Materialism-Idealism

The basic position of most practical scientists is that mind and consciousness are derived from and manifestations of matter. Matter is assumed, that is, it’s nature is assumed to be known and science is asserted to be limited to the systematic inquiry of the material universe.  Here are a few preliminary thoughts on this.

The reality of self-aware existence is that I, as an individual, know only two things from the start: that I am, and that there are things out there that are as well, but are not me. These things are objects and I am the subject of my existence as a self-conscious being. Next, at a second level of immediate knowledge, my existence as subject is also divided between my internal awareness of self as a conscious being (mind) and my awareness of my physical body as object – what is often referred to as the mind-body problem.

This innate knowing of every self-aware person that there is self and other, subject and object, mind and body, leads to three fundamental propositions around which all speculation about existence (ontology) turns: 1. that existence is derived from that which is subject; 2. that existence is derived from that which is object; 3. that existence is a dynamic polarity between subject and object.

The first two propositions are more familiarly known. The first is the basis for the view that the true or pure subject – mind – is the source of the things, which is often referred to as idealism (from the Platonic position that there exist Ideas or spiritual archetypes that are the cause of physical manifestations (objects), such that such manifestations have not independent reality. The second is the basis of the view that objects are the source of all that is subject, that is, mind and anything that is a product of mind. This is referred to as materialism, because objects are deemed to consist of matter, and thus, matter is deemed to be the cause of mind.

Current science is essentially based on the materialist viewpoint, denying an independent reality to mind and anything that is not matter, that is, anything that is a quality – feeling, thought, color, etc. – meaning anything that cannot be expressed in terms of quantitative measures involving space, time and motion (all things deemed “subjective,” meaning not within the proper scope of science). In fact, mind itself is reduced to the brain.

The foundation of reality for modern science is matter and physics, backed up by the quantitative analysis supplied by mathematics, is considered “true” science. This has so influenced all areas of systematic human inquiry that almost all have sought to model themselves on the physical sciences, using quantitative measurement methods by means of statistical analyses.

What precisely is this matter that is presumably the basis of all existence and reality, including mind? While matter seems obvious and solid and is essentially taken for granted, once examined it becomes more like the Chesire Cat, leaving only a grin behind. “The nature and definition of matter have been subject to much debate.” (Wikipedia – Materialism)

The long-standing atomic theory of matter holds essentially that it is highly divisible into minute, essentially invisible “particles” while it is also highly resistant, giving us the “hardness” of matter, whether in gas, liquid or solid state. These two things would seem logically incompatible. At the same time, quantum physics reveals that particles can also act as waves, and field theory from the 19th century to today holds that energy and matter are interchangeable, and more recently, only about 5% of matter in the universe is considered to be traditional “matter,” the rest being “dark matter” or “dark energy” but “with no agreement amongst scientists about what these are made of.” (Wikipedia – Materialism).

To get around the problem of the term “matter” some philosophers of science have started to refer to “physicalism” in place of materialism. Physicalism seeks to define reality as that which is explainable on the basis of physics.

Physicalism is a philosophical position holding that everything which exists is no more extensive than its physical properties; that is, that there are no kinds of things other than physical things. The term was coined by Otto Neurath in a series of early 20th century essays on the subject, in which he wrote:

“According to physicalism, the language of physics is the universal language of science and, consequently, any knowledge can be brought back to the statements on the physical objects.”

In contemporary philosophy physicalism is most frequently associated with philosophy of mind, in particular the mind/body problem, in which it holds that the mind is a physical thing in all senses. In other words, all that has been ascribed to “mind” is more correctly ascribed to “brain”. Physicalism is also called “materialism”, but the term “physicalism” is preferable because it has evolved with the physical sciences to incorporate far more sophisticated notions of physicality than matter, for example wave/particle relationships and non-material forces produced by particles.
The ontology of physicalism ultimately includes whatever is described by physics — not just matter but energy, space, time, physical forces, structure, physical processes, information, state, etc. Because it claims that only physical things exist, physicalism is generally a form of monism.

In effect, matter has now disappeared, to be replaced by physical powers, forces and energies, though the view is still that only that which can be explained in terms of space, time and motion is real, that is has an independent existence or reality. Thus, the mind is reduced to the brain, behavior to chemistry, physiology to biological processes, disease to germs, inheritance to genes, medical treatment to chemicals and surgery, etc. Physicalism is materialism in a new guise. Both represent the position that reality is “objective” in nature and that everything else is derived from and an effect of the motion of physical objects in space.

The whole of the history of Western philosophy has underlined that the knowledge of things or objects in terms of their quantitative or outer appearances is not certain knowledge, that is, cannot be proven to be reality itself as opposed to simply a representation of reality.

Western science has been itself limited to the world of objects, the so-called “objective”position. The problems of looking at reality and knowledge from the point of view of the object are such that it is only supportable to the extent that the philosophical problems are ignored and science simply considered an empirical exercise. This is fine when it comes to the results of such inquiry about nature and man, but it is less than fine when those who wish to so inquire also then insist that inquiries about man and nature that go beyond the “objective” position are invalid and non-scientific.

The knowledge derived from the examination of the material or physical, that is, quantitative aspects of reality is valid as far as it goes, but this knowledge is refracted and corrupted when it is assumed that it can be used to explain all of reality, and if not now, then eventually, though this is simply an assertion, a dog-in-a-manger attitude. This is essentially Hempel’s Dilemma.

Hempel’s Dilemma attacks how physicalism is defined. If, for instance, one defines physicalism as the universe is composed of everything known by physics, one can point out that physics cannot describe how the mind functions. If physicalism is defined as anything which may be described by physics in the future, one is saying nothing. (Wikipedia – Physicalism)

The problem with the materialist, and the more recent physicalist, position is that it is epistemologically unsound, being based on assertion only in terms of its claim to knowledge, and the only true knowledge at that. The only thing that man can be certain of, that he cannot deny without at the same time affirming the opposite, is the fact of his own being and self-awareness, that his is and that he is aware that he is. The world of objects of things “out there” beyond and apart from that awareness of being – I am – is, but is open to doubt as to whether it is real. While we might conceivably not be real, being just a dream of some deity, any science has to start from the acceptance of the fact of self-awareness as being real. This tells us that it is subject or mind that is the basis of reality and that mind is not reducible to an object, or to that which can be defined physically.

At the same time, the idealist position is no more tenable, as it essentially argues that the physical or material world is only an appearance or construct of mind, and not real, that is maya in the ancient Indian philosophy. The very physical nature of the world outside of our mind argues that it is real, even if the knowledge about its outer appearances is not necessarily reality.

Thus, we are left with the undoubted reality of mind and consciousness, as well as the reality of the physical world, though in some doubt as to what its true nature is. This is the starting point for the dynamic philosophy – that mind is the motive reality and the world of objects the manifested reality, and that valid knowledge of reality goes beyond the physical sense world. Mind is capable of evolution, whereas an object (matter) is not, and mind influences the nature of objects and their manifestation. Mind is also not limited or reducible to the brain, nor are feelings reducible to chemistry, though they can affect body chemistry.

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