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Thought in Action, Panpsychism (and Not Using the F-word)

Interview by Richard Marshall.

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Why has it been so persuasive? You say it can’t be because philosophers have told us it is so. Now, come on Richard, give us a little credit! It can’t be entirely because of this, but philosophical views do seep into the broader public consciousness. Dreyfus’s work, for example, has been very influential, and I have seen citations to it in popular psychology books about skill. I’ve even been told that long distance truck drivers listen to his podcasts! So I think philosophical ideas can sometimes have a somewhat large impact. So part of the popularity of the idea that expert action is effortless and automatic might very well be due to the fact that “philosophers have told us that it is so.”

Books such as Zen in the Art of Archery and all of its spin-offs may turn on this tendency. Perhaps they reach the status of bestsellers for the same reason that diet books that advocate the idea that you can eat as much as you want as long as you don’t eat carbs, for example (or gluten, or animal products before noon, or anything white and so on) are popular: not because they work, but because they are relatively easy to follow.

As for your i-phone, I think that the best thing to say about it is that it should be neither seen nor heard in polite company.

Barbara Gail Montero is an associate professor of philosophy at the City University of New York (CUNY). Her research focuses on two very different notions of body: body as the physical or material basis of the mind, and body as the moving, breathing, flesh and blood instrument we use when we run, walk, or dance. The first line of research has led her to question whether physicalism is best thought of as the theory that everything, including consciousness, is ultimately accounted for by physics. Her second line of research is on the body as that moving, breathing, flesh and blood instrument we use when we run, walk, or dance and has led her to investigate the nature of various mental processes such as awareness, rationality, thought and deliberation via the study of expert action and proprioception (the sense by which we acquire information about the positions and movements of our own bodies, via receptors in the joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles, and skin). Here I keep her on her toes by asking her about the ‘f’word even though she makes it clear she’d rather not go anywhere near it and in turn she discusses acting skilfully, the Dreyfus/McDowell dispute and why she thinks they both get the issue wrong, x-phi dudes and whether she is one – and whether ‘dude’ isn’t, you know, just wrong here, Gladwell and jam idiots, Taoism, speed chess, whether dance and sex performances are hindered by thinking about what you’re doing, whether self awareness is required for expertise, about choking experts and about emergencies. But she isn’t finished there: she turns to the hard problem of consciousness, whether pan-psychism can work, the combination problem and whether my i-phone is conscious. If you want super smart and sassy, this one is the flood…


3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Barbara Gail Montero: Somehow, Richard, I had a feeling you would ask that question. . . Well, I suppose that there isn’t anything that made me become a philosopher except for the forces and previous state of the universe, but I have a sense that that is not the answer you are looking for. You want me to explain the reasons for why I decided to major in philosophy and then go on to graduate school and so forth. Certainly, there are various stories I like to tell about why I chose philosophy as my life’s (second) path. But the thing is, it’s rather difficult for me to know which stories illustrate the true reasons behind my actions and which are invented to make me look good. You still want me to give it a try?

OK, then, here goes. After my life’s first path as a professional ballet dancer (does that make me look good?), I wanted to develop my mind beyond the confines of ballet. As a dancer, I spent a great amount of time thinking, but the thinking was always focused on improving my ballet technique and artistry. I was ready for a change, and the best way to do this, I figured, was to go to college. I hadn’t been. Ballet training starts young, and you enter the professional world directly after high school, which I graduated from at the age of fifteen. Thus, after supporting myself as a ballet dancer for a number of years, I moved back in with my parents and entered U.C. Berkeley with an open mind.

Greg and Barbara pose

[BGM dancing with Greg Kollarus 2016]

At Berkeley, I probably could have happily pursued any of the disciplines that I had started studying, or, actually, any save for those two that I truly excelled at, the two in which I was getting the highest exam scores of the class, and the only two that the professors actively encouraged me to major in: chemistry and computer science. Ballet had taught me the value of hard work, which paid off amply in both of these classes, and when the distribution of exam scores was announced, my score was invariably at the top. However, these disciplines were not for me. I’m the type who is constitutionally unable or at least unwilling to follow a recipe when I cook, and I can still remember the sinking feeling when my chemistry professor tried to sell me on the joys of acid-base titration. And somehow the idea of a job like software engineering, where you could actually bring home a decent pay check, had no appeal to me then. In any event, after having spent so much of my life narrowly focused on one thing, I craved breadth. Philosophy seemed to provide that: its methods encompass elements from the humanities, mathematics and science. And you can do philosophy of anything. Furthermore, as opposed to ballet, philosophy also seemed to be an endeavor that allows one to age gracefully. I declared the major before taking a single class.

I suppose that covers it; and it’s fairly accurate too. But wait, I almost forgot one crucial piece of information: I was named after one of the Aristotelian syllogisms, the Barbara syllogism. If there was any one particular thing that made me become a philosopher, it must have been that.

3:AM: Your work intersects with a major philosophical concern about the role of thinking in elite skillfulness. A dispute between John McDowell and Hubert Dreyfus perhaps helps set the scene. Dreyfus argues that the expert acting skillfully gets in the ‘flow’, loses herself whilst acting. Can you explain how Dreyfus and his ilk set up this explanation?

BGM: I’ll give it a shot. Dreyfus does, indeed, say that the expert acting skillfully gets in the f**w. (I generally try to avoid that f-word, which, as I understand it, is widely misappropriated from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research investigating optimal experience not optimal performance.) What Dreyfus means by this is that in such situations experts perform their actions neither deliberately nor intentionally; their minds are not guiding their movements. As he sees it, it’s not that in opening your front door, you have a conception of the correct way to turn the knob and then carry out your action in light of this conception. Rather, as he sometimes puts it, the situation “elicits” the action and the mind dissolves into a relationship to the environment. The movement, on his view, is “nonminded.” I’m not sure if he would equate this with “losing the self,” since the concept of “the self,” is rather protean and one could understand the self in such situations as nonminded. But in as much as the phrase “losing the self” simply means not engaging the deliberative, reflective mind, then, on Dreyfus’s account, the self does dissolve into movement.

An example Dreyfus likes to use to illustrate his position is driving: an experienced driver can round a corner, ease off the accelerator and then stop at a light all while her mind is fully engaged on other matters. And—the recent data on texting while driving notwithstanding—I think this is basically right. It seems that many actions we perform during the course of a day progress efficiently, accurately, and effortlessly while our minds are otherwise engaged.

Another illustration of the type of mindless, effortless action that Dreyfus relies on to motivate his position is Charles Taylor’s account of a man flawlessly navigating a path up a hill while his mind is totally absorbed in anticipating an ensuing difficult conversation. This type of “absorbed coping” is, for Dreyfus, the pinnacle of skill. And, on his view, not only do skilled actions proceed without thought, but, in his words, “the enemy of expertise is thought.” For example, he maintains that if you were to think about the correct way to turn the knob on your front door, you likely wouldn’t be able to get in, or at least you wouldn’t be able to do in your typical smooth, effortless manner—assuming, of course, you’re not a total klutz. (You’re not, right?)

3:AM: McDowell disagrees with Dreyfus on some of the details but actually agrees that Dreyfus’s account of the phenomenology of skilled action is about right. What are the differences between the two – I ask because although there are differences you disagree with both of them don’t you?

BGM: Right. Dreyfus’s attribution of nonmindedness to experts runs deep: it is not only that experts, when performing optimally, are neither consciously monitoring their movements nor pondering what to do next, but that the monitoring and decision making is not even occurring at an unconscious level. He likens the idea that an expert’s monitoring and decision making is unconscious to the idea that after learning to ride a bike, the training wheels, which we had previously relied on, become invisible. Riding a bike is not like that. Once you can ride a bike, the training wheels don’t become invisible; they are cast off entirely, and, for Dreyfus, once habits are ingrained, the mind is too. On his view, the environment (rather than an unconscious decision to move) elicits the expert action.

McDowell, in contrast, thinks that, as he puts it, all of our actions are “permeated with rationality.” We interact with the world, according to McDowell, always through concepts; even in our most basic perceptions, he thinks, we are seeing the world in a certain way; we are imposing a conceptual framework on the data of sense perception. Concepts are not just training wheels for McDowell, but are an inextricable part of perception.

For both McDowell and Dreyfus, however, when actions are going well—when the soccer player is making a goal without a glitch, when the daily commuter is driving to the office without interference, when a chess player is breezing through a game of lightning chess (which allows only one minute per player per game)—conscious deliberations, decisions, and plans do not enter the picture. For Dreyfus this is because deliberations, decisions and plans do not occur at all, while for McDowell they occur but not explicitly, or consciously.

3:AM: So your position is to dispute all this. The common view that experts are in the flow is just not right according to you is it. Is this primarily a result of empirical enquiry rather than a priori considerations – and are you a kind of x-phi dude? Why doesn’t the study by Timothy Wilson and Jonathan Schooler support the opposite conclusion that Gladwell summarizes as ‘Thinking about jam turns people into jam idiots?’

BGM: Well, I don’t dispute all of it (and there you go using that f-word again). My concern is exclusively with what you might think of as professional level expertise: the professional athlete, performing artists, chess player, writer. McDowell and Dreyfus are concerned with a broader swath of skilled activities, which include our quotidian actions of opening doors, commuting to work, climbing stairs and so forth. In my research, I don’t address such activities, so I don’t dispute what McDowell and Dreyfus say about them. However, I do disagree with both of them regarding professional level actions. I think that the type of high level of expertise demonstrated by professional athletes, performing artists, grandmaster chess players and other individuals is (generally) infused with conscious concepts. This is not to say, of course, that every aspect of expert action is conscious—it’s not permeated with consciousness. When athletes consciously focus on one aspect of their movement, other aspects run offline. But I do think that the conscious mind in expert action is typically directed at some aspect or aspects of skill. This might be a high-level aspect, such as speed, or low-level, such as hip rotation.

Am I a kind of x-phi dude? I guess this depends on what x-phi encompasses (and I suppose also what it means to be a dude.) For better or worse, when I’m interested in a topic, I try to find out about it from out about it from various angles, even when this brings me out of my comfort zone of philosophy and into disciplines I don’t have formal training in. With expertise, there is a large psychology literature that I’ve tried to get a handle on. I also look at literary examples of expert action. And I’ve conducted experiments myself on chess players. I also take my own observations of and discussions with experts into account. For example, philosophers are fond of citing the example of chicken sexers who are able to identify the sex of a chick without having any understanding of how they do this. How could this be if, as I claim, expertise typically involves conscious thought? Finding a chicken sexer to talk to about this was much more difficult than I had thought it might be. They are deathly afraid of being exposed for animal rights abuses. However, I did get a chance to speak with a retired poultry sexer, and he was shocked to hear about the philosopher’s take on this issue. And as for the idea that one also hears philosophers mention that the only way for someone to learn the skill is, not by instructions, but by watching an expert, I found detailed articles explaining in painstaking detail the intricate methods chicken sexers learn. In this way, I am thrown out of the armchair and into the world, which is both useful and unsettling. A deductive philosophical argument gives you a sense of completion whereas the search for evidence is never ending.


As for Gladwell’s comment, I was once told by a prominent philosopher, after I presented my take on the Wilson and Jonathan Schooler jam experiment, that I should “never cite Malcom Gladwell in an academic setting.” I suppose this prominent philosopher thought that Gladwell’s work was not rigorous to meet academic standards. Whether or not this is true, Gladwell does have a knack with words. So I stand by my citation: what about these “jam idiots” (Gladwell 2005)?

In the Wilson and Schooler study that Gladwell is alluding to, one group of college students ranked five brands of jam from best to worst while another group did this and also explained their reasons for their rankings. And guess which group produced the jam idiots? The group whose sole task was to rank the jams ended up with fairly consistent judgments, both among themselves and in comparison with expert food tasters while the rankings of the other group went haywire. What should we conclude from this? Does thinking turn people into idiots? The study does indicate that when college students think about their jam choices, their ability to accurately identify the best jams declines. However, the expert food-tasters, who were a panel of trained individuals, were able to both justify their choices and, arguably, make the best choices. Thus, if we assume that the food experts made the best choices, the take-home message from Wilson and Schooler’s experiment ought to be not that poor choices come from thinking, but that poor choices (or at least suboptimal ones) come from not being trained how to think. Or in other words, to be a jam genius, you’ve got to think.

3:AM: The idea of experts acting on automatic or in the ‘flow’ (see, I just can’t help it) is very popular isn’t it? Taoism has held it as a truth, cognitive, sport and educational psychologists also have it as a default position don’t they? Can you say something about how widespread it is in our culture and why you think it is so pervasive? It can’t be because philosophers have told us its so can it?

BGM: Well, you know how it goes. You read an argument for p, and it begins by illustrating the popularity of not p. But then you read an argument for not p, and it begins by illustrating the popularity of p. So it is difficult to know—at least not without the work of those x-phi dudes—just how popular certain views are. Nonetheless, the position that I aim to counter does have a long and distinguished history. It is found, according to some interpretations, in the ancient Daoist text the Zhuangzi wherein the actions of experts are described as flowing not from reason, but from spiritual desire; it is an essential component of the eighteenth-century proto-Romantic movement, Sturm und Drang; it guides the nineteenth-century poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s translation of Plato’s dialogue Ion; and it plays a prominent role in twentieth-century phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty’s account of action, especially as interpreted by Hubert Dreyfus. Today one also finds it championed by philosophers such as Stephen Schiffer—eight-year-old Mozart, Schiffer tells us, could compose a symphony without any understanding of how to do so—and defended by numerous psychologists who study expert action.

Why has it been so persuasive? You say it can’t be because philosophers have told us it is so. Now, come on Richard, give us a little credit! It can’t be entirely because of this, but philosophical views do seep into the broader public consciousness. Dreyfus’s work, for example, has been very influential, and I have seen citations to it in popular psychology books about skill. I’ve even been told that long distance truck drivers listen to his podcasts! So I think philosophical ideas can sometimes have a somewhat large impact. So part of the popularity of the idea that expert action is effortless and automatic might very well be due to the fact that “philosophers have told us that it is so.”

Of course, the seeping of philosophical ideas into public consciousness sometimes works like a game of telephone. For example, ancient Zen ideas about skill seeped into public discourse in part through Eugen Herrigel’s interpretation of Zen in Zen in the Art of Archery. Do you know the book? In it, Herrigel describes the best actions of the archer as not even being done by the archer himself: it shoots, not the archer. Herrigel presented the book as an illustration of ancient Zen philosophical ideas about skill. Yet according to the Japanese religious studies scholar Yamada Shoji, these views have been misinterpreted. In a book entitled The Myth of Zen in the Art of Archery, Shoji points out that Herrigel did not speak Japanese himself, and the highly influential and crucial idea that it is not the archer who shoots the arrow but rather, “it shoots,”—a phrase which does not appear in the first draft of the book— was supposedly conveyed to Herrigel when his translator was out sick. Why did he come up with this idea? One possibility Shoji broaches is it simply might have been a mistranslation of “that’s it.”

There are also other reasons why the idea that experts act effortlessly and without thought—what I call the “just-do-it principle” is popular. From an outside perspective, expertise may look effortless and automatic, but appearances can be deceptive. Also, poor performance may frequently coincide with acting in a deliberate and thoughtful way, but it could be that the poor performance causes one to step back and think rather than the other way around. Moreover, as I like to point out, it also could be that some of the popularity of just-do-it is simply based on the apparent fact that most people prefer ease to hard work. Books such as Zen in the Art of Archery and all of its spin-offs may turn on this tendency. Perhaps they reach the status of bestsellers for the same reason that diet books that advocate the idea that you can eat as much as you want as long as you don’t eat carbs, for example (or gluten, or animal products before noon, or anything white and so on) are popular: not because they work, but because they are relatively easy to follow.

3:AM: Speed Chess is used as an example of where Dreyfus’ idea seems to work. So why do you think there’s nothing about speed chess to substantiate his argument that “after much experience, the chess master is directly drawn by the forces on the board to make a masterful move.”

BGM: The long and the short of this—well, really just the short of it—is that I conducted an experiment to test Dreyfus’s contention. (McDowell’s too since he explicitly says that if you were to compel chess players to explain their reasoning, this would impede their performance.) I had four accomplished chess players—two masters, one national master and one (retired) international master—play lightning chess while they thought aloud, saying what came into their minds, if anything. After I explained the task, my participants all expressed doubts; they think all the time, they said, but thinking aloud while playing would likely slow them down too much. Indeed, the first player I was scheduled to test made such a convincing case for this, I almost skipped over the one-minute game trials and moved on to the five-minute ones. However, the five-minute trials were not necessary. As soon as my chess players were paired with their online opponents, clocks started ticking and they started talking, very rapidly and more or less nonstop, about their reasoning processes as they were playing.

Did the need to verbalize their thoughts slow them down at all? They all felt they played as well as they normally do. But perhaps it did slow them down a bit. My experiment was too coarse-grained to tell. If I ever get a grant to conduct further research on this, I’ll try to find out. However, as philosophers are the notorious bargain for the university, it’s going to be difficult.


3:AM: Doesn’t the aesthetic experience of expert movement – as in dance of which you are an expert practitioner – get trammeled by focus on the highly skilled movements? Is sex performance hindered by focusing on this rather than losing yourself in the moment or other person etc?

BGM: Interesting that you grouped these two activities in one question, as they are significantly different, you know! In any event, the question of whether dance performance gets trammeled by focusing on one’s movements is the question that started my interest in the topic of the role of the mind in expert action. It was the spring of 2003, and I was being interviewed for an assistant professor position at City University of New York. My talk was on how proprioception, which is our nonvisual sense of the positions and movements of our bodies in space, provides insight into the beauty, grace, power, and precision of one’s own movements, and how dancers, by focusing on their proprioceptive experiences, can have such insight. During the Q&A, Bob Child (who was on the faculty then and also happened to also be an avid golfer) hit me with this: “but doesn’t focusing on what you are doing interfere with performance?” I was stumped, so I mumbled something about the unconscious (I had already used my one that’s-a-great-question-and-I’ll-need-to-ponder-it-more-deeply-later card) and quickly moved on. Fortunately, Child seemed satisfied, and somehow I got the job. Yet I didn’t stop pondering his question. You know what philosophers say, “a man’s modus tollens is a woman’s modus ponens”—well, not exactly this, but it is close enough—and although Child thought my view was wrong since he noticed that if the thesis of my talk is correct and dancers aware of aesthetic properties of their own movement via proprioception, then they are consciously attending to their movements ( his modus tollens), I now think that because expert dancers are consciously aware of aesthetic properties of their movements via proprioception, some experts do attend to their movements—my modus ponens.

Regarding that other f-word, you ask whether sex performance is hindered by focusing on what you are doing. Aristotle, in fact, has something to say about this. In book VII of the Nicomachean Ethics he writes, “as with the pleasure of sex: no one could have any thoughts when enjoying that.” Sounds like support for what I am guessing is your view (thinking about the mechanics of sex impedes the pleasure you might otherwise derive from it). However, the dialectic of the passage is a bit complicated. This comment on sex is not presented by Aristotle as his own, but rather as the view of someone who objects to Aristotle’s position that pleasure is good. That is, Aristotle is asserting that his opponent may hold that “pleasure is not a good at all” because, among other things, “pleasures are a hindrance to thought, and the more so the more one delights in them,” and this is illustrated, claims his rhetorical opponent, by sex. Thus Aristotle’s opponent is not so much saying that thinking interferes with the pleasure of sex but rather that the pleasure of sex interferes with thinking. Aristotle disagrees and thinks pleasure is compatible with performing at one’s best. So he leaves it open whether one can think while delighting in sexual activity.

Now, I, of course, have much, much more to say about this topic; however, at this point I feel compelled to say that if you want to know what this is, you are going to have to shell out those bucks and buy my book!

3:AM: David Vellman doubts that self awareness is required in expertise. What evidence is there for saying he’s wrong in this?

BGM: I suppose it’s more an issue of questioning the evidence for thinking he is right. Again, as I said in response to your question about whether Dreyfus thinks that the self is lost when an expert is performing at the top of her game, the concept of a self is somewhat murky and, correlatively, so is the question of whether one has self-awareness in expert action. But, anyway, let’s say that one way self awareness manifests itself is in the experience of trying, or making an effort. Arguably, if something seems difficult to you, you experience yourself as trying or making an effort to do it. Experts, I think, have this experience all the time since they are always reaching for goals that are just beyond their grasp. Velleman is trying to pinpoint a different kind of experience, one that is more effortless, and although I think expertise is effortless occasionally, I think it is neither generally effortless nor is effortlessness characteristic of experts’ actions at their best. Velleman bases his views about the role of the self in expert action on Csikszentmihalyi’s research and the Taoist text the Zhuangzi. But, as I already mentioned, Csikszentmihalyi’s focus was on optimal experience not optimal performance (on how you feel, not on how you do). The Taoist texts are bloody more difficult to figure out—especially for someone like me, who is in no sense a scholar of Ancient Chinese philosophy. However, from what I have been able to gather, the interpretation of the Zhuangzi that Velleman relies on, which is Edward Slingerland’s, is not universally nor even perhaps widely accepted, and some scholars understand the passages on skill that Velleman cites as more of a metaphor for political rule than a recipe for individual skill, that is, for ruling not by forcing one’s subjects to act in certain ways but by embodying the kind charisma a person who appears to act effortless manifests.

Now, I should mention that I’ve spoken to David about this and he thinks that I’m reading more into his claims than what he intended to be there. So, in the end, it may be that he and I don’t disagree that much (which, of course, is a good thing, but not as interesting). And the paper in which he discusses Csikszentmihalyi’s work and the passages on skill in the Zhuangzi is primarily devoted to analyzing Harry Frankfurt’s account of action and the will, which is something I do not even address.

3:AM: Anxiety seems to lead to various ‘choking’ experiences of experts. Is this linked with the problems encountered when we try too hard. I can never speak in an interview situation – I can’t remember the ideas or the words. Why isn’t this a matter of me not being in the flow anymore? Can you say something about this and say how you think anxiety can make an expert lose their skills?

BGM: So, to translate, if I may—to avoid that four letter word—you claim that when you think about what to say during an interview, the result is that you can’t remember the ideas you wanted to talk about or the right words to use to express them. And you suggest that it’s the thinking and trying that is causing the havoc. Well, perhaps, but—correct me, if I am wrong—I thought, Richard, that you are an expert at the written interview, not the live one. In fact, I’m inclined to think that speaking and writing involve opposing skills: good writers are typically good revisers, while good speakers make it sound right on the first go. I’d be curious to know whether experienced radio show hosts find themselves forgetting what to say when they try to monitor their output. When a guest tosses them an unexpected remark, can they consciously consider how to respond while on the air? Of course, the interview is an unusual form of expertise as it requires you to be a quick study of all sorts of topics and thus the questions an interviewer needs to ask often are about topics that he or she doesn’t have extensive knowledge about. This doesn’t mean it is better not to think, but it might account for why an interviewer could forget what to say.

3:AM: Why isn’t how we act in emergencies another scenario where expertise is best done without thinking?

BGM: As I have yet to concede that there are any, I can’t say that emergencies are another such scenario. Am I trying to avoid the question? Yes! The question of how first respondents—and I’m taking your question as a question about professionals, as that’s what my research concerns—should engage their minds in the midst of action is highly studied and extremely important. I’ve thought about many different kinds of expertise and have tried to understand these forms of expertise from various angles. So, although I have something to say about emergencies—some of which I sum up in my OUP blog post—I feel that the views of specialists who train emergency workers must be given much more weight than any of my brief comments. That said, from what I have been able to gather, first respondents can find themselves in one of two situations: they have information available about the situation that can guide their decisions or they have no such information. When there is information available, I think it’s useful to consider the information. When there isn’t, you have no choice but to go with your gut.

I also have thought—again, as a generalist, since I feel it applies just as well to other forms of expertise—about training for emergency workers. I feel that although it is important for emergency workers to practice in such a way so that their actions could be performed automatically—in a large scale disaster, fear might inhibit rational thought—they should not practice in such a way so that they must perform automatically. This is so for two reasons. First off, if it is true that proceeding automatically means that thinking about how to do the action would flummox performance, as Dreyfus and others have argued is the case, then one does not want to risk having this happen in the eventuality that one does start thinking about what to do. And second, in an emergency situation one may need to make decisions and, as I suggested, if there is information to consider that can help one to make that decision, one ought to take it into account.

3:AM: You’ve entered other key issues. The ‘Hard Problem’ of consciousness is a hot topic at the moment what with the Stoppard play doing the rounds and Chalmers, Dennett and Churchland et al sailing to the frozen seas to sort it all out. You argue for a loophole in Chalmers’ conceivability argument – what is the outline of the argument and why is it significant that you end with Russellian physicalism?

BGM: OK, switching gears, I really want to see that play! However, I imagine that Stoppard, alas, didn’t read me in his preparation for writing it. If he had, the dramatic tension might have been dropped a notch or two. David Chalmers has argued quite forcefully, that a “zombie world” (a world just like ours at the level of fundamental physics but lacking consciousness) is conceivable. He goes on to claim that a world matching this conception is logically possible and concludes that consciousness is not physical. Is the argument successful? Most philosophers accept that if it is possible for there to be a world that duplicates the fundamental properties of physics without duplicating consciousness, then consciousness is not physical. And many accept that we can in some sense conceive of such a world. The controversial part of the argument is often seen as the move from conceivability to possibility. Yet, according to Chalmers, when we are very careful about what is to count as conceivability, this move also is valid. This is the conceivability argument that, according to Chalmers, shows that physicalism about consciousness must be rejected.

Or rather, he claims that it almost shows this. He qualifies his conclusion because he thinks that when we conceive of the fundamental physical world, we may fail to conceive of its intrinsic properties. That is, our conception will be about what the quarks and leptons and so forth do—since, after all, that’s what physics tells us about—but not what these fundamental particles are like in and of themselves. Yet it could be, Chalmers thinks, that consciousness depends on the intrinsic properties of the fundamental physical world. If it does, a world that duplicates our fundamental physics, but not the intrinsic properties of this physics, would fail to duplicate consciousness. Thus, a theory that holds that consciousness depends on the intrinsic properties of the fundamental physical particles and forces, or in other words, “Russellian monism,” is left untouched by the conceivability argument. The best conceivability argument can conclude, Chalmers tells us, is either physicalism is false or Russellian monism is true.

So if the conceivability argument leaves open the possibility that Russellian monism is true, does this mean the premises of conceivability argument are consistent with the truth of physicalism? Chalmers doesn’t think so since he thinks Russellian monism is, in spirit, an antiphysicalistic view. However, I’ve argued that when you fill in the details of Russellian monism in a certain way, the view throws off its antiphysicalistic clothing and turns into a full-blooded form of physicalism, what I refer to as Russellian physicalism. To put it in the length of a tweet, I argue that since Russellian physicalism takes the fundamental grounds of everything to be neither mental nor specifically for the purpose of generating mentality it should rightly count as a form of physicalism.

3:AM: Linked to this is the recent re-interest in panpsychism. It’s an old position – possibly found in Leibniz and, according to Galen Strawson, Nietzsche too. Could you first sketch how you understand the position and what problem it is supposed to solve?

BGM: Sure. If you understand Russellian monism as an antiphysicalist view, you might see the intrinsic nature of the fundamental particles and forces in our world as conscious, which leaves you with a world saturated with consciousness, or in other words, with “panpsychism.” Panpsychism aims to respond to the hard problem, the problem of accounting for consciousness in a world composed of particles and forces that are not conscious, by infusing the most basic components of the world with consciousness. Leibniz, for example, asks imagine walking around inside a conscious, thinking machine. Just as we might walk inside a windmill, we would see parts pushing and pulling each other, but, he claims, nowhere would we find anything that could account for conscious experience. And from this he concludes that consciousness must occur in the matter itself that makes up the machine. Similarly, if our brains are such a machine, then consciousness must occur in the matter that composes our brains. And if that’s where mind is, then mind is everywhere.

I’m probably not doing this argument justice. And I hope your readers will excuse me if that’s true; this is an interview, after all, and I can’t keep you waiting while I look everything up. Right? OK, then, as it stands, I find this argument a bit puzzling. I take it that the idea is that our brains are such a machine and there is nothing about the workings of our brains that could explain consciousness. But maybe perception or consciousness is feature of the parts working together, so that in being shrunk down you lose the forest for the trees. Or maybe it’s somewhere there among or between the parts, but just not visible, analogous, perhaps, to the air the windmill pushes. Also, it seems that one can iterate the argument. Imagine being shrunk down so much so that you could buzz around the matter that makes up this machine. Even if consciousness (or perception, which I do think was Leibniz’s term) occurs in the matter that composes our brains, it might not be detectable to the naked senses.


But such objections be damned, what Leibniz’s argument lacks in persuasiveness it more than makes up for in persistence. When doing research for my chapter on philosophy of mind for The Oxford Handbook of 19th Century German Philosophy, I found similar reasoning on the part German physician Heinrich Czolbe, who, along with many notable intellectuals, was engaged in what was known as the “materialismusstrait,” the debate over materialism. The philosopher Hermann Lotze, who argued against materialism, wanted to know how, on a materialistic picture of the universe according to which all of nature is ultimately mechanical movements of extended substance, could consciousness exist. If the workings of the brain are no different in essence from the workings of a spinning-jenny, materialists, he claimed would then need to say that a spinning jenny is conscious. Czolbe took Lotze’s comments to heart, leading him to diverge from the other materialists of the time, and defend a panpsychist account of consciousness—all of a sudden I’m acutely aware of how much I can go on and on when I’m not interrupted. Richard, you’re too polite. You should stop me.

Anyway, to get back to the current re-interest, today’s zombies (those unconscious inhabitants of the zombie world) are Leibniz’s mill, and as in Leibniz’s time, the difficulty of finding consciousness in the parts that make up thinking beings also leads some contemporary philosophers, such as Hedda Hassel Mørch, to hard and long about panpsychism.

3:AM: Some philosophers have argued that the position faces a ‘combination problem’. What’s this?

BGM: Right. If panpsychism is true and the microworld is imbued with consciousness, these microconsciousnesses need to combine to make human level consciousness. The combination problem is the problem of explaining how this is possible. The idea is supposed to be something like this: How can anything as individualistic as a point of view combine with another point of view? Let me keep this one short.

3:AM: You think that the problem isn’t fatal and that there are ways that the panpsychist can go. So can you say why the panpsychist survives the threat of combination. And does this mean you are attracted to the position? Is my i-phone conscious?

BGM: Generally, when it comes to metaphysics, I don’t experience attractions or repulsions to various positions, but rather try to analyze the arguments and evidence for or against views and see where they lead. I know, terribly old-fashioned, but there you go. This is not to say that I never feel attracted to a philosophical view. For example, when it comes to the role of nature versus nurture—a question that I see as empirical yet philosophical—I am strongly attracted to the nurture side. Of course, I also think that there are very good arguments for this position. For example, you’ve read Jesse Prinz’s book on this?

OK, right, back to the combination problem. You’re correct. I think that there is a way that the panpsychists can go since I think that there are some gaps in our understanding of how parts combine to form wholes in general. How do we get, for example, from the quarks and leptons to the tables and chairs? If we are willing to say that the particles (or waves, really, I suppose) compose the tables and chairs, why not also say that micro-minds compose human-level minds. If you are now thinking, “hey, but that sort of story can also be wielded to support the physicalist position that we can get minds out of insentient matter” you would be right.

As for your i-phone, I think that the best thing to say about it is that it should be neither seen nor heard in polite company.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books that you could recommend to the readers here at 3:AM that would help us delve deeper into your philosophical world?

BGM: It’s difficult not to cheat and list more. But I’ll make an attempt. The first and last are more illustrative of positions that I oppose than positions that I agree with, but they have all been highly influential in my thinking, and I love them all:


The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, by David Chalmers


New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind, by Noam Chomsky


Pride and the Daily Marathon, by Jonathan Cole


Thought and Choice in Chess, by Adrian de Groot


Mind Over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer, by Dreyfus and Dreyfus.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 12th, 2016.