Sunday, January 28, 2007

How can we claim to discover anything about the fundamental structure of the universe?

The Splintered Mind reflections in philosophy of psychology, broadly construed Monday, December 04, 2006 Chalmers on "Modal Rationalism" Eric Schwitzgebel Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of California at Riverside
In my undergraduate/graduate seminar this quarter, we read David Chalmers's influential book, The Conscious Mind, and now we’re reading some of the subsequent criticism and discussion of it, and Chalmers’s replies. A common theme in many replies -- and my sense, too, is that there’s something fishy about reflecting from the armchair about what we can conceive and reaching conclusions on that basis about the fundamental structure of the universe.
Chalmers’s response to this (in Philosophy & Phenomenological Research, 1999, p. 490; see also "Does Conceivability Entail Possibility?") is interesting. He insists -- correctly, I think -- that either you’re doing empirical exploration or you’re engaged in a “rationalist” enterprise centering on ideas such as “consistency, entailment, and ideal conceivability” -- that either you're doing scientific research or you’re exploring our concepts. In particular, he attacks the idea that something might be conceptually possible but still metaphysically impossible: Metaphysics just is about our conceptual space. This is hard for what Chalmers calls “Type B materialists” to swallow: They want to embrace materialism as a “metaphysical” thesis and at the same time allow that it’s conceivable that materialism is false, that it's conceivable (for example) that “zombies” -- beings physically identical to us but with no conscious experience -- exist.
As I said, I’m inclined to agree with Chalmers about this and disagree with the majority of his critics. But I think this only raises even more sharply the fundamental concern that seems to me to be driving them. If Chalmers’s (and all of our) “metaphysics” is just exploration of our concepts, how can we claim to discover anything about the fundamental structure of the universe thereby -- anything about anything other than our concepts? Metaphysics seems then to become a branch of psychology.
Now, actually, I’m quite happy with that, but I’m not sure Chalmers should be, and it isn’t the tenor of The Conscious Mind as I read it. And if materialism is true, then I’d say it’s not -- or shouldn’t be -- construed as a metaphysical thesis at all, but rather as a scientific thesis, a claim only about the “laws of nature”, and not a claim about Kripkean “a posteriori metaphysical necessity” or the like. Labels: , posted by Eric Schwitzgebel @ 8:37 AM

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