mind, matter, meaning and information

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aspects of reality

According to Benedict de Spinoza (1632–1677), Nature—or God, these terms being for him synonymous—consists of one substance, of which matter and mind are merely two aspects. That things seem to us to be quite separate, independently existing objects, is because we are part of, in fact wholly and inescapably integrated with, the system as a whole, and can therefore never see it as it is.

Updating a slightly distasteful analogy suggested by Spinoza: to a virus in the blood, whose whole universe is the circulatory system, the red and white cells would seem to be separate objects. Only by taking a viewpoint outwith the system is it possible to see mere components of it as such. “Individual” physical objects, and mental phenomena too, are all integral parts of one system.

If we suppose that mind and matter are different aspects of one underlying thing, then the problem of interaction between them vanishes. Whatever happens, happens to (or in, or whatever) the fundamental substance, and, due to our inherent limitations, we become aware only of the mental and physical aspects.

For fairly obvious reasons, this is known as a double (or dual) aspect theory. The contemporary philosopher P.F. Strawson published another in 1959. Strawson's proposition is that the concept of the person is “primitive.” People do not consist of a mind plus a body, but are things that have both mental and physical aspects. This is consistent with the view that the concepts of subject and object develop in childhood, while a tendency to perceive persons as such is inherited (this view is developed in a section that is not yet online).

Descartes's concept of mind was inspired by that of the subject, but the primary characteristic of the subject is that she feels (sees, etc.). Though he includes doubting, understanding, conceiving, affirming, denying, willing and imagining under thinking, Descartes only admits feeling because we feel when we dream, and dreaming must be a kind of thinking, or we would cease to exist while we slept!

Both the mind according to Descartes and the subject are nevertheless the “essential I.” Descartes, following his religious agenda, wanted to deny souls—which he seemed to view as more-or-less equivalent to minds—to members of other species, while being unable to deny that they feel: rationality, rather than mere awareness, must be what is important, because that is what distinguishes us from “the lower orders.” He formed his thinking mind/soul concept accordingly—but its psychological significance remained that of the subject—what he should have said, to be true to his inspiration, was “I feel, therefore I am.” (Nicholas Humphrey suggested this formula.)

Even that, though, cannot save him from the sceptics. On hearing “I think therefore I am,” some humourist often declaims “I think, therefore I think I am!” This is actually quite profound. The Cartesian error was to infer from the indubitable existence of doubt, the existence of a doubter. That may be a grammatical necessity, but it is not a logical one; and the same objection applies to this version: it is quite plausible to argue that what it really means is “I feel, therefore I think I am.”

The body for Descartes is simply a physical object. (He writes, in fact, of the “bodily machine.”) The real meaning of the mind/body dichotomy—the underlying import, the more fundamental concept evoked by it—for Descartes, his followers, and probably most of the rest of us, is subject versus object, consciousness versus the material world, us versus it.

Their inherited estate being apparently unworkable as a whole, idealism and materialism split it between them. According to one, reality consists of subjects without objects, while the other claims the truth is vice versa. But subject and object are defined in relation to each other—that which is aware, and that of which it is aware. You can't have one without the other.

Dual aspect theory suggests that we can use the concepts of subject and object where appropriate without worrying over how they interact. Subject and object, mind and matter, are not things in the world, seemingly incompatible when we get down to metaphysics, but “mere” aspects, concepts that are very useful, but do not constitute “ultimate reality.”

Did the birch trees in my garden, as they came down during the high winds some time ago, make a sound, even though noone heard it? It depends on what is meant by “sound.” If we are talking about air-borne vibration within a certain frequency range we will get one answer; if the sensation that such vibration would normally cause in anyone who was present, then the other. These are materialistic and idealistic definitions of sound, respectively.

In fact, the air-borne vibration does not directly cause the sensation; in between we have the vibration of the ear drum and of the various components of the middle and inner ears, and the consequent nerve and brain activity; so a more sophisticated version of the materialist definition might substitute such activity for vibrations in the air, saying something like “sound is the neural activity associated with aural stimulation.”

But at what point, precisely, does the physiological activity affect the sensations? Descartes would say, when it reaches the pineal gland, the meeting place of body and soul, but neither he nor anyone else has been able to say just exactly what is supposed to happen there. In order to sidestep this difficulty, an idealist would say that there is only sensation, anyway. After all, the mere sight of an instrument purportedly measuring electrical potentials at various points within the brain does not prove that either potentials, instrument or brain actually exists. A materialist, meanwhile, might claim that the sensation is somehow unreal, or at least of no importance, being “merely subjective.”

The air-borne vibration does, indirectly, cause the brain activity, but that objective physiological phenomenon does not, in turn, cause the subjective sensation: they are different aspects of the same thing—one phenomenon experienced from different points of view. A sound is no more “really just” the brain activity than it is “nothing but” the accompanying sensation. In a neurology lecture we would be concerned with one, and in music class, the other. As psychologists we might be interested in both, and their correlation. Neither the materialistic nor the idealistic definition is adequate. Sound is a primitive concept; it is a phenomenon that has both subjective and objective aspects.

People also have subjective and objective aspects, but of course we are not quite like sounds. The subjective aspect of a person is not a particular sensation, but the fact that she experiences any sensations whatsoever—that she is a subject. (People also have other subjective aspects, like sexiness and beauty, but subjecthood is the central one, the sine qua non: if there were no subjects, there would be no subjectivity.)

Materialists have generally believed (or claimed to believe) that free will is an illusion: how can mind, which is mere appearance, have any effect on solid matter?

We know from experience, whatever theory might tell us, that we can decide what to do next. In fact, this is where the concept of free will originates; that we are free is therefore true by definition: freedom, for instance simply to raise my hand, here and now, is one of the things we have—sometimes, anyway.

But it is indubitably true that each and every element of brain activity is bound to be explicable by reference to other elements of physical activity in and around the brain, if only in principle; if a neuron fires, it has its own electrochemical reasons for so doing; how can “the will” come in to the picture?

When you decide to raise your hand, the act of willing does not cause the corresponding brain activity: these are different aspects of the same phenomenon.

To an extent, the dualistic two clocks theory is right. Mental and physical events do run in parallel, perfectly synchronised, without requiring causation in either direction. But they are not unconnected; the connection is that they are both aspects of one “underlying substance.”

The concept of substance is examined in physics, but its use here is metaphysical, or metaphorical (as is that of “underlying”). There is another way to look at free will and determination: objectively, our behaviour is determined, being explicable, in principle, entirely in physical terms; while subjectively we are at least to some extent free (by definition)—and the subjective perspective is not one whit less—or more—realistic than the objective one.

The real significance of the dual aspect theory is not that there is some special kind of substance underlying what we view as reality, and transcending our understanding, but rather that, embedded in reality as we are, our perceptions are necessarily limited to aspects of it—and its subjective and objective aspects are of equal status.

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Copyright © 1998--2005 by Robin Faichney. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License, v1.0 or later (the latest version is presently available at http://www.opencontent.org/openpub/). Distribution of substantively modified versions of this document is prohibited without the explicit permission of the copyright holder. Distribution of the work or derivative of the work in any standard (paper) book form is prohibited unless prior permission is obtained from the copyright holder.
Last modified 23-Feb-2005 14:29:38 by Robin Faichney .