Friday, January 18, 2008

What it is to be physical

Since the issue of what the physical came up in a comment b y Amandalaine in the combox for the "computers" entry, I thought I would explain further.

In my view, there are four things that have to be lacking for something to be considered "physical."

1) Intentionality. At the most basic level of analysis, no physical thing is about any other thing. Intentionality, if it exists, is a system by-product.

2) Purpose. There is apparent purpose which is explained away in terms of Darwinian function.

3) Subjectivity. Physical things, per se, have no point of view.

4) Normativity. Nothing about the physical entails that some physical state ought to exist as opposed to some other.


One Brow said...

Could you expand on that? According to you rdefinition, since their is no Darwinian purpose for a rock that needs to be explained away, rocks are not physical. I'm sure that is not what you meant.

Anonymous said...

Would this point of view be substance dualism rather than property dualism?

IlĂ­on said...

One Brow, you've understood his point/view exactly backwards. His point is that to consider something "physical" [I think "entirely physical" or "physical-with-no-non-physical-component" or "entirely explicable in terms of the concept 'physical'" is what he is getting at] it must *lack* purpose. Or, to put it in slightly different terms, it must lack the sort of "apparent purpose" which Darwinian ideology specializes in explaining away.

Therefore, since a rock *does* lack the sort of "apparent purpose" which Darwinian ideology specializes in explaining away -- along with lacking the other three properties he listed -- then a rock is properly considered "physical."

And really! However precise or imprecise (and successful) the attempt of Mr Reppert's post is, was it not prompted by someone's attempt to play-at semantics? i.e. to "play word games" as opposed to honestly attempting to clarify what is meant by a specific word?

One Brow said...


I think you are right about the misunderstanding. Frankly, it saddens me. Not being wrong, I ususally find tghat interesting, but that Dr. Repart is engaging in the rather cheap trick of trying to define into a notion the complaints he uses against it. Naturalists would say a person can be physical and have a sense of purpose or a point of view. They would certainly agree that not every conceivable physical state is a possible state state, that's what the study of science is about. I might agree with the first point, although the wording is a little murky.

I don't know to whose word-games you refer, could you point to the specific definiton of physical that you consider to be a word-game? Or, were you referring to the contention that concepts require physical storage, and thus have a physical component?

Victor Reppert said...

No, what I said was that whatever purpose there is has to be explained as a Darwinian by-product. Something can have a function and be physical. However, the function is a "system feature" of a set of more basic units which have no purpose whatsoever.

First-person perspectives strike me as very difficult to reconcile with physicalism, since I think all reductive analyses of first-person talk to non-first-person talk invariable fails to preserve meaning.

Example: a six-foot-high brick wall his the property of being six feet high in spite of the fact that none of the component bricks are six feet high. But "adding up" the bricks, you get to a brick wall. A naturalist must maintain that mental states have to be "added up" states of a similar sort (or else has to put everything on the back of a supervenience relation).

What is physical has to lack purpose, intentionality (aboutness) first-person perspective and normativity at the most basic level of analysis. I haven't ruled out the possibility that these things might emerge at the nonbasic levels. That they can't really emerge on the nonbasic levels if they are lacking on the basic levels must be argued further.

One Brow said...

So, you meant your terminology to refers to a reductionist level?

Yes, I can see that applying to a notion something is "just physical". Thank you for the clarification, my faith in you is restored.

Victor Reppert said...

It seems that a physicalist, and indeed a even a metaphysical naturalist, must hold at minimum:

1) Physics is mechanistic, lacking at the basic level intentionality, purpose, normativity, and subjectivity.

2) Physics is causally closed. Nothing non-physical can make a difference on a physical level.

3) Whatever isn't physical supervenes on the physical. Whatever else exists, exists because the physical is what it is.

One Brow said...

Well, I think I am basically a physicalist (though, as I like to think myself primarily a skeptic, I am open to being wrong), but I would clarify or qualify your statements just a little. It's probably my completely amatuer status in these discussions.

1) I would agree that at the basic level, there is no purpose nor subjectivity, as I understand the terms. I'm nor sure what you mean by things being "about any other thing". If you mean that there is no symbolism, I agree. If you mean there are no relationships between things, I would not. As for normativity, I see the properties of the physical, colloquially the laws of physics, as dictating many sorts of things that must be real or not real. However, your wording may be referring to morals, or other types of constructs emerging from large aggregates or physical things, in which case no individual property of any individual bit of matter would be normative of the construct.

2) If you assume that only the physical exists, casual closure of the physical is trivial. There is nothing else to cause anything.

3) I would agree in the sense that there can be a functional (in teh mathematical sense) relationship between the physical states and any state described in a non-physical fashion. That is, any physical state leads to some other state, and the non-physical state to which it leads is unique, but this does not hold the reverse implications in general. There may be non-physical states that have no physical instantiation, and thus never occur, and ther may be many physical states that lead to any particular non-physical state.

Anonymous said...

"In my view, there are four things that have to be lacking for something to be considered "physical.""

In defining the physical you have assumed the non-physical. Is this fair? What if I were a strict naturalist? (I really don't know what strict naturalists say on this subject. Do they say that intentionality, purpose, subjectivity, and normativity are illusions?)

But by my very word choice, the situation gets worse. I'll reword a previous sentence: "In defining the physical you have assumed the non-physical, which means you've assumed the physical, which means you haven't defined physical at all." Perhaps I'm washed up here, but that's how it looks to me.

Interestingly, by your definition, assuming it's good, software would be physical.