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Mind vs. matter

If the materialistic view alone can’t explain the mind, then what?

As the title of this essay implies, mind and matter are concepts that have, at least historically and to many people, collided over the ages.

The confusion remains—and I do not presume, in this essay, to provide an answer. But given the very essential nature of the topic—after all, we are made of matter and somehow have minds—how can one avoid its fascination?

Let’s start with the materialist view. The starting point is very simple: everything that exists in the world and that we can see and measure with our tools—the data of our sensorial connection with reality—is made of material stuff. Period. This includes the stones we see with our eyes or pick up with our hands, the galaxies receding from one another we see with our telescopes, the elementary particles we probe with our accelerators. So far so good.

But what about feelings, subjective manifestations of our consciousness, such as love or the sensation of seeing blue? No worries there for the materialists. They don’t claim to understand consciousness or how the mind works, but they do claim it’s a matter of time. What else is there, anyway? Echoing the Greek Epicureans of twenty-three centuries ago, it’s all atoms moving in the void (now translated into quantum fields moving in spacetime), combining into the material structures of the world, including sensations, feelings, etc. Yes, the materialists would argue, the human brain is profoundly complex in its behavior. But this complexity only temporarily precludes us from understanding it. No need to invoke anything else in an attempt to explain it. Our current blindness will dissipate in due time.

This is clearly a statement based on the justified confidence we have in the power of science to make sense of the world. We’ve done wonders so far, and the mind’s turn will come.

But is there a problem with this materialistic view when we move from tangible stuff to the mind? A part of me, trained in the rigors of theoretical physics, fights against it. What else could there be? Isn’t the brain a bunch of neurons connected by synapses bathed in flowing neurotransmitters? On the other hand, another part of me, open to the fact that we understand so little of reality and that there is (thankfully!) so much mystery surrounding us, is eager for something new. But what?

Going beyond the materialistic view presents a whole set of issues. Should one bring back Cartesian dualism, presenting some kind of soul as being as real as atoms? Sounds very difficult, especially within Descartes’ view that the soul was a different kind of stuff, immaterial, not filling space as normal stuff does. A supernatural explanation to the problem of consciousness is not an explanation, at least not from a scientific perspective. We feel, given what we have been able to describe of the world, that we can do better.

Ontological descriptions of reality

Scientists base their description of reality on what philosophers call ontology—the fundamental players that, in a sense, are the basic building blocks of everything that exists. The Greek Atomists proposed atoms and the void, and now we think of interacting quantum fields as the fundamental entities of reality. Fields have physical properties, or attributes, such as their energy and momentum, their spin (a kind of implicit rotation), and their interactions with themselves and other fields. Their behavior is restricted by fundamental laws of nature, empirically discovered over hundreds of years of experimentation: energy-momentum is conserved, electric charge is conserved, spin is conserved. Particles like the electron, or the quarks that make up protons and neutrons, are excitations of their respective fields, subatomic bundles of energy that move in space and time. Zoom into the workings of the brain at the most fundamental levels, and we would only see fields interacting with one another.

To a growing number of scientists and philosophers, this just can’t be the whole story. There is a current resurgence of an old idea called panpsychism, whereby mind is pervasive in the universe. A recent book by philosopher Philip Goff, from Durham University in the UK, explores this view in detail: Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. I’m enjoying reading it so much that I want to devote a whole essay to it. But for today, I just want to highlight Goff’s central idea. (The reader may enjoy listening to Goff’s conversation with physicist Sean Carroll in this podcast, where the materialistic and panpsychic views clash, collegially.)

Panpsychism’s appealing beauty

In decreasing degrees, mind exists as a fundamental property of reality in humans, birds, rocks, and electrons. Panpsychism proposes a new ontology, beyond that of the strictly materialistic view, adding a new player, consciousness. So, experience is pervasive, even in things that are not “alive.” Sounds crazy, of course, given that we consider experience implicitly as a property of things that are alive. But there is an appealing beauty to it, a sort of unifying principle that brings together all that exists: mind is everywhere and in everything. Now, panpsychism is not a revival of Cartesian dualism: consciousness as a fundamental entity of reality is not supernatural. It’s a natural phenomenon, with its own laws. The more complex the material entity, the more complex its manifestation of consciousness.

The hard thing here is to pin down where consciousness, as a fundamental part of physical reality, resides. Or maybe this is the wrong question, predicated by our materialistic worldview. Consciousness is not matter, but it is manifested through it. Is it, perhaps, a bit like life? We can’t quite pin down what life is, although we are really good at describing what it does and how it does it.

The jump from nonliving to living matter remains an open question. The expression of consciousness depends on the structure that upholds it (electron, rock, frog, person), but it is a qualitative phenomenon that can’t be pinned down in a materialistic description of the world. The crux of the problem, then, seems to be whether the quantitative can express the qualitative, or whether something new is needed to expand our view of reality.

To panpsychists, there is no other way out but to embrace the latter and broaden our worldview. They may have a point.

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