Merely Verbal Ado About Nothing: David Chalmers, Consciousness, Facts

Contents: i) Introduction ii) The Facts and What We Say About Them iii) Stipulation Examples: iv) A Random Cup v) Is a Virus Alive? vi) First-Person Data vii) Eliminative Materialists vs. Reductive Functionalists viii) Causation ix) Bridge Laws x) Conclusion: Facts Matter and Consciousness

The title of this piece is partly based on David Chalmers’ paper ‘Verbal Disputes’. However, I relied far more on Chalmers’ book The Consciousness Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory than I did on his ‘Verbal Disputes’. (This paper is very long — 48 pages — and it covers many subjects.) Chalmers also gave a seminar on this subject; which can be found on YouTube here (see image above).

Many philosophers have tackled the “problem” of whether certain philosophical issues are “merely verbal disputes” or not. This debate goes back through the centuries. (Perhaps it was best highlighted by the logical positivists in the 1920s and 1930s.) In terms of contemporary philosophy, the notion that some philosophical issues are merely verbal has often been levelled at what is now called “analytic metaphysics”. Chalmers himself tackles some of these issues. (For example, he discusses whether a random booklike x is a book. Or, to use the contemporary jargon, is it only a collection of “particles arranged” bookwise?) However, Chalmers himself never names names and he certainly doesn’t use the term “analytic metaphysics”.

The Facts and What We Say About Them

Philosophy-scientist Smith has access to all the facts, laws, information, etc. about spatiotemporal slice (or state of affairs) A and says that it is x, y and z. Philosopher-scientist Jones has access to all the same facts about the same spatiotemporal slice (or state of affairs) A and says that it is a, b and c. Yet both Smith and Jones agree on the facts. This must mean that what Smith and Jones say about A is over and above the facts. In addition to facts, Smith and Jones needed to bring in theory, conceptual decisions, prior semantics, etc. into the discussion.

The given facts may well be determinate; though it doesn’t follow from this that what we say about them is also determinate. Or, in another manner of speaking, the facts alone don’t entail what we say about them…

But hang on a minute.

One may now wonder how this clean and neat distinction between facts and what we say about them can be upheld. After all, aren’t the facts (or what we take to be the facts) themselves somewhat dependent on what we say? David Chalmers himself doesn’t only argue that what we say is indeterminate. He also argues that “the facts [themselves] are indeterminate”.

Much of what’s just been said is fairly standard in science and in the philosophy of science. That is, the very same facts (or data) may engender different theories. Indeed some philosophers have argued that the very same facts (or data) could engender a (possible) infinite amount of theories. This situation is called the underdetermination of theory by the data and has been widely discussed in analytic philosophy.

And here again we can question the clean and neat separation of empirical data from the theories which, it seems to be supposed, come later.


Now Chalmers often mentions what he calls “stipulation”. The basic point is that if we stipulate what we mean by a particular word, then the answers to the questions about facts, data, what x is, etc. must — at least partly — follow from such stipulations. Of course some people will be horrified by the argument that acts of stipulation are decisive when it comes to what we take to be matters of fact. But it’s not that simple.

There is a problem with over-stressing the importance of stipulation; or even with simply emphasising the importance of stipulation at all. Chalmers sums up this problem with a joke. He writes:

“One might as well define ‘world peace’ as ‘a ham sandwich.’ Achieving world peace becomes much easier, but it is a hollow achievement.”

As it is, Chalmers only applies his joke to a single case: consciousness. So perhaps it can also be applied to other cases (such as the later cases of a random cup/book, virus, etc.). Clearly, even someone who argues that stipulation is important won’t also accept that we can define the words “world peace” as “a ham sandwich”. In turn, some philosophers and laypersons will feel just as strongly about claiming that, say, a “computer virus is alive” or that “bacteria learn”. The philosopher P.M.S. Hacker, for example, holds a very strong position on the philosophers and scientists who use such terms (or words) in ways that are radically at odds with everyday usage (see Hacker’s ‘Languages, Minds and Brain’ in Mindwaves). Many physicists, on the other hand, are very keen on using old words (or terms) in very different ways. (Think here of “information”, “space”, “time”, “intelligence”, “law”, “string”, “hole”, etc.)

Some Examples

A Random Cup and a Random Book

Let’s look at some more examples from David Chalmers. He asks:

“Is a cup-shaped object made of tissues a cup?”

The problem here is that it’s not clear if Chalmers meant toilet tissues or biological tissues in this example. In the former case, then, toilet tissues wouldn’t hold liquid. Thus, surely by definition, any x made out of toilet tissues couldn’t be a cup… Or could it?

What about biological tissues which could hold liquid?

In any case, let’s take it that whatever Chalmers meant by “tissues”, these tissues can indeed hold liquid. Now take this question:

Is it the case that if any x functions as a cup, then surely it is a cup?

Here’s another question:

What if this cup-shaped (or particles arranged cupwise) object wasn’t designed to be cup?

Does that matter? If it holds liquid, and it even looks like a cup, then surely it is a cup. Why does it matter that it wasn’t designed to be a cup? Is whether it does or doesn’t matter a purely stipulative matter? In other words, is the following the case? -

x can only be classed as a “cup” if it were designed to be a cup.

This would mean that any natural object which were used as a cup could never be classed as a “cup” or even be a cup. Yet all sorts of natural things are used as functional devices which we then name according to their functions (e.g., a stick classed as a “weapon”, extracted venom classed as “poisons”, etc.). Does their natural status stop them from being named as functional devices?

In any case, whether people call x a “cup” or not, they’re all still talking about the same x. Not only that: in the tissue-cup case, all people agree that it looks like a cup and can be used as a cup. The only difference, then, is what Chalmers calls “terminology”.

Here’s another question from Chalmers:

“Is a booklike entity that coagulated randomly into existence a book?”

This is like the infinite monkey theorem in which, after an infinite amount time in which an infinite amount of monkeys play with a typewriter, at least one of them will produce the complete works of Shakespeare. (In an infinite amount of time, surely an infinite amount of monkeys will produce the entire works of Shakespeare an infinite amount of times.) Such is the nature of the logical possibility which Chalmers is so keen on.

In any case, I presume that Chalmers doesn’t only mean book-shaped or arranged bookwise. Surely something that’s simply shaped like a book can’t be a book. That’s because, after all, it may not have any words in it. Then again, if stipulation rules, then why can’t shape alone be a necessary and sufficient condition for bookhood?

But let’s say that this random book does contain words. Not only that: it contains words which make sense. Here again we can ask the following question:

Is it relevant that this “booklike entity” is natural and wasn’t produced to be a book?

After all, if it looks like a book and contains grammatical sentences, a coherent story, etc., then surely it must be a book.

Is a Virus Alive?

David Chalmers tackles the case of whether or not a virus is alive. He writes:

“On theory might hold that a virus is alive, for instance, whereas another might hold that it is not, so the facts about life are not determined by the physical facts… the facts about life are indeterminate.”

One can’t read off from the facts alone whether or not something is alive. In other words, there’s more to being alive than the facts. To use Chalmers’ term, the facts may well be determinate; though what we say about them isn’t.

Let’s say that everyone agrees that a virus moves. Everyone may agree on its genetic structure. Etc. But it doesn’t follow from all these facts that everyone also agrees that the virus is alive. Some philosophers or scientists may see the virus as being a (biological) machine and therefore neither alive nor dead. (Though why would a virus’s machine-like nature automatically mean that it’s not alive?) To take another extreme interpretation. Some philosophers may even see the virus as being a simulation or simply a projection of our minds.

But what of a computer virus? Chalmers asks:

“Is a computer virus alive?”

This taps into the ancient debate of vitalism. Perhaps those same arguments should also be used to show that computer viruses are either alive or dead. It may be more complicated this time around; though functional, structural and physical criteria will be just as important as they were when vitalism was finally given up.

Indeed there’s a radical aspect to this. If the criteria of aliveness which worked for biological beings can also be applied to computer viruses, and also be acceptably or justifiably applied, then computer viruses must also be alive. After all, the term “computer virus” was coined precisely because such a thing fulfilled most — or even all — the functional, structural and physical criteria for aliveness.

First-Person Data

Chalmers gives an interesting example of the facts not determining what we say about them. It’s interesting because the status of these particular facts can itself be disputed. In addition, the subject area is one that’s rarely given as an example within this particular philosophical context.

Chalmers’ subject is what he calls “first-person data”. That is, what people say (or report) about their own conscious experiences or mental states. The basic point is that “all sorts of theories remain compatible” with such data,

“from solipsistic theories (in which only I am conscious) to panpsychist theories (in which everything is conscious); from biochemicalist theories (in which consciousness arises only from certain biochemical organizations) to computationalist theories (in which consciousness arises from anything with the right sort of computational organization); including along the way such bizarre theories as the theory that people are only conscious in odd-numbered years (right now, it is 1995)”.

The point here is:

“How can we rules out any of these theories, given that we cannot poke inside others’ minds to measure their conscious experience?”

What’s more, “[a]ll such theories are logically compatible with the data, but this is not enough to make them plausible”.

Now this particular example is problematic because it’s hard to see first-person data as being factual in the first place. That is, even if first-persona data consist in “verbal reports” which are indeed scientifically kosher, it’s still the case that the subject matter of those verbal reports may not itself be scientifically kosher. In any case, the facts alone (in this case) don’t necessitate what we say about them (i.e., our theories, concepts, words, statements, etc.).

But, here again, the facts/what we say about facts opposition can of course be questioned.

Still, what about the case when two people agree on the facts and yet say different things about them? That is, they don’t say different things about what the facts are and what their natures are. What they disagree on is what follows from the facts or how the facts are interpreted.

So, in Chalmers’ example, those in disagreement accept that subject S is having a mental state that, say, involves an experience of a red rose. They agree on this because they agree on S’s verbal reports about his own experiences or mental states. Now to get back to what Chalmers has already stated: that this very experience of a red rose can be explained in terms of a solipsistic theory, a panpsychist theory, a “biochemicalist” theory, a computationalist theory and an odd-numbered years theory. In other words, S’s experience of a red rose (not the red rose itself — if the two can be completely distinguished at all) isn’t doubted and even its nature may be agreed upon. The problem comes when that experience is theorised about — or interpreted — in different ways. In other words, there is an experience of a red rose (or, more correctly, the experience of a red rose is verbally reported); and it may even have a specific nature (despite it being first-person). However, how do we explain the experience itself? How do we account for it?

Eliminativist Materialists vs. Reductive Functionalists

Chalmers gives another example when he compares the positions of reductive functionalism and eliminative materialism. Here again the reductive functionalist and eliminative materialist both (more or less) agree on the facts. However, they still disagree on what Chalmers calls “terminology”. In this case, the eliminativist materialist and reductive functionalist (more or less) agree on the fact that “there is discrimination, categorization, accessibility, reportability, and the the like”. They even (more or less) agree on the philosophical and scientific accounts of such things. Therefore the only thing they disagree on (at least according to Chalmers) is that the reductive functionalist believes that “some of these explananda deserve the name ‘experience’”. The eliminativist materialist, on the other hand, believes that “none of them do”.

If discrimination, categorization, accessibility, reportability, etc. literally are — or literally constitute — experience, then surely experience (or simply the word “experience”) can be eliminated (at least in theory). In other words, experience (or the word “experience”) adds nothing to the pot. So this would mean that disagreement in this case truly is merely verbal.

Of course there may still be what’s called “semantic indeterminacy” when it comes to words like “discrimination”, “accessibility”, “reportability” and “categorization”. (Some philosophers have argued that this kind of semantic indeterminacy exists across the board. Others philosophers have also argued that it can’t exist across the board because such a state of affairs would somehow render communication — and even communal action — impossible.)


Chalmers even uses causation — or at least necessary causal relations — to highlight the point that theories, concepts, etc. are over and above the facts. This is (it can be supposed) Chalmers’ take on what’s called Humean supervenience (which has been much discussed in analytic philosophy).

Firstly, we have the facts about physical “regularities”. But what if “causation is construed as something over and above the presence of a regularity”? Indeed Chalmers goes so far as to say that “it is not clear that we can know that [causation] exists”.

To be clear, this isn’t really about the strong distinctions which can be made between the many things which supervene and their “supervenience bases”. It’s about the actual “failure of logical supervenience”. More explicitly:

“[F]acts about causation fail to supervene logically on matters of particular physical fact.”

Thus anything we say about the causation doesn’t “logical supervene” on the facts alone. So even causation (like our stipulations about what a cup/book is, what is alive, etc.) are over and above the facts. Does this mean that causation-talk too is merely verbal?

All this depends on what Chalmers means by “causation”.

The 18th century philosopher David Hume would have accepted that B always follows A. However, there’s no necessary link between the two that’s somehow over and above what we observe. Thus if there’s no necessary link, then B simply follows A. After all, Chalmers himself distinguishes causation from “mere succession”. But does this Humean picture automatically mean that we don’t actually have causation at all? Is non-observable (or non-empirical) metaphysical necessity necessarily built into all talk of causation?

In any case, this isn’t really the place to discuss Humean supervenience or even causation. The point is, though, that whatever philosophical position we take on “mere succession” (or causal relations) it will be over and above what it is that’s “behind”, “beneath” or “between” the successions (or relations) we talk about. Basically, what we say about physical (or causal) relations is (or can be) over and above the facts.

Bridge Laws

Philosophers (specifically in the philosophy of mind) often use the technical term bridge laws. Bridge laws are said to tie lower-level phenomena to higher-level phenomena. In the case of the philosophy of mind, facts (since that word has been used a lot in this piece) about the brain are tied to things (not facts) about the mind, experience or consciousness.

Chalmers argues that bridge laws are over and above the facts. This is Chalmers’ own take on bridge laws:

“Some might argue that explanation of any high-level phenomena will postulate ‘bridge laws’ in addition to a low-level account, and that it is only with the aid of these bridge laws that the details of the high-level phenomena are derived.”

Chalmers suggests (or states) that “in such cases the bridge laws are not further facts about the world”. That is, “the connecting principles themselves are logically supervenient on the low-level facts”. In other words, these connecting principles are not facts. (Alternatively, the statements about connecting principles aren’t factual.) Chalmers then gives an obvious and clear example of this: “the link between molecular motion and heat”. Heat simply is what’s called “mean molecular motion”. (Or: heat = mean molecular motion.) Having said that, there are things which can be said about heat which can’t be said about moving molecules. All talk of heat, nonetheless, can still “be derived from the physical facts”. Still, things said about heat are over and above the things said about (mean) molecular motion. What’s more, what’s said about heat doesn’t include “further facts about the world”.

This raises the question:

If not further facts about the world, then further… what?

Chalmers trumps all this fairly uncontroversial stuff with — as one might have guessed — an exception to his general rule: consciousness. In the case of consciousness (so Chalmers believes), consciousness is a “further fact[] about the world”. What’s more, consciousness is not (again) “logically supervenient on the low-level facts”. Consciousness may be empirically and contingently supervenient on low-level facts; though consciousness isn’t logically supervenient on them. That is, no physical facts about the brain (or otherwise) logically entail consciousness; and consciousness doesn’t logically entail any facts about the brain (or otherwise).


Facts Matter: A Mouse’s Beliefs and its Conscious Experiences

Here’s another question from Chalmers:

“Does a mouse have beliefs?”

As stated in the introduction, Chalmers often mentions “stipulation”. That is, if we stipulate what we mean by the word “belief”, then the answer to that question must — at least in part — follow from the stipulation.

To simplify, if x, y and z constitute what it is for something to be a belief, then if a mouse displays x, y and z, then it has a belief. This is of course a simplified story. That’s because agreement will have to be made on x, y and z, and then on whether not x, y and z are necessary and sufficient for belief. But however complicated this story turns out, stipulation will still remain part of it. That is, do we believe that (as it were) beliefness (like aliveness) is something over and above the functional, structural and/or physical facts?

Chalmers is keen to accept the importance of stipulation when it comes to such decisions. He also believes — at least as I see it — that much that passes for metaphysics is merely verbal dispute. However, it’s still the case that in some cases (or in one case!) at least there’s a fact of the matter which makes some statements, concepts or theories plain wrong.

Take Chalmers’ own final question:

“Does a mouse have conscious experience?”

In this case, it isn’t all about stipulation or verbal dispute. That is:

“Either there is something that it is like to be a mouse or there is not, and it is not up to us to define the mouse’s experience into or out of existence.”

So it’s not always a case of all the debaters agreeing on the facts; though still disagreeing on what they say about the facts. This time — at least according to Chalmers — the debaters are also disagreeing about the facts. In this example, it’s about whether or not “a mouse [actually has] conscious experience”.

In the previous examples the debaters said different things about the facts; but agreed on the facts. Now the debaters disagree on the actual facts. What’s more, Chalmers believes that “we cannot stipulate [] away” whether or not the mouse has conscious experience or not.

The question is, then, whether or not Chalmers’ position on consciousness really is in a different ballpark to the previous disputes about computer viruses, mice having beliefs, books made out of tissues, bacteria which learn, etc. That is, is a “functional analysis” also acceptable in the case of a mouse’s experiences?

Chalmers says “no”.

So my own final question is:

Why is the case of a mouse having — or not having — “conscious experience” so different to all the cases already discussed?
13 views0 comments