Chomsky’s challenge to physicalism

“It is of some importance, then, that although physicalism apparently has profound significance and has been in the spotlight to a considerable extent, proponents of physicalism have not adequately responded to a frequently voiced objection, viz., that the theses of  physicalism are vacuous because the critical concept of  the physical  has no well defined content. Although stated in different ways by different critics (cf., Feigl 1969: 21, Chomsky 1972: 98,Hempel 1980: 194-5, Crane and Mellor 1990: 186-7), the core objection is a deep and rather complicated one with far ranging implications for physicalism. If the theses of physicalism are vacuous, then they cannot properly be conceived of as empirical hypotheses which have a truth value and which play a role in science and philosophy. And if the theses are vacuous, it is unclear how physicalism can have any human significance. Physicalists have, of course, attempted to clarify what is meant by ‘physical’ in their various theses. There are two strategies that have been employed, an a priori strategy and an a posteriori strategy, and each has taken several forms. An a priori strategy is one which attempts to identify the essence of the physical via an analysis of the meaning of the term in either common sense or philosophical usage (e.g., a “physical” object is one which is essentially located in space). An a posteriori strategy is one which does not necessarily assume that there is such a thing as the essence of the physical but rather attempts to identify physical entities in some way other than by linguistic or conceptual analysis (e.g., by appeal to physical theory or to exemplars of the physical). It is a contention, explicit or implicit, of the critics of physicalism that neither of these strategies can be successfully pursued. Chomsky’s criticisms of physicalism along these lines are among the most important, both because of their penetrating and persuasive character and because they contain within them the seeds of a positive defense of physicalism. In this paper I shall examine a number of claims and arguments which Chomsky has advanced over the past thirty years, not always to a fully comprehending physicalist audience. My objectives are twofold: first, to clarify the depth of Chomsky’s objection, and second, to suggest a way physicalists might respond to it. In Part 1 I shall attempt to reconstruct Chomsky’s case for the claim that physicalism is vacuous because the concept of the physical lacks content. Building on this reconstruction, I shall identify some critical constraints to which physicalists must be responsive if they are to meet the objection effectively. In Part 2, drawing on some of Chomsky’s ideas about unification problems in science, I shall present a version of physicalism (“Methodological Physicalism”) and show how it responds to the objection.”




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