Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Brick Walls, Moral Facts, and Mental States: How to avoid the fallacy of composition

In the case of the brick wall, the state of the bricks entails the state of the wall, therefore it is the fallacy of composition to say that since the wall can't be six feet tall because none of the bricks are six feet tall. With the question of whether a homicide was morally justified, the physical facts don't entail the moral fact, so you would not be committing the fallacy of composition by claiming that no moral fact is entailed by the physical facts. I was claiming that the problem of mental facts is like the moral case, as opposed to being like the brick wall case. When all the facts at the physical level are given, the mental fact is still an open question. But since the state of the physical is supposed to close the question (what else is supposed to close it?) of the state of the mental, saying that there might be no mental given the state of the physical does not commit the fallacy of composition.


Crude said...

One thing I'd like to know about the fallacy of composition is this.

I have a wall made entirely of bricks. Every brick is solid red. I reason that the wall shall be red.

Is this a fallacy of composition?

William said...

Crude: it depends on a hidden premise.

The fallacy is present or absent based on whether the hidden premise: "part-to-whole reasoning works here" is true or false.

In general, any parts-to-whole reasoning is incomplete unless that extra premise is added.


planks length said...

There's something I don't get about several of the comments in the conversation below this one.

All matter has mass. Galaxies, stars and planets, elephants, grains of sand, individual atoms, subatomic particles - they all do. Just the bigger you are, the more mass you have (as I unfortunately know all too well from personal experience). Same thing for taking up space and various other fundamental properties of all matter. There doesn't come a point where you say, "Oh, that's too small to have mass."

The way I see it, if consciousness is nothing more than a property of matter, then the same principle ought to hold true. I am self aware, an infant less so, my cat even less, a housefly still less, even less so for the tree in my yard, until finally you get down to a lowly hydrogen atom. It may not be very self aware, but it still ought to be (to an infinitesimal degree).

Now I have no problem with such a state of affairs. But if the materialist insists that consciousness is somehow exclusive to human beings, then the only possible way I can see for such a state of affairs being so is to posit a non-material nature for consciousness.

William said...


Deleuezian stuff applies here. There is a difference between things which depend on quantity and are divisible and addititive and those that are not.

Have you heard of the intensive/extensive property distinction? Used for example in chemistry: mass and charge can be extensive, pH intensive.

im-skeptical said...

planks length,

"I am self aware, an infant less so, my cat even less, a housefly still less, even less so for the tree in my yard, until finally you get down to a lowly hydrogen atom. It may not be very self aware, but it still ought to be (to an infinitesimal degree)."

That's not how it works. In order to have self-awareness, there must be some kind of awareness. In order to have awareness, there must be senses that can detect information about the environment, and there must be some kind of capability to process that information (as a nervous system does). So it would make sense to say that a more primitive creature could have a limited level of self-awareness, but it makes no sense to say that about something that can't sense or process information. Hydrogen atoms have absolutely no self-awareness of any kind, not even an infinitesimal amount.

planks length said...

"Hydrogen atoms have absolutely no self-awareness of any kind, not even an infinitesimal amount."

And yet they are quite aware of their proximity to other bits of matter, without there being any physical contact. Let's take it even a step further down. A proton "knows" when it is approaching an electron, even at (considering its size) a considerable distance. It alters its activity (motion, and sometimes spin) in reaction to it.

If that's not an extremely elemental sensory input and awareness of the environment, then I don't know what is.

Steve Lovell said...

This is a little off topic, but the fallacy also gets discussed in relation to the Cosmological Argument. When each member of a collection is depends for its existence on something else, does the same thing follow for the collection as a whole? Does it make a difference if the collection is infinite?

Amusingly, some (notable) people have been so keen to point out the fallacy of composition at work here that they've gone on to commit it themselves. Thus Hume wrote:

"Did I show you the particular causes of each individual in a collection of twenty particles of matter, I should think it very unreasonable should you afterwards ask me what was the cause of the whole twenty. This is sufficiently explained in explaining the parts."

im-skeptical said...

"A proton "knows" when it is approaching an electron, even at (considering its size) a considerable distance. It alters its activity (motion, and sometimes spin) in reaction to it."

So the proton feels the presence of an electron and thinks to itself "That thing is repulsive. I'm backing away from it." Because it is an intelligent agent. I always thought it was just subject to physical forces, and had no part in determining its own behavior.

planks length said...

My point was that a proton is aware of its environment, contrary to your saying it wasn't. Whatever you wish to call it, the bald fact is that the proton is receiving information ("there's an electron over there"), processing it in some manner, and then responding to it ("I'll head over in that direction").

Papalinton said...

"My point was that a proton is aware of its environment, contrary to your saying it wasn't."

This is intentionality gone stark raving ballistic, to mix a metaphor, teleology gone feral. You know that when one claims a proton to be conscious they have tipped over the event horizon into a dark unknown mental state we now medically and clinically classify as schizotypal.

William said...

Linton: are you calling panpsychists and pantheists crazy? They may be wrong, but being wrong is not automatically psychotic last time I checked.

Planks and skep,

I think you have more in common than you think. You both think you can assign consciousness to material stuff by just applying anthropomorphic analogies to the kinds of material structures currently known to physics and/ or neuroscience. This too is wrong, but not crazy.

In this regard, Victor is right to keep the mystery intact.

planks length said...

"You both think you can assign consciousness to material stuff"

Yes, we both think that; you are correct (as long as you use the word "can" and not "do"). We differ in that im-skeptical somehow imagines that a purely materialistic consciousness can by confined to humans alone (or perhaps to humans and the "higher" animals"), whereas I can't see consciousness being purely material unless it is a property (to a greater and lesser extent) to ALL matter.

For the record, I personally do not regard consciousness as being a purely materialistic phenomenon. What I am (perhaps badly) trying to do here is point out the inevitable implications of so thinking. I remain willing to be swayed in either direction on this one.

David Brightly said...

Is there a difference of awareness between my being awake and being asleep? If so, can Planks's cumulative theory account for it?

planks length said...


I don't know about you, but I am still very much aware when I sleep. If you touch me, I will respond. If it gets too cold, I'll roll over in my sleep (without waking). I've observed sleeping people scratching an itch and brushing off flies.

True, that is a far more rudimentary awareness than what I am experiencing right now, but I've already admitted to the phenomenon existing by degrees.

The self-awareness of a proton would be of the most rudimentary nature possible. It recognizes very few elements in its environment: Are there any other particles nearby? What is their nature? (i.e., are they electrons, other protons, something else?) How fast are they going? Etc.

The trees in my yard are very much aware of where the sun is, and whether it is winter or summer, day or night. They know how close other plants are to them and to their roots. They even know what kind of plants they are. (This has been demonstrated!)

My cat does not ponder the whichness of the why. It's quite satisfied with watching the bird just outside the window.

And among human beings, self awareness varies from person to person. I've known all too many people who notice nothing that's going on around them.

So all's I'm sayin' here is that, if someone is going to insist on a materialistic explanation for consciousness, then go for it! Jump in the pool and swim around - don't just dabble your toe in the shallow end.

David Brightly said...

Sure, But I don't think a physicalist need say that awareness, if it's quantifiable at all, is cumulative, or even additive, as the comparison with mass would suggest. For if so, a star would be more aware than a person, and a person asleep would have the same degree of awareness as a person awake. Awareness seems to depend on the availability of internal structure that can alter in response to the outside and fundamental particles have none of this. But this can't be the whole story either because my structure asleep is the same as my structure awake. Awareness, or at least its physical substrate, appears to be an activity or process, and the right kind of processes don't seem to be going on in rocks, say, or stars. In the latter case, any structure fabricated in response to the outside is immediately destroyed by the high temperature, and in the former the atoms are too strongly bound together to respond to any fluctuations in incident energy. Similarly, the inability of liquids to support structure makes the ocean on Solaris hard to fathom. It seems that only organic chemistry at 300K offers the kind of delicate response that's needed.

planks length said...

"the ocean on Solaris"

Are you referring to the Stanislaw Lem novel here? Or perhaps to the Tarkovsky movie adaptation of the same? (I just hope you're not referring to the awful George Clooney version!)

David Brightly said...

No, haven't seen the Clooney.

im-skeptical said...


Simple physical reaction to forces or stimulus do not constitute awareness as we understand it. Moving in response to a force does not constitute sensory input.

I said that sensory input and processing capability are prerequisites for awareness, but they do not constitute awareness, either. Another key ingredient is some kind of ability to take action that would change the course of events. This is what we like to call intentionality. You may like to assert that this can only come from an immaterial source. But it is easy to demonstrate that a computer can be programmed to behave with apparent intention, based on sensory input. That is not to say that the computer is aware in the same way humans are, but it's a start.

Awareness requires all those things, and is the result when they are all sufficiently developed in an organism (or a machine). The sensory function must be good enough to allow a creature to discern significant things in the environment around it in real time. The processing capability of a brain must be powerful to turn that sensory input into a situational model of the surroundings, decide what is important enough to react to, and compute what the appropriate response should be. The body must be able to turn that response into action (otherwise, there would be no reason to go through all that processing in the first place).

All of this comes from biological necessity - the need to survive, and to improve the chances of survival in a competitive world.

Humans have all those ingredients, and they have awareness. It is entirely possible that a computer could as well, if we could build a machine with suitable capabilities and program it with similar sophistication and imperatives.

William said...

Maybe the hard problem shows that not all basic laws are laws of physics. Maybe it shows that some of them are laws of emergence. If that’s so, then it’s not true after all that if Y emerges from X there must be something about X in virtue of which Y emerges from it. Rather, in some cases, there wouldn’t be any way of accounting for what emerges from what. Consciousness might emerge from matter because matter is the sort of stuff from which consciousness emerges. Full stop.
It would then have turned out that the hard problem is literally intractable, and that would be pretty shocking. The idea that the basic laws are the laws about the smallest things has been central to the ‘scientific world-view’ ever since there started to be one. On the other hand, as far as I can see, it’s not any sort of a priori truth. I suppose one can imagine a world where all the big things are made out of small things, and there are laws about the small things and there are laws about the big things, but some laws of the second kind don’t derive from any laws of the first kind. In that world, it might be a basic law that when you put the right sorts of neurons together in the right sorts of way, you get a subject of consciousness. There would be no explaining why you get a subject of consciousness when you put those neurons together that way; you just do and there’s the end of it. Perhaps Strawson would say that in such a world, emergence would be a miracle; but if it would, why isn’t every basic law a miracle by definition? I have my pride. I would prefer that the hard problem should turn out to be unsolvable if the alternative is that we’re all too dumb to solve it.
--Jerry Fodor, "Headaches Have Themselves," London Review of Books, Vol. 29 No. 10 · 24 May 2007