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The Table Video

Dean Zimmerman& Thomas M. Crisp

Vague Like the Clouds: An Objection to Materialism - CCT Conversations - Zimmerman/Crisp

Professor of Philosophy, Rutgers University / Director of Rutgers Center for the Philosophy of Religion
CCT Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Board Member / Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
December 13, 2013

Philosophers Dean Zimmerman (Rutgers University) and Tom Crisp (Biola University) discuss an objection to the view that humans are purely physical beings. The objection is based on the idea that material objects are vague sorts of things, but human persons don’t seem to be vague! So how could we be material objects?


[calm music]

So, it’s now almost universally thought, in the academy, that human beings should be identified with their bodies or with a certain material organism. This view turns out to be somewhat problematic. There are problems that arise with thinking of the, identifying human persons with just their bodies. What are some of these problems?

Well, one of them is just that, bodies are fuzzy, vague kinds of objects. They’re no more sharply bounded when you look closely than say, a cloud, and when you see the cloud from below, it looks like it’s sharply separated from the blue sky. You get in a plane and fly into the cloud, if someone were to ask you, are we in the cloud yet, are we in the cloud yet, are we in the cloud yet? There would be these times when, well, there’s some wispy vapors, but you’re not in the cloud and then there’d be more and more vapor and then eventually, it’ll be dark and you know you are in the cloud. Now, what’s the right way to think about clouds, given that they’re vague in this way? The natural way to think about them is there’s all of these things there, all these masses of water and air, and which one of them is the cloud, when there’s no real answer to that, and when you’re inside of all of the good candidates for being the cloud, then you’re definitely in the cloud. When you’re just inside of some of them, you’re on the periphery, you’re kind of in the cloud, kind of not. Well, human bodies and human brains are a lot like that when you look closely. There’s bits coming in, bits going out.

One of the things here about that movie, the Incredible Voyage, was that the 1960s?

No, Fantastic Voyage.

Tom: Fantastic Voyage.

Fantastic Voyage, right.

Right, if you could be shrunk down small enough, you would be in this system of particles that was very cloud-like and then the borders, it would be unclear whether or not these particles are a part of the body or not.

Yeah, this bit of oxygen is being transported across the cell wall or something. When exactly, does it become part of the body, inside the lungs, and when is it just a bit of gas floating around in there? Now what’s wrong with supposing that we’re vague, fuzzy things, kinda like clouds? Well, if we’re gonna think about human bodies in the same way that we’re thinking about clouds, that would mean, right here in this chair, wearing these clothes, there’s a whole bunch of different things. They’re all roughly my shape and size and weight, and it really doesn’t matter which one of them we focus on ’cause they’re all very similar, there aren’t brains inside their heads. If each one of those things is conscious, alive, aware, awake, there’s a whole bunch of conscious beings here.


Millions, yes, and given the number of bits at the exterior, or the bits that are inside, about to be absorbed or shed, this is gonna explode, the number of these things, and that’s a little bit, I don’t know, it induces some vertigo, I think, or should. Of course, perhaps that’s what we should conclude, that we are. Science reveals surprising things, where you thought there was a sharp boundary, there isn’t a sharp boundary, and so perhaps, that’s something that we have to live with.

There’s another way of going here. You might look at a cloud and think, there’s not lots and lots of clouds there, but nor is it plausible to think there’s one cloud there because the boundaries are so vague. I think, maybe the better way of thinking about it is, strictly speaking, there’s not a cloud there at all. What there are, a bunch of particles arranged cloud-wise, as it were, and that’s really the more precise way of describing what’s going on metaphysically, and then you bring this down to the level of bodies or organisms and the sense when you get to the very small, we’re cloud-like, I think some, well, I’m sort of tempted to think, strictly speaking, there’s a bunch of particles arranged organism-wise here and there isn’t anything, which is this organism.

Yeah, so if when you look closely, you find that something is really just a swarm of other things, organized in a certain way, behaving in a certain way, hanging together or working together to replicate some of their parts, if when you discover that, your reaction is, oh, there isn’t just one thing here, there’s a whole bunch of things, it’s kinda like a swarm of bees. In that case, you really have a powerful reason to think that I’m not just this body because I do know that I exist, whatever else I know, and if in fact, there isn’t a body here, there’s just a bunch of bits of matter, working together, working together to keep my clothes from falling off, then you really must be something else. Of course, you might think that you’re some tiny part.

I could be a little tiny particle in my head somewhere, presumably not.

But that’s hard to credit because there’s no distinguished particle that we’ve identified so there just doesn’t seem to be a good candidate for that. If on the other hand, you think, well, wherever you’ve got a swarm of things, like a swarm of bees or some gas inside of a balloon, holding the walls out, or the edges, the skin out, wherever you’ve got a bunch of things that are doing something together, you’ve also got a whole that’s made out of those things, then discovering that my body is a swarm of things doesn’t lead directly to the conclusion that I must be something else. Never the less, because there are so many of them, you have a puzzling question about which one you are or how you could sort of indef, be indeterminately, all of them or something like that. Now, we get used to this idea, I think, when we’re dealing with inanimate objects or when we’re dealing with artifacts, it doesn’t bother us that the car that you’re driving has little bits at the periphery that aren’t clearly, on or off. My car has probably more of these than most, and some of them are larger than you might’ve thought. It’s not entirely clear whether that fender is part of my car any longer.

It’s barely hanging on.

It’s barely hanging on. I’ve gotta get some duct tape on it, actually. But bits of the rubber on the tires are about to come off. Are those parts of the car, do you wanna call the GPS, that’s plugged into the lighter, part of the car? Well, how about if it’s attached to the dash. How much does it, how firmly does it have to be attached to the dash to be part of the car? So, in this case, I think we’re happy to say, it just doesn’t matter. It’s a matter of, our just deciding to call the GPS part of the car if it’s attached with glue and we’ll say it’s not part of the car if it’s attached with a suction cup.

It’s an arbitrary stipulation.

It’s an arbitrary boundary and we could lay it down the one way and we could lay it down the other way and it doesn’t matter. There are these things there, if we’re giving up the swarm view. There are these things there, these hunks of metal and plastic, one of them includes all the car plus the GPS and one of them doesn’t and we can just decide which we’re talking about for purposes of ownership, say if I sell you the thing, you better decide whether that’s gonna be part of it or not and it’s up to us. It’s hard to think about one’s self in that way. So, is it just up to us whether to include within my boundaries, a dead hair that’s just about to come out of my head or my fingernails, they’re not, tips of them are getting kinda long and kinda dead. Is that part of me or not? Well, we could just, if in fact, a body is just a vague swarm and these bits are sort of, on the periphery, we can feel free if we want to talk about all of me except for those little bits, or we could talk about a larger thing. Now, am I able thereby to change the facts about what I’m referring to when I’m talking about a living body? if so, then you run into problems about how consciousness is hooked up to these things.

Yeah, so one natural way of thinking about it is, there are all of these overlapping hunks of bio-stuff and consciousness is hooked up to lots and lots of them, so they’re many conscious beings, it’s a mystery, it’s a sort of puzzle, I guess, for the philosophy of language, which of them or how many of them, the word I, picks out. But one natural way of going, I guess, if you’re gonna embrace this picture is, well, the surprising thing we learn from science is there are millions upon millions of conscious beings sitting in this chair right now and then I suppose someone could say, well, that’s a surprise.

Yep, we learn lots of surprising things. We thought the earth was flat, so.

Right, but now it strikes me that one of the reasons is, it’s not quite in that category is, you wonder whether some of these things, what happens when I cycle, I cycle material in and then it goes out? And who knows, maybe I’ve been doing this for long enough that the stuff that made me up 10 years ago, 15 years ago, is now spread out around the atmosphere somewhere, surrounding.

Yeah, if hunks of matter are real and they certainly get treated as real when we’re doing things like working out, how strong a chair has to be to hold you and things like that, We treat these hunks of matter as real. There’s a hunk of matter there and it’s gonna be spread all through the atmosphere and the ground and taken up into other organisms and so on. Now, what’s the relationship between that thing and you?

The worry is, what if I am a hunk of matter, that in 10 years, is gonna be spread out like that.

Dean: Yeah, your future is kinda bleak.

Yeah, and that’s not the kinda thing I can just say, oh well, science has taught us an interesting thing. Now, something really fundamental about how I look at the world is,

Dean: Has changed.


Yeah, another puzzling thing arises if you think that consciousness is a special extra feature of the world, in addition to the physical goings on. So if you think the brain is like a computer, thinking is like computation, it’s probably okay to say, oh, there’s all these objects here. They all have a computer inside of them, namely the brain, and that thing is doing the thinking, and thinking is just computation. Okay, that might be alright, but if you think that consciousness is an extra something, if you take Leibniz’s thought experiment seriously, Leibniz said, suppose the brain were blown up to the size of a mill and you could walk around inside of it, he was thinking of a factory, you wouldn’t see consciousness there anywhere. There wouldn’t be any feelings or thoughts, and if you take that seriously then you think, well, when you have a brain that’s functioning, a new property comes in to being, namely, being conscious. There’s new feelings, thoughts, sensations and these are not just a matter of the physics of the brain. If that’s your view, then you have to suppose that something has those and it then becomes an open empirical question, what that thing is. You’ve found the swarm of things in the vicinity of your head and your body, is it one of those things that has gotten this new feature? If so, which one, how did it get selected? Does consciousness get spread over all these things? Are there all these many fuzzy objects, or objects that are sharp but just slightly different from one another, is each one of them conscious and if so, how did the consciousness just stop there and not spread out to include some things that had my sweater as a part, given that these objects are not very special from the point of view of fundamental physical laws? It would be surprising if the laws of consciousness generation were to select one of these gigantic, arbitrarily bounded objects.

Right, without selecting it’s neighbors.

It’s neighbors, yeah. It might be natural to think that the brain is the thing that’s primarily thinking. But if consciousness involves a new feature, if when I have a headache, there’s a new property, in addition to all the brain, the physical brain states, something has to have that property, what is it? The traditional answer has been, it’s my soul, there’s a further thing there. If that’s wrong then it’s got to be a part of the brain, a whole bunch of parts of the brain, and none of these look like very natural candidates to be showing up in a fundamental law of any kind. Now of course, lots of philosophers don’t think consciousness is fundamental, that there are basic laws about it, but many do because of Leibniz thought experiments. [calm music]