Matter Can’t Make Mind: Part One

There are many excellent reasons why materialism is likely to be false. Let us start with the nature of matter itself.

What is ‘Matter’?

(1) The man-in-the-street usually claims to ‘know by experience what matter is‘. Dr Johnson is famous for impersonating the man-in-the-street by kicking a stone. He thought this showed that solid matter was indeed solid. But what did he actually prove? Nothing. The pain he got in his foot merely shows what we all know, namely that ‘Matter’ is simply the way mind perceives its surroundings as they appear to us through our senses, namely as hard / soft, cold / hot, noisy, painful, colourful / dark, etc. In this case it appeared as hard and painful. In other words, matter is appearance.

The quantum physicist Nick Herbert very nicely says that we human beings resemble King Midas. Everything he touched turned into gold – including his daughter and his food, so that he would have starved to death both emotionally and physically had the god Dionysos not taken pity on him. Herbert says we ‘can’t directly experience the true texture of reality because everything we touch turns to matter.

(2) So now let’s put this question to the physicist, for it is popularly held that he knows what matter is. When facing this same question, Sir Arthur Eddington gives the example of an elephant sliding down a grassy slope. So as to handle this situation in science, he explains, you turn it into pointer readings or their equivalents. You turn the elephant into a weight (mass), the grassy slope into an angle of 60o, the grass into a coefficient of friction – and so on. As Eddington carefully explains, concrete reality disappears, and abstract measurements take its place.

Thus we are, I fear, again disappointed, for the physicist does not claim to ‘know what matter is‘. Science is humanity’s most majestic creation. On the one hand it has taught us rigour, on the other it has magnified our sense of wonder. But it neither replaces nor replicates reality. It merely gives us an abstract account of reality, which enables us to manipulate it better. That is to say that the physicist deals, not with ‘matter itself’ (whatever that might be) but rather with those aspects of appearance which can be quantified, reduced to measurements, and thereby modelled and manipulated. And of course modern science has enabled us to do this to a remarkable degree.

(3) What do we conclude? Well, for the man-in-the-street ‘matter’ is the impression given of it by our various senses. Moreover there is a natural tendency to assimilate the notion of ‘matter’ to the harder and more impenetrable side of our experiences with the outer world. For the scientist it is rather different: ‘matter’ is those aspects of the world that he can measure or model. For him, there is a natural tendency to see matter, measure it, test it, judge its nature via the exceedingly successful tool of mathematics. For the scientist, the living reality of the experienced world thus literally disappears into abstractions.

The ‘true nature‘ of matter is absent from both these views, nor is it possible to ascertain what that ‘true nature‘ might be. There is nothing very surprising about this outcome, since everything we know about the outer world is actually indirect: it is transmitted and transmuted to us through our senses, and interpreted through the conscious and unconscious areas of our minds.

Help from Berkeley

Now it is essential to observe the subject of discussion properly, and to define it as accurately as we can. One must admit that clarity is not always attainable, and that mystery is frequently unavoidable. In this case however I believe that the definition I shall propose will not only provide some clarity but also a degree of enlightenment.

Let us therefore take the philosopher Berkeley’s view of matter. I do not accept the final conclusions of Berkeleyan philosophy, but his starting point embodies a remarkable insight. For him, there are basically two elements in nature: (1) percipere (what perceives and cannot by its nature be perceived), i.e. consciousness, and – its reverse or polar twin: (2) percipi (what is perceived and cannot by its nature perceive), i.e. matter. This is quite close to the view which Indian philosophy has always taken, namely that the division is not between soul and body, or mind and matter, but between consciousness and appearance. We shall see that this makes all the difference to our way of thinking about reality.

(Let me at once point out, before proceeding with the argument, that materialists entirely agree with Berkeley’s definition of matter: that is, they entirely agree that matter can be perceived but does not perceive. We shall return to this issue in a moment.)

I shall immediately say that I take this view of the question to be, observably, correct. It is quite literally a matter of observation, and any dispassionate person can see at once that this is the way things are. The material objects we observe in the world around us are quite evidently perceptible by consciousness, yet themselves devoid of consciousness; whereas the living persons we also experience around us are (pace arguments about solipsism ) evidently observing beings. Yet it is impossible for any consciousness to enter another consciousness and perceive the latter’s own perceptions. This is one of the most important lessons we absorb in early childhood when learning how to understand the actions of people around us. Importantly, nobody can perceive my perceiving. The scientist can open up my brain but he still cannot perceive my perceiving. Yes, he can fix a device to my skull and see where in my brain certain impulses are happening. But that is still not observing what and how my experiences are. We must be thankful for this, because otherwise we would soon have totalitarians, fascists, communists, and in due course no doubt Iranian ayatollahs, all seeking direct mind-control of their subjects. As Genoud writes in the JCS,

Can consciousness be sought out by seeing? Can it be known by hearing, touching, or thinking? If that were so, consciousness would be a shape and colour, a sound, a tactile sensation, a thought. None of which is true.

As I say, impartial experience shows that the Berkeleyan claim as to percipere and percipi is the way to define the fundamental split between matter and mind. The two poles – which I shall continue to call by their Latin names percipere and percipi — what perceives and what is perceived — are mutually exclusive. To put it another way, one might say that (1) consciousness is an inside without an outside, and that (2) matter is an outside without an inside. To state it this way is to enunciate an apparent paradox. But clearly this is because consciousness and matter are paradoxical when taken separately. Taken together, they are complementary.

Percipere and percipi are two mutually exclusive categories. Each is everything the other is not; and each is nothing that the other is. Consciousness and matter are thus reverse or polar twins. I am reminded of one of Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories, where he speaks of the Disc of Odin. This impossible object is a disc with only a single side. It follows therefore that, if you drop it and it lands face down, you’ll never find it again. Consciousness and matter are, I would suggest, a pair: two Discs of Odin.

There is one exception to this absolute law. It is a single exception, yet we all experience it every minute. The perceiver is never the perceived and the perceived is never the perceiver, except in one case. For everyone’s personal consciousness can of course perceive itself. So the impassable gulf is resolved in one case and in one case only, with subject and object knowing each other reflexively. Consciousness is the only thing that knows itself, i.e. only consciousness resolves the ultimate ontological chasm between perceiver and perceived.

Here an important metaphysical claim may be made. Nor is this step (except in the fashionable view of our contemporaries) daring at all: it is merely the sort of thing that many great philosophies of the past believed in. Consciousness may be an element of the Ultimate. The World, we may guess, is the result of splitting apart from each other the two fundamental principles or elements, percipere the perceiver & percipi the perceived.