Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Mind or Matter

In my classes recently we've spoken about the view of reality often referred to as Idealism. Idealists hold that what really exists is not objective material stuff but rather ideas in minds. The notion is intriguing, largely because it's so counterintuitive and also because it seems that so many scientists and philosophers have come to the belief that some version of it is more plausible than the common sense view that the world is made of material substance.

In light of these class discussions I wanted to run this post that I originally put on VP a year ago:

One of the many fascinating questions being revived in today's philosophical debates is the question of the ultimate nature of reality. In other words, what is the world fundamentally made of? For the last two hundred years, and still today, the consensus answer among scientists and philosophers is that matter is the fundamental constituent of the world. Everything in the world, it's believed, can be reduced to matter or energy.

This view is called metaphysical materialism, but despite its status as the consensus view there have always been prominent thinkers who've insisted that materialism is quite wrong. There has long been a substantial minority of very brilliant men who believe that the material world is really an expression of mind and that mind is fundamental. This view is usually referred to as metaphysical idealism.

Here are a few examples of quotes from scientists and philosophers who embrace(d) one form or another of metaphysical idealism:
"As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter." Max Planck, the father of quantum mechanics, 1944

"Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else." Erwin Schroedinger, quantum physicist

"It will remain remarkable, in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the scientific conclusion that the content of the consciousness is the ultimate universal reality." Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner, 1961

"If materialism cannot accommodate consciousness and other mind-related aspects of reality, then we must abandon a purely materialist understanding of nature in general, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history." Thomas Nagel, author of Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, 2012.

"What is more, recent experiments are bringing to light that the experimenter’s free will and consciousness should be considered axioms (founding principles) of standard quantum physics theory. So for instance, in experiments involving “entanglement” (the phenomenon Einstein called 'spooky action at a distance'), to conclude that quantum correlations of two particles are nonlocal (i.e. cannot be explained by signals traveling at velocity less than or equal to the speed of light), it is crucial to assume that the experimenter can make free choices and is not constrained in what orientation he/she sets the measuring devices. To understand these implications it is crucial to be aware that quantum physics is not only a description of the material and visible world around us, but also speaks about non-material influences coming from outside the space-time." Antoine Suarez, 2013
So what does it matter (no pun intended)? If mind is fundamental then it may follow, psychologically if not logically, that personality is as well, and pretty soon it seems plausible to think that the fundamental reality is in fact the Universal Mind of traditional theism.

This is an intolerable conclusion for metaphysical naturalists who thought they had laid such notions to rest in the 19th century. Now it appears that the matter is far from settled, and as we enter into the second decade of the twenty-first century there's an interesting philosophical donnybrook brewing over whether science and philosophy, so far from having proven there is no transcendent mind, no God, are actually, even if inadvertently, accumulating increasing evidence that there is.