A fundamental account of physicalism and its opposite

John Wilkins explains the reason he is a physicalist:

When I lost my belief in religion I had to decide what I needed to accept as a bare minimum. I decided that I needed to believe in the physical world. I never found the slightest reason to accept the existence of anything else. To this day I am a physicalist only because I never found the need to be anything else.

The principle of parsimony suggests that one should not believe in more than one needs to. Even if it does make you feel comfortable.

There are many reasons why someone would be a physicalist (John himself gives others), but this one is complete and absolutely fundamental. There simply is no reason behind this one, or at least there need not be. After this, physicalism can fall back into the defensive activity of answering various objections- it need not seek to do any more to establish itself in a positive way. If we tried to push the analysis any further back, we would slip into the non-rational sphere of personal and somatic characteristics, the infinite ocean of the subconscious, and the dark causality of whatever else there is.

My fundamental reason is the contrary of Wilkins. His challenge was to believe as little as possible, mine was to believe in the greatest thing possible. His fundamental outlook is critical and minimalist, my fundamental outlook is to find the greatest or loftiest thing that I can. He appeals to parsimony, and there is also a clear implied appeal to certitude; my appeal is to the natural desire to seek what is highest and most perfect. He takes it as obvious that one should never posit more than he needs to; I take it as equally obvious that no one would ever settle for the merely necessary and minimal. He might well see my choice as wishful thinking or a naive uncritical approach that could leave me duped in a thousand ways; but I see his as choice as mean, scrupulous, and closed- minded. His appeal is to Ockham’s razor, mine is to Aristotle’s dual axioms that what is most perfect in itself is least knowable to us and that we cannot but seek the beatitude that comes from knowing what is most perfect in itself.

To put it in a word, John sees everything beyond the minimum given in initial experience as a threat to philosophy, and even as unphilosophical; I see the whole point of philosophy as finding some object beyond this minimum given in initial experience.

I don’t know that there is any possibility of rapprochement here, or even if either of us can critique the other in light of a principle we both accept. By our own lights, the other is committed to irrational and even anti-rational beliefs, and it’s hard to see how we could account for this by saying both of us are working from some common understanding that the other guy is misinterpreting. This is particularly striking in John’s claims about the self – we both see that (his?) physicalism requires that the unified human self be an illusion, but he takes this as a philosophical proof for the impossibility of a unified self and I take it as a reductio ad absurdum against physicalism. For him, “the (unified) self” is an objection that he can solve by an appeal to semantic constructions, to me it is a starting point for what will count as a being.


  1. Ray Stamper said,

    September 30, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    “For him, “the (unified) self” is an objection that he can solve by an appeal to semantic constructions, to me it is a starting point for what will count as a being.”

    I think that is the bottom line. As “I” encounter him In the very act of “solving” the objection by an appeal to semantics, I encounter the very self “he” is explaining away. Its just a raw and existential datum, like when a man shakes my hand and simultaneously declares: “I do not exist”. The falsity of the claim is given in and by the experience itself without need of further proof – and this I take to be as empirical a datum as any sensible experience of the “physical”.

    Norris Clarke once said that the only sufficient posture from which to philosophize is the “we are” of interpersonal dialogue, If “we” are not or are not in dialogue, why “solve”, “explain”, “write” anything?

    I too wonder if there is any space for rapprochement here? Perhaps it is best to admit there is not, and cease spending philosophical energy engaging persons who are consciously aware of this watershed, yet choose to walk the opposite road?

    Ray Stamper

  2. Crude said,

    September 30, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    Two problems.

    First, couldn’t the idealist – or even the solipsist – make the exact same claim as what’s quoted?

    Second, what is “the physical world” anyway? It seems to me both the Aristotilean and the physicalist (for example) could affirm that they believe in the physical world, and still have vastly different readings of that world.

    • September 30, 2011 at 3:50 pm

      I think the defining feature of his thought was not so much his reduction of things to physical world, but his decision to build a philosophy from a minimum, and to see the perfection of thought as consisting in how much can be explained from that minimum, whereas for myself the whole point is to get beyond the minimum. To put it another way, what Wilkins sees as a threat to his thought – that something might not be reducible to some minimum- is exactly what I see as what thought is for, or (to put it in terms he could accept) I see the transcending the minimum as the best and most fulfilling use of reason. The thing he sees as destroying his thought is exactly what I say thought is best used for.

  3. September 30, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    I don’t think he’s right that the non-physicalist view is positing more than necessary. When he wakes up in the morning and goes through his day, he still has to imitate you in thinking non-physicalist thoughts, such as accepting himself as a unified self who pursues non-physical good in various forms. He may call it an illusion, but he has to accept the illusion for practical purposes. His philosophy cannot really be lived out in practical terms. It thus seems to me that while his view may be the most “parsimonious” within the confines of his head, your view is really the most parsimonious in reality, because even the physicalists have to adopt it in their lives. He doesn’t really escape the “superfluous” construction you supposedly add to reality; he accepts it but just says that it is this thing called “illusion” — and then he has to explain why this “illusion” is such an inescapable part of reality, which gets into all sorts of questions about mind. It seems to me that in the end his view isn’t really simpler, it just accepts a different kind of complexity, in fact by unnecessarily positing that experienced things are “illusion” when accepting them as “real” is arguably much simpler.

    • September 30, 2011 at 5:47 pm

      It’s true that the consideration of the unitary self does not put the physicalist on his solidest ground, just as a consideration of evil or the multitude of religions doesn’t put all theists on their most solid ground. No one would be a physicalist just because they could meet the objections of those who speak of a unitary self, even if they could meet them. I brought it up here not as a refutation but just to show how far apart our philosophies are. But to just talk about the self is unfair to John – I should have also used another example that was more flattering to him: like a comparison of what contemporary science explains about nature, compared to what Aristotle explained about it.

      • September 30, 2011 at 6:45 pm

        I’m not familiar with Wilkins’ thought, but along with what I was getting at above, I think it would be useful to investigate just what this distinction between the “minimum” and your “beyond the minimum” is. The skeptical approach has as its most admirable feature an aversion to precipitately accepting any falsehood. He could argue, then, that if you want to pursue “the highest” in your thought, you can just make up any old fantasy you want and be satisfied with it — but it still gives us no basis to say that the Christian conception of reality has any more truth to it than the Buddhist, say. If, on the other hand, there is a compelling reason for believing one form of this “higher thought” over the other, would those reasons then qualify as part of the “minimum”? Sorry if this is a bit scattered — I’m just trying to understand his thought in light of the arguments I usually get writing about science from skeptics/materialists.

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