I’ve talked about this in other areas, but as I’ve read and listened to modern thinkers over the years, it’s striking how pervasive the idea of materialism/physicalism is. One can hardly imagine someone addressing the deep questions of reality without using the term “physical”. And then there is the constant debate about the relationship of consciousness or the mental and “the physical”. As the story goes, there is the physical brain and then there is consciousness. How can they be reconciled to one another within a physicalist paradigm? So, what is behind all this physicalism that remains intransigently embedded in our worldviews? Let’s look at some history.
The idea of materialism often called physicalism today probably first arose around 600 BCE in the Indus Valley of what is now known as India. At that time there was a Charvakan school of thought. These philosophers were perhaps the first materialists because one of the things they postulated was that all there is, is matter and it has “svabhava” or self-nature. In other words, matter has an intrinsic nature that produces the world we see. Today this self-nature is thought of as “properties” such as mass, spin, charge, etc. Apparently, this line of thinking made its way to early Greek thought probably through the Persian trade routes because about a hundred years later materialist, atomistic thought emerged most notably by Democritus. In atomism it is claimed that reality is constituted by atomos, small indestructible elements which have intrinsic properties and when combined in various ways produce the variety we see. This particular characterization of reality caught on in the West and eventually led to the predominant view in science and culture.
Now if we think about these early pre-scientific thinkers this line of thinking probably makes sense. Just think about observations. A rock is some discrete form but can be crushed into small pieces (atomos in Greek). However, each of the small pieces still behaves like a rock. So, there must be some svabhava, intrinsic properties of what it means to be a rock and these don’t seem to be dependent on anything else. A rock just behaves like a rock in whatever situation it finds itself in.
But what about combinations. You take a rock and crush it down to a dirt-like consistency and then add some water (which has its own svabhava: flowing) and what you get is mud. Now mud seems to be a combination of properties. It flows but not very well. It has the positional intransigence of a rock but it also flows somewhat like water. An obvious intuition would be that more complex combinations of things incorporated the svabhava of the constituent parts but also exhibits new properties. So what the Charvakan thinkers must have postulated was that everything was made up of atomos that when combined create everything we see with its own combination of svabhava.
Now today, this line of thinking still dominates the discourse. But why? It’s not because there weren’t and aren’t challenges to it. There were those both in the East and West who rejected this view. In the East, the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna developed his sunyata concept or “emptiness” saying that nothing has an essential independent nature but only a conditional or relational existence. The term for this is often “dependent co-arising” in Buddhist thought. (To me this has are a remarkable similarity to quantum theory concepts of nonlocality and emergence) In early Greek thought, the rejection of atomism was more subtle. Anaxagoras did not reject atomism, per se, but claimed that what ordered and animated atoms was not a self-nature but nous or mind. Anaxagoras is considered by some to be the first panpsychist. Plotinus also posited the primacy of mind, “For there is for this universe no other place than the soul or mind”.
Then, of course, there has been a constant rebellion against svabhava thought throughout history. Most notably were the idealists like George Berkeley who posited that mind created reality (“to be is to be perceived”). There were also many strains of idealism ranging from the epistemological idealism of Kant and the ontological idealism of Hegel. All of these posited that, in some sense, mind was an inescapable factor in reality either how it is or how it is perceived. Even so, the term physical remains part of the discourse.
Now, all this remained in the realm of speculative metaphysics until the twentieth century. Enter quantum mechanics. The advent of quantum mechanics created a disturbing prospect for some, that mind had a crucial role in what constituted reality. Early on in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics how reality is constituted depended on the mind of the observer. If the observer decided to look for a wave in an experiment, that’s what they got. If they looked for a particle, then that’s what they got. Their conscious decision affected how reality was actualized. In quantum physics, this is called the wave-particle duality. A remarkable turn of events in the history of science.
Then Erwin Schrödinger came up with the famous Schrödinger wave function equation that said that a quantum actualization was only one among many probabilities. Only the probabilities could be calculated, not the actualized event. For some this seemed to represent an idea like paradigm. Here’s how Berkeley physicist Henry Stapp states it:
An important characteristic of this quantum conceptualization is that the substantive matter-like aspects, have dropped out. The theory is about: (1) abrupt events, each of which is tied to an experiential increment in knowledge; and (2) potentialities for such events to occur. Events are not substances, which, by definition, endure. And the potentialities have an “idea-like” character because they are like an “imagined” idea of what the future events might be, and they change abruptly when a new event occurs. Thus neither the events nor the potentialities have the ontological character the substantive matter of classical physics. Yet the predictions of quantum mechanics encompass all of the known successes of classical mechanics.
There has been much debate about this interpretation of quantum physics but the Copenhagen interpretation is still supported by many in physics — a plurality of 39%, vastly greater than any other preference. There have been other interpretations like the Bohm’s pilot-wave, many worlds, and decoherence theories, but they haven’t ruled out the Copenhagen interpretation so far maybe because they either have hidden variables or probably can’t be verified empirically. That interpretation may not turn out to be the best one, but it does raise the question of what role minds play in how reality is constituted.
Still, even with all that the physicalist terminology persists. Attempts have been made to eliminate mental talk either by semantic strategies or promissory notes on how someday science will finish up with a physicalist explanation. But even besides quantum mechanics, there is another sticky issue, subjective experience. How can physicalism account for phenomenal consciousness, “what it’s like”. Renowned philosopher David Chalmers and others have presented powerful arguments that physicalism may be powerless to explain our subjective experience.
So why is there such a de facto deference to physical talk? I think there are several reasons. One is probably “the path of least difficulty”. Mind is notoriously difficult to define and translated into testable scientific language. Just the fact that we have a term “mind” shows its power as part of explanations. But how can they be brought to bear in a scientific explanation? Very difficult. Perhaps it’s easier to ignore it or redefine it away, as some chose to do. I think another factor is religion. If mind is fundamental to reality then that may imply a cosmic mind. When another towering figure in quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr, asked Schrödinger if there was a universe before there were observers to collapse the wavefunction, he speculated there must a cosmic mind to do the observing. Schrödinger also found a form of Vedantic thought appealing with its idealistic tendencies.
So if this talk of God or a cosmic observer is in the offing, it is often abhorrent to many scientific-minded individuals. For them, perhaps it is better to ignore it despite the evidence and forge ahead with physicalism hoping that someday it will win the day. Also, there is a real price to pay for those who entertain the idea of a cosmic mind instantiating reality. There is such a negative bias against religion in science that even hinting at a God scenario would signal the death knell of one’s credibility and career. It’s only the brave few that even breach the possibility that there is a God and God’s mind is what constitutes reality.
Now let me say this. It is understandable that many find God-talk or religious formulations abhorrent. There has been so much magical thinking, unsystematic, and unreasonable claims made by many religious thinkers such that no wonder the modern mind rebels. But that is a Sunday school mentality. It doesn’t spend the time to research and examine the depth of theology and religious philosophy. There have been so many profound religious and metaphysical thinkers throughout history that have taken the difficulties seriously and tried to come up with systems that are both rigorous, reasonable, and systematic. It may be easier to stick with a Sunday school mentality and those deep biases against religion than to look further.
However, things are changing. Ideas like panpsychism, simulation scenarios, and forms of idealism are becoming more prominent in the discourse. This may represent a shift in discussions where reasonable minds can feel comfortable and justified in rejecting the svabhava (materialist/physicalist) view and instead entertain alternatives.