What Are the Differences between Mental and Physical Entities? Part 6

Post Author: Bill Pratt

After a little break from this series, it is time to pick it up again because there is plenty more to discuss.  Philosopher J. P. Moreland explains yet another way that mental and physical entities differ: the first person perspective.

A complete physicalist description of the world would be one in which everything would be exhaustively described from a third-person point of view in terms of objects, properties, processes, and their spatiotemporal locations. For example, a description of an apple in a room would go something like this: “There exists an object three feet from the south wall and two feet from the east wall, and that object has the property of being red, round, sweet,” and so on.

The first-person point of view is the vantage point that I use to describe the world from my own perspective.  Expressions of a first-person point of view utilize what are called indexicals—words such as I, here, now, there, then.  Here and now are where and when I am; there and then are where and when I am not. Indexicals refer to me, myself. “I” is the most basic indexical, and it refers to my self that I know by acquaintance with my own consciousness in acts of self-awareness. I am immediately aware of my own self, and I know who “I” refers to when I use it: It refers to me as the owner of my body and mental states.

But how does physicalism handle the first-person point of view that we all clearly have?  Is there room for the first-person perspective?  Moreland thinks not.

According to physicalism, there are no irreducible, privileged first-person perspectives. Everything can be exhaustively described in an object language from a third-person perspective. A physicalist description of me would say, “There exists a body at a certain location that is five feet, eight inches tail, weighs 160 pounds,” and so forth.

But no amount of third-person descriptions captures my own subjective, first-person acquaintance of my own self in acts of self-awareness. In fact, for any third-person description of me, it would always be an open question as to whether the person described in third-person terms was the same person as I am.

I do not know my self because I know some third-person description of a set of mental and physical properties and I also know that a certain person satisfies that description. I know myself as a self immediately through being acquainted with my own self in an act of self-awareness. I can express that self-awareness by using the term “I.”

“I” refers to my own substantial soul. It does not refer to any mental property or bundle of mental properties I am having, nor does it refer to anybody described from a third-person perspective. “I” is a term that refers to something that exists, and “I” does not refer to any object or set of properties described from a third-person point of view.  Rather, “I” refers to my own self with which I am directly acquainted and which, through acts of self-awareness, I know to be the substantial possessor of my mental states and my body.

It seems that the physicalist cannot account for the first-person perspective that we all have.  Surely this is a serious deficiency in any theory that attempts to explain what human beings are.

Continue with part 7 of the series.