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.

TWENTY EIGHTEEN: IN REVIEW


 

Thinking cuts furrows into the soil of being.  (Heidegger)

Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can talk with him?  (Zhuangzi)

 

Preface

To say we have gone further down the rabbit hole the past few years is to measure the present against some vision of normality.  It certainly seems as though there is some level of absurdity underpinning events within the modern global culture.  Metrics tell us we have never been better off, whilst other metrics tell us we are on the brink of catastrophe.  It is within this context that I have been trying to make some sense of what the hell is going on, for some time now but with an earnest over the past few years.  This has lead me down several rabbit holes, forcing me to confront my own vision of normality.  This year I have read several profound books which have helped me further clarify what I think might describe how things have come to be the way they are.  It is not a case of what we think, but how.  This is such a simple statement to make, but a  much harder one to fully comprehend the significance of.

I started this year by reading Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary and everything fell into place.  Building on and clarifying an intuition that had been growing, this book set the tone for what I would read and think about this year.  McGilchrist says, “certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris. The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong,” adding that, “none of us actually lives as though there were no truth. Our problem is more with the notion of a single, unchanging truth.”  And this, it seems to me, is where we are at today.  Politics aside, no one seems to have illustrated this global predicament more this year than Jordan Peterson.  I read Maps of Meaning after The Master and his Emissary, at the suggestion that Peterson’s ideas mapped somewhat onto McGilchrist’s.  It is perhaps this that has occupied my academic enquiry the most this year.

The other two books that most occupied me this year were Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh.  Whilst quite different to McGilchrist and Peterson, I have found a common thread underpinning these four books, illuminated along the way by returning to Heraclitus, and a new (to me) philosophical translation of the Daodejing by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall.  The implications of this leave no aspect of ourselves and our relationships with each other and our environment untouched, and an appreciation of which could lead the way to a more harmonious way of life.  Eisenstein says:

 

Under the sway of dualism, we have essentially sought to divide the world into two parts, one infinite and the other finite, and then to live wholly in the latter which, because it is finite, is amenable to control.  Our lordship over nature is at heart an egregious self-deception, because its first step is to attempt nature’s precipitous reduction, which is equally a reduction of life, a reduction of experience, a reduction of feeling, and a reduction of being: a true Faustian exchange of the infinite for the finite.  This reduction comes in many guises and goes by many names. It is the domestication of the wild; it is the measuring and quantification of nature; it is the conversion of cultural, natural, social, and spiritual wealth into money. Because it is a reduction of life, violence is its inevitable accompaniment; hence the rising crescendo of violence that has bled our civilisation for thousands of years and approaches its feverish apogee as we conclude the present wholesale destruction of entire species, oceans, ecosystems, languages, cultures, and peoples.

 

What follows is my analysis of a way of thinking that has been influenced this year by these books.  A few disclaimers:  I have done my best to eschew the ‘poeticism’ of my previous years in review and write as clearly and succinctly as possible.  It is of course impossible and pointless for me to summarise large academic texts, so I would refer you to the books themselves for the full extrapolation.  Rather, I have taken sections from each to build up a picture of how various seemingly different ideas are implicitly interlinked.  Despite my intentions, this is not an academic essay and therefore I am well aware that, whilst I have tried hard not to, I may seem to contradict myself in places and to use some terminology confusingly.  My hope is that, if you are interested in thinking about the world, you may want to engage with these ideas in constructive discussion.  I certainly would not confess to having things figured out, but I feel comfortable, perhaps for the first time in my life, with my narrative.

 

Adam John Miller
20th December 2018


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