On changes of mind

During the past couple of weeks, I've had conversations with a few people whose metaphysical views have changed considerably recently, sometimes multiple times over. Two are well known: Tim Freke and Philip Goff. Tim was a kind of idealist for 34 published books but is now, seemingly, a neutral monist. Philip was a cosmopsychist (a kind of idealist, too) until his book Consciousness and Fundamental Reality (2017) but is now a constitutive panpsychist, as per his most recent book, Galileo's Error (2019). These interactions have motivated me to ponder a bit about changes of mind.

What I have to say below, although inspired by these interactions, is general considerations not necessarily applicable to the two people I've just mentioned. Allow me to insist: the below should not be per se regarded as a criticism of Tim or Philip; it's just general considerations.

The ability to change one's own mind is, undeniably, a sign of intellectual honesty. People who refuse to change their minds even in light of overwhelming new evidence or argumentation have an axe to grind, second agendas, and aren't committed to truth. These people aren't to be taken seriously.

At the same time, relatively fast and easy changes of mind may also reflect superficial views held lightly, the lax taking of positions before more careful review of both the data and the arguments available; before thinking things through more thoroughly. If one adopts a position either in favor or against a certain view before actually understanding that view and its implications thoroughly, one is of course more prone to changing one's mind about it at some point. There is thus a sense in which changes of mind aren't just a sign of intellectual honesty, but potentially also of intellectual laxity.

That's why I think authors should not rush to publish their views. One's views must mature inside, gain robustness in the furnace of repeated contemplation, like metal annealing. If publications are made before one actually understands the ins and outs of one's own position, one is liable to contradicting oneself again and again, in subsequent publications, thereby losing credibility. After all, if one can quickly abandon and turn on one's own previous arguments, how credible are one's next arguments?

A similar rationale may apply to what we commonly refer to as 'open-mindedness.' The latter is, of course, a good thing: not to be open-minded is to ignore the potential for getting closer to truth; to ignore evidence and arguments one may not have considered before. But too much of a good thing can also be a sign of some underlying problem: to be open-minded about mutually contradictory views reflects a lack of analytic rigor and thoroughness, an inability to understand the deeper implications of the different views in question. To be open-minded about views that contradict one's own may also betray lightly-held positions one is not really confident of for not having done enough homework about. In summary, too much open-mindedness can be a sign of superficial reasoning.

I believe strongly that I am open-minded, but it won't be easy for you or anyone else to see it from the outside, because I won't lightly declare myself open to views that contradict over 30 years of careful thinking about metaphysics. Indeed, my own analytic idealism has matured in my mind for over 20 years (with the possible exception of my university years, during which metaphysics fell more to the background) prior to my first philosophy publication in 2010. Metaphysics began churning inside me when I was 12 years old, following the death of my father. Slowly, over time, my thoughts on it have congealed and matured. Only when I was 34 did I have enough confidence in the robustness of my ideas to start writing a book about them. By that time, I had already deconstructed my ideas multiple times over, confronted them with all the empirical evidence I could put my hands on, examined every assumption I could identify, dissected the logical structure of my conclusions repeatedly. And in doing all that, I never had publication as a goal, for the motivation behind my effort was my own understanding. Only after my thoughts congealed and I achieved a very high degree of confidence in them, did the idea of publishing come to me.

Largely thanks to that, none of my 12 books (out of which 3 are still in production) contradict another. Instead, my books complement each other, refine each other's ideas with new angles, new language, new perspectives. This doesn't mean that I can't change my mind; I surely can, if confronted with new evidence or previously overlooked arguments. But I don't think this will happen easily, for there are now 34 years of careful and self-critical analysis behind them. Whatever makes me change my mind now would have to be something nontrivial, for I don't think I've overlooked the evidence and arguments commonly available. My currently-held positions aren't merely a reflection of my current dispositions and moods, but the compound result of decades of careful thinking, an edifice built slowly over many years that won't crumble because of relatively minor earthquakes. And thus the inner coherence of my work isn't a sign of close-mindedness, but of a kind of robustness of reasoning that only time can bring about.

The problem is that, if one's livelihood depends on publishing, as is always the case in academia and often in the book publishing industry as well, one simply doesn't have the luxury to wait 20 years to set one's views to paper. Academics must publish papers and books every year, even if subsequent papers contradict previous ones (nobody looks at that, only at the number of publications). Authors who have no other source of income must publish a new book as soon as the initial spurt of sales of the previous one wanes (books sell most in the first six months after publication). And, of course, all they can publish are their current ideas, whether these are mature, robust and reliable or not. In a sense, I have been privileged by fate to not depend on publications for my living, and so I only published once my thoughts had congealed and stood the test of time.

I don't know how to solve the problems I've identified above. For I have also paid a price for my independence: for the past 10 years, I have had a lot less time to do philosophy than I would have had if philosophy had been my day job. There is always a catch, whatever way one looks upon it. What I can say with high confidence regarding my own output, however, is this: it is robust and reliable; I won't change my views lightly, because they have already stood the test of time in my own mind, and survived the furnace of my own self-criticism for many years before I published them.

Further reply to Philip Goff

As many of you know, a much-anticipated debate between Philip Goff and me has taken place a couple of weeks ago during the How the Light Gets In philosophy festival, which had its first online-only edition this year. The video below captures the first part of that debate, and I invite you to watch it—it's just under an hour—before continuing this read. The below will still make sense even if you haven't watched the video, but you will get more nuance and motivation if you have.

I believe the points raised during Philip's opening presentation—which he, surprisingly to me, dedicated almost entirely to a criticism of my position, as opposed to a defense of his—were appropriately addressed by me during the event itself, and require no further commentary. There are two other points, however, which came up later in the debate and deserve some more elaboration.

The first point

The first is a criticism I failed to understand during the debate, for reasons I shall discuss shortly. Only after having watched the video above did I grasp the equivalence Philip was trying to draw between the key problem underlying mainstream physicalism and the key problem that, according to him, plagues my approach: in neither case—he claims—does an appeal to evolutionary advantages actually explains the mechanisms underlying an evolved trait.

Under mainstream physicalism, phenomenal consciousness itself is regarded as an evolved trait and, therefore, physicalists argue that it arose because of the accompanying survival advantages (there are none, as I explained here and further elaborated upon here, but never mind). However, physicalists don't explain how phenomenal consciousness supposedly arises from physicality, regardless of how evolutionarily advantageous it may have been. Therefore, it is not enough for physicalists to appeal to evolution; they must make sense of the underlying mechanisms. I agree with that.

Philip is implying that to argue that some qualities can modulate other qualities suffers from a problem equivalent to the 'hard problem of consciousness.' This, of course, is nonsensical, and it surprises me in no small measure that Philip could fall victim to such a glaring mistake.

In my case, the evolved trait is the qualitative transition between transpersonal experiential states 'out there' and the qualities of perception 'in here.' Indeed, I claim that the objective world—as it is in itself—is not constituted by the qualities of perception, but instead by endogenous experiential states more akin to feelings and thoughts than colors and flavors. I maintain that we experience colors and flavors when interacting with the world—instead of thoughts and feelings—because it has been evolutionarily advantageous for us to gather information about the world at a glance, in the form of the screen of perception. Philip then claims that my appeal to evolution suffers from the same or equivalent shortcoming as the physicalists' appeal when trying to account for phenomenal consciousness.

This is blatantly untrue; so much so that I couldn't register—during the debate—that this was what Philip was getting at; I held him in too high regard to even contemplate this possibility. Indeed, Philip is equating the problem of explaining how perceptual qualities (such as color and flavor) arise from other, different qualities (such as transpersonal thoughts and feelings) to the problem of explaining how perceptual qualities arise from quantities. In other words, he is saying that the modulation of perceptual qualities by transpersonal ones suffers from something equivalent to the 'hard problem of consciousness.' This is, of course, nonsensical, and it surprises me in no small measure that Philip could fall victim to such a glaring mistake.

We witness the modulation of qualities by other, different qualities every day: our thoughts constantly modulate our feelings, and the other way around. Thoughts feel completely different than feelings, so there is an obvious qualitative transition taking place when this modulation occurs. Yet, we know that it does occur; all the time. Therefore, it is entirely plausible that transpersonal states qualitatively different from colors and flavors could give rise to the colors and flavors on our screen of perception, through some form of modulation.

Notice that this is fundamentally distinct from the 'hard problem': the latter is characterized by the impossibility to find anything in mere quantities—think of mass, charge, momentum, spin, frequency, amplitude, geometric relationships, etc.—in terms of which we could, at least in principle, deduce the qualities of experience. But in my case we go from qualities to (different) qualities. In our own personal minds, the qualities of the thoughts induced by certain feelings are certainly deducible from the feelings: for instance, the feeling of fear will lead to conservative, pessimistic thought processes and accompanying decision making. Similarly, the qualities of personal perception (such as, say, pleasant warmth and white hues) could, at least in principle, be deduced from the transpersonal phenomenal states they are associated with (such as e.g. peaceful feelings of kindness). There is no fundamental barrier of deducibility as in the hard problem.

To ask how the qualities of perception arise from the transpersonal phenomenal states constituting the objective world is to ask how our sensory organs formed; for, according to analytic idealism, our sensory organs are merely the extrinsic appearance of the associated modulation processes. Therefore, the question is philosophically trivial.

As such, I insisted on answering Philip's challenge in terms of evolution because I failed to see the mistake he was making. Once you understand that there is no ontological jump from quality to quality—just as there isn't one from quantity to quantity—all that is left to do is to explain how the associated mechanisms of modulation arose. This is entirely equivalent to explaining how our eyes, nose, ears, tongue and skin formed, for—according to my analytic idealism—our sense organs are merely the extrinsic appearance of the modulation mechanisms. And, of course, evolutionary biology has excellent explanations for this, all of which I can and do import verbatim into analytic idealism.

Let me belabor this for clarity: to explain how the qualitative transition from transpersonal thoughts and feelings 'out there' to personal perception 'in here' arose is to explain how our sense organs formed. Philip's entire point is philosophically trivial; it has nothing remotely to do with the hard problem. Not every problem that needs an answer is a hard problem in the sense of the... well, 'hard problem.'

The second point

While I remain genuinely surprised at the comparison Philip attempted to draw in his first point, I understand the motivation behind it. Regarding the second point, however, his motivation eludes me: Why insist so vehemently and emotionally that, under mainstream physicalism, phenomenal states, in and of themselves, are still somehow causally-efficacious? Does Philip, as a panpsychist, not understand that the putative causal inefficacy of phenomenal states is precisely a key implication of mainstream physicalism? Isn't a well-known motivation for panpsychism precisely to find a place for phenomenal states in the causal nexus, as discussed e.g. by Gregg Rosenberg in his thesis and part II of his book, A Place for Consciousness? Isn't the putative causal-inefficacy of phenomenal consciousness an implication of mainstream physicalism that has been openly discussed for decades in philosophy? One so uncomfortable it has spawned ridiculous attempts to avoid it through mere word-games?

I feel embarrassed to have to produce citations and quotes to argue for something quite well known in philosophy. Be that as it may, in his 2016 paper Panpsychism and Panprotopsychism, for instance, David Chalmers recapitulates the mainstream physicalist argument that, because the physical world is putatively causally-closed, phenomenal states must be physical states. In other words, because they have no causal efficacy, phenomenal states cannot exist as phenomenal states; instead, all the qualities they entail must be reducible to the quantities of physics.

In less technical words that you, I and the average educated person on the streets can understand, this means that phenomenal states aren't causally-efficacious in and of themselves; whatever causal efficacy they are said to have comes from the physicality they are putatively reducible to, not from their phenomenal character. Allow me to quote relatively extensively from Chalmers' paper:

...many materialists think that the conceivability argument against materialism (and for dualism) is countered by the causal argument against dualism (and for materialism). This argument runs as follows:
(1) Phenomenal properties are causally relevant to physical events.
(2) Every caused physical event has a full causal explanation in physical terms.
(3) If every caused physical event has a full causal explanation in physical terms, every property causally relevant to the physical is itself grounded in physical properties.
(4) If phenomenal properties are grounded in physical properties, materialism is true.
(5) Materialism is true.
Here we can say that a property is causally relevant to an event when instantiations of that property are invoked in a correct causal explanation of that event. For example, the high temperatures in Victoria were causally relevant to the Victorian bushfires. A full causal explanation of an event is one that characterizes sufficient causes of the event: causes that guarantee that the event will occur, at least given background laws of nature. Premise (1) is supported by intuitive observation. My being in pain seems to cause my arm to move. If things are as they seem here, then the pain will also be causally relevant to the motion of various particles in my body. Premise (2) follows from a widely held view about the character of physics: physics is causally closed, in that there are no gaps in physical explanations of physical events. Premise (3) is a rejection of a certain sort of overdetermination. Given a full microphysical causal explanation of physical events, other causal explanations are possible only when the factors involved in the latter are grounded in the factors involved in the former (as when we explain the motion of a billiard ball both in terms of another ball and in terms of the particles that make it up). Any putative causal explanation that was not grounded in this way would involve causal overdetermination by independent events. Systematic overdetermination of this sort is widely rejected. Premise (4) is true by definition.

This should make it clear even for academic philosophers.

I surely understand that not all formulations of physicalism will bite this bullet; after all, in the hand-waving conceptual world of academic philosophy one can argue for anything with a straight face, as long as the argument is buried in enough conceptual abstraction to hide its self-evident absurdity. But to suggest—as Philip did repeatedly and emphatically—that I was naively plucking a fallacy out of thin air is both bad form and silly. Why do that? The point here wasn't even the one in contention, just something I touched on en passant while trying to address one of Philip's criticisms of my position.

What we mean by 'phenomenal states' is more than what can be exhaustively described with a list of numbers: what it feels like to see red is more than what is described by the frequency and amplitude of electromagnetic radiation in a certain band of the spectrum. So the question in contention here is whether this extra, which comes in addition to the list of quantities, is causally efficacious. According to mainstream physicalism, it is most definitely not.

Let us be clear: phenomenal states are defined as qualitative states. This, in fact, is why the expression 'phenomenal state' is at all useful: if these states were exhaustively describable in terms of quantities, such as mass, charge, momentum, etc., we wouldn't need to speak of 'phenomenal states' to begin with. That we in fact do shows that what we mean by them is more than what can be exhaustively described with a list of numbers: what it feels like to see red is more than what is described by the frequency and amplitude of electromagnetic radiation in a certain band of the spectrum. So the question in contention here is whether this extra, which comes in addition to the list of quantities, is causally efficacious.

According to mainstream physicalism, it is most definitely not, and it baffles me that Philip denied this. Since the putatively causally-closed equations of physics contain no qualities—only quantities instead—phenomenal states, in and of themselves, cannot be causally efficacious under mainstream physicalism. I emphasize the word 'mainstream'—as I did during the debate—to exclude... well, non-mainstream formulations. Under mainstream physicalism, all qualities are epiphenomenal (side-)effects of brain activity. What is causally efficacious is merely the mass, charge, momentum, geometric relationships, etc., of the elementary particles making up our brain, body and the world at large.

Now, to say that qualities are causally efficacious under mainstream physicalism because they are defined as being identical to quantities is a silly word-game, as I believe every reasonable person will immediately see. Unfortunately, these silly language games are played left and right in academic philosophy, as if they solved anything, did anything, or even meant anything. We know what phenomenal states are; we define matter exhaustively in terms of quantities. To equate qualities to matter is thus to ignore the former; to pretend that they don't exist. Unfortunately for eliminativists and illusionists, the rest of us, sane human beings, know they do.

Since the putatively causally-closed equations of physics contain no qualities—only quantities instead—phenomenal states, in and of themselves, cannot be causally efficacious under mainstream physicalism.

Many academic philosophers love to indulge in these tortuous conceptual games that achieve lift off from the firm ground of reality and end up in some other galaxy. This is no news. But I confess to feeling disappointed at Philip, an academic philosopher I thought would see through this nonsense. I regret that so much energy and time was wasted, during the debate, arguing this silly point; it took the audience's attention away from the substance of the point I was trying to make, and I never got a chance to return to it.

Final comments

Anticipating something that will become clearer after the second part of the debate is published, I also regret that Philip has failed to defend his panpsychism against most—perhaps all—of the criticisms I leveraged against it. For instance, my point about there being no separate elementary particles according to physics—only spatially unbound fields—went wholly unanswered. His very opening statement focused almost exclusively on attacking analytic idealism, as opposed to defending panpsychism. His emotional focus on something at best ancillary to the points in contention—namely, what physicalism does or does not entail or imply—also distracted attention away from substance. All in all, a disappointing experience for me. My debates with Suzan Blackmore and Peter Atkins were, surprisingly, a lot more productive, which you will see for yourself once those are made public (in a few months, I guess and hope).