Bits and Pieces – ‘Physical’; ‘Material’; ‘Exists’; ‘Real’
by Daniel A. Kaufman
Lately, I’ve been doing some work on Physicalism and social reality (1), suggesting that taking the latter seriously means that the former has to be false, and it seems to me that much of the reluctance people have expressed – and which pushes so many philosophers to insist on Physicalism – owes to certain uses of the words ‘real’ and ‘exists’ and ‘physical’/ ‘material’.
It is worth remembering that J.L. Austin was quite dubious about philosophers’ uses of the expressions ‘physical object’ and ‘material thing’. These doubts are expressed in Sense and Sensibilia, Austin’s takedown of epistemic representationalism, as expressed by people like A.J. Ayer, and much farther back in history, John Locke, according to which what we directly perceive are not “material things” themselves, but rather, our mental representations of them. (2) With regard to ‘material thing’ and ‘physical object’, Austin said the following:
The expression ‘material thing’ is put forward, not as what the ordinary man would say, but as designating in a general way the class of things of which the ordinary man both believes and from time to time says that he perceives particular instances. But then we have to ask, of course, what this class comprises. We are given, as examples, ‘familiar objects’ – chairs, tables, pictures, books, flowers, pens, cigarettes… But does the ordinary man believe that what he perceives is (always) something like furniture, or like these other ‘familiar objects’ – moderate-sized specimens of dry goods? We may think, for instance, of people, peoples’ voices, rivers, mountains, flames, rainbows, shadows, pictures on the screen at the cinema, pictures in books or hung on walls, vapours, gases – all of which people say the see or hear or smell… Are these all ‘material things’? If not, exactly which are not, and exactly why? No answer is vouchsafed. The trouble is that the expression ‘material thing’ is functioning already, from the very beginning, simply as a foil for ‘sense-datum’. It would surely never have occurred to anybody to try to represent as some single kind of things the things which the ordinary man says that he ‘perceives’. (3)
A man goes to a title company office, where he meets with several other people, uses a pen to sign a check, as well as a contract, and receives the title to the house he has just bought and to which, subsequently, he drives in order to move in. Upon arriving, the house is only illuminated by the sun outside, as the power has yet to be turned on, so all of the things inside – the furniture, appliances, etc. – cast their shadows on the walls, ceilings, and floors. The new owner opens the faucets in the kitchen and bathrooms in order to allow the water to run, so that he may see if there is rust in the pipes. And so on and so forth.
Clearly, this man has encountered and interacted with a number of things over the course of this day. What purpose is served by classifying some of them as “physical” or “material,” while denying this characterization to (or otherwise problematizing it for) the others? Is the pen a physical object, while the contract isn’t one? If so, what sense can we make of the fact that the man signed the latter with the former? Is the stove a “material thing,” but not its shadow? Presumably, the office consists of a physical room that includes within it physical things like tables and chairs, but what about the title company whose office it is? Is it not a physical thing, and if not, what kind of thing is it, and how can it do things like own offices?
Austin’s point is that ‘physical’ and ‘material thing’ are used by philosophers as entirely theoretical terms, with little to no connection to their ordinary uses. But while Austin deploys his analysis against the Indirect Realism of the logical empiricists and their Enlightenment predecessors, I want to turn it against contemporary materialism. Just as Austin points out that ‘physical thing’ is simply being used as a foil for ‘sense datum’ – it is being assigned a theoretical meaning in order to contrast it with representations – so I am suggesting that ‘physical’ and ‘material’ are being used by materialists to set up an ontological dichotomy between those things that are “quantified over” by (hard) scientific theories and those that are not. In short, ‘physical’ and ‘material’, as used by such folks, are little more than expressions of a scientistic ontology, for which no prior argument has been given.
Once we see this, we also see how one easily can get pushed into weird places, like Platonism, where my late, great teacher Jerrold J. Katz found himself, in the latter parts of his career. The title company just discussed clearly exists, and yet, it seems equally clearly not to be a “material object,” which then leads us to ask what kind of object it is, which then leads us to say it’s an “abstract” object, which then raises questions like “What sorts of funny objects are those and how can they interact with material objects?” whereupon we find ourselves engaged in a largely fruitless and unnecessary line of inquiry, all because we allowed ourselves to be saddled with ‘physical object’ and ‘material thing’ to begin with. For the real estate buying and selling public, title companies, offices, contracts, checks, and pens are all part of the world they inhabit and in which they operate, in a way that is entirely unproblematic and raises no serious philosophical questions … at least so long as one talks normally and without theoretical contrivances. But once you start parsing these parts of our shared world in the ways philosophers have been wont to do, its ubiquitously recognized and understood character begins to disintegrate, and our understanding suffers rather than benefits.
‘Exists’ is a word that some people get quite excited about, and a number of them are intent on eschewing its use, in order to avoid unnecessary metaphysical entanglement. (I’ll leave it to the reader to decide who is more metaphysically entangled, the person who uses the term ‘exists’ in ordinary discourse or the person who scrupulously endeavors to avoid its use.)
To say that something exists is merely to say that there is such a thing, a view notably advanced by Quine in his paper, On What There Is. Where Quine goes wrong is in his account of the conditions under which such sayings are supposed to be acceptable. For him, statements of the form “there is a …” are only legitimate when the thing in question plays a causal/explanatory role in a true (or our best) scientific theory, but as John Greenwood notes in his essay, “Reasons to Believe,” this can’t be correct, insofar as there are any number of things whose existence we speak of perfectly legitimately, despite our having little to no conception of their causal/explanatory role in a theory:
We recognize the existence of Golgi bodies and myelin sheaths, although we presently do not have much understanding of their biological and neurophysiological function. Ironically, the most obvious examples come from biology and neurophysiology, where we recognize many structures and processes whose causal or functional role we are trying desperately hard to understand. When we abandon tentative hypotheses about the causal-explanatory role of such phenomena, we never for a moment consider their ontological elimination… This is just as well for biology. One of the earliest documented forms of folk-psychology is biological in nature. According to the folk psychology of Plato’s Timeus, our emotional life is to be explained in terms of the swelling of the heart, and the function of the liver is to reflect the contents of our thoughts. This has long been demonstrated to be false, et few have rushed to conclude that there are no such things as hearts or livers. (4)
Beyond such examples from science – and there are many more – the Quinean account also is going to be unable to make sense of our common use of existential quantifiers across the personal and social universe in which we all live. The contract, title company, and title of our earlier example are not required for the statements of any theory to be true, and this even extends to the so-called “material objects” in the story – the pen, the office, the house – which don’t play any “causal-explanatory role” in a theory either. What does determine the conditions for ontological commitment in the case of these sorts of things? As Greenwood points out, it may simply be a matter of perception and performance – we see the pen, feel it when we pick it up, and sign the check and contract with it – but this is by no means required or even always successful as grounds for ontological commitment. Sometimes the existence of something will be based on casual observation, sometimes on theoretical postulation, sometimes on the perception of efficacy, and so on. Put another way, ontological commitment strikes me as being an entirely “local” affair. As is so often the case in philosophy, the search for generally applicable conditions is itself the problem, rather than the solution. There aren’t any, aren’t going to be any, and don’t need to be any.
Physicalists rarely reject, outright, the existence of the sorts of things I have been talking about. They don’t say, flat out, that there are no countries or laws or people. Instead, they acknowledge the existence of these sorts of things, but then purport to tell us that they really are physical. If it is then pointed out that the thing in question is not credibly identified with any discrete physical substance or event, they will then explain that whatever is not so identifiable is an “illusion” or “fiction.” Daniel Dennett has said this about selves and persons in his most recent book – according to him, we are “user illusions,” like the file folders in Windows (5) – and it has been said to me in many a conversation here at the Agora, by the more ontologically nervous commenters, who have said things like “contracts or laws really are just agreements that people make.” Of course, agreements and people themselves are not “material objects,” belonging as they do to the social universe, which, when pointed out, will then lead to the physicalist talking about the “physical realities” that “lie underneath” them or on which they “supervene” – usually neurological – and dismiss the rest as illusory in one way or another, much in the manner of Dennett’s user illusion, just mentioned.
The ‘really’ is, of course, doing a lot of work, and Austin has observed that this term has been just as philosophically abused as ‘physical’ and ‘material thing’. We may ask whether something really is gold, where what we are wondering is whether it might not be fool’s gold instead, in which case we won’t buy it. We may ask whether the elephant our mutual friend says is in his living room is really there, in which case we are wondering whether he is hallucinating. We may say of something that it is the real deal, where what we mean is that it’s a particularly fine instance of whatever it is. We may say of a person that he is unwilling to confront reality, which indicates that he has been lying to himself. ‘Real’, ‘really’, and ‘reality’, then, are used in a number of different and often only loosely related ways.
So what are we to do with “pens are really just collections of atoms” or “contracts are really just sets of neurological events”? What sorts of statements are these? Clearly ‘really’ is not being used in the sense described in the fool’s gold case, because what is at issue there is whether or not something is fraudulent, despite its resemblance to something that is not. Equally clearly, it’s not being used in the penultimate case either, as indicating a particularly fine specimen of something. It also is not being used in the last sense, insofar as there is no serious suggestion that the person who thinks there are pens and contracts is engaged in a kind of self-deception.
Rather, it is intended to be understood in the second sense of an illusion or hallucination – Dennett explicitly says as much – but I’m afraid this won’t do either. For one thing, it forces us into precisely the sort of representationalism that Austin – and Wittgenstein – devoted so much of their work to dismantling (I think successfully), and for another, the analogy just seems so obviously inapt. In the case of the hallucinated elephant or the well-worn “bent-looking stick in a glass half filled with water” example, what we have are simple cases of misrepresentation: in the first case of there being something in the room, which isn’t, and in the second something having a certain characteristic which it doesn’t have. But what exactly is the misrepresentation supposed to be in the case of the pen or the contract? If we are to take Dennett’s “user-illusion” metaphor seriously, then we are to believe that the pen is a misrepresentation of a lattice of atoms, but this seems a very odd way of thinking about pens. One doesn’t sign documents with lattices of atoms; one doesn’t have “favorite lattices of atoms given to me by my aunt”; and simply saying, “You think you don’t, but that’s really what pens are, so you really do” is just doubling down on the use of ‘really’ which is what is under dispute. And what of the contract? What is it supposed to be misrepresentation of? Agreements which themselves are misrepresentations of neurological states? One can speak this way if one wants, I guess, but I don’t see what understanding is generated thereby and I can see a number of significant ways in which it invites confusion.
(2) J.L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia (1962).
(3) Sense and Sensibilia, pp. 7-8.
(4) John Greenwood, “Reasons to Believe,” in Greenwood, ed., The Future of Folk Psychology: Intentionality and Cognitive Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 77.
(5) Daniel Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2017).
Categories: Bits and Pieces