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Physicalism & Empathetic Understanding

Michael Philips argues that the possibility of empathy is incompatible with the idea that the world is physical through and through.

A few years ago I suffered from a short spell of hyperthyroidism. Excessive levels of thyroxin flooded my bloodstream. My energy kicked up in an uncomfortably jerky, speedy, edgy way. I had no patience for anything. I felt like leaping over bank counters and choking tellers who chatted casually with each other, ignoring customers. It occurred to me later that this is what my wife must feel like during particularly severe episodes of PMS. Rightly or wrongly, I thought my experience of hyperthyroidism put me in a better position to understand her behavior during those periods. That is, I thought I had acquired some understanding through empathy. We have empathetic understanding if we better understand someone’s words or deeds by knowing what it felt like to be her in her situation. Usually, empathetic understanding is not sufficient to understand what someone says or does. We also need to know something about her personality, her character, and so forth as well. But empathetic understanding enables us to understand, explain and predict more than we could if we were limited to these ‘objective’ data alone. Everyone believes that empathetic understanding is possible, or rather everyone except philosophical physicalists and perhaps some autistic people.

Physicalism is the philosophical movement often thought to represent the scientific world view and, for that reason, it is now the dominant position in the philosophy of mind. But physicalism implies that empathetic understanding is impossible. According to physicalists the causally active aspect of the world is physical or material through and through. It is not entirely clear what physicalists mean by ‘physical’ and ‘material’.1 But no parties to this program believe that it includes conscious experience, i.e., the subjective aspect of emotions, feelings and sensations. The big problem for physicalism is consciousness.

Philosophers call conscious experiences qualia. Because we have qualia we know what it is like to see scarlet, hear a blue note, feel elation and so on. But since qualia are not physical, physicalists must deny that they are part of the causal structure of the world. Since this is so, physicalists must also deny that they can explain behavior. For the physicalist, then, knowing what it is like to itch does not help us to understand why people scratch. We rely on causal explanations for that and qualia can not be causes.

This consequence of physicalism is very counter-intuitive. It also leaves us with an evolutionary mystery. If qualia have no causal powers, they can not cause behavior and if they can not cause behavior they can not enhance reproductive success. So how did beings with consciousness experience evolve in the first place? The physicalist must explain consciousness as a by-product of what did get selected for (viz., nervous systems and brains). Evolution selected for nervous systems like ours because they produced adaptive behavior and, lucky for us, the physical world just happens to be structured such that these nervous systems also support consciousness. Of course, this explanation requires that we abandon all those apparently obvious evolutionary explanations of conscious states (for example, that pain enhance reproductive success by immobilizing injured body parts and that sexual pleasure enhances reproductive success by juicing us up about sex). If our nervous systems evolved because they produce adaptive behavior, they would have been selected for even if they didn’t support qualia. In fact, they would have been selected for even if they produced different qualia than they do.

This last consequence highlights the true weirdness of physicalism. Suppose that brain states that currently ‘support’ pleasurable sensations instead support painful ones and the brain states that currently support painful sensations now support pleasurable ones (I use ‘support’ as neutral between the various relationships physicalists have said to hold between qualia and brain states). If all else remained the same, the physicalist must hold that these changes would not affect our behavior. The tortured would still betray their friends even if brain states produced by torture produced feelings of good sex. And people would still be eager for sex even if the brain states caused by sexual contact produced sensations we now get from slamming a thumb in a car door. Let’s call this the Inverted Qualia Problem.

Physicalists might address this problem in three ways. First, they might argue that the inverted qualia result can be made intuitive. Second, they might argue that the inverted qualia thought experiment is incoherent. And finally, they might shrug their shoulders and say “Too bad for common sense.” After all, physicalism is central to our scientific world view so this is just another one of those cases in which common sense must bow before the authority of science.

According to the first reply, the inverted sex and torture results aren’t as crazy as they seem. They seem crazy because we make mistaken causal judgments. Since the pain of torture is typically followed by confessions, we infer that pain causes the confession when in fact the confession is caused by a brain state produced by the torture (which either also causes pain or is correlated with another torture-produced brain state that causes pain). If torture produced brain states that caused pleasure in another possible world, pleasure would typically be followed by confessions in that world and we would mistakenly conclude that pleasure caused confessions. People who live in this inverted qualia world would find it just as counterintuitive that pain causes confessions in our world as we find it that pleasure causes confessions in theirs. Once we understand this, the inverted sex and torture results should not seem all that strange to us.

This reply is based on a mistaken theory of the psychology of causal judgment (roughly, Hume’s). We do not causally connect the pain of torture to confession because we have repeatedly observed the pain of torture followed by confession. How many times, after all, have most of us been tortured or seen people tortured? We need only experience a very intense pain once to understand (or think we understand) why it’s so difficult to resist (just as we need only experience severe nausea once to understand or think we understand why it makes one look for a place to sit or lie down). That is, it is our acquaintance with the experiences of pleasure and pain that make the inverted qualia result seem so counterintuitive. Physicalists may reject the idea that qualia have causal powers on the basis of wider philosophical concerns, but the first reply does not make this any less counterintuitive.

A second reply attacks the coherence of the inverted qualia thought experiment. This reply is based on a theory of meaning called essentialism. Although aspects of this theory are technical, the general idea is this. Many words in our language do not mean what we think they mean. We think that ‘water’ names that clear liquid that falls from the sky and fills our rivers, lakes and ocean and that ‘water’ also applies to ice, steam and snow. But these are just manifestations or forms of water. Underlying these manifestations is an essence that explains what they all have in common, how they behave and why they take the various forms they do under the conditions they take them. That underlying essence is a molecular structure, H2O. That is what water is and, therefore, what ‘water’ really means. Anyone who uses ‘water’ to refer to some liquid other than H2O would be mistaken, however much that liquid resembles the liquid that falls from the sky, fills the rivers, and so forth.

Objects or phenomena with underlying essences are called natural kinds. The essences that underlie natural kinds are not always molecular structures. But whatever their nature, these essences explain why the objects and phenomena in question behave a they do. According to the second reply, then, pleasure, pain and other qualia are natural kinds. The underlying essences of these qualia are brain states. Accordingly, the meaning of terms like ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’ are the particular brain states that underlie them. But if this is true, the inverted qualia thought experiment is incoherent. We can give no sense to the hypothesis that the brain state that produces pain might produce pleasure. That is like saying that although ‘water’ means H2O there could be water that has some other molecular structure.

The issues raised by this theory are technical and complicated and I can’t do justice to them here. But two points are worth making. First, although this theory is generally defended by appealing to our intuitions in a famous thought experiment (the Twin Earth Case), it is highly counterintuitive.2 It implies, for example, that before we knew the molecular structure of water, no one knew what ‘water’ meant (a problem which can be generalized to hundreds if not thousands of words). Second, philosophers of language in the 20th century produced five theories of meaning that were widely accepted for a time and then replaced (logical atomism, verificationism, meaning as use, Quinean Holism and finally essentialism). Each of these theories were deployed to address and settle metaphysical questions, including questions in the philosophy of mind. Given the average shelf life of these theories, we can also expect essentialism to give way to a successor before too long. So the second reply asks us to reject the possibility of empathetic understand in the name of what is almost certainly a flash-in-the-pan philosophical theory.

A more interesting answer to the second reply is that even if we accept essentialism, there is no evidence that qualia are natural kinds. We know of no states or conditions of nervous systems that stand to sensations of warmth, hunger, thirst, pain and so forth the way that H2O stands to water. If we did, we could determine whether snakes, frogs, fish, ants, worms or oysters have these experiences at any given time simply by examining the state of their nervous systems. In fact, since the same essence would have to support the same qualia in every nervous system, we would have to understand, for example, the shooting pain states of all these nervous systems as identical to each other (and, of course, as identical to states of our own nervous system). And we would have to do this in terms of the hardware – the structure and wiring – alone. For example, we couldn’t say “Well, here’s the state of the chicken’s brain that produces sensations of warmth and here’s the state of the snake’s brain that produces sensations of warmth, so these states are identical to each other.” The fact that two very different structures or wirings produce the same result does not make them identical in the way underlying essences needs to be. If many different molecular structures produced the liquid that falls from the sky, fills the rivers and so forth, we could not say that the underlying essence of water is H2O. Water is a natural kind because one structure underlies all of it. If qualia were natural kinds, something analogous would have to hold for them. To have evidence that shooting pain is a natural kind is to have evidence that shooting pain is produced by one and only one condition present in the nervous system of every being that experienced shooting pain. There is no evidence for this. In fact, we don’t even know what such evidence would be like. That is because we lack concepts that would allow us to say that states of two differently wired and structured nervous systems are identical to each other in the relevant way (e.g., that some state of an oyster’s nervous system is identical to some state of a chicken’s, which are both identical to some state of a dolphin’s, which are all identical to some state of Hugh Grant’s brain, etc.).

Given all the glamour associated with brain science, it is worth pointing out that we can’t even do this for humans. We are not all built the same, like so many iMacs. Some brains have just one hemisphere. Many lack the usual hemispheric specialization. A few are not hemispheric at all. All brains form neuronal connections in relation to experience and damaged brains may rebuild to perform old tasks in new ways. Given these differences in structure and wiring we can not simply look at two brains and conclude that these neurons firing in this order in brain 1 is identical to those neurons firing in that order in brain 2. We might be able to say that each set of events perform the same function. But we have no way of saying whether they are the same state or two different states capable of performing the same function (think of all the different ways we can make a radio). Again, we lack the concepts in relation to which such identities can be described. This, by the way, means we are a very long way from formulating causal laws that link brain states to behavior. Despite the hooplah, we can predict very little about what someone will do just by looking inside her brain. At this stage, we can do far more with empathetic understanding (especially in conjunction with information about someone’s character or personality).

Since essentialism is not compelling and we have no evidence that qualia are natural kinds, the second reply is unconvincing. To address the inverted qualia problem, then, the physicalist must resort to the third strategy. The aggressive version goes like this. Physicalism is a central component of the scientific worldview and science always trumps common sense (the common sense of the past notwithstanding, the earth is not flat, the sun does not move across the sky, people are not possessed by demons, and so forth).

This fails on two counts. First, science is a history of failure as well as success. Theories rise and fall and discredited theories may enjoy long lives. We no longer believe that space and time are absolute, that heat is a fluid, that the universe is a closed causal system, that the expansion rate of the universe is slowing down, that we can identify criminals by examining the bumps on their head and so on. Second, physicalism is not really a scientific theory in the first place. It is a philosophical theory and a metaphysical one at that. The past triumphs of science can not be paraded before us to defend metaphysics.

A more careful version of this reply goes like this. Although physicalism may be a metaphysical theory, it is not the usual sort of metaphysical theory. It is not supported by a priori arguments and intuition but is rather based on the success of the sciences. This means that it is supported by observation and testing. Of course, observation and testing do not guarantee the success of our theories. They may be validated by experience but turn out to be wrong. Still, observation and testing are the best methods we have and they are certainly better than common sense (which is vulnerable to rumor, prejudice and the pressure to conform).

But not all common sense has these problems. Some common sense beliefs are strongly supported by observation, including the ones at issue. We have direct, first hand experience of pain making us limp, wince and drop hot potatoes. Admittedly, these experiences don’t prove anything. In days of yore, people also believed they observed the sun moving across the sky. But we know those observations were misleading because we have a well confirmed, well developed alternative theory that explains these observations and many other observations as well. We do not have a well confirmed, well developed theory that allows us systematically to predict behavior from brain states. Many of us are convinced that we will someday have one but we don’t have one now. Again, we can’t now predict very much behavior by watching neurons fire in someone’s brain. In this case, then, the opposition is not between untutored observation and theory but between untutored observation and the promise of a theory.

The physicalist might argue that this promise will almost certainly be kept. After all, science triumphed over ignorance and superstition because and only because it cleaned its house of occultists and supernaturalists by insisting that the world is physical through and through. It is only a matter of time before this strategy also leads to a thorough understanding of behavior. I agree that the sciences can not continue to succeed if they begin to explain the world in occult or supernatural terms. But science does not need to rely on metaphysics to guard against this. The sciences need only stick to their methodological guns and insist that all laws and explanations survive ordinary standards of testing. Because science succeeds as a result of its methods, not its metaphysics, it is method that should guard its gates. Furthermore, the claim that physicalism makes science possible gets things backwards. The world according to physics has undergone remarkable changes over the last three hundred years. Matter has gone from tiny impenetrable bits of stuff to a lumpy form of energy. These changes determine the meaning of the physicalism of the day. Physicalists are more like the ‘yes men’ of science than the Atlases upon whose shoulders the world of science rests.

Of course, the fact that science should be driven by method, not metaphysics, does not mean that it always is. At various stages in the history of science metaphysics has helped shape theory. The physicalism of the day does so now. In particular, it marginalizes and discredits research that addresses phenomena that seem to challenge the physicalism of the day (e.g., parapsychology and spiritualism). This can be a good thing. But it can also result in ignoring or paying too little attention to phenomena that deserve to be studied. Because biologists and medical researchers have no concepts to describe what Chinese practitioners call chi energy, for example, it took decades of documented, dramatic clinical successes before Western researchers did serious research on acupuncture (which remains understudied). The impact of beliefs, focused attention and attitudes on the body is also inadequately investigated. While many studies have demonstrated the power of the placebo effect, for example, there has been remarkably little theorizing about how it works and how it might be amplified to fight disease. The corresponding point holds for hypnosis. This is not entirely because big drug companies have no interest in funding such studies. It is also because physicalism makes many scientists suspicious of causal chains that run from the mental to the physical. This kind of gate-keeping retards the progress of science.

In sum, the third strategy for dealing with the inverted qualia problem also fails. Physicalism is not responsible for the success of the sciences. At most, it describes the metaphysical implications of contemporary physics and perhaps other sciences, which are obviously moving targets. We can only begin to guess what physics will look like a hundred years from now. Perhaps it will be based on seven, ten dimensional strings or five loops of energy two of which can move backwards in time. In that case, the distinction between the physical and the mental may become entirely obsolete. After all, it’s hard to see the point of calling ten dimensional strings physical and energy seems neutral between the physical and the nonphysical (in science fiction movies, minds in space are pictured as pulsing centers of energy). If that distinction is overcome, there may be no philosophical obstacles to acknowledging that qualia have causal powers. On the other hand, if neuroscientists do some day develop a set of theories systematically linking behavior to brain states we can retain a commitment to emphathetic understanding only by insisting that causes are really just certain kinds of correlations and that qualia are correlated with behavior in the right ways.

© Michael Philips 2005

Michael Philips is a professor of philosophy at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. In his spare time he is a photographer and performance artist.

1. For an account of this problem see my paper ‘What is Materialism?’, Philosophy Now Issue 42, July/August 2003.
2. For a longer explanation of the essentialist theory of meaning and the Twin Earth thought experiment see Christopher Norris, ‘Hilary Putnam on Realism, Truth and Reason,’ Philosophy Now Issue 49, January/February 2005.

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