Galen Strawson of Mind and Matter

Galen Strawson, Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, Etc, (New York, New York Review Books, 2018).

It would be tempting to attribute Galen Strawson’s peculiar brand of naturalism to the hashish and the LCD, but readers of this site would know that I have long adhered to something similar, well before discovering Strawson, and I have not anywhere near gone to LSD nor hashish.

I highly recommend reading Strawson’s just published book, a collection of essays on different topics some related some not. We have already established that the psychedelia and the naturalism aren’t related, and so I focus here on the naturalism given that LSD and hashish are matters mysterious to me.

I had read Strawson alongside Michael Dummett’s Origins of Analytical Philosophy, reading them together proved to be an unwittingly fruitful exercise. The interesting thing about analytical philosophy is that many of its practitioners see themselves as naturalists or working within the tradition of naturalistic inquiry. Doubtless this is partly a reflection of the cognitive dominance that science has taken in modern society, but it is also surely correct to partly attribute it to the rigours of the analytical method. Science is hard. Analysis is hard. Analytical philosophy must be a type of science or a type of naturalistic inquiry.

Philip Kitcher certainly suggested something along these lines in a well known, and very good, paper on naturalism. In The Naturalists Return Kitcher argues that the view among analytical philosophers appears to be that because analytical philosophy has a corrigible method, like science has the scientific method, then analytical philosophy becomes something akin to science and something that can make nature intelligible. We know enough of the putative scientific method, in part due to the work of analytical philosophers of science but also if not more so empirically minded historians of science, to know that naturalistic inquiry, what we call science, should not be viewed through its, supposed, method.

Analytical philosophers, so long as they are true to naturalism, must adhere to this view. That’s because their method is not the scientific method. If analytical philosophy promises to tell us something about the natural world then notice we have a species of methodological dualism. There are two ways of going about the study of the world, one the empirically minded scientific method, the other a priori minded conceptual analysis. For some problems we adopt one method, for yet others, what we might call the problems of philosophy, we adopt the other.

But nowhere will you find in the analytical literature quite why we should do this, and why one set of problems should be in the empirical basket and the other the a priori. Mathematicians are not nearly so bothered. They make no claim to naturalistic inquiry, even though one cannot make nature intelligible without mathematics. Methodological dualism is an odd type of naturalism. One might want to say that it is not naturalism at all, and many naturalists precisely do this. Indeed, they usually begin their expositions by explaining why it is that they are not working within the analytical tradition.

But Strawson is more radical still.

He argues that, not just contrary to the self conception of analytical philosophy but of much of what is called Anglo-American philosophy more broadly, there are hardly any naturalists about. I once recall reading somewhere, I don’t quite recall where perhaps some LSD would do me good, that if there are p naturalists then there are p naturalisms.

Strawson says that there might be p naturalists but there are zero naturalisms.

This is because naturalistic philosophy has become eliminativist. In particular, philosophers who claim to be naturalists eliminate, rather than seek to explain or make intelligible, the problem of consciousness. But because we are conscious and because consciousness does exist, that if there is one thing that we know about the natural world to be true it is that consciousness is a feature of it, then its elimination cannot be a type of naturalism anymore than can the methodological dualism of the analytical philosopher.

Naturalistic philosophy that is founded in a rejection of analytical philosophy, like neurophilosophy, tends to be eliminativist and so on Strawson’s account not really naturalist. For an interesting, brief, exchange on this between Daniel Dennett and Strawson see here. I think you’ll find that Strawson presents a compelling case.

Given that consciousness is of nature, a consistent naturalist would recognise, being a physicalist, that it is in some, unknown, sense physical. That is matter or some configuration of matter can be conscious. This is panpsychism. Our physics does not give us a physical theory of consciousness, but that does not mean that consciousness does not exist that just means our best physics gives us an incomplete picture of the physical. To be a physicalist is to recognise the limitations of our physics, one doesn’t even have to go to matters well beyond physical theory to see that this is true think, for instance, of the cosmological constant problem.

The eliminativist is not a physicalist but she is a physicsalist or in Strawson’s rather horrid annotation physicSalist, no not even psychedelia can render that beautiful, because for the eliminativist current physics is always taken to be complete physics. But a physicalist, that is a naturalist, knows that current physics cannot exhaust our understanding of the physical. I had argued some time back here for the same view, only with regard to the supposed naturalism of Quine who also was an eliminativist, only in his case of mind altogether.

I would go further than Strawson and argue that not even pysicsalism is an appropriate label here. This is because, as noted, there are aspects of our physics that show our physical theories to be incomplete; for example, particle masses, constants, and the like do not naturally flow from theory but are known to us through experiment. Physicsalism as physicalism is not a coherent position, so therefore it is not really possible to be a physicsalist.

I think that these considerations with respect to naturalism generalise, some of which I have written of here previously. For example, social science sees itself as inheriting the mantle of science or naturalistic inquiry but I think you will find that, at least potentially, that the humanities are more in tune with naturalistic inquiry than the social sciences. This is because the humanities tell us, or can tell us, something fundamental about human nature. You will learn more about politics from history than you will from a treatise on rational choice theory or from the reification of this or that social structure. To say this is not contrary to naturalism, in fact it is entirely consistent with it.

But to return to Dummett. For Dummett analytical philosophy is fundamentally based on the view that the problems of philosophy are to be attacked through language, that is to say through the logical analysis of concepts so putting the philosophy of language, rather than the philosophy of knowledge, at the centre of our concerns. The philosopher is to sail “on the seas of language.” For those interested in the history of ideas we have two very interesting, but not very well realised, ironies of intellectual history at play.

The first is that just as the philosophy of language supplanted psychologism and epistemology through the advent of analytical philosophy, linguistics itself shifted toward naturalistic inquiry through the cognitive revolution which placed knowledge, in this case knowledge of language, as one of its central concerns. In doing so, linguistics gave us a glimpse of a conception of knowledge outside of the philosophical tradition. Philosophy went from knowledge to language just when language went to knowledge.

But if that is not enough irony we have another equally noteworthy. The work of Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, Hilbert and the project they bequeathed, although unsuccessful, did lead to great advances in discrete mathematics and computability theory. The cognitive revolution of the 1950s, which saw language go to knowledge as philosophy went to language, made possible the scientific or naturalistic linguistics of Chomsky and others. That cognitive revolution is best seen as a revival of the original cognitive revolution of the rationalist philosophers of the scientific revolution, a revival made possible by progress in theories of computation and information. So, the very basis of analytical philosophy went on to become the tools of naturalistic inquiry in the study of language and knowledge whilst analytical philosophy itself went off in a fruitless and forlorn direction.

A rough guide to the health of naturalism in philosophy is provided by epistemology. When epistemology becomes a back water, as it is and has been, then despite protestations to the contrary there can be little of naturalism about. Should epistemology thrive so should naturalism

A history of analytical philosophy surely should seek to explain this weird forking in the road, and why it is that analytical philosophers persist in travelling down the wrong road even as the intellectual tools it helped bequeath prove so adventurous elsewhere.

Strawson writes of other topics besides these in his highly thoughtful and highly readable book. One interesting topic concerns free will. I leave it for the reader to decide whether here Strawson is a physicalist or a physicSalist.