Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
I'd like to present and discuss (in anyone is interested) Christian de Quincey's paper in the June 2011 issue of Integral Review, "No ontological leaps: a primer on scientific materialism." The abstract and a few excerpts:
Abstract: When the issue is intelligence in nature, arguments about whether science supports neo-Darwinian theory or intelligent design miss the point. The details of evolution or the structure of the brain are irrelevant because biology and neuroscience have nothing to say about consciousness. Science informs us only about the physical world. However, consciousness/mind/intelligence is non-physical, and no amount of evolution or complexity of purely physical processes could ever produce anything nonphysical. There are no ontological jumps. You don’t get something from nothing—or, more precisely, you don’t get “no-thing” from anything. How, then, do we account for the fact that consciousness exists in an otherwise physical universe? It all comes down to our basic metaphysical beliefs.
I’d like to make something very clear: I am no less free of basic metaphysical assumptions than anyone in the materialist camp. We all, necessarily, begin any contemplation or investigation of the world with some set of fundamental metaphysical assumptions. That’s a given. It’s unavoidable.
What good philosophy does (and good science should do), however, is lay bare those assumptions, and examine them to see (a) if they are internally coherent (rationalism), and (b) if they are consistent with the actual world revealed through experience (empiricism).
I have spent a career in philosophy focused on examining and evaluating the various
alternative metaphysical starting points to see which one best accounts for the fact that we are embodied beings with consciousness. Technically, in philosophy, it’s called “the mind-body” problem. Despite multiple variations, all ontological positions on the mind-body issue resolve into just four alternatives: dualism, materialism, idealism, and panpsychism. All, except panpsychism, fail the two-part test outlined above: rational coherence, and consistency with experience.
[Panpsychism] claims that ultimate reality is both physical and non-physical (it consists of objective matter and subjective mind) and that mind and matter are inseparable. Mind and matter always go together—all the way down.
Although acknowledging the existence of two ontological types (physical matter/energy and non-physical mind/consciousness), panpsychism differs from ontological dualism because it denies that mind and matter are separate or separable. In fact, of the four major worldviews, panpsychism alone qualifies as a form of nondual dualism or a dual-aspect monism. Here, ultimate reality consists of a single, inseparable, nature—sentient energy. However, this single ultimate has a dual-aspect interior subjectivity and external objectivity. In short, the Creative Ultimate consists of intrinsically sentient energy. Matter itself tingles with the spark of spirit.
This native ability of matter/energy to purposefully direct itself accounts for the inherent exploratory drive in evolution. In fact, what we call “evolution” is the grand adventure of matter/energy exploring its own potentials—giving rise to the blooming, buzzing symphony of species that grace our planet (and, no doubt, countless other planets and galaxies, too). Yes, evolution also proceeds through physical processes of unpredictable mutations and natural selection. But these physical changes are guided from within by a native “urge”* or “aim” operating within nature itself at all levels.
* Ha! theurj!
I like this.
Does de Quincey's statement that awareness is non-physical make sense to you?
It does not. And being of the embodied mind school for me consciousness indeed arises from physical or embodied processes, i.e., consciousness is not originary. So I find both de Quincey and your ruminations on the non-physical nature of "origin" metaphysical, at least at this point. As I said it doesn't make sense to me but I'll give it some time to see if I change my mind.
As an aside, there has been some research into the correlation between Bohr and Derrida, like in this book and this dissertation, which examines the book. Derrida was not a "relativist" in the least. And the implications you derive from Bohr are different from those in these references. These references make sense to me. For example from the latter:
For Bohr, what is called reality cannot be reduced to observability, nor is it simply a conceptual creation or construction by the knowing subject. Rather, there is an aspect of reality — designated by Plotnitsky as “material efficacity” — that “affects and constrains all observation, measurement, interpretation, and theory” and yet is not fully accessible to observation or theoretical conceptualization.
Bohr’s displaced notion of reality, in particular, may better be designated as “alterity” in a Derridean sense.... By this alterity Plotnitsky does not mean “absolute alterity,” which would be akin to the Kantian thing-in-itself or conform to “negative ontotheology.” Bohr’s thought does not refer to the absolutely ‘other,’ but rather operates in a “complementary” or “reciprocal” relation between self and other, inside and outside, or subject and object. It nevertheless concerns itself with the irreducibly and radically other, an other which is in no way secondary or derivative to the self.
How, then, more specifically, does Bohr’s thought revolve around the above notion of radical alterity, and how can it be further associated with Derridean deconstruction? As we have seen, one of Bohr’s basic points is that any observation of atomic phenomena involves an unavoidable and uncontrollable “interaction between the object and the instrument of observation.” This implies that observation carries with it an “inevitable loss of knowledge,” as is exemplified by the case in which the measurement of the position of an atomic object is accompanied by a loss of knowledge of its momentum. As Plotnitsky notes, this loss of knowledge is not a loss of something — in the above case, a definite value of momentum — that was originally present. Rather, it is a radical and ‘originary’ loss which is analogous to the “loss of meaning” in Bataillean general economy and in particular to its Derridean reformulation in terms of the “trace” or “arche-trace."
Of particular note in the above referenced dissertation is the author's analysis in section 6.4 beginning on p. 226. He compares Bohr with Derrida based on the different phases of Bohr's thought, from early to mid to latter, calling them static-contrastive, dynamic and static-symmetrical. It is the first two phases where he sees the most relation with Derrida. However in the third phase, which differs substantially, is where
Bohr developed his ‘late’-period objectivism, which proceeds with an attempt to restore the standpoint of a pure ‘spectator’ or, in his own term, a “detached observer.” By means of the mechanism of ‘conceptual containment,’ he thus seeks again to privilege the standpoint of the ‘spectator’ over that of the ‘actor,’ or, in other words, to reestablish the hierarchical binary oppositions of detachment/involvement, objective/subjective, and so forth. From a deconstructive point of view – such as Bohr’s own earlier one – this may be characterized as nothing other than a return to the metaphysical tradition (235).
And this is what I'm sensing in de Quincey and Tom. Now we can argue whether this last turn for Bohr was some kind of "developmental synthesis" on a higher level, but such notions are themselves part and parcel of Hegelian metaphysics. (See this post as but one example.)
The author also notes that he only compared the early phases of Derrida's work the full spectrum of Bohr, and that taking into account Derrida's mid to late work might also find some fruitful intersections.
Intro and Conclusion from Bitbol's paper (which addresses this question of ontological leaps):
The thesis of the emergence of consciousness out of complex neurophysiological processes is commonplace (Freeman, 2001). Yet, it raises two major problems which are far from being correctly addressed. The first problem is a “category problem” (by due reference to G. Ryle’s notion of
“category mistake”). Emergence concerns properties, to wit features that are intersubjectively accessible, and that can then be described in a third-person mode. Saying that a property “consciousness” emerges from a complex network of interacting neurophysiological properties therefore misses a crucial point: that consciousness is no ordinary “property” in this sense, but rather a situated, perspectival, first-person mode of access. Any discourse about consciousness is thus bound to be first and second-personal in disguise
(behind the curtain of a formally referential language). This problem of “radical situatedness” is discussed and developed in a recent paper of mine [Science as if Situation Mattered].
The second problem is an ontological problem, which concerns any case of emergence whatsoever, not only consciousness. If it is accepted that there are elementary properties (the properties of the putative basic constituants of the world), can there be genuine emergent properties? It is this second problem I
wish to address in the present article, by way of a strategy of ontological deconstruction.
Are there truly new high level properties arising from nothing else than a large number of interacting low level components none of which possess these high level properties when taken in isolation? For example, can we say that life is a radically new property, or state, or process, arising (or emerging) from nothing else than a large number of interacting atoms and molecules none of which can be said to be alive when taken in isolation?
As one can hear from these sentences, the problem is formulated in heavily metaphysical terms. Those who raise it want to know whether there truly exist such emergent large-scale properties ; they want to know whether these large-scale properties are more than just epiphenomena ; accordingly, they want to
know whether they have or do not have the causal power of altering other (large-scale or micro-scale) properties. This metaphysical formulation of the problem of emergence is not surprising in view of its historical motivation.
After all, the concept of emergence was invented in order to find a satisfactory compromise between two extreme ontologies. The first of these two ontologies is monist and materialist: it says that there exist nothing else than material elements and their properties. The second ontology is dualist: it says there are two substances or two realms of being: mind and matter, or life and inanimate matter. Emergentism aims at finding an ontological “middle course” between the monist materialist and the dualist ontologies. But being a middle path does not preclude showing a little bend towards one or the other of the two extremes. Emergentism comes very close to monist materialism if it takes the high level behavior as a superficial symptom, with no relevance whatsoever to the real physical processes taking place at the low level (this is
the “supervenience” view). Conversely, emergentism comes closer to dualism when it tries to endow the emergent properties with some sort ontological consistence, and with causal powers of their own.
Obviously, it is the latter strong version of emergence that is interesting.
But as we shall see, its exceedingly high ambition is also its major weakness. No convincing proof of there being genuinely, ontologically, emergent properties can be given. Even less so when one believes that the basic constituents of the world are little things (say the elementary particles) endowed with intrinsic properties. My conclusion will be that if there is a viable middle path, then it is definitely non-ontological; it presupposes a thorough criticism of ontological claims at every single level of knowledge. To show this, I’ll use a reductio ad absurdum reasoning. I’ll suppose for a few paragraphs that the world is indeed made exclusively of particles endowed with intrinsic properties, and that the issue of emergence only bears
on inherently existent high level properties. I’ll then point out that in this case, reductionism (namely the view according to which everything reduces to a bunch of lower level properties) easily wins the game. But then, I’ll step back from any reifying conception and stress that in this case, the strongest argument by far comes from the anti-reductionist side.
Of course, a militant anti-reductionist thinker may be reluctant at this point, because she thinks : “If I weaken my ontological claims, isn’t there the risk of leaving once again the reductionist the last word ? Can’t the reductionist take advantage of my apparent concession and say that after all, her basic elements
are the only real things in the world ?”. So, I must reassure the antireductionist thinker immediately. My answer to her anxious question will be: “Not at all. By weakening your ontological claim, you are doing no harm whatsoever to your position; you are rather reinforcing it”. For, if the message of quantum physics is taken seriously, the critique of reification concerns not only the high-level properties but also the low-level properties ; not only the emerging properties, but also the properties of the so-called basic constituents
of the world. The reductionist eventually loses the game, because her so-called “reduction basis” is as firm as quicksands, and because it proves quite easy in this case to put the emergent behavior on exactly the same footing as the so-called “elementary” entities and laws....
The whole issue of ontological versus epistemological emergence is overcome thus. Remind what the alternative was. The emerging properties could only have two statuses : either they were intrinsically existent properties (as the low level properties were supposed to be), or they were only fleeting appearances, produced by the coarse instuments we use in order to know complex systems. Either they were endowed with causal power (as the low level properties were supposed to be) or they were only epiphenomena with no causal relevance whatsoever.
But here, both low level and high level features are true processes yet not intrinsically existent. Both are causally relevant to one another, yet not in any one-directional metaphysical sense. Last but not least, both arise from a relation with a cognitive structure, yet are not merely apparent. But how can it
be so? Remind that the condition for a distinction between appearance and reality to make sense is the possibility of detachment from the cognitive relation. Appearance is what is relative to some given state of the cognitive apparatus, whereas reality is what has been proven to be invariant with respect to changes of cognitive standpoint. Now, suppose that no such method for detachment is available any longer. Or at least, as it is the case in Quantum Physics which is our current universal theoretical framework, that the only extractable invariant is statistical rather that individual, dispositional rather than actual, or probabilistically predictive rather than phenomenally effective.
Then, there is no true gap left, at the level of actuality, between Being and Appearance. There is nothing to oppose to relative phenomena, nothing to constrast them, and thus no reason to claim that they are only apparent. The entire framework of subject-object dualism has been short-circuited thus. Of course, in order to be self-consistent, such a conception must not claim to provide us with some absolute truth about the ultimate nature of elementary and emergent features (be it relational, processual or participatory). It is useful enough if it proves to be an efficient cure against the conceptual rigidities which give rise to dead-end issues, such as the problem of “ontological emergence.”
There are some ideas of de Quincey’s that I really like, e.g.
“How, then, do we account for the fact that consciousness exists ... It all comes down to our basic metaphysical beliefs.”
“I’d like to make something very clear: I am no less free of basic metaphysical assumptions than anyone in the materialist camp. We all, necessarily, begin any contemplation or investigation of the world with some set of fundamental metaphysical assumptions. That’s a given. It’s unavoidable.”
That’s one of the main reasons why I concentrate so much on metaphysics. I don’t think we can make any significant break-throughs in consciousness studies if basic, metaphysical issues are not addressed.
“What good philosophy does (and good science should do), however, is lay bare those assumptions, and examine them to see (a) if they are internally coherent (rationalism), and (b) if they are consistent with the actual world revealed through experience (empiricism).”
Not sure to what extent scientists need to be doing metaphysics, but I understand his point about laying bare and analysing our basic assumptions. Interesting take on rationalism and empiricism, too. I like it. What I don’t understand is how he give us that carefully-worded intro, then casually claim that:
“The details of evolution or the structure of the brain are irrelevant [to teleology in nature] because biology and neuroscience have nothing to say about consciousness.”
Ouch! Really, science tells us nothing about consciousness? Nothing at all? Once upon a time, I might have agreed with that. Then I realised that I was labouring under a very dodgy ontology, namely...
“Science informs us only about the physical world. However, consciousness/mind/intelligence is non-physical, and no amount of evolution or complexity of purely physical processes could ever produce anything nonphysical.
How, then, do we account for the fact that consciousness exists in an otherwise physical universe?”
“I have spent a career in philosophy focused on examining and evaluating the various alternative metaphysical starting points to see which one best accounts for the fact that we are embodied beings with consciousness. Technically, in philosophy, it’s called “the mind-body” problem. Despite multiple variations, all ontological positions on the mind-body issue resolve into just four alternatives: dualism, materialism, idealism, and panpsychism. All, except panpsychism, fail the two-part test outlined above: rational coherence, and consistency with experience.
[Panpsychism] claims that ultimate reality is both physical and non-physical (it consists of objective matter and subjective mind) and that mind and matter are inseparable. Mind and matter always go together—all the way down.”
Could we have a clearer statement of dualism? Now I know what some people will say: it’s not dualism because the physical and non-physical refer to two sides of the same substance rather than two different kinds of substance.
But that misunderstands what I consider to be the central issue with dualism: the methexis problem. This just asks how it is possible for two, entirely different kinds of things to interact or have anything to do with each other. But there are at least two kinds of dualism, both of which exibit the methexis problem. They are substance dualism and property dualism.
Substance dualism means that mind/consciousness and body/matter are separate substances that somehow (problematically) relate. Descartes’ “solution” involving the pineal gland is one (in)famous attempt at wriggling out of this problem. Property dualism seems to avoid the methexis problem by putting mind and body together, as two sides of the same coin. But we still have the impossible task of trying to explain how two entirely different “things” (properties, rather than substances) relate. Call it panpsychism or continuity dual-aspect theory, it makes no difference – a rose by any other name...
I don't know; maybe I'm being unreasonable, but dualism just annoys me. And dualistic metaphysics that pretend not to be dualistic, doubly so.