Thursday, August 28, 2008

Most analytic philosophers don't understand theoretical physics at all; Luckily, present day physics is equally incomprehensible

Post-Panpsychism: Using Strawson to go beyond Strawson
from Zaadz: Anands blog
In a previous blog entry, I explained my admiration for Strawson's target article (pdf) (and followup in the same issue) on panpsychism in the Journal of Consciousness Studies...
The trouble is - and I say this after numerous frustrating conversations with philosophers - most analytic philosophers don't understand theoretical physics at all. Many of them continue to conceive of physics as a kind of a dynamical system - which it is not. Or they have a causal network like description in mind - A caused B which caused C - and this is also not supported by physics. I don't think it is wrong to state outright that most analytic philosophers just don't understand that one of the basic problems in theoretical physics today is the unification of quantum mechanics with general relativity - which in a vast oversimplification can be recast as a problem of how a quantum measure changes without specifying a fixed background spacetime.
In other words, in a completed theory of quantum gravity, you cannot assume spacetime as basic. You have to show how it emerges from something more fundamental.
Contrast this with Strawson who writes "(3) the universe is spatio-temporal in its fundamental nature" to which he attaches a footnote "Note that if temporality goes, i.e. not just spacetime(TM) but temporality in any form, then experience also goes, given that experience requires time. One of the fine consequences of this is that there has never been any suffering. But no theory of reality can be right that has the consequence that there has never been any suffering." Ok, that's obviously a joke, but a very revealing one.
It is obvious (to me at any rate) that Strawson is fighting a battle on two fronts, both of which he could well lose. On the one hand, he champions spacetime as basic and we have already seen that it is highly unlikely that theoretical physics will uphold that position. He also champions experience as basic - and hence the slide from physicalism to panpsychism - but ignores critics like Foucault who do not consider experience (phenomenology) to be basic. Isn't it more likely that we'll beg to understand experience as a physical event wherein one "portion" of the universe separates itself (momentarily) from the rest and the resulting separation causes physical events to happen both at the boundary (behavior) and in the interior (experience)? Surely, this separation act which creates an experience is more fundamental than the experience itself, no?
In any case, given the restrictive first principles assumptions that Strawson stakes out - spacetime as basic etc. - it should be straightforward to go post-panpsychist. The price of admission is a non-reductive physicalism which - face it - is going to be pretty bizarre. It is going to have experience produced by momentary "subjects" separating themselves from everything else which is a far cry from the particles and fields of present day physics. Luckily, present day physics is equally incomprehensible - in terms of a coherent picture - and this should give us the strength we need to complete the physicalist picture by accomodating experience.

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