Noetic Now

About Noetic Now »

From Issue Four, November 2010 « Previous Article Next Article »

Absent-Minded Science – Part I

  • Comments (17)
  • Bookmark and Share

We learn from an early age that “to be scientific” means avoiding attributing to nature humanlike tendencies such as mind or purpose. To be “anthropomorphic” in science is a cardinal sin. Modern science, with its amazing successes in improving human understanding, did in fact spring in part from this tendency, made clear with Descartes’ philosophical separation of reality into two categories, physical stuff and mental stuff. The mental stuff is the realm of spirit, and this is God’s domain. The physical stuff is also God’s handiwork, but it works according to identifiable rules (laws) that humankind may discern through careful observation and experiment.

However, as with most big ideas, Descartes’ idea was overly simplistic and, we now know, inaccurate. Very few modern scientists or philosophers would argue in favor of Cartesian dualism, though this view is still fairly common among more religious-minded people. But its direct residue is “reductionist materialism,” which simply ignores the mental-spiritual realm that Descartes proposed and attempts instead to explain everything as simply matter in motion. Recent challenges to Cartesian dualism and reductionist materialism from a non-religious perspective come from such philosophers as Galen Strawson, David Chalmers, and David Ray Griffin, who realize that modern science went astray long ago by trying to expunge mind from its explanations.

The problem becomes apparent when we try to explain mind itself within the “scientific method,” which does its best to ignore mind in nature. The prevailing theory of mind argues that mind emerges from mindless matter when a certain level of complexity is reached in both evolutionary history and in each organism. That is, at some point in the history of life on our planet, a mind appeared for the first time where it was wholly absent before. In this view, the constituents of matter are completely devoid of mind until the required level of complexity is reached – whether physicists decide that matter is ultimately comprised of quarks, energy, fields, strings, or what have you.

But here’s the problem: It is literally impossible for mind to spring forth from that which is wholly devoid of mind.

The problem becomes clear if we envision the ultimate constituents of matter as akin to little billiard balls. (This is not an accurate notion, even in terms of the prevailing views of matter, but it is accurate in terms of my point here.) No matter how we arrange any number of little billiard balls, the collection will never give rise to any type of mind unless there is some type of mind contained in the billiard balls from the get-go. And the prevailing theory of mind today denies that there is any mind at all in the little billiard balls or in any of the ultimate constituents of matter.

To bring the problem closer to home, imagine your own development in your mother’s womb. You – originally a single cell – developed steadily in complexity and size. Your body grew, and your nervous system differentiated itself from other types of cells in your little body. Nerve cells grew, lengthened, interconnected, and eventually formed your brain, spinal cord, and so on. Every step of this process was incremental – small change after small change. At what point did your mind emerge? At what point did it suddenly pop into existence where it was wholly absent before? And if it did suddenly emerge, why at a certain point in time and not a moment earlier or later?

Here’s one more way of thinking about the problem: Imagine observing a brain surgery. You are able to peer into the brain from the outside through a hole cut in the skull. You have a microscope that allows you to peer into the structure of the brain. Let’s imagine you could even go further than modern technology allows, and you could look into the living brain with such detail that individual dendrites and synapses are distinguishable. Where is the mind? All we will ever see by looking at a brain and its components from the outside are the electrochemical energy flows that comprise the brain’s activities. We will never see the mind. Yet we know, more than we know anything else, based on our own experience as thinking beings, that it’s there.

Something from Nothing?

There seem to be two options here: (1) Accept that the prevailing view, that mind mysteriously emerges from mindless matter, is not much different than the religious notion of a soul attaching to the fertilized egg or at some point later in its development. (2) Accept that mind is inherent in all matter to some degree and that there is a tiny sort of mind in the fertilized egg (and even tinier minds in the constituents of the egg) and that as the egg complexifies into you, so your mind complexifies.

This second view is known as panpsychism, fleshed out to some degree by Greek and Indian philosophers thousands of years ago and developed significantly since then. David Skrbina’s Panpsychism in the West is a wonderful history of these ideas and more. Panpsychism, while out of fashion for much of the twentieth century, is coming back into fashion in the twenty-first century as more and more thinkers realize that the prevailing “emergence theory of mind,” a type of reductionist materialism, fails as a matter of principle.

Arthur Schopenhauer, the surly German nineteenth-century philosopher, perhaps said it best: “Materialism is the philosophy of the subject (consciousness) that forgets to take account of itself.” Panpsychism, by comparison, holds that mind is the inside of matter, no matter how simple. So while we can only see the outside of objects available to our senses, like the neurons and dendrites of our hypothetical brain surgery patient, we know from our own direct experience that matter also has an inside, and this is what we call mind. The inside of matter is only directly accessible to itself, such that my mind is knowable only to me, as is the case with every human, cat, bat, rat, gnat, and so on, down the chain of complexity.

“Absent-minded science” that is part of reductionist materialism is not a problem just in cognitive science and philosophy of mind; it’s also a major problem in biology. The prevailing view of evolution, known as adaptationism or the modern synthesis, holds that we must avoid ascribing any purpose to the evolutionary process at the organismic level or higher. Indeed, the view that nature is completely devoid of purpose is a widely held and explicit assumption for the majority of biologists today. When mainstream biologists talk about “design” and “intention,” it is always considered tongue-in-cheek shorthand for processes that are wholly devoid of purpose or mind.

Yet here we are, humans with minds and intentions, trying to explain how we got here. Our purpose in devising theories of evolution is to explain key aspects of nature, including ourselves, in terms of our history and place in the universe. Thus, if we are indeed part of nature – as we surely are – then the mere fact of our presence in the universe demonstrates unequivocally that mind is very much a part of nature. And if there is mind in us, and by extension in all matter to some degree, then mind surely has had a role in the evolution of life from the very beginning. Sewall Wright, a well-known American evolutionary biologist, stated it well in a 1977 article: “[E]mergence of mind from no mind is sheer magic.”

The evolution of life has not, then, been a mindless process of random mutation and natural selection. Rather, the evolution of life has surely been a multifaceted process with both random and purposeful elements from the very beginning. Pioneering evolutionary theorist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck wasn’t entirely wrong in supposing that acquired traits can sometimes be heritable, nor were Darwin and his successors wrong in supposing that random mutation of germ-lines were the cause of variation. The modern synthesis is now being extended into a new synthesis that recognizes a broader and richer view of evolution, which encompasses both Darwin and Lamarck. Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb’s excellent Evolution in Four Dimensions, for example, delves into some of these ideas, exploring the epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic dimensions of evolution in addition to the traditional genetic dimension, as well as ways in which some acquired traits can indeed be heritable (a later essay in this series will explore these ideas in more depth).

We are Mind

It is clear, then, that we must no longer ignore mind in nature. Moreover, it is time for science and philosophy to wholly repudiate Cartesian dualism and its slightly less pernicious cousin, reductionist materialism, and acknowledge that matter and mind are an undivided whole. Science has progressed far by expunging mind from its explanations, and anthropomorphism can indeed be a lazy philosophical position if we simply extend human attributes reflexively (and unreflectively) into the universe around us. But to go further than today’s impasse we need to re-embrace mind and ourselves as an inherent part of nature.

Mind doesn’t have to be humanlike – most of the minds that exist in the universe are surely little like human minds because of an almost total lack of complexity. But a simple mind is still a mind. The panpsychist view is that each little speck of matter throughout the universe is both a speck of matter and a speck of mind. And as matter complexifies, so mind complexifies.

This is not anthropomorphism as much as it is a legitimate “psychomorphism,” because we realize that mind must indeed be part of the very fabric of reality if we are to explain our very existence as human beings. We are here. We have minds – or, to be accurate, we are mind. What we call matter and mind are two aspects of the same thing – the outside and inside of matter, respectively. We are part of nature. Ergo, mind is ubiquitous, part and parcel of the unbroken fabric of reality. And to ignore this is to misunderstand nature and ourselves.

Go here to read Absent-Minded Science - Part II in the Blog section of Noetic Now. Part III is posted here.

Moon Icon
  • Anonymous Icon

    TohioAst Nov 09, 2010

    Great article . . . it would seem that the Cartesian duality emerged because man lost sight of a portion of himself; or, at least, had not fully evolved.

  • Anonymous Icon

    Brian O Dowd Nov 09, 2010

    The prevalent thought system is characterised by the computer model. In that model there has to be hardware to house the software. There has to be software to run the hardware. We are All One Mind. And being in All One Mind there is only software. There are only ideas. No matter how hard, how long, how deep or how far we look for the ultimate bit of matter, we will never find it. We are, always have been, and always will be, an idea, unlimited by any thought or belief system.

  • Anonymous Icon

    pt68 Nov 09, 2010

    My main issue with this article is the term "mind" and the lack of a clear definition thereof. What exactly is being discussed? Are we talking about consciousness? Or are we talking about some all-encompassing aspect of reality? Because the way "mind" is being used seems conveniently vague for the sake of the arguments the author puts forward.
    If we're talking about consciousness, i.e., a way of considering self-awareness and self-identity, then to say that it CAN'T simply emerge is an anthropocentric stance that shows a lack of awareness of emergent phenomenon and the science of complexity.
    If we're talking about underlying aspects, then the referencing of Cartesian dualism and the philosophical approach is a truly "wrong-headed" approach to understanding what can't be rationally comprehended.

  • Anonymous Icon

    dwhogg Nov 09, 2010

    The argument that mind cannot just emerge from matter as it would be emerging "from that which is devoid of mind" doesn't hold water.

    Speaking of water :), I think it is easy to agree that "wetness" emerges from the particular combination of hydrogen and oxygen atoms despite the fact that hydrogen and oxygen themselves are devoid of "wetness".

    I happen to agree that mind is fundamental - but don't agree with this argument about emergent properties of complex systems! The point is that this line of reasoning vis-a-vis mind is in itself reasonable (although again, I don't think it is actually correct).

  • QuantumDoug Nov 09, 2010

    Thanks for the informative article on this subject. Your definition of Panpsychism is useful since it ties matter and mind together. My background is in quantum computing and that definition matches up with how quantum states underlie all matter (and energy). Essentially my model is that perhaps something like quantum states (is ubiquitous and information like plus many other properties) may be related to mind. In the light of modern physics, the relationship between mind and matter is not quite a complete picture, since mind may exist even when there is no matter (i.e. pure light energy or even empty space, the so-called zero-point energy). We can also imagine that quantum state spaces may exist that are not connected to our physical universe at all (other universes that use quantum dimensional filaments to form their universe). My understanding of quantum state space suggests they are mathematical dimensional filaments that have information and probabilistic properties, so I theorize they form a proto-physical layer for mind and meaning. There is no real source of meaning anywhere in the universe except in mind and law of attraction must be built on such "likeness metric" in some universal meaning layer. See more of my recent papers and talks on this subject at quantumdoug dot com.

  • Anonymous Icon

    SpiritualityAndHealthMagazine Nov 09, 2010

    Interesting piece, and interesting comments. For what it's worth, the use of the term reductionist has become Orwellian. Scientists are reverse-engineering dinosaurs from the embryos of modern chickens -- and that's all part of soul-less reductionism? Meanwhile, my computer is on its way to becoming self conscious and what I see is a silver box full of stuff I don't understand.

    The universe may be alive or mindful, whatever that means, but human self consciousness seems to be something different -- a brief experiment that may not last much longer. Teasing apart the brain, self consciousness seems to be a small fraction of an operating system ruled ultimately by a reptilian brain stem. Once you get that, I think you get an evolutionary reason for mystical experience. You shut off your talkative left brain, give up spacial awareness, and feel one with everything -- all as a survival mechanism to listen to Mother Earth, because she is smarter than we are. Maybe that's the ubiquitous mind. Or maybe I had too much coffee...

  • Tam Hunt Nov 09, 2010

    pt68 and dwhogg, I am using the term "mind" here as the most general term for consciousness, awareness, experience, etc., which are different terms for the mental aspect of the universe.

    As for emergence and comparisons to features like liquidity, this is a common objection to anti-emergence arguments. If features like liquidity, solidity or color can emerge from objects that don't display these features, isn't this a good precedent for emergence of mind from non-mind? In a word, no.

    There is a crucial difference. Let's take liquidity. Liquidity is indeed a new feature of molecules that isn't present until the right conditions are present. H and O molecules aren't themselves liquid at room temperature. And yet liquidity is entirely explicable by looking at how these molecules interact with each other. There is really no mystery now (well, surely some, but not much) in how H and O molecules combine to form dipolar molecules that attract each other more loosely than in a solid but less loosely than in a gas. In other words, liquidity is pretty predictable, or at least explicable, when we consider the constituents of any given liquid. We're dealing with "outsides" at every step in this process - first the outsides of the individual molecules and then the outsides of the combination of molecules in the liquid.

    Consciousness is entirely different because we are not talking about relational properties of the outsides of various substances. We are talking about insides, experience, consciousness, phemonema, qualia, etc. And when we define our physical constituents as wholly lacking in mind then it is literally impossible for mind to "emerge" from this wholly mindless substrate. This is what Strawson calls "radical emergence" and he makes basically the same argument that I've made here as to its impossibility.

    Now, maybe impossibility is too strong a word for you. Granted, at this level of abstraction we can't prove anything (can anything be proved, period?). So perhaps a better word would be implausible. It is highly implausible that the inside of matter (mind, consciousness) would suddenly emerge at some arbitrary midpoint in the history of the universe. Isn't it far more plausible that if there must be some kind of emergence (something from nothing) that it occurs at the beginning of the ontological chain of being?

  • Tam Hunt Nov 09, 2010

    QuantumDoug, my intuition is that you are correct in suggesting a link between quantum phenomena and consciousness. This is of course not a new idea and there are many extant quantum theories of mind (Pribram, Stapp, Penrose, Hameroff, to name a few). My own theory of consciousness, which is panpsychist and described in detail in a paper that will appear in the Journal of Consciousness Studies next year ("Kicking the Psychophysical Laws Into Gear: A General Theory of Complex Subjects), suggests that quantum nonlocality may be crucial for high-level consciousness like our own because it allows surmounting barriers to causation propagation that would otherwise limit consciousness to fairly simple types. Our brains, in my theory, act like consciousness superconductors by allowing the stability and synchrony of countless tiny minds to combine at various holarchical levels into the type of mind we enjoy as humans. This is my solution to the "combination problem" and it's hard to do it justice in just a few sentences.

  • Stefania Lucchetti Nov 09, 2010

    hi Tam, I loved your article. I wonder whether we could differentiate between mind and consciousness. Is mind consciousness or is mind a tool of consciousness?

  • Tam Hunt Nov 10, 2010

    Thanks Stefania! Words can mean what we want them to mean, as Humpty Dumpty famously observed. To me, mind and consciousness are synonymous though we can of course if we wish reserve "consciousness" for more complex types of mind like our own. Some philosophers, like Galen Strawson and David Ray Griffin, prefer to use "experience" as the most basic level of mental reality. I imagine the experience of an electron to be a simple humming or "om-ing" of very basic existence.

    We could also take the more Idealist route and consider mind to be akin to Hegel's Spirit or the Absolute. In this version, mind/Spirit/Absolute is akin to the Vedanta Brahman and is the source of it all, the ground of being from which reality grows in each moment.

    These views are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they use different terminology but can be readily reconciled if we look to the underlying concepts.

    Part III of this series will delve a bit more into these ideas.

  • Anonymous Icon

    pt68 Nov 11, 2010

    In most sciences of mind and consciousness:
    mind- the element or complex of elements in an individual that feels, perceives, thinks, wills, and reasons; the organized conscious and unconscious adaptive mental activities of an organism.

    consciousness -the quality or state of being aware, especially of something within oneself.

    So there is a clear difference. Consciousness is one aspect of mind, the aspect that carries awareness.

    While I do believe that there are as-yet-to-be-fully-understood aspects of the universe that guide life and its processes, there's no proof here of consciousness, and "mind" works at best as a useful metaphor.

  • Anonymous Icon

    schmere Nov 11, 2010

    Thanks for the article, Tam!

    You mentioned that, if we delve deeper into the very "matter" of the brain, synapses et al, we still don't "see" anything we can label, "mind". The natural extension is that there is, therefore, a bit of "mind" within everything, and the "mind" we experience is the effect of higher-level combinations/complexity of those tiny minds.

    However, that assumes only a 3- (or 3.5-) dimensional universe. Most theories I hear today suggest a 10-dimensional universe. In that framework, could not the "mind" bits be attached to, say, atoms (or sub-atomic parts) but exist in one (or more) of those other dimensions? Something that exists, is experienced, but is not 5-sense tangible? I think the awareness of extra dimensions, which we have historically not physically perceived, helps to explain much of what we "see" in both consciousness and quantum phenomena.

  • Tam Hunt Nov 11, 2010

    pt68, there are no "official" definitions of these terms but there are certainly conventions and personal preferences. The convention in the philosophy of mind is to use "consciousness" as the most general term for the mental world. But as I mentioned previously in these comments, Strawson and Griffin, and some others, prefer generally to use "experience" as the most general term. "Awareness" usually refers to the more purely psychological meaning that you describe as "consciousness" above.

    It's important to distinguish at least terminologically between psychology and philosophy of mind and ontology/metaphysics. The latter three fields are generally trying to get at the fundamental nature of things, rather than to explain psychological phenomena, which is often referred to nowadays, tongue in cheek, as the "easy problem."

    The "hard problem," as you probably know, is determining exactly what consciousness is, in an ontological sense. See David Chalmers' 1996 book on this topic and many other treatments since. The hard problem is, however, just another name for the eons-old mind/body problem. This is the problem of determining what mind and matter are, and how they relate.

    As for "proof" of consciousness, the only consciousness you can prove is your own. I can't prove yours and you can't prove mine. We magnanimously grant each other conscious experience because we have good circumstantial evidence that others are conscious. But we can't know if they are because it is the nature of consciousness to know only one's own consciousness. Similarly, we can, based on circumstantial evidence, decide to grant consciousness to creatures and objects that are not human. As I write about in Part III of this series, some well-known physicists, including Freeman Dyson and David Bohm, believe that the behavior of electrons and other subatomic particles, which is often described as "random," suggests instead a choice. That is, the electron's behavior can best be explained by ascribing a very rudimentary consciousness to it. This is one more line of reasoning that supports the panpsychist hypothesis.

  • Tam Hunt Nov 11, 2010

    schmere, thanks for the kind words. As for hidden dimensions, I do think there are other dimensions that form the basis for our own 4-d world. David Bohm's "implicate order," or the Akashic field, apeiron, Brahman, ether, etc., are all fine words for this hidden reality. The essential argument for such a reality is that for there to be a physical world there must be something that sustains that world in each moment - a ground. The ground of being. It just so happens that many modern physics theories support this notion, but I put little stock in string theory at this point because it is so far from empirical reality and is currently untestable (see Lee Smolin's 2006 book The Trouble With Physics).

    Now, whether or not the mental realm resides in these hidden dimensions is very debatable and probably unknowable. When I write, however, that the mental realm is the "inside" of matter, we could just as well conceive of this inside as another dimension(s) because I don't mean literally when I say inside. Rather, I mean that there is something about matter that is not accessible to outside observers. Outside observers can only know the relational aspects of each object of study: how it relates to other outsides and the particular inside of the observer herself. This is the nature of outsides. But as Alan Watts writes: "For every inside there is an outside, and for every outside there is an inside. And though they are different, they go together."

    The key point, in my opinion, is that we cannot deny the epistemological duality of inside/outside, subject/object, knower/known. This epistemological duality is the most certain thing we know, by sheer virtue of our existence as conscious beings, but it shouldn't be mistaken to require an ontological duality. The better view is that, as Watts, suggests, inside and outside are two aspects of the same fundamental stuff. And this stuff we may call Brahman, ether, ground of being, etc.

  • usefulidiot Dec 02, 2010

    Matter doesnt mind, and mind doest matter. The Brain is a decoder of mind (to an extent). Turn off a TV and the mind (signal) doesnt vanish, the electromagnetic wave (TV signal is the important part).

    The TV would be nothing without its signal. The mistake scientists make is akin to an electronics engineer measuring voltages in a TV circuit, and deducing that the picture (consciousness if you like) is PRODUCED by the television. This is the same as measuring brain activity, and thinking that the mind is the orator of all things.

    I think Brain/Mind/Conciousness is an information system. When a star dies, its light continues for many light years when the physical object ceases to exist.

    This is all hypothesis of course, and has been said by others probably much better that I have put. When you mention this kind of thing, because religion has poisoned the thought process, many will walk down the side alley of faith, and say "Ah, this is like a soul - surviving death".

    But as the TV signal requires no theological framework to function, neither does the information field of Conciousness.


  • Cassandra Vieten, PhD Dec 07, 2010

    Great article Tam - I'd only point out that the "scientific method" doesn't believe anything - it's very simply a process by which one observes phenomena, forms hypotheses about it, and tests those hypotheses...nothing about the scientific method itself excludes observing mental or spiritual phenomena, forming hypotheses about them, and testing those's a misinterpretation that science requires materialism...don't you agree?

  • Anonymous Icon

    donsalmon Oct 01, 2011

    Hi Cassandra, your comment about the misinterpretation that 'Science requires materialism" is the theme of a paper I recently wrote, "Shaving Science With Ockham's Razor", here: - though it may be upsetting to some like Chris Carter and Amit Goswami, since I also suggest that nothing (not psi data, or NDE data or anything in quantum physics) "requires" a non-materialist explanation (though I don't hide the fact that philosophically - not scientifically - i think a non-materialist explanation makes much more sense).

    Specially about Tam's piece - very nice, but I have one problem with his comment about water. True, there's no mystery about the emergence of liquidity in an objective sense (the molecular explanation). But if you're talking about the subjective "experience" of liquidity - science as presently constituted (that is, if you don't count phenomenological psychology, which for most contemporary scientists is a non-starter) is not only inexplicable, but is virtually non-existent. Dennett and Blakemore may be the most extreme in denying the existence of qualia, but this denial is still implicit in the vast majority of scientific writings. So yes, from the conventional perspective, liquidity is not a mystery, but if you consider liquidity in the qualitative, experiential sense, then liquidity - like the song of the bird, the blue of the sky and the sweetness of a mango - are inexplicable. (please write me at if you find errors in the shaving science essay - thanks!)

  • Log In or Sign Up to Post a Comment

Stay in touch with IONS