Berkeley Revisited: The Hard Problem Considered Easy

Poster paper presented at the international conference, Toward a Science of Consciousness, Tucson, Arizona, April 1998.

Peter B Lloyd


Abstract

The philosophical mind-body problem, which Chalmers has named the 'Hard Problem', concerns the nature of the mind and the body. Physicalist approaches have been explored intensively in recent years but have brought us no consensual solution. Dualistic approaches have also been scrutinised since Descartes, but without consensual success. Mentalism has received little attention, yet it offers an elegantly simple solution to the hard problem.

This paper revisits Berkeley's theory, historically known as 'subjective idealism' ("A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge", 1710). It is re-interpreted from the perspective of modern linguistic philosophy. On this view, the physical world is considered as a convenient fiction, embodied in a language-game which contains the discourse of the physical sciences.

Of course, there is a tension between asserting that reality is mental, and respecting the predictive and explanatory success of the physical sciences. There are two strands to this tension. First, there is a feeling that science has explained almost everything, and needs only to tidy up some loose ends. But, although the domain of physical investigation is certainly boundless, there is also an infinitely rich realm where physical science has no grip: that of qualitative experience. And it is not clear that the domain of the physical sciences is 'bigger' than the realm of subjective experiences. The second strand of tension is a concern that the basic tenets of mentalism flatly contradict established facts of both science and everyday life. That concern can be addressed by separating clearly the different language-games that are employed in scientific discourse, mundane discourse, and philosophy. This is a solution that Berkeley hinted at but did not develop. Statements that are made within any given discourse can be held to be true, without any commitment to the ontological status of what is denoted by the statement. Thus physical facts can be accepted without contradicting mentalism, because those statements are contained within a language-game that is carried on as if the physical world were real.

Solving Chalmers' Hard Problem is the primary gain of mentalism. Paradoxically, however, it is not the feature most likely to attract serious interest. This is because faith in promissory physicalism is so strong that mere philosophical arguments are unlikely ever to win support for mentalism. A secondary gain, which has more political leverage, is the possibility of founding a theory for paranormal phenomena such as telepathy.

The paper concludes with comments on the politics of ontology'. Academic studies take place in a real world, where certain approaches and positions are deemed unworthy of serious, funded research. Mentalism is seen as being beyond the fringes of philosophy, and reports of paranormal events are, in Charles Fort's celebrated expression, the damned data of science. Yet, in the space of possible theories, mentalism is close to such ideas as pan-experientialism, in mainstream philosophy of consciousnes and paranormal phenomena are no weirder than the predictions of exotic physics. What is it about mentalism that puts people off?


Contents

1. Introduction

The philosophical mind-body problem, which David Chalmers has named the 'Hard Problem', concerns the nature of the mind and the body. Physicalist approaches, which claim that the mind can be reduced to physical phenomena, have been explored intensively in recent years but have brought us no consensual solution. On the other hand, dualistic approaches, which hold that the universe comprises two fundamentally different kinds of existence mental and physical have also been scrutinised since Rene Descartes ("Dialgues on Method", 1643), but without consensual success. Mentalism has received little attention, yet it offers an elegantly simple solution to the hard problem. This doctrine holds that only the mental world really exists, and that the physical world is an illusion.

This paper revisits Berkeley's theory, historically known as 'subjective idealism' (first put forward in "A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge", 1710). It is re-interpreted here from the perspective of modern linguistic philosophy. On this view, the physical world is considered as a convenient fiction, embodied in a language-game which contains the discourse of the physical sciences.

Of course, there is a tension between asserting that reality is mental, and respecting the predictive and explanatory success of the physical sciences. There are two strands to this tension. First, there is a feeling that science has explained almost everything, and needs only to tidy up some loose ends. But, although the domain of physical investigation is certainly boundless, there is also an infinitely rich realm where physical science has no grip: that of qualitative experience. And it is not clear that the domain of the physical sciences is 'bigger' than the realm of subjective experiences. The second strand of tension is a concern that the basic tenets of mentalism flatly contradict established facts of both science and everyday life. That concern can be addressed by separating clearly the different language-games that are employed in scientific discourse, mundane discourse, and philosophy. This is a solution that Berkeley hinted at but did not develop. Statements that are made within any given discourse can be held to be true, without any commitment to the ontological status of what is denoted by the statement. Thus physical facts can be accepted without contradicting mentalism, because those statements are contained within a language-game that is carried on as if the physical world were real.

To get clearer about the ontology of the mental and physical worlds, we must analyse our use of language into its constituent language-games.

2. The Language-Game of Everyday Speech

Everyday speech is incontrovertible in so far as it reliably produces its required effects in the minds of listeners. It does its job as well as any other workaday tool, like tables and chairs, and knives and forks. Some philosophers have, however, attached a metaphysical significance to the utterances of everyday speech and have then assumed that those extraneous propositions are likewise incontrovertible. The Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin famously did this in the 1950s, but many people have done the same thing under different guises since then.

The key mistake that is made by the metaphysicians of everyday speech is their assumption that these utterances continue to play a communicative role when removed from the context in which they originate. In fact, they do not. Let us take an example: when my friend walks in from the street, I ask her about the weather, and she answer, "It's raining", and I then put on my raincoat and go outside, where I find that it is indeed raining but the coat keeps my clothes dry. Here, the utterance "It's raining" does its job of giving me correct information, just as the raincoat does its job of keeping me dry. Using Wittgenstein's terms, within this way of life' utterances form a language-game', and the only job done by this utterance in that language-game is to give me information about certain actual and counterfactual sensory experiences, such as the tactile feeling of wetness that I would get if I were to go out without my raincoat. Therefore, within that language-game, the utterance is true if and only if hold those sensory states of affairs hold. Following John Searle's version of the representation theory of meaning, we can say that, with that language-game, the meaning of the utterance "It's raining" comprises just those mental facts. Of course, the propositions that make up the paragraph you are now reading are clearly not part of that language-game. Rather, the present discussion stands in a meta-linguistic relationship to everyday speech: we are standing back from everyday speech and discussing it from a position outside the language-game. Indeed, within the language-game itself, it would quite simply be wrong to say that the meaning of "It's raining" is anything other than the fact that it is raining.

The mistake made by Austin and those who have gone down the same road is take the utterance "It's raining" out of its everyday language-game, where it was undoubtedly true, and deposit it in the metaphysicians' language-game, without reviewing what its truth-conditions would be in that new language-game. In short, they are saying that, if "It's raining" is true in everyday speech, the rainwater must have a real existence.

The folly of doing this is more striking when we transplant figurative expressions out of context. In everyday speech, I can truthfully say, "I flew off my handle", or "I am in two minds whether to go the cinema", or "I don't feel myself today". It would be obviously absurd to take these out of context and claim that my handle' has a real existence.

3. The Language-game of Physics

In order to frame predictive and explanatory models, physics has found it necessary to go beyond everyday speech and build up, over the past three centuries, a new language-game. It has brought into play new terms, and new uses of old terms such as "atom", "force", "energy". A physical model consists of a story told in these new terms. In order to make practical use of a physical model, however, a translation must be made between certain propositions in the physicist's language-game and propositions (about measuring instruments) in the language-game of everydaay speech. Within the physicists' language-game, a proposition's truth-conditions generally consist in its logical relations with other propositions within the game.

4. The Use of Fictions

A useful paradigm for the handling of multiple language-games can be found in discussions of literary fictions. As an example, imagine a seminar on "Gulliver's Travel's" by Jonathan Swift (a contemporary and compatriot of Berkeley). Within this context, people may truthfully make assertions about Gulliver's life and the lands that he visited. If a newcomer were to interrupt the seminar, pointing out that "Gulliver could not possibly have landed in Brobdignag or anywhere else, because Gulliver did not really exist", then that would be seen as an absurd category error. The tutor might answer, "Yes, it is true that Gulliver did not really exist, but for the purposes of this seminar we are talking as if he did. Hence we can state that Gulliver did go to Brobdignag, and the truth conditions for this statement are the sentences in Swift's book that entail that statemet." The newcomer had taken statements that are true within the laguage-game of the fiction and placed them in the broader language-game of everyday speech, where they are false. Normally, however, people find no difficulty in respecting the separation of the two language-games: they do not get confused between literary fictions and real life.

Next door to the seminar on "Gulliver's Travels" there is a seminar on particle physics. The newcomer wanders in and again interrupts, saying "The electron cannot possibly travel around the nucleus of the atom or anywhere else, because it does not really exist it is a mathematical fiction." What does the tutor say now?

5. The Mental and the Physical: resolving the Hard problem

The world that is described by physics consists of entities and operations that are defined wholly by their logical relations with other entities and operations within that world. Terms that denote things that are defined by their intrinsic qualities, as opposed to being defined by logical relations, do not and cannot feature in the language of physics. Hence qualitative mental experiences can, by definition, never exist in the physical world.

The mind-body problem stems from the fact that we know from direct experience that our qualitative mental experiences have a real existence, but we also commonly believe that the physical world too has a real existence and, moreover, we have the impression from everyday life that the mental world interacts with the physical world in so far as volitions produce muscular movements, and the sensory organs produce mental experiences. The problem is to give an account of how these fundamentally different kinds of existents can ever interact. Chalmers has applied the somewhat loaded term "easy" to problems that lie within physics, in the sense that the solution of such problems involves only entities and operations that are defined wholly by their logical relations; and the term "hard" to problems that cannot be solved in that manner. The mind-body problem is thus a hard problem in that sense.

Berkeley's philosophy resolves the problem at a stroke. The physical world simply does not exist, and the discourse of physics is a language-game that depicts a fictional world. Our impression of being immersed in the physical world is an illusion produced by the object-oriented patterns of sensory experiences. On this view, the so-called Hard Problem is thus quite easy. In its place, of course, a host of other, hard problems arise but these are hard' with a small "h" because their solutions lie within the mental world and are not required to span the mental and physical worlds.

6. The Subject of Experience and Volition

The biggest lacuna in Berkeley's scheme is where we would expect to find the concept of the subject, or spirit' in Berkeley's terms. The contents of conscious experience are held to be the paradigmatic case of existence: hence, as physical matter is not a conscious experience, it does not really exist. If we were to follow that line of thinking further, however,we would reach the conclusion that a subject who has experiences or volitions does no real existence, since he/she/it is not itself a conscious experience. Berkeley's answer was that, although the subject has, properly speaking, no experience of itself , it nonetheless has a notion' of itself. On the face of it, this is a major breach in Berkeley's logic, for if we could have a notion of an unperceived subject, then we could likewise have a notion of unperceived matter, in which case, we must let the whole of physics in through the back door, as it were. That Berkeley himself saw that this was an unconvincing answer is evident in the insubstantial replies that Philonous gives Hylas on this point. The opposite direction, which David Hume embraced but Berkeley did not countenance, is to claim that there is no subject, only a fleeting stream of experiences.

There is another possible answer that Berkeley considers but rejects: this involves dropping the absolute distinction that Berkeley makes between experiences on the one hand and acts of experiencing or willing on the other. On Berkeley's view, an experience is an inert something that is generated in your mind either by yourself or by some other agent. Instead of that view, we could conceive of your experience as being a logical product of acts of willing by yourself and others. One way of doing so is to view each act of perception as (a) a volitional selection by yourself of a cognition classification of (b) another agent's volitional act. (Let us consider a concrete analogy to bring this abstraction down to earth. In different linguistic communities, the sounds made by non-human animals are perceived as different phonemes. For instance, an anglophone hears a duck "quack" and a dog "bark". Here, the anglophone selects an auditory cognition ("quack" of "bark") of the animal's act of making a noise. The quack or the bark has no external existence: nor is it an inert something, as Berkeley thought.) My suggestion is that this model applies to all perception in general thus: first, a volitional act is performed by a spirit, possibly God, and then the perceiver chooses some cognition of it.

For the sake of completeness, I will sketch a further consideration of this model. Acts of willing can be nested another act of willing. You can decide to carry out a course of action, each step of which constitutes a smaller act of willing. Logically, there is no limit to the chronological extent of the course of action: it might span decades. My suggestion here is that a spirit is essentially a cluster of extended series of volitional acts, with each cluster itself being an act of willing. For reasons of space, I must leave this part of the theory somewhat abstract.

On this model, all experiences are reduced we know from direct experience that our qualitative mental experiences have a real existence acts of willing. We might view this as a further evolution of Berkeleyism, in which we replace a complex scheme of spirits, experiences, and acts of experiencing and willing with a simple system of acts of willing only.

7. Applications of a Berkleian Philosophy

Solving Chalmers' Hard Problem is the primary gain of mentalism. Paradoxically, however, it is not the feature most likely to attract serious interest. This is because faith in promissory physicalism is so strong that mere philosophical arguments are unlikely ever to win support for mentalism. A secondary gain, which has more political leverage, is the possibility of founding a theory for paranormal phenomena such as telepathy.

As soon as we drop the identification of the mind with the brain (or with anything in the brain, such as an informatic process), then we also drop the localisation of the mind. A mind is nowhere in physical space: it has no spatial coordinates, and two minds cannot be said to be near to, or far from, each other even though any two brains will inevitably have some definite distance between them. Two things follow from this, which are pertinent to paranormal phenomena.

First, any channel of communication between two minds that is not tied to a physical process between the associated brains will be independent of how far away those brains are: as there is no concept of inter-mental space, there is no such thing as inter-mental distance.

Second, the physical correlates of mental events are spatially non-specific. To see this, suppose that a mental event M is correlated by some psychophysical bridging law L to the physical event P = L(M). The description of the physical event P cannot specify its spatial location, for the following reason. First, note that P cannot be defined by an absolute spatial position because absolute space is simply not a physical concept. So, the definition of its spatial location would have to relate to the location of the mental event M, but that is impossible because, as we have seen, mental events are non-spatial. Hence, for any given mental event M, the physical correlate P could be anywhere in the universe.

Now, one of the persistent and baffling features of reported telepathy is that the success rate of telepathic transmission is unaffected by the distance between the transmitter and receiver. If telepathy were achieved by the emission of, say, electromagnetic energy, then the transmission would be constrained by the inverse-square law and its efficiency would fall off with the distance between the two brains. If, however, it is achieved through a non-physical channel between two minds, where there is no inter-mental distance, then we would indeed expect it to be independent of the remoteness of the brains.

Another feature of telepathy that would be baffling if we were seeking a physical explanation is the addressing' of the transmission (to borrow a term from computer science). Does the sender target the transmission toward the receiver and, if so, how? If the human brain is somehow acting as a directional aerial for telepathic transmissions, then the orientation of the sender's head would be crucial to the success of transmission. As far as I am aware, the literature does not support the hypothesis that the orientation of the sender's body has any relevance, nor even that it makes any difference whether the sender knows where the receiver is. Or, does the transmission itself contain some signal that identifies whom it is aimed at? After all, if telepathy is a natural phenomenon, then we might expect the world to be awash with telepathic messages flying between people: if so, how does a particular receiver know which messages are intended for her? Consider an analogy from electromagnetic transmission: if you want your radio to tune in to the broadcasts from a particular transmitter, you adjust your aerial to pick electromagnetic waves of a certain wavelength. What is the telepathic equivalent of tuning into a radio wavelength? And how could a telepathic receiver know in advance what to tune into?

The Berkeleyan model suggests a possible explanation. Given that the physical correlate of a mental event is spatially non-specific, the correlate of a given thought could be in any brain, anywhere. This suggests the following communications protocol for telepathy. Suppose the brain contains an 'uploading area' P1 and a 'downloading area' P2 , and suppose that the human mind is continually inspecting the contents of the uploading area and conveying into a mental buffer M0, and also continually setting the state of the downloading area to whatever is currently in that mental buffer M0. To transmit telepathically, the sender's brain places into P1 some ideas that are specific to the occasion (for instance, ideas about the experiment), associated with the particular data that are to be transmitted. Those ideas will then be deposited into P2, wherever it might be in physical space. The receiver will be examining the contents of P2 and, as soon as it detects the presence of ideas specific to the occasion, it will retrieve the associated data and deliver it into the conscious mind of that individual.

Obviously this is a sketchy theory and includes no neurophysiological detail but, from an informatic point of view, something equivalent to this is plausible once we assume a Berkleyan model of telepathy.

This theory entails certain testable predictions. Consider, for instance, an experiment to transmit a visual image, as in the routine Zenner cards. If the image to be transmitted incorporates a signifant amount of material that is already known and expected by the receiver, then it should be easier for the receiver to detect the transmitted material in the download area, 2.

8. The Politics of Ontology

Academic studies take place in a real world, where certain approaches and positions are deemed unworthy of serious, funded research. Mentalism is seen as being beyond the fringes of philosophy, and reports of paranormal events are, in Charles Fort's celebrated expression, the damned data of science. Yet, in the space of possible theories, mentalism is close to such ideas as pan-experientialism, in mainstream philosophy of consciousnes and paranormal phenomena are no weirder than the predictions of exotic physics. What is it about mentalism that puts people off?

© Peter B Lloyd, 1998


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