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April 19th, 2005

65536 (or so) Definitions of Physicalism

I was just reading the Powerpoints for David Chalmers’ 65536 Definitions of Physicalism (warning – powerpoint) and I was struck by a couple of things. First, I wasn’t entirely sure we got 16 options for the type E at the end of the definition, but that’s just a quibble. What I really wanted to write about was this slide.

Test for when an issue involving C is just terminological:

  1. Give away the term ‘C’, in favor of ‘C1’, ‘C2’, etc.
  1. Is the issue still statable, without using ‘C’? Is there a substantive disagreement about the truth of some sentence in the new vocabulary?

This test seems to overgenerate. Let’s just pick one example. Manny says that executing an innocent to stop a riot is not morally good. Jack says it is (in the right circumstances) morally good. Is this dispute solely about terminological term ‘C’, i.e. goodness? Let’s apply Chalmers’s test.

It seems Manny uses ‘good’ to mean ‘in accord with the maxims we could will to be universal’, and Jack uses ‘good’ to mean ‘maximises preference satisfaction’. These are C1 and C2. Now it seems there is no dispute. Manny and Jack agree that the action (executing the innocent) is not in accord with the maxims we could will to be universal. And they agree that it does maximise preference satisfaction. So they just had a terminological dispute.

But disputes between Kantians and utilitarians are not terminological, they are among the most important disputes in philosophy. Sometimes we can’t rephrase a philosophical dispute because it really is just terminological. And sometimes we can’t rephrase it because we’ve hit philosophical bedrock, and our terms latch onto the most important philosophical concepts there are. In these cases, any reformulation would fail not because the original issue was terminological, but because the reformulation would just miss the point.

Posted by Brian Weatherson in Uncategorized


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16 Responses to “65536 (or so) Definitions of Physicalism”

  1. Anthony says:

    It seems like in the original sentence, the dispute would have been between the sentences “x is good” and “x is not good”. So in that the reformulation clears up the fact that Manny isn’t arguing that executing an innocent does not maximise preference satisfaction, or that Jack isn’t arguing that killing an innocent in the right circumstances is in accord with maxims that could be universal, it has cleared up a terminological dispute. It has also opened up a more fruitful discussion about the relative value of Kantian or utilitarian positions. The terminological dispute is gone, but it was relatively superficial anyway. Basically, I agree with your point that this is wrongly classified (by Chalmers’ test) as “just terminological”, but wanted to add that it might be terminological in addition to giving way to a more substantive dispute underlying the terms.

  2. Campbell says:

    I take it that, in your example, Manny is supposed to be a Kantian and Jack a utilitarian. But then I wonder whether you describe the situation correctly when you say:

    Manny uses ‘good’ to mean ‘in accord with the maxims we could will to be universal’, and Jack uses ‘good’ to mean ‘maximises preference satisfaction’.

    Granted, Manny must believe, as a Kantian, that an action is right if and only if it accords with maxims we could will to be universal. But must he believe that this biconditional holds in virtue of synonymy? (Must he say it’s analytic?)

    Perhaps Chalmers could say that, insofar as Manny and Jack do mean different things by “good”, their dispute is merely terminological. However, if they agree as to the meaning of good, but disagree as to its extension (as we might think is the more common case), then their dispute is not merely terminological.

  3. Brian Weatherson says:


    Right, there’ll be some terminological issue here, but it won’t be merely terminological.


    I shouldn’t have said ‘mean’ here. They both mean good by ‘good’. What I should have said is that if we are to replace ‘good’ with uncontested terms, as Chalmers will have us do, ‘good’ in Manny’s mouth will be replaced with ‘in accord with the maxims…’ and ‘good’ in Jack’s mouth with ‘maximises preference satisfaction’. My talk of meaning here just confused matters I’m afraid, when all I needed to talk about was what we’d have to do to carry out Chalmers’s program.

  4. Campbell says:

    Brian, another thought:

    Suppose we follow Chalmers’ procedure and banish the contested term “good”, replacing it with “good_M” meaning “in accord with universalisable maxims” and “good_J” meaning “maximises preference satisfaction”. Then it seems there wil remain some substantive disagreements between the Manny and Jack. For example, Manny will say that we ought to do that which is good_M, whereas Jack will deny this, saying instead that we ought to do that which is good_J. And Manny will say that ethicists should pay special attention to the question of what is good_M, whereas Jack will deny this, saying that the more important question is what things are good_J. And so on.

    Perhaps, then, Chalmers’ test allows that there are non-terminological disagreements between Manny and Jack, after all.

  5. djc says:

    Campbell’s second comment above says more or less exactly what I’d say. I think the disagreement between Kantians and utilitarians clearly isn’t terminological, and isn’t classified by the test as terminological, for the reasons Campbell gives.

    It looks like Brian interprets the terminology test as restricting the new vocabulary to C1, C2, and maybe other expressions used in the original question. That restriction certainly wasn’t intended. The restriction, in the first instance, is just to bar the use of C.

    Of course things get tricky. For the test to work, one may also need to bar terms that are trivially synonymous with C (though not always — terminological disagreements often manifest themselves in differences about the terms that proponents take to be trivially synonymous). And sometimes one hits philosophical bedrock, with a concept so primitive that one need either the original term or something near-synonymous to state the issue. But that’s fairly rare. And even in these cases, the attempt to apply the test will usually at least shed some light on the nature of the basic disagreement.

    (As for the 16 options for type E, I said orally in the talk that some of the combinations of the relevant features were clearly ruled out, leaving exactly 16 tenable combinations. But then, I did confess later on to cooking the calculations in order to make the answer come out to 65,536…)

  6. Brian Weatherson says:

    Those clarifications make the test a little more plausible, but I still don’t quite see how it is meant to be working. After all, presumably ‘should’ is just as contested here as ‘good’. If we replace ‘should’ with ‘should-M’ and ‘should-J’ then we’ll be back to having no debate.

    Moreover, it seems odd that whether there is a real debate about ethics or not depends on whether there are multiple moral terms in the language or not. A language that had words for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ but no other moral terms could still have moral debates, but no way of reformulating moral questions without using ‘good’.

  7. djc says:

    Well, obviously there will be a whole lot of other sentences, not involving “good” or “should” that the Kantian and the utilitarian will still disagree about. E.g. sentences involving “right”, “permissible”, and so on. (If one’s actual language doesn’t have these terms, there will still be possible terms that work this way, and one can stipulate that possible terms are all the test needs.) Maybe you’d suggest getting rid of all these in turn, but it’s no part of the test that one should be able to remove every possible vocabulary item that might be relevant and still be able to state the disagreement!

    Maybe there’s a position in philosophical space that says that the disagreement between the Kantian and utilitarian is terminological, that every moral term needs to be disambiguated in at least these two ways, and that once this is done there’s no disagreement. But intuitively, this is extremely implausible: even one has made all the distinctions one likes, there’s intuitively still a substantive disagreement between the two remaining.

    This brings out one feature of the test — it’s not intended as a reductive analysis of what it is for a disagreement to be terminological or substantive, since the test itself appeals to whether the residual dispute is substantive. Rather, the test is intended as a useful heuristic, one that can use cases where it’s reasonably clear whether an issue is substantive to help adjudicate cases where it’s not so clear.

    It’s also worth noting that there’s a good case that the moral ought (or at least, that some moral ought) may well be one of those bedrock concepts discussed in my previous comment. One way to respond to the terminology test is for proponents to cry “bedrock”. Then one needs to get down to further questions about just how plausible it is that a bedrock concept is involved, and to independent judgments about whether, once all the relevant distinctions in the vicinity have been made, there’s still a substantive disagreement. A lot of the time — say, in the disputes at the conference about whether fundamental mentality in some future physics would or wouldn’t count as “physical” — the “bedrock” move seems pretty implausible, and there’s not much sense of a residual substantive disagreement once distinctions have been made. But for reasons like this, the test isn’t a mechanical algorithm, but rather a useful heuristic that can help to shed light on the underlying nature of a dispute.

    Obviously, there’s a lot more to say about this than can be said in one Powerpoint slide! Look out for a paper on this issue one of these days.

  8. Brian Weatherson says:

    The ‘bedrock’ move makes it much more plausible. Now we just have to have debates about what counts as the bedrock. I think it includes ethics, and causation, and (probably) knowledge and most things philosophers debate. Tim Williamson thinks it includes virtually everything. Neo-positivists think it includes few to none of the interesting philosophical concepts. This seems to carve up nicely where people stand on big picture questions.

    Looking forward to the ‘one of these days’ paper.

  9. Michael Cholbi says:

    Perhaps Chalmers’ test only identifies a necessary condition for a dispute’s being terminological? Does anyone have a candidate for a philosophial dispute that they would say is merely terminological that does not meet Chalmers’ test? (Somehow free will strikes me as plausible candidate, but I’m not sure.)

  10. djc says:

    Right, one key issue is how many concepts are bedrock. I think that some are, but that for a lot of concepts the “bedrock” move isn’t especially plausible, including a lot of those that are central to philosophical disputes.

    To use Michael’s suggestion about freedom, I think it’s plausible that at least some (not all!) disputes over free will are terminological, and meet the test. Take a debate between a certain sort of hard determinist (freedom requires some special contracausal property, so we’re not free, though we have certain watered-down substitutes, which convey a sort of moral responsibility) and a certain sort of compatibilist (we’re free and morally responsible, even though we lack the contracausal property). Here we can bar the use of “free”, introducing “free1” for the relevant sort of contracausal property and “free2” for the relevant sort of compatibilist property. Then it may turn out that the two people will agree that (given that determinism is true) we’re not free1, we are free2, freedom2 conveys such-and-such sort of moral responsibility, and so on, and there will be no residual substantive dispute. Alternatively, it may turn out that there’s some residual substantive dispute, e.g. about just what sort of moral responsibility freedom2 confers. Either way, the terminology test is useful in shedding light on the nature of the underlying disagreement is.

    Now, someone could come along and make the bedrock move here. I.e. they could say, “we both agree about F1 and F2, what sorts of responsibility they convey, which of these we have and we don’t have, which of these is important in such-and-such respects and why, and so on — we just disagree about whether F1 or F2 is really freedom”. But I think most people’s reaction will be that there isn’t really any clear substantive content to this residual dispute. Here, the natural reaction is that the substantive issues come down to, how much moral responsibility F1 and F2 confer, how much they ought to matter to us, and so on, and prima facie there isn’t a “bedrock” further issue about whether freedom is F1 or F2.

    (Of course there’s also a sociological/linguistic issue about whether our ordinary word ‘freedom’ expresses F1 or F2, but on its own that issue is terminological rather than substantive. If the residual issue about whether freedom is F1 or F2 just comes down to that issue, then I’d count it as terminological rather than substantive, too.)

  11. JD says:

    I don’t think that Dave’s test can really be a test of whether a dispute is a terminological one or not, even in a case in which the contested concept isn’t a ‘bedrock’ concept. The case that Dave discussed in his talk here at BGSU will serve as a nice example, since I think the issue 1) is terminological by Dave’s test, 2) isn’t really terminological (or if it is, it isn’t because it fails Dave’s test) and 3) doesn’t involve a ‘bedrock’ concept.
    Here’s the question: what does it take for a property to be a basic physical one? Very roughly, I hold that our notion of basic physical property is tied to our understanding of what a property would have to be like such that it would fit into the kind of highy integrated pattern of explanation characteristic of our (complete and ideal) physics. (There are other important whistles and bells—see the paper at: if you like, but all that’s need here is the basic idea.) Call this sense of “physical” “D-physical”.
    It’s a consequence of this account that it could turn out that some mental property is among the basic physical ones. (“Could” in the “freakishly unlikely, but not ruled out a priori” sense.) So D-physicality is compatible with some kinds of fundamental mentality.
    Jessica Wilson, in contrast, holds that to be a basic physical property is to be D-physical except where mental properties are D-physical. So for Wilson, there’s nothing that could count as its turning out that some mental property is a basic physical one. Call properties that are physical in this sense “W-physical”.
    Dave thinks that if we replace “physical” with D-physical and W-physical we’ll see that there’s no real dispute here. We just have two senses of “physical” and if there are basic mental properties that are D-physical, D-physicalism is true, but W-physicalism is false. Wilson and I agree about this, so the dispute is, by Dave’s test, terminological.
    But the way I see it, what we’ve got is two distinct accounts of what it takes for a property to be a physical one, one that holds that our notion of a physical property is a notion that ties being physical to having the sort of features a property would have to have in order to be subject to the kind of highly integrated pattern of explanation characteristic of physics (at least ideally) and one that holds that our notion of a physical property doesn’t extend to cover cases (if there be such) of mental properties that are ripe for figuring in physics (add the whistles and bells here).

    It seems to me that it’s precisely because our concept of the physical isn’t a bedrock concept that there’s a substantive dispute that survives Dave’s test. The question is: which notion of the physical, D-physical or W-physical, better captures our notion of the physical?

    Dave may say here that this is “a sociological/linguistic issue…[and so] terminological rather than substantive”. Admittedly, to say that what’s at issue is which concept is ours is to say that settling the issue requires some sociological information. It’s a constraint on an account of our concept of the physical that it best explain our near universal reactions to possible and actual cases, for example, our reactions to scenarios in which physics discovers the existence of various new kinds of properties. But this sociological issue is also substantive: which concept is ours? how are we characterizing a property when we characterize it as a physical one? If we find that we have the intuition that no mental property will be a basic physical one, what explains our intution? Is it that our intuition is explained by our incredulity at the thought that a basic mental property could have the sort of features that would make it fit into ideal physics? If that’s right, then we’ll say that our concept of the physical, what it takes for something to count as physical, is tied to being such as to be capable of being fit into ideal physics, etc, etc. If the explanation of our intuition is that nothing could count as its turning out that a mental property is a basic physical one, then we’ll say that our concept of the basic and physical is incompatible with our concept of the mental. Here there is more to be settled that is both sociological and substantive. If our concepts of the basically physical and the mental are incompatible in this way, what generates the incompatibility? What is it about the mental and the basically physical that makes them incompatible in this way? If we can’t explain the incompatibility, then its unclear why we should think that there is one. If there isn’t, then we’ve learned something about our concept of the physical, but also about what something has to be like in order to be in its extension. One might not be very interested in the content of one of our concepts or what it takes to be in its extension. But lack of universal interest doesn’t turn a substantive issue into an insubstantial one.

  12. djc says:

    Thanks, Janice. Certainly there’s a linguistic issue about whether uses of the term ‘physical’ in our community express D-physical, W-physical, or something else. There’s also a related psychological issue about the nature of the concept (qua mental representation) expressed by our uses of ‘physical’, about what psychological processes are involved in the application of that concept, and about what entities fall into the extension of the concept. Those issues are all interesting, and are substantive in their way. For what it’s worth, I’m skeptical that there’s a fact of the matter about whether the relevant terms/concepts express D-physical or J-physical — but I could be wrong about that. The more important point is that if the issue between competing conceptions of physicalism comes down to this sort of question about us, then it looks like the disagreement is fundamentally a disagreement in lexical semantics or in human psychology, rather than a disagreement in first-order metaphysics. Now, maybe you don’t want to call these disagreements terminological (because they concern substantive matters in lexical semantics and in psychology) — but now this looks like a terminological disagreement about the use of the term “terminological disagreement”!

  13. JD says:

    There are people i would have predicted that i would be on this side of a dispute of this kind, but dave certainly isn’t one of them. Can you say more, Dave, about how you understand the distinction you’re making between questions about semantics and questions about first-order metaphysics?

    On the kind of view I’m (at the moment) attracted to—and I would have thought you were too, Dave—to answer metaphysical questions about what there is and its nature requires some kind of background semantic thesis. So (for example) settling whether everything is physical (in a basic or extended sense) depends in part on what it is for something to be physical and settling that question requires an understanding our concept. Our concepts in these contexts are understood as something semantic, a something associated with a term such that it fixes that term’s referent. A rough way of putting my thought is that i’m wondering whether non-mentality is a feature a property has to have in order to count as being a basic physical one or not and whether it is depends in part on the content of our concepts of the basically physical and of the mental. We need to settle that in order to know what it would be for ‘nothing to be over and above the physical’ and so what would have to be true for that metaphysical thesis to be true.

    You may be right that we don’t have a single concept of the physical that’s determinately D-phyiscal or W-physical. But I’d like more evidence for that view. And in any case, I don’t see yet how the issue about what the content of our concept is is irrelevant to the metaphysical questions. I would have thought the quick story I just gave about how they are relevant would have been one that you would be sympathetic to. So what am I missing?

  14. djc says:

    Good question. This is getting into deeper water. Actually I have a somewhat mixed attitude toward conceptual analysis. On my view, to know various things about e.g. the truth-value of ‘There are Fs’ and its relation to other claims, an analysis of the semantics of ‘F’ is pretty important. But when our primary concern isn’t the linguistic item ‘F’ but a corresponding domain in the world, it usually isn’t crucial to phrase our question using the specific expression ‘F’. If the expression is contested, we can phrase the relevant issues using some alternative terms, such as ‘F1’ and ‘F2’. Then instead of asking, ‘Are there Fs’, we can ask ‘Are there F1s?’ and ‘Are there F2s’ (along with various other questions about the properties of F1s and F2s). Often, having answered those question, we know what we really needed to know about the first-order domain.

    Of course it may be that to answer the questions involving ‘F1’ and ‘F2’, an analysis of the semantics of those items is important. But in these cases there’s no specific term such that an analysis of the semantics of that term is essential, because there’s no specific term such that the truth of sentences involving that term are essential. This is because our primary object of concern is the domain, not the words that are used to describe it (I take it that focusing too much on specific words was the main mistake of “ordinary language” philosophy), and central first-order issues concerning the domain can be expressed in many ways.

    On this view, there remains an important connection between conceptual analysis and truth (as well as between conceptual analysis and explanation, metaphysics, and so on). So insofar as we’re concerned with truth (as we surely are), conceptual analysis plays an important role. But on this position, what’s most important isn’t the truth of certain specific English sentences, but rather is the truth of all sorts of possible sentences concerning a domain. Correspondingly, what’s most important isn’t the conceptual analysis of certain specific English expressions, but rather is the analysis of the conceptual space in the vicinity. I think of this, roughly, as “conceptual analysis without ordinary-language philosophy”.

  15. jd says:

    Ok. That’s really helpful. I think I agree with almost everything you say about analysis vs. ordinary language philosophy. so now i think our dispute is mainly over the case. i’m thinking that getting straight on our concept of the physical (and so on that to which it properly applies and so to what is physical) is like getting straight on our concept of the good. they’re not hostage merely to how people use the terms “physical” or “good”. But getting straight on a concept’s content is hostage to our considered judgments about its application in illuminating scenarios.

    i’m thinking such judgments are one important source of evidence for a putative analysis of our concept of the physical. The scenarios i find particularly illuminating are scenarios in which physics discovers properties of various kinds. Given that in every case except for the contested one in which physics discovers basic mental properties we want to describe the scenario as one in which physics discovers some new physical property, not that physics has discovered some non-physical property tells us something about our concept of the physical.

    The question then is that given that we find ourselves with these judgments about all the scenarios save the contested one, what grounds we could have for saying that it’s really part of our concept of the physical that it’s enough to be physical to be a posit of the ideal and complete physics, except in the case of the mental. Unmotivated, that exception makes the concept very puzzling. To be physical would then be to have all of those features a property has to have in order to figure in the kind of highly unified explanations characteristic of well-confirmed empirical theories, unless the property is a mental one. But without further explanation of what it is about mentality that makes it exceptional, its hard to see why we should say in the other cases that having those features really is what it takes to be physical.

    Connecting this up with the original issue, consideration of the present debate about whether our concept of the physical is better understood as D-physical or W-physical really does show that the test discussed above for whether or not a dispute is terminological one can’t be quite the right test. Maybe it is, as someone suggested earlier, necessary, but I don’t think it can be sufficient. Maybe this discussion suggests that the needed amendment needs to consider what sorts of evidence are being offered to settle the dispute, whether it’s merely straight consideration of common term usage or whether it’s more like the sort of evidence I consider (or, to take Jackson’s example, Gettier cases). These latter kinds of cases I think are ones in which we’re testing the contours of our concept by carefully considering what’s involved in being within its extension in particularly illuminating scenarios.
    Does that seem right? If not, why not?

  16. djc says:

    I’m not certain what the disagreement is about the case. You suggest that examining our intuitions about cases can shed light on what falls into the extension of the concept expressed by our use of ‘physical’. I certainly agree with that. I’ve allowed above that there’s are substantive linguistic and psychological issues about just what our word ‘physical’ (or ‘physicalism’) picks out, and about just what (abstract) concept it expresses, and examining our intuitions about cases is one good way to shed light on these linguistic and psychological issues.

    My point has just been that that our answer to these linguistic and psychological questions don’t make a big difference to our views about the first-order domain: loosely, to our views about the world, as opposed to our views about our concepts. Once we agree that (say) D-physicalism is true and W-physicalism is false, and we agree on what follows from these things (‘physicalism’-sentences aside), then a disagreement about whether ‘physicalism’ expresses D-physicalism or W-physicalism (or even about whether physicalism is D-physicalism or W-physicalism) isn’t fundamentally a substantive dispute about metaphysics: rather, it’s fundamentally a dispute about language. The best way to resolve this sort of question is to do psychological/linguistic studies on humans in our community, rather than to engage in first-order reasoning about the world — though of course one may want to study the psychology of humans (including oneself!) engaging in this first-order reasoning, as I think you suggest.

    I’m not sure whether you disagree with this, or rather are pointing out that disputes about language can be interesting and substantive too. If the latter, I’m happy to agree. That’s to say that what I’m calling ‘terminological disputes’ aren’t wholly insubstantive (so ipso facto, they’re not “terminological disputes” in the sense where this means a wholly insubstantive dispute). These disputes may at least involve substantive disputes about language and about our concepts. It’s just that one shouldn’t mistake these disputes for substantive disputes about the first-order domain.

    (For what it’s worth, I’m not sure about your specific reasoning above from a claim about our intuitions involving the application of ‘physical’ to a conclusion about our concepts. Presumably your opponent will hold that the intuitions in question are equally accomodated by the thesis that ‘physical’ expresses the conjunctive concept of W-physical — roughly, physics-al plus not fundamentally mental. But this point is independent of the more general issue.)