mind, matter, meaning and information


[This section was written way back before I realised how the concept of information could be used to underpin all this stuff (there's an overview of the development of the ideas in the section on Dan Dennett). The place of information in physics is briefly described here, but the following needs revising to take it properly into account. On the other hand, it's sufficiently useful as is to made available now.]

Imagine, if you can, an orange blown up to the size of the Earth. Each of its atoms would be the size of a cherry. Take that cherry, and blow it up to the size of the dome of St. Peter's in Rome. The nucleus of the atom is now the size of a grain of salt in the centre of the dome, and the electrons orbiting it are specks of dust out towards the walls.

The electrons generally orbit the nucleus at about 600 miles per second, while the particles that make up the nucleus move at about 40,000 miles per second. The more tightly confined such particles are, the faster they travel.

Classical physics, with its billiard table model of the universe, owing more to Newton than to anyone else, first began to exhibit its limitations during the nineteenth century. (Though gravitational “action at a distance” had always been a problem.) Electromagnetic theory, as developed by Faraday and Maxwell, was the first significant step beyond Newtonian physics. In addition to objects in space, exerting force on each other only via collisions and gravity, we now had electrical and magnetic “force fields,” whereby an object entering a certain region of space would experience a force due to a “disturbance of” or “condition in” the space itself. With Einstein's theories of relativity, and quantum theory, classical physics was shot full of holes: “...the notion of absolute space and time, the elementary solid particles, the strictly causal nature of physical phenomena, and the ideal of an objective description of nature” [The Tao of Physics, pages 64-65] were shattered. The old physics had been extremely successful in its time, and remains useful for what are called “mid-range” phenomena, but when it comes to the very fast and the very small, relativity theory and quantum theory respectively have to take over.

Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty (or indeterminacy), in quantum mechanics, is relatively well known. It indicates the limits of accuracy with which we can make certain measurements; but these limitations are not in our measuring techniques—in contradiction to all our naïve notions about reality, the uncertainty here resides in what we are trying to measure. For instance, we might be interested in the position and the momentum of an electron. The more accurately we determine the position, the less accurately can we measure the momentum, and vice versa. We can know both roughly, or either with some certainty, but to know both accurately is not possible now, and never will be, no matter what new methods are invented. Focusing in on one quantity has the effect not just of preventing us from accurately focusing on the other, but of making it, initself, more fuzzy.

Position and momentum are known as a “classical pair.” The particle and the wave are another. It is, again, quite well known that light sometimes seems to be made up of particles, and sometimes of waves, depending on how it is examined. Now, to us, these are fundamentally different things, and it is very tempting to say that light must ultimately be either

  • like hail, composed of lots of little objects—photons—or
  • like sound (on the naïve materialist view: vibrating air) or ripples on a pond, a vibration in some medium—the hypothetical “ether”

and not both. But according to all the experimental evidence, descriptions of light as vibrations, and as particles, are equally valid. And all other subatomic “particles,” including the electron, may also appear as a wave, depending on the design of the experiment. (This is the probability pattern, which takes the form of a wave.)

The uncertainty principle applies to the particle/wave pair as it does to position and momentum. In fact, position and momentum, and wave/particle nature, like other characteristics of subatomic phenomena, seem determined by observation. This is quite widely accepted.

The physics-trained writer Danah Zohar believes that consciousness may have a quantum mechanical basis. If phenomena at this level are affected by observation, this might be how consciousness and the material world generally interact, explaining free will, for instance, if the firing of neurons could be influenced by events on the quantum level and thus indirectly by consciousness.

Of course, the whole brain, like every other thing, has “a quantum mechanical base to it,” and it is very hard to see how a part of the brain—or anything else—could have a special relationship with the subatomic level of reality. And at the centre of the “quantum consciousness” story stands vertical causation.

(The physicist Roger Penrose has views on quantum mechanics and consciousness, saying that the significant level is between those of classical and quantum physics. This account seems to me much more sophisticated, but utimately no more plausible, than Zohar's story, relying equally on vertical causation. Free will is a high level, subjective phenomenon, requiring no “basis” in low level objective ones.)

The wave-form and the particle-form are “really” just aspects of reality. The classical pairs are so-named because they derive from classical physics, and they can be applied in quantum physics only by analogy. That analogy, unfortunately, keeps breaking down.

Subject and object are a classical pair too: useful concepts in our everyday reality, for mid-range phenomena, but ultimately inadequate. They are not explicitly associated with classical physics, but are very much taken forgranted by it, as in science generally. Like the other classical concepts, they derive from “common sense”: the direct, personal experience of the world that we share by virtue of being structurally identical (as well as cohabitants).

For a better understanding of this relation between pairs of classical concepts, Niels Bohr introduced the notion of complementarity. He considered the particle picture and the wave picture two complementary pictures of the same reality, each of them only partly correct and having a limited range of application. Both pictures are needed to give a full account of the atomic reality, and both are to be applied within the limitations set by the uncertainty principle.

Consider the materialist picture and the idealist picture two complementary pictures of the same reality, each of them only partly correct and having a limited range of application. Both pictures are needed to give a full account of reality, and both are to be applied within the context of the dual aspect theory—that is, bearing in mind that the other is of equal general validity to, and is sometimes more appropriate than, whichever is currently in use. When engaged in neurosurgery, or similar pursuits, materialism mostly fits the bill. While sympathising with a friend, we should probably be idealists. In general neither sympathy nor neurosurgery is superior.

Unlike that of particle and wave, the dichotomy of subject and object crosses levels of description, but even so, these cases are closely analogous, and the concepts are all “mere aspects” of reality in a very similar sense: they disappear and reappear as we move from one point of view to another. Our problem is that we cannot “get behind” them and see just what this single thing with such variegated aspects “really” looks like.

Subatomic physics can be viewed as the most determined attempt ever made to reach the objective state: just what is that stuff out there really made of? Judged by this standard, it has failed, and is doomed to remain a failure because absolute objectivity is unreachable; on the other hand in science failures can be as valuable as successes; and the fact that physics cannot be as purely objective as once seemed possible, is no reason why it should not continue to aid our understanding. (Though, as it continues to venture out still further away from the mid-range, which is the realm of ordinary experience, I think that the phenomena encountered are bound to become more and more difficult to understand.)

When we get down to the quantum level observation seems to affect the phenomena being observed—according to the prominent physicist John Wheeler, we now have to think of scientific investigators as participators, not observers. Uncertainty can apparently occur in the object as well as the subject—because outwith the mid-range the subject/object dichotomy breaks down just as does that of wave and particle. In each case these are different aspects of one phenomenon. Wave and particle are two “sides” of one thing, but the wave/particle (or “wavicle“) and its “observer” are not ultimately separable either. They are mere components of the experimental system.

Subject and object are related in two ways: not only are people conscious of things, as in the experimental context, but we also are things, or rather have an objective aspect—the body—as well as a subjective one. And just as wave and particle seem to us incompatible, so we still cannot understand how one thing can be both subject and object—how matter can be conscious. Matter is in fact no more conscious than particle is wave. Reality has what appear to us as subject-type and object-type characteristics. That we cannot quite reconcile these is due to our position within it: our particular viewpoints, with their physical and psychological characteristics; and the simple fact that we are part of the picture we are trying to see.

Because we, as subjects, are embedded in reality ourselves—each being as real as any rock even though we are higher level entities—our understanding of it, and in particular, the us/it interface, is seriously hindered—if we are part of it, how can we visualise our connection with it?

Our connection with the universe is actually just the fact that we are part and parcel of it. The alienation of the individual from the rest of reality, of subject from object, is an illusion, an intellectual artefact.

Classical physics allowed us to be relatively objective about part of the picture; that worked, as far as it went, because it was a part that did not seem to contain any subjects, being concerned with lower, but not too low, levels—those we perceive more or less directly, containing the prototypical objects.

Quantum physics, however, tried to take the method to its logical conclusion, and left the realm of ordinary experience, with its simple objects. The clean subject/object distinction was thus lost, and we could no longer exclude subjects, or subjective aspects, from any part of the picture; the “observer” ultimately cannot avoid participation, being embedded in both reality in general, and the experimental system in particular. “Matter” and “consciousness” have unproblematic meanings only within the language games of ordinary experience.

From one point of view, there are no waves, no particles, no subjects, no objects, no matter and no minds. These are just concepts, categories projected upon a reality far more subtle and complex, when analysed, than we can imagine. On the other hand, in some of these cases at least, it seems that we only project what is really there, but cannot directly perceive due to the limitations of our senses. [That's true for matter as well as mind.] Our ordinary experience is just as valid as any analysis, and it is the need to either declare one of any such duality the overall winner, or find some substrate in which they are entirely reconciled so that can be the winner, that is the illusion here—they are equally valid, but each is more appropriate on different occasions, in different contexts.

Can we get beyond subject and object?

Copyright © 1998--2002 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 14:36:17 by Robin Faichney .