Russellian Monism

The Online Consciousness Conference is now in its second week (It lasts until March 4th so there is still time to be involved). One thing that has come out in the discussion is the differences between Russellian Monism and epiphenomenalism. RM is the view that the dispositional properties talked about by physics have as their categorical base phenomenal or protophenomenal properties. Although it is not obvious it can be argued that RM is not a kind of epiphenomenalism (see the linked post above). This got me to thinking…what arguments are there against RM? The standard ones usually bandied about against property dualism don’t seem to work against RM, so are there any? 

Right off the bat I think that the shombie argument fares well here. It is at least ideally negatively conceivable that the properties talked about by physics entail that there are phenomenal properties either without any fundamental inscrutable properties or with fundamental categorical bases that are not phenomenal. The latter possibility was defended by Barbara Montero at the first online consciousness conference. That view is a kind of monism, physicalism even, not property dualism so shouldn’t be called RM.  



  1. gualtiero

    I’ve heard the term “Russellian monism” used for the view that the dispositional properties talked about by physics have categorical (or “qualitative”) bases that are also the basis for consciousness. This includes the view you define in the post but is not committed to the categorical bases of physical dispositions being phenomenal or protophenomenal (whatever that means).

  2. djc

    The biggest challenge to RM is the combination problem: how do those phenomenal or protophenomenal properties come to collectively constitute the sort of consciousness (unified, bounded, homogeneous, qualitative, etc) that we know and love. That’s a familiar problem for panpsychism but also applies to the panprotopsychist version.

    I’ve seen people (e.g. Nagasawa, Biggs) try to run versions of the knowledge argument or the conceivability argument against RM (e.g. one could know all the protophenomenal facts but not the phenomenal facts), but these seem inconclusive and basically come down to the challenge posed by the combination problem.

    I can’t see the shombie argument as an argument against RM per se. After all, the original shombie argument isn’t an argument against dualism — it’s an objection to the conceivability argument for dualism. I suppose that if one ran a conceivability argument against structure/function physicalism and for RM, one could run a shombie response. But RM needn’t be tied to such an argument.

    “Protophenomenal” just means “not phenomenal but can constitute the phenomenal”, perhaps with some flavor that these are special properties to be able to do this where ordinary structural/functional properties can’t. So RM is naturally seen as involving phenomenal or protophenomenal properties.

  3. After reading Philip Goff’s paper in the online conference, I checked out his website. He has a paper — “Ghosts and Sparse Properties” — that points out some challenges the conceivability of “ghosts” presents for Russellian Monism (which he calls “funny physicalism” in the paper).

  4. Richard-

    I agree that a universe that at bottom is made of pure disposition with nothing instantiating those dispositions makes no sense (we hear sometimes about “it from bit”; see Wolfram and Wheeler). And as Dave said, the real argument against RM is the combination or aggregation problem. Even if the dispositional properties (so concisely and accurately described by the laws of physics) are instantiated in each subatomic particle by (proto)phenomenal qualities, they stay at that low level. The particles themselves, and any composites of them, interact straightforwardly according to their dispositional properties, that is, their functional dynamics, and these interactions ride steel rails of physical causation. There simply is no obvious way the phenomenal properties, as such, scale up. Faced with this, the committed Russellian Monist is driven to some somewhat flaky speculation, usually involving quantum mechanics. Or something.

    FWIW, as a Russellian Monist myself, I’m willing to take this step. And the more I hang out here, the less flaky it seems . . .

    -John Gregg

  5. Eric Thomson

    Anybody? The claim is:
    “RM is the view that the dispositional properties talked about by
    physics have as their categorical base phenomenal or protophenomenal

    What is a categorical base? How is it different from a reducing base or supervenience base? What is categorical here?

  6. Eric Thomson

    Thanks! Seems similar to reducing base, but of a disposition, and by a nondispositional property.

    Also, where is this discussion? Richard’s link just takes us to a mirror of the post here, or to the conference website. Where is the discussion of monism?


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