THE FALSE MIND-MATTER DICHOTOMY

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The notion of a dichotomy between mind and matter arises from language. In order to speak of the substrate of experience we must give it a name, such as “mind” or “consciousness,” thereby linguistically objectifying the subject. Then, we conflate language with what language attempts to describe, implicitly assuming that mind is an object just as matter allegedly is. We forget that there is no epistemic symmetry between the two.

Indeed, because the concept of mind-independent matter, as an explanatory abstraction, arises in mind, as an “excitation” of mind, to say that mind and matter constitute a dichotomy is akin to saying that ripples and water constitute a dichotomy. Dichotomies can exist only between different kinds of ripples – say, those that flow mostly to the right versus those that flow mostly to the left – not between ripples and the substrate where they ripple. Mind is the substrate of the explanatory abstraction we call matter, so when we speak of a mind-matter dichotomy we fall into a fundamental category mistake.

The notion that idealism and materialism are mirror images of each other arises from a failure to grasp this point. Lucid contemplation of these ontologies shows that idealism attempts to reduce an explanatory abstraction (physically objective matter) to that which articulates and hosts the abstraction in the first place (mind). This is prima facie eminently reasonable. Materialism, in turn, attempts to reduce mind to mind’s own explanatory abstractions, an obvious paradox that constitutes the crux of the “hard problem.”

There would be no “hard problem” if one did not conflate explanatory abstractions with concrete ontological primitives, if one did not attempt to paradoxically reduce mind to abstractions of mind. The “hard problem” is not something empirically observed but the salient result of internal contradictions in a logico-conceptual schema.

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The pervasive but unexamined assumption that mind and matter constitute a dichotomy is an error arising from language artefacts. Members of dichotomies must be epistemically symmetrical and, therefore, reside in the same level of abstraction. Physically objective matter – as an explanatory model – is an abstraction of mind. We do not know matter in the same way that we know mind, for matter is an inference and mind a given. This breaks the epistemic symmetry between the two and implies that materialism and idealism cannot be mirror images of each other.

Failure to recognize that different levels of epistemic confidence are intrinsic to different levels of explanatory abstraction lies at the root not only of the false mind-matter dichotomy, but also of attempts to make sense of the world through increasingly ungrounded explanatory abstractions. Lest we conflate science and philosophy with hollow language games, we must never lose sight of the difference between an abstract inference and a direct observation. Keeping this distinction in mind allows us to construct useful predictive models of nature’s behaviour – which ultimately is what science is meant to do – without restrictive and ultimately fallacious inferences about what nature is. This, in turn, liberates us from thought artefacts such as the “hard problem of consciousness” and opens up whole new avenues for making sense of self and world.

Kastrup, Bernardo., 2018. Conflating abstraction with empirical observation: The false mind-matter dichotomy.