mind, matter, meaning and information


beyond subject and object

When we take analysis as far as we can—whether in physics or philosophy—and also when we cease to analyse at all, in the subjective state—we leave ordinary experience behind and come up against the limitations of our “common sense” concepts. Position and momentum, particle and wave, subject and object, mind, matter and level are not quite real; but the successful use of such concepts within the appropriate domain—classical physics is a good example—and the usefulness of distinguishing between domains on the basis of level, like physics and chemistry—shows that they are not mere appearance either. Such concepts are equally valid within the midrange, equally invalid outside it.

Such aspects of reality as subject and object or particle and wave are not simply real in the sense that I still tend to think of this computer as real—but neither are they distorted or illusory—there is nothing else behind them, compared to which they might be so judged. They are just partial truths—of which, for any particular purpose, some will be more relevant and useful than others.

This is not to say that there is nothing more to be discovered about particles and waves, for instance. In fact, much more already has been discovered than I have indicated in the section on physics. But though particle and wave might be reconciled using highly sophisticated mathematics, or by postulating other phenomena with even less intuitive qualities than the wavicle, there is no object or substance, as a non-physicist would think of such things, waiting to be discovered behind them, as reality is usually thought to underlie appearance.

In fact, the appearance/reality dichotomy is another classical pair: it breaks down when we leave the realms of ordinary experience. It is typically dualistic, appearance being associated with the subject and reality with the object. An idealist “believes in” appearance, or at least its usefulness, and a materialist in reality (as he sees it).

In the terms of philosophy of mind and of physics we have transcended, or explained away, subject and object, and appearance and reality go with them. This departure of the basic concepts of our naïve metaphysics might seem to leave us floundering in a void, but a certain variety of wholism, inspired by Spinoza, might prove an adequate substitute, if we suppose that absolute reality is composed neither of mind and matter as substances, nor of something else behind them of which they are aspects, but of all its aspects, being “the whole thing” and nothing less. (This is just a tentative metaphysical sketch.) We may thus, for those who tend towards objectivity, satisfy their sense of the superiority of the big picture, if only for some purposes: an account that covers more aspects than another is more objective, with all the advantages and disadvantages thus entailed. At the same time we justify the tendency of the subjectivist to feel that that of which we are directly, immediately aware, the natural viewpoint of the person, is of vital importance.

The relationship between physiological phenomena and sensation, in the case of perception, and between the act of willing and brain activity, in the case of action, is not one of causation, but of correlation. My sensation of sound, and the corresponding activity of my brain cells, are aspects not of some fundamental substance beyond our senses and concepts, but of the universe as a whole—the totality of its aspects—and therefore, as a useful approximation wherever we see such correlations as between sensation and brain activity, or particle and wave, of each other.

Materialists have typically denigrated metaphysics, but to say that there is only physical substance is just as metaphysical a statement as to say that there are mental and physical substances, or that only mental substance is real. The only way to avoid metaphysics in this context is to dismiss all such talk as meaningless—which might well be the most sensible option. If the only truly valid use of metaphysics is to correct previous metaphysical speculations—which is what I am attempting here—then it is no less worthwhile a pursuit for that.

However that may be, I hope I have managed to persuade you that within the realm of ordinary experience, where we operate a dynamic compromise between subjectivity and objectivity, matter and consciousness are equally real; while outside it, towards either extreme, they are equally unreal—and the realm of ordinary experience is no less (nor more) real than any other.


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 28-Mar-2005 15:00:17 by Robin Faichney .