Characterizing Physicalism

Toward a Dawn of a New Day

Daniel Alroy

Revised 2016 January 27

Philosophy and the problem of discovering what ought to be done. Technology, the most successful part of knowledge, provides information about what can be done. But only philosophy, the most troubled part of knowledge, can address the issue of what ought to be done.  It is as if technology is catapulting humanity into an unknown future, and philosophy set the trajectory toward apparent extinction. For this reason, the reconstruction of philosophy is a survival imperative.

What Went Wrong? The central fact about the nature of knowledge is that humans possess innate mental faculties. The acknowledgment of this fact by the philosophic community would constitute the dawn of the new day for the knowledge enterprise, and for the survival prospects of humanity. This paragraph encapsulates the last 300 year troubled history of the subject. Roger Sperry, in “Neurology and the mind body problem” (1952) observed that input to the brain is like ‘common currency’ and, as such, is devoid of sensory qualities. He concluded that the qualitative aspect of a sensation is determined by the stimulated brain target. Present-day neuroscience has confirmed Sperry’s prescient observation. A similar conclusion was reached by Rene Descartes (1637 & 1644) after spending some seven years dissecting brains in Holland. John Locke (1690) rejected Descartes’ ‘doctrine of innate ideas' and took the directly opposite view, postulating that sensations are imported into the brain from sensory receptors, none innate. Locke concluded that the mind of the newborn is like a blank slate (tabula rasa). David Hume (1777) made the tabula rasa assumption the basic tenet of his formulation of Empiricism - the view that the newborn does not, and cannot, have knowledge about the world prior to experience. Emanuel Kant (1871) showed that humans do have some knowledge of the world prior to experience. For example, Kant noted that humans’ perception of space as three-dimensional (3D) is innate and universal, and therefore Euclidean geometry applies to it. Consequently, some physical laws such as the inverse square laws are derivable directly from Euclidean geometry (e.g. Newton’s law of gravitation). In the very same year Charles Darwin published The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1871). In that book Darwin illustrated how his theory of evolution implies that humans, like other species, possess some innate behavioral and mental faculties. Curiously, by and large, the philosophic community has accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution, but not his conclusion regarding innateness.

Sociology of knowledge problem. Recent findings in neuroscience have empirically settled the issue of innateness in regards to sensation. The emerging consensus is reflected by the following quotation from a chapter on Neural Coding in Principles of Neural Science, edited by Kandel et al, in the 1991, 2000, and 2013 editions: “Color, tones, smells, and tastes are mental constructions created by the brain out of sensory experience. They do not exist, as such, outside the brain.” Physicalism, however, postulates properties such as sound and color are physical properties. In Color for Philosophers (1988) C. L. Hardin pleaded with his fellow philosophers not to take a position contrary to the empirical evidence. He failed. Color Ontology and Color science (2010), edited by Jonathan Cohen and Mohan Matthen, is dedicated to Hardin. The book makes no mention of the neuroscientific view that the sensation of color is innate. Instead, it elaborates views of color consistent with Physicalism. To me, this book reflects a sociology-of-knowledge problem. Other than noting it, this problem is outside the scope of our focus 

Some implication of the innateness of sensations: Medicine. The recent evidence that sensations are innate and are evoked by the brain implies that sensations are not imported into the brain from sensory receptors nor from the outside world through such sensory receptors. Put differently, the qualitative nature of a modality-specific elementary sensation is determined by the stimulated brain loci, not by the nature of the origin of the stimulus. Consequently, the direct electrical stimulation of the born deaf would elicit sensations of sound and the direct brain stimulation of the born blind would elicit sensations of light. 

Auditory prostheses. Brain auditory prostheses, which have been implanted in deaf-born children do elicit sensations of sound. This fact confirms that:

*  the sensations of sound are innate

*  the sensations of sound are evoked by the brain

*  the sensations of sound do not originate from the ears

*  sound is not a property of air vibrations  

Visual prostheses. For similar reasons, cortical visual prostheses that elicit sensations of light (‘phosphenes’) in persons that lost their vision would work when implanted in the born blind. Such trials are expected to take place in the near future. The elicitation of phosphenes by the direct stimulation of the brain (visual cortex) in the born blind would prove that

*  the sensation of light is innate 

*  the sensation of light is evoked by the brain

*  sensations of light do not originate from the eyes

*  phenomenal light is not a property of the electromagnetic spectrum

Epistemology. Innate sensations are private and, as such, phenomenal. Thus, experience is phenomenal. Our knowledge of the physical is inferred from the phenomenal. This fact confers epistemological priority of the phenomenal relative to the physical. For these reasons, it is not logically possible to infer the phenomenal from the physical.  

Ethics, law, and public policy. Once the innate commonalities of human nature are recognized and acknowledged, then ethical and legal systems that are implicitly based on the denial of this central fact will be phased out over time. The tabula rasa assumption denies that there are any innate human behavioral or mental capacities. As a result, current ethical and legal systems of the West are non-universal. Such systems are inherently incapable of addressing long-term global concerns. In due course the foundation of these ethical and legal systems would be made consistent with the fact that humans have innate commonalities. Then, for the very first time, humanity will be in the position to discover rationally what ought to be done.

Quote of the Week

Lynn Margulis

Neither DNA, nor an other kind of molecule can, by itself, explain life.

What is Life? 2000


© 2015 Daniel Alroy