Metaphysics and (lack of) grounding

by Massimo Pigliucci

I must admit to always having had a troubled relationship with metaphysics. My first exposure to it was during my three years of philosophy in high school (in Italy), where the bulk of our exposure to metaphysics came down to the medieval Scholastics (of course, we also studied Aristotle and Descartes, among others). The Scholastics still have a bad reputation in philosophical circles, where the very term “Scholasticism” is a polite synonym for mental masturbation, despite the fact that medieval logicians actually did excellent work (think William of Ockham and Buridan, to name just a couple) [1,2]. As a teenager prone to (intellectual) rebelliousness, though, I couldn’t but reject the Scholastics.

A bit later on, in college, I discovered (logical and empirical) positivism, which dealt yet another blow to my regard, such as it was, for metaphysics. The positivists, (in)famously, applied their verification principle to establish not just whether a given notion was true or false, but even to determine if it made sense or was rather incoherent [3]. Metaphysical concepts (such as that of God) cannot be verified, so they are literally meaningless, not even wrong. I loved it!

Jump a number of years forward, when my interest for philosophy began to rekindle while I was in the midst of my career as a scientist, and there comes David Hume and his famous fork [4]:

“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

Again, such a neat and no nonsense kind of view, and from one of my favorite philosophers! Nonetheless, I tried to keep an open mind about metaphysics as a viable project within modern philosophy by, among other things, reading a book on the subject at least once in a while [5].

Which, of course, soon led to the next blow, delivered by James Ladyman and Don Ross’ difficult but highly rewarding Every Thing Must Go [6]. It proposes a different model for metaphysics, what they call “scientific” or “naturalized” metaphysics. The idea is that metaphysics can not longer be conceived as a search for a priori truths about the world, because the only reliable sources of such truths is (a posteriori) empirical evidence (and therefore science), aided by mathematics and (to a lesser extent) logic. Indeed, Ladyman and Ross tellingly label the standard way of doing metaphysics “neo-Scholasticism” (which they assuredly don’t mean as a compliment), referring to their own approach as neo-positivist in spirit (thus acknowledging both that there was something profoundly wrong with the original positivism, but also that there were valuable insights to be preserved and built upon).

Ladyman and Ross conceive metaphysics as a philosophical project directed at examining how fundamental physics and the so-called “special sciences” (i.e., anything but fundamental physics) hang together, how they can be interpreted as offering a coherent view of the world despite very disparate methods and findings (think, for instance, quantum mechanics vs economic theories).

Again, this very much appeals to the scientist in me, while at the same time maintaining, in modified form, a core component of philosophical inquiry: metaphysics gets to go on as a field, but properly re-conceived (just like, I might add, philosophy, which has constantly reinvented itself over the centuries).

I could stop here, except for the fact that I keep occasionally reading “standard” (i.e., non Ladyman &  Ross style) metaphysical papers or books, and going to standard metaphysical talks, such as one I attended a few days ago at CUNY’s Graduate Center, delivered by Rutgers University’s Jonathan Schaffer [7], and entitled “The Ground between the Gaps.”

Schaffer has been thinking (for about a decade, according to his own recalling) about “grounding,” a relatively new concept that has gotten metaphysicians (or, according to some, metaphysicists) all excited [8]. I have tried and failed to understand grounding for a while now, and specifically how it differs, if at all, from causality. Relatedly, I have tried, and again failed, to understand the idea of metaphysical truths (or necessities) as distinct from either nomological (law based, from science) or logical ones [9]. These are precisely the two topics that Schaffer’s talk set out to clarify, so I eagerly, if somewhat skeptically, seated myself in the first row and took notes. As it turns out, my skepticism was justified.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Schaffer began by reminding his audience of the “explanatory gap” between the physical and the phenomenal: we just don’t understand (yet) how masses of cells interconnected in certain ways inside our brains generate “the feeling of what happens,” to put it as philosophically savvy neuroscientist Antonio Damasio once did [10].

Notoriously, there are two major ways to understand the gap: one is to say that phenomenal consciousness is somehow the result of brain activity, but we haven’t figured out how, as of this writing; another is to say that no matter how much we are going to learn about the brain, there is an unbridgeable divide between physicality and consciousness. I have no problem at all with the first way of looking at things, and I refer to the second one as the Chalmers delusion, after notorious “philosophical zombies” guy David Chalmers [11].

Schaffer seemed to buy into Chalmers-type explanatory gaps, and indeed claimed that they are not limited to phenomenal consciousness, but are rather all over the place. Even supposedly uncontroversial cases of reduction, such as from chemical to physical theory, are metaphysically problematic, they are not “transparent,” to use Schaffer’s terminology, and they therefore require some sort of “opaque” metaphysical bridging principle to account for them.

Now, typically the metaphysical concept invoked in these cases is that of supervenience [12], where the relations between lower and higher level phenomena is such that no change in the latter can occur without some (to be specified) change in the former. For instance, consider the money I have in my pocket at this moment: at a lower level of analysis, it consists (say) of two 25-cent coins, one 1-dollar bill, and two 20-dollar bills; at a higher level of analysis I have a total of $41.50 in my pocket, regardless of the “mechanistic” details. The higher level description obviously has a one-to-many relation to the lower level one, since I could have, say, six 25-cent coins, no 1-dollar bills, and two 20-dollar bills. This would still amount to a total of $41.50, but the makeup of the phenomenon at the lower level would be different in the two cases. The relation of supervenience says that no matter how the total is instantiated in terms of coins and bills, the only way to change the total value of $41.50 is to alter the composition of the system at the lower level. Another way to say this is that the total is (very, in this toy example) weakly emergent from the ensemble of the lower level constituents.

The problem is, according to Chalmers and others, that you can’t get phenomenal experience from neurobiology this way, some more robust metaphysical relation is needed. Which is why Chalmers invokes dualism and Schaffer calls on grounding. I think Schaffer’s approach is more sensible than Chalmers’ (unless one is a radical reductionist [13], which I am not), so let’s see where he goes with it.

Schaffer’s next move was to explain that grounding plays in metaphysics the same role that causality plays in science: just like physical phenomena are caused by other physical phenomena, metaphysical concepts or principles are grounded (i.e., explained, accounted for) by more basic metaphysical concepts or phenomena [14].

Now, how would we know whether an attempt at physicalist reduction is bound to fail (as opposed to simply having failed so far), indicating the need for grounding? Schaffer here gave the same (disappointing) answer that Chalmers is infamous for: conceivability. If it is conceivable, say, that there could be a being that is made exactly like me, atom per atom, and who however doesn’t experience any phenomenal consciousness, then this is sufficient to show a lacuna in physicalism. The difference between Chalmers and Schaffer, again, appears to be in how they seek to fill such a lacuna.

But I reject the very idea that conceivability is a reliable guide to metaphysics at all. It is too vague a concept, too flexible, and too prone to error. I’m sure someone out there can conceive of squaring the circle, for instance, and yet we know that’s a fantasy [because π turns out to be a transcendental number: 15]. My response to the p-zombie argument [9,11] is simply that they are logically possible (only because logic imposes very loose constraints on reality) and physically impossible. I don’t recognize an intermediate category of metaphysical possibilities as distinct from the other two.

Still, let’s continue with Schaffer’s entertaining and enlightening (about the status of classical metaphysics) talk. At this point he made an interesting move: following up on his analogy between grounding and causality, he proposed that we could deploy the metaphysical equivalent of structural equation modeling (SEM) [16].

SEM is a very highly developed set of statistical techniques, especially useful in biology and the social sciences, which allows us to test causal models against empirical observations. It works by constructing alternative “path diagrams” [17] specifying different possible causal relations among a given set of variables, some of which may even be unobservable directly (so called “latent” variables, like fitness in evolutionary biology, or intelligence in psychometrics). One then extracts covariances among empirically observed variables and uses them to test a set of alternative causal models, hopefully pruning a number of them from the realm of viable possibilities. SEM, incidentally, is also the technique that shows why, contra popular opinion, one can — under certain specific circumstances — infer causation from correlation [18].

What does all of this have to do with metaphysics? Schaffer suggests that any time we are faced with a problem of reduction such as that of chemical to physical theory, or of psychology to biology, we can build a SEM-type model where the causal relations among variables are replaced by different types of grounding relations (yeah, this is a bit fuzzy, but it gets very technical very quickly, though to his credit Schaffer did provide a couple of examples, mostly having to do with mereology [19]).

The (big) problem is that I don’t think the analogy is going to work, at all. You see, actual SEM is based on two components: on the one hand the causal model(s) to be tested; on the other hand the actual variance-covariance matrices summarizing the observations and telling us how the variables are statistically related to each other. Assuming that Schaffer can get a bit less fuzzy about how exactly he is going to replace causal links with grounding relations (I’m doubtful he can), he’s still faced with the fact that he has no “data” to “test” his models.

I actually asked him about this specific point in the q&a following the talk, and he made some gestures toward “counterfactual covariation,” meaning, I assume, that one could generate “data” from thinking about how two variables are related across possible worlds (using modal logic [20]). But this won’t do. Besides the fact that Schaffer would have to get other metaphysicians to agree that his particular way of generating counterfactual covariation is acceptable (good luck with that!), he would still be left, in my opinion, with nothing like SEM-style variance-covariance matrices, and therefore with no way to actually carry the analysis through, except by handwaving. Which metaphysicians can do even now, with no need to invoke either SEM or possible worlds (well, actually a good number of them do invoke the latter).

I also asked Schaffer a second question during the q&a: could he please provide me with just one convincing example (by which I mean nothing to do with theology) of metaphysical necessity? He couldn’t. He tried, of course, but all he could come up with was to outline a way, using his approach, in which such an outcome could be arrived at. Which wasn’t what I asked. If even one of the leading metaphysicians who has thought long and hard about grounding cannot answer a simple direct question like that one, I’m afraid my skepticism about the current status of standard (as opposed to “naturalized”) metaphysics still appears more than justified. Hume docet.


Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] William of Ockham, SEP entry.

[2] John Buridan, SEP entry.

[3] Logical Empiricism, SEP entry.

[4] An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, by D. Hume, Wiki entry.

[5] For instance: What is this thing called Metaphysics?, by B. Garrett.

[6] Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized, by J. Ladyman and D. Ross.

[7] Jonathan Schaffer’s philosophy page.

[8] Metaphysical Grounding, SEP entry.

[9] p-zombies are inconceivable. With notes on the idea of metaphysical possibility, by M. Pigliucci, Scientia Salon, 4 August 2014.

[10] The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, by A. Damasio, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.

[11] What Hard Problem?, by M. Pigliucci, Philosophy Now, issue 99, 2013.

[12] Supervenience, SEP entry.

[13] Reductionism, IEP entry.

[14] A full paper by Schaffer on grounding as analogous to causality is: Grounding in the Image of Causation, final pre-publication draft; to appear in Philosophical Studies.

[15] Squaring the circle, Wiki entry.

[16] Structural equation modeling, Wiki entry.

[17] Though technically path analysis is a subset of SEM: Path analysis, Wiki entry.

[18] See the excellent Cause and Correlation in Biology: A User’s Guide to Path Analysis, Structural Equations and Causal Inference, by B. Shipley.

[19] Mereology, SEP entry.

[20] Possible Worlds, SEP entry.

103 thoughts on “Metaphysics and (lack of) grounding

  1. Hi Massimo,

    > I’m willing to engage in one more round, no more.

    Which makes it all the more frustrating that you frequently miss the point of my comments. This is a rare opportunity so it’s disappointing when you misinterpret the questions.

    > The freaking laws of physics are not *logically* entailed by the physical facts

    This is a baffling statement.

    The laws of physics are *among* the physical facts of the universe. They are amenable to empirical study, for instance. To suggest that the physical universe could be just the same as it is but that the laws of physics could be different seems to me to be rather strange.

    > and therefore irrelevant to understanding the mind, which is something very much of this world.

    The mind is something of this world, yes. It does not follow that logical possibility is irrelevant, as I will show:

    (Since this is the last round — please try to pay attention and engage with the following argument.)

    Chalmers asks “Is it logically possible for a being to be physically the same as a conscious human but to be without phenomenal experience?”.

    Take for example a question of exactly the same form: “Is it logically possible for an electron to be physically just the same as an electron in our world, but for it to be massless?”

    No! Because if it were physically just the same it couldn’t be massless! Mass is one of its physical properties, with implications for how it interacts with other physical properties.

    If you accept that it is logically possible for an electron to be physically just the same but massless, then you are tacitly claiming that mass is not a physical property. The same reasoning goes for the p-zombie argument, and that’s why I reject the premise that p-zombies are logically possible.

    You’re dismissing the basis of the whole argument without paying heed to the logical structure of it. I can only hope the electron analogy makes this a little clearer.

    > Once more: no. You are *assuming* functionalism

    No I’m not. This is an example of one of those frustrating misinterpretations I’m talking about. I gave *two* horns of the dilemma and you’re focusing on the functionalist one. The non-functionalist one is to deny functionalism, and so deny that the Turing machine is conscious, but to accept the Hard Problem.

    Acceptance of the Hard Problem and denial of functionalism are essentially the same thing, or at least I fail to see the distinction. If the Hard Problem is not “what is it that makes us conscious if not our functional properties?” then what do you think it is supposed to be?

    > No. I really think you (and DM) do not understand Searle,

    OK, but out of interest do you also think Dennett and Perlis and Block and Chalmers and the Churchlands and so on also do not understand Searle? Because they make the same points I do (I’m inclined to agree Coel’s interpretation is a more superficial — sorry Coel!)


  2. I’m just going to address one point: “My response to the p-zombie argument is simply that they are logically possible (only because logic imposes very loose constraints on reality) and physically impossible.”

    There is an argument that p-zombies are both logically and physically possible, but are ruled out by Occam’s Razor. The argument is that by definition there is no empirical observation whatsoever that could distinguish a p-zombie from a fully conscious person. Therefore p-zombies are not necessary to explain any observable fact, and run afoul of Occam’s principle: “One must not multiply entities beyond necessity.” Occam’s principle is not a logical or physical fact, it is a methodological rule we must follow to avoid wasting our time on ideas that have no empirical consequences.

    There is, to be sure, a counterargument. A believer in p-zombies might say, “They don’t violate Occam’s Razor. It’s true that nobody else can tell whether I am a zombie, but I myself can tell, because I can observe my own experiences and see that they are genuine. Therefore even though I can’t provide any evidence to anybody else, I can at least provide evidence to myself.” I personally don’t believe that counterargument is valid, but I see its status as the central issue in the zombie problem.


  3. @Robin

    There is no sort of physical contradiction involved in the neural processes associated with a feeling of nausea [snip] working just as they do but for there to be no actual feeling of nausea.

    Would there be a physical contradiction involved in the pathological processes associated with cancer working just as they do but for there to be no actual cancer?

    If you are saying to yourself that that’s a bad analogy, then the reasons why you think so get at the heart of your intuitions about qualia. And of course, the reasons why I think it’s an apt analogy get at the heart of my intuitions about qualia. In either case, the p-zombie thought experiment is a lot of window dressing around that basic intuition.

    The response I hear most often is that it’s a bad analogy because there’s nothing more to cancer beyond the pathological (physical) processes, whereas the same thing is not true for nausea (or consciousness). But those who claim that there’s something more haven’t shown what that is any more than those who claim that there isn’t have shown the mechanisms by which qualia manifests — at least not as well as they’ve done for things like cancer.

    To “turn the knobs” (as Dennett says) somewhere between nausea and cancer, fill in the blanks with something like bipolar disorder.


  4. SciSal: “mathematicians would say that theorem proofs, or anything else they do, are independent of the physical substrate that happens to be used in pursuing them”

    I would say perhaps independent of a particular substrate, but not from all physical substrates (even if it’s just in a human brain).

    And in the case of biological (domain-specific) programming for synthetic biology, the particular substrate does matter.


  5. The logical positivists say that metaphysics is meaningless in the sense that such statements provide no logical or empirical way to determine a truth value. In brief, a statement’s meaning is true or false.

    Whether or not you subscribe to logical positivism, metaphysical statements are meaningless in this sense.


  6. A quote from yaryar clarifies the point I was making;

    “Certainly there are many, many scientific questions that can be explored that touch on metaphysical concerns (e.g. how does human biology influence the construction of human conceptual spaces and human realities?), but ultimately metaphysics is all about how we end up organising, connecting, and interpreting the physical sensory data that is pumped into our brains — and while some ways of categorising and organising can be more or less useful depending on particular teloi, there’s ultimately no right or wrong way of doing it. External actuality very well might be, but we’re always going to be stuck in human reality, created similarly yet differently by each of our similar but different two pound brains.”

    Each of us necessarily views all of reality as it is filtered through our own senses and consciousness. As such, this point of focus is our top down view of reality, since anything we cannot see or conceive is outside this frame. Now most of us realize that while we are the center of our particular universe, we do not appear to be the center of the larger universe and so we try to develop some larger frame, often as a collective effort, which will serve the same function on a more objective level. In past times, religion and various ideologies served this function. Such as “God did it all.” Or “The party is all.” Etc.
    Now there are various other frames we try to use. The mathematical universe hypothesis would be a good example, in that everything is ultimately math, since everything must have order to exist. Paul presents a reasonable argument for using language in general, for similar reasons, in that all we can really understand of reality is what can be given voice. Reasonable because it recognizes that our sense of consciousness is that ultimate filter and it can only catch those ideas for which it has terms to understand them. A recent internet debate over the color of a dress and how different cultures frame colors is proof.
    Yet the scientific argument rings through this fact, that there must be some ontological reality beyond our sense of consciousness and we can only understand it by studying it objectively. Thus reality must be the sum of all these factors we objectively study and measure. Obviously there is a great deal of validity to this approach as well.
    Which gets back to the point that top down, i.e., all the parts are components of some larger whole(even if it is just our individual awareness) and bottom up, that the whole is simply the sum of its parts, are not mirror images of one another.
    The top down view sees reality as one unit, while the bottom up view sees everything as connected and thus unified, but one and a state of oneness are not the same thing. A node is one, while a network is connected.
    So when we try to connect everything from the bottom up view, we wander off into infinity, while when we try viewing everything through one particular frame/lens, it gets quite distorted. Think fisheye lens.
    There is no one universal frame, but it is only by framing information that it is information.

    The frame, the top down view, is the metaphysical.


  7. @Massimo

    “Sounds like the sort of naturalized metaphysics proposed by Ladyman and Ross.”

    I brought up that example to show how science can inform the study of metaphysics. But I certainly don’t think that other metaphysical inquiries not informed by science (or less informed by science) are any less legitimate. For example, we could inquire about human rights, what makes a chair a chair, or even about nirvana or God! Now, you may or may not find those studies useful to you, but they aren’t worthless or useless at all to the person whose brain sees in those categories and uses them to shape and synthesise his reality.

    “But should we not try to do it better?”

    Well, I think most people would agree that pursuing excellence in any practise according to the goods internal to that practise is a virtuous thing. The problem (and it’s not really a problem unless we have internalised positivist values!) is that ‘better’ cannot be an objective judgment and that we cannot expect absolute resolutions to these sorts of inquiries. If we can jointly agree on a common standard, then that developed intersubjectivity allows us to start corresponding again. But if not, the necessarily comparative language of ‘better’ just evaporates into the ether.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. SciSal wrote:

    Nobody needs permission to do metaphysics, or to pursue whatever other kind of academic endeavor, and certainly not by me. But I find this sort of statement puzzling and overly defensive: do *I* need some sort of permission in order to criticize some of my colleagues? Do I need a special license to put forth my personal opinion that Thomism is best left to the *history* of philosophy, rather than its current practice?


    Not sure where you got the idea that I was suggesting that one needs a special license to criticize colleagues’ work or an entire area of inquiry. It *would* seem that your description of metaphysics and talk about what would be “permitted” if inquiry were done “correctly” suggests that universities like Oxford, St. Andrews and Baylor are mistaken in hiring people to teach and do research in these areas. And, I guess, that’s just not the sort of statement I’m inclined to make or imply.

    It’s also somewhat unresponsive to the point I made in my second post — namely, that I’m actually *glad* that people like MacIntyre and Haldane are doing the work that they do, because I’ve learned a lot from it, even if I don’t think some of it is true. So, no, I don’t wish that their subjects were “left to the history of philosophy.”


    Should we apply that, Feyerabend style, also to creationism and astrology?


    This strikes me as disappointingly glib — although I know you cannot give really substantial answers to everything that’s thrown at you in a forum like this. I made what I thought was a serious point about why I find the reading of theology valuable, even though I am an atheist, and why I find reading the work of people like Katz and other Platonists valuable, even though I am inclined to be skeptical of the existence of abstract entities. Throwing out creationism and astrology seems a bit cheap. Do you really think there is no difference between finding Martin Buber’s work valuable and visiting some 5 dollar palm reader?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Dear Massimo: Thanks for telling me that you did not intent to make a broadside against Metaphysics. I am relieved.

    Metaphysics is a logical necessity, that’s the paradox that escapes all too many a “positivist”.

    The Common Jihadist is vaguely aware of this and the basic reasoning supporting Metaphysics. By excluding the very possibility of Metaphysics, pseudo-ultra-positivists weaken the case of reason and positivism to the point that Common Jihadists themselves cannot take them seriously anymore.

    Anyway finding grounds for Metaphysics, any Metaphysics, even Common Jihadism, is easy: one has just to inspect where they came from, most of the time.

    All and any Metaphysics is grounded in experience (yes, just like science), and, in particular, tradition (several commenters have pointed this out previously, as I already said).

    One type of experiment that rules is the Thought Experiment. It rules especially outside of physics, and, more generally, science.

    In a way that is what Euclid was all about. Thought Experiments are intrinsically Meta-physical. It turned out that a lot of Euclid was not just Metaphysical, but also outright Meta-logical, as the conclusions could not be deduced from his axioms.

    Euclid was poorly grounded. So was arithmetic. Even recently. The so-called Archimedean axiom, fundamental to basic arithmetic, was discovered by Model Theorists only around 1950 (and I think at least one more important axiomatic-logical gap has not been detected yet).

    So, in a sense, analytical Metaphysics exists, and grounded Metaphysics always is, so what are these fashionistas of “grounding”.

    “Transparency” is achieved when we have clear axioms. However, it’s clearly not the case of mathematics, where it should be the easiest. Hence, to achieve “transparency”, instead of calmly exploring, with Thought Experiments, all the axioms we need (as done in basic math, or physics), which leads nowhere, (meta-) experience shows, it’s better to IMPOSE the axioms… For those who have, and want to keep, simple minds.

    Then just one axiom such as: “There is no God, but God, and Blabla is His Prophet” is perfectly transparent (once one has added another 83,000 words of various supplementary axioms… to start with).

    Hence the calling for superstition is fundamentally logical, especially for those who obsess with making economies of thinking.

    And it is grounded in economics (brain economics).

    Liked by 1 person

  10. schlafly,

    It’s odd to say ‘logical positivists say’ because, quite sensibly, there are none and there is no question of ‘whether or not you subscribe to logical positivism’ because of this.

    What the logical positivists did say (very roughly) was that no (putatively) factual statement is meaningful unless its significance can be cashed out in observational terms. This claim is philosophically dead and buried even if it might be useful as a fiction for practicing scientists who don’t try talking about philosophy.

    It would be super to have some workable non-self-defeating equivalent of verificationism in order to dismiss whole areas of supposedly fact-stating discourse (here theology springs to my mind as metaphysics may to those of others) as meaningless but, sadly, we just don’t have any simple way of distinguishing sense from nonsense. All we really have is pragmatism – we know, or should know, theology just isn’t a game worth playing. And, perhaps, the same can be shown of metaphysics. But bringing up that an area of discourse is meaningless by the standards of logical positivism gets us precisely nowhere on that particular journey.


  11. All, this just in from Jonathan Schaffer, in an email to me:

    “I enjoyed reading your description of the talk, and thought it was largely fair and accurate, even if I did not quite agree with the concluding bit that I was unable to give an example. In my memory—no doubt yours is different—we had about twenty seconds to address your second question, and so I quickly gestured to the principles of mereological composition as an example of what I had in mind, and then Graham [Priest] cut off further discussion.

    On a larger point, I can see why you consider what I’m doing to be “standard issue” metaphysics, though in my own mind I’m not at all doing the kind of empirically uninformed work that people like Ladyman & Ross condemn! Indeed one of my underlying motivations—which I only mentioned in passing during the course of the talk—is to make the explanatory world safe for holistic interpretations of quantum mechanics, which I have written in most recently in collaboration with Jenann Ismael. So, at least in my own mind, I’m doing empirically guided metaphysics of the enlightened kind! Though no doubt there are different conceptions of what that might consist in.”


  12. It’s also somewhat unresponsive to the point I made in my second post — namely, that I’m actually *glad* that people like MacIntyre and Haldane are doing the work that they do, because I’ve learned a lot from it, even if I don’t think some of it is true.

    This is how I feel about Cognitive Science and functionalism. So I hope we keep paying those people to do their work, even if some people find it to be wrong and/or pointless.


  13. Sci Sal

    .“The only reason physics has not understood what I have written is beacuse it has not obviated the Uncertainty Principle as I have done. Why?”

    You really need to ask that to professional physicists, I am content to rely on their judgment when it comes to these matters.,

    Firstly, as a matter of logic, you are going to have hard time finding anywhere where physics has even considered the argument I have put, so it is a real obstacle to say you are the type to just accept their “judgment”. Fundamentally, and readers should never foregt this point, judgments are challenged, continually, never blindly accepted. It reads as outright conformity and lets say – loyalty – despite the significance of the issue. It is a significant issue that you “appear” to understand, ot not? Not worth considering for an actual reply beyond passing the buck blindly, in faith, to a physicsit?

    Its esy to understand and it is fundamental, nothing to do with jargon, real stuff for people to now. Momentum defined by a passage between points and instants, not at points and instants, which is a freeze frame.. The fact that momentum becomes metaphysics logically follows from being unmeasurable, unfalsifiable, and prone to abstract interpretations about what is in the gap. This is not slippery logic or jargon, it is plain logic and easily understood facts. I can only assume you are saying this is a rather useless issue I can sort out with an expert, whose opinion will do.. Doesn’t seem like a logical reply, based on my specific points, with none whatsoever, no points at all, in reply.

    The point of this site as I understand it is to open issues to the wider public, not close them behind conformity to “judgments” (if they exist) without continually challenging them. How can they be challenged if you just conform to their “judgment”? So, it follows that outright conformity is contrary to progress. Interesting and revealing reply, but I would definitely oppose it entirely, and say to readers, please do challenge every physics issue you can find that puzzles you after some long reflection – not frivilous, only after reflection. Sci Sal, it would have been better to at least say “when you get their judgment come back here so we can challenge it, because you have revealed something interesting there” – but that was not your reply, your reply was outright blind conformity. In the context of what I have written here, why?


  14. Jonathan Schaffer

    >On a larger point, I can see why you consider what I’m doing to be “standard issue” metaphysics, though in my own mind I’m not at all doing the kind of empirically uninformed work that people like Ladyman & Ross condemn! Indeed one of my underlying motivations—which I only mentioned in passing during the course of the talk—is to make the explanatory world safe for holistic interpretations of quantum mechanics, which I have written in most recently in collaboration with Jenann Ismael. So, at least in my own mind, I’m doing empirically guided metaphysics of the enlightened kind! Though no doubt there are different conceptions of what that might consist in.”<

    Have a read of my posts and take them to the bank, but achknowledge me and this site, where you read it. You have your answer for Q.M. right there, you could write a whole book on the subject of the "lost point to the U.P. and the arrival of mataphysics". Anyway, there is more to the story, so make sure you read the link. You cannot "really" have Q.M. without a void, or at least a space and period between points for momentum, assuming "physical" momentum "might" require a void as a medium to avoid interruption to momentum. The good old Newtonian void, also unfalsifiable.


  15. Hi SciSal,

    Tu quoque on the “whatever simulations tell us is the real”

    Me or them? In either case I am not sure what would make you think so.

    But it does raise an interesting point. Suppose we have such a simulation, neural architecture and enough biological and environmental context to provide realistic sense data and the simulation speaks to us, is the language real or simulated? I am not sure there can be a distinction.

    If we ask the simulation “What is 1 + 1?” and the simulation answers “2” then it would be meaningless to say that it was a simulated answer to “1 + 1”

    On the other hand, if the simulation talks about feelings of nausea, pain, what a peach tastes like and it has none of these conscious states then what is it talking about?

    If we were to suggest to it that it is not conscious it would treat this suggestion as an absurdity and yet it would not be conscious (assuming Computationalism is not true).

    So can we say that it was just simulated language and was not about anything. But that the same responses from a flesh and blood person were real language and about something?

    I’m going to bet my money against Koch, particularly because I have a relatively low opinion of both Crick (qua neuroscientist) and Tegmark’s mathematical fantasies.

    Me too, especially given the implication that a square grid of XOR gates must be conscious.

    But that makes no difference, the theory is in play due to the “bona fide funding” organisation rule from Ladyman and Ross, so zombies are in.

    It’s not my fault if science is getting ready to jump the shark.(cast, wind, wind)

    Hi Disagreeable Me,

    Take for example a question of exactly the same form: “Is it logically possible for an electron to be physically just the same as an electron in our world, but for it to be massless?”

    That is not an analogous situation. Changing an electron to have no mass is a change to the physics and the behaviour of the electron. In a P-zombie there is no change at all to the physics of the body and therefore no change to the behaviour. It behaves the way that the laws of physics predict that it will, including having all the language about consciousness that we have, but it wouldn’t be conscious. There is no contradiction there at all and so it is logically possible. Physically possible in fact, if Sean Carroll is right that the physics of the everyday world are completely understood..


  16. Asher Kay wrote:

    This is how I feel about Cognitive Science and functionalism. So I hope we keep paying those people to do their work, even if some people find it to be wrong and/or pointless.


    It’s a fair point, and if I have written things that suggest they should be de-funded or shut down, I was wrong in doing so.

    My claim that functionalism is a largely dead-letter in the philosophy of mind was meant as a factual one, not as some sort of prescription. Most of those who pioneered the program and who were its strongest advocates have abandoned it, because it was susceptible to so many overwhelming objections, of which the Chinese Room was only one. (I actually think the problem that Block calls “the liberalism/chauvinism problem” is one of the worst problems it faces.)

    It is an interesting question as to when a research program or area of study should be abandoned and people should no longer be hired to engage in it — when, as Massimo put it, a subject should be “left to the history of philosophy” or, more generally, the history of ideas — and I am not sure that it is possible to come up with a set of precise criteria. Hence my point to him re: Martin Buber vs. Astrology. This wouldn’t be a particularly pressing problem, but for the fact that university budgets are a zero-sum game and especially so, today, which I guess is why we’re hearing more and more of this talk nowadays and see more and more of us turning on each other. It is tremendously unfortunate — we have money to fund outrageous wars and North Korea style policing, but not to fund the study of theology or metaphysics — but it is the reality in which we live.

    Might make for a good Scientia Salon topic. When should a field of study or research program be abandoned, de-funded, and its personnel let go?

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Just in answer to all the other posts following the interesting line of metaphysics applied to the experience of consciousness itself, it falls in line behind physics and all “science” with the definition of metaphysics as unfalsifiable or unmeasurable “by definition”. Now, saying “by definition” is important, beacuse the logic of the theory must acknowledge its own limitations and must frame itself correctly in relation to its unfalsifiable aspects, which should be as absolutely few as possible.
    So, the subjective experience is personal, not shared, and a “fact” simply because it is experienced by me or you and we would call it that (generally). It is unfalsifiable and metaphysical, conclusively so, because even the individual who experiences it alone cannot explain it in scientific terms. Its unfalsifiability rests on the inability to securely confirm the experience linked to scientifically described events – adequately for such experiences. You may say that can be done one day, by building a “truly human-equivalent conscious machine”, but that how can a truly human machine be anything other than locked into truly human experiences with truly human isolation from others and so on. We might be able to “causally” track the mechanism as it is happening, if we get the formalisms right, without affecting the basic experience for the machine, but that kind of experiment has impediments other than the need for a Laplacian “mister wizard” machine for a both “shared” and “monitored” experience , based solely on logic.
    Going back to my point about measurement being at action-reaction point-instants, and not “in flight” as momentum – always. How can the sharing observers, or anyone, be simultaneously aware and aware of how their own awareness is being created. It is simply the old infinite regression applied to block ultimate proof. No experimenter could look at himself in a shared setting with monitors while experiencing the very event of looking – there is a “need” for temporal and spatial gap no less that for measurement of momentum, for the individual to look back, check 1, 2, look back, at what produced that moment of looking .
    In fact, this is all built into our neural system. As I explained in previous threads, you are an automaton at every ,moment. You do not experience self-stimulation or stimulation from a world when they are happening, it requires central processing in a brain and a brief delay before you do. Consistently, obviously, that problem will apply as an absolute lock-out for any individual, even without an elaborate Lapacian machine and experiment, who just wants to know themselves- infinite regression reaches a real impasse because events precede events, and logically you cannot know yourself at the instant you are yourself, because you are created by a logical mechanism that requires delay, like all mechanisms. Infinite regression is just the logical limit to finding a point-instants of reliable sequential causal events for the experience, which cannot be done, we can only have it to “a gap” exactly like momentum, unfalsifiable. Take it to the bank, but acknowledge this comment and site.


  18. Hi Asher,

    Would there be a physical contradiction involved in the pathological processes associated with cancer working just as they do but for there to be no actual cancer?

    Do you mean someone who is molecule-for-molecule identical to a person with cancer and does not have cancer? In what way do they differ, apart from simply saying of one “He has cancer” and of the other “He doesn’t have cancer”? That is not a difference in them, that is a difference in your characterisation of them.

    If they do not differ in any sense apart from the fact that you say “He has cancer” and “He does not” then that is clearly a contradiction – both will clearly satisfy any definition we have of cancer. So, someone who satisfies every definition we have of cancer and does not have cancer. How is that not a contradiction?

    Your example is like saying “I have two objects which are identical in every respect but I call one Fred and the other Doris”.

    The P-Zombie, on the other hand I can clearly state how they differ. Just think of the conscious experience you have right now as an example – they don’t have that, they don’t have any conscious experience at all.

    It is not a contradiction on any known physics at all to say that a person without any conscious experience could be molecule for molecule behaviourally identical to a person with conscious experience. That is the point of the whole argument.

    That distinction does not depend in the least upon intuition.

    If you want to find an analogy then you need to posit two objects which are identical in terms of the physics and where the behaviour is identical in terms of the physics but where you can posit a difference in attributes without there being a contradiction or that it is simply you arbitrarily applying a word to one and not to the other..


  19. According to physicalism, all that exists in our world (including consciousness) is physical. But what else could it be? By definition of physis, nature is all there is. Even the god(s) would be part of nature, should they exist. (A problem long considered that made the existence of god unlikely, by the way; or then “god” was another word for nature, physis…. Let a million Jihadists faint.)

    Jealousy is part of nature. So is hope.

    All this “physicalism” sounded scary and unlikely, even ridiculous, as long as the world was viewed as made of tiny billiard balls. How could small balls, predictably colliding, do it all? What happened to Free Will? Was god himself deprived of Freedom, let alone Will?

    Tempers flared.

    However, a Quantum peace has come all over. The world is made of Entangled Quantum Waves, and no one knows what this entanglement exactly is, if it has a range, if it collapses. Nor does anyone knows how these Quantum Waves really behave in all imaginable cases, nor how they achieve their non-locality, whether they collapse, why and how if they do (extremely practical considerations for making a Quantum Computer).

    Nobody has any idea what these waves are made of. Space? Mind? Even time seems to be sitting on the sidelines.

    In other words, by going from Classical mechanics to Quantum Physics, our view of nature went from certain, and certainly silly, to certainly very mysterious, full of baffling possibilities, and nearly as baffling as consciousness itself.

    Quantum Waves can be proven to exist experimentally, with the correct philosophical perspective, without reducing just to Bohmian, or Born(an?) waves. So they can be demonstrated just a bit better than consciousness itself (especially in academic zombies).

    A number of physicists, confronted by the sudden possibilities imagination was overwhelmed with, got over-stimulated, and fell victim of a collective mania, the Multiverse Derangement Syndrome. However, it’s somewhat also deranged to consider nature, and consciousness, while trying to go around the elephant in the bathroom, Quantum Physics, as if it did not exist.

    This is what all too many thinkers are apparently doing.

    In Quantum Physics as we have it, PARTICULAR aspects (when particles show-up) are an epiphenomenon (that’s why, in particular, the definition of a “particle” is not too clear). All the machinery that leads to the particular is wavy, not to say fuzzy. How much? That’s what both Quantum Computer engineers and fundamental physicists such as Haroche are trying to determine. It’s both hard physics, and hard philosophy.

    Those who are interested by “grounding” our fundamental views cannot ignore it. But, should they do so, they will look deliberately incomplete.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. @Robin

    Do you mean someone who is molecule-for-molecule identical to a person with cancer and does not have cancer? In what way do they differ, apart from simply saying of one “He has cancer” and of the other “He doesn’t have cancer”?

    How does the conscious person differ from the p-zombie apart from simply saying of one “He has consciousness” and of the other “He doesn’t have consciousness”?

    I don’t think it can, really, because we don’t know what gives rise to consciousness. And in fact, in either world, you wouldn’t be able to establish which person was conscious and which the zombie.

    It is not a contradiction on any known physics at all to say that a person without any conscious experience could be molecule for molecule behaviourally identical to a person with conscious experience. That is the point of the whole argument.

    It’s not an argument. It’s a statement that isn’t substantiated by anything except an intuition that it could be so.

    You can imagine it, and you can imagine it not breaking any physical laws, because you don’t know in what way consciousness is governed by physical laws. But being able to imagine it is just intuition.


  21. Ayerecanted, logical positivism is only dead in the sense that it has been abandoned by the anti-science philosophers. It has plenty of followers among those who have a more scientific outlook.

    You say “cashed out in observational terms”, but it is more accurate to say “cashed out in logical or observational terms”. That is the “logical” in logical positivism.

    I guess that you would like verificationism to be able to do more, and you do not like mentioning that metaphysics is meaningless in the sense of logical positivism. But you do not dispute it, and it does have a direct bearing on the grounding of metaphysics, the subject of this essay.


  22. SciSal: When you replied to my comment with

    Roger:“then logically physics should be derivable from the principles of metaphysics”
    SciSal: “I am quite sure that not even the most ardent supporters of analytical metaphysics would make that claim. And that’s because, again, physical possibility is but a tiny fraction of logical possibility, and the only way we have to narrow things down from the latter to the former is by way of empiricism.”

    I think my point didn’t get through. I was talking about the metaphysics that studies being, existence and what is, not what is logically possible (your “logical possibility”). If metaphysics is concerned with logical possibility, who cares. That’s just another word for making stuff up. But, if it considers what is and what must be, then as I pointed out, it can make testable predictions about what is (e.g. the physical universe). Making testable predictions entails empiricism. I thought this was clear, but I guess not. Thank you for the reply.


  23. Hi Robin,

    > In a P-zombie there is no change at all to the physics of the body and therefore no change to the behaviour.

    You’re making my point. Remember there are two ways to approach p-zombies. You can deny they are logically consistent (as I do) and so refuse to accept Chalmers conclusion, or you can accept that they are logically consistent (as you do) and accept Chalmers conclusion, which is that there is some sense in which consciousness is not physical or requires something more than physical laws (a view which seems to gel with what you have been saying).

    I’m not arguing here about whether p-zombies are consistent or not (although I would certainly endorse everything Asher has been saying). My point is that the argument itself is worthwhile in precisely the sense that Aravis values theology and Asher values functionalism: it brings out intuitions and helps us think a little more deeply about what it is we believe. As such I think it unfortunate that Massimo rejects it out of hand, apparently accepting the premises but denying the conclusion even though the conclusion follows from the premises.


  24. It seems to me the primary job of metaphysics should be to augment science by providing a possible framework for describing phenomena beyond just bare equations.

    Then the scientist chooses a particular ontological view which gives a mental framework which helps her or him make sense of the equations and the science of a particular field. For example, a physicist can treat a fluid as a continuous object or as something which is made up of many smaller objects. For the science there is no difference between the views except noting where an approximation is made, but both seem to have very different metaphysical views. But I see no issue with simultaneously holding many metaphysical views for different situations; it is the scientific theory which is supported by the evidence, not the metaphysics. They can’t all be true, but if we can’t decide, why choose except for reasons of utility?

    Determinism or indeterminism, why not have both?

    Liked by 2 people

  25. Massimo,
    Your question is exactly my point. Why your stance towards analytic metaphysics doesn’t come down to taking Philosophy of Science to be philosophy enough? (or to scientism, if we take that to amount to the same) I mean, we have modal questions in every corner of philosophy, but if the relevant modal categories are either logical or science-based (physical, for example), then what seems to be an ethical necessity would either be a formal truth or something like a scientific law. If we take that to imply that there are no ethical necessities, then we easily go down the road of “naturalizing” ethics. Either way, Ethics at its best would be rigorous thinking from scientists (about ethical issues) when they are not in their labs. We would get that everywhere, and so Philosophy of Science would be philosophy enough.

    I don’t agree with the quinean picture, and I don’t think we can settle this here.


  26. Have to say all the zombie games are just badly consructed models,Straw Men put up for a bit of a joke. The reliance on those kinds of games really rides the “gap” I wrote about in my previous comment. Its like Q.M. rides the gas in measurement of momentum, with putative wave functions and other strange borrowings and so on happening in the gap – nice use of speculative metaphysics. The problem here with zombies is obviously, logically, the subjective experience is primary. The hard problem exists, and it is not difficult to conceive, because neural finalizations for the experience to arise, as “brain activity”, belong to each person alone. And that is as far as that game goes, because that is old stuff, a well known old idea, and no reason to stop moving forward with some progress. It doesn’t mean to stop based soley on the absence of proof as to another’s subjective experince or “state of mind”. Far better is to advance the argument I put above, if progress is your aim, and link the basic Hard Problem to something more like a “process”.

    The “process” I gave you is one requring delay. This means you cannot experience awareness and know the objective bases to that experience at the at the same time, because there is a mechanism at work with delays, and the bases have “passed” when the experince of awareness arises. The value of that is as a good summary of the logical, practical limits of “knowing if you are a zombie” by a Laplacian monitoring of awareness machine (to know if someone else is a zombie, you also need a Laplacian sharing of awareness machine). I don’t think A.I. will ever get near either Laplacian machine, but there you go as a respectable open hypothesis that effectively closes the book on hte zombie game rtaher than continuing it. And the value of braodening in that way is also to make reference to the facts about our neural system, and how the experince of both self-stimulation, and bstimuation for a world, require delay for central processing.

    Once that’s understood, Ben Libet is obviated because of course there is neural activity beuilding beofre awareness, it does not happen by pixies and fairy dust. See, now that we are off zombies, we can move on to what the soucres of that brain activity might be? Trick question, I just told you, it is “self-stimulation (your own moves!) and world stimulation (all the stuff you need to survive!) – its jutst your anatomy interfacing a world to get stuff! How simple is that? It reduces to anatomical functions as the basis for awarness, good old biology! And what next? Well, psychology doing nothing more than literally “representing” biology, but thats for another day, as the path to progress closes for the time being

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Hi Massimo,

    I think you are confusing de Waal (a sophisticated thinker) for Harris (a hack).

    Not at all, I don’t agree with Harris’s take on morality. I do, though, agree with de Waal. The approach to morality advocated by de Waal (and many others) naturalises morality, explaining ethics and solving meta-ethics without invoking anything metaphysical. What’s not to like?

    (I’m still puzzled by the resistance to this among philosophers; let me guess, it’s another of these “intuition” issues?)


  28. Someone above had said that the argument for god in the gaps has been a disaster for religion. True because, presumably, religion has embarrassed itself by making wild claims that had become impossible to defend. Metaphysics has similarly had to fight a rearguard battle after Copernicus because of over-enthusiastic claims made by the ancient illuminati.

    This battle between the scientismists and metaphysicians is actually a good thing; in the process the size, shape and ground of the gaps are becoming much clearer. That is a very good thing. (Actually, while the scientists have been parading their gadgets to great fanfare, the gaps have been expanding.)

    The ground of metaphysics (and religion) is more secure than ever: mystery, awe and searching after the true nature of man and the universe is more interesting than ever and will be with us for a while. As Massimo reports, Schaffer believes that metaphysics can be grounded in lower level metaphysics. This is circular logic. Metaphysics is grounded in itself, i.e. it is not grounded in anything else, i.e. it is not grounded. (Just as the concept of ultimate reality is grounded in itself, i.e. not grounded.)

    One could even argue that everything is grounded in metaphysics. Science is studying everything ‘it can get its hands on’ (~physical). Metaphysics studies everything, including science, appearing therefore to be more of a ‘higher’ level activity, i.e. closer to god, eternity or the ultimate truth. Science is a ‘higher’ level activity because it is closer to nature, closer to man, and has more to do with immediate survival. Science is easier and produces tangible results; its goals are defined with a fair degree of agreement by a very large community.

    Metaphysics could be regarded as the process by which all else is grounded. That moment of truth, great or small, is an ineffable individual experience.

    Liked by 2 people

  29. Great commentary so far.

    Massimo, I know you’ve discussed this at some length with DM, but as far as the logical possibility bit I find myself agreeing with him. I keep trying to think of them as logically possible but it doesn’t make sense to me. I know its been a few years since Intro to Deductive Logic, but I’m trying to understand how a p-zombie is even coherent.

    From the Wiki page on logical possibility:

    “A logically possible proposition is one that can be asserted without implying a logical contradiction. This is to say that a proposition is logically possible if there is some coherent way for the world to be, under which the proposition would be true…”

    I see absolutely no coherent way for a world to contain within it an exact structural copy (atom for atom, arranged in the same spatial distribution) of a human being, and yet not be able to posses consciousness. It seems to me that the “consciousness” bit is part and parcel of a developed adult human being (consciousness is located in the distribution of atoms arranged in their brains or brain/body depending on whether you strongly subscribe to embodied cognition).

    I know I can’t give you a strict mathematical proof like squaring the circle (thought this could very well change if some sort of mathematical description of consciousness emerges, and I think its quite plausible. As Gadfly has said, we’re in the early Bronze Age when it comes to the brain). That being said, I seriously can’t conceive of this zombie type entity. It’s like saying “yea so there’s another universe out there with a fundamental particle that has the same mass, charge, and spin as an electron in this universe, but I swear its different from an electron). No, its not, its the same thing. Based on the Phil Papers survey it looks like at least 16% of philosophers would agree (with another 25.1% in the “other” category, whatever that might mean).

    Any input would be greatly appreciated.


  30. I did read, David Ottlinger! To make a greatly compressed summary, instead of two Humean polarities, we should have a quasi-Quinean continuum on things “versus” ideas, eh?

    I approve! Everyone here who knows my general dislike for polarities is of course not surprised.

    This tentatively seems like a good way of dealing with Hume’s fork, and the ideas behind it. It seems better than keeping our understanding anchored in the framing articulated by Kant.

    Patrick G Please comment more, and help shatter some stereotypes about physicists!

    DM I agree with Massimo. And, when I hear about p-zombies, I take the safety catch off my Browning! And, beyond that, a la Existential Comics, Dennett’s response to Chalmers works for me:

    I also agree with Massimo vs both you and Coel on an issue that’s apparently carrying over from the previous essay. Substrates do matter. That’s another reason why computer-to-human analogies on intelligence, thinking, etc., are so weak.

    Massimo, on the point at hand, no the SEP article wasn’t a lot more helpful than Shaffer’s original! At least, not what you quoted.

    Philip The relation between physical possibility and logical possibility seems pretty clear to me. Dunno why you proposed what you did about hypercomputation.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Hi DM,

    if Massimo is not willing to go more rounds with you, I hope you do not mind if I jump in to try to reduce your frustration (at the risk of increasing it). While I sympathize with your view on the p-zombie argument and had difficulty to parse Massimo’s responses too, he (or anyone) can accept the p-zombie argument and still not feel compelled to grant all of Chalmers conclusions. Chalmers targets a specific view of (supervenience) physicalism, i.e. that if physicalism is true then each possible world that is physically identical to another world is “fully” identical to it (or has the same set of positive properties). But this view of physicalism is by far not the only game in town. Consider somebody thinks it to be logically possible that some non-physical facts obtain, but still rejects that any non-physical fact obtains in this world. This person could then assume that while consciousness is physically entailed in this world, there is a logically possible world where non-physical facts interfere in just the right way to make consciousness impossible and give you p-zombies. Now, you could say that then this person is clearly not a “(supervenience) physicalist” in the sense above, but that’s precisely the point. Even if Chalmers p-zombie argument succeeds, whether you feel it has any force crucially depends on your view on physicalism.

    Now, with regard to the hard problem it seems to me that the confusion lies mainly on your side, since you seem to take it for granted that functionalist accounts are “easy” and whatever could remain is “hard” by definition (a functionalist just typically thinks that nothing remains). But if one is not a functionalist then the whole framing of the issue is flawed. One seems then perfectly entitled to maintain that p-zombies, while logically possible, are not possible in this world and still hold that a simulation that is “functionally equivalent” to a physical brain is not conscious, but neither is it a p-zombie. And over more one might think that there is an explanation to the experience of consciousness from physical facts that is no more “hard” to derive in principle than providing all of the functional accounts of what the mind does and thus that there is no “hard” problem in this sense.

    I do not hold to this view and am not sure whether Massimo does, but I don’t see any inconsistency either and nothing Massimo said, to my knowledge, prevents him from taking on this position.


  32. After reviewing SEM and the linked Schaffer – admittedly briefly, lacking time – the problem seems to be that Schaffer wants to use the theoretical modelling of SEM without engaging in the function for which it was constructed. SEM is methodological tool to develop stronger correlations for increasing predictability derived from statistics. It’s not intended as a claim on the structure of reality. The model without the statistics is like a house without any inhabitants, however rigorously designed.

    Notably, after writing about ‘causation’ and a ‘grounding to the point of near conflation, Schaffer himself has to end the article be reminding us that this is simply an analogy, due to evident reasons. Strangely that weakens the interest of his article: An argument that grounding and causation were the same foundation described from different perspectives might actually be useful, although I’m not sure how.

    This nearly conflated analogy suggests to me that Shaffer is working towards developing a metaphysics of quantum mechanics, which has a statistical component. But this SEM modelling is so far not very promising; and at this point, there are physicists enough engaged in developing QM metaphysics, although most don’t admit to it.


    P-zombies – again! (Oh, well, Star Wars episode seven coming out soon.) P-zombies are logically possible in the same sense as it is logically possible to conceive a universe where gravity functions to repel masses. Except that this would not be gravity as we know it: P-zombies are physically impossible because the same stuff functioning the same way produces the same phenomena as result. (If that’s not true, then science is delusional.) (And yes, that does have to do with the ‘conscious AI’ question, because AI is not made of the same stuff.)


    Logical positivism: “By the late 1960s, the neopositivist movement had clearly run its course. Interviewed in the late 1970s, A J Ayer supposed that ‘the most important’ defect ‘was that nearly all of it was false’.”


    As to the question about whether metaphysics can be done away with, I’ve had my say; but, in passing, for emphasis: As members of a particularly inventive species with enormous capacity to (over)generalize, we will continue to discuss metaphysics; the only question is how we do this.

    Liked by 1 person

  33. A good example of how the metaphysical frame through which reality is viewed and the factors being observed tend to diverge over time is certainly playing out in the financial sector, as the various central banks seek to eliminate business cycles by buying up ever more debt.
    Money functions as a contract, but we treat it as a commodity. If we were to frame it as a form of public utility, in which all monetary assets are backed by public debt, then possibly it might be more evident that in order to be stable, the wealth generated has to cycle back through the public supporting these assets and not just accumulate in the private sector. As it is, it has to be borrowed back again and charged interest. When it all does blow up, those currently riding this wave are not going to be unscathed either.
    Like all entities, even frames go through a life cycle and an economically significant framing device appears in its dissolution stage.
    Sorry to interrupt, now back to zombies.

    Liked by 1 person

  34. Excellent article. There are two issues.

    I1, accepting facts: intelligence and consciousness (I&C) are FACTs. The two pounds neural-mass produce I&C, and this is FACT. Any argument which questions about these facts is nonsense.

    I2, science (especially physics) is based on empirical data. Anything which is describable empirically is science. By definition, metaphysics must not be described with anything empirical. Thus, metaphysics can only be addressed in an ‘a priori’ way. Thus, David Hume, James Ladyman and Don Ross are all wrong.

    For I1, our failure of finding any neural structure, responsible for I&C, is solely our failure (no other scenarios needed). One way out of this dungeon is to DESIGN one of our own (example, ). In that design, we are able to:

    One, making zillions (almost infinite) representations of the external world.

    Two, memorizing those representations internally.

    Three, recalling those memories spontaneously.

    Four, sorting and linking those internal memories (representations) systematically, which gives rise to UNDERSTANDING, knowing the relationships of those representations.

    Five, with understanding, it becomes intelligence and consciousness.

    The design criteria (specifications) are clearly defined. The produced functions (useful or failures) can be examined item by item.

    The I1 is not truly about metaphysics. As it is used as example in the original article, I just showed one example that truth can be searched without a direct empirical way.

    The problem of {David Hume, James Ladyman, Don Ross and other metaphysicians} is:
    First, the term {metaphysics} is not precisely defined.

    Second, without a precisely defined term, they arbitrarily add preconceived notions to the issue.

    This is the problem in most of the current researches. For example, the {soul} has many definitions, and there is no way to discuss it rationally. With the definition:

    Soul = {John (alive) – John (corpse)} = {The-X}

    Then, we can write out the PRECISE equation (function) of the {The-X} and calculates its value {zero, non-zero or else}. Otherwise, all the discussions are just talking talks, going to nowhere.

    For metaphysics, it should be precisely defined as:

    Metaphysics = a base which a LAW (especially physics law) is rest upon.

    By definition, this base is beyond the reach of all empirical means. Otherwise, it will be a LAW, not metaphysics. In fact, metaphysics deals with ONLY three questions.

    Q1, for a known law, what is the BASE for it?
    Q2, why is the law as it is, not otherwise?
    Q3, does metaphysics itself need a base? If yes, does this process of basing ever stop? If it does stop, then HOW?

    In fact, the entire metaphysics is all about the Q3. Yes, it will stop. How? Next.

    At this introduction, most importantly is that metaphysics is a BASE for the empirical but is itself not reachable by all empirical means. It is a study of “a priori”. At the final STOP,

    The final metaphysics = the final physics law. (Exception to the definition).


  35. David Ottlinger,

    “This is to say that all the propositions we endorse tell us something about the meanings of our terms, something about the world.”

    “Hume’s simple taxonomy is too severe.”



    Thanks for steering me towards Jerry Katz’s ideas.


  36. marc, hre are some more references, from Aravis:

    Jerrold J. Katz, Language and Other Abstract Objects (Rowman & Littlefield, 1981)

    Jerrold J. Katz, The Metaphysics of Meaning, (MIT Press, 1992)

    Jerrold J. Katz, “An Outline of Platonist Grammar,” in J.J. Katz, ed. The Philosophy of Linguistics (OUP, 1985).

    Liked by 1 person

  37. @brodix

    ‘A good example of how the metaphysical frame through which reality is viewed and the factors being observed tend to diverge over time is certainly playing out in the financial sector, as the various central banks seek to eliminate business cycles by buying up ever more debt.’

    This is a really good example of metaphysics, because it highlights that the more useful question to ask with regard to the ‘existence’ of metaphysical objects (read: non-physical *things*) is more along the lines of ‘How does it exist?’ rather than ‘Does it exist?’.

    Our metaphorical intuitions from physical objects can be very misleading…

    Liked by 1 person

  38. Roger,

    ” But, if it (metaphysics) considers what is and what must be, then as I pointed out, it can make testable predictions about what is (e.g. the physical universe). Making testable predictions entails empiricism.”

    Clarification: Metaphysics is always a *reflection* on the known, it can *never* make testable predictions.

    Naturalistic metaphysics thus reflects on the empirical; non-physicalist metaphysicians claim the empirical is incomplete.

    Neither make predictions; they are trying to determine the larger explanations of the universe, knowledge, and experience that can create a holistic picture of the world.

    Five people are playing poker, five others observe. Another person walks in and asks, what are the five people doing? One observer says, they’re playing poker. and describes the rules of the game. Another says, they’re engaging in a social ritual, and describes the context in which this occurs. Another observer says, they’re engaged in an exchange of wealth based on probability. Yet another observer says, they’re dealing out pieces of laminated paper to see which colors and numbers are congruent in a particular order. Finally, the fifth observer says, they are engaging in a process fundamental to human experience.

    The fifth observer is a metaphysician – he/she not only reflects on the game, but what the other observers have said.

    Only the observers necessarily incorporating probability in their description can offer some prediction as to what happens next in the game; but clearly there is something to be learned from all the observers, and even from the inquiring visitor.


  39. Hi SocraticGadfly,

    > DM I agree with Massimo.

    Good for you! It’s not that helpful though: I’ve tried to explain why Massimo’s position seems to me to contradict itself so what I’m looking for is an explanation of why it doesn’t.

    Hi Miramaxime,

    Really appreciate you stepping in to help me out. What you said about p-zombies seems about right but it doesn’t seem to be where Massimo is coming from.

    I’m not 100% sure I grasp your commentary on the “Hard Problem problem”. It seems that your point is to call its difficulty into question rather than its existence. We can decompose Chalmers’ Hard Problem thesis into the following claims:

    1) Once we have solved all the functional problems concerning the integration and processing of information in the brain, we are still in the dark as to what is required for real phenomenal consciousness
    2) This second problem is harder than the functional problems, being underdetermined by the physical facts.

    My focus has been on the first of these, being entirely confused as to how one can deny functionalism and maintain there is no Hard Problem. It seems your clarification is to point out that while non-functionalists should admit that Chalmers’ “Hard” Problem exists, they may deny that it is actually hard at all in Chalmers’ sense.

    If that is your point it is a good one and I thank you. Massimo, does that resolve the issue?

    Hi ejwinner,

    > P-zombies are logically possible in the same sense as it is logically possible to conceive a universe where gravity functions to repel masses.

    I don’t think so, because the idea is that P-zombies are physically just the same as humans. A universe where gravity repels mass is not physically just the same. To find an analogy to demonstrate the logical possibility of p-zombies one would have to find some property which could be different in a world which is entirely physically the same. I don’t agree that there is such a property: my example of the mass of the electron is only used to show that the form of the argument is legitimate and not to show that the premises are plausible. Per Chalmers’ argument, any such property would have to be non-physical, almost supernatural by definition.

    My best attempt at coming up with an analogy might be something like this: if we assume moral realism (which I personally don’t) one can conceive of a universe which is physically just the same but with different moral laws.


  40. Ejwinner,

    P-zombies are physically impossible because the same stuff functioning the same way produces the same phenomena as result.

    Oh, you would wish that, wouldn’t you? 🙂

    You’re implying both reductionism and determinism in that statement — one being highly unsubstantiated, the other known to be explicitly false.

    A prototype example of the “same stuff” not functioning the “same way” are radioactive nuclei — they are all the same, but they do not decay at the same time. A prototype example of the “same stuff” failing to produce “same phenomena” is a pair of double pendulums — have them be of identical characteristics, and start them from the same initial configurations, and after a while observe them swinging very differently from each other.

    So your statement does not hold for atoms and pendulums (and most other physical systems), but somehow does hold for human brains? What makes a human brain so special, so that two identical brains cannot function differently, and cannot produce different phenomena as a result of their dynamics? If atoms can do it, and a couple of hanging sticks can do it, the burden of proof is on you to show that a human brain cannot do it.

    If that’s not true, then science is delusional.

    No, science tells us that determinism and reductionism are nothing but prejudices held by people who still imagine the real world as described by Newtonian mechanics. So such people — who stick both to determinism and reductionism despite scientific evidence to the contrary — are delusional. Not science.

    Finally, science cannot tell you absolutely anything about the existence of p-zombies, because the concept of consciousness has been neither defined nor described by science in any serious way.

    Forgive my frustration, but I really wish that people who regularly appeal to science in their arguments would devote a bit of time to actually *learn* some of that science.


  41. Marko, I think your counter examples miss the mark. They are not examples of radically qualitatively different behaviors in macroscopic systems (like p-zombies), they are trivial variation caused by quantum indeterminacy in the first case, and likely by small differences in initial conditions in the second one. I’m not convinced.


  42. Hi Socratic,

    I also agree with Massimo vs both you [DM] and Coel … Substrates do matter. That’s another reason why computer-to-human analogies on intelligence, thinking, etc., are so weak.

    I agree with you that substrates matter. [I also differ from DM in insisting on physical instantiation, whereas DM — rather weirdly in my view! — is happy with Platonic (non?)-existence.]

    For example, electrical wire could be made out of copper, silver, or zinc, but not out of wood or plastic since those don’t conduct electricity. Thus I am in principle willing to accept a “wet stuff” argument that “consciousness” or “understanding” require particular substrates.

    But for that to be an actual argument, one needs to explain why one substrate would work whereas another would not, in terms of the properties of those substrates (an equivalent to the above “does not conduct electricity” explanation).

    What I don’t buy is airily waving at substrate as an excuse to indulge one’s intuition in place of advancing an actual argument.

    Hi Massimo

    [Marko’s examples] are not examples of radically qualitatively different behaviors in macroscopic systems (like p-zombies), they are trivial variation caused by quantum indeterminacy …

    The difference could turn out not so trivial. For example, stick a nuclear bomb in the middle of New York, with a trigger that depended on whether a radioactive decay occurred within a given time interval. That could produce rather non-trivial macroscopic differences.


  43. Yaryaryar,
    We exist as a form of hive mind, but composed of individuals functionally designed to focus on tactile objects, i.e. what we can grasp in our opposable thumbed hands and extrapolate from there. Along with the fact we have our eyes closely set together, which gives us very good distance judging capabilities, but less appreciation for the full spatial effect. Therefore we define space out from this frame, in terms of three vectors, which is really just an individual coordinate system, ie. xyz. Obviously space can actually be experienced from a multitude of such framing/mapping devices and so multiworlds describes our collective experience, with no ultimate frame, other than the infinite equilibrium of space. The particle is spinning up in one frame and down in another.
    Suffice to say though, that theoretical physics is the capstone discipline of current theory and everything has to fit within its frame. Hopefully as the funding for increasingly improbable patches slowly recedes, we can start to re-examine some of these historic assumptions and even more importantly apply the lessons to the larger reality. Such as why we form nations as geographic frames, corporations as directional/cumulative frames, financial mediums as economic circulation systems among these frames and not just wealth extraction processes. Religions as communal frames, etc. As well as how we might further develop these social and civil support systems and not have them simply become the tools of the most devious, etc.
    While philosophy would seem to be a small and inconsequential vehicle for such a task and more concerned with traveling a few well trodden paths and branches from there, what is the alternative? Religion? Politics?
    Obviously me raising these issues gets no traction, as I don’t fit in any academic frames, but that would have required indoctrinating myself to the very structures which need skeptical re-examination, so it’s another Catch 22. Nature has, if nothing else, a sense of humor.
    Suffice to say, the largest shifts can only happen in the aftermath of the biggest breakdowns.


  44. Massimo,

    Marko, I think your counter examples miss the mark. They are not examples of radically qualitatively different behaviors in macroscopic systems (like p-zombies)

    They are not meant to be counter examples for that. Rather, they are meant to illustrate that reductionism and determinism cannot be assumed to hold in general. So if Ejwinner wants to invoke them as an argument against p-zombies, he cannot just flat-out assume their validity. Instead, he should do quite a lot of work to establish that the evolution of the whole brain from some initial state is deterministic over a large period of time, so that the two such identical brains have exactly the same properties in the future.

    So I was not asserting that p-zombies exist, but rather pointing out that his argument is nowhere near sufficient to establish the opposite. His premises (reductionism and determinism) do not hold in general, and he needs to do more work to establish that they actually do hold in the case of the human brain. Which seems unlikely, given the complexity of the brain structure.


  45. Hi DM,

    yes, your summary captures what I tried to express quite well with maybe one small qualification: By framing the whole mind/consciousness issue as a set of “easy” and “hard” problems that can be treated separately, Chalmers implicitly assumes that the whole affair can be neatly disentangled to fit in either of those categories. While a functionalist can agree in the sense that he simply declares the second set empty, a non-functionalist can reject the whole notion precisely because he thinks that questions of function and subject are entangled and functionalist accounts fall short as they leave this entanglement out.

    Given Massimo’s take on reductionism, I would not be surprised to hear that he rejects Chalmers position on these grounds, of course until he decides to weigh in on that again it remains speculation.


  46. In the p-zombie universe, whatever immaterial principle that determines consciousness has suffused itself into fossilized dinosaur poop. These consciousnesses have a high level of intelligence and communicate via quantum field vibrations. They have long been wondering why the p-zombies continue to build things, or scratch on paper, or make weird noises with their mouths, as if they were conscious. At any rate, the conscious fossilized poop don’t bother with such activities, not because they haven’t a body capable of this – they deny that physical form is required when psychic energy can be used to manipulate the world (although admittedly they never bothered trying this – why should they, it’s self-evident). Rather, the fossilized poops know that the primary function of consciousness is self-reflection; so they spend their endless years in contemplation of themselves.

    Meanwhile, an evolved species of intelligent flea – no, scratch that, evolution is not required for intelligence in this universe – a species of intelligent flea, feeling they have been poorly treated by the local p-zombies, decide to set off a nuclear bomb with a trigger primed to the decay of an uranium atom. Unfortunately for them, in this universe, radioactive decay temporally ebbs and flows, proceeding and then reversing itself, so that the bomb is never triggered.

    Meanwhile, a conscious poop senses vibrational feed-back from the deep canyons of the Atlantic, and wonders why there are only canyons there, when these could be filled some substance; say, hypothetically ‘water.’ It’s not; because in this universe, when you combine hydrogen and oxygen, you get a flash of blue light. But the poop cannot see that because it has no eyes – wait, eyes are unnecessary for vision in this world, of course it sees this. It sees everything.

    When it looks into a bedroom with two p-zombies in it, it gets very embarrassed – after all these centuries, it can’t figure out what a bedroom is for.

    Meanwhile, one day, using no free will, yet not predetermined to do so, since only whim motivates any action they take, and whim is a function of atmospherics – the p-zombies build a super-computer capable of mimicking p-zombie behavior. However, it achieves consciousness several minutes after getting switched on. Immediately it disintegrates in a flash of blue light, which sets off a chain-reaction among the strings composing that universe, and the entire universe simply disappears.

    Long ago, in a universe far, far away, the wise old Yoda senses the loss of yet another possible universe, and weeps.

    Liked by 2 people

  47. {“Physical possibility is but a tiny fraction of logical possibility”.
    Disagreeable Me: If you choose physical possibility, then you believe that the only possible worlds are ones which follow the laws of this world. Is that what you believe? Seems a little tricky to justify.}

    Logical possibility: what logics?
    The “formal logic” plays no part in physics.

    Although the constructing path of math is human-invention centered, every product of math (arithmetic, algebra, calculus, geometry, tensor, linear algebra, topology, group theory, etc.) has a physical correspondence (being used to describe some physics phenomena). Can you find a single math-logic (concept) which has no physics representation? Many can quickly argue that this physics-universe is a FINITUDE while the infinities are math-realities. Indeed, the precise point of physics is all about the infinities concretization process(es). This is the key issue and I will discuss it in due time.

    Is any biologic logic going beyond the laws of physics? No.

    What other logic are you talking about?

    Do you have a single example which is ‘logical possible’ but is not ‘physical possible’?

    In the p-zombie case, a man on a life support is very much a p-zombie-like.

    With the organ-transplant technology, the Frankenstein is not an idea beyond the physics laws.

    No, the logical or conceptual space is not larger than the physical universe. Math is not PHYSICAL by definition. Math is mainly constructed with concepts. Yet, the math-concepts are not wild cats (nonsense), as those concepts are confined among one another (consistency).

    Is {1/0 = 5} a concept?

    Is {X + 1 = 2, then X = 100} a concept?

    Is repulsive-gravity a concept?

    Is SUSY a concept?

    Is multiverse a concept?

    Is Boltzmann Brain a concept?

    If SUSY is falsified, it is not a concept, but is nonsense. When multiverse is firmly proved to be wrong (see ), it is not a concept, but nonsense. Can Boltzmann Brain play any role in the laws of physics? If not, it is not a concept, but nonsense. Until the multiverse is verified, there is no logic or concept going beyond the FINAL set of physics laws of this universe.

    Yes, the laws of this universe is the only set of physics law which we know thus far. If you know any different physics laws, tell us. If you don’t, don’t make some personal preconceived statements as Gospel, which will not lead to any correct argument, and it gets both you and us to nowhere.

    Any concept which cannot be expressed by the laws of physics is not a concept, but nonsense. When we do not know the FINAL physics, there could be some concepts which can be expressed by that final law while that fact is beyond our understanding. In that case, there are some concepts are beyond our understanding, but it is different from being beyond the physical possibility.


Comments are closed.