Mind Over Matter, Part II

A frequent topic in here, and in some of the blogs I’m fond of visiting, is the mystery of consciousness. How is it that “mere” matter can become self-aware? Can matter be the engine of consciousness at all, or does it merely serve as a temporary and intermittent host?

There seem to be three avenues by which people approach this mystery – philosophy, science, and mysticism. I have the intuitive conviction that they will, ultimately, give consistent answers – in other words, that they are all three digging toward the same hidden truth, although from different directions, and with different tools. My wish is to try to follow the progress on all three fronts, and to participate actively where I can.

The philosophical approach to the question of consciousness begins with trying to identify, by the faculty of reason, exactly what it is we are asking. What are the features of consciousness that we seek to explain? We have a commonsense idea of what it is like to be conscious, but in ordinary life much is left unexamined. Philosophers of mind have brought to the foreground various aspects of conscious experience – for example, qualia, intentionality, and the apparent freedom of the will – that are enormously perplexing mysteries with profound implications for the underlying nature of reality. Many philosophers believe that there is something irreducible about consciousness – that Mind is itself one of the fundamental constituents of the world, and that any attempt to “explain” consciousness in physical terms is doomed always to fall short of capturing its radically subjective ontology.

The mystical approach is similar to the philosophical in some ways, in that both begin with an effort of radical self-observation, but whereas philosophical methods are cogitative and rational, mystical techniques are exploratory and experiential. The student of such methods, under the guidance of one who knows the way, embarks on a difficult inward journey, often over rather inhospitable terrain. Much of what is discovered and experienced in such a program of inner study is difficult to convey adequately in declarative prose; many of the greatest mystical teachers spoke in parable or poetry to share their insights. Over the past few decades I have acquired some practical experience of my own along these lines, although I in no way represent myself as an “awakened man”. But I am deeply convinced of the value and importance of this sort of work, and of the possibility, for those who work at it, of living more consciously, and will try to share what I can of it in future posts.

Finally, there are the scientists. One might sum up the scientific attitude as assuming that since we’re here, and since all the evidence suggests that we are made of ordinary matter, and since we are unquestionably conscious, then the question becomes: “How?”, or perhaps, in a bit more detail: “What kind of stuff has to come together, in what sort of arrangement, for consciousness to occur?” Physical scientists are working at the problem from both ends: by learning more and more about the building blocks of matter and biological systems, and by using increasingly powerful tools in order to reverse-engineer consciousness by watching the brain in action. This is, of course, the very program that dualistic philosophers argue can never hope to bridge the gap between objective meat and subjective Mind, but the scientists are going to press on regardless.

Most of the sources one consults on these questions seem to come at the problem rather exclusively from one or another of the three approaches I’ve mentioned; I think there is rather a shortage of forums for bringing these interests together. I’d like to make this triune exploration of consciousness a recurring theme here at waka waka waka, and I will be very grateful for any and all participation on the part of those who stop by.


  1. And a fine theme it is, Malcolm.

    Of your three approaches, the one I have most trouble with (perhaps as opposed to you) is the mystical, since I think, in setting itself apart from the major tools for self-correction — reason and evidence — it provides the most opportunity for wishful self-delusion (and for the delusion of the followers of those who are supposed to “know the way”). That said, though, an exploratory and experiential approach to self-observation seems in itself a good addition to other approaches to this difficult but fascinating phenomenon.

    The philosophical approach can help to clarify issues and concepts, but can’t by itself resolve empirical questions — and it has its own form of dysfunction when it devolves into interminable terminological disputes, or lifts off into mere airy abstraction. The scientific approach is of course designed to answer empirical questions, and, based on its track record if nothing else, I think will eventually do so — in its always approximate manner — in this area as well; but it too has a dysfunctional form in a certain tendency to ignore or wave away aspects of the phenomenon that it can’t easily explain (e.g., a tendency toward so-called “eliminative materialism”).

    My own approach possibly combines these in some manner, but within the limits set by small-r rationalism, and arrives at a broadly physical, anti-dualist account of “mind”. I’ve recently put up a series of posts critical of the dualist notion of an “explanatory gap”, the conclusion of which is here.

    Posted January 12, 2006 at 9:23 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Ellis,

    You are quite right that the mystical approach, due to its inherently private nature, is prone to charlatanry and delusion – although the obcurantism of Continental philosophy, and recent scientific events in South Korea, suggest that the other two areas are not entirely immune either. My own experience tells me, though, that esoteric efforts can be rewarded with solid evidence as well, though that evidence is not publicly communicable in the way that is possible in the other disciplines. Esoteric traditions may also stress the importance of a skeptical mind and diligent verification.

    I also have a “broadly physical, anti-dualist” view of things, and I look forward to reading your posts. Sorry not to have done so already!

    Thanks for visiting.

    Posted January 12, 2006 at 9:48 am | Permalink
  3. Bob Koepp says

    Hi Malcolm –
    I agree that (broadly and loosely construed) philosophical, scientific and mystical approaches to understanding consciousness can all make valuable contributions to the ultimate goal. (I was going to laud “interdisciplinary” efforts, but I’m not sure we can neatly discriminate between philosophy, science and mysticism.) I think, though, that we have no reason whatever to be optimistic about science (as presently conceived) “explaining” how consciousness is produced by matter. Remember that we have no scientific explanation at all for how matter produces the various “mechanical” forces with which it is associated — and those forces (as presently conceived) don’t even involve the complicating factor of subjectivity.

    Posted January 12, 2006 at 10:09 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Well, I’m not sure that I’d agree with that – quantum electrodynamics and general relativity, for example, are deeper views of mechanical interactions and gravitation than Aristotle had at his disposal. Ultimates may, for now, still elude our grasp, but progress is made.

    One reason to be optimistic about science’s ability to shed light on matters thought to be beyond its reach is the number of times that assumption has been wrong in the past. As Niels Bohr said about the horseshoe nailed above his door for good luck, “they say it works even if you don’t believe in it.” Yes, subjectivity is consider by many philosophers to be an insurmountable “complicating factor”, but then so was the distance to the stars, before the advent of stellar spectrography.

    Anyway, there are plenty of curious and optimistic researchers who are going to keep poking at the problem regardless of any pessimism philosophers may hold. It will be interesting to see what develops. Science is full of surprises.

    Posted January 12, 2006 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  5. Bob Koepp says

    Malcolm – One needs to avoid being so open-minded that one becomes non-discriminating. Surely you appreciate that, from the perspective of sciences like mechanics and astronomy which deal exclusively with spatio-temporally characterized events and processess, a different attitude is appropriate toward matters of distance and matters of subjectivity. Distance, after all, is a spatio-temporal notion par excellence. That problems relating to distances have been effectively overcome provides no grounds at all to think problems relating to subjectivity might be similarly resolved.

    And let’s be straightforward about acknowledging that quantum electrodynamics and general relativity do nothing to enlighten us about how physical entities produce the “basic” forces of attraction and repulsion on which mechanical explanations depend.

    This is not intended to discredit scientific investigations of consciousness. But we need some subtlety in our views about what sorts of investigations might be undertaken and what sorts of conclusions they might support or undermine.

    Posted January 12, 2006 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    I’m all for subtlety! And I have always said that “it is important to be open-minded, but not so much that your brain falls out.” But let’s not be too dismissive, either, about the profound and unforeseen “paradigm shifts” that underpin major scientific breakthroughs. It is unwise to declare with certainty what may and may not come within the purview of scientific investigation. As the results come in, they must indeed be carefully and critically scrutinized from all angles. But that is very different from ruling things out in advance.

    Actually, far from doing “nothing to enlighten us”, QED offers a much deeper explanation for attraction and repulsion than, say, 18th-century mechanics. As you pointed out, and as I admitted up front, there are still ultimate questions that elude us; the scientific program is far from exhausted. But it isn’t as if we are getting nowhere. I’m not making any promises, of course – how could I? – but I am sure it will be interesting to see what develops as 21st-century science grapples with the questions before it. One thing I think we can be reasonably confident of is that there will be some surprises.

    Posted January 12, 2006 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  7. Bob Koepp says

    I agree completely that we should expect to be surprised by the development of science. I think we can also be morally certain (i.e., beyond a reasonable doubt) that a scientific explanation of how physical entities can be conscious will reuire some surprising developments.

    Posted January 12, 2006 at 1:10 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Quite right, Bob. And for my part, I agree that in the absence of such surprising developments, we are a long way from an “explanation” of consciousness. I also in no way mean to downplay the value of philosophical inquiry in this area.

    There’s certainly no shortage, for anyone with any interest in these questions, of things to work on, no matter which approach they prefer.

    Posted January 12, 2006 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  9. the one eyed man says

    Beyond philosophy, mysticism, and science, there is a fourth avenue, which is literary. I’m thinking especially of Proust, who thought of consciousness as being inseparable from memory, and then wrote a three thousand page novel on the subject. From the first chapter (aka “I like cookies!”) to the last (where he declares that art is the key to these issues), he has a perspective on phenomenology and ontology which is much different than you will find with the other three approaches.

    In Search of Lost Time (or, if you prefer, A La Recherche du Frank Perdue) is so dense and difficult that reading it can be like wading through mud. Sometimes you just want to slap the guy. However, I personally find it to be as rewarding as any work of fiction I have read, although I can only read it a few pages at a time. However, I don’t mind, so it don’t matter.

    Posted January 12, 2006 at 7:22 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter,

    The idea of consciousness as inseparable from memory is certainly interesting, and the two are, perhaps, closely linked in our ordinary experience, but I do think they are manifestly distinct. The idea is clearly at odds with the Eastern concept of consciousness as “pure awareness”, and there seems to be nothing problematic about memory without consciousness.

    Posted January 12, 2006 at 11:04 pm | Permalink
  11. “Finally, there are the scientists”. That ‘final’ reminds me of the four fold causality in the Metaphysics of Aristotle. Scientists tend to deal only with the efficent in a billiard ball universe. Whitehead had the intuition which seems to connect to the goal of immersion in the present – no contemporary events are causally connected. Discussing freedom of the will in terms of efficent causality alone generates paradoxes. I sense that your martial arts training has brought direct insight into the freedom and expansiveness of the moment. Your triune exploration will be interesting.

    Posted January 18, 2007 at 9:37 am | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Thanks for visiting, Michael. I hope to return to these topics shortly.

    While it is true that no contemporary events are causally connected (in fact the lack of a possible causal connection, due to being outside each other’s “light cones”, is really the only, if unsatisfying, way to define contemporality), they are still linked in ordinary cases by prior causal events, and themselves stand at the roots of intersecting causal trees.

    Posted January 18, 2007 at 11:20 am | Permalink

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