Strawson, Real Materialism

What exactly are the boundaries around the things we are likely to call physical? Do all material things have mass? But some of the elements of theoretical physics might not have mass. Do they have to take up space, or have determinate spatial location? Again, some theoretical entities lack these as well. Galen Strawson doesn’t provide guidelines for what to regard as being physical or material, but he’s willing to enlarge the boundaries so that consciousness counts as a physical entity.

It’s a bold and somewhat bewildering claim. One of the ways we’re likely to demarcate the physical is by excluding ideas or concepts from it. Ideas and concepts aren’t the same as consciousness, but they seem closely related — you need consciousness to experience ideas and concepts. Thinking of consciousness as physical runs against that line of thought, but why not? My own metaphor for understanding GS’s view is to think of consciousness as the heat generated by an electric blanket. It’s not a very good metaphor, since heat hasn’t seemed unphysical in the way that consciousness has to some, but the metaphor captures the idea that consciousness is something like a physical field generated by active components when they’re functioning in a certain way.

Interesting consequences follow. GS is not a dualist; everything, including consciousness, is physical (it’s just that consciousness can’t be reduced to brain states). (Exception: GS might be a dualist about numbers and concepts, but he doesn’t discuss it in these essays.) Each time a “consciousness field” is generated, it’s a new one — so we’re not necessarily the same numerical person after each dreamless sleep or state of unconsciousness. Similarly, each time I turn on my electric blanket, a new heat field is generated, though it’s very similar to the last one. GS also has a couple of essays against the importance of “narrative” for selves — he’s happily “episodic”, meaning that he feels no deep need for his actions to belong to some over-arching theme or story of his life. He does one thing, moves to another, and doesn’t need to see a continuous thread throughout. Moreover, he argues there is no need for such a continuous thread in order to be ethical.

He’s also a hard determinist. He doesn’t see a lot of value in the compatibilist notion of freedom, and he thinks genuine freedom would be the capacity to be the total cause of one’s actions (a causa sui); but we lack this capacity. He doesn’t think there can be such a thing as ultimate moral responsibility.

What I really like about these essays is GS’s style and approach. He is a bit of an outsider to professional philosophy. That might seem incredible, since he is a professor at Reading, and the son of one of the more important philosophers of the second half of the 20th century (Peter Strawson). But he spent many years outside the discipline, working at the TLS and other places, before finally completing his phil degree. He has read very broadly in many areas (literature, science, Buddhism, psychology), and has read the Great Dead (at least the British early modern Great Dead) with considerable care. He’s very straightforward about his own shortcomings and isn’t afraid to show his own personality. Many of his essays are a dialogue with imagined objectors.

Indeed, as I read the essays, I often felt excited in the way that drew me first to philosophy. It’s fun to kick around cool ideas and see where they land, without fretting so much about what imagined critics might say. Why not think of consciousness as a physical force? Why not suppose that each time I wake up I’m a different “field” than I was when I went to bed? Why not accept that, in the end, no one is ultimately responsible for what they do? Fun ideas to mull over.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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13 Responses to Strawson, Real Materialism

  1. Rob says:

    No wonder that in the keynote address, from which I’m still reeling after several listenings, you heard back in September at the Nietzsche On Mind and Nature conference — and which is now, thankfully, available to the rest of us (note: the video, but not the audio, prematurely cuts off the culminating invocation of Einstein in support of [7, below]) — Strawson remarks “it seems to me in fact that [Nietzsche] has this completely uncanny nose for truth which seems to extend beyond the psychological to the metaphysical, and it’s almost bewildering to me…” (To disabuse himself once and for all of his lingering attachment to his archaic Heideggarian-pomo caricature of Nietzsche, Kleiner would do well to listen to merely the first ten or fifteen minutes.)

    The abstract of presentation:

    Consider ten claims. [1] There is no persisting and unitary self. [2] There is no fundamental (real) distinction between objects on the one hand and their properties on the other. [3] There is no fundamental (real) distinction between the base/categorical properties of things and the dispositional/power properties of things. [4] There is no fundamental (real) distinction between objects or substances on the one hand and processes and events on the other. [5] There is no fundamental (real) distinction between causes and effects. [6] It is incorrect to say that objects
    are ‘governed’ by laws of nature. [7] There is no free will. [8] Determinism is true. [9] Reality is one. [10] The fundamental stuff of reality is suffused with—if it does not consist of—mentality in some form.

    I’ll argue that Nietzsche’s mature position certainly includes [1]-[7], and also [8], properly understood, and probably or very probably [9] and [10]. I take it that [1] and [7] are clearly true, in the sense in which Nietzsche intends them, and I’ll argue that [2]-[6] are also true, and that [8]-[10] are also probably or very probably true. I take the claim that [1]-[10] are either certainly true or probably true to be powerful support for the view that Nietzsche held them.

    By the way, would you happen to have a copy of the handout to which he refers?

    Also, would love to know more about what you make of those “Against Narrativity” and “Episodic Ethics” essays (perhaps my favorite two philo papers of the past decade). Very, very excited about his forthcoming second edition of Freedom and Belief, the first edition of which has some really fine material on the phenomenology of freedom. Curious to see what, in the interim of over two decades, he incorporates of the scholarly reaction to the Basic Argument, his account of the phenomenology (a nice primer on which is his “Bounds of Freedom” in Oxford Handbook of Free Will), and his engagement with Nietzsche.

    Oh, also, related to the narrativity and episodic ethics papers is this short piece Why I have no future.


  2. I wouldn’t argue with the idea that ideas and concepts are physical in some sense. But I don’t see the motivation for propounding a separate ontological category. What work does that do on GS’ view? It’s particularly puzzling given GS’ hard determinism. I can’t figure it out.


  3. Huenemann says:

    Michael – his argument is one shared with Nagel, Chalmers, and Jackson: simply, how could the richness of consciousness arise out of stuff that is fundamentally unconscious? He calls the view that it does “just silly,” a term which for him means that anyone holding the view is guilty of denying what is blazingly obvious. He talks about this silliness at some length, calling it a uniquely unfortunate error in recent philosophical thought, one which no previous age ever dreamed of committing.

    Rob, you continue to amaze me. I think you and I should swap spots for a while, since you could undoubtedly make better use of these materials. I’ll see if I can get a digital version of the handout. I am very glad to discover that you also are excited by Strawson’s ideas. I’ll see if I can work up a post, for general discussion, about the narrativity business. I find it some fresh air being blown into a bunch of fruitless navel gazing. (Is that a gross mixed metaphor? Sorry!)


  4. I have to agree with Charlie, Rob – I don’t think there is a better, more reliable aggregator of cool stuff in philosophy than you are. You make a virtue of Facebook!

    Streaming the Strawson clip kept causing my browser to crash; I’ll have to download it so I can properly assess his argument from silliness…


  5. (But I’m skeptical (of course): There is little doubt that something as rich as intelligence can come from something that is fundamentally unintelligent. (For that matter, there is little doubt that something as baren as unintelligence can come from something that is fundamentally intelligent!))


  6. Rob says:

    Michael, try adding audio podcast feed to your Google Reader:

    (I also wish the Q&As had been included — especially Leiter’s! — and I wonder why Poellner’s isn’t available.)

    I haven’t yet gotten hold of a copy of “Real Materialism”, though I have read several of the essays in it, mainly the more psychological and free will stuff, and also greatly enjoy his stylistic panache. He also just seems to me amazingly good at finding the right words to characterize descriptively elusive aspects of mental experience (e.g. “Mental Ballistics”). The metaphysical stuff, like what you two are exchanging over, is way over my head. I would, though, like to know what sort of ontological status Strawson ascribes to numbers and concepts. Are they, ultimately, just the stuff the are deployed to understand? When we use them are we, ultimately, just facets of the world applied to itself?

    Thanks for the kind words from both of you. I have a pretty good knack for finding stuff that accords with my obsessions, which have strength but not much breadth; and this is probably somewhat aggravated by professional deformation (librarian), not to mention a learning disability which makes me an extremely slow reader; so I have to be very picky about what I choose to read (general rule of thumb: if it isn’t worth reading numerous times, probably not worth reading at all). But being merely a “principle of selection,” as Nietzsche describes it in EH, isn’t enough; Wittgenstein’s chastening point applies: “taste is a refinement of sensibility” which doesn’t do or create anything. Facebook is fairly well suited to me since I typically begin to lose steam after about two sentences.


  7. Mike says:

    Well, I’m certainly convinced I should now attempt to add Rob as a friend in that wasteland called Facebook. Here goes :).

    Also, welcome back Charlie, NZ looks fun.

    The converse of the sort of playful thinking Charlie attributes to Strawson in that last paragraph is what turns me off of a lot of philosophy. I guess I’d characterize it as binary thinking, the kind that frequently utilizes hasty generalizations and false dichotomies in the service of one way of thinking. Exemplified here though I’m not trying to pick on Christian philosophers generally with that statement. As a programmer, you’d think I’d acquired a taste for binary. Not so.


  8. Huenemann says:

    “The fundamental philosophical activity, I think, is a kind of open, investigative dwelling on ideas. It may well make use of formal argument, but it need not, and it is at its heart an essentially looser matter of redescribing things, putting them in other ways, spreading them out descriptively, telling stories that articulate and animate them. … There’s nothing quite like formal argument for missing the philosophical plot.” (GS, Real Materialism, p. 3)

    “I’ve been almost uniformly unsuccessful in submitting papers to journals. … I was in any case lucky to get a job in the UK, where there is no tenure process, near the beginning of my publishing career. This freed me from dependence on the process of learned-journal peer review, a process that probably works reasonably well in knocking out papers below a certain level of basic competence, but seems otherwise close to random.” (ibid, pp. 10-11)


  9. Rob says:

    Great stuff. I’ve also enjoyed some of his book reviews, though I think he’s interestingly wrong in his review of William Ian Miller’s “Humiliation” (LRB, 10/6/94), owing to his particular variety of self-experience. Miller brushes it off in his conversation (over beers) with Tamler Somers in Very Bad Wizards (a book, oddly enough, bracketed by conversations with probably my two favorite living academics).


  10. Rob says:

    Maybe not so off-topic, since in his Nietzsche presentation Strawson favorably invokes Spinoza, but I thought this might be worth sharing anyhow, given your interest in Spinoza and religion:


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