Materialism and Immaterialism

So I wrote a blog post yesterday and when I clicked “publish” something went wrong and the whole thing was lost.

I will, as briefly as possible, attempt to re-hash what I wrote previously.

Right now, if you are reading this, you are reading the blog post from a device. It is either a computer, a laptop, a tablet, phone or who knows what. But, there is a device. Let’s just assume you are reading from a laptop. Now, a materialist/physicalist/scientific world view would be that the phenomena you perceive which you attribute to the laptop (color, shape, texture, sound..smell?) has a source. The phenomena is perceived in the mind, and this is possible because there are physical things in existence, out there, that interact with your physical body and the senses are able to translate those interactions, somehow, to the mind as phenomena that you perceive.

Intrinsic to this view is that the source of those phenomena is a thing, and that thing is made up of matter, it is physical, it is extended in space, and the phenomena we experience is an accurate representation of what that thing actually is.

What I mean is, under such a world view, when I am conscious of what I would categorize as a visual representation of my laptop (i.e., I can see colors expanded over a geometric shape, and I call those colors and geometric shapes to be “laptop”), I believe that what I am seeing has, as its source, an actual object in the world that is exactly how I see it. Even more basically, what I see and perceive is actually what is out there, physically, in the world.

I think this is the world view that most people, especially if you have never given it any thought before, would assume.

Immaterialism is different. An immaterialist (or idealist) recognizes that first and foremost, I am aware/conscious of a perception. The perception is of something, there is always an object of the consciousness, of what is perceived. This is, in our everyday waking life experience (aside from thinking, etc) an experience of phenomena. When I see my laptop, what I am experiencing are phenomena (colors that extend over certain shapes/geometries), and smells, tastes, sounds, and tactile sensations (touch). A bundle of certain phenomena is grouped together and I call that “laptop”, a bundle of another I call “table” and a bundle of another I call “tomato”.

So far there is no difference between a materialist and an immaterialist. The immaterialist though, recognizes that the perception itself is non-physical. The experience of phenomena, the conscious experience of being aware of “laptop” is non-physical. You cannot touch an experience. You cannot taste an experience. You cannot locate it on a gps map and move it somewhere else. It is immaterial. It is non-physical.

And so experience itself, consciousness itself, perception itself, is non-physical. The immaterialist recognizes this and says that there is no reason to believe that the immaterial experience of phenomena necessarily represents a physical, extended, material object in an external world made up of physical, material objects. It is the materialist that has to make an inference, that has to take the experience and then from that make the belief that those experiences are of physical/material things.

The two universes that a materialist and an idealist/immaterialist live in are completely differently structured. One has atoms and matter, consciousness, perceptions, phenomena and ideas/concepts.

The concept of an atom doesn’t necessitate the existence of a physical atom. The same way that a concept of a pegasus doesn’t necessitate the physical existence of a pegasus.

The story is made much more interesting when Descartes introduces dualism. For Descartes, the universe/reality is made up of two different substances: matter and mind. There is the stuff of the physical world: atoms, matter, bodies, motion, etc. This stuff operates causally, like billiard balls moving around, one in contact with another, colliding, imparting forces onto each other in a never ending dance of cause-effect (governed by the laws of physics thanks to Newton). But Descartes recognizes he is a thinking thing. Cogito ergo sum. He knows he thinks, and thinking/the mind/the soul/consciousness is not material, it is something completely different. And so, man has a dualistic existence. There is the physical body, which interacts with the physical external world, and there is this non-material mind that lives somewhere in the brain.

This was quite confusing. Perhaps you can see why. For you see, in order for any two things, no matter what they are, to be able to interact with one another, they must have some common grounds in which to mediate an interaction. Now, for Descartes, these two substances (mind and matter) were of completely different substance. One (matter) had a physical existence. The other (mind) was completely non-physical. So how could one impart an effect, could interact, could communicate to the other? In the physical world, an atom touches another, and another, and there is a chain reaction like dominoes falling. Sugar touches the tongue, a nerve ending is excited, electrical signal is carried along the nerves (which is just atoms, ie. ions, moving) those atoms touch others, until finally the dominoes of atoms touching atoms gets to the brain. And then what? The atoms touch what? Do what? Does the final atom touch a non-physical thing? What does that even mean?

The flaws of Descartes dualism was immediately met with skepticism. He even received a letter from Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia who raised this exact point. How a physical substance could impart an effect on a non-physical substance.

Most people today, I would believe, hold this to be true. That there is mind, and it is different than matter. So, how can this be? Can you think of how a physical thing is to interact with a non-physical thing? How might this look?

Today we also have those that don’t entertain dualism. We have materialists. We have immaterialists. We have some outspoken scientists today that are so strongly committed to materialism that they declare consciousness to be an illusion. I find this quite concerning and dangerous, as I think we can all agree, (Descartes included) is that there is only one thing that we can be certain of and it is that we are aware of something. This awareness is consciousness itself. In order to even make the statement “I am not conscious” is a contradiction.

I am not sure where that leaves us. I won’t argue my thoughts. I will just leave those positions here in the post as something to think about.