The Case Against Physicalism

We have to start from scratch, because we’re biased.

Entertain the idea that all your beliefs about the world are wrong. You’ve been dreaming your whole life, and you’ve just awoken in the real world. You don’t know how anything works. You don’t know what types of things exist. All you know is that you’re having sensory experiences. You feel things.

This is, in essence, a newborn’s mindset. Entrenched concepts have not been formed about anything. There’s just an awareness – a kind of structureless stream of feeling, devoid of any theoretical understanding of “what’s going on and for what reason?”

Then, the process of understanding begins. We develop theories. “X exists; it’s separate from Y, and it seems to cause Z.” Or, “I see something, and when I touch it, I get this experience of pain. Let’s call the thing ‘a stove’, and the location of pain ‘my hand’. Sometimes, touching the stove doesn’t hurt my hand. So the pain must only come when it emits this warm feeling.”

Thus, a conceptual connection is formed between “a stove”, “heat”, “hands”, and “pain”. That’s one way to illustrate the following, essential point:

We develop theories to best explain the phenomena that we experience.

This point cannot be overemphasized. Our theories are constructed for the purpose of sensibly explaining our experiences. This process continues as we keep learning; we gain conceptual tools – about the world, ourselves, objects, feelings, people, animals, etc.

Experience is Prior to Theory

Our default intellectual position cannot presuppose a set of conclusions about the world – we cannot be “physicalists”, “idealists”, “atheists”, or “theists” by default. The only theoretical knowledge we can universally presuppose is logically necessary truths. Everything else is open to doubt.

I say this because, in the West, the presupposition of physicalism is almost universal. The concept that “everything that exists is essentially within four physical dimensions” seeps into our theories by default. But we musn’t let it. We have to be aware of our concepts; the existence of a physical, four-dimensional world is a theory, which is constructed to best explain the phenomena that we experience.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that “the physical world is only a concept.” I am saying, “Our conception of ‘the physical world’ – as an explanation for the phenomena that we experience – may or may not accurately depict reality.“

I have a positive, strong belief in the existence of the physical world, because the theory best explains the phenomena I experience. The idea is extraordinarily powerful and persuasive. But I won’t treat the concept as true-by-default. It is logically possible that the physical world does not exist.

That being said, I do not believe the existence of a physical universe is sufficient to explain all the phenomena I experience. You might say it is “epistemologically insufficient”, and the desire to be fully sufficient forces us to expand our theories.

The Toolbox of Physicalism

Of course, we need to lay out some definitions. First, an unsatisfactory definition of “physicalism”:

The theory that, ultimately, everything is physical.

Well, what do we mean by “physical”? This is a difficult question to answer, and I don’t think a precise definition exists. Here’s one attempt: “physical” means “fundamentally constituted by particular states of the four-dimensional universe.”

Now, there are different types of physicalism, but this article will focus on so-called “reductive physicalism”. Meaning, every phenomenon is fully explained by – and reducible to – the fundamental truths of physics.

We have to be careful. It might be tempting to say, “Everything is reducible to bits of matter – ‘matter’ being understood as ‘extended substance’”. But that definition wouldn’t leave room for non-particular phenomena like gravity. Also, it wouldn’t explain the fabric of spacetime itself – empty three-dimensional space is still physically existent.

We use certain conceptual terms to reference physical phenomena – mass, shape, motion, charge, force, momentum, etc. All other phenomena that humans perceive – whether biological, mental, spiritual, psychological, etc. – are reducible to the basic laws of physics. Just like we perceive “objects” as independent things, like chairs, they are ultimately explained by their constituent particles; explaining the phenomenon of “a chair” is identical to explaining the phenomena of all the individual particles constituting the chair.

Building a Theory

Consider how we might construct, apply, and expand our theories within the physicalist framework.

You look up at the sky every night, and what do you see? Little points of light, moving ever so slightly, overhead. Without knowledge of modern ideas, the non-physicalist might say, “The lights overhead are from the Gods. They oversee and guide the actions of humans. Depending on the arrangement of lights in the sky, it will affect how your life is experienced.”

The physicalist might say, “No such nonsense. The lights appear to be spheres of light, either lodged in the firmament, or extremely far away from us. There is no reason to add anything mystical or divine.”

Then, to explain the movement of the stars, the physicalist might track their paths in the sky and create a model to predict their future movement. A likely result would be something like Ptolemy’s system – which made remarkably precise predictions about the motion of planets in the sky – except it assumed that Earth was stationary and at the center of the solar system.

This is not a grave, error, however, when you think about the reason we construct theories. What experience did Ptolemy have to think otherwise? He didn’t experience the motion of the earth spinning and hurdling through space; it felt stationary. Only until other astronomers came around and gained more experience did the theory need to change. Only upon the experience of phenomena not compatible with the Ptolemaic theory did we get heliocentricism and knowledge of elliptical orbits.

Given the conceptual tools of Ptolemy, you cannot satisfactorily explain what Galileo observed in the early 17th century: the changing phases of Venus. The conceptual toolbox, if you will, needed to expand to be able to explain what would otherwise be unexplainable.

However, the error does not lie with Ptolemy or early geocentrists who merely held a wrong belief; it lies with people who clung to geocentricism after experiencing phenomena incompatible with their theory – the dogmatists, who refused to change their concepts about how the world worked.

The point of this example is not to talk about astronomy. It’s to show the relationship between our theories, our experiences, our concepts, and the appropriate justification for “expanding our toolbox”.

The Venus of Physicalism

So, how does all of this relate to physicalism? Simple: the conceptual tools of physicalism do not fully explain all the phenomena we experience. Specifically, the phenomenon of conscious, subjective awareness – of “qualia”, in the philosophic jargon. Regardless of how precise our physical theories, it appears that conscious awareness cannot be fully explained by the concepts of physicalism. Our toolbox needs to expand.

Consider the humble stove. Imagine a pot of water boiling on it. We can fully explain the phenomenon we’re experiencing. We just need to know the laws of physics. There is no “information loss” – meaning, our experiences are completely explained by the categories and concepts we’re using. If you had a perfect understanding of all the positions of every atom, including all the relevant physical forces, you’d have a complete explanation of what’s happening.

Now imagine, instead of a pot of water, you placed your hand on the stove. The heat transfers to your hand; the pain shoots up your arm; electrical signals fire throughout your brain. Imagine you had a complete physical explanation of the phenomenon – just like the boiling water. Would you have any information loss? Would anything remain unexplained?

I think so – how the pain feels in your subjective awareness.

The awareness/feeling of experience itself is the phenomenon unexplained by physicalist terminology. We can imagine an identical scene with a robot placing his hand on a hot stove. The heat transfers, the electrical signals fire, and it seems at least plausible to imagine the mental awareness not even existing – which would imply that “physical” and “mental” are two separate categories – just like the camera snaps pictures without any experience of “seeing the picture”.

Brain and Mind

Let’s get down to the real core of the issue: the brain. Everybody at least acknowledges the extremely close correlation between “physical brain states” and “mental mind states”. If physicalism is true, it necessarily implies the following:

There is no difference between physical states and mental states; they are 100% identical. Descriptions of physical states fully communicate all the information present in any particular phenomenon.

Here’s a concrete example: we’ve discovered in neuroscience that “the experience of pain” is correlated with the firing of group C nerve fibers in the brain. The physicalist says that, “The firing of group C nerve fibers is the same thing as the experience of pain. They are identical. There is literally no other phenomenon taking place and no more information to be communicated.”

If the experience of pain is not 100% identical with “the firing of group C nerve fibers” – if there is any information not captured by this explanation – then we must admit some kind of non-physicalism, as referencing “the experience of pain” would not be referencing any physical state.

Let’s contrast this again with the boiling water on a stove. Say you had a perfect knowledge of each atom’s location and state. You knew all the physical laws and all the particular magnitudes present in this scenario. Would there be any information lost? I don’t think so. Knowledge of the physical state gives you perfect theoretical knowledge, with nothing missing. We don’t need any other conceptual tools than physicalism provides.

Think for a moment about the peculiarity of the phenomenon of consciousness. We acknowledge the universe is composed of a bunch of inanimate stuff – matter, energy, forces, etc. None of these constituent particles are “conscious” – it doesn’t “feel like anything” to be a particle or wave, according to the physicalist.

Yet, in this one specific location in space, get an entirely unique phenomenon: a first-person experience. A subjective perspective – a point of awareness about something.

So, to be clear, when you assemble unconscious, third-person, lifeless matter just right, out pops an absurd phenomenon. From “bits and forces moving around”, to “somebody being aware of something.” The question naturally arises: why should third-person phenomena ever be coupled with a first-person experience? Or, as the philosopher David Chalmers puts it:

It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

Chalmers also concludes that there must be a metaphysical category difference between the subjective and the objective – between mind and matter, first-person and third-person, conscious and non-conscious. As he says, “consciousness is fundamental.”

Even if you knew the position of every atom in the universe, and every possible physical detail, a perfect description of third-person phenomena will never give you all the theoretical information about a first-person experience. There’s going to be information loss – or so it seems.

Though I admit, things would be a lot easier if humans were simply unaware robots or unfeeling clumps of matter. If we didn’t have to deal with “consciousness” or apparently “being inside the universe”, we wouldn’t need to expand our vocabulary.  But that isn’t the case – just like the geocentricists, we need to expand our theories if presented with phenomena we cannot fully explain.

Chess and Science

I’ll give you a couple more examples highlighting the apparent difference between physical and mental. Consider a chess game. What’s going on? You have two people, a wooden board, some pieces, chairs, a table. When I reference “a chess game”, what I am I talking about? Imagine we took a strictly physicalist approach: the entirety of a chess game is explained by the motion of wooden pieces on a wooden board. If you knew the location of all the bits of matter on the board, and all the neural activity in the brains of the participants, you would have a full explanation of what “a chess game” is. There would be zero information loss.

This explanation, I think, misses the entire game of chess. Chess isn’t something physical. It isn’t something to be scientifically understood by examining spacetime. It’s a mental phenomenon. It has to do with the relation between rules, concepts, and logic. The rules aren’t physical. The concepts aren’t physical. The logic isn’t physical. In fact, monks have played games of chess without a board or pieces – entirely in their minds. Would explaining their neural activity give you a full explanation of the phenomena they are experiencing? It seems doubtful.

The most satisfactory explanation includes both the physical and the mental. Yes, there are physical correlates in a chess game – usually a board, pieces, hands, etc. And certainly, there is neural activity in the participants’ brains. But the real “meat” of chess is mental. You cannot possibly think you understand the phenomenon of chess only through empirical, physical examination.

Further strengthening the case for non-physicalism, we can use the new metaphysical category to place other peculiar phenomena. “Awareness” is not the only inhabitant of the mental world. Concepts, too, have a real existence, but they are not spatial. “The number three” is a concept, but it doesn’t weigh anything, and it isn’t located in spacetime. Beings, too, seem to occupy the mental world – persons, who are not fully reducible to their constituent physical bodies. (Where the boundary is – if any – for “persons” is an article for another time).

Consider another methodological problem. What tools does the physicalist bring to the table to examine the phenomena he experiences? Naturally, he brings his physical senses. The objects of his scrutiny will be – by presupposition – physical. So, what does a physicalist conclude when viewing a chess match? Simple: the same thing he concludes when seeing pool balls being broken on a table. Nothing to see, nothing to explain, except for the physical phenomena you can examine.

I think this is a methodological flaw. By presupposing that “all existent things are essentially physical”, it closes the door to proof otherwise – like a colorblind scientist who keeps hearing people talk about “the amazingness of different colors”, but because he can’t see them, he concludes there’s nothing going on but nonsense and superstition.

If you keep your methodology open, and don’t presuppose physicalism from the start, then what evidence might you accumulate to strengthen the case for non-physicalism? Well, it’s all around us. Internal experiences are essential to human beings; we only need to introspect to become aware of them. If you don’t assume that “pool balls and humans are fundamentally constituted in the same way”, then there’s a mountain of evidence supporting the idea that “conscious, living things occupy a different metaphysical category than unconscious matter and energy.”

But, as I said in the beginning, our biases run deep. We’re used to looking for “external” evidence – testing, measuring, feeling, sensing, etc. But “internal” phenomena can never be discovered this way. They aren’t spatial. They will appear non-existent – just like the physicalist only sees a chess game as wooden pieces moving on a board.

The physicalist might respond, “What, so you’re giving a special existence to humans and animals? We should assume everything in the universe works the same way – not some special-pleading case for our corner of the cosmos.”

To which I would respond: yes, of course that’s what I’m doing. Keep an open methodology, observe conscious things, and you might do the same. “Awareness” is the most absurd phenomenon in the universe, by a mile.

Awareness Before Concepts

Consider one last thought experiment. Imagine you were born blind, deaf, and quadriplegic. Your entire life has consisted of minimum sensory experience. Perhaps even hallucinatory – your visual sensory input is only an amorphous blob changing color.

Your job is to create theories to best explain the phenomena that you experience.

Conceptually, would you even posit the existence of “a physical world” at all? Could you even come up with a coherent concept of “what three-dimensional space is like”?

It seems plausible to imagine somebody’s worldview not including a theory of spacetime. However, it is impossible for somebody’s theory to not include the presupposition of internal awareness. In other words, as it relates to our theories about the universe, “the concept of three-dimensional space” is – in extreme circumstances – optional, while “the concept of conscious awareness” is not optional – it’s necessary.

This is the degree of skepticism we should have about our foundational presuppositions. If it’s possible to doubt the existence of the external world, then we must not treat the concept as necessary.

What Are The Alternatives?

It’s natural to ask, “Well, what’s the alternative to physicalism? Don’t those theories have their own problems?”

The question is important, but crucially, it is secondary. We have to be able to recognize a theory as “not-true”, without needing to commit to any alternative. That being said, I’ll just share a few basic alternatives to physicalism, without making the case for or against them.

I. Idealism

Idealism is the opposite of physicalism. Instead of saying, “everything is fundamentally physical”, it says “everything is fundamentally mental.” This idea is especially popular in Eastern philosophy, which thinks our minds “construct” the world around us.

II. Dualism

Dualism takes the middle ground by saying, “Physical phenomena exist, and mental phenomena exist, but neither is reducible to the other.” I am most persuaded by this option, though it comes with its own set of problems like, “How do categorically different phenomena interact with each other?” In a later, article, I will make the case for dualism – or specifically, why I call myself a “reluctant” dualist.

III. Panpsychism

The panpsychist position is easy to dismiss, but it actually holds remarkable explanatory power. It says that “all physical states also contain mental states within them.” In other words, they might disagree with the idea that “there is no such thing as ‘feeling like an electron’”. To the contrary, they would say the recipe for consciousness is present throughout bit of matter in the universe. (You might say this was the philosophy of Pocahontas.)

IV. Neutral Monism

A theory I’m becoming more persuaded by. It simply says that, “Yes, physical phenomena exist, and yes mental phenomena exist. Neither is reducible to the other, but neither is fundamental. There is a kind of “third-substance”, which contains both the properties of “physical” and “mental”, in addition to some way of unifying them.

The purpose if this piece was not to make the case for any alternative to physicalism. It is, quite simply, to say, “Physicalism does not contain all the tools necessary to explain the phenomena we experience. Our theoretical toolbox must expand.”

Just how much we need to expand the toolbox, I don’t know. I’m open to suggestions.