Physicalism and the First-Person Point of View:
A Reply to Taliaferro and Goetz (2007)
In my paper, “A Case for Physicalism about the Human Mind,” I didn’t attempt to defend physicalism about human mentality (henceforth, just physicalism) against the many objections that philosophers, and others, have made to it. Instead, I tried to assemble positive evidence that physicalism is true, while insisting that no aspect of human behavior, including human linguistic behavior, makes it necessary to adopt any kind of dualism about human mentality. In their reply to my paper, Professors Taliaferro and Goetz (henceforth, TG) don’t engage in any detail with my positive case for physicalism, and they offer no examples of human behavior that can’t be explained unless some kind of dualism is assumed. Their main objection to my paper is, rather, that, because it only takes account of evidence “from the third-person point of view,” it entirely overlooks “the first-person point of view,” which, they hold, shows us that human mentality has certain features incompatible with physicalism. Examples of such features would be that “a choice is an uncaused mental event,” and that “a reason is a purpose that provides an ultimate and irreducible teleological explanation of that choice.” In my reply to TG, I’ll respond to this objection only; I won’t take up every disagreement I have with TG’s reply.
Before I can respond to TG’s main objection, however, I must clarify it. Since “the first-person point of view” is presumably just the point of view provided by introspection, TG’s main objection must be that introspection of one’s mental states somehow shows one that human mentality has certain features incompatible with physicalism. However, it’s important to distinguish between the following two claims:
(TG1) By introspecting one’s own (say) choices, one acquires some reason to think that they are uncaused mental events.
(TG2) By introspecting one’s own (say) choices, one acquires an indefeasible reason to think that they are uncaused mental events.
By “an indefeasible reason to think that so-and-so,” I mean a reason that can’t be outweighed, or defeated, by any reason to think it’s not true that so-and-so.
TG apparently endorse the stronger of these two claims, i.e., TG2. For example, they write that “What we know from the first-person point of view … is a fundamental datum that itself must be acknowledged, as opposed to explained away, by an adequate account of reality.” TG’s commitment to TG2 is revealed by their insistence in this passage that first-person evidence could never be explained away. For if TG merely held that introspection gives us a defeasible reason to think that so-and-so about our own minds, then they would allow that there could also be evidence against thinking that so-and-so about our own minds, evidence so strong that we should reject what introspection is telling us, give up thinking that so-and-so about our own minds, and then try to explain away what introspection tells us, i.e., explain why during introspection something seems to be true about our own minds that in fact isn’t. Since TG deny that what introspection tells us can ever be explained away, they must hold that introspection gives us indefeasible reasons to think certain things about our own mind. Indeed, whenever TG speak of fundamental data about the mind, they seem to mean deliverances of introspection that introspection gives us indefeasible reason to believe. Attribution of this view of introspection to TG explains their lack of attention to the details of my empirical case for physicalism: because, on their view, there is no quantity of third-person evidence that could overturn what introspection tells us about our own minds, it really doesn’t matter what merely third-person evidence I (or anybody else) can produce.
TG2, however, is open to serious doubt. The doubt arises because, on the face of it, introspection is a perceptual faculty like vision or touch, different from more familiar perceptual faculties only by being directed upon one’s mental states rather than upon one’s surroundings. But perceptual faculties like vision and touch can only ever yield defeasible reasons to believe their deliverances—partly because their deliverances are influenced by fallible background theory, partly because they’re prone to malfunction, and partly because they aren’t perfectly reliable even when they’re functioning properly. Therefore, barring any reason to think that introspection is special, we should suppose that introspection too can only ever yield defeasible reasons to believe its deliverances. TG might reply that introspection is special precisely in giving us indefeasible reasons to believe its deliverances. But TG can’t just say that introspection is special in this way; they must offer some reason to think that it is, some reason other than that introspection’s being special in this way helps out their case—or is itself another of their fundamental data. Moreover, on a physicalist view of the human mind, introspection must somehow be accomplished neurophysiologically, hence fallibly, and therefore couldn’t yield indefeasible reasons to believe its deliverances; so the bare assumption that it could sounds suspiciously like begging the question against physicalism.
I’m not inclined to allow, then, that introspection gives us fundamental data, in TG’s sense, and indeed I suspect that nothing gives us fundamental data in that sense. Of course, I agree that there are data—in the sense of things that we have reason to take to be true at the start of some particular inquiry; but I deny that these data are ever fundamental in TG’s sense of our having indefeasible reason to take them to be true. So, for example, a particular episode of scientific inquiry, into the causes of cancer, say, will begin with many data supplied both by naked-eye observation and by elaborate observational techniques such as video-microscopy. Over the course of inquiry, however, some of these data may be abandoned as false because of their poor fit with otherwise well-supported theory; and typically they will be explained away, i.e., some explanation, consistent with their falsity, will be offered of how they were generated. It was quite right at the start of the inquiry to take these data at face value, but later on it was right to treat them instead as misleading appearances.
Thus far I have responded to TG’s central objection to my paper by denying the very strong claim about introspection—TG2—on which it rests. But fairness requires that I now consider how much force their objection has if they retreat to the weaker claim, TG1, and thus assert that introspection gives us defeasible reasons to believe that human mentality has certain features incompatible with physicalism. Of course, if TG2 is replaced by the less ambitious TG1, the dialectical situation changes significantly, and TG will need to take on a new argumentative burden. For suppose TG2 is true. Then we each possess indefeasible reasons to think that our minds have features incompatible with physicalism, and so no amount of empirical evidence for physicalism can outweigh those reasons and TG are entirely within their rights to ignore the details of my empirical case for physicalism. However, if nothing stronger than TG1 is true, then we only possess defeasible reasons to think that our minds have features incompatible with physicalism, and so those reasons might be outweighed by opposing considerations, e.g., my empirical case for physicalism. If nothing stronger than TG1 is true, therefore, then, in order to complete their objection to my paper, TG would have to show not only (i) that TG1 is true but also (ii) that my empirical case for physicalism is too weak to outweigh the case against physicalism that they say introspection provides. But never mind (ii); I deny that TG have even shown (i), i.e., that introspection provides us with reasons—even defeasible ones—to think that our mental states possess features incompatible with physicalism. Since TG make three claims to the effect that introspection provides reason to think that our mental states possess features incompatible with physicalism, I must consider each of these three claims in turn.
First, TG claim that the first-person, or introspective, point of view tells us that “a choice is an uncaused mental event and a reason is a purpose that provides an ultimate and irreducible teleological explanation of that choice.” Should we believe their claim? I’ll start with choices. The claim that introspection tells us that our choices are uncaused is, when you think about it, rather puzzling, because it’s hard to see how introspection could tell us that our choices are uncaused. How would introspection get the job done? Because uncausedness is an entirely negative and relational property of whatever is uncaused, it seems that introspection couldn’t be a faculty that’s directly sensitive to the uncausedness of a choice in anything like the way in which vision is directly sensitive to the redness of an apple. Introspection also seems unlikely to be a faculty that nonconsciously infers the uncausedness of an uncaused choice by first considering all the possible causes of the choice and then noting its own failure to detect any of these possible causes; the cognitive process hypothesized here seems way too elaborate to attribute to introspection. So why are we meant to think that introspection tells us that our choices are uncaused? I don’t believe that TG tell us; they seem to treat their claim as obvious. But it isn’t obvious. We can all agree that introspection doesn’t represent our choices as having causes; but that doesn’t entail what TG are claiming, i.e., that introspection represents our choices as not having causes. Likewise, if we introspect while we are deciding whether to do action A or action B, introspection doesn’t always represent us as being pushed, as it were, toward one option rather than the other; in that sense, we feel that our choice could have gone either way. But for introspection not to represent us as being pushed toward one option rather than another is not, of course, for introspection to represent us as not pushed toward one option rather than another.
Now consider reasons. That a reason is a purpose that provides an ultimate and irreducible teleological explanation of a choice is a highly sophisticated philosophical proposition that even most adults can’t understand without considerable explanation. But introspection doesn’t seem to be in the business of informing us of propositions of such sophistication; the deliverances of introspection don’t seem conceptually rich enough even to express them. So introspection seem rather unlikely to inform us, in particular, that a reason is a purpose that provides an ultimate and irreducible teleological explanation of a choice. So why are we meant to think that it does? To make the question concrete, suppose I grant that introspection indeed tells me that a reason is a purpose that provides a teleological explanation of a choice, but I insist that introspection is simply silent on the all-important question of the reducibility and ultimacy of the teleological explanation. As far as I can see, TG say nothing that might persuade me that my insistence is mistaken—for example, that I’ve directed my introspective attention to the wrong thing, or underdescribed what I’ve introspected, or something like that.
TG’s second claim to the effect that introspection provides reason to think that our mental states possess a feature incompatible with physicalism is this: “the fundamental datum provided by an experience of pain is dualistic. When people experience pain, they experience an event of a kind that is nonrepresentational in nature.” Why should we believe their premise here—that introspection presents pains as nonrepresentational? Their argument is this: “…an experience of pain seems [sc. to us, as we introspect our pain] not to have any representational content. When we are in pain, we do not pain that such-and-such.” But the argument is inconclusive. To this extent I agree that pains seem not to have any representational content: when we introspect our beliefs, we indeed think of ourselves as believing that so-and-so, but when we introspect our pains, we don’t think of ourselves as in pain that so-and-so. On the other hand, introspection of our pains naturally leads us to think and speak of “crushing pains” and “stabbing pains,” and it’s at least possible to understand such expressions on the model of phrases like “baby photos” and “ghost stories.” “Baby photos” refers to photos that represent a baby; “ghost stories” refer to stories that represent—that are about—ghosts. Understood in this way, “crushing pains” refers to mental states that represent crushing, and “stabbing pains” refers to mental states that represent stabbing (in some region of the body). And our pains do seem, introspectively, to be “in” certain bodily regions, and the most attractive way (to my mind) of accounting for this appearance is to suppose that pains represent—and sometimes misrepresent—occurrences as being in some or other bodily region.
So TG’s argument for their premise that introspection presents pains as nonrepresentational is, as I say, inconclusive. But TG seem to want to infer from this premise that introspection presents pains as nonphysical. The intended conclusion, however, doesn’t follow, since pains might be nonrepresentational brain-states, and hence physical. I hesitate to ascribe such an obviously fallacious inference to TG; but if they don’t intend this fallacious inference, then their claim that “the fundamental datum provided by an experience of pain is dualistic” is just an unsupported assertion.
TG’s third claim to the effect that introspection provides reason to think that our mental states possess a feature incompatible with physicalism is that “what we seem to be [sc. from the first-person perspective] are simple substantial individuals”; and later on they speak of “our first-person experience of ourselves as unified, simple objects,” and of “our experiences of ourselves as simple substantial individuals.” The conflict with physicalism arises because what TG think introspection reveals is that our minds—ourselves, as TG suppose—are simple entities in the sense of entities that lack parts, contrary to any suggestion that minds are brains (which obviously do have parts), or to the suggestion endorsed in my paper that minds are mental systems (and hence complex) in exactly the sense in which (good) digestions are (good) digestive systems and (poor) circulations are (poor) circulatory systems.
Are TG right that introspection represents our minds (or ourselves) as entities that lack parts? Apparently not, because introspection has a very restricted representational repertoire. It represents us as having a variety of mental properties—as undergoing perceptual and bodily experiences, as thinking various thoughts, and as feeling various emotions; but it doesn’t represent us as possessing any other properties than mental ones. Therefore, it no more represents us as lacking parts than it represents us as having parts, or as spatially located, or as electrically charged, or as divisible by two prime numbers. And, as usual, we mustn’t conclude that introspection represents us as lacking parts just because it doesn’t represent us as having parts. Perhaps TG have in mind the point that introspection represents one’s mental properties as possessed by a single entity—oneself. But it doesn’t follow that introspection represents the single entity as lacking parts. After all, vision can represent redness and roundness as possessed by a single apple without representing the apple as lacking parts.
I don’t know why TG think that introspection represents our minds (or our selves) as lacking parts. But in the course of claiming that “the seemingly substantive simplicity of the self … is presupposed by, and sets the agenda for, an interesting issue in brain science known as the binding problem,” TG do assert that, “When we see a physical object … we have a first-person unified experience of a single object.” They mean, I take it, that, if we introspect while looking at an apple that’s both red and round, introspection represents us as enjoying a unified visual experience of the apple—despite the fact that different parts of the brain handle visual representations of color than handle visual representations of shape. However, because enjoying a unified visual experience of something patently isn’t the same thing as being an object that lacks parts, TG’s assertion, even if true, doesn’t show that introspection represents our minds as lacking parts. Actually, it may well not be true that, if we introspect while looking at an apple that’s both red and round, introspection represents us as enjoying a unified visual experience of the apple. Introspection may merely represent us as visually representing an apple as red and round, without pronouncing either way on the question of whether our visual representing itself is unified. As so often, it’s hard to say exactly what introspection is telling us.
 Early in their reply, TG place within a single set of quotation marks two sentences from my paper, and because the second quoted sentence begins with the word, “so,” they make it seem as if I meant to infer the second sentence from the first. I did not, and in fact the two sentences quoted come from distinct sections of my paper, separated by some 1,500 words.
 My vision is unreliable about the relative lengths of the two horizontal lines in the Muller-Lyer illusion; but it’s still functioning properly.
 A pain felt “in” a limb that has been amputated—a phantom pain—would be an example of a misrepresentation of something as occurring in the limb.
 TG charge this suggestion of mine with involving “a profound category mistake.” They say, as if to correct me, that “we are neither the same as systematic thinking nor a system of thought.” But I never said that we were either of those things! My suggestion was that minds are systems in the same sense in which we all agree that our bodies have immune systems and our houses have air-conditioning systems.
 As a first approximation, one might even say that mental properties are precisely those properties—whatever their ultimate nature—that introspection represents us as possessing.
 TG go on to claim that, because of what introspection allegedly reveals, “the neurobiologist searches for a corresponding single point in the brain which in virtue of its singularity captures the nature of our first-person experience.” However, it’s not at all my impression that cognitive neuroscientists are searching for such a point, or even think that they need to find one in order to solve the binding problem.
 Thanks once again to Paul Draper for his acute and helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
Copyright ©2007 Andrew Melnyk. The electronic version is copyright ©2007 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Andrew Melnyk. All rights reserved.