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Spatial experience, spatial reality, and two paths to primitivism


I explore two views about the relationship between spatial experience and spatial reality: spatial functionalism and spatial presentationalism. Roughly, spatial functionalism claims that the instantiated spatial properties are those playing a certain causal role in producing spatial experience while spatial presentationalism claims that the instantiated spatial properties include those presented in spatial experience. I argue that each view, in its own way, leads to an ontologically inflationary form of primitivism: whereas spatial functionalism leads to primitivism about phenomenal representation, spatial presentationalism leads to primitivism about spatial properties. I conclude by discussing how to adjudicate between spatial functionalism and spatial presentationalism.

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  1. Compare: we might agree that grass is green while disagreeing about whether the greenness of grass consists in a property presented in experience or instead in the reflectance profile that normally causes certain color experiences. For discussion of the analogy between presentationalist and functionalist views about color and such views about spatial properties, see Chalmers (2019).

  2. Here, I am in effect following Chalmers (2019). But my terminology does not exactly match his. His formulation of spatial presentationalism admits of eliminativist versions on which nothing in the environment instantiates the relevant spatial properties. He briefly argues against such views, noting their error-theoretic implications. In contrast, for ease of exposition, I have built the rejection of such views into my formulation of spatial presentationalism.

  3. We can take X to be physically reducible just in case X admits of an exhaustive decomposition into components that are neither mental nor representational, and physically irreducible otherwise.

  4. See Chalmers (2010, p. 398). I borrow the Edenic terminology from Chalmers, who introduced it based on a metaphor regarding how the world appeared in the Garden of Eden suggested by George Bealer (ibid: viii). Unlike Chalmers, I do not build it into the notion of Edenic properties that they are intrinsic and primitive.

  5. See Chalmers (2010: Chs. 11–12).

  6. As works cited in the main text note, one of these thought experiments was introduced by Hurley (1998) for a different purpose, while another is based on a suggestion from Robbie Williams.

  7. See Chalmers (2010, p. 382, 2019, p. 114) and Pautz (2019: fn 8) for coincidence worries about combining phenomenal internalism with Edenic realist positions.

  8. E.g., see Ney (2013, p. 37).

  9. See Chalmers (2012, pp. 296–297).

  10. For a helpful overview of quantum gravity theories and how they exclude fundamental spatiotemporal phenomena, see Huggett and Wüthrich (2013).

  11. See Lam and Wüthrich (2018). For thorough discussion of the emergence of spacetime in the context of quantum gravity, see Crowther (2016).

  12. See Chalmers (2012: Ch. 7, §5, 2019).

  13. Speaks (2015, p. 272) seems to sympathize with this line of argument. Pautz (2019) develops it at greater length. Since the final version of that paper was unavailable when this paper was drafted, my exposition is primarily based on Pautz’s (2014) rendition of the argument. For a related argument from spatial experience and physicalism against phenomenal internalism, see Tye (2007).

  14. Cf. Pautz (2014: fn 5).

  15. Cf. Stoljar (2006).

  16. Advocates of theories along these lines include Dretske (1995) and Tye (2000).

  17. Pautz (2019, p. 406) and Saad (2019: Ch. 1, §6.2) make variations of this point.

  18. While expanding the argument’s scope in this way results in a more appealing case for phenomenal primitivism, it also undermines Pautz’s (2014) use of the argument as a motivation for phenomenal externalism.

  19. Those who prefer to construe grounding as a relation between facts or as a sentential operator should feel free to recast my claims about grounding using their preferred regimentation. As far as I can tell, nothing substantive hangs on the choice of regimentation here.

  20. I borrow this term from Chalmers (2019). I am not entirely sure what he means by it. But his use fits with taking ‘categorical’ to mean qualitative, i.e. non-haecceistic. In any case, that is what I will mean by the term.

  21. For other advocates of p-relationism, see Dasgupta (2018) and references in Pooley (2003: fn 17, p. 264).

  22. I will assume that this sociological claim is correct in what follows and that it supports p-relationism. However, I have doubts about the claim’s truth and about its use as evidence for p-relationism. The best evidence I have been able to find for the claim in the work of a philosopher of physics is Baker’s (2011, p. 487) report that “I think I speak for a large population of specialists in asserting that… relationism [about left and right] is far more plausible than the alternative”. We could try to sidestep the sociological question by supporting p-relationism with whatever theoretical considerations underlie the convergence (insofar as it exists) in philosophy of physics on p-relationism. Baker (2011, p. 490) contends that this convergence is explained by adherence to Leibniz equivalence—the principle that symmetry transformations on spacetime to not yield new physical possibilities (Baker 2010, p. 1161)—and that adherence to Leibniz equivalence is itself motivated by the fact that it provides a way to resist the hole argument (Earman and Norton 1987; Stachel 1989) for a putatively pernicious form of indeterminism in general relativity. This suggests a justificatory path from the need to avoid such indeterminism to Leibniz Equivalence and from there to p-relationism. However, this path is not clear cut. For one, it is controversial whether the indeterminism implied by the hole argument is pernicious (Hoefer and Cartwright 1994). For another, even if an application of Leibniz Equivalence is the best response to the hole argument, it does not immediately follow that Leibniz Equivalence should be applied to support p-relationism. As Norton notes:

    One of the major outcomes of the discussions of the hole argument was this: The decision as to whether a transformation is a gauge transformation [i.e. roughly, one that yields different representations of the same physical situation] cannot merely be decided by the mathematics; it is a physical issue that must be settled by physical considerations. Unfortunately that complicates matters. … The sorts of physical considerations that speak for or against a gauge freedom are more elusive and less decisive. (2019: §10.3.2; emphasis removed)

    Arguably, this much should have been clear even before the hole argument entered the scene. To see this, consider the differential plausibility of applying Leibniz Equivalence in a Newtonian (or Galilean) spacetime to global spatial rotation and global time reversal: Leibniz Equivalence predicts that neither transformation yields new physical possibilities; but that is much more plausible for global spatial rotation than it is for global time reversal. Having aired these doubts about support for p-relationism, I propose to set them aside in what follows.

  23. Not even in light of parity violations—see Baker (2011), Dasgupta (2018), Hoefer (2000), and Pooley (2003).

  24. Admittedly, the resulting form of spatial primitivism might be quite limited, e.g. to topological properties. Thus, this argument leaves spatial functionalists a line of retreat to a hybrid position on which spatial functionalism holds for most spatial properties, with an exception being allowed for a small class of spatial properties that are instantiated and presented in experience. However, such positions were in effect set aside in §1 when I restricted the discussion to spatial functionalism and spatial presentationalism.

  25. Simon identifies this response and dualism as the most promising ones to his version of the above argument.

  26. This point traces to Kant (1768). N.B. one can endorse this intuition about the noted scenarios and its use in the above analogy while maintaining that p-relationism is true at the actual world.

  27. I use ‘shape-like’ rather than ‘shape’ because shapes are widely regarded as intrinsic properties and it is controversial whether the non-directional properties of left and right are intrinsic.

  28. I think that the most promising strategy for p-relationists would be to hold fixed the verdict of no qualitative difference for the arrow scenarios while arguing that arrows and hands should receive uniform treatment. Similarly, I think the most promising strategy for opponents of e-categoricalism would be to argue that there is no phenomenal difference between directionally leftish experiences and directionally rightish experiences, and then argue that directional and shape-like leftish and rightish experiences should receive uniform treatment.

  29. Cf. Chalmers (2010, p. 116) and Pautz (2017, p. 385).

  30. See Pautz (2019: §6).

  31. Chalmers (2019, p. 115) cites cases (e.g. Inverted Earth) for which phenomenal externalist theories putatively predict indeterminate or divided experiences as grounds for rejecting phenomenal externalist forms of (color and spatial) presentationalism. There are two problems with this move. First, at least for the cases he gives, only some phenomenal externalist theories yield these sorts of predictions. Second, and more importantly, there are problems in the vicinity for pretty much everyone (cf. Papineau 2003); so, unless we are given reason for thinking that these cases pose a special problem for phenomenal externalists, they cannot be used to argue against phenomenal externalism.

  32. Since, as noted above, our best physical theories do not require such a difference, there is an argument here from spatial presentationalism for at least a limited form of spatial primitivism. However, in what follows I will instead develop an argument from spatial presentationalism for a more interesting form of spatial primitivism.

  33. The spacetime formulation of the theory was introduced by Minkowski (1909).

  34. It is not assumed that this structure is a substance—special relativity does not resolve the debate between substantivalists and relationalists about spacetime.

  35. I am basing my exposition of special relativity on Maudlin (2012: Ch. 4).

  36. See Maudlin (2012, p. 71) for helpful discussion of conventions surrounding expression of the relativistic interval.

  37. For a related response to a different reconstruction of Chalmers’s argument, see Epstein (2018).

  38. I here assume that Edenic spatial distance is to be recovered, if at all within a special relativistic setting, from the structure of spacetime. While I think this assumption is very plausible, it is non-trivial because a number of matter interaction theories can be formulated in a special relativistic setting. If Edenic spatial distance could somehow be recovered from the combined resources of special relativity and one of those theories, then spatial presentationalists would not have to write Edenic spatial distance into an account of spacetime by hand after all. (Here, I am indebted to an astute referee.)

  39. A strategy of the same form can be used to argue that color presentationalism requires an ontologically inflationary form of primitivist realism about color—for example, see Allen (2015) and Chalmers (2019). The proposed strategy could also be used with other physical theories: given any Edenic spatial property E whose structure precludes it from being recovered from the ontology of a physical theory T, we can conclude that to secure E’s instantiation, spatial presentationalists must take on ontological commitments that go beyond T’s, thereby embracing spatial primitivism.

  40. Cf. Peacocke (1983).

  41. Proof: Let a, b, and c be events whose (T, X, Y, Z) coordinates in a frame are respectively: (0, 0, 0, 0), (100, 101, 0, 0), and (102, 104, 0, 0). To avoid use of imaginary numbers, we can adopt the following expression (which is an alternative to the conventional expression given above) of the relativistic interval: I(p, q) = √((X(p) − X(q))2 + (Y(p) − Y(q))2 + (Z(p) − Z(q))2 − (T(p) − T(q))2) (Maudlin 2012, p. 71). On this convention, two events belong to a space-like hypersurface iff the interval between them is positive. On the above coordinate assignments, I(a, b) = √(− 1012 − −1002), I(b, c) = √(− 32 − −22), and I(a, c) = √(− 1042 − −1022). Rounding to the nearest integer: I(a, b) = 14; I(b, c) = 2, and I(a, c) = 20. Since the intervals between a and b, b and c, and a and c are positive, each pair of a, b, and c lie on some space-like hypersurface; so, ∃H-interval holds between all these events. But in doing so it violates Triangle Inequality. For, by inspection, I(a, b) + I(b, c) < I(a, c).

  42. It will need to be the case that x and y are distinct from x’ and y’, lest we be able to plug Edenic spatial distance into the proof in the previous footnote and show that it violates Triangle Inequality.

  43. It is also the price for vindicating Edenic shapes if the following principle (which I find plausible) is correct: the Edenic shape properties presented in experience can be instantiated only if Edenic spatial distance is instantiated.

  44. The hole argument is one source of controversy. Another is that the metric field is difficult to interpret as a purely spatiotemporal structure, as it carries information about energy and momentum. See Norton (2019) for discussion of these issues. A third is the question of whether, in relativity theory, spatiotemporal notions should themselves be construed functionally—see Brown (2005), Knox (2019) and Maudlin (2012, p. 119, fn6).

  45. One such approach to gravity can be found in shape dynamics—see Barbour (2012) and Mercati (2018) for introductions.

  46. For discussion of theories of this sort, see Huggett and Wüthrich (2013, p. 282).

  47. For discussion of relevant neuroscientific findings and how they tell against certain phenomenal externalist theories, see Pautz (2013).

  48. See Pautz (2019, pp. 383–384) for a generalization argument that proceeds in the opposite direction.

  49. For these cases, respectively see Davidson (1987), Block (1990), Harman (1982) and Pautz (2017).


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For helpful comments on earlier drafts, I am grateful to anonymous referees. I am also grateful to the following people for comments on or discussions of other work that were helpful and relevant to this paper: Dave Chalmers, Brian Cutter, Bryce Dalbey, Shamik Dasgupta, Nina Emery, Cory Juhl, Alex Kerr, Geoff Lee, Erick Llamas, Michelle Montague, Jon Morgan, Adam Pautz, Jon Simon, Kelly Smith, David Sosa, Daniel Stoljar, Galen Strawson, members of the Philosophy of Mind Discussion Group at New York University, members of the Philosophy of Mind Reading Group at the Australian National University, and an anonymous referee.


Funding was provided by the Graduate School at the University of Texas at Austin and the European Research Council Consolidator Grant to Bence Nanay nr. 726251.

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Saad, B. Spatial experience, spatial reality, and two paths to primitivism. Synthese 199 (Suppl 2), 469–491 (2021).

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  • Spatial functionalism
  • Phenomenal representation
  • Spatial experience
  • Reduction
  • Brains in vats
  • Handedness
  • Special relativity