Immaterialism– the long answer

A reader below asked me if I were a dualist. I could not answer in the short space of the comments box,so here is a longer answer. This is for those of you interested in philosophy. Posting pictures of nubile space princesses, and the other important business of this journal, will have to wait.

Someone asked me if I were a dualist. My answer is a definite and resounding “sort-of.”

I am a skeptic, so I am hard to convince. I am a lawyer, so I like to qualify my statements. Let me see if I can sum up years of puzzling over this question. Since I have puzzled and puzzed till my puzzler is sore, I hope you will forgive me if I am impatient with chowderheads who simply think the mind-body problem is a sophomoric question, a mere dispute of words, that can be waved away with a simple answer. It is not a question that can be waved away.

I do not know if the mind is a substance independent of material substance, because the definition of “substance is not clear to me. I do know that our descriptions of how the mind works cannot avoid reference to final causes; I do know that our descriptions of how matter works cannot avoid reference to efficient or mechanical causes.

There are, hence, four approaches to reality:

1. Treat matter as a mechanism.

2. Treat people as mechanisms: this is the neuropsychiatric approach.

3. Treat matter as if it had intention: this is the magician’s approach.

4. Treat people as if they had intention.

I submit that these approaches are wise and useful each in its appropriate circumstance, except, perhaps, the magician’s approach, which seems to be mere anthropomorphism, seeing human faces in the mountains of Mars.

(Of course, if I ever were confronted by a vampire, I would flourish a cross, in hope that a mental entity like faith could fling back and destroy a physical entity like Bella Lagosi or Frank Langella. I mean, I might be a philosopher, but let’s be practical about this.)  

I am a methodological dualist: I am agnostic toward the question of how mind and matter are related. I don’t think it can be answered; I am not even sure if it can be asked in a meaningful way.

Let us look at the facts. It is obvious to me that I exist and that my thoughts have intention. I am self-aware. I can move my hand, which means that mind can move matter in some circumstances. Drugs or damage to my skull can impair my thinking, as can sleep or sleep deprivation, which means that matter can influence that mind in some circumstances. Obviously mind and matter can affect each other.

Does one determine the other? Does mind determine matter? Does matter determine mind?

Once physics reconciles quantum mechanics with relativity and can answer the question for certain that cause and effect is a meaningful and immutable category that applies to all physical entities, will we be in a position to ASK the question if it also applies as an immutable category for mental entities. At the moment, alas, we are not in a position even to ask the question.

At the moment, we do not even know if everything in the physical world is determined; we certainly know that everything in the physical world suffers from microscopic limitations to the ability of the observer to measure physical reality (see Schrodinger, etc). So the two questions are whether physical reality is determined, and whether it is determinable from the viewpoint of an observer.

At the moment, we also do not know if formal logical systems are determined by their axioms. There seems to be a logical incompleteness in every formal theory (see Goedel).

At the moment, even knowing the initial conditions of a set of logical rules in a system, we cannot necessarily determine the outcome or end-state of the system. If you have chessboard and a simple rule that three adjacent chessmen place a new man between them, but that two adjacent chessman capture the piece, you’d have to sit and play through the game to find out the final position of the pieces. (See cellular automaton theory).

We also know from chaos theory that tiny difference in initial conditions produce disproportionate and hence unpredictable outcomes in multivariable systems. You do not know where a magnet on a pendulum swinging between two other magnets will be after twenty swings.

Are you following all these qualifications, dear reader? (1) We don’t know, thanks to Heisenberg, if matter is determinate. (2) If it is determinate, we don’t know, thanks to Schrodinger, if knowledge to the observer can be determined. (3) We don’t know, thanks to Goedel, if knowledge in formal systems is determined or determinable (4) We don’t know, thanks to cellular automata studies, that even determined systems are not predictable and (5) multivariable systems are innately chaotic. At this point, the idea that you could predict with apodictic certainty what I would do and think twelve days hence if only you knew the position and mass of every particle of brain-matter and every atom and impulse of incoming stimulation or biological influence at the current moment is an idea that is beginning to look pretty attenuated. If you want to predict my actions, you’d be better off just asking my wife.

We have no facts, no experiment and no observation, to back that assertion that matter determines mind: it is an article of faith for materialists, which they take as an axiom. I will be convinced of materialism when and only when someone puts it into a hypodermic and injects me with it, and I don’t mean by impairing my judgment or intoxicating me. I mean they have to inject me with the idea before I will believe the idea can be reduced to a determined material substrate.

Sticking, as a skeptic must stick, only to what I know for certain, I know my mind exists (because (1) I know it and (2) I know I know) and I know that I have a theory in my mind that matter exists independently of my perception of it.

If I am uncertain about my self-awareness, I cannot me more certain about that than I can be about anything else, since my awareness is the instrument by which I am aware of my conclusions and their certainty. It may be true that I can be given cause to question the trustworthiness of my self-awareness, but, logically, that same cause whatever it is must give me cause to question the trustworthiness of my cause of doubt. If I do not know I exist, how can I know that my doubt that I exist exists?

The first idea is a fact, that enjoys the certainty of Descartes: the second idea is a theory, or, to be precise, an a priori category, a metaphysical axiom without which no reasonable statements about matter can be made. The first idea is certain, the second idea is an assumption.

Where I ever to become convinced that mind and matter are two substances that cannot possibly interact (and I have read many a philosophical treatise that assumes so, but not one which has proven so) I would be forced to conclude that all appearances or phenomena of duality are in truth one numenal substance: at that point I would be a theological idealist in the fashion of Bishop Berkley, since, of the two substances, mind and matter, the only one of which I have immediate experience is mind. Matter is just a theory I use to explain my perceptions: and perceptions are subset of thoughts in mind.  

But since the division of substances into two has never been convincingly argued to me, I am in practice someone who observes that all men in practice are dualists, no matter what they say they believe.

Short answer: I default to dualism, but not for the reasons other dualists give. If pressed, I retreat into the idealism of Berkley, also called Immaterialism.

One caveat —  I feel about Immmaterialism much the same way I feel about Solipsism: even if I conclude for abstract reasons that other people are computers, as a matter of fact I have to treat them as if they are people. Since they are peoplelike computers and are distinct from computerlike computers, I might as well call them people.

Likewise, here. Even if we conclude for abstract reasons that the things we see as objects are in fact “ideas” present in the objective mind of what is basically a mental universe (or the Mind of God) all we have done is define the word “idea” to cover both the ideas in our head that act by intention (idealike ideas) and the ideas outside our head that act without reference to intention (matterlike ideas) — so we might as well stick to the simpler nomenclature and call those so-called ideas that act like matter in our perception “matter”.

The same pragmatic impatience works the other way, which is why I am impatient with members of the materialist religion. Even granting that every thought in my head and yours is made of “matter” the cold fact of the case is that this is the only form of matter we can move with our naked minds by manipulating signs and symbols, and the only way you can convince me of jack is to use signs and symbols to get me to volunteer to move the so-called matter in my skull into the symbol-arrangement called “you talked me into it.”

So it is thoughtlike matter that acts like thoughts. Let’s just go ahead and call it thoughts until proven otherwise.

*   *  *

Since, as a Christian, I believe the material universe, or the appearance thereof, was created and is sustained by the Mind of God at every second, and since modern science now prefers, for reasons of parsimony, to talk about the information of matter rather than the matter of matter (for example, I hear physicists say no “information” can leave a black hole, or I hear them describe subatomic particles not as things but as collections of “information” concerning spin values, etc.), I have no theological problems with immaterialism, nor does it necessarily create a problem with physics. 

From the Christian point of view, asking if matter exists independently of the mind of the Creator is sort of like asking whether Professor Tolkien is strong enough to throw down the Dark Tower. No matter how strong and massive and imposing the storybook tower might be, the author can topple it with the stroke of a pen.

From the god’s-eye point of view, I speculate that nothing in the material universe is “made” of anything, since the Creator could, in His omnipotence, with a word, unmake or change anything that was made. If we want to portray the impotence of matter in the face of the Mind of God by simply calling all material things “thoughts” in the Mind of God, we may do so: but His thoughts are not as our thoughts are. The thoughts of God are matter to us. The human mind cannot part the Red Sea with his own willpower, or even levitate a single drop of dew. No matter the real condition of matter, it is extrinsic to us. 

As a philosopher, I grant that the paradox of how mind, which is insubstantial, can move or be moved by matter, which is substantial, can be solved by Berkley’s immaterialist formulation. All things are made of the thoughts of God, in much the same way all characters and props in the book of an author are the author’s inventions.

I can move my material arm with my material brain, by the grace and permission of God, in the same way that Hamlet can move his arm to pick up the skull of Yorick, by the grace and permission of Shakespeare. Since both Hamlet’s mind and Hamlet’s hand are made up of nothing more than Shakespeare’s imaginings, there is no reason why Hamlets immaterial mind cannot move Hamlets material arm.  They are actually one and the same: dream-stuff in the mind of Shakespeare.

That part of God’s thought-stuff which was stirred to independent life and granted free will in the divine image, we call mind or soul. That’s us. That part of the thought-stuff which God put outside of our control (either at creation or after the Fall, depending on whether you envision prelapsarian man as having miraculous command over nature) we call matter.

Let us take an inventory of what we can and cannot control. I can control some of the thoughts in my imagination (I can imagine myself a cubit taller); other thoughts I can perceive but not control (I cannot imagine myself a cubit taller, while imagining myself to be greater or less than six spans taller. A cubit is six spans. I cannot change the rules of math in my mind); there are certain thoughts were I have little or no control (I do not deliberately forget what I have forgotten, nor do I script out the odd things that I seem to see in dreams); there seems to be something damaged or corrupted in my mind, because certain things I should be able to control, I cannot control (various passions of lust and pride and anger, for example); I am aware of sensations and sense-impressions, but I cannot alter them, except in trivial ways (I can stare at a optical illusion and make one line or the other look longer to me). What I cannot do is make myself a cubit taller by effort of thought. Even if I did not know where the boundaries of the physical world were, I could discover them by seeing what I could and could not control with a silent effort of willpower. I suppose a baby born with psycho-kinetic superpowers might never discover exactly what was external in the environment, and what was an image in his thoughts only.  In any case, the Fall seems to have put the control the passions outside the willpower, or, at least, outside the unassisted willpower: and so the passions are matter-like in this one respect, whether you actually think “the flesh” literally causes wicked thoughts to arise in the mind of its own power or not.

Now of these things of which I have partial control, I still thing of them as being mental rather than material, and for precisely this reason: mental things admit of mental properties, such as true and false, moral and immoral, logical and illogical, meaningful and meaningless. A stone is stone. It has mass and volume, but not honesty. There is no speaking of a “false” stone, except as a metaphor, or of an illogical or evil or meaningless stone. But we do speak of true and false dreams, or meaningful or meaningless dreams, and honest passions or evil passions or even false passions. The mental things have internal and intrinsic properties physical things simply do not have.

For practical purposes, will all due respect to Bishop Berkley, if all matter is made of divine thought, it is still matter to us, because it is not something we can change or manipulate by thought alone, and it is not something that possesses intrinsic properties such as true and false, right and wrong, meaningful and nonsensical. Tradition says that there are saints who walk on water, bilocate, levitate, and routinely treat the material world as casually as a lucid dreamer treats a dream: maybe so and maybe no, but if so, the saint is not abrogating the distinction between matter and spirit, he is overcoming the barrier between his spirit and that sovereign Spirit who is the father of all. At that point, perhaps material things would seem to that saint to have intrinsic properties, and he would read sermons in stones, see the gladness in the falling waters, hear the singing of the stars.

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