Antecedent Physicalism

With the exception of headaches, there is nothing at all about what it is like to have experiences, in and of itself, that would suggest to one that they are states of the brain. Focusing on our experiences and mental states and asking the question of what sort of things they might be is something we may do for the first time in an introductory philosophy class— perhaps reading Descartes' Meditations. It does not seem that we are encountering our own brains' states. But that does not mean that if one is antecedently convinced that mental states are states of the brain, dwelling on what it is like to have experiences should persuade one to give up that view or to deny, as some physicalists think they must, that experiences and their subjective characters have a straightforward and robust existence.

Perhaps it would be better to say "prima facie physicalist" rather than "antecedent physicalist." I do not have in mind a complete dogmatist for whom physicalism is a religious principle, as my reference to Hume's analysis in his Dialogues might suggest. I simply mean someone who is committed to physicalism in the sense that she or he sees some compelling reasons for it and will not give it up without seeing some clear reason to do so. The question for such person is not whether physicalism is the most natural account of the subjective character of experience but whether it offers a possible account. The advocates of the zombie argument, the knowledge argument, and the modal argument say that it does not. The arguments purport to show that there are important aspects of experiences, their subjective characters, that cannot be accommodated by physicalism. If physicalism cannot accommodate the subjective character of experience, one must either give up physicalism or deny the subjective character of experience—and some physicalists have felt compelled to deny the existence of qualia or diminish them in some way (see Dennett 1988; Lewis 1990).

The position of the antecedent physicalist is different. We grant that there are subjective characters—so long as qualia or subjective characters are not defined as nonphysical. Indeed, we insist on the importance of the subjective character of experience. We then construct the best account, or at least a reasonably natural account, of subjective characters on the assumption that they are physical. Then, and only then, do we look at the neo-dualist arguments to see if they point out some inadequacy or hidden contradiction in our account.

In the dialectic of philosophy there are many quite different situations in which one can find oneself. Sometimes one is trying to persuade someone with quite different views and presuppositions that a certain thing is so. In such a case, one must set aside much of what one believes, all the controversial assumptions, and search for a common beginning point.

The situation is quite different when one defends one's own view from a charge of inconsistency, incoherence, or inadequacy. In this case, it makes no sense to jettison your own view, the view whose consistency or adequacy you are defending. You want to rely on the distinctions and concepts that your view provides to counter the criticism, and you have every right to do so.

I view myself as being in the second dialectical situation. Neo-dualists claim that physicalists cannot account for the subjective character of experience and that to attempt to do so leads to incoherence or inconsistency. The best way to reply to these arguments is to work out a physicalist approach to the phenomena in question and then see if the arguments of the neo-dualists show any inadequacies, incoherencies, or inconsistencies in that approach.

So what I will do is put forward a set of views that a physicalist might hold, views that do not, so far as I can see, in any way deny the data of experience. Then I will look at the three arguments and see if there is anything in them that should cause such an antecedently convinced physicalist to abandon her or his doctrine.

Antecedent physicalism is the result of a two-step procedure. First one lists the salient facts about mental states, both psychological and phenomenal, that seem to be the basis for the way we experience these states, recognize them in others, and use them to organize a large part of our lives. This is what I'll call, somewhat hopefully, "common sense." Then one adds the fact (or hypothesis) that these states are physical and accepts the consequences that follow from that assumption.

One thus formulates antecedent physicalism without even a sidelong glance at the arguments of dualists—well, per haps a glance or two is necessary to know what issues to worry about. Then one asks, "Is there any reason I should give up this combination of common sense and physicalism? Is there anything I have left out? Is there any hidden (or not so hidden) contradiction or incoherence in my view?" My basic claim in this book is that the three arguments we consider do not provide such a reason.

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