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EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

How Hylomorphism Solves the Mind-Body Problem

Oxford University Press recently published, Structure and the Metaphysics of Mind: How Hylomorphism Solves the Mind-Body Problem (2016) by William Jaworski, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University. From the publisher's description:
Structure and the Metaphysics of Mind is the first book to show how hylomorphism can be used to solve mind-body problems--persistent problems understanding how thought, feeling, perception, and other mental phenomena fit into the physical world described by our best science. Hylomorphism claims that structure is a basic ontological and explanatory principle. Some individuals, paradigmatically living things, consist of materials that are structured or organized in various ways. Those structures are responsible for individuals being the kinds of things they are, and having the kinds of powers or capacities they have. From a hylomorphic perspective, mind-body problems are byproducts of a worldview that rejects structure. Hylomorphic structure carves out distinctive individuals from the otherwise undifferentiated sea of matter and energy described by our best physics, and it confers on those individuals distinctive powers, including the powers to think, feel, and perceive. A worldview that rejects hylomorphic structure lacks a basic principle which distinguishes the parts of the physical universe that can think, feel, and perceive from those that can't, and without such a principle, the existence of those powers in the physical world can start to look inexplicable and mysterious. But if mental phenomena are structural phenomena, as hylomorphism claims, then they are uncontroversially part of the physical world, for on the hylomorphic view, structure is uncontroversially part of the physical world. Hylomorphism thus provides an elegant way of solving mind-body problems.
From a recent review in the Notre Dame Philosophical Review, observing "a lively and growing strand of modern hylomorphism, more or less beholden to Aristotle but aiming not to present an historical analysis of a superannuated doctrine but rather a serious metaphysical position addressing current philosophical problems," reviewer William Seager (University of Toronto) puts Jaworski's book in a particular context:
Modern hylomorphists regard the recalcitrance of a range of philosophical problems, such as those of material composition and the mind-body problem, as symptoms of deep errors in the modern tradition which only the radical metaphysical reform promised by hylomorphism can address. While modern hylomorphism may offer promising answers to some pressing metaphysical worries it must struggle to dispel the cloud of obscurity and evident disconnection with the scientific outlook which bedevils the historical version, while avoiding collapse into a view merely verbally distinct from physicalism.

William Jaworski's book is a splendid addition to this revival of hylomorphism, notable for its clarity, thoroughness of presentation and depth of analysis. It resolutely advances an avowedly anti-physicalist view which deserves the hylomorphic label. Yet it also attempts to be entirely naturalistic in the sense that it 'accord[s] to empirical sources a privileged role in determining what exists, and it takes the sciences as paradigmatic examples of such sources' (p. 19). Jaworski spells out the details of a wide ranging metaphysical picture of the world which underpins his hylomorphism. He presents this picture by explicitly contrasting it with alternative views and does this in a way that is incidentally a wonderful guide to a host of views and arguments about substance, properties, modality and ontology. No matter what a reader's ultimate judgment about hylomorphism might be, this aspect of his book is an unalloyed success
Regarding the book's contribution to the mind-body problem, Seager appraises the book in the following way:
Hylomorphism generates an interesting approach to a number of aspects of the mind-body problem. There is space here only to look briefly at the problem of consciousness. One reason philosophers have gone looking for approaches beyond those vouchsafed by standard physicalism is the severe difficulties we have had integrating consciousness into the scientific physicalist picture of the world. Jaworski's hylomorphism aims to endorse the dual claims that phenomenal conscious states are absolutely necessitated by the subject's basic physical constitution and that physicalism is nonetheless false. Again, the logical space for this position depends on a very strong reading of physicalism which is that everything is explicable in basic physical terms without mention of structure. We have already discussed the explanatory side of Jaworski's hylomorphism so let's look at whether hylomorphism offers a new approach to the problem of consciousness. Phenomenal consciousness is a real thing and does not seem to be itself an individual so it must be a property, one of the structure-induced powers that genuine individuals possess. Various popular lines of argument suggest that phenomenal consciousness could vary across physically identical individuals. This sort of argument asks what it is about physical structure that makes it impossible for such modal variance to occur. Jaworski's theory has a straightforward answer to this question: all properties of individuals are absolutely necessitated by the physical properties of their constituents.

Why is this so? The hylomorphist holds, as few but substance dualists would deny, that our material constitution in the actual world, once structured into our human form, does support or generate phenomenal consciousness. Jaworski's trope-based view of properties as particular powers (or sets of powers) holds that wherever there are different powers there must be different properties. So any genuine duplicate of our world would have to duplicate its properties and hence its powers and hence in any such duplicate world consciousness would be generated once the appropriate material structures appeared. There is nothing particularly hylomorphic about this argument and it can be and has been advanced by thinkers from other schools of thought who endorse a metaphysics that identifies properties with powers. But it does dovetail nicely with Jaworski's naturalistic hylomorphism.

However, anyone who advances such a view will have to explain why there could not be another set of powers which share with the actual powers all the same basic physical features as outlined, say, in the standard model of physics and general relativity (a few basic kinds of matter, fields and the four forces of gravity, electromagnetism, plus the strong and weak nuclear forces) but which, when structured as a human being, fail to generate consciousness. In the absence of this explanation one is left with the suspicion that the problem of consciousness has only been 'solved' by conceptual fiat without giving us any understanding of the relation between the fundamental physical features of the world and consciousness. The talk of structures as embodying a novel 'ontological principle' remains especially mysterious in this case, and the old worries about the intelligibility and non-triviality of hylomorphism seem to return.

Jaworski is not unaware of these sorts of difficulties and my remarks barely skim the surface of his deep and thorough discussion of these and many more issues. His book will richly repay study by anyone interested in the mind-body problem and metaphysics in general.
Support the work of the EPS by purchasing Structure and the Metaphysics of Mind: How Hylomorphism Solves the Mind-Body Problem.

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