Presenter: Torin Alter (University of Alabama)

Title: Enthusiasm about Russellian Monism

Abstract: (by the speaker) “According to Russellian monism, consciousness is constituted by intrinsic properties that underlie structural properties described by physics. Enthusiasm about this theory is on the rise. Is this enthusiasm justified? I will consider two reasons to think not. One is that the theory offers nothing truly new. The other is that it fails to deliver on its promise to well integrate consciousness into the natural, causal order. I will suggest that neither reason is compelling. I will also suggest that seeing why provides insight into what we should ask of a theory of consciousness and its place in nature.”

Present: Torin Alter, Susan Schneider, Ed Turner, Vincent Paladino, Ian Phillips, Christopher Brown, Jonathon Gold, Bruce Malloy
We met outdoors in the dining area courtyard at IAS

Torin distributed a handout, which is attached, to outline his talk. 

Handout: Enthusiasm about Russellian monism

Torin Alter

Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton University, May 24, 2018

Russellian monism. Consciousness is constituted by quiddities: intrinsic properties that underlie structural-and-dynamic properties described by physics (e.g., Russell 1948, 1959, Maxwell 1978, Chalmers 1996, 2013, Rosenberg 2004).

Four core claims. Physical information is structural. There are quiddities. Quiddities are (proto)phenomenal. Quiddities constitute consciousness.

The hype. Russellian monism both takes consciousness seriously and adequately integrates consciousness into the natural, causal order. This is an advantage over standard dualism and standard physicalism (Chalmers 2013). 

Progress skepticism. Russellian monism does not settle whether consciousness is fundamental and thus leaves us where we started (Kind 2015).

Response.True premise, invalid inference. Russellian monism reframes the issues substantively. That matters. For example, physicalism is less central. 

Causal skepticism. Quiddities are just along for the causal ride. Argument from swapped-quiddity scenarios (Howell 2015, Robinson forthcoming, Pautz forthcoming).

Response. Invalid inference. If a disposition is causally efficacious, then so is its categorical ground (Johnston 1992, Stoljar 2001). That is true even if categorical grounds could be swapped. Also, some Russellian monists reject quiddity swaps as impossible (Morch 2014, Morris forthcoming).

What should we want? A good philosophical theory should explain how consciousness fits into the natural, causal order. How so?

Common sense? Should a theory preserve the common-sense idea that my feeling of thirst directly causes me to move my arm, lifting the water glass to my mouth (Papineau 2002)?

Not necessarily.Consciousness need only figure somewhere, non-arbitrarily and non-redundantly, into the causal nexus.

End of Handout.

     Beginning his talk:  He said that by “consciousness” he means experience or feeling.  What is it like to see red or feel pain? Russellian Monism says roughly that those what-it’s-like properties are or are constituted by intrinsic properties that underlie the most basic properties posited by physics. He said that he did not think this theory is clearly true. Rather, he compared his attitude to Winston Churchill’s attitude to democracy: its main virtue is that the alternatives are even worse. 
     He distinguished two versions of Russellian Monism: Russellian panpsychism and Russellian panprotopsychism. Panpsychism, he said, is roughly the view that consciousness is ubiquitous. He referred Skrbina’s book “Panpsychism in the West”, which argues that panpsychism has been defended many places in the history of philosophy. He mentioned that Skrbina’s conclusion is described on the back cover as “panpanpsychismism”.
     Torin briefly reviewed the history of Russellian Monism.  It was named about 20 years ago by David Chalmers.  Grover Maxwell’s paper 20 years prior to that is the modern locus classicus of the view. There Maxwell addressed an argument Saul Kripke presented here, at Princeton University. Kripke said very roughly: consciousness is not the same as brain states, as some believe, since any brain states could exist without any consciousness.  Kripke expanded that idea to apply to not just brain states but also any physical property.  So, what is a “physical property”?  Science gives us very abstract explanations of what things do and how they relate to other things, not what they are in themselves.  Maxwell asks, what are physical properties other than what things do and how they relate to other things?  Russellian Monism says that there are underlying properties, and that those underlying properties also constitute consciousness.
     Russellian Monism makes four core claims: (see the handout sheet)
“Physical information is structural. There are quiddities. Quiddities are (proto)phenomenal. Quiddities constitute consciousness.”
Physical information is structural. For example, take the physical property of solidity: of being solid as opposed to liquid or a gas. This property is dispositional. For example, a solid thing will not take the shape of its container in the way that a liquid will. Underlying a thing’s solidity is a categorical property: the molecules composing that thing have a certain lattice structure. But when we scrutinize that underlying property, we find that it too can be analyzed into dispositional properties of the molecules. In Simon Blackburn’s phrase, “We get dispositions all the way down.” Physical descriptions concern dispositional properties—or more generally, structural and dynamic properties. That’s the first of the four claims.
     The second core claim is that there are, in addition to dispositions, “quiddities”, also known as “inscrutables” (that’s Barbara Gail Montero’s term) – intrinsic properties that are not just structural but that underlie the structure and dynamics physics describes. Many physical properties are, in some sense, not structural. For example, that a ball is round is an intrinsic property of the ball. The ball’s roundness the categorical basis for its propensity to roll down an incline. But its roundness is still structural in that it can be analyzed in terms of spatiotemporal relations among the ball’s parts. Quiddities can’t be analyzed in that way.
    The third core claim is that quiddities are either phenomenal or protophenomenal properties. Phenomenal properties are properties of consciousness—what-it’s-like properties. Protophenomenal properties are not phenomenal but they constitute phenomenal properties when arranged or structured in the right way.
     Ian suggested experiences are in the wrong category here.  In physics there must be events as well as structure.
    Torin responded that Ian is correct, but he distinguished between physical events and experiences. In physics, events are described in entirely structural and dynamical terms. It is not clear that experiences can be completely described in such terms. So, experiences may have properties that meet the criteria for quiddities. 
     Saying that quiddities are phenomenal properties is hard to swallow. That would seem to imply that there are subjects of experience at the microphysical level, which sounds implausible. That’s why Chalmers introduces protophenomenal properties. Identifying quiddities as protophenomenal properties avoids panpsychism and micro-subjects.
     The fourth core claim is that consciousness is constituted by quiddities. This means that quiddities constitute not only any consciousness that might exist on the microphysical level but also familiar consciousness such as seeing red or feeling pain.
     Torin now proceeded to discuss the Hype.  Russellian monism is lauded as combining the best aspects of both dualism and materialism while avoiding their pitfalls. An advantage of dualism is that it “takes consciousness seriously”, in Chalmers’ phrase. However, traditional dualism postulates two separate realms: a mental realm and a physical realm. For that reason, traditional dualism fails to adequately integrate the mental into nature. For example, on epiphenomenalist dualism my conscious thirst does not contribute at all to the causation of my walking to the ‘fridge for a drink; my thirst is a mere by-product of brain processes, which do all the causal work. That’s David Papineau’s example. Physicalism does better than dualism with respect to integrating consciousness into nature. If, for example, my thirst is identical to a brain process or brain state, then it might well contribute to the physical process that results in my walking to the ‘fridge. But this identification seems to come at the cost of not taking consciousness seriously. The distinctive features of consciousness are either denied or distorted. Russellian monism is said to take consciousness seriously while at the same time adequately integrating consciousness into physical causation.
   Torin then turned to reasons some are skeptical about Russellian monism. He began with what he called “progress skepticism”. Amy Kind has criticized Russellian Monism for leaving us where we started. That’s because Russellian monism does not solve the central problem of whether consciousness is a fundamental element of the natural world. Russellian monism, she suggests, merely rewords this problem but does not do anything to solve it. In the words of Pete Townsend, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
     Torin agreed that Kind’s main premise is true. The two versions of Russellian monism he distinguished differ on the question of whether consciousness is a fundamental feature of the natural world.  Russellian panpsychism says it is.  Russellian panprotopsychism says it’s not. So, Kind is right about that.
    However, Torin suggested, it does not follow that Russellian monism leaves us where we started. Conceiving of the issues, including the fundamentality issue, in Russellian Monist terms might qualify as, or at least help lead to, substantial progress. As an indication of this, Torin said that Russellian monism changes the significance of whether physicalism is true. Before this theory came on the scene, a (maybe the) central question is whether physicalism is true. But from the Russellian monist’s perspective, that question is largely verbal. It consists largely in whether we want to restrict what counts as “physical” to things described by physics, or instead to allow intrinsic underlying properties (quiddities) to potentially count as physical.
    Christopher suggested that we should think of Russellian panprotopsychism as a type of physicalism, but then protophenomenal properties need to be defined in way that they’re not fundamentally mental. Torin agreed that “physical” should be defined partly with a “no fundamental mentality” clause. But that, he said, is consistent with adding other parts to the definition of “physical”, as Jessica Wilson does, for example.
    Torin then mentioned another objection to Russellian Monism. This other objection is that the theory does not deliver on the promise to adequately integrate consciousness into nature.  Quiddities don’t do any work in physical causation. The reason is that the physical processes would be exactly the same even if the quiddities were swapped. Suppose that quiddity Q1 underlies negative charge. Now imagine a possible world in which the quiddity underlying negative charge is Q2 instead of Q1. Why would that make any difference to what negative charge does, to its effects? It wouldn’t matter at all. If so, then Q1 doesn’t do any causal work; it just goes along for the causal ride, in Robert Howell’s phrase.
     Torin said that Russellian monists could respond in two ways. They can argue that the objector’s reasoning is invalid. In the actual world, Q1 helps negative charge have the effects it has because Q1 categorically grounds that property. That might be true even if in another possible world Q2 might have played that same role. Further, Russellian monists could argue, it is not at all obvious that the Russellian monist must agree that quiddities can be swapped in the way the objection requires.
    Torin then said that there is a general lesson here. He returned to David Papineau’s example of his conscious thirst helping cause him to walk to the ‘fridge. What should a philosophical theory of consciousness say about how his thirst helps cause his walking to the ‘fridge? There is a plausible weak claim and a less plausible strong claim. The weak claim is that his consciousness thirst should figure somewhere, non-redundantly in the causal explanation. That is a reasonable demand on a philosophical theory. The basis for rejecting epiphenomenalism is that epiphenomenalism fails in that regard. The strong claim is that his consciousness should figure in that causal explanation in a particular way: that it should figure in as an event at the same level as brain events. In fact, there is a version of Russellian monism on which that demand is met—a version in which thirst is identical to a brain event. On that identity-theory version of Russellian monism, although thirst is a brain event, brain events themselves are ultimately grounded in quiddities. But we should not demand that any philosophical theory of consciousness meet the strong constraint—that to adequately integrate consciousness into nature, the theory must say that thirst is part of a causal chain of events at the level of brain events. The weak constraint is sufficient: if consciousness figures in somewhere non-redundantly in the causal explanation, then that’s integration enough.
    Due to time constraints, Torin ended his formal presentation here and we began discussion.
Q: Ed  I like the Churchill quote.  All other explanations of consciousness remain incomplete and we will only complete them by learning something more.  In particle physics, we ask, “How many times does this theory rely on the tooth fairy?”  The fewer invocations of tooth-fairy postulates the better.  Ed thinks the dualism theory invokes the fairy to link the mental and physical.  Russellian Monism invokes the fundamental property we have no evidence for.  Physicalism in its standard form cites ‘they are all emergent properties’ as the fairy. Whether the fairy appears at the beginning or at the end, they all invoke the tooth fairy.
A: Excellent! But also look at how big the tooth fairies are. That is, it might matter not just how many magical claims a theory relies on but how magical those claims are. The fundamental nature of quiddities are unknown at present, so that should probably count as a tooth fairy; not sure how big.  Torin recalled that Bob Yost, a professor when he was at UCLA, as including “Emergent” in his the list of weasel words graduate students are not allowed to use. 
Susan: “Emergence” can be used in a non-magical way. For example, when scientists explain how the physical and chemical properties of water and light entail that water is transparent. But “emergence” is also sometimes used in a magical way, where a property magically “emerges” from other properties in ways that aren’t at all clear.
Torin:  Agreed. We want to find fundamental explanations for why the world is as it is. 
Q: Christopher  (who is studying physicalism and Russellian monism as a grad student): Russellian Monism is progress because it offers physicalists a new response.  Does Mary (who studies color while in an entirely black and white world) learn something new when she sees red?  Zombie worlds are “scrutable only “ worlds. Russellian Monism makes physicalism more plausible, but does not diminish physicalism.
A:   Good point. That’s a better reason than I gave for concluding that Russellian monism does not commit the Pete Townsend fallacy of just rephrasing the same problem in different words. The better reason is that Russellian monism provides a compelling response to anti-physicalist arguments such as the knowledge argument and the conceivability argument. I’d go further. Those arguments could be seen not only as negative arguments against traditional physicalism but also as positive arguments for Russellian monism. Here is why. Those arguments work by revealing what’s wrong with a feature of traditional physicalist views: those views imply that there is nothing more to consciousness that the structural-and-dynamic information physics and other objective sciences reveal. So, what the arguments seem to show is that to explain consciousness we need non-structural properties. And that points us in the direction of Russellian monism.
Q: Ian  How much progress have we made by adding proto-phenomenal explanations to conceptual properties?
A:  Right, it might not seem clear why the arguments used against physicalism can’t be used equally against Russellian panprotopsychism. One of those arguments is based on the conceivability of a zombie world. That’s a consciousness-free world that duplicates the actual world in all physical respects. If a zombie world is conceivable, then why can’t we also conceive of a protophenomenal zombie world, that is, a consciousness-free world where all the physical and protophenomenal properties are duplicated? The answer is that we don’t know much about what protophenomenal properties are. They are described by their roles: they are intrinsic properties that categorically ground basic physical properties and also combine to constitute consciousness. They are a kind of black box. By contrast, with regular physical properties of the sort described in physics, we know more or less what they are like. Granted, we don’t know about all properties posited by completed physics. But we do know they’ll be structural. And that’s why we can be pretty confident that we know what we’re doing when we conceive of a zombie world. But because there’s so little we know about protophenomenal properties, we can’t say with any confidence what all would be implied by duplicating them. So, we have no good reason to think we can coherently conceive of a protophenomenal duplicate world that doesn’t contain consciousness.
Q:  Jonathon  The old Buddhists are dualists. But when you add Emptiness we get mistrust of all doctrines.  We may be mistaken about what is consciousness.  We may not be aware of what constitutes our own awareness.  We should be skeptical about our intuitions.  The idea that my being thirsty causes me to get a drink is already not true based on neuroscience.  Buddhists say there are appearances and reality, but neither are real and both are illusory.  And even looking deeper, there is no ground level.  It’s empty all the way down.  It seems to Jonathon that saying “at the micro level we don’t understand” is already yielding a lot to Dennett and thinkers like him.
A: In panpsychism consciousness is not an illusion, but is even more fundamental a part of the universe.
Jonathon: The common thread is enough to recognize that much of our own understanding of our consciousness is false and is a misconception and should increase our skepticism about our intuitions.
Torin: Much of our understanding of consciousness might be mistaken. But not all. There is something about my first person experience that I may describe incorrectly.  My leg pain might really be in my brain, not in my leg. But there is something irrefutable about my experience of pain. It can’t turn out, for example, that I don’t feel anything at all when it seems to me that I’m in agony.
Ed:  The metaphor in Buddhism is Awakening, but there is still something about Dreaming that is real.

While some had to leave at this time, others continued the discussion.

Michael J. Solomon, MD