Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Philip Goff's Panpsychist Conceivability-to-Possibility Argument (2)

The following piece is a response to Philip Goff's paper, 'The Phenomenal Bonding Solution to the Combination Problem'.

conceive: to develop an idea; to form in the mind; to plan; to devise; to originate; to understand (someone).

conception: the act of conceiving.
The state of being conceived.
The power or faculty of apprehending of forming an idea in the mind; the power of recalling a past sensation or perception; the ability to form mental abstractions.
An image, idea, or notion formed in the mind; a concept, plan or design.


Philip Goff writes:

Just because we are unable to form a transparent conception of the phenomenal bonding relation does not mean we cannot form a conception of it. We can think of it as ‘the relation such that when subjects stand in it they produce a further subject’ and we can suppose that there is such a thing.”

First of all, when we form a "conception" of a “little subject”, what does that conception amount to or involve? What if we have no genuine conception of little subjects? This would mean, by inference, that we can't form a conception of how they can “stand in a relation” so as to “produce a further subject”. Nonetheless, perhaps all this boils down to how Goff himself defines - or interprets - the word conceptionGoff does give us a clue. He writes:

We may even be able to identify it with some relation we can observe in the world, or some relation that features in physics.”

Surely nothing “in the world” can possibly match up to little minds/subjects and their bonding together; as Goff seems to acknowledge when he concludes by saying that

[n]one of the relations that appear in perception or in physics are conceived of as phenomenal bonding relations”.

That, presumably, is why such a conception isn't what Goff calls “transparent”; though it is... something else...

The Conceivability-to-Possibility Argument

In all Goff's musings about little minds/subjects, their bonding, and their being part of a Big Mind/Subject, David Chalmers' idea of conceivability-leading-to-metaphysical-possibility plays a very important role. For example, Goff states that

most panpsychists are motivated by an opposition to physicalism, commonly grounded in conceivability arguments”.

Goff expresses his view about the importance of conceivability (leading to possibility) in this way:

If P is conceivably true, then P is possibly true.”

This is expressed in possible-worlds jargon thus:

If P is conceivably true (upon ideal reflection), then there is a possible world W, such that P is true at W considered as actual.”

Or, less technically, Goff also says that

Chalmers holds that every conceivably true proposition corresponds in this way to some genuine possibility”.

All the above seems to assume that there's a determinate and precise meaning of the words “conceivably" and "conceivably true”. Goff must be aware of this because he also says that

conceivability entails possibility when you completely understand what you’re conceiving of”.

However, in the case of little minds/subjects taken in themselves (as well as small minds/subjects constituting or "composing" a Big Mind), is there any genuine “understanding of what you're conceiving of”? (In other “thought experiments”, this principle may well be useful and even accurate/true – such as with David Chalmers' zombies!)

Clearly, as Goff acknowledges, the

crucial difference between Lego combination and subject combination arises when we try to move from conceivability to possibility”.

Since Goff often speaks against any reliance on intuitions or on commonsense (if not in this paper); perhaps the same can be also said about conceivability. After all, people may reject panpsychism - or some of its individual claims - because they can't even conceive how it could be true. This may not matter, however, because Goff or Chalmers may simply say that we can - or could - conceive how it/they could be true.

Goff puts the case for conceivability-leading-to-possibility more explicitly - and less technically - when he states the following:

We could not coherently conceive of the seven bricks being piled on top of one another in the way that they are in the absence of the tower. In contrast, it is eminently possible to conceive of our seven subjects of experience experiencing the colours of the spectrum, existing in the absence of a subject of experience having an experience of white."

Thus, on the surface, it appears that the conceivability-to-possibility argument doesn't work for “seven subjects of experience”; though it clearly does work for Goff's seven Lego bricks constituting a tower (i.e., even before the tower is actually experienced or seen). However, we could go further. We can question the very conceivability of seven subjects of experience in the first place; never mind their making a super-subject. In other words, what does it mean to conceive of “seven subjects of experience experiencing the colours of the spectrum”? How would Goff - or anyone else - conceive of such a thing? Can Goff - or anyone else - describe that act of conceiving and then describe its content?

For example, can we conceive of seven subjects/minds which (who?) experience various colours? Can little minds/subjects experience various colours? For a start, they can't have sensory receptors - so how can they experience the colours of the spectrum? More clearly, how can anything experience colours without sensory receptors? And thus how can micro-subjects (at the atomic or even subatomic scale) experience colours at all? Nonetheless, if we do indeed conceive of such things, then what is it, exactly, that we're conceiving of?

All this may mean that the conceivability-to-possibility argument may not get off the ground (at least in this case) because nothing is really conceived of in the first place. Alternatively, that which is conceived of is, basically, ridiculous.

Having said all that, Goff does offer some logical and metaphysical arguments as to why phenomenal bonding is a “metaphysical possibility”.

Goff also goes much further than this logical principle. Not only is the argument that the conceiving of x is a reason for believing that x is metaphysically possible, Goff also argues that it may be the case that “metaphysical possibility is just a special kind of conceivability”. Note the use of the “is of identity” here. We're told that metaphysical possibility is conceivability. Thus it's not just that our conceiving of x may - or does - give us one reason to believe that x is possible. The very conceiving of x seems to bring about the metaphysical possibility of x.

There are three responses to that conclusion. One, Goff's grammar is incorrect. Two, I've simply misinterpreted Goff's position. Three, his philosophical position is false.

Three Conceivings?

A Round Square 

The idea of conceiving of little subjects/minds - and then their bonding together to form a Big Subject/Mind - can be questioned. However, let's firstly take a more extreme example:

i) If we can conceive that there is a round square, then it's metaphysically possible that there is a round square.

ii) We can't conceive of a round square. Therefore round squares are metaphysically impossible.

So what about this? -

i) If we can conceive of little minds/subjects and their bonding together to form a Big Mind/Subject, then such things are metaphysically possible.

ii) If we can't conceive of such things, then they are impossible.

It was argued above that we can't conceive of such things; regardless of their metaphysically possibility. In other words:

There's no “radical separation” between our conceivings of little minds/subjects (as well as their phenomenal bonding) and their metaphysical possibility because we don't conceive of such things in the first place.

In other cases, the move form conceivings to metaphysical possibility may well be legitimate. Alternatively, every move from conceivability to metaphysical possibility may be somewhat suspect.1

A Million-sided Object

Let's go into more detail about the nature of conceiving with Goff's very own example of a million-sided object.

In one sense it can be said that we can indeed conceive of such a thing. Or, more helpfully, if I ask someone this question:

What do you conceive of when you conceive of a million-side object?

that person can reply by saying:

I conceive of an object which has a million sides.

But what does that mean? What is he conceiving of? Is he simply saying the following? -

i) A million-sided object has a million sides.
ii) Therefore I have conceived of a million-sided object.

Is there any more to it than that? Doesn't he simply (analytically) know that if something has a million sides, then he's conceived of an object having a million sides? Though is that really a case of his conceiving of a million-sided object or is it a statement of a tautology?

For a start, no one can picture or imagine a million-sided object. So that's ruled out. What's left? Again, the words “conceiving a million-sided object” seem vacuous. Yet Goff says that “the concept million-sided object is transparent”. That is,

it is a priori (for someone possessing the concept, and in virtue of possessing the concept) what it is for something to have a million sides”.

Goff's quote above is simply a rerun of what's already been said. That is:

What is it to conceive of something which has a million sides? It's to conceive of a million-sided object.

Here again, one simply restates the description of a fictional/possible object.

Nonetheless, perhaps my position is too psychological in nature (i.e., too dependent on our contingent mental states and their content); whereas Goff's position is strictly logical. Alternatively, perhaps Goff's position is strictly mathematical/geometrical (therefore abstract) in nature. Thus, perhaps it's an entirely logical and/or metaphysical point to say that

the concept million-sided object is conceivable and transparent.

Then again, what does that claim amount to? Indeed how different is conceiving of a million-sided object to conceiving of a round square? However, it's certainly the case that a round square isn't in the same logical space as a million-sided object. 

What would be easier to say is that a million-sided object could – or even does - exist (if abstractly); though it still can't be conceived of. It this case we can cite René Descartes' example of a chiliagon. (I suspect that Goff had this in mind!) This is a million-sided polygon. It's classed as a “well-defined concept” that, nonetheless, can't be imagined or visualised. Indeed, even if massive in size, it would be visually indistinguishable from a circle. Thus I would also say that a chiliagon can't be conceived of either - even if we have a concept of it. Thought that, again, depends on what's meant by the words “conceived of”. In any case, I would call a million-sided polygon a mathematical/geometrical abstract object; not a concrete object. In other words, it couldn't be found or even made. Nonetheless, that doesn't stop it from being a well-defined concept.

The question is, are Goff's little subjects/minds in the least bit analogous to a million-sided polygon? And even if the words “having a well-defined concept” and “conceiving of” were seen as virtual synonyms, it's still the case that both the layperson and the expert would need to conceive of (or have a well-defined concept of) the following definition; which is severely truncated. To quote:

"A regular megagon is represented by Schlafi symbol {1000000} and can be constructed as a truncated 500000-gon, t{500000}, a twice-truncated 250000-gon, tt{250000}, a thrice-truncated 125000-gon, ttt{125000), or a four-fold-truncated 62500-gon, tttt{62500}, a five-fold-truncated 31250-gon, ttttt{31250}, or a six-fold-truncated 15625-gon, tttttt{15625}.

A regular megagon has an interior angle of 179.99964°. The are of a regular megagon with sides of length a is given by

The perimeter of a regular megagon inscribed in the unit circle is:


Thus it seems that we've moved a very long way from Goff's little subjects/minds and their bonding together.

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously

So what if we use Chomsky's famous grammatical sentence? -

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”

All the predicates and their concepts (in the quote above) are “transparent” (as Goff puts it) when taken individually. We can also say that the sentence itself is grammatically correct and it may even be logically correct. It's also, of course, empirically, scientifically and even metaphysically false. Nonetheless, we can understand the words within that statement. Can we also conceive of that statement being true? Or, more accurately, can we conceive of a situation in which colorless green ideas sleep furiously?

Here it seems that grammatical (or even logical) correctness runs free of conceivability. In other words, perhaps we don't - and can't - actually conceive of colorless green ideas sleeping furiously. Thus is the same conclusion true of conceiving of a million-sided object? More relevantly, is the same conclusion also true of conceiving of little minds/subjects and their bonding to make a Big Mind/Subject? However, and as already stated, Goff believes that “the concept million-sided object is transparent”. Moreover,

when one conceives of a million-sided object one completely understands, or is in principle able to reason one’s way to a complete understanding of, the situation being conceived of”.

Goff goes further when he says that

it is a priori for the conceiver what it is for the state of affairs they are conceiving of [i.e., a million-sided object] to obtain”.

Thus we reach the important conclusion which Goff has been leading up to all along. Namely,

that we can move from the conceivability (upon ideal reflection) of the states of affairs so conceived, to its genuine possibility”.

And it's from here that Goff moves to talk about little minds/subjects and their bonding together to form a Big Mind/Subject.

Goff Against Conceivable Possibilities?

Goff himself expresses the position that conceivability may not always give us metaphysical possibility. That is, even if we do allow various moves from conceivability to metaphysical possibility, sometimes what we think is metaphysically possible still remains unbelievable. Or as Goff himself puts it:

When metaphysical possibility is so radically divorced from conceptual coherence.... I start to lose my grip on what metaphysical possibility is supposed to be.”

However, it also seems that metaphysical possibility has moved beyond conceivability here – or at least beyond “conceptual coherence”. Thus that may mean that the move from conceivability to metaphysical possibility is sometimes illegitimate anyway. That is, a specific conceiving may not warrant the metaphysical possibility which is derived from it. To stress that point, Goff also says that

a radical separation between what is conceivable and what is possible has the potential to make our knowledge of possibility problematic”.

Though doesn't David Chalmers provide a tight link between conceivability and metaphysical possibility? If that's the case, then how can there ever be a “radical separation” between the two? Thus if that link were to be broken, would that be due to the fact that some conceivings aren't really genuine conceivings at all? (This is what I think is the case when it comes to little minds and their bonding.) Either that, or some links between conceivings and possibilities aren't tight enough. Alternatively, perhaps some moves from conceivings to possibilities are completely bogus from the very start.



1 It's the case that Chalmers' and Goff's conceivings are related to Descartes' notion of “clear and distinct ideas”. However, Descartes' various moves from his conceivings to metaphysical possibilities have been rejected by many philosophers; though some philosophers - such as James Van Cleve (in his 'Foundationalism, Epistemic Principles, and the Cartesian Circle') – haven't rejected them.

To follow: 'Emergence' and 'Little Subjects?'. See also my 'Against Philip Goff's (Panpsychist) Phenomenal Bonding'.

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