Friday, October 07, 2011

Mind Your Matter Going In!

So, here's how it went down:

Descartes cleaved the world in two. One part, which he called matter, was totally inert, only acted upon, never acting. It could be fully described employing the language of only "shapes, sizes and motions." Consider how Descartes regarded most of our own mental processes:

"I should like you to consider that these functions (including passion, memory, and imagination) follow from the mere arrangement of the machine’s organs every bit as naturally as the movements of a clock or other automaton follow from the arrangement of its counter-weights and wheels." -- Descartes, Treatise on Man

Animals he famously regarded as solely and only machines, with no awareness at all. (He clearly was without pets.) Humans, however, were different: they also were made up of an active component, mind, or spirit. Mind had no size or shape, and was the only active principle in the universe. One great mind, God's, had set all of the inert matter spinning and colliding at the creation, and human minds could (somehow!) intervene in those motions still, but everything else was just mechanisms.

Descartes was therefore called a dualist, since he believed in these two fundamental substances, mind and matter. But many people were unhappy with this scheme, since there was no obvious way for any link between the two realms to be forged. We seemed to have matter ceaselessly jostling around, watched by a ghostly mind that could not possibly affect it, except through some deus ex machina such as Descartes's invocation of the pineal gland as a magical conduit between the two realms.

Those who rejected dualism were monists, of two camps: materialists and idealists. Materialists saw how Descartes had posited that even passion, memory, and imagination were actually mechanical in nature, and even animals were mere machines, and said, "Well, why not take that last step: We humans are just machines as well, and consciousness is, if not an illusion, then surely just some accidental excretion of matter." The idealists picked the other branch of wishbone, and decided that everything was somehow mental in nature. (Now recall the set of terms they were choosing over: matter = inert and mind = active.)

Physics worried little about such distinctions, and simply kept exploring the nature of what it called matter. For a while, those explorations fit in well with the materialist picture of the universe. There were some puzzles, like the "spooky action-at-a-distance" of gravity, and then, in the 19th-century, electromagnetism. But it was assumed a mechanical explanation would come along.

Until quantum mechanics appeared. Physicists had at last penetrated down to the heart of the "inert" matter Descartes had talked about... and discovered it wasn't like Descartes had posited it at all. The stuff didn't really have a size or shape. What had appeared, on the macroscale, to be inert blocks of "stuff" with certain dimensions turned out to be the product of ceaseless activity at the microscale, as all the basic particles... well, if one didn't know better, one might say constantly communicated with each other, swapping back and forth virtual particles by which each told each where it was at and how much space it was claiming. Far from being inert, these little fellows never stopped doing stuff: spontaneously changing into some other bit of stuff, or tunneling through some barrier, or jumping to a different orbital.

In other words, once physics rolled up its sleeves and got down to brass tacks, it discovered that there was nothing fitting the Cartesian description of matter (inert). Instead, everything behaved like Cartesian mind (active). The idealists had won!

Or so they would have done, except for the fact that materialism had hardened into a sort of secular creed by the time these facts came out. So it has taken another eight decades for word to really spread, but at last philosophers are realizing that materialism is a zombie.

Of course, any materialist who doesn't want to admit defeat can just say, "Well, by matter, we now mean this very active stuff you are talking about. And when we say we are materialists, we just mean that everything is matter in that sense." That is a bit like a Yankee fan who today says, "Well, when we said we would win it all this year, what we meant was that we would get into the playoffs." But if it allows them to sleep easier at night, why should we care: we know the universe is alive through and through, and we know who really won it all.

Mind your mind going out!


  1. I was reluctant to ignite this firestorm, but I now succumb to the fatal temptation:

    That the material of the physical world is active rather than inert may refute classical materialism (which was never viable anyway), but it does not allow us to reduce mental and physical things to a common "stuff." I do not think there is any way around mind-matter dualism.

  2. PSH, your vote on this matter has been recorded.


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