The Existence of Mind-Independent Physical Objects

2. Objections to Phenomenalism

These are what I consider to be the most outstanding objections to a phenomenalist account of physical objects.

  1. Book cover: Berkeley's Philosophical Writings by George Berkeley
    The ontological and analytic phenomenalist's reductions of unobserved 'physical object' statements to hypothetical sense-impressions miss their categorical import. For example, on a phenomenalist's rendering, the statement that there is an unobserved table in the next room is translatable into statements about sense-impressions that would be had by an observer if they were present in the room. But such counterfactual conditionals (whether supported by induction, God's will or the Absolute) run counter to the categorical nature of our talk about unobserved objects. The hypothetical nature of the translation strains common language even more when we speak of events before the onset of the first humans. Translating sentences such as 'Dinosaurs became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous Period' and 'The earth was formed from cosmic dust 4.5 billion years ago' into statements about the sense-impressions that would have been experienced by a human observer located on a pre-mammalian earth or out in space seem highly contrived. Consider the statement, 'The first hydrogen atoms formed some 370,000 years after the big bang'. In cases such as this, even the possibility of having sense-impressions seems incomprehensible.[3]
  2. Ontological phenomenalism, in conjunction with the common-sense view that physical objects are sometimes part causes of sense-experience, entails the absurd view that an effect (a sense-experience) can sometimes be a part-cause of itself. According to our generally accepted account of perception, a person's visual experience of a cup is the result of light waves of particular frequencies and intensities reflecting off the cup, those waves focusing in the person's retina, electrical signals travelling along the person's visual cortex to the visual processing areas in the person's brain and finally resulting in the person experiencing a visual image of the cup. On this account, the person perceives the cup if and only if the physical structure and composition of the cup is a part cause of the person's current perceptual experience of the cup (along with the source of light, the actual lighting conditions, the functioning of neural pathways in the brain, and so on). For the ontological phenomenalist, the physical cup is simply the sum total of its perceptual appearances (the way the cup looks at various angles of viewing, how the cup feels to touch, and so on). So, on this phenomenalist rendering, the person's sense-experience of the cup is one item in the bundle of experiences that go to make up a part-cause of the experience itself.[4]
  3. Ontological and analytic phenomenalism both entail the absurdity that an effect can be caused by hypothetical or non-existent entities. For example, it is commonly accepted that the sound that an observer hears emanating from a radio's speaker is caused by electromagnetic radio waves impinging on the radio's antenna and steams of electrons modified and amplified within the radio's internal electronic circuitry. These radio waves and electrons are not visible to the observer and so, on a phenomenalist rendering, exist as possibilities of sensation only. Hence, for a phenomenalist, mere possibilities can have actual effects.[5]
  4. The consistent ontological and analytic phenomenalist is forced to hold a bundle-theory of mind in his own case, with all of its attendant difficulties. One key intractable problem faced by the phenomenalist is the inability to specify convincing criteria for differentiating one mind from another. What makes my mind a different mind from yours? Another problem is that the bundle-theory entails the counterintuitive notion that sense-impressions can exist independently of any bundle (mind).[6]
  5. The consistent ontological and analytic phenomenalist is forced to adopt either a solipsist view about other minds or a behaviourist reductionist view. The same epistemic gap that the phenomenalist points to between subjective experiences and a material substratum underlying physical properties applies equally to the phenomenalist's notion of other minds. These minds, other than the phenomenalist's own mind, are either forever inaccessible for the same reasons or must be reduced to their observable appearances, i.e., their bodily behaviour. Either option is unpalatable for the phenomenalist. The former leads to a radical skepticism about other minds (solipsism) while the latter is a behaviourist reductionist account rendering 'mental' talk in terms of bodily behaviours and dispositions.[7]
  6. The reducing sentence of an existential 'physical object' statement, on an analytic phenomenalist analysis, will needs refer to mediating conditions, such as light intensity, the presence of other interfering objects and the sensory acuity and neurophysiological health of the observer. For example, the truth conditions for the statement, 'There is a red table in Room 416', will include the following mediating conditions: the incident light is white, there are no physical obstructions between the table and the observer's retina, the observer's eyes are free of cataracts and the observer is not colour-blind. The problem here is that the statement about the physical object referred to above is made semantically dependent on statements referring to states of affairs that are causally independent. (Turning off the light, for example, will not affect the table.)
  7. Following on from the previous objection, statements referring to the mediating conditions will also necessitate a phenomenalist analysis. But the resulting reducing sentences will in turn refer to mediating conditions, which will also require interpretation, and so on ad infinitum. The upshot is that there is no finite set of 'experience' statements that will stand in meaning equivalence with an existential 'physical object' statement.[8]
  8. Just as no 'physical object' statement entails a finite string of 'experience' statements, conversely, no set of 'experience' statements entails a 'physical object' statement. No matter how long our run of experiences is, the set of statements describing our experiences is always logically consistent with the statement that we were being deceived by an evil demon or that our brains were being electrically stimulated by a group of neuroscientists.[9] The phenomenalist's attempts to analyse statements about the spatial and temporal locations of physical objects solely in terms of experience fail for the same reasons.


  1. [3] For further discussion on the categorical import of physical object statements, see Armstrong [1961: 53–8] and Locke [1967: 57f].
  2. [4] See Dicker [1980: 129–33] for a variant of this argument.
  3. [5] See also Dicker [1980: 141] and Whiteley [1940: 90].
  4. [6] For a discussion of these problems for the bundle-theory of mind, see Armstrong [1961: 67–78].
  5. [7] See BonJour [2007: §2.1] for an example of this argument.
  6. [8] This argument and the previous argument are presented in a more thorough form by Feyerabend [1973: 147–53].
  7. [9] For a fuller statement of this argument, see, for example, Ayer [1956: 125–7]. Dicker [1980: 191–209] has put in a spirited defence of the claim that a finite set of sentences about experiences can logically entail a 'physical object' statement. I think that his argument fails for the following reasons. He presents an example of a set of appearance statements purportedly entailing an existential 'typewriter' statement. However, with this example, it is not difficult to think of cases in which the appearance statements are true while the existential statement is false. For example, (i) we find that we were the subject of a hologram experiment, (ii) we were dreaming a very vivid dream that is incoherent with our other experiences and spurs a new psychological research project, and (iii) we discover our whole 'life' has been an experiment at the hands of an evil neuroscientist. Furthermore, Dicker's counterargument to Pollack misses the point. However Dicker interprets Pollack's example, it remains the case that his example describes a set of perceptual experiences that can be described truly as such while the phenomenalist's corresponding physical-thing statements are false.

Copyright © 2016

You will be interested in
Book cover: Perceptual Knowledge by Georges Dicker
Book cover: Against Method by Paul K. Feyerabend
Book cover: Enquiries Concerning the Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals by David Hume
Book cover: Guide to Modern Thought by C. E. M. Joad
Book cover: Philosophical Aspects of Modern Science by C. E. M. Joad
Book cover: Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant

Share This

  • twitter
  • facebook
  • linkedin
  • googleplus
  • gmail
  • delicious
  • reddit
  • digg
  • newsvine
  • posterous
  • friendfeed
  • googlebookmarks
  • yahoobookmarks
  • yahoobuzz
  • orkut
  • stumbleupon
  • diigo
  • mixx
  • technorati
  • netvibes
  • myspace
  • slashdot
  • blogger
  • tumblr
  • email
Short URL: