Mind Over Matter

In a recent  Scientific American article  dated April 19  titled  “Should Quantum Anomalies Make Us Rethink Reality?”  Bernardo Kastrup  muses over the fact that inexplicable lab results may be telling us we’re on the cusp of a new scientific paradigm.

He is writing about the nature of reality, and how it is currently perceived in terms our conceptual understanding, and how the latter predetermines our ongoing observation of the natural  world, to the point that the notion of being able to look at the world objectively – something that should be at the core of all scientific inquiry – may no longer make sense. When I read this,  the first thing that came to mind was something that Nietzsche once said: There is no immaculate perception.

In this context Kastrup invokes Tomas Kuhn’s  idea of the paradigm shift – first introduced in 1962 – when it becomes necessary to start questioning the accepted model of a scientific theory or concept on the basis of an increasing number of observations that are deemed anomalous when they don’t  fit within the prevailing model. You need to read Kastrup’s complete article to see the specific anomalies he is referring to for his argument.

The Kastrup article boils down to the the distinction between mind  and matter – the experiential or mental world and  the material or physical world  – and the  need to question the belief “that nature consists of arrangements of matter/energy outside and independent of mind.”  The anomalies he cites in the article question this independence, and while the issue arises the Quantum level of observation, the inference is that there are implications for the larger view of the nature of reality.

I am interested in the nature of the distinction between mind and matter, or, if you will, the mental realm and the physical realm. The traditional view of mind and matter is that, while our physical bodies are  part of the material  world, our conscious minds  are something over and above the material world, in the sense that consciousness as a phenomenon cannot be explained in terms of its underlying material complexity.  Philosophers have struggled mightily to give some account of consciousness in terms of the nature of its existence and as a result a duality has been introduced which has been less than helpful in trying to understand how the mental realm and the physical realm are related.

The distinction as taken mutually exclusive led Immanuel Kant to postulate the “ding an sich” – or “thing-in-itself” – as something fundamentally unknowable as a cause behind the experiential world, and something that Schopenhauer faulted him for because it would take the concept of cause and effect beyond what it could deliver, logically. However, instead of postulating an unknown really behind the world, Schopenhauer himself proposed a different kind of duality, by giving the world an inside and an outside, with the outside being the objective experiential world of our knowledge, and on the inside the true nature or essence of the world. The latter is not directly knowable as object of knowledge, yet we are conscious of its presence within our bodies as something that is over and above our actions and motivations that guide our interaction with the world.

I have a lot of sympathy for the Schopenhauer position, as well, I can reconcile it to a large extent within the Spinoza one substance view – something I wrote about earlier – even though the latter rejected the duality of matter, claiming both the mental and physical were part of the same substance, and no distinction between the inside and outside of matter – although it could be said that humans could only apprehend two attributes of this matter, namely thought and extension.

The bottom line is that there are two ways for us to be in the world, and if there is any duality to it, it is not within the world, but within ourselves and a function of how we are able to interact with it.  This is the duality that follows from the distinction between subject and object, the observer and the observed, between the conscious mind and its experiential content. In the end, however, it is a false distinction, as it is the world looking at the world, creating the illusion of separate substantive realms – the mental realm and the physical realm – while in fact both of them are one and the same reality, and the one that is internal to our mind. There is no other reality.  That doesn’t mean that what we typically refer to as the physical realm is any less real than we think, but regardless of what we think, it all comes down to a bunch of neurons firing in our cranium. 

And so the fact remains that we cannot access the world without going through the conceptual apparatus of our minds. Any idea we have of it is entirely dependent on having processed our experiential perception of it, consequently, it cannot exist logically (or ontologically, for that matter) independently from us. So getting back to the belief “that nature consists of arrangements of matter/energy outside and independent of mind” it should be clear that since we can’t get to the natural world directly, i.e., independently from human observation,  there is no direct or objective observation of the world, and that all knowledge derived from it is entirely subject to being interpreted and shaped and conditioned as necessary by the very creature that we are.  Had we been a different creature, we would likely be experiencing a different world, i.e., we would have a different concept and understanding of it. That is to say also that reality needs to be a certain way in order to accommodate whatever it is we are, as such we shape it as much as it shapes us, and to some extent this is a function of the cultural-linguistic environment we inhabit, e.g., there are the legendary 50 different words for snow in Eskimo languages, denoting unique properties within their reality as these have been discerned on the basis of having interacted with it.

And taking this view a little further – it would seem to follow that the boundaries of the world are the boundaries of our mind, in the sense that our understanding of the world will be  limited to what our mind will be able to process given the neuro-physiological infrastructure that supports it. I believe it is somewhat presumptuous to assume that there are no limits to the acquisition and accumulation of knowledge or the ability to conceptualize the various features of the cosmos as were are coming across them.  That is to say, we will be running out of processing power in the gray-matter department, as much as it is a bio mechanical process subject to the laws of nature, and not being able to get our heads around the notion of infinity (in whatever direction) when to comes to concepts of time and space is an example of this.  So, too, Mr. Kastrup’s Quantum Anomalies  are likely to show themselves as features of the mind-matter / subject-object distinction, as an example of the mind looking back at itself and no longer being able to hold on to the distinction, as much as this distinction would be pushed at the QM level of scientific research.  As I said earlier – in the end, all our observations of the  world are instances of the world looking at itself. We are merely the instantiation of this process as a means to enable the cosmos to continue on its evolutionary path towards what this is all about.

The truth about man is that he is not a pure knowing subject, not a winged cherub without a material body, contemplating the world from without. For he is himself rooted in that world.  (Schopenhauer – The World as Idea)