Nonphysicalism in The Philosophy of Mind and Its Shortcomings

By R.N. Carmona

Philosophy of mind begins and ends with the mind-body problem. Philosophy, more generally, begins and ends with problems, so philosophy can be considered a sort of Russian doll in where a major problem implies any number of minor problems. Philosophy, therefore, makes progress insofar as there are solutions for these problems. The enterprise, however, is hyper-specific and thus, what appears to be a solution for the major aspect of an issue is often not considered a solution for the minor aspects connected to it. For example, Howard Robinson identifies the following implicit issue within the mind-body problem: “The problem of consciousness: what is consciousness? How is it related to the brain and the body?” (Robinson, Howard, “Dualism”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)). The hard problem of consciousness is entailed as well: what is phenomenal consciousness? How do qualia relate to the brain and/or body? Though we understand awakeness, awareness, and a lot about how consciousness traces to the brain, e.g., Francis Crick and Christoff Koch’s idea that the claustrum is the “conductor of consciousness” (see Stiefel, Klaus M. “Is the key to consciousness in the claustrum?”. The Conversation. 26 May 2014. Web.), proponents of the hard problem are not convinced that physicalism has solved the mind-body problem. This is where we find ourselves in the philosophy of mind.

The mind-body problem appears to find a solution in the severe brain trauma experienced by Phineas Gage in 1848. An explosion sent a tamping iron through his left cheek bone at a high speed; the iron exited at the top of his head and was found several rods (the equivalent of ~5 meters) behind him. His brain injury was such that it resulted in drastic changes in his behavior. John Martin Harlow, the physician who attended to Gage, published a report in the Bulletin of the Massachusetts Medical Society in where he discussed Gage’s behavioral changes: 

His contractors, who regarded him as the most efficient and capable foreman in their employ previous to his injury, considered the change in his mind so marked that they could not give him his place again. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint of advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. In this regard, his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage.”

Costandi, Mo. “Phineas Gage and the effect of an iron bar through the head on personality”. The Guardian. 8 Nov 2010. Web.

Gage’s case lends strong support to the notion that what we call the mind is intimately connected to the brain in some important way. Even though thinkers like Leucippus, Hobbes, La Mettrie, d’Holbach, Carnap, Reichenbach, and Schlick thought that the brain generates thought similarly to how the liver secretes bile, there was no theory in the philosophy of mind that equated the brain and mind until U.T. Place in 1956 (Smart, J. J. C., “The Mind/Brain Identity Theory”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)). Mind/Brain Identity Theory can therefore, be regarded as the earliest version of physicalism in the philosophy of mind.

In philosophy, more generally, I take major issue with negative positions. Briefly, a positive philosophical theory is the result of the evidence in question. Take, for instance, bare data about brain impairments and corresponding behavioral changes from Phineas Gage to the 40-year-old man who exhibited sexually deviant behavior caused by a cancerous tumor in the right lobe of his orbifrontal cortex (Choi, Charles. “Brain tumour causes uncontrollable paedophilia”. New Scientist. 21 Oct 2002. Web.). Mind/Brain Identity Theory, given bare data of this sort, would point to changes in the mind corresponding to some impairment in the brain. There are other points of data for a theory to account for, but the insights of neuroscience, cognitive science, and psychology are crucial and must be accounted for under any positive theory in the philosophy of mind. Negative theories, on the other hand, often bypass an alternative interpretation of the relevant data and hinge on the fact that a given positive theory or a group of them falling under some category, e.g., physicalism, fail to account for or have overlooked other points of data. The challenge to physicalism is that it has failed, hitherto, to account for qualia.

Qualia (singular quale), what it is like to see red or taste pizza or touch silk, are supposed to lead us to the inescapable conclusion that since qualia are nonphysical properties, mental property is also nonphysical. Nonphysicalist theories in the philosophy of mind are the result of physicalism’s lone incapacity up till this point to incorporate phenomenal experiences into its paradigm. Later, I will show why nonphysicalists have been hasty to dismiss physicalist theories. For present purposes, some historical background on the hard problem of consciousness is in order. While credit is due to Chalmers for naming the problem, he does not deserve recognition for being the first person to identify it.

A Short History of The Hard Problem of Consciousness

David Chalmers is often associated with the hard problem of consciousness, but I think the credit rightfully belongs to Wilfrid Sellars. The basic thrust of the problem was spelled out in such a manner as to be the equivalent of stating it explicitly. The fact that Sellars did not call the problem what we now call it, ‘the hard problem of consciousness’, does not take away from the fact that he did much more work in attempts to unify two conflicting images which he dubbed manifest and scientific

At first glance, this might be a reframing of Kant’s phenomena and noumena, but it is useful to note that Sellars’ manifest and scientific images would both be categorized as phenomena. On Kant, the scientific image would not qualify as noumena. Some modern day philosophers, taking after Donald Hoffman, a professor at the University of California Irvine, have it that we have evolved in such a way that we are pretty much shielded from apprehending ultimate reality, i.e., the Kantian noumena (Frank, Adam. “What If Evolution Bred Reality Out Of Us?” NPR. 6 Sep 2016. Web.). We evolved to perceive and thus, to solely apprehend the phenomena. 

With that in mind, Sellars’ scientific and manifest images correspond to the Kantian phenomena. Yet there appears to be an irreconcilable contradiction between them. On the manifest image, a Rubik’s cube has a distinct three-dimensional shape and six colors – usually yellow, orange, red, green, blue, and white. Assuming we are trichromats that do not have green-red color blindness, we all apprehend this object more or less equally. On the scientific image, however, the cube does not have a distinct shape; nor does it have colors. The cube is comprised of particles and empty space, and though the colors are fully explainable by the science of chromatics – namely as the result of wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum – particles in and of themselves do not have a color. Aside from that, the Rubik’s cube seems to have these colors because we have three photoreceptor cells in each retina allowing us to see these colors. The colors, to put it another way, are not inherent to the object.

Sellars was interested in the project of saving appearances or, in other words, unifying reality as it seems given human perception versus reality as explained through science. This is the hard problem of consciousness made explicit: neuroscience cannot explain phenomenal consciousness. This is Sellars’ exact dilemma. The contradictory images are best viewed in human consciousness. Neurologists and neuroscientists can explain to us why we see and what brain regions are involved when we see or even when we imagine seeing, but they cannot tell us why we see how and what we see. In other words, science can readily explain why we see the colors we see, but it cannot tell us how neurons and brain regions give rise to quaila; there is something it is like to see a Rubik’s cube and given the hard problem, the scientific image cannot be invoked to explain the manifest image.

The Challenge From Nonphysicalists

Nonphysicalists, like any negative theorists, are essentially telling us to forget about the explanatory success of physicalism and focus, instead, on its seeming failure. In other words, nonphysicalists have no alternative explanation that works as well or better than physicalist explanations of non-phenomenal consciousness like awakeness and awareness, for example, but since they are purporting to offer a metaphysical explanation for phenomenal consciousness, we should therefore, abandon physicalist modes of explanation. I think that, first and foremost, the onus is on any negative theorist in philosophy to account for all of the same data in a more cogent manner than positive theorists before reaching into areas not illuminated by them. Otherwise, the inductive bias that people tend to have for a working paradigm remains justified. Put another way, if the positive theory has successfully accounted for all of these points of data, we have no reason to believe it cannot account for more troublesome points of data like qualia, given that enough time is granted. There is also a glaring problem with the inclination toward a metaphysical account after physical accounts have done most of the heavy lifting. It appears to beg the question for a nonphysical bias usually tracing back to religious predilections.

Think of synesthesia. For people who have synesthesia, hearing color, tasting sounds, and seeing numbers and letters as colored is a common experience. As with most sensory disorders, there is a neurophysical correlate to synesthesia (Barry, Susan R. “The Brain of a Synesthete”. Psychology Today. 26 Jul 2012. Web.). Sometimes the onset of the disorder is preceded by brain trauma. Jason Padgett, who was assaulted outside a karaoke bar, suffered a severe concussion. He claims to see geometric shapes and angles all around him. This is an unusual sense(s) for the majority of us and there would obviously be something it is like to experience the world in the way he does, i.e, qualia associated with these quirky senses. There is, however, something to be said about the fact that a brain injury preceded the emergence of these peculiar senses. While I am wary of inferring causation from correlation, correlation is a powerful indicator and when considering that Padgett’s case is not unique, the correlation might be suggestive of causation (see St. Michael’s Hospital. “Second known case of patient developing synesthesia after brain injury.” ScienceDaily, 30 July 2013.).

Panpsychists and Aristotelian hylomorphists say nothing about the misattribution of qualia. They want potential detractors of physicalism to believe that qualia are invariably uniform and predictable. In other words, the examples invariably are what is it like to taste pizza or what is it like to see red, but they never make mention of an increasing number of cases in where we can ask what is it like to taste Bach’s “Lacrimosa” or what is it like to hear burgundy. Recently, Julie McDowall’s synesthesia went viral because she can tell people what their names taste like. Interestingly, in some cases, she told people what their names looked like, e.g., Naomi looks like colorful lego pieces. Panpsychism and modern-day hylomorphism, aside from having no way of accounting for awareness, awakeness, and other aspects of consciousness already explained under physicalism, have overlooked synesthetic qualia because they are essentially live counterfactuals. We do not have to imagine another world in where people taste sounds and hear colors; these peculiarities happen all around us, and so, if they want to conclude that qualia and physicalism are incongruous, then synesthetic qualia and nonphysicalism are irreconcilable. To see this, it will be necessary to take a closer look at these two negative theories.

An Examination of Panpsychism and Hylomorphism

Setting aside the more mystic treatments of panpsychism, the non-reductive physicalist version of it promoted by Strawson and Chalmers is fallacious and though that is not enough to show where it has gone wrong, it makes for a false start. John Heil states:

The idea would not be that electrons and quarks have minds, but that qualities of conscious experiences are included among the qualities possessed by fundamental things. On the version of panpsychism endorsed by Strawson, electrons would not have mini-souls, but merely contain experiential ingredients of consciousness, a kind of primitive awareness. Only fully developed sentient creatures would undergo recognizably conscious experiences. You can make a triangle or a sphere by organized non-triangular or non-spherical elements in the right way, but the elements must have some split characteristics. Similarly, you can make a conscious mind by arranging elements that are not themselves minds, but the elements must have some conscious characteristics.

Heil, John. Philosophy of Mind: A Contemporary Introduction. Third ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. 172. Print.

The notion that the constituents of consciousness must themselves be conscious, as some proponents of panpsychism put it, or as Strawson puts it, that they must have rudimentary experiential ingredients, is a fallacy of division. Despite this, it is not difficult to see the appeal of panpsychism. If you spread out the parts of a thermostat or a microwave, given that you know anything about the components that go into a thermostat or a microwave, you will understand how the bimetallic strips in a thermostat, that are comprised of two different metals, when placed back to back, serve an important function because one metal has a high coefficient of linear expansion and therefore, expands when the temperature increases, resulting in the bending of the bimetallic strip in one direction toward either opening or closing the circuit. Unfortunately, it is just not possible to spread out the parts of the brain and nervous systems, right down to the microscopic level, in order to confirm that particles have experiential ingredients. Moreover, one can pick apart a computer, a microwave, or a thermostat down to its barest parts, understand the function of each part, and put these appliances back together in working order. A panpsychist can then assert that brains are similar to household appliances, but they would have considerable difficulty showing how the combination of w amount of electrons and x amount of protons, if configured to make a neocortex and an amygdala, will result in y functions and z behaviors. The panpsychist’s domain of analysis is on the same macro-level that physicalists operate in, so they therefore, have no way of substantiating their assertions.

We will circle back around to panpsychism shortly, but a brief overview of hylomorphism is necessary because both of these negative theories in the philosophy of mind rely too heavily on the same considerations. A go-to example used by hylomorphists is in order:

Suppose we put Godehard in a strong bag — a very strong bag since we want to ensure that nothing leaks out when we squash him with several tons of force. Before the squashing, the contents of the bag include one human being; after, they include none. In addition, before the squashing the contents of the bag can think, feel, and act, but after the squashing they can’t. What explains these differences in the contents of the bag pre-squashing and post-squashing? The physical materials (whether particles or stuffs) remain the same — none of them leaked out. Intuitively, we want to say that what changed was the way those materials were structured or organized.

William Jaworski, Structure and the Metaphysics of Mind: How Hylomorphism Solves the Mind-Body Problem. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 9. 2016. Print.

Setting aside Bernard Williams’ astute observation, namely that this ‘polite materialism’ is incongruous with the Neo-Aristotelian’s confessed dissatisfaction with materialism, this thought experiment misses the mark. Briefly, in keeping with Aristotle, hylomorphists state that the mind is not just an accumulation of materials, but instead, a structure or a composite organized in a certain way that then gives rise to powers that have causal capacities. On the surface, it is a non-reductive physicalist account, but once Aristotelian causation is properly accounted for, along with Aristotle’s treatment of substance and forms, one starts to see how hylomorphism, like panpsychism, are appropriated by nonphysicalists, especially ones who have religious biases. In any case, we do not need to imagine a graphic case like a crushed human being in a bag, a thought experiment that begs the question for hylomorphism. Hylomorphists should ask what structural difference is there between a living person at 3:49 pm and the same person pronounced dead at 3:53 pm. Setting aside theories of time, the living human, named Henry, is structurally organized as the hylomorphist asserts; dead Henry is organized in the same way, no pulverization necessary. Hylomorphism, unlike versions of physicalism, cannot explain what changed over the course of four minutes.

This is precisely the problem with negative theories in the philosophy of mind. They take for granted what physicalism has already explained, offering no alternative explanations, and then proceed to make claims extending from questions physicalists have, thus far, not been able to address. A panpsychist or hylomorphist is not saying anything about the brain gradually moving toward complete inactivity, the death of neurons, and ultimately, brain death resulting in the loss of function of every one of Henry’s organs. The physicalists did all the heavy lifting, offering positive theories that account for far more data than nonphysicalists hoping to high heavens that there is a viable alternative to Cartesian dualism. The nonphysicalists, by contrast, want to get by with nothing in the way of a cogent explanation, content with identifying what is, more than likely, a temporary weakness of a physicalist framework that has had far more explanatory success. In other words, we do not need to crush Henry’s structure to account for any difference between a living Henry and a dead one. Nor do we have plausible ways of deconstructing Henry, down to scores of subatomic particles, in order to understand his internal workings and how these experiential ingredients come together as a fully functioning human consciousness. It appears that the panpsychist making these assertions intends to make demands that are impossible to meet, to essentially move the goalposts out of a begrudging recognition of the fact that physicalists have much in the way of a working explanation for how all of the parts of the brain communicate, how neurons and synapses account for connectivity, and how these constituents come together to produce consciousness, including qualia. We do not need negative theories of mind unless these negative theorists do the hard work that will put them in a position to offer alternative explanations that are consistent with their nonphysicalist framework; it is not enough to stand on the shoulders of a giant they believe to be wrong.

The Sensuous Zombie

Now, imagine a person indistinguishable from a human being. Imagine then that this person is blind, deaf, and mute. Furthermore, imagine that this person cannot taste, smell or feel anything. Imagine that this person is devoid of all senses, even hunger pangs, a full bladder, and bowel movements. On my reductionist account, sensations feature in the information received from the physical world. Sights, sounds, colors, textures, and so on inform our awareness, which in turn informs our consciousness. Information mediates awareness and consciousness. This is in agreement with David Chalmers’ view. Where we differ is that I conclude that without our senses, we would not have phenomenal consciousness, especially since the qualia of sight is simultaneous with whatever we are seeing.

My p-zombie shows that my reductionist account succeeds, since accounting for the p-zombie’s self-knowledge and qualia is impossible. Whatever account one might render is all but ineffable. Can this p-zombie proceed as Descartes did and eventually say “I think therefore I am”? If s/he knows of no people and no other objects, how can this person prove him/herself to exist? On my differential ontological view, we know who we are, in part, because of differentiation with other people and objects, i.e., “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am” (see Herrera, Jack. “Because You Are, I Am”. Philosophy Talk. 12 May 2017. Web.); there are no essential properties about us. 

The pivotal difference between my p-zombie and Chalmers’ is that it is probable that someone can be born this way. Of course, I would not wish the combination of these disabilities on anyone, but paralysis, blindness, deafness, anosmia, etc. have all occurred separately. Though the probability of all of these conditions being present in one individual is extremely low, it suffices to say that someone born taste-less or with a distorted sense of taste will either have no associated qualia or corresponding qualia that differ from normal experiences, e.g., chocolate tastes like spinach. Therefore, this leaves us with a powerful suggestion we cannot ignore: qualia, whether normal or synesthetic, and the lack thereof are contingent upon sense apparatus and communication, via the nervous system, to our eyes, noses, mouths, etc. There are, for example, widespread reports from people who have been infected with COVID-19 in where their sense of smell is degraded or goes away entirely. Ordinary flu strains and common colds can have these effects as well, but scientists looking into why this happens have shown that COVID-19 disrupts the normal functions of sustentacular cells, which “maintain the delicate balance of salt ions in the mucus that neurons depend on to send signals to the brain” (Sutherland, Stephani. “Mysteries of COVID Smell Loss Finally Yield Some Answers”. Scientific American. 18 Nov 2020. Web.). How is it possible, then, that the disruption of the function of sustentacular cells turns off smell-related qualia entirely? While one may remember what it is like to smell a rose, there is no longer corresponding qualia when one takes in a huge whiff of a bouquet of roses. Anosmia prevents one from having this experience.

The likelihood that anosmia can turn off qualia is much higher given physicalism than on any nonphysicalist alternatives, especially in light of the fact that nonphysicalists have no alternative explanations for why certain qualia are normally associated with this or that sense apparatus, be it the eyes or the nose. Moreover, the nonphysicalist has no explanation as to why brain trauma leads to synesthetic qualia and often omits such cases to suit his arguments against physicalism. What is more damning for the nonphysicalist enterprise is that though they go on ad nauseam about what it is like to be a bat, they have no account for why some blind people develop echolocation to navigate their surroundings. In other words, in cases where normal qualia are inaccessible due to impairment or lack of use of, for instance, the eyes, new senses must result in new qualia. This is readily predicted under physicalism, but not at all under nonphysicalism.

The Future of Consciousness

Ultimately, I think that as the issue currently stands, we are at the mercy of our scientific tools. To my mind, the best way forward is comparative study of consciousness. However, I do not think our current scientific tools are fit for the task, e.g., to monitor the brain activity of Thomas’ flying squirrel as it calculates trajectories while navigating the lush forests in Indonesia and Malaysia. What is it like to be an octopus, to taste through one’s arms (see Lambert, Jonathan. “How octopuses ‘taste’ things by touching”. Science News. 29 Oct 2020. Web.)? One may think this is not possible for a human, but what if it is? What if neuroscientists had a way to map the sense of taste onto the skin of our arms? Would this not result in qualia that correspond to this strange new sense? I will let David Eagleman have the last word:

If it sounds crazy that you would ever be able to understand all these signals through your skin, remember that all the auditory system is doing is taking signals and turning them into electrical signals in your brain. It doesn’t matter how you get those data streams there. In the future, other data streams could be streamed into the vest, meaning that people could walk around unconsciously perceiving the weather report. Snakes see in the infrared range and honey bees see in the ultravnstantiolet range. There’s no reason why we can’t start building devices to see that and feed it directly into our brains.

Erickson, Megan. “Welcome to Your Future Brain: Inside David Eagleman’s Neuro Lab”. Big Think. 17 May 2012. Web.


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