Matter, Mind and Metaphysics
The other day we had an interesting discussion in the philosophy club (not an unusual occurrence) about which is more fundamental, matter or mind. The pro-matter folks were saying that consciousness is based on physical events in the brain and that without the complicated network of neurons found there we would not be conscious. Hence, matter is fundamental. The pro-mind folks were saying (I am paraphrasing) that without consciousness the question would not, indeed could not, even arise. The only thing we know with certainty, they said, is our own consciousness; everything else is secondary. Hence, mind is fundamental.
This sort of question is metaphysical. It is not something that can be settled by experiment; it is a question of how we frame the conceptual schema within which we conduct experiments and interpret their results. Distasteful as it is to those who want all their knowledge grounded in rigorous empirical inquiry, metaphysics is unavoidable.
Take the findings of quantum physics, often cited by the pro-mind camp. Depending on how we set up our experiments, we can demonstrate that light is composed of discrete particles or that it is not discrete at all but a widely spread-out wave.(1) These two ideas are contradictory: how can something be both individually distinct and continuous at the same time? And yet the experimental results are unequivocal and have been replicated time and again. If you set up your experiment to detect particles, you find that light is composed of particles. If you set up your experiment to detect waves (see, for instance, the famous double-slit experiment), you find that light is a wave. “You can choose which of these two contradictory features to demonstrate. The physical reality of an object depends on how you choose to look at it.”(2)
Before any observation is made, the object of your observation is said to be in a superposition of possible states, or in a state of indeterminacy. Only when it is observed does its physical state become definite (particle or wave). And, as I have pointed out elsewhere, you cannot predict in advance the precise description of that state (such as where a specific particle will be detected); you can predict in statistical terms the configuration of a great number of observed states, but that’s all.
The pro-mind camp takes all this as evidence of the primacy of consciousness, that our conscious choices somehow determine what physical reality is. Others object that there are other interpretations of quantum physics that make no such ridiculous assertion.
The most established of the many interpretations of quantum physics is the so-called Copenhagen interpretation, formulated by Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg at the Institute for Theoretical Physics of the University of Copenhagen in the 1920s. There are several versions, but they all assert that an observation produces the property observed. The “observation” does not have to be conscious. An observation takes place whenever a microscopic atomic-scale object interacts with a macroscopic large-scale object. When a piece of film records the location of a photon or a Geiger counter emits a click upon detection of an electron, this version of the Copenhagen interpretation says that an observation takes place.(3) Hence, say the pro-matter folks, mind is not so primary after all.
The least speculative Copenhagen interpretation does not commit to an ontology (an assertion about what really exists) at all. It says merely that “quantum mechanics … deals only with probabilities of observing, or measuring, various aspects of energy quanta, entities that fit neither the classical idea of particles nor the classical idea of waves.” In this restricted view, quantum mechanics does not actually describe reality independent of human observers, but merely describes the probability of certain observations taking place. Regarding ontological speculation as useless, this view is summarized by the slogan “Shut up and calculate!”(4)
In a less restricted form, the Copenhagen interpretation does describe what really exists, but asserts that only observed objects or events exist. Werner Heisenberg says that experimental results are things and facts just as real as any other phenomena in daily life. “But the atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.” John Wheeler says “No microscopic property is a property until it is an observed property.”(5) Again, in this account “observation” refers to the interaction of an atomic-scale object with a large-scale object.
But we can’t get rid of the conscious observer so easily, say others. John von Neumann showed mathematically that a Geiger counter isolated from the rest of the world would also be in a state of indeterminacy. If another instrument that detected the state of the Geiger counter were placed next to it but also isolated from the rest of the world, it too would be in an indetermined state. Von Neumann showed that no physical system could collapse a superposition to yield a particular result. And yet whenever we look we see a particular result, not a superposition. Only a conscious observer, concluded von Neumann, can cause an indetermined state of superposed probabilities to become a single, determined, actuality. Only a conscious observer, not merely a macroscopic large-scale object, can actually make an observation.(6)
The Copenhagen interpretation has at least these three variants, and there are other interpretations as well. The Many Worlds interpretation says that every time a quantum-indeterminate event could go either of two ways it in fact goes both ways, each one producing a separate universe. On this view there are countless worlds, each causally isolated from the others, and countless more are being created at every instant.(7) David Bohm proposed that there really are discrete particles that exist independently of human observation, and a “quantum force” or “quantum potential” guides each particle to its destination. The quantum force on an object instantaneously reflects the state of the entire universe. Where the particle is detected looks random to us only because we cannot know its original position and velocity.(8) There are numerous other, less well-known interpretations of quantum physics.
I am not going to judge which of them is correct, or more correct than the others. I just want to point out that all of them conform to the observed facts. There is no experiment we can perform to determine which one is correct, because they all predict the same phenomena. They are not so much scientific explanations as metaphysical speculation.
And so is the debate about which is more fundamental, matter or mind. The answer can only be metaphysical.
David Chalmers refers to the “hard problem” of consciousness: Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all?(9) The pro-mind camp takes the difficulty of answering that question to be evidence for the primacy of mind, but the question could equally well be turned around: Why should something purely mental give rise to anything physical at all?
I’d like to offer a third alternative, which I have written about before: Panpsychism, the idea that everything has an aspect of psyche or mind to it as well as its material aspect. That is not to say that mind is somehow more fundamental than matter; it’s called Panpsychism only because we already assume everything is physical. I suppose it should really be called “Panphysicopsychism,” because it asserts everything is composed of both matter and mind, that everything has both an objective (physical) and subjective (psychical), or mental, aspect.
In the absence of experimental verification, how shall we judge the adequacy of these three metaphysical theories? There are several factors that determine whether it is reasonable to regard a theory or an explanation of events as true.(10) Let’s take a look at each in turn.
Congruence. A true theory is congruent with our experience. It fits the facts. I would say that what is true corresponds to reality, but we don’t have contact with reality other than through our experience, so I use the term “congruence” instead. In the case of the three metaphysical assertions, they all fit the facts, so this factor doesn’t help.
Consistency. A true theory is internally consistent. It has no contradictions within itself, and it all hangs together elegantly. Here I think Panpsychism has an advantage. If you take matter to be primary then it is indeed a conundrum how subjectivity, or mind, arises from it. If you take mind as primary then it is a conundrum the other way. But if you assume that mind and matter are equally fundamental, then the “hard problem” goes away. Of course physical processing gives rise to a rich inner life, because everything physical has an internal, subjective, or mental side as well as its objectively observable side.
Coherence. A true theory is coherent with everything else we consider true. It confirms, or at least fails to contradict, the rest of our knowledge, where “knowledge” means beliefs for which we can give rigorous reasons for considering them true. Panpsychism appears at first glance to fail this criterion, but that appearance is false.
The principal objection to Panpsychism is that it is not coherent with what we know because it does not give a reasonable account of obviously non-living things. In our everyday world we find rocks, asphalt, silverware, tables, chairs and all sorts of other things that show no evidence of being alive or having any sort of awareness of their surroundings. If we take our everyday experience as veridical, then Panpsychism certainly does not cohere with it. But modern science tells us that our everyday experience is not the ultimate truth of things. Seemingly solid and inert objects are composed of atoms and subatomic objects that have lots of space around them and are constantly in motion. Their solidity is held in place by the interplay of a variety of forces. At the subatomic level reality is teeming with activity. And, as we discover from quantum physics, it is plausible to say that subatomic reality is fully real only when observed. The panpsychist view is that observation can be taken as a fundamental feature of reality.
I refer to the process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead, which considers the ultimate constituents of reality to be events, not inert substances. He calls them “occasions of experience.”(11) Each occasion has an experiential aspect and an objective aspect, the former being its experience of its surroundings, and the latter being its appearance to other occasions. The fundamental units of reality, which occur at the sub-microscopic scale of quantum events, are what observe other events and thus bring actuality out of potentiality.
I know that’s awfully cryptic. See my blog post “Dead or Alive?” for more details. The point is that this metaphysical interpretation of reality, which places both experience and physicality at the root of everything, is quite coherent with the findings of quantum physics.
Usefulness. A true theory is useful. It allows us to gain control of the world and to make accurate choices about it. When we act on the basis of the theory or explanation, our actions are successful. This is the Pragmatist view of truth, and it is much more than a crude rationale for the ideology of the prevailing social class. By “world” I mean both the world of physical things and the world of ideas, of theory. What is true is what works to organize both our practice and our thought, so that we are able to handle reality effectively and to reason with logical rigor to true conclusions. In this regard, Panpsychism succeeds pretty well. Its usefulness consists, not in its application to mastery of the physical world, but in its ability to bring together everything we know into an overarching conceptual framework. It provides a coherent story that unifies all the elements of our experience and knowledge, leaving nothing out.
The materialist view has a hard time including experience. The idealist view (so-called because it gives primacy to ideas in the mind) has a hard time including physical stuff. Panpsychism includes both.
Whitehead says that the aim of metaphysics is to frame a system of general ideas that can be used to interpret every element of our experience. By “interpret” he means that “everything of which we are conscious, as enjoyed, perceived, willed or thought, shall have the character of a particular instance of the general scheme.”(12) It is undeniable that things in our experience are material. And it is undeniable that we experience them. Both matter and mind are equally fundamental; and Panpsychism, which embraces both, is the best metaphysical framework within which to understand them.
(1) Rosenblum and Kuttner, Quantum Enigma, pp. 59-61.
(2) Ibid., p. 67.
(3) Ibid., p. 100.
(4) Wikipedia, “Copenhagen interpretation.”
(5) Rosenblum and Kuttner, Quantum Enigma, p. 104.
(6) Ibid., p. 184.
(7) Ibid., pp. 161-163.
(8) Ibid., pp. 163-165.
(9) Chalmers, “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness,” pp. 10-11.
(10) Meacham, How To Be An Excellent Human, pp. 243-248, “Truth.”
(11) Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, p. 176.
(12) Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 4.
Chalmers, David J. “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.” In Jonathan Shear, ed. Explaining Consciousness: The Hard Problem. Cambridge: MIT Press (A Bradford Book), 1997. Online publication http://consc.net/papers/facing.html as of 9 April 2013.
Meacham, Bill. How To Be An Excellent Human. Austin: Earth Harmony, 2013. Appendix D, “Truth,” is available online at http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/Truth.html.
Rosenblum, Bruce, and Fred Kuttner. Quantum Enigma. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. 1933. Reprint. New York: The Free Press, 1967.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. New York: Harper and Row Harper Torchbooks, 1957.
Wikipedia. “Copenhagen interpretation.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copenhagen_School_(quantum_physics) as of 6 April 2013.