CPBD 059: Andrew Melnyk – A Humble Physicalism

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 8, 2010 in Podcast

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview philosopher Andrew Melnyk. Among other things, we discuss:

  • Definitions of physicalism
  • Objections to physicalism

Download CPBD episode 059 with Andrew Melnyk. Total time is 33:17.

Andrew Melnyk links:

Links for things we discussed:

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

John D August 8, 2010 at 7:45 am

Great stuff. I’ve been looking forward to the Melnyk interview.


lukeprog August 8, 2010 at 9:27 am

I will be adding it to itunes, but not now because I’m working. :(


Steve Maitzen August 8, 2010 at 10:18 am

Nice interview. I enjoyed it and found myself agreeing with Melnyk’s well-expressed views. One quibble, though. His physicalism is supposed to cover everything that’s either contingent or causal — so, for instance, it denies a non-physical God’s existence, since such a God would be causal even if not contingent. He mentioned sets, and he said his physicalism wasn’t intended to apply to them. But what if some sets are contingent, as they certainly seem to be? On the standard view, sets depend essentially for their identity on their members, in which case the set {Mars} is a contingent (although abstract) being, since its only member is a contingent being. Melnyk’s physicalism, then, implies that either the set {Mars} is a physical being or else the set {Mars} doesn’t exist. I’d reject each of those consequences, as would most set theorists, I think.


lukeprog August 8, 2010 at 11:16 am


I’m not sure if that is addressed in Melnyk’s book. I think he’s just trying to remain agnostic about whether to embrace nominalism or realism about universals.


Steve Maitzen August 8, 2010 at 12:18 pm

I think he’s just trying to remain agnostic about whether to embrace nominalism or realism about universals.

The set {Mars} isn’t a universal, is it? It’s not the kind of thing that a particular object could literally instantiate (even if a particular object belongs to the set). {Mars} is an abstract particular. I don’t see how your reply is relevant to my comment.


Steve Maitzen August 8, 2010 at 1:59 pm

Re: contingent sets

I can’t get the whole text of his book on Google Books, but the short fragment I can get from p. 175 suggests he’s committed to the claim that no sets are contingent: “…the existence of nonphysical objects (e.g., numbers or sets) that are neither causal nor contingent could not in principle refute it…”. So I think he needs to deal with {Mars} head-on.


Muto August 8, 2010 at 2:08 pm

@Steve Maitzen
I am curious: How could you be sure that the set {mars} exists? One could say that the grouping of objects in order to help thought is merely a conceptual crutch to help us and has not true representation in reality.


Steve Maitzen August 8, 2010 at 3:51 pm

How could you be sure that the set {mars} exists? One could say that the grouping of objects in order to help thought is merely a conceptual crutch to help us and has [no] true representation in reality.

@Muto: One could say that. But one would part company with (I think) most mathematicians and with many philosophers of math — including Russell and Whitehead, and including Quine, who tried to achieve the sparest ontology he could but accepted the existence of sets as indispensable to math and hence to science. I wonder if Melnyk really wants to take a stand against the existence of sets.


Sabio Lantz August 8, 2010 at 3:54 pm

In the end, I listen to this sort of talk and say, “That makes good enough sense.” But I think the reason for my apathy is because I am not hearing the bizarre dualistic claims of others which would make these conversations importantly insightful.

Luke’s questions are fantastic, your interviewing brilliant. When will you start teaching at University?


lukeprog August 8, 2010 at 4:04 pm


Sorry, junior metaphysics mistake. I think Melnyk is trying to avoid taking a view on the existence of abstract objects in general, not just universals in particular.


lukeprog August 8, 2010 at 4:06 pm


Perhaps when I grow beyond making junior mistakes in metaphysics, as in my discussion with Maitzen in this thread. :)

I have a long ways to go…


Steve Maitzen August 8, 2010 at 4:09 pm

I think Melnyk is trying to avoid taking a view on the existence of abstract objects in general, not just universals in particular.

Yeah, and I’m trying to make him take a view — by arguing that his theory implies that contingent sets are either physical or else non-existent, neither of which is an easy result to accept.


Muto August 8, 2010 at 5:40 pm

As far as I experience it my fellow math students are quite divided with formalists being the majority and realists being a minority. I think most formalists would not see sets as actual objects and mathematics as a mind crutch.

Concerning philosophy I have no idea.


Hermes August 8, 2010 at 6:19 pm

[ side comment on Muto's last post; not a criticism or correction ]

There’s quite a bit of utility to having a formalist position as opposed to a realist one when applied to mathematics. That doesn’t necessarily creep into how someone would deal with reality at large, though.

That said, many of the realist positions (Platonism as one example) aren’t actually addressing reality but some kind of graspable handle that can be used to make abstract objects of actual parts of reality. For example, genetics taken to an extreme can be quite handy when understanding how traits are passed down the generations from organism to organism. Yet, it is not sufficient in understanding the complexity of all organisms as there are not only other parts and influences, but the genetic code does not run in isolation dictating what the organism will do, but is influenced by other aspects of the organism and the environment including but not limited to epigenetic tweaks/triggers or viral/bacterial/particle radiation/protein defect/… assaults or aberrations.


Zeb August 9, 2010 at 3:02 am

Off topic, but does anyone have a recommendation for tue best app to get podcasts to my Droid? I always miss the discussions on cpbd because I don’t get around to syncing with my laptop for a week. :(


Hermes August 9, 2010 at 3:42 am

Is gPodder available under Android yet? [ checks ] Nope, but it’s supposedly coming to cell phones in general, though it’s only on the Maemo at the moment plus just about all desktops; Windows, OSX, Linux (various), even FreeBSD.

Keep an eye on it as it has good OPML support and a site to backup and share feeds. It even has a way to sync what podcast you played last, so that you can pick up where you left off even on different computers.

Home: gpodder.org


Taranu August 12, 2010 at 10:33 am

what’s with this introspection business? Is there an epistemology claiming that beliefs acquired through introspection are properly basic or are these beliefs as well as the reliability of introspection vulnerable to evidentialist arguments?


anon August 13, 2010 at 8:24 am

what’s with this introspection business? Is there an epistemology claiming that beliefs acquired through introspection are properly basic or are these beliefs as well as the reliability of introspection vulnerable to evidentialist arguments?

Yes. In fact, just about every foundationalist epistemological theory takes at least some introspective beliefs to confer at least pro tanto prima facie justification. Even Plantinga admits that.


Thomas August 14, 2010 at 2:57 am


I must make (a rather lenghty) comment about your and Dr. Melnyk´s discussion about substance dualism and empirical evidence. According to Melnyk, Taliaferro and Goetz (TG) made “an epistemological assumption” according to which no amount of empirical evidence would count as evidence against 1st person point of view (to which substance dualism is the best explanation). This is because TG did not anwer to Melnyk´s empirical case for physicalism. According to you, introspection is not reliable at all, but Science is, and therefore dualists are akin to people who believe that we still need Zeus to explain lightnings.

What is the assumption that you and Melnyk are making here? Why does the alleged failure of introspection and the success of science somehow constitute a problem for dualism and justification for physicalism? According to you, scientific evidence somehow counts againts 1st person introspection. And now we have to choose between the two. Obviously, we choose science (because introspection is not reliable); and thus, “scientific” physicalism is true and people who are still dualists are somehow unscientific or soft on science or something of that sort.

I find it interesting, that the only argument you hear from strong physicalists is a vague appeal to science. But how does science justify physicalism? Melnyk´s empirical case for physicalism gives two arguments: “an enumerative induction” and “the neural dependence of mental phenomena”. But these are to me at least very weak arguments for physicalism. The induction to physicalism seems to be question begging. The debate is about consciousness and you cannot just assert that it is probably physical too, because everything else in the world is also physical. What about the neural dependence of mental phenomena? Well, every non-reductive physicalists, property and substance dualist acknowledges this fact. There are no substance dualists out there who don´t know that consciousness is deeply correlated with brain states. But why on earth should physicalism follow from this? The mental/physical correlations are compatible with physicalism, emergentism and dualism. The correlations themselves do not imply identity. You need an arguments for that. Strong physicalists somehow think that the correlations themselves justify physicalism. But that is a fallacy: correlation is not identity. What you need is a theory which takes both the empirical data of correlations and the subjective data of consciousness into account and explains both of them. Substance dualism tries to do just that.

Dualists do not ignore scientific evidence. They argue that scientific evidence itself doesn´t justifyi any hypothesis, because the evidence is empirically equivalent with almost every hypothesis. What you need is arguments in addition to empirical evidence. TG gave arguments: Their version of ‘the argument from reason’ tried to show that Melnyk´s functionalism probably cannot be true, because rational inference wouldn´t be possible if it was true. Melnyk did not answer to this argument, which was disappointing. TG also argued that qualia cannot be reduced, and all that functionalism does is that it just ignores the subjective experience. This is the main problem of strong physicalism: You cannot solve the hard problem just by ignoring it or you cannot close the explanatory gap just by pretending that there isn´t such a gap. Thirdly, TG gave the unity of consciousness argument, which Melnyk again didn´t answer and TG also gave an argument from free choices.

Now, according to you and Melnyk, the mere fact of mental/physical dependence justifies strong physicalism even though it ignores or denies or cannot explain rational inference, subjective experience, unity of consciousness and free choices. According to TG (and subtance dualists in general) some form of dualism explains the mental/physical correlations and in addition to that it explains reason, qualia, selfhood and free choices. In other words, dualism explains the empirical data + consciousness. Strong physicalism gives one explanation to empirical data but it ignores consciousness – the part that the mind/body problem is all about!

In closing, I have wanted to argue that dualists aren´t unscientific fanatics, but they think that science itself cannot solve the problem of consciousness (in fact, a good number of naturalistic philosophers of mind would agree with this, f.ex. Chalmers, Kim, Nagel.) You need arguments in addition to evidence, and dualists thinks that there are very good philosophical arguments for dualism and not very good ones for physicalism. If there really were some evidence that showed that dualism is false, I think that intelligent dualists (like TG, Hasker, Lowe, Plantinga, Swinburne, Popper, Eccles, Penfield, etc.) would acknowledge it. But, argue dualists, scientific evidence do not count as evidence against substance dualism at all. If you have some powerful scientific evidence againts dualism, please inform me, because I haven´t seen it.

Dualists also want to keep the conception of human beings as conscious, free, rational and responsible agents. This is entirely compatible with science but it is not compatible with strong philosophical physicalism. Your analogy of dualists and people who believe there is a Zeus behind lightnings captures the physicalists conception of human agents nicely. According to physicalism, human beings are mere automata explained fully causally, just like lightnings. In other words, you don´t need intentional activity behind the observable phenomena to explain the thing. But dualists think otherwise. Of course you don´t need anybody to explain a lightning. But human persons aren´t automatic robots. Human beings are conscious, rational and free agents. That´s why you need to postulate an unobservable (from a 3rd person point of view) entity (an intentional agent) behind the phenomena to explain the whole thing. Human persons are more than scientific facts can tell us. When a physicalist is telling things like “science proves physicalism”, she is not making that statement as a scientist but as a philosophical physicalist. In my view, the physicalist´s conception of human persons is so absurd, that I take it to be a reductio againts physicalism itself. Being more modest, the ontology of human persons is by far the weakest point of physicalism (and naturalism).


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