Friday, May 29, 2020
I’ve often emphasized that the reason consciousness poses such a persistent problem for materialism has less to do with consciousness itself than it has to do with the desiccated conception of matter that we’ve inherited from early modern philosophy and science. Barry Dainton makes the same point a couple of times in his book . For example, he writes:
Descartes’ conviction that consciousness could not be physical is rooted in the austere conception of the basic nature of material things which he and the other scientific revolutionaries endorsed. One of the key advances of the Scientific Revolution was the adoption of the atomistic and mechanistic conception of the physical world. Animating Scholastic forms were excluded from the physical realm as part of this move, but so too were all the phenomenal properties, the properties we encounter in our ordinary experience. According to the new scientific worldview, physical things themselves possess only ‘primary’ properties, such as mass, motion, charge, shape, and so forth. Material things don’t possess experiential properties such as colour, sound, warmth, or pain.
As Descartes was perhaps the first to appreciate clearly, if the physical world is as the new science says, experiences and conscious subjects are banished from it. In which case, dualism – in some form – seems to be unavoidable. (p. 153)
Dainton goes on to note that while contemporary physics does not attribute to matter exactly the same list of properties that Descartes and other early moderns did, it nevertheless still leaves off of its list anything experiential. Hence, contemporary materialism faces the same difficulty vis-à-vis consciousness that materialists of Descartes’ day did. Dainton concludes:
So the relationship between the physical world and consciousness remains deeply puzzling; indeed, it has often been said that this is the biggest remaining mystery of them all (though those working at the frontiers of cosmology and particle physics might want to disagree). (pp. 158-9)
That catches the eye, or my eye, anyway. Dainton locates the three biggest mysteries facing science at:
1. The relationship between the physical world and consciousness
2. The frontiers of cosmology
3. The frontiers of particle physics
I’d expand the list, but let’s stick with Dainton’s for now. I would say that all three mysteries are a consequence of the turn from Scholastic Aristotelianism to the mechanical conception of nature. How so?
The conquest of abundance
The Scholastic Aristotelian conception of matter is much richer and more pluralistic than that of the mechanical world picture. And it is in harmony with common sense, even though it systematizes common sense and adds to it notions of which the man on the street never dreamed. It takes the natural world to consist in innumerable distinct physical substances, just as common sense does. It takes qualitative features like color to exist in those substances, just as common sense does. And it holds that there are irreducibly different kinds of physical substance, just as common sense does. In particular, it takes inanimate objects, non-sentient living things, and sentient living things to be irreducibly different, even if all of them are material.
To make sense of all this, Scholastic Aristotelian philosophy deploys notions like actuality and potentiality, substantial form and prime matter, efficient and final causality, substance and attributes, essence and proper accidents, immanent versus transeunt causation, and so on. It argues that we simply cannot do justice to the actual physical world of everyday experience, in all its richness and diversity, without recognizing this conceptual framework as giving the skeletal structure of the natural order.
What the mechanical world picture did was to drain out all of this richness, flatten out all the diversity, and replace the organic skeleton with a cold steel frame, like a taxidermist. It denied the distinctness and diversity of physical things. All material objects are, on the mechanical view, really just variations on the same one kind of thing, viz. colorless, soundless, odorless, tasteless particles in motion, their nature and interactions to be described in purely mathematical terms. And their numerical differences are as superficial or even illusory as their differences in kind. The whole physical world can be seen as a single vast lump, and the apparently diverse objects in it as modes of this one substance. Or, alternatively, it is like a vast sea of particles, with apparently diverse objects like mere waves on its surface. A stone, a tree, a dog all seem to common sense to be sharply distinct objects of sharply distinct kinds. For the mechanical world picture, they are really all just local variations in a single system of a single kind – different eddies in the same sea of atoms, different geometrical structures in the same Cartesian coordinate space, or what have you.
Philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend has aptly characterized this as modern science’s “conquest of abundance,” its replacement of the “richness of being” with an “abstraction.” The abstraction is a mathematical framework, and anything that cannot be fitted into it is re-defined, explained away, or frankly eliminated. Color, sound, taste, odor, heat, cold, pain, pleasure are all removed from nature and relocated in the conscious subject. And if this subject is in turn identified with something material, the reality of these qualities is effectively denied, either implicitly (in reductionist versions of materialism) or explicitly (in eliminativist versions). The abstraction also reduces all change to local motion, and local motion in turn to a succession of points in an abstract coordinate space. Real change disappears, and real time (which, for the Aristotelian, is the measure of change) vanishes along with it.
New metaphysics, same as the old metaphysics
Feyerabend traces the tendency to try to replace the richness of the natural world with a static abstraction back to Parmenides, and for those with eyes to see, Parmenides lives today in every physicist who seriously believes that the natural world can be entirely captured in the notion of a four-dimensional block universe, or in the idea of a universal wave function. Such constructs are no less fantastic and untrue to actual concrete reality than Parmenides’ monism.
That is not to say that they are untrue full stop. They do capture reality, but only in the partial and distorted way that any abstraction does. And that they are not quite as abstract as Parmenides’ own monism is the source of the technological and predictive successes that give rhetorical (even if not logical) strength to the arguments of those who take these abstractions to afford us a complete metaphysical picture of nature.
Now, back to Dainton’s list. By “the frontiers of cosmology,” he means the cutting edge of a science that has in modern times been defined by general relativity. And by “the frontiers of particle physics,” he means the cutting edge of a science that has in modern times been defined by quantum mechanics.
The picture of nature afforded us by general relativity is, I would suggest, essentially an approximation to a description of a world that is purely actualized and devoid of potentiality. It is not quite that, but it is an approximation to it. It is a highly Parmenidean model of nature. Meanwhile, the picture of nature afforded us by quantum mechanics is an approximation to a description of the world that is purely potential and in no way actualized. It is not quite that, but it is an approximation to it. It is a highly Heraclitean model of nature. (Or rather, some interpretations of quantum mechanics are like that. Interpretations like Everett’s “many worlds” interpretation effectively actualize all the potentiality and transform quantum mechanics into another riff on Parmenideanism.)
Now, actual concrete material reality is in fact a mixture of actuality and potentiality. Hence, if you try to represent it entirely in terms of actuality and strip it of potentiality, or entirely in terms of potentiality and strip it of actuality, you are bound to end up with various puzzles and paradoxes (especially of the sort into which Parmenidean and Heraclitean views are traditionally led). And a picture of nature which largely collapses all reality into actuality is naturally going to be very hard to marry to a picture which largely collapses all reality into potentiality.
This, in my view, is the deep metaphysical reason why the frontiers of cosmology and particle physics remain mysterious, as Dainton says, and why relativity and quantum mechanics remain difficult to reconcile with one another. Were Aristotle to rise from his grave and see all these neo-Parmenideans and neo-Heracliteans wringing their hands, he’d say: “Well, duh. What did you expect?”
Stuffing a corpse
It is the first mystery, the relationship between consciousness and the physical world, that Dainton focuses on. And he discusses two possible non-materialist ways of dealing with it that have gotten increasing attention in recent philosophy: naturalistic dualism and Russellian monism (named for Bertrand Russell). Both of these views accept the mechanical conception of nature but try in different ways to reincorporate phenomenal or qualitative features like color, sound, etc. into it. These days, philosophers generally refer to these features as the “qualia” of conscious experience, so that the issue is usually framed as the question of how to fit qualia into the material world.
Naturalistic dualism holds that qualia are non-physical (that’s the dualism part) but that they are correlated with certain physical features of the brain by virtue of as yet unknown laws of nature (that’s the naturalistic part).
Russellian monism holds that physics gives us only a description of the mathematical structure of nature, but not of the intrinsic nature of the entities that have that structure (that’s the Russellian part of the view). It then suggests that the qualia we know from introspection of our conscious experiences not only give us knowledge of the intrinsic nature of the matter that makes up our brains, but also afford a model for the intrinsic nature of all matter (that’s the monism part). Russellian monism is sometimes claimed to lead to a kind of panpsychism. The reason is that since qualia are mental, and Russellian monism takes qualia to be the model for the intrinsic nature of all material entities, it entails that all material entities have mental properties – that mind is everywhere.
Now, though both of these views are superior to materialism in frankly acknowledging the reality and irreducibility of consciousness, they are nevertheless ultimately little more than further riffs on the same mechanistic error rather than corrections of it. They merely dress up the corpse that the mechanical conception makes of nature, rather than restoring it to life.
Again, common sense and Scholastic Aristotelianism take matter to be more or less the way it seems. (Note very carefully that this is not to deny that science reveals that there is more to matter than common sense or Aristotelian philosophy knows. It is merely to insist that science does not show that there is less to matter than common sense and Aristotelian philosophy says there is.)
One implication of this is that consciousness really is in non-human animals in just the way that common sense supposes. This is not because non-human animals have any non-physical properties. They don’t. It is because non-human animals are simply of a different kind of matter than inanimate things. Not all matter is the same. The mechanical world picture assumes otherwise. That is why Descartes held, notoriously, that animals are devoid of consciousness. Since he was committed to the desiccated mechanistic conception of matter, and took animals to be made of nothing more than that kind of matter, he concluded – quite reasonably, if you accept that conception of matter – that they lack consciousness. The only other place for consciousness to be, on Descartes’ picture of reality, is in the res cogitans or thinking substance. And since animals lack intellects, they lack res cogitans.
This is also why, in contemporary non-materialist philosophy of mind, it is commonly supposed that to attribute qualia to non-human animals (like bats, in Thomas Nagel’s famous example) is to attribute non-physical properties to them. That will seem to follow only for those operating with an essentially mechanistic model of matter. If instead you think of matter the way common sense and Aristotelianism do, this won’t seem to follow at all. Non-human animals have qualia and they are therefore conscious, but this does not entail that there is anything non-material in them. It simply entails that matter isn’t as desiccated as the purely quantitative, mathematical conception of the mechanical philosophy supposes.
But neither does it give any reason whatsoever to believe (contra Russellian monism) that all matter has qualia. Animal matter does, but the matter that makes up stones and copper and water does not. You would only suppose otherwise if you were starting with a mechanistic conception of matter, come to realize that its deletion of qualia from nature is a problem, and then start shoving qualia back into matter willy-nilly, including into places they don’t belong. It’s analogous to killing an animal, gutting the corpse, and then coming to regret it and sticking the organs back in in bizarre ways – putting the kidneys in the eye sockets, the intestines in the throat, the leg muscles where the arm muscles should go, etc. The right approach when what you want is a properly functioning animal is not to kill it in the first place. And the right approach when what you want is a conception of nature that is safe for qualia and consciousness is not to start with a mechanistic conception of matter in the first place.
If Russellian monism is like re-stuffing a corpse, naturalistic dualism is like strapping the gutted organs onto the outside of the corpse, Ed Gein-style. Naturalistic dualism essentially accepts the mechanical conception of matter, regrets that it leaves qualia out, and then simply attaches qualia to this desiccated matter, from outside as it were, rather than seeing that qualia should never have been taken out in the first place.
The mechanical conception of matter was simply a mistake, at least as a metaphysics or philosophy of nature. Like other abstractions, it certainly has its utility a method. But it is merely a methodological abstraction rather than a true representation of the concrete natural world in all its richness and diversity. To pretend otherwise is like mistaking a corpse for a real living thing. And to try to patch it up in the way that naturalistic dualism and Russellian monism do is an exercise in taxidermy, or even corpse desecration. The true solution to the problem of how to relate consciousness to the physical world is to resurrect the commonsense Aristotelian conception of nature.
Note that I am only talking here about the kind of consciousness we share with non-human animals. The intellectual capacities that are distinctive of human animals are a different story. They are incorporeal. But that’s another issue for another time. Readers interested in pursuing the issues discussed in this post in greater depth are urged to consult Aristotle’s Revenge.