I usually have to wait for the audio version of these Mind Chat podcasts, but this one seemed a reasonable length and I had some time this weekend. Keith Frankish, an illusionist, and Philip Goff, a panpsychist, interviewed Noam Chomsky for his views on consciousness. (The video is about 72 minutes. You don’t necessarily need to watch it to follow the rest of the post.)
I posted a while back on a document that Noam Chomsky has on his website which discusses his views on mysterianism, the idea that some things are beyond human comprehension. Chomsky touches on consciousness a bit in that document. At the time, I came away with the vague impression that he was an idealist of some kind, someone who takes reality to be primarily mental.
However, in this interview he seems to question the existence of the hard problem of consciousness, a common conclusion for reductive physicalists, but also to endorse Russellian monism, often seen as a variant of panpsychism (as David Chalmers, with some puzzlement, noted in a tweet.) During the interview, Goff gives Chomsky a sales pitch for panpsychism (24 minute mark) and Frankish for illusionism (42 minute mark). Afterward, Chomsky seems to imply (56 minute mark) that both views could be reframed and reconciled.
I’ve noted many times that most philosophical debates are definitional in nature, and wondered on numerous occasions if this isn’t the case between illusionists and panpsychists. Maybe the distinctions amount to a verbal dispute. A certain type of naturalistic panpsychism can be seen as essentially a poetic way of describing physicalism. But most panpsychists I know draw a strong distinction between their view and physicalism.
However since what Chomsky actually talked about was Russellian monism, and because I’d never read much about it, I decided to check into it specifically. My primary source here is Derk Pereboom’s SEP article.
First, a quick review. Dualism is the view that there is both a mental and physical reality. Physicalism is the view that it’s all physical, including the mental. Idealism is the view that it’s all mental, including the outside world. “Neutral monism” is a term coined by Bertrand Russell for a view that reality is either a third substance, or that the distinction between mental and physical is artificial. (Russell didn’t invent the view. It’s reportedly a variant of William James’ radical empiricism.)
Apparently there are different variants of Russellian monism. Russell seems to have worked his way through multiple versions over his career, and of course there are many interpretations of those views. But Pereboom identifies three crucial theses which seem to be common throughout.
- Structuralism about physics
- Realism about quiddities
- Quidditism about consciousness
The first thesis simply says that what physics describes are the extrinsic properties of matter and energy, essentially what it does, its structure and relations, rather than what it is. It says nothing about what matter is, about what it’s intrinsic properties, its quiddities, might be. We’ve discussed this distinction before when talking about structural realism. As a structural realist, I’m on board with this one.
The second thesis says that quiddities, intrinsic properties, are real. As an epistemic rather than ontic structural realist, I’m open to the possibility that they could be real. However, if they are real, they seem like things we can never know anything about, since knowing would require interactions, extrinsic relations of some sort. Which doesn’t seem to give us much to figure out their putative nature.
So I’m leery of the third thesis, that consciousness is composed of quiddities. But I can see the line of reasoning. If someone is convinced of the hard problem, that consciousness cannot be explained by standard physics with its structure and relations, then quiddities might seem like a necessity. And maybe these quiddities would interact with each other in a completely separate framework from the standard physical one.
This view seems more like panprotopsychism rather than panpsychism. Ironically, panprotopsychism is reductive in nature, but the reduction only happens on the mental side. If I understand the Russellian view, the phenomenal properties of consciousness are composed of paraphenomenal or protophenomenal properties, which are quiddities.
But if someone has ruled out the hard problem, as Chomsky appears to do, then the motivation for thinking that consciousness is composed of quiddities seems to disappear. The quiddities become an unmotivated assumption.
Although Chomsky’s specific reason for ruling out the hard problem, that the questions being asked are meaningless, might matter here. It may mean that he actually retains some version of the hard problem, which would fit with his previous discussion of mysterianism. (Chomsky actually refers to the “hard question” in the video, which may be intentional.)
So his motivation for that dismissal and its scope may be less than an illusionist’s. Illusionists reason that introspection is no more reliable than outward facing perception, meaning what it tells us is probably wrong in some cases, including impressions leading us to think that conscious experience can’t be reconciled with standard physics. Chomsky’s concern about meaningful questions resonates with this, but I could see a line of reasoning where it could exist without the illusionist’s more comprehensive dismissal.
Alternatively, we might fully dismiss the hard problem, but regard the quiddities as components of the illusion, maybe as useful fictions. But I’m not sure that’s compatible with the second thesis above. It might come down to how loose we want to be with the term “real”. Maybe “useful fictions” should be regarded as real in some pragmatic sense. But then the question is, how is the quiddity concept useful? It also implies that something might be real for some purposes but not others.
What do you think? Can these outlooks really be reconciled? Or is Chomsky holding some view that isn’t really either of them? Or am I missing something else here?