Philip Goff again on panpsychism & the intrinsic nature of matter


EXCERPT: . . . Causal structuralists believe that at the fundamental level of reality, all we find are dispositions. A disposition is a property that is characterized in terms of how it disposes objects to behave. Fragility and flammability are everyday examples of dispositions [...] Physics characterizes physical properties in terms of dispositions. Mass, for example, is characterized in terms of the disposition to attract [...] and the disposition to resist acceleration [...] Motivated by considerations of simplicity, the causal structuralist claims that basic physical properties [...] simply are dispositions. [...the...] nature [of a disposition] can in principle be perfectly captured by the mathematical models of physics.

The problem with causal structuralism is that its attempts to characterize the nature of matter lead either to a vicious regress or to a vicious circle. According to causal structuralists, we understand the nature of a disposition only when we know the behaviour to which it gives rise: what philosophers call its ‘manifestation’. For example, the manifestation of flammability is burning; we only know what flammability is when we know that it’s manifested through burning. However, assuming causal structuralism, the manifestation of any disposition will be another disposition, and the manifestation of that disposition will be another disposition, and so on ad infinitum. We only know what flammability is when we know what burning is; we only know what burning is when we know its numerous causal effects, for example, producing ash and smoke; we only know what ash and smoke are when we know their causal effects, and so on forever. The buck is continually passed, and hence an adequate understanding of the nature of any property is impossible, even for an omniscient being. In other words, a causal structuralist world is unintelligible.

[...] G. K. Chesterton said that ‘We cannot all live by taking in each other’s washing’. Bertrand Russell played on this idea in articulating this worry about circularity: ‘There are many possible ways of turning some things hitherto regarded as “real” into mere laws concerning the other things. Obviously there must be a limit to this process, or else all the things in the world will merely be each other’s washing’.

[...] Five hundred years of physical science has yielded rich information about the causal structure of reality. This knowledge has enabled us to manipulate the world in undreamt of ways, producing extraordinary technology that has transformed society beyond recognition. These wondrous developments have a visceral effect on our metaphysical yearnings. We become inclined to think that we’ve finally found something that works, and that we’re at last discovering the nature of reality as it is in and of itself.

Sadly, that isn’t what physical science is doing. Physical science has been so successful precisely because, from Galileo onward, it stopped trying to tell us what matter is and just focused on mapping its abstract causal relationships. Natural human curiosity cannot rest with this. At some point, human society will once again return to the beautiful project of trying to work out the nature of reality: not just what matter does, but what it is. And in the context of that admittedly more speculative project, my bets are on panpsychism....


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