Tuesday, August 08, 2006

indexicals and physicalism

Dr. Vallicella recently wrote an interesting post on so-called indexical facts (read his post here). The idea that "there is a fat dude in Korea named Kevin who manages a blog called BigHominid's Hairy Chasms" is a third-person, objective fact. But the claim "the aforementioned blogger is ME" is an indexical fact (index coming from the root meaning "indicate/indication"-- the index finger is used for indicating things... in the West, anyway).

The claim "the aforementioned blogger is ME" contains an inherent element of subjectivity, as do all indexicals. In the philosophy of mind, subjectivity is (according to the antiphysicalist crowd, anyway) the bugbear of physicalism. Science can find no way to bridge the gap between so-called "first-person ontology" and "third-person ontology." In the former resides experience-- the "what it's like" quality of life, to wit: What is it like to fly a fighter jet? What is it like to be a shark? I've already addressed these issues at great length in my post on philosophy of mind (see here).

Dr. Vallicella claims in his recent post that indexical facts are problematic for physicalists. His concluding paragraph says:

According to materialism, reality is exhausted by non-indexical physical facts. But we have just seen that indexical thoughts are underpinned by indexical facts such as the fact of BV's being me. These facts are irreducibly real, but not physically real. Therefore, materialism is false: reality is not exhausted by non-indexical physical facts.

Here is the comment I wrote in response (you'll need to read Dr. V's post for this to make sense):

What if Ernst Mach, in espying the shabby pedagogue, is merely making a mistake? The observation "What a shabby pedagogue that is" hinges on a confusion of first and third person. Had he known better, at that moment, Mach would have said, "What a shabby pedagogue I am."

This mistake is no different from the mistake a kitten sometimes makes upon seeing its own reflection in a mirror. Perhaps, then, you are arguing the case for an animal version of substance dualism (or, at least, non-physicalism) as well, but I tend to interpret the mistake-- and its similarity with mistakes animals make-- as evidence in favor of a materialistic viewpoint. Our perceptive and cognitive machinery are flawed and occasionally fail us.

I make the preceding argument in reaction to the following:

Clearly, the thought expressed by 'The man who just boarded is shabby' is distinct from the thought expressed by 'I am shabby.' And this despite the fact that the very same property is being ascribed to the very same person.

What I'm saying is that the two thoughts are indeed distinct, but they're distinct because one thought is essentially correct while the other-- which confuses first and third person through a mere failure of proper perception-- is not.

I haven't fleshed this objection out fully, but the above gives you an idea where I'm heading. More later, perhaps.


I received a reassuring email from someone who saw my comment and helped clarify what I was trying to say:

Well said, Kevin. I'd been hoping somebody would point that out. I think, though, that saying this is a confusion between first and third person gives too much away. My analysis is this:

Initially Mach believes:

"Another man has boarded the bus; this man looks shabby."

Later he believes:

The 'other man' was merely my reflection; therefore I must look shabby.

At no time does he have any indexical belief that couldn't be expressed non-indexically. Bill says 'the very same property is being ascribed to the very same person'. Not so. The shabbiness is initially ascribed, through a perceptual error as you point out, to another man. After all, the other man can't be Mach because he's at the opposite end of the bus!

I don't know what impact this has on the rest of Bill's argument---I couldn't make much sense of it. More examples of essentially indexical facts would be useful. Unfortunately, the follow-up post doesn't clarify matters.


David B

I think David B has hit the nail on the head here. But Dr. V is sure to offer a withering counterattack; I've been stomped repeatedly for my temerity and my manifold disagreements with his "ontotheological personalism," but for some perverse reason I keep coming back for more. Dr. V, while often terse when in stomping mode, is also a very good teacher. I always come away from his site feeling I've learned something.

The ever-untrustworthy Wikipedia currently has no entries on indexical facts. The far more reliable Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, however, does. Interesting reading.


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