“Feelings, nothing more than feelings”

Physicalism is the thesis that everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on the physical. The thesis is usually intended as a metaphysical thesis, parallel to the thesis attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales, that everything is water, or the idealism of the 18th Century philosopher Berkeley, that everything is mental. The general idea is that the nature of the actual world (i.e. the universe and everything in it) conforms to a certain condition, the condition of being physical. Of course, physicalists don’t deny that the world might contain many items that at first glance don’t seem physical — items of a biological, or psychological, or moral, or social nature. But they insist nevertheless that at the end of the day such items are either physical or supervene on the physical.

Daniel Stoljar, “Physicialism” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
first published February 13, 2001, substantively revised March 9, 2015)

Robin Hanson, an economics professor and former physicist, takes the physicalist position in “All Is Simple Parts Interacting Simply“:

There is nothing that we know of that isn’t described well by physics, and everything that physicists know of is well described as many simple parts interacting simply. Parts are localized in space, have interactions localized in time, and interactions effects don’t move in space faster than the speed of light. Simple parts have internal states that can be specified with just a few bits (or qubits), and each part only interacts directly with a few other parts close in space and time. Since each interaction is only between a few bits on a few sides, it must also be simple. Furthermore, all known interactions are mutual in the sense that the state on all sides is influenced by states of the other sides….

Not only do we know that in general everything is made of simple parts interacting simply, for pretty much everything that happens here on Earth we know those parts and interactions in great precise detail. Yes there are still some areas of physics we don’t fully understand, but we also know that those uncertainties have almost nothing to say about ordinary events here on Earth….

Now it is true that when many simple parts are combined into complex arrangements, it can be very hard to calculate the detailed outcomes they produce. This isn’t because such outcomes aren’t implied by the math, but because it can be hard to calculate what math implies.

However,

what I’ve said so far is usually accepted as uncontroversial, at least when applied to the usual parts of our world, such as rivers, cars, mountains laptops, or ants. But as soon as one claims that all this applies to human minds, suddenly it gets more controversial. People often state things like this:

I am sure that I’m not just a collection of physical parts interacting, because I’m aware that I feel. I know that physical parts interacting just aren’t the kinds of things that can feel by themselves. So even though I have a physical body made of parts, and there are close correlations between my feelings and the states of my body parts, there must be something more than that to me (and others like me). So there’s a deep mystery: what is this extra stuff, where does it arise, how does it change, and so on. We humans care mainly about feelings, not physical parts interacting; we want to know what out there feels so we can know what to care about.

But consider a key question: Does this other feeling stuff interact with the familiar parts of our world strongly and reliably enough to usually be the actual cause of humans making statements of feeling like this?

If yes, this is a remarkably strong interaction, making it quite surprising that physicists have missed it so far. So surprising in fact as to be frankly unbelievable.

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of feeling, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra feeling stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that feeling stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if feeling stuff didn’t exist. But if we have a good alternate explanation for why people tend to make such statements, what need do we have of the hypothesis that feeling stuff actually exists? Such a coincidence seems too remarkable to be believed.

Thus it seems hard to square a belief in this extra feeling stuff with standard physics in either cases, where feeling stuff does or does not have strong interactions with ordinary stuff. The obvious conclusion: extra feeling stuff just doesn’t exist.

Of course the “feeling stuff” interacts strongly and reliably with the familiar parts of the world — unless you’re a Robin Hanson, who seems to have no “feeling stuff.” Has he never been insulted, cut off by a rude lane-changer, been in love, held a baby in his arms, and so on unto infinity?

Hanson continues:

If this type of [strong] interaction were remotely as simple as all the interactions we know, then it should be quite measurable with existing equipment. Any interaction not so measurable would have be vastly more complex and context dependent than any we’ve ever seen or considered. Thus I’d bet heavily and confidently that no one will measure such an interaction.

Which is just a stupid thing to say. Physicists haven’t measured the interactions — and probably never will — because they’re not the kinds of phenomena that physicists study. Psychologists, yes; physicists, no.

Not being satisfied with obtuseness and stupidity, Hanson concedes the existence of “feelings,” but jumps to a conclusion in order to dismiss them:

But if no, if this interaction isn’t strong enough to explain human claims of feeling, then we have a remarkable coincidence to explain. Somehow this extra feeling stuff exists, and humans also have a tendency to say that it exists, but these happen for entirely independent reasons. The fact that feeling stuff exists isn’t causing people to claim it exists, nor vice versa. Instead humans have some sort of weird psychological quirk that causes them to make such statements, and they would make such claims even if feeling stuff didn’t exist….

Thus it seems hard to square a belief in this extra feeling stuff with standard physics in either cases, where feeling stuff does or does not have strong interactions with ordinary stuff. The obvious conclusion: extra feeling stuff just doesn’t exist.

How does Hanson — the erstwhile physicist — know any of this? I submit that he doesn’t know. He’s just arguing circularly, as an already-committed physicalist.

First, Hanson assumes that feelings aren’t “real” because physicists haven’t measured their effects. But that failure has been for lack of trying.

Then Hanson assumes that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Specifically, because there’s no evidence (as he defines it) for the existence of “feelings,” their existence (if real) is merely coincidental with claims of their existence.

And then Hanson the Obtuse ignores strong interactions of “feeling stuff” with “ordinary stuff.” Which suggests that he has never experienced love, desire, or hate (for starters).

It would be reasonable for Hanson to suggest that feelings are real, in a physical sense, in that they represent chemical states of the central nervous system. He could then claim that feelings don’t exist apart from such states; that is, “feeling stuff” is nothing more than a physical phenomenon. Hanson makes that claim, but in a roundabout way:

If everything around us is explained by ordinary physics, then a detailed examination of the ordinary physics of familiar systems will eventually tells us everything there is to know about the causes and consequences of our feelings. It will say how many different feelings we are capable of, what outside factors influence them, and how our words and actions depend on them.

However, he gets there by assuming an answer to the question whether “feelings” are something real and apart from physical existence. He hasn’t proven anything, one way or the other.

Hanson’s blog is called Overcoming Bias. It’s an apt title: Hanson has a lot of bias to overcome.

Related posts:
Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian
Blackmail, Anyone?
NEVER FORGIVE, NEVER FORGET, NEVER RELENT!
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty (II)

Blackmail, Anyone?

Robin Hanson’s latest entry in his series of posts about blackmail, “Blackmail Enforces Law,” contains the kernel of a valid idea:

[L]egalizing blackmail would create an especially cheap and flexible system of private law enforcement. If an associate of a criminal discovered evidence of their crime, this associate could via blackmail extract close to the cash equivalent of the punishment to the criminal. While this might modestly lower the level of punishment of a caught criminal, it should greatly increase the probability of punishment, leading to more expected punishment of crime.

Hanson’s claim is flawed by its detachment from reality. Blackmailing a criminal is not a life-prolonging exercise. But Hanson is onto something, though he may not know it. That “something” is the undoubted fact that — aside from sociopaths and persons who are severely mentally ill or retarded, mentally — human beings strive to earn approval (and even praise) and to avoid disapproval (and even ridicule).

Hanson comes close to acknowledging this crucial point when he says:

One unmentioned possible cost of blackmail is a weakening of the bonds that tie people together. You’ll be less open to people who could blackmail you.

But he continues with his defense of blackmail as a socially valuable practice instead of pausing to reflect about “the bonds that tie people together.” Those bonds, as I suggest above, derive in part from the need to gain approval of others, while avoiding their disapproval.

How often does a person (well, perhaps not an academic of Hanson’s ilk) do or say something — or refrain from doing or saying something — in order to gain approval or avoid disapproval? I daresay that the only a small fraction of the actions influenced by the prospect of disapproval would be deemed worthy of blackmail. And then there are all of the actions that are influenced by the prospect of approval, and which are not contemplated in Hanson’s kind of traditional blackmail.

Hanson, once again, cannot see the forest because he is intent on inspecting a particular tree.

Related posts:
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian

Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian

UPDATED 08/17/11, 08/26/11

Extreme libertarians — those who believe that a free society can be built on arm’s length transactions — are a deluded sort.

For the most part, human beings do not interact on the basis of contractual arrangements. The quality of human interactions — how one person treats another — depends largely on the degree to which individuals respect and trust each other. Respect and trust arise from a social bond — based on common interests and shared norms — not from contractual arrangements.

Robin Hanson is among the group of extreme libertarians who seems not to understand what I have just said. Hanson — whose blog I quit reading some time ago because of its pervasive wrong-headedness — came to my attention today, and not in a good way. His upside-down view of humanity leads him to defend blackmail (e.g., here, here, and here).

I am sorry that I was reminded of Hanson and his loopy worldview. (Shame on John Goodman.) I will now try to put Hanson out of my mind.

P.S. According to Hanson, his “core politics is ‘I don’t know’.” But, he says, “I like to explore the potential for decentralizing functions of government, I am intrigued by demarchy, and I have invented a new form of government called ‘futarchy‘.” [Working link provided for “demarchy”: ED.] If it walks like a duck, and so on.

In any event, the substantive point of my post — the shortsightedness of contractarian and economistic thinking — is aimed not just at Robin Hanson but at all (mostly self-styled libertarians) who indulge in such thinking. I have been guilty of it, too, as a thorough reading of this blog and its predecessor would reveal. But deeper reflection on the ways of the world has brought me around to what I call Burkean libertarianism (e.g., see this and this).

UPDATE 08/17/11

For readers who may not look at comments, here are Robin Hanson’s comments and my replies:

Hanson:

Yes most relations aren’t explicit contracts, yes they are built on ancient capacities for social bonds, yes many bonds are close. Not sure what you think I wrote that disagrees with that.

Me:

Stand back from the trees and look at the forest. Your defense of blackmail “disagrees with that” because blackmail is a socially corrosive practice. I would expect that in a real society (unlike the thing called the United States) practitioners of blackmail would be shamed and shunned, even if they weren’t subject to criminal prosecution.

Hanson:

Saying that sometimes strong bonds are important does not imply there should never be things that might break strong bonds. We allow many features of society that can threaten strong bonds. I’d consider allowing people to commit to not using the option of blackmail with particular folks they want to signal a strong bond to.

Me:

I admire your willingness to engage in an exchange with me, despite my acerbic tone. It bears out your self-assessment (http://hanson.gmu.edu/home.html); e.g., “I have a passion, a sacred quest, to understand everything….” and “I beat hard on new ideas, seek out critics, and then pledge my allegiance only to those still left standing.” Whether I will be left standing remains to be seen. Enough of that, and on to the point of your comment…

I agree that “there should never be things that might break strong bonds.” I can think of many good examples of such things; one example is chronic infidelity in a marriage. Certainly, there are some spouses who tolerate it, even when they know of it. But I doubt that a very high percentage of chronic “cheaters” get a pass; that is, chronic infidelity is very likely to be among the things that can break strong bonds — not only a bond that the cheated-on spouse might have felt toward the cheater, but also between the couple’s child/children and the cheater.

However, I’m not sure what you mean by saying “We allow many features of society that can threaten strong bonds.” I gather that you’re thinking of behaviors that are generally condoned, even though they might threaten strong bonds. I can’t come up with any examples. What do you have in mind?

You end with this: “I’d consider allowing people to commit to not using the option of blackmail with particular folks they want to signal a strong bond to.” But that seems to leave open the option of blackmailing others, a possibility that would lead to some degree of distrust among persons who are not strongly bonded. Now, I agree that the possibility of blackmail would not be a leading cause of societal distrust, inasmuch as the intersection of prospective blackmailers and blackmailees probably yields a small fraction of any population. But if blackmailers do not face social or official repercussions, that leaves individuals open to the possibility that a neighbor, co-worker, or acquaintance might resort to blackmail, even for a small payoff. This would diminish the degree of trust upon which civil society depends for mutually beneficial, cooperative endeavors.

I worry about condoning blackmail because, for the reasons just given, the threat of it can put social “distance” between people. As I say in “Facets of Liberty” (https://politicsandprosperity.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/facets-of-liberty/), “there is a human tendency to treat friends differently than acquaintances, acquaintances differently than strangers, and so on. The closer one is to a person, the more likely one is to accord that person trust, cooperation, and kindness. Why? Because there usually is a difference between the consequences of behavior that is directed toward strangers and the consequences of behavior that is directed toward persons one knows, lives among, and depends upon for restraint, cooperation, and help. The allure of doing harm without penalty (“getting away with something”) or receiving without giving (“getting something for nothing”) becomes harder to resist as one’s social distance from others increases.” Examples abound: the nasty tone of many blogs and their comment threads (I am relatively polite); e-mail exchanges, even among co-workers, where there is a “distance” between them; the general character of driving practices on streets and highways (villagers seem to be an exception that proves the rule), fans’ behavior at certain kinds of sporting events; and so on.

Me, again:

A quick note after several days on the road, and nothing more from Robin Hanson. I still can’t think of behaviors that are generally condoned, even though they might threaten strong bonds. Moreover, I take exception to Robin’s use of “we.” There is no “we” in the United States, because it is not a society. Not even close. See https://politicsandprosperity.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/america-love-it-or-leave-it/.

UPDATE 08/26/11

I have heard enough from callow youth. Comments are closed.