Physicalism without supervenience

Abstract

It is widely accepted that supervenience is a minimal commitment of physicalism. In this article, however, I aim to argue that physicalism should be exempted from the supervenience requirement. My arguments rely on a parallel between ontological dependence and causal dependence. Since causal dependence does not require causal determination, ontological dependence should not require ontological determination either. Moreover, my approach has a significant theoretical advantage: if physicalism is not committed to supervenience, then the metaphysical possibility of zombies—which is still wide open after all these years—would pose no challenge to physicalism.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Roughly speaking, physical entities are entities posited by (ideal) physics. For more discussion on physics-based concepts of physical entities, see Wilson (2006); Zhong (2016).

  2. 2.

    In supervenience-based formulations of physicalism, the notion of supervenience is standardly understood as supervenience with metaphysical necessity rather than necessity in a weaker sense (such as nomological necessity). In the rest of this article, when I use the term ‘necessity’ without qualification, I always mean metaphysical necessity.

  3. 3.

    Here ‘ontological determination’ is interchangeable with ‘ontological necessitation’. To say that X is ontologically determined by Y is to say that X is ontologically determined with metaphysical necessity by Y.

  4. 4.

    According to Kim, A-properties strongly supervene on B-properties if and only if for any possible worlds w1 and w2 and any individuals x in w1 and y in w2, if x is B-indiscernible from y, then x is A-indiscernible from y (see Kim 1993).

  5. 5.

    I’d like to note, however, that philosophers have debated over whether the lone molecule problem raises a serious challenge to physicalism (see Kim 1993). Moreover, it is worth mentioning that the lone molecule problem for global supervenience could be easily adapted as a corresponding problem for individual supervenience (Paull and Sider 1992). Suppose that Oscar and Twin Oscar are physically indistinguishable except that Twin Oscar has an additional molecule in his brain. Suppose further that the two individuals are mentally different: while Oscar is happy, Twin Oscar is depressed. Physicalism seems to be false in this scenario, although individual supervenience is not violated.

  6. 6.

    There are very few exceptions to this consensus. See e.g., Leuenberger (2013); Montero (2013); Montero and Brown (2018).

  7. 7.

    Some philosophers even equate ontological dependence with ontological determination. For example, Kim says that “it is customary to associate supervenience with the idea of dependence or determination: if the mental supervenes on the physical, the mental is dependent on the physical, or the physical determines the mental, roughly in the sense that the mental nature of a thing is entirely fixed by its physical natures” (Kim 1998, p. 11).

  8. 8.

    Water not just supervenes on H2O, but is also identical with H2O. Here I am only concerned with the weaker relationship of supervenience for my purposes.

  9. 9.

    completeness is not the view that every effect has a sufficient physical cause. Suppose that a higher-level event H doesn’t causally depend upon any physical event (at some time t)—rather, H is caused by another higher-level event H' at time t. This doesn’t violate completeness. Moreover, this case could be allowed by physicalism if H and H' ontologically depend on physical entities. See Zhong (2014) for more discussion.

  10. 10.

    For the purposes of this article, we can simply assume that physicalism requires the causal completeness of physics, whereas I have argued elsewhere that physicalism could still be true even if the physical domain is causally incomplete (Zhong 2020).

  11. 11.

    A sufficient cause doesn’t have to be the only cause. In a case of causal overdetermination, there is more than one sufficient cause of the same effect.

  12. 12.

    Since laws of nature (including physical laws, chemical laws, biological laws, etc.) apply to phenomena that are causally and diachronically connected, laws of nature are typically regarded as causal laws.

  13. 13.

    Although contingentism about causal laws is the mainstream view, some philosophers contend that causal laws are metaphysically necessary. They typically appeal to a dispositional account of properties, according to which properties are individuated in terms of their causal or nomic roles (see Shoemaker 1980; Bird 2007). However, this conception of properties is highly controversial. Phenomenal properties and configurational physical properties, for example, don’t seem to have dispositional essences. Moreover, even if causal laws are metaphysically necessary, the causes may still fail to necessitate the effects, provided that causal laws are indeterministic.

  14. 14.

    Kment’s notion of ‘laws of metaphysics’ has roughly the same meaning as my notion of ‘ontological laws’. And I use the term ‘metaphysical laws’ in a broader sense to cover both causal laws and ontological laws.

  15. 15.

    In the literature, the term ‘a nomologically possible world’ is sometimes used in a different sense, referring to a world that has the same causal laws as the actual world does.

  16. 16.

    Consider an example of constitution. The statue of Venus de Milo is ultimately constituted by microphysical particles with a specific configuration. If anything is constituted in the same way, it would be a statue of Venus de Milo. Thus, being a statue of Venus de Milo individually supervenes on its microphysical configuration. However, the model of constitution, as a case of individual supervenience, is not suitable for characterizing the mental-physical relationship. I owe this example to an anonymous reviewer.

  17. 17.

    Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for pressing me to address this issue.

  18. 18.

    Some philosophers consider the possible scenario “in which an indeterministic physical state P1 has two possible emergent outcomes, and these emergent states, in turn, have a possible physical effect in common” (O’Connor and Wong 2005, p. 668). In this case, the causal completeness of physics is violated. But for my purposes, I don’t have to deny completeness.

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Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Ivan Mayerhofer and an anonymous reviewer for this journal for helpful comments on earlier versions of this article. I would also like to thank Asher Jiang, Chang Liu, Yuan Ren, Zhiheng Tang, and other participants of the Analytic Philosophy Workshop at Sun Yat-Sen University and the Workshop on Physicalism and Panpsychism at Renmin University.

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Correspondence to Lei Zhong.

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Zhong, L. Physicalism without supervenience. Philos Stud (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-020-01494-z

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Keywords

  • Physicalism
  • Supervenience
  • Ontological dependence
  • Causal dependence
  • Zombie