Willand Van Orman Quine once said that the basic question of metaphysics can be put in three Anglo-Saxon monosyllables: ‘What is there?’ One very popular answer is ‘matter’. I am sceptical of this answer. In this post I want to trace the history of the concept of matter, and try to show it’s shortcomings. Around the 15th and 16th centuries, there emerged a concept of matter, about which we could say the following:
1) It’s essential nature is spatial – it occupies space, excludes other things from that space, and has no other defining characteristics. All material things have the exact same essence;
2) It interacts only through direct physical contact;
3) It’s nature can be knowna priori by “intellectual perception” or “intellectual intuition”;
4) It has no trace of consciousness to it.
The pre-modern history of matter, I can only offer vague speculations on, which I will confine to two points:
Firstly, that the sort of science that arose with Aristotle and then became the philosophical orthodoxy of first the Arab world and then Medieval Europe, did not draw the sharp distinction we do now between consciousness and matter. It could describe plants as having ‘psyches’ and of atoms as being moved by their natural strivings and purposes. More discussion in previous posts in this series.
Secondly, it is perhaps arguable – though I don’t know how far – that monotheism played a role in preparing the ground for materialism. Part of the struggle of Christianity against ‘paganism’ across Europe was the defeat of religions that venerated parts of the world (the sun, the trees, the earth, etc.) – against which the Christians, like Moses agains the golden calf or like Muhammad against the polytheists of Arabia, maintained that “no, nothing in this world is spiritual and divine, nothing should be worshipped – only God, God who is above and separate from all observable things.” Having stripped the divinity/personification away from all things and concentrated it into God, it may then have been easier to maintain that the components of the world are ‘mere’ matter.
Now, those four features of matter have actually taken quite a beating – from within the materialist/scientific camp. For example, the idea that material particles can only interact by physical contact sounds strange to us, because ever since Newton, it has been accepted that material particles can exert gravitational (and, later, electrical, magnetic, nuclear) forces on each other at a distance. But at the time, Newton’s postulation of action at a distance was considered by some ‘occult’ and unacceptable. People (including Descartes) tried to explain gravity in purely mechanical terms, often with great ingenuity. But Newton’s model just worked better, and so won out.
Similarly, the idea that the nature of matter can be known ‘a priori’, from philosophical first principles, was also rather shaky, because it conflicted with the empricial, observation-based nature of the science it was meant to be a foundation for. This conflict was worked out intellectually through the criticisms of Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Kant (among others), who, by and large, managed to discredit the notion of a priori insight into matter.
Yet in both cases, the point itself was only conceded as long as the essential position was preserved. For example, Locke and Hume and Kant all found themselves, in various ways, having to say that we have no clue what matter actually is – and yet when they ‘returned to ordinary life’ from this ‘scepticism’, they considered it obvious that the basic ideas of materialism were correct. Hume, for example, showed that the idea of matter is dogmatic and meaningless, and yet did so in such a way that this position was simply a general scepticism, a general ‘we don’t know jack’. Consequently all sensible people (including Hume himself) took the scientific materialist position that was by then mainstream as being obviously true, whatever philosophy said. Hume’s main actual polemics were directed more against people’s belief in God and miracles, against the pre-matieralist superstitions. Similarly, Newton’s gravitational action at a distance was accepted because it was compatible with maintaining Directionless Bones › Add New Post — WordPressthe rest of the materialist outlook.
I should clarify what I mean by ‘materialist’ – I mean the view that most of the visible things we see are made of matter, matter being roughly defined above. By this definition Descartes is the seminal and paradigmatic materialist, despite being by another definition a ‘dualist’, believing in the simultaneous existence of non-spaital immaterial souls.
The first point, the idea of matter as simply “stuff” that fills up space, was after all of this left on pretty shaky ground, but it still managed to stagger on until the 20th century. But then…damn. Space that can bend? How does space bend? Time that is longer for you than for me? Particles that have a wavelength? Energy that can become mass? Quantum entanglement? What the hell?
Yet by this time, the materialist worldview had become so established that it wasn’t threatened by the fact that the entire notion of matter no longer had any positive content. All it had to do was re-name itself: instead of materialism, it was now ‘physicalism’ – i.e., everything which exists is ‘that stuff that physics talks about’. People could happily accept that the best description of the world we had, quantum physics, was pretty much literally unintelligible – that even the scientists did not have a clue what it actually meant to say “this thing is both a wave and a particle”.
So what is matter, nowadays? It’s “something not at all conscious”. That’s all that’s left. We can talk about force, about mass, about charge, about spin and flavour, but what do anything these things mean? Ultimately, I would argue, they reduce to talking about space and time. Force is what produces acceleration; mass it the capacity to resist force; charge is the capacity to exert force, etc. But that doesn’t tell us what there is – only where and when. It tells us, perhaps also, how and why, how often and how strongly and under which conditions, to what extent, but not: “what”. What is it that occupies space? What is it that is accelerated by force?
Well, a force on us accelerates us, and we occupy space. We can be perceived by sight, by sound, by touch, but what are we, really? We’re consciousness. So we basically have a choice between two positions: the monist position that everything is basically made of the same stuff, and if that’s consciousness in our case, we must assume (because we can’t ever really find out) that it’s some sort of consciousness in the case of other matter. Or alternatively, we could suppose a kind of semi-dualism: there is conscious matter (us) and then there is totally non-conscious matter, which is qualitatively different. The latter view produces paradoxes – if all we see are gradual transitions (from non-conscious to conscious animals, from non-conscious embryo to conscious baby, etc.) how can we say that at some point there’s a radical, qualitative jump?
In general, as I understand it, the reasonable (and scientific) thing to do is to prefer the simpler, the more elegant hypothesis, when two or more are (and necessarily will always be) equally consistent with the observed data. It seems clearly ‘simpler and more elegant’ to me to suppose that there is one sort of stuff in the world, which is, in its outer, observable form, ‘physical’, and in its inner ‘what-ness’ mental. Which would be…panpsychism!
So this is why I think there’s a good case for panpsychism. At the same time, there is the problem that it seems crazy. So in coming posts I will try to make it seem less crazy, and explain what it would actually amount to.