Thursday, March 16, 2017



D. R. Khashaba

I am tired of going back again and again to discussing the positivist or physicalist approach to mind or consciousness. My position, bluntly put, is that objective science has nothing to do with the reality or nature of mind because the whole function of science is to observe, measure, systematize, theorize the appearances of things outside us and when we say outside us we do not mean outside our body since our body is itself outside that mysterious ‘us’ which cannot be approached by objective science because it is not in its nature to be objective since it is sheer subjectivity, mind, consciousness, soul, or simply us. Tired I am of saying this and explaining what I mean by this; still when I came across Professor Adam Frank’s Aeon essay “Minding Matter” ( ) I could not resist the penchant for wrestling once more with the question, especially as it seems that scientists are now realizing that they have a problem. I have written these lines before looking into Professor Frank’s paper, and as is my habit I will write down what thoughts occur to me as I read.

At the very outset I have to take exception to Professor Frank’s reference to “that most ultimate of scientific questions: the nature of consciousness”. This is not and can never be a scientific question. Mind is an ultimate mystery. Neither science not philosophy can discover the nature of mind. Science must acknowledge that its business is with what-is-not-mind. Philosophy, on the other hand, while it must confess that it cannot crack the mystery of mind, has yet all the time to be probing our mind as our inner reality, because only in doing that and by doing that do we possess ourselves, define the character we elect for ourselves, and act as free, intelligent agents. Science investigates things. Philosophy investigates meanings, ideals, values, which are all non-existent realities — and I do not mean this as a paradox: this is what I have been harping on in all my books and papers. These two – science dealing with things and philosophy dealing with ideas and ideals – have to be kept completely separate.

Frank broaches another very important question when he remarks that “after more than a century of profound explorations into the subatomic world, our best theory for how matter behaves still tells us very little about what matter is”. Here is another Holy Grail search that scientists would be wise to drop. Kant told us that empirical investigation only shows how things appear to us but not what they are in themselves. Long before Kant, Plato said that when the mind deals with external things, it reaches doxa (opinion) but cannot yield knowledge of the reality of things. The province of science is the How: how things appear, how they are related to one another, how they interact. The What is in the province of philosophy, but the only What philosophy truly knows is our own inner reality; when philosophy speculates about the What of external things it produces, in Plato’s words, ‘likely tales’. Plato himself said that fundamentally all things are nothing but dunamis (activity) ( Sophist). Leibniz said they are monads. Spinoza said they are modifications of the one Substance. Whitehead, when he turned to philosophy, said that reality is ultimately process and he termed things ‘event’. All these (and my own ‘Creative Eternity’) are myths that give us the aesthetic satisfaction of seeing the world as intelligible, but if we are wise we say that in truth we do not know though we are bound to go on producing ‘likely tales’ that give us the comfort of seeing the world as intelligible.

Frank aptly follows the lines I quoted above by adding: “Materialists appeal to physics to explain the mind, but in modern physics the particles that make up a brain remain, in many ways, as mysterious as consciousness itself.” But I cannot go with Professor Frank in seeing here a problem for science to pursue. Scientists will continue ‘reducing’ the brain to its physical constituents but they will never know ‘what’ these constituents are in themselves nor know what the mind is. But I know the mind, immediately and indubitably, as my inner reality: my subjective cognizance of my mind does not give me factual knowledge about my brain or the working of my brain and the scientist’s objective factual knowledge does not give her or him understanding of the mind.

Frank seems to be sounding the death knell for “materialism’s seeming finality” when he declares it to be “out of step with what we physicists know about the material world – or rather, what we don’t know”. As I see it, ‘materialism’ (perhaps ‘physicalism’ would be a better term) is not dead and should not die. Science will continue to deal with ‘stuff’ even if that stuff is reduced to a mathematical equation, the equation will still relate to what is out there. And that will be what we ‘know scientifically’. What we don’t know (as meant in Frank’s statement) is not grist for the scientific mill. When scientists busy themselves with searching for the ultimate What or the ultimate Why they are stepping into the Labyrinth Of Unanswerable Questions. (A fit title for a Borges story!)

Without claiming any knowledge of quantum mechanics or the wave function I have repeatedly argued, on grounds of pure reason, that scientific laws can never be either absolutely certain or absolutely accurate. Now Professor Frank tells us that the wave function “gives you only probabilities”. That the wave function is, in Frank’s words, “an epistemological and ontological mess” is the nemesis for scientists’ stepping into areas not lawful for them.

“For a hundred years now, physicists and philosophers have been beating the crap out of each other”, we are told. This is simply foolish of both parties. They have to acknowledge that even when they seemingly deal with the same thing, they are asking totally distinct questions.

When I encounter the phrase “everything made of (matter) – which, of course, means everything” I sense that we have a problem. I am made of cells and molecules and atoms and neurons. That is all I am made of but it is not all that I am. All that is my outside but there is also my inside, my subjectivity, my mind. In the case of a human being we can see (begging pardon of the reductionists) that this makes sense. What about other things? About other things, Kant tells us, we know the phenomena, and that is all science deals with and all science needs. What about the inside of things? Science does not need that and must not tamper with that, Philosophy speculates about that to obtain a vision that makes the world intelligible, but has no right to say that that is how the world actually is. Thales said that all things are full of gods. This is not silly. It means that for the world to be not entirely baffling to us we have to imagine that there is inner intelligence in all things. Philosophers have been clothing this vision in various myths. They only err when they, disregarding the warnings of Plato and of Kant, think that by the power of pure reason alone they can reach definitive, demonstrably true, accounts about the All. Philosophers are poets regaling us with ‘likely tales’ that give us comfort and aesthetic satisfaction. Do we ask Shakespeare to produce evidence that the happenings of The Tempest actually took place?

The mind will remain unexplained as an ultimate mystery but that does not prevent me to say that I know the reality of the mind as my proper reality just as the fact that the mystery of Being must remain unexplained does not prevent me saying that I know that I am. Those who think that by tracing the universe back to the Big Bang or the god particle or whatever they have answered the question how or why there is anything at all rather than nothing simply do not know what they are talking about.

In my view, we cannot see the world and our own being as intelligible without supposing that at the origin of all things there is intelligence and life; and I cannot see becoming, any becoming, as intelligible without supposing that at the origin of all things there is creativity; and I see intelligence and life and creativity as one thing, an eternal Act; hence I represent ultimate Reality as Creative Eternity. This is a dreamer’s vision; it has nothing to do with science and science has nothing to do with it.

Frank emphasizes the failure of materialism to explain consciousness. Can we say that his position and mine are basically in agreement? I am afraid not. Frank is rather disappointed that materialism cannot explain mind. I say this is as it should be. Mind is the interiorness of — of what? Assuredly of us and supposedly of all things. Science by its constitutional law of objectivity can only work on exteriors.

To give Kipling’s famous verse a more truthful application we may say: ‘Matter is Matter and Mind is Mind and never the twain shall meet’ in a unified theory of everything because the everything out there is not really everything.

Professor Frank concludes by quoting two insightful lines of the poet Richard Wilbur which I cannot refrain from reproducing here:

Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones:

But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.

D, R. Khashaba

March 16, 2017

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