Home » Philosophy » The Argument from Simplicity

The Argument from Simplicity

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 292 other subscribers

Follow me on Twitter


1200 words

Barnett argues in The Waning of Materialism that for any pair of conscious beings, it is impossible for that pair itself to be conscious. I punch myself and feel pain; You punch yourself and feel pain. But our pair wouldn’t feel a thing. Thus, pairs of people are incapable of experiencing pain. This is what Barnett call’s “The Datum.” He posits six explanations for explaining “The Datum”:

(1) Pairs of people lack a sufficient number of sufficient parts; (2) Pairs of people lack immediate parts of standing in the right sorts of relations to the other and the environment; (3) pairs of people lack the immediate parts of the right kinds of nature; (4) pairs of people are not structures, they are unstructured collections of two parts; (5) some combination of 1-4; and (6) pairs of people are not simple.

Let’s take (1): Imagine that each human on earth is in severe pain, while the collection of people is experiencing pure bliss. This is untenable. Thus, no matter how large, a collection of people cannot be the subject of experience. So pairs of people do not have a sufficient number of immediate parts and thusly do not explain “The Datum.”

Now let’s take (2): Let’s say that scientists shrink you and I down into someone else’s brain, me being the left hemisphere and you being the right hemisphere. Then someone punches the person we have been implanted as their hemispheres; they then react. We then stimulate neurons and the person defends themselves, putting their hands up in defense. We do just what that person’s hemispheres would have done. So we function just like a regular brain. So now you and I have a new relation: is it conscious? You and I may remain conscious, but arethe pair conscious? No. Thus, pairs of people lack the right parts necessary to stand in the right sorts of relations to themselves and the environment and therefore do not explain “The Datum.”

Now let’s take (3): Let’s say I tell you that I have two objects—(a) and (b)—in mind. You, clearly, need more information to conclude that (a) and (b) are conscious, but you don’t need more information to conclude that the pair—comprised of (a) and (b)—is conscious. We know a priori that pairs of things are not conscious; pairs of, say, TVs, rocks, shoes, beds, are not conscious. So, that any pair—(a) and (b)—may be conscious is absurd is not evidence that the two alone are not conscious.

Now let’s take (4): We can know by reflection that the pair comprising (a) and (b) are not conscious. We know a priori that pairs of things are collections while conscious beings are structures. Collections exist iff whenever the comprisal of what makes up the collections exist; a structure of things exists iff the things in question exist in relation to a certain structure. So consider the atoms in the threads in my pillow as a collection and my pillow as a structure. So if we were to disperse the atoms in the thread making up my pillow out into space, the atoms would still exist but my pillow would not. So are pairs of people incapable of having experience because they are not structures? Let’s now return to (2), when you and I were placed in someone’s brain as their hemispheres. So unlike the pair, the system (brain) is a structure and it would cease to exist if you and I were removed from the individual’s brain, though the pair that you and I form would not. However, the system of people is not a candidate for the subject of experience than the pair that constitutes the system. So the idea that pairs of people are incapable of experience since they are not structures does not explain “The Datum.”

Now let’s take (5): Maybe “The Datum” is not explained by (1)-(4). Maybe some combination of the 4 explains “The Datum.” Maybe pairs of people aren’t conscious because it is a collection which results from the existence of two people; maybe a conscious being is a structure comprised of many cells, organs, standing with one another and the environment they are in certain causal dependent relations. So human bodies which are physical structures that are comprised of organs, cells, blood, etc, are conscious; the differences between human bodies are captured in (1)-(4); the four hypotheses do not explain “The Datum” alone; so some combination of (1)-(4) must explain “The Datum.” So let’s go back to (1). If we consider 7 billion people—and not a pair—then we know that no matter the number of people, that collection is not, itself, conscious. Now take (2), but on a larger—societal—level. If everyone in that society has a similar goal and aims for those goals, are they conscious? No; the claim that they are is absurd. Sure, the society functions just as human brain functions, but is that society—itself—conscious? No. Now take (3), but imagine that every neuron in your head was replaced by a mini-man. Thus, if we shift our attention to the number of mini-men in the head to the structure they comprise, it does not make any difference: (1)-(3) does not explain “The Datum.” Finally, let’s take (4). Imagine that your brain was sliced in half and dispersed into vats. Then those hemispheres are halved—while radio transmitters are placed in your hemispheres (preserving communication with the CNS)—and so on and so forth, until each of your neurons sits in its own individual vat. Now imagine that each neuron is paired up with an individual and the neuron gets a break, with the individual then carrying out the function of the specific neuron, Now, what concerns us is whether or not ‘you’ are identical to the scattered parts of what used to comprise ‘you’ and the system that controls your body. Certain times, billions of people operating billions of radio transmitters are operating the system; other days its billions of neurons operating billions of radio transmitters. So these billions of objects which still interact with your nervous system interact with your nervous system just like your brain used to when it was confined to its skull. So whether or not these billions of people that comprise your radio transmitters that control your scattered neurons is irrelevant; what matters is whether the system itself is a subject of experience—and it is not. So no combination of (1)-(4) explains “The Datum.”

Now, finally, let’s take (6): Are pairs of people not qualified from being conscious because they aren’t simple? In all 4 of the hypotheses, composite entities are presented and we ask whether or not the entity may be conscious. Whether or not the entity in question has 2, 100, 100,000, 100,000,000,000 parts is irrelevant. What does matter—however—is whether or not the posited entities presented are a composite. So there is absurdity in the idea that they are identical to a subject of any experience. The only hypotheses that rival this preceding explanation are (1)-(4), but they are inadequate. So simplicity best explains “The Datum.”

So conscious beings must be simple. We are not simple particles, so Barnett’s argument is an argument against materialism. So correlations between our mental states and our brain states do not give reason to identify ourselves with our brains. Therefore we are not our brains.

I am simple. I contain no proper parts (there is no such thing as “half an *I*”). However, my brain contains proper parts. Therefore I am not my brain.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Please keep comments on topic.

Blog Stats

  • 874,610 hits
Follow NotPoliticallyCorrect on

suggestions, praises, criticisms

If you have any suggestions for future posts, criticisms or praises for me, email me at


%d bloggers like this: