From Science to Philosophy

Keith Ward on Materialism, 13     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12

“The search for specific final causes or purposes proved a dead-end in physics. It was much more fruitful to seek precise mathematical descriptions of closely observed regular behaviour patterns. But in the twentieth century a more cosmic sort of finality re-emerged. The fundamental laws of nature seemed remarkably ordered towards the emergence of consciousness and rational control of the environment. To put it bluntly, matter seems to have an inner orientation towards the emergence of mind.”

This is still the perspective of science. It is the last paragraph describing the reality dealt with from this perspective only, a perspective that could be demarcated as one level of relative and finite perception and a certain kind of speculation primarily with regard to mathematical models with reference to that level, as discussed earlier.

“It is hard to conceive of such finality unless the goal of information and control is somehow already potential in the origin of the cosmic system. It is not surprising, then, that some quantum physicists think that something mind-like or conscious must lie at the very basis of physical reality.” Here the step from science to philosophy is clearly taken. The sentence shows one way in which it can be taken.

“Eugene Wigner said that ‘study of the external world leads to the conclusion that the content of consciousness is an ultimate reality’, and von Neumann wrote that ‘all real things are contents of consciousness’.” Wigner’s statement is doubtful. I would suggest it be put like this: the study of the external world in conjunction with philosophical reflection on this study as well as on the nature of consciousness leads to the conclusion that the external world exists as content of consciousness. This is a difficult position to embrace, and not only because we first think of the world as content of the consciousness of the finite human individual only, which could be tantamount to solipsism if sufficient grounds were not provided for the existence of the plurality of finite persons, and would even then be unacceptable.

The natural philosophical position to take in this regard today is the phenomenological one of bracketing the question of idealism versus materialism. But it remains a fact that whatever else the world may be, whatever else our experience may be experience of, it remains content of our consciousness. And it must again be stressed that what idealism says is just that matter is not what materialists think it is. It does not deny the experience of matter, that there is that which we experience as matter. That which historical and dialectical materialists, for instance, experience as matter. That it is content of conscsiousness does not mean that the world is necessarily any less real than what those who believe in the common concept of matter think: there is nothing “nothing-but” about it. Idealists say that the world, being content of consciousness, is in a sense less real than the ultimate reality, the ultimate consciousness that is its ground. But this could be taken to mean only that the ultimate reality is more real. The world’s reality for us as finite experiencers of it would not, in itself, have to be in the least reduced, although the main focus of our attention would, or should, be shifted towards the ultimate reality.

This position would coherently account for and affirm the reality of all the shapes and colours and sounds and weight and massiveness of our experienced world, along with their metaphysical ground, whereas classical materialism seeks to reduce them all to a dull, ghostly abstraction. “Things” really have all the qualities we perceive in them: the so-called “secondary” ones are in reality quite as primary as what was once thought to be the “primary”. Nor would this position imply anything solipsistic or even subjectivistic. The world clearly would not exist in its entirety as content of our finite consciousness, individual or collective, and by means of a process of dialectical mediation, what we perceive would gradually attain the intelligible form of true objectivity in an emerging whole of knowledge. It follows that the statement by von Neumann is plausible, although not a conclusion of science or the study of the external world only, but of philosophy.

“For them, the collapse of the possibilities described by wave-functions into actual existents is brought about by consciousness. Their view may be a minority one, but it demonstrates the fact that quantum physics has moved so far beyond classical materialism that it is no longer clear that ‘matter’ is radically different from ‘mind’. It could be that matter is just one form the objects of consciousness take, and that consciousness is needed to give definite actuality to its objects.” It may be possible for physics alone to show that the collapse into actual existents is brought about by consciousness; I cannot judge about that. But philosophically it is true that “matter” is not radically different from “mind”. And that the difference is a difference in the manner of appearance to mind or consciousness of particular kinds of its content: “matter is just one form the objects of consciousness take”.

“It certainly seems to be the case that the existence of consciousness and purpose in human minds is an unresolved problem for philosophical materialism, since there seems little prospect of giving a complete explanation of conscious experience in purely physical terms.” Indeed. Just as the above conclusion regarding the true nature of “matter” as content of consciousness is a philosophical one, so classical materialism, with its attempt at a complete account of conscious experience in physical terms, is a philosophical position, not a scientific one.

“If we have a view of the universe as intrinsically oriented towards consciousness, it is almost inevitable that we should think of this orientation as consciously intended. In that case conscious intention, and therefore mind, will not merely be the goal of the cosmic process, but its originating cause. That would make mind a basic and foundational, rather than a peripheral and unexpected, element of ultimate reality.” Once proper philosophical reflection on consciousness is brought in, it seems not just possible but inevitable to go further than this. It would not be a matter of orientation towards consciousness from out of something else which is not consciousness, intended by an originating, basic and foundational conscious cause of both that orientation and the non-conscious something, the ultimate conscious reality. Rather, it seems it would be a matter of degrees of manifestation, on the level of finitude, of an already existing consciousness.

“And if there is just one independent and complete mind, not composed of separate parts, which generates all physical realities in order to bring into being sets of dependent and developing finite minds, that would provide an economical and elegant explanation for the existence of the physical universe.” If, as Ward has already suggested, “all physical realities” are in reality “contents of consciousness” and “just one form the objects of consciousness take”, they cannot be spoken of as something separately existing in the manner of the illusory matter of classical materialism. They cannot be conceived to be “physical realities” in that sense at all. The “existence of the physical universe” is already accounted for in the sense that its nature or ontological status is explained in a still more economical and elegant manner.

Therefore, the “one independent and complete mind” cannot have brought into being “sets of dependent and developing finite minds” by means of the prior generation of such realities. There are no such realities. There is no classical-materialist “matter” with an “inner orientation” towards the emergence of mind and consciousness. What there is, is finite minds emerging or developing, from their own perspective, from various degrees of conditioning by contents of consciousness (perceived or experienced by them as “matter”) to other such degrees. The finite minds must be considered to be always already “part” of the one independent and complete mind, although certainly not “independent” parts of which that mind is “composed”. They are indeed “dependent” on that mind, not on “physical realities”, and ultimately not even on those contents of consciousness that appear as such realities. They are “developing” in the sense that their consciousness is in various degrees conditioned and obscured by the association with that content or at least with some of it, and that it is, from their own perspective, reawakened in the temporal-phenomenal process which can perhaps be understood to be what Ward refers to as generation and development.

But the important point here is that a move is made from science to philosophy. That, and not quantum physics alone, is, I suggest, what makes the various conclusions I have briefly discussed possible.

2 Responses to “From Science to Philosophy”

  1. 1 John February 21, 2012 at 1:44 am

    Please find three references by Adi Da on the the relation between scientism (as distinct from science as a method of open-ended free enquiry), reductionist exoteric religiosity, and human culture altogether,

  1. 1 Reality Part 1 | Self Improvement, Faith, & Confidence. Trackback on February 23, 2012 at 2:58 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s



"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi