Deprioritizing the a Priori Arguments Against Physicalism

I have been working on a rewrite of the paper I presented at the first Consciousness Online and the Pacific apa for the special issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies that I am editing. The paper is still very drafty and needs a couple more passes before it will be anything like ready to submit to outside review but even so I think the general structure of the paper is emerging. I would be very grateful for any feedback/comments on the paper (The general line of argument is very much in line with Eric’s sentiments in his recent post on The Meta-Hard Problem). Below is the link. 

Deprioritizing draft


  1. I enjoyed this paper. There were some spelling mistakes, even zoombie being spelled zombie.

    Non-physical universes are amusing but dualists reserve the right to say that they do not follow any rules of reason etc. For example, the Res Cogitans is a supernatural place, not a parallel universe with rules of logic.

  2. Richard Brown

    Hi John thanks for the comment and I am glad that you enjoyed the paper. I know I have to go over it with a fine-tooth comb and hunt down those spelling errors!

    I am not sure, though, what work appealing to the supernatural will do to save the dualist from the argument I am trying to make. That is, even if we suppose suppose that the Res Cogitans is a supernatural place without rules of logic (though I wouldn’t think that most dualists would agree with this) it’s still the case that I conceive of that place without phenomenal consciousness and yet including all of the nonphysical properties that I in fact have. That is enough to make the point that I want…but maybe I have misunderstood the point you were trying to make?

  3. I’m sympathetic to physicalism as well, Richard, so this paper interests me.

    I have a comment regarding pain asymbolics as a counterexample to the claim that the primary and secondary intension of “Painful stuff is c-fibers firing” are the same. Even if pain asymbolics don’t hurt when something painful occurs to them, meaning that something unlikable is contingently associated with pain, they’re still able to determine that the sensation is painful. You write that pain asymbolics “are able to discriminate painful stimuli”, but “fail to be motivated to withdraw and say that they do not find the sensation unpleasant at all”. Suppose that a pain asymbolic (let’s call him Frank) has a broken arm and knows that he has one because he can discriminate the sensation from other sensations. Even though the broken arm isn’t painful, Frank knows that it’s broken because he has previously experienced similar sensations. He sees a doctor not because his arm is in pain, but because he knows it’s broken. The sensation, painful or not, is a sign to one’s body that something is wrong. Perhaps the primary and secondary intension can be reformulated as “Feeling unpleasantness is c-fibers firing”, which seems non-contingently associated with pain. The primary and secondary intensions of unpleasantness are the same.

    Also, here’s a suggestion. Gualtiero Piccinini and Katalin Balog’s names are misspelled in endnote 6. Also, if you cite Gualtiero’s unpublished paper, here’s how he’d like it to be cited (I know because I work with him):
    Piccinini, Gualtiero (2006), “Access Denied to Zombies.” Unpublished manuscript. Presented at Tucson VII – Toward a Science of Consciousness 2006, Tucson, AZ.

  4. Richard Brown

    Hi Jim thanks for the very helpful comment and catching those typos!

    First some terminological stuff. Frank’s arm would hurt and be painful, as he himself would tell you, but that hurting would be in no way unpleasant for him. That is, he recognizes that he is in pain(and can tell you that it is a sharp shooting pain or a dull throbbing pain, etc) but denies that being in pain is anything to get worked up about. This is supposed to show that feeling unpleasantness and being in pain come apart and so are contingently associated (or at least that it is conceivable that this be the case). So when you say, 

    Perhaps the primary and secondary intension can be reformulated as “Feeling unpleasantness is c-fibers firing”, which seems non-contingently associated with pain.

    I am not sure what you are claiming is non-contingently associated with pain. But even if we granted your point I don’t think it would effect the argument I was giving. I was trying to show that the physicalist is not necessarily committed to strong necessities which is an a posteriori necessity that has a necessary primary intension.  On my view unpleasantness will have identical primary and secondary intensions but the identity between it and whatever physical state it is (say D-fiber firing) will be an a priori identity and so will be a priori (we just are not in a position to see it a priori yet). So my view doesn’t have problems with strong necessities even if we allow the identity of PI and SI…so I think I need to rewrite that section to make this clearer.  
  5. Richard Brown

    Hi just another quick thought about the pain asymbolic. They suggest that it is at least conceivable that painfulness is a contingent property of pains and if pains are c-fiber firing then it shows that painfulness is a contingent property of c-fiber firing. So when the dualist is conceiving of the zombie world they are just conceiving of c-fibers without one of their contingent properties and this explains why zombies seem to us to be so prima facie conceivable.  

  6. Bill

    So there are at least two ways of creating a zombie by your hypothesis: removing the subjective aspect itself, and removing a physical property of the path to the subjective aspects of the person?

  7. Richard Brown

    Hi Bill thanks for the question. 

    I think that this is the standard property dualist line here. Chalmers thinks that there are special non-physical laws that connect the structural/functional states of the physical world to the nonphysical qualitative properties. Two ways to get rid of these properties are either to remove the laws that connect the physical states to nonphysical properties or to keep those laws and have the physical states be different. If I am right and zombies merely seem ideally conceivable but are really only prima facie conceivable then when people say they are conceiving of the zombie world they must be conceiving of something like the second possibility not the first. But that world is no threat to physicalism.

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