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Tam Hunt

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Tam Hunt


Absent-Minded Science

Matters of the Mind


We learn from an early age that “to be scientific” means avoiding attributing to nature human-like 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 practice, made crystal 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. The recent challenge to Cartesian dualism and reductionist materialism (from a non-religious perspective) comes from those 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 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. Matter itself is completely devoid of mind, in this view—whether physicists decide that matter is ultimately comprised of quarks and other little chunks, energy, fields, strings, or what-have-yous.

But here’s the problem: It is literally impossible for mind to spring forth from that which is wholly devoid of mind. This 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 the little billiard balls, the collection will never give rise to any type of mind—unless there is some type of mind contained in the little 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 any of the ultimate constituents of matter.

Here’s another 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.

The solution to this problem is to realize that there must be some degree of mind in all matter. This view is known as panpsychism, a view fleshed out to some degree by Greek and Indian philosophers thousands of years ago. 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 20th Century, is coming back into fashion in the 21st Century as more and more thinkers realize that the prevailing “emergence” theory of mind fails in principle.

Schopenhauer, the surly German 19th Century philosopher, perhaps said it best: “Materialism is the philosophy of the subject (consciousness) that forgets to take account of itself.” Panpsychism holds that mind is the inside of matter, so while we can only see the outsides 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.

This “absent-minded science” 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, either at the organismic level or higher levels. Indeed, the view that nature is completely devoid of purpose is a widely held and explicit assumption for the majority of biologists today. Talk about “design” and “intention,” when these terms are used by mainstream biologists, is always to be considered shorthand and tongue-in-cheek 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. 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 part of nature. If there is mind in us, and in all matter to some degree, then mind surely has had a role in the evolution of life from the very beginning.

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 multi-faceted process with both random and purposeful elements from the get-go. Lamarck wasn’t entirely wrong, and nor was Darwin. The Modern Synthesis is at this time being extended into a new synthesis that recognizes a broader and richer view of evolution. Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb’s excellent Evolution in Four Dimensions delves into some of these ideas.

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. But to go further than today’s impasse we need to re-embrace mind, and ourselves, as an inherent part of nature.

Tam Hunt is a philosopher, lawyer and biologist. He lives in Santa Barbara and keeps a blog, Thought, Spirit, Politik at tamhunt.blogspot.com.

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