Resident Expert on Philosophy: Like Math, But With Words

Statue of Socrates in Athens, Greece.

Gabriel Oak Rabin, assistant professor of philosophy, is interested in the relationship between the mind and the body, and their relations to consciousness. In this Q&A, he talks about the discipline of philosophy, some of the questions philosophers address, and ways that consciousness can (or can’t) be explained.

What do philosophers do? What are some of the problems that they try to figure out?

Philosophy is a very broad field. It addresses some really big questions. Do we have free will? In any situation, what is the right and the wrong thing to do? Suppose we were organizing society from the ground up, what would be the most just and fair society? What is the relation between the mind and the body? These are important questions. If we don't have insight into what is the right and wrong thing to do, we can be led astray in our daily lives.

The history of philosophy is actually a history beginning in a period when philosophy encompassed almost all of science. Over time people started to do sciences like physics in a more empirical way. Physics became physics and no longer part of philosophy, and chemistry and biology became their own disciplines. One can think of philosophy as addressing questions that are too abstract, not yet well-formed, and/or lacking a clear theoretical framework sufficient for study by a “proper” science. Philosophers try to come up with a way of thinking about the problem, develop concepts to organize the space of possibility, and generate a theoretical framework for further inquiry. One might even think of philosophy as the birthing place of sciences, or something like that. But maybe that's a bit egomaniacal for a philosopher to say!

Philosophy addresses some really big questions. If we don't have insight into what is the right and wrong thing to do, we can be led astray in our daily lives.

Gabriel Oak Rabin, philosopher

And so what goes on in contemporary philosophy? It seems to be quite different from the ancient philosophy of Aristotle and Plato that non-philosophers may be familiar with.

Many of the topics studied by Aristotle and Plato are still alive today. But of course there are new issues as well. Philosophy has become a lot more technical and specialized since Plato and Aristotle. This is true of every discipline, really. We try to incorporate some of the advances in other sciences over the last 2,000 years, particularly in math, logic, linguistics, psychology, and physics. We also try to look at what other sciences are doing and chime in where we can, especially with issues of conceptualization. There are thriving fields of philosophy of psychology, physics, biology, and others. In the past 50 years, philosophers have contributed a lot to the relatively newer fields of cognitive science and semantics. Semantics in particular was jump-started by philosopher-mathematicians who studied mathematical models of language.

Another job of philosophy is to reconcile the scientific image of the world with the manifest image of the world. The scientific image of the world is the world as science tells us it is; the manifest image of the world being the world we see every day and interact with.

For example, quantum mechanics, on its most straightforward interpretation, seems to say that I'm not actually here in this chair; my location is instead spread out across the entire universe. But how could that be when you see me sitting right here? How do we reconcile those two things? Do we revise quantum mechanics? Do we revise our interpretation of what the theory says about the world? Do we revise our ordinary conception of the world? That is one project philosophers are very interested in. Similar issues arise when we think about our conception of ourselves as having free will, while science provides a more mechanistic picture of how the universe operates.

Contemporary professional philosophy is full of people who got degrees in math, physics, and computer science. I once had a student say to me: "Man, I thought philosophy was just going to be all poppycock and fluff, but actually it's like math. But with words."

I once had a student say to me: "Man, I thought philosophy was just going to be all poppycock and fluff, but actually it's like math. But with words."

Gabriel Oak Rabin

That’s a pretty apt description. Philosophy involves the type of analytical thinking characteristic of mathematics. So philosophy is like math but with words, in a way. Though I think it's certainly more fun than doing math. I abandoned math for philosophy, myself.

Some of your work deals with a concept called "fundamentality" that is philosophical but also connected to an understanding of the world that is physical. What is fundamentality in the field of philosophy?

Fundamentality is concerned with a hierarchical conception of the world where certain things make up, or generate, other things. For example, my sweater is composed of the fibers that make it up, the fibers are composed of molecules underlying them. A very natural question to ask is, “What's at the rock bottom of the entire world? What does everything else depend on?” Whatever that is, we call ‘fundamental’. I think that question is really one of the most basic in all of human inquiry.

An ancient Greek philosopher named Thales famously thought that everything was made of water. We of course have a different picture today. Physics tells us about the Standard Model, which has different types of particles, like quarks, leptons, and bosons, four fundamental forces, and laws that govern those forces.

But it's somewhat up for debate what the forces are, what the particles are, how many varieties the particles come in, and whether those features can be reduced to further, more fundamental features. String theory, for example, claims that all those particles and forces in the standard model can be reduced to the vibration of strings. So strings are what is fundamental.

The rules of the game for deciding what's fundamental are generally explanatory and we as philosophers look to physicists for the underlying theories that explain phenomena that arise at a higher level.

I should stress that I’m not denying that there are genuine types of explanation or fields of inquiry that are independent from physics. It's not like I think that economists should be asking physicist how to do their work. But there's the sense that all the economic facts, all the facts about buildings, all the facts about brains, all depend in a sense on what's going on at the fundamental level, and, at least right now, that fundamental layer looks mostly physical.

"The Thinker", a bronze statue by French sculptor Auguste Rodin, is often used as a symbol of philosophy.

How does consciousness fit into the concept of fundamentality? Consciousness doesn’t seem to be physical, so how can it be explained?

Philosophers recently have argued that consciousness can’t be explained by fundamental physical stuff. We understand in principle how to take a bunch of particles and arrange them into a watch. Or into a building. We even see how to make a bunch of particles into a brain.

But it's not clear why, when you mass all those particles together, you should get a conscious experience. Why does an individual get a red experience when they see a strawberry? Why does one get the thoughts one gets? Why should a world that is, at the fundamental level, purely physical, at the same time be a world that contains consciousness, or experiences of red, or painful sensations?

Philosophers have argued that consciousness can’t be explained by fundamental physical stuff. Why does an individual get a red experience when they see a strawberry? Why does one get the thoughts one gets?

Gabriel Oak Rabin

One of the reasons for the gap is that physical stuff is by it's nature objective. It can be studied from the third person perspective. But consciousness is by its very nature first-personal and subjective. You might think that third-personal objective stuff can't explain first-personal stuff.

If you take these problems very seriously, you say there's an explanatory gap here which cannot be bridged. If you also endorse the idea that what's fundamental should be determined by explanatory considerations, you can be led quite naturally to the conclusion that we must add to the roster of the fundamental. At the rock bottom of the world, there’s more than just leptons, quarks, gravity, and the like. There’s consciousness, or something like it.

So how do philosophers think about consciousness as fundamental?

You could think that there is a consciousness particle floating around, you could think that a consciousness field permeates the entire universe and influences physical interactions, or you could think that there's a fundamental law of the universe that once you get stuff in a sufficiently complicated arrangement, where there is a lot of information transfer, that arrangement gives rise to consciousness.

Regarding the third option, one place in the universe where there is a particularly complicated arrangement of integrated information is in our brains, and that's why my brain leads to consciousness while my sweater does not.