions of the system and the laws of chemistry and physics. A pot of water will reach a certain temperature at a given time in a way determined by the amount of water, the input of heat, and the laws of heat transfer.”
(JP Moreland)

Critique 3: Failure to Account for Moral Obligation and Responsibility
“Now, when it comes to morality, it is hard to make sense of moral obligation and responsibility if determinism is true. They seem to presuppose freedom of the will. If I “ought” to do something, it seems to be necessary to suppose that I can do it. No one would say that I ought to jump to the top of a fifty-floor building and save a baby, or that I ought to stop the American Civil War, because I do not have the ability to do either. If physicalism is true, I do not have any genuine ability to choose my actions.”
(JP Moreland)

Critique 4: Failure to Account for Intentionality
“First, humans must have genuine intentionality; they must be capable of having thoughts and sensory awareness of or about the things they claim to know. For example, one must be able to see or have rational insight into the flow of an argument if one is going to claim that a conclusion follows from a set of premises. We can simply see that if you have: 1) If P, then Q, and, 2) P, therefore, you also have, 3) Q. This requires an awareness of the logical structure of the syllogism itself.

As we saw earlier in this chapter, intentionality is a property of mental states, not physical ones. Thus, this first feature of rationality is incompatible with physicalism . . . . Intentionality is not a physical property.”
(JP Moreland)

Critique 5: Failure to Account for First-Person Perspective
“According to physicalism, there are no irreducible, privileged first-person perspectives. Everything can be exhaustively described in an object language from a third-person perspective. A physicalist description of me would say, “There exists a body at a certain location that is five feet, eight inches tail, weighs 160 pounds,” and so forth. But no amount of third-person descriptions captures my own subjective, first-person acquaintance of my own self in acts of self-awareness. In fact, for any third-person description of me, it would always be an open question as to whether the person described in third-person terms was the same person as I am. I do not know my self because I know some third-person description of a set of mental and physical properties and I also know that a certain person satisfies that description.”
(JP Moreland)

Critique 6: Failure to Account for Personal Identity
“Physicalists . . . have no alternative but to hold that personal identity through change is not absolute. Usually they argue that persons are really ancestral chains of successive, momentary “selves” (called person-stages) that are connected with one another in some way. At each moment a new self exists (since the organism is constantly in flux, gaining new parts and mental experiences and losing old parts and mental experiences), and this self resembles the self prior to and after it.

The relation of resemblance between selves, plus the fact that later selves have the same memories as earlier selves and the body of each self traces a continuous path through space when the whole chain of selves is put together, constitutes a relative sense of identity. At this moment I merely resemble a self that existed a moment ago: My body resembles that body; my memories resemble the memories of that earlier self; my body was reached by the body of the earlier self through a continuous spatial path.

So substance dualists hold to a literal, absolute sense of personal identity, and physicalists . . . hold to a loose, relative sense of personal identity that amounts to a stream of successive selves held together by resemblance between each self in the stream— similarity of memory or brain, similarity of character traits, and/or spatial continuity.”
(JP Moreland)

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