Review of Peter Unger's - 'All the Power in the World'
Lowe (E.J.)
Source: The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 233 (Oct., 2008), pp. 745-747
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  1. This book is interesting in patches, but suffers from three major defects.
    1. First, it is inordinately long: it could easily have been condensed into a book one third its length.
    2. Secondly, it is written in an irritatingly jokey and homely style, in a vain attempt to appeal to a non-academic audience. Example drawn at random: 'Now, don't misunderstand me here; [this argument] doesn't knock my socks off, certainly not at this late date, with so much philosophically dirty water long since under the proverbial bridge' (p. 611).
    3. Thirdly, it self-consciously avoids much reference to or engagement with recent literature in its field, dismissing most of this as overtechnical and of no lasting value.
    This last defect is the most serious, because many of Peter Unger's views and arguments in this book have been anticipated, bettered or effectively countered by contributors to that literature.
  2. The main target of Unger's criticism is what he calls 'scientiphicalism', that is, the scientifically inspired physicalism that dominates current analytic metaphysics and philosophy of mind. One major thing he has against it is that while it allows for both spatial properties and dispositional properties - powers, or 'propensities' (Unger's preferred term) - it does not allow for 'qualities'. But, he contends, we cannot really conceive of the world as containing the former but not the latter. His argument here is one belonging to a tradition going back at least as far as Berkeley, according to which we cannot distinguish between a spatially extended thing and a region of empty space with the same shape as that thing, unless we suppose the thing to possess some real quality which permeates the space occupied by it. There is a well-known paper – "Blackburn (Simon) - Filling in Space" – which very concisely discusses this issue and has given rise to an extensive and interesting secondary literature - but none of this, unfortunately, is discussed by Unger. The line of argument in question is, I think, inconclusive, which seems also to be Blackburn's verdict. Certainly I do not think it can bear the kind of weight that Unger wants to lay upon it.
  3. Unger has quite a lot to say about powers, as the title of his book suggests, and some of what he says is quite interesting. But I do not find, in his account of powers, much of value that is not said more concisely and more convincingly in such books as Stephen Mumford's Dispositions (OUP, 1998),John Heil's From an Ontological Point of View (OUP, 2003), George Molnar's Powers (OUP, 2003), and C.B. Martin's The Mind in Nature (OUP, 2008). None of these books is referred to by Unger (only the last of them appeared too late for that) - though, to be fair, he does discuss some earlier work on the subject by Heil, Martin and Molnar. But Unger's general tendency to disregard the recent literature on the issues that he discusses has served him and his readers particularly ill with regard to the topic of powers.
  4. Unger's most spectacular departure from 'scientiphicalism', and the one that will most surprise those familiar with his earlier work, is his conversion to Substantial Dualism (Unger likes to capitalize the names of Positions in Philosophy). This is full-blooded 'Cartesian' interactive substance dualism, according to which 'we' are immaterial souls possessing no spatial properties and not even any location in space. In favour of this view, he develops two main lines of argument:
    1. one which appeals to free will and
    2. one which exploits the 'problem of the many' which Unger himself made famous long ago.
  5. First, then, he thinks that we have real choice, and that this is incompatible with the scientiphical view of ourselves. (For what it is worth, I am inclined to agree.) But he does not think that the existence of 'physically effective choosing souls' is incompatible with the physical conservation laws or other fundamental physical laws. He approvingly quotes David Rosenthal as saying that 'Since mental events could effect bodily changes by altering the distribution of energy, the conservation [of energy] principle does not preclude minds' having bodily effects' (p. 351). Unfortunately, Unger does not consider the implications of the second law of thermodynamics in this connection, and is, in any case, disarmingly candid about his own ignorance of contemporary physics. I do not think that philosophers of mind can afford such ignorance.
  6. Unger's second and perhaps more appealing argument for substance dualism can be condensed to this. For any physical object, such as my body or my brain or some part of my brain, with which I might be supposed (by the scientiphicalist) to be identical, the problem of the many teaches us that, really, there is no one physical thing that especially deserves the title of 'my body' or 'my brain' or 'my cerebrum'. Rather, there are very, very many largely overlapping physical objects equally deserving of each of these titles, differing from one another only in respect of a few tiny parts, such as a few cells here or there. But there is indisputably only one thing that deserves to be called me. Hence I cannot be identical with any of those physical things. Indeed, those physical things are not really ontologically basic at all: they are, in Unger's words, 'ontological parasites' - parasitical upon the ultimate constituents of physical reality, whatever they might be (quarks, say, or perhaps superstrings). But I am not an ontological parasite in that way.
  7. Is this a good argument? I think it goes some, but only a little, of the way towards supporting Unger's kind of dualism. I think it probably does show that I cannot be identical with 'my body', or 'my brain', or 'my cerebrum'. But, assuming that I do indeed exist, I think that it leaves perfectly open a position like Lynne Rudder Baker's, according to which I am constituted by my body or some marginally lesser part of it: see her "Baker (Lynne Rudder) - Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View", another work not referred to by Unger. It can be indeterminate precisely which body constitutes me without its being at all indeterminate which thing I am, given that constitution is not identity. Baker's view is a kind of 'substance dualism', but it certainly does not posit that we are immaterial souls without spatial location. Baker, incidentally, would roundly reject the suggestion that we are 'ontological parasites', on her view.
  8. Towards the end of his book, Unger indulges in some speculation about the possibility of our disembodied existence, and tries to answer some apparent problems attaching to his kind of substance dualism (such as the question of how souls are individuated and the question of what 'quality' we can be supposed to have when we are asleep and unconscious). Much of this is very speculative indeed and will, I am afraid, seem downright silly to many readers (of those, at least, who persevere this far with the book). I think that the current resurgence in speculative metaphysics is probably a good thing for philosophy, but even here we can have too much of a good thing.


Review of "Unger (Peter) - All the Power in the World".

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