About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Rationally Speaking encore: Does empathy negate physicalism?

[Originally published on November 1, 2005]

by Massimo Pigliucci

Tough question. It has been posed (and answered in the positive) by Michael Philips in a recent article in Philosophy Now. Let's see what this is about. Empathy, of course, is the ability that all normal human beings (there are some pathological exceptions, which are actually going to be very relevant in a minute) have of, in some sense, being in someone else's metaphorical shoes. Empathy, in other words, is that mental phenomenon that allows us to at least approximately feel the pain, or pleasure, being experienced by someone else, which in turn allows an understanding of other people's emotional situations.

Physicalism, on the other hand, is a philosophical term that indicates a family of theories about the mind-body relationship (for a rather technical summary see here). In particular, physicalism says that the mind in fact is a result of brain activity, excluding the possibility of any form of mind-body dualism. There are several versions of physicalism, but two major ones are the so-called "type identity" and "token identity" theories. Bear with me for a second, this is going to be interesting once we pass the technicalities.

A physicalist identity theory basically says that there is some correspondence between physical and mental states, i.e. that in order to have a given mental state (say, feeling pain) one has to be in a certain brain state, because the brain is the causal factor behind so-called mental events. If one subscribes to a token identity theory, then one is saying that any particular mental state corresponds to (it's identical with) a specific brain state. Only that brain state will cause that particular sensation or feeling. On the other hand, the more flexible type identity theory says that there is in fact a correspondence between brain states and feelings, but that this may be a many-to-one relationship, i.e. there may be several different configurations of a brain (or equivalent structure) that can generate a certain sensation in the subject. Keep this distinction in mind, it will be useful in a bit.

Philips, and other philosophers of mind, argues that physicalism is incompatible with the existence of empathy, because empathy implies the existence of qualia, and qualia cannot be accounted for by physicalism. Yup, we need to take care of another little bit of technical jargon. Qualia are so-called "secondary" properties of objects. Primary properties are independent of observers, for example shape. A box is a box regardless of who observes it, human or machine. Secondary qualities, however, are in some sense "in" the observer, for example in the case of colors. Yes, colors are elicited by the physical characteristics of light waves, but the experience of seeing a color (qualia are experiences) demands the subjective presence of a conscious being actually having the experience. (One can already object to this that, in fact, plenty of living beings -- for example insects -- experience colors in a physiological sense, and yet are not conscious in anything like the sense of the term when applied to human beings, but let that pass for now.)

Next, to the crux of the matter. Philips argues that empathy is made possible by qualia, because empathy is about feeling that we can experience something very much like what somebody else says she is experiencing (e.g. pain in response to a hammer hitting a finger). But how do we know what it's like to experience, say, pain? It's not because of a physicalist description of pain as a function of brain processes, but rather because we have the capability to experience qualia ourselves. In other words, the argument goes, physicalism may be able to tell us what sort of nerves and nerve impulses are involved in the feeling of pain, but that has nothing to do with the subjective experience of pain. So, physicalism cannot explain qualia; but since qualia are real (as demonstrated by the existence of empathy), then physicalism cannot account for a real (and important) mental phenomenon. Ergo, physicalism must be wrong, or at least grossly incomplete.

Philips' article goes into some detail into the possible responses open to a physicalist, and offers of course a series of counter-rebuttals by Philips. The problem is that one of the fundamental (and unspoken) premises of Philips' whole critique is highly questionable. It turns out that his arguments are pretty good against what I referred to above as "token identity" theory, i.e. the strictest variety of physicalism that claims that there is a one-to-one correspondence between brain and mental states. If that were the case, one could argue that a complete knowledge of brain circuitry would have to be sufficient to account for all mental phenomena, including qualia. But it turns out that subjective experiences are in fact difficult to pinpoint on a specific set of nerves and impulses. This isn't really surprising, because we already know that token identity theories must be wrong. It seems clear that different individuals, with different brains, can have apparently very similar qualitative experiences (such as perceiving colors).

But things get a lot more complicated when one moves to the more sophisticated type identity theory. In this case, the claim is simply that there are classes of brain structures and functions (e.g., nerves and nerve impulses) that can generate mental phenomena. But the same mental phenomena could be generated by different structures and functions, even by entirely different materials (which makes artificial intelligence possible, at least in theory), as long as certain properties are maintained by the system. Think of it as the idea that different types of hardware can run the same sort of software with relevantly similar (though not necessarily identical) results. While if token identity were correct there would be only one way to produce a word processor that looks and works like Microsoft Word, with type identity once can run different pieces of software (e.g., Word, OpenOffice, etc.) on different machines (PCs, Apples) and different operating systems (Windows, Linux), and pretty much get the same "qualia" (i.e., the same user interface) from all of them. If that's the case, type identity is compatible with the existence of empathy.

Finally, remember my initial reference to the fact that normal human beings can feel empathy? It turns out that some brain pathologies, such as the destruction of the amygdala, make it impossible for a human to feel empathy, because he himself has lost the ability to have emotions altogether. This and similar nightmarish conditions are described in a wonderful book on the human brain, Phantoms in the Brain, by neurobiologist V.S. Ramachandran. What these findings imply, however, is a pretty powerful blow to non-physicalist theories of emotions and feelings: if qualia aren't the result of the activity of certain brain regions (such as the amygdalas), why on earth would people with damage to those regions not be able to experience qualia? This objection is sometimes referred to in philosophy of mind as the "no ectoplasm" clause: we may not know exactly how the brain produces consciousness, but no brain = no consciousness, precisely as a physicalist theory would predict.

Something to ponder, the next time you'll look at the colors of a beautiful sunset...


  1. It is possible qualia result from the complex interactions of several, key brain areas. The qualia do not arise from any specific combination of interactions; however, they depend on each of the participating brain areas to function properly. Therefore, qualia could still be an emergent trait(s) like the consciousness. At the same time, this trait can be stymied by damage to one section of the brain.

  2. If the brain is a platform upon which the mind dances, then removing or damaging the platform changes the ability to dance. If a half-adder is damaged in the computer hardware, the software will not function to many of its expectations. The concept of duality is not damaged when one part or the other malfunctions.

    The reference to Apples and PC's on the one hand, running various software on the other hand, is a reference to duality, without which the entirety is useless.

  3. The statement of the "no ectoplasm clause" is incomplete. It should state that if there is no brain, there is no consciousness [which can communicate with other material sentiences]. The presumption of no consciousness is predicated on a materialist's ability to know that there is no unbound consciousness, and subsequent presumption that it does not exist. But that is merely presumption. So due to the inability to actually know, the clause is false.

  4. Empathy allows us to self induce a form of pain suggestive of the pain that the other party is presumed to feel or have felt. The fact that it doesn't happen to certain people is only relevant to the fact that it does happen to most of us. It's part of an anticipatory awareness function (of subjective qualia) that is common to all biological beings.

  5. The human brain evolved a module that allowed for the input of other objects' external experiences with the output of the modeling brain's internal experiences. This is theory of mind and it outputs what we call empathy. It physically exists like the numbers outputted from a calculator exist. (Just thought I'd lay out the map and territory.)

  6. Nah, the human brain has an adapted empathy function that's common to all social animalia. It's how social animals are able to learn from each other's experience and evolve as becomes necessary accordingly.

  7. jeremybee,

    You need to review the literature on theory of mind and empathy.

  8. Nah, you need to substitute a little theory of biological adaptation for that antiquated theory of human versus non-human mind processes.

  9. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/12/111208142017.htm

  10. >human versus non-human mind processes.

    This shows you don't understand what I've written.

  11. Anyone using the existence of empathy to argue against physicalism is inevitably making some more complicated version of a fairly simple fallacy: "From certain physical observations, I speculate that there is an accompanying non-physical mental state--voilá, it ain't just physical."

    Of course, adherents to physicalism as described above are making the same kind of error, just with an additional addendum--"but these non-physical mental states are correlated with observable events in people's brains". Either way we're guessing about purported events in some non-physical and, more fundamentally, trans-linguistic realm. It doesn't work.

  12. "The human brain evolved a module" seems to mean that it's uniquely a human module, which empathy clearly isn't.
    "It physically exists like the numbers outputted from a calculator exist."
    That's simply meaningless.

  13. For what it contributes to the empathy argument: Lack of 'working empathy" is analyzed in Kent Kiehls' work with "hard-core" (not my characterization) criminals in NM. J. Seabrook wrote about Kents work in New Yorker Nov 2008; when asked what is a salient aspect of being a sociopath, Kent said: "when you look unto their eyes, there is no one there.....".

  14. >"The human brain evolved a module" seems to mean that it's uniquely a human module, which empathy clearly isn't.

    No, it would mean it's uniquely human if I added a qualifier like "only" or "uniquely" or "interestingly" and so on.

    >"It physically exists like the numbers outputted from a calculator exist."

    That may be self-evident to you, but it isn't to me, and I can't read your mind, now can I?

  15. Yes, I think the idea he presents ignores enough biology that is should be relegated to some type of philosophical history. If something such as mirror neurons do exist, which it seems they do, than empathy does not involve qualia at all. It is completely physical, and certainly no duality issues arise. Rather the empathetic experience is the same for the person being empathized with, and the one with the empathy (and therefore the one with the mirror neurons) doesn't negate the fact that it is purely biological. It just means that we need to quantify accordingly.

  16. Why wouldn't qualia qualify as physical properties, especially as without some aspect of awareness, no energetic properties would intactly survive to react to the accidental encounters endemic to a chaotic yet probabilistic universe.

  17. Massimo - the "no ectoplasm" objection seems to rest on a misunderstanding of dualism. Dualists agree that the mind is "generated from" the brain. (But our qualia might have been generated differently, or not at all, which is why we cannot take mental states to be identical to [even "types" of] physical states. Or so the dualist claims.)

  18. I always found the substance dualist position to be, at best, an economical nightmare and, at worst, hopelessly incoherent.

    Re the so-called problem of qualitative phenomenal experiences.

    If it is a problem, it is as much a problem for the substance dualist as it is for the physicalist. The dualist questions how purely physical processes can constitute qualia, but the physicalist can just as easily question how a non-physical whatever [enter your preferred entity here] can bring about so-called qualitative phenomenal experiences.

    Essentially, the dualist invariably resorts to postulating that [whatever non-physical thing] explains, in a manner nobody knows how, qualitative experiences. Russell sums up my view on this tactic succinctly: "The method of 'postulating' what we want has many advantages; they are the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil. Let us leave them to others and proceed with our honest toil."

    Re "Dualists agree that the mind is 'generated from' the brain."

    Jack Smart addresses this in a wonderful passage in his seminal work 'Materialism' ('The Journal of Philosophy' Vol. LX, No. 22, p 660):

    "It may be asked why I should demand of a tenable philosophy of mind that it should be compatible with materialism. How could a non-physical property or entity suddenly arise in the course of animal evolution. A change in a gene is a change in a complex molecule, which causes a change in the biochemistry of the cell. This may lead to changes in the shape or organization of the developing embryo. But what sort of chemical process could lead to the springing into existence of something non-physical. No enzyme can catalyze the production of a spook."

  19. Qualia makes no sense with respect to empathy. Empathy is felt through the recalling of the memory of a particular expression on the face on the other person or t=for example. If someone tells me that they hit their finger while hitting a nail. I can imagine (recall) the last time it happened and the neural networks corresponding to that memory of the feelings will be triggered. That is all. You can train yourself to unfeel such emotions by blocking the triggering of those paths over time, but not activating those networks but only thinking logically

  20. the brain is needed for only physical consciousness


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