What Things are Real? - Galen Strawson | Closer to Truth

What Things are Real? - Galen Strawson

Galen Strawson - Philosophy of Mind

Galen Strawson

Galen Strawson holds the President's Chair in Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin's College of Liberal Arts. He studied at the University of Cambridge before receiving his BPhil and DPhil in philosophy from the University of Oxford.

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Galen
Strawson

Philosopher, University of Texas, Austin

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Galen, it really seems like a strange question to ask, but this is something that gnaws at me. When I look at all the stuff that impinges on my consciousness, I see infinite, almost infinite number of things in the universe and around me, around here; we have so many different things. But if we try to reduce these things to the fundamental things that – that really exist, I mean, physics tries to reduce things to different numbers of particles and stuff. Uh, how can we, in the most general way, reduce everything in the world to the most fundamental, irreducible things? What kinds of things really exist? How do we think about that?

Galen Strawson:

Well, I'm not sure why we should want to do that. You say to me what things are real, and I might say, I think I'm – I'm pretty liberal on this one. Try me. I mean, what – do – mention something that you – somebody might say isn't real.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Well, you have a – you have a table that's real, but it can be broken down into its component parts. So, we have – we have physical forces, we have fields, and then in our minds we have consciousness. Some people have cosmic consciousness, some people believe in spiritual realms, in gods, and so I mean, there are broad categories. What are the categories that we can begin to classify?

Galen Strawson:

Okay, well, I think that everything that exists is material or physical. But I'm not ruling out as much as some people might be ruling out when they say that, so I'm–

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, why is that the case? Why do you believe that only the physical is real?

Galen Strawson:

It's one – first thing to say perhaps is that I may – I probably mean more by the word physical than most people mean. So, for example, I'm a complete realist about all conscious states and emotions; I think they're completely real. So, it's not a – it's not a reductive claim. Part of it is just that, uh, there is nothing I can think of that I believe to exist that couldn't be physical. But I'm very liberal in what I believe to exist, or rather—a table, of course tables exist. Now, the fact that they're made out of smaller bits doesn't in any way sort of undermine their claim to reality.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay, but it – it – it is not a fundamental part of reality. If we cleared away all the things that, that are constructive things, what would you be left with? What are the – what are the things of which all reality is constructed?

Galen Strawson:

Well, I – one way to look at this is to say, that just is a question for physics. Physics is the, you know – the base science, and you know, there's this zoo of fundamental particles which probably there aren't as many as there seem to be, and then there are maybe ten basic properties like shape, size, position, mass, and charge. But– or energy– and on one view, they are all just manifestations of energy. So, if you want to get it done, let's just say all that exists is energy, but energy has many manifestations including, in my view, conscious states, the experiences of red.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So that's a radically different kind of physicalism, materialism, is to include consciousness on some, what we say, primitive, meaning, fundamental, level.

Galen Strawson:

Yeah, I think that quite a lot of people who – who say they're physicalists would think that that somehow downgrades conscious states. They're pretty vague, pretty often about what they think they are. But I'm not doing – they are as – they are as real as electrons, as it were, and they're not only that; they're the things we're most certain of, their existence, we are.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, that becomes a very fundamental part of your kind of reality, is the kind of conscious experience that humans have, or animals have, or – how far down do you go?

Galen Strawson:

Yeah, I mean, if you want to – if you want me to sort of take up the position of a skeptic and, and say, what do you absolutely know exists? Well, my answer will be conscious feelings and experiences. Those are the only thing I absolutely know exist. I mean, Berkeley – Berkeley, the eighteenth century English philosopher is famous for thinking that we are spirits, and God just induces an experience of a world. And so, there aren't really any tables and chairs. But – so, I think you can't actually, strictly speaking, rule out that view, but you still know that there are feelings and experiences.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, then you would privilege consciousness over all other constituents of reality.

Galen Strawson:

Well, it's just – that's – that's an epistemological claim; that is, it's a claim about what we can know for certain, so I privilege it in that way. Of course, I'm pretty certain that there are other things, but I'm – this – I have this certainty about that. That can never go...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, if you're willing to accept consciousness, why are you not willing to accept other aspects of reality, such as a spiritual world, or souls, or a god, or gods, or cosmic consciousness? With all – with the vast majority of humanity believing in that stuff and, you know, I've been known to at least hope that some of that exists?

Galen Strawson:

Well, you have to tell me exactly what – what you – what you mean by that. Do you mean something that is defined as not physical, for example?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Yes, I think that's right.

Galen Strawson:

Well, what I'm saying is, the physical is so amazing that I haven't yet seen a reason for thinking that these things, too, couldn't be physical. Physical already includes minds and experiences.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay, so, why is not – why is your definition of physical not just a word that means everything that's real?

Galen Strawson:

It does. Actually, that is right. And I mean – but I continue to use it, because I'm talking – I am talking about the world, the things out there. It's part of an argument to say, if you push it, you're going to have to move; you're going to have to begin to mean these other things by physical, too.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So – so, there's no difference between your physical and – and my term, all that is.

Galen Strawson:

That's right.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And so, if I would have a – a belief in God in my all that is, if – if you were to believe in that, or think that's real then you would incorporate that into your definition of the physical world, if – if –

Galen Strawson:

I would – I would follow Spinoza, who does exactly that.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay, so – so, that is a – that is a – a fundamental position; it's different than others who say there's a fundamental distinction, and disjunction between a physical world and a non-physical world, and that these are very different kinds of things. They may interact; how they do, who knows, but – but the – a very – a big difference.

Galen Strawson:

Yeah. This is the – the standard position of dualism; there are two fundamentally different kinds of things. It has massive problems, the position of dualism, and I'm just saying the physical is already so amazing, give me a good reason why I have to say there are two fundamentally different kinds of things. And I haven't seen one yet.

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Galen Strawson:

Everything that exists is material or physical. But I'm not ruling out as much as some people might be ruling out when they say that. They probably mean more by the word physical than most people mean, so, for example, I'm a complete realist about all conscious states and emotions; I think they're completely real. So, it's not a reductive claim. Part of it is just that there is nothing I can think of that I believe to exist that couldn't be physical. But I'm very liberal in what I believe to exist, or rather...a table, of course tables exist. Now, the fact that they're made out of smaller bits doesn't in any way sort of undermine their claim to reality.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay, but it is not a fundamental part of reality. If we cleared away all the things that are constructive things, what would you be left with? What are the things of which all reality is constructed?

Galen Strawson:

Well, one way to look at this is to say, that just is a question for physics. Physics is the base science, and you know, there's this zoo of fundamental particles which probably there aren't as many as there seem to be, and then there are maybe ten basic properties like shape, size, position, mass, and charge. On one view, they are all just manifestations of energy. So, if you want to get it done, let's just say all that exists is energy, but energy has many manifestations including, in my view, conscious states, they are as real as electrons, as it were.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, that's a radically different kind of physicalism, materialism, is to include consciousness on some, what we say, primitive, meaning, fundamental level.

Galen Strawson:

Yeah, I mean, if you want me to sort of take up the position of a skeptic and say, what do you absolutely know exists? Well, my answer will be conscious feelings and experiences. Those are the only thing I absolutely know exist.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So, if you're willing to accept consciousness, why are you not willing to accept other aspects of reality, such as a spiritual world, or souls, or a god, or gods, or cosmic consciousness?

Galen Strawson:

Well, you got to—what I'm saying is, the physical is so amazing that I haven't yet seen a reason for thinking that these things, too, couldn't be physical. The physical already includes minds and experiences.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Okay, so, why is your definition of physical not just a word that means everything that's real?

Galen Strawson:

It does. Actually, that is right. And I—but I continue to use it, because I am talking about the world, that things aren't there.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And so, if I would have a belief in God, then you would incorporate that into your definition of the physical world.

Galen Strawson:

I would follow Spinoza, who does exactly that.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

It's different than others who say there's a fundamental distinction, and disjunction between the physical world and a non-physical world.

Galen Strawson:

Yeah. This is the standard position of dualism; there are two fundamentally different kinds of things. It has massive problems, the position of dualism, and I'm just saying the physical is already so amazing, give me a good reason why I have to say there are two fundamentally different kinds of things.