Why I’m an Idealist

Maybe it’s just the reductionist in me, but I’m attracted to monism. To be fair, exactly one ultimate type of stuff seems less oddly arbitrary than two, three, or any other number of types (and an infinity of types of stuff sounds like a pointless clusterf_ck). Zero types of stuff sounds plausible too, but for some strange reason Stuff Exists rather than nothing ever existing.

Another good reason to be a monist is that, if two different substances were 100% totally unique, they’d have no common grounds on which to interact with each other. There’d be no language, protocol, or rules to determine in what ways one affects the other. They’d miss each other completely. And if two substances do interact with each other (and therefore and have the common mechanics necessary to do so), it seems fair to assume that they’re only patterns within a third, more fundamental substance—in other words that they “boil down to” the third substance—or that one of the two boils down to being merely patterns within the other.

Mind and matter/physical stuff seem like two totally distinct types of extant (hence the relationship between mind and matter being such a fundamental/popular topic in philosophy), but as per monism we should probably assume that either they both boil down to a third substance, or one boils down to the other. We know of no third substance, so the more parsimonious tack would be to assume that one boils down to the other. So, which boils down to which?

The more popular and academic approach seems to be that mind boils down to matter/physical stuff. I argue why this position is incogent and weak here.

Consciousness as an Illusion

Another easy tactic that physicalists use to eliminate the scary idea of life itself (i.e. consciousness and everything that goes with it) is to posit that consciousness must be an illusion.

Consciousness cannot be any less real than it appears to be, because its existence does not intrinsically imply anything that would be verified by any empirical or external means, so there is nothing to disprove or nothing further to discover that it “really” is, in the way that, say, water on the road can be shown to be really a mirage caused by a heated layer of air. There are no implications other than the direct self-experience, or awareness of consciousness by consciousness itself. And that is a universal experience, and attempting to deny it (as functionalists actually do) would be akin to putting one’s hand in front of one’s face in broad daylight and denying that it appears.

Furthermore, mind can’t be an illusion because it’s in the mind that an illusion exists. So if the mind didn’t exist illusion would have no meaning. Or if it’s supposed to be in the brain that the illusion exists then it’s only insofar as mind, in which the illusion must exist because illusion is a mental phenomenon by definition, is assumed to be an abstraction or emergent property of brain processes, and abstractions or emergent properties aren’t illusions. And even if they were, the mind Xm of Brain Xb wouldn’t be an abstraction or observation made by Individual X anyway; it would simply be its behavior, or perhaps an abstraction or observation only to outside observers. Or if, on the other hand, mind is a process of abstraction that the brain makes which creates awareness of thoughts, then that’s merely the nature of mind, not a refutation of it. In other words, what else would mind be assumed to be, and why? If mind were something other than our experience of it, we’d never know of it or have a reason to come up with the concept. And the meaning of a word is in how it’s used anyway, so either way the mind can’t be an illusion.

In other words, if consciousness is an illusion, what is it an illusion of? What is it that we erroneously think it is? If consciousness didn’t exist, how would we have the clear idea of what it’s like to be conscious? In order for us to even know of consciousness, we must have witnessed it at some time. Even if by some unlikely chance we knew of something we called consciousness that’s not really consciousness, it still must be consciousness because consciousness is whatever we’re referring to when we use the word. It can’t be anything else because the concept doesn’t exist in the realm of empirically known things / we know of it directly and not sensorially, so there’s no way to show that what we think it is actually boils down to another thing.

On a slight tangent, I wrote some notes on why free will is not an illusion here.

https://philosophy.inhahe.com/2018/04/13/notes-on-science-scientism-mysticism-religion-logic-physicalism-skepticism-etc/#Reductionism and https://philosophy.inhahe.com/2018/04/13/notes-on-science-scientism-mysticism-religion-logic-physicalism-skepticism-etc/#Illusion are also relevant.

Consciousness as an Emergent Property

People who desire to find explanations for all things under a physicalists paradigm often turn to the concept of “emergent properties” to explain how consciousness “arises from” inanimate material processes. Per emergent properties, macroscopic phenomena seem to arise out of nowhere as a result of the interaction of their microscopic parts, and consciousness seems to arise out of nowhere—at least in that it’s unaccountable for—so therefore consciousness must be an emergent property.

But emergent properties should be mechanically understood and derivable (such as by arriving at a snowflake by simulating water molecules or by reasoning about them with sophisticated math), or at least derivable in principle with enough knowledge of the workings of the system. That’s not the case with consciousness as an emergent property, because consciousness isn’t even a physical concept (like, say, snowflakes and their constituent atoms are). So emergent property as something truly understandable is thus abstracted and objectified as a concept, and then overextended to apply where it doesn’t belong. Thus, accounting for consciousness via “emergent properties” seems to me like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Consciousness is not a physical concept. By that I don’t mean that consciousness is not a physical phenomenon, which would be begging the question, but that epistemically the concept itself is not in the category of “physical things.” The things that consciousness is supposed to reduce to are physical, and therefore that’s a category error. It’s not of the same type of rational reduction as, for example, a car being the sum of its parts.

There’s also a certain irony in concluding that the mind and its ideas are made up of material processes: we know of our own inner experience first and foremost, and then as we develop, we gain concepts of things we think of as external to us, those things that are physical. But the external remains a secondary consideration both chronologically and epistemically. Then some try to account for the inner experience, including all of its ideas of both the internal and external, as subordinate to or secondary to the external (which is ultimately never more than an internal concept, insofar as we can know of it). It seems absurdly contortionistic.

Also, consciousness / experience as we know it (not as we theorize about it after objectifying it as a concept) is, in my personal experience, a fundamentally singular thing, and in that case it cannot possibly be made up of / arise from many smaller things. Complex collections of things do not make up fundamentally simpler things (except insofar as we see / abstract them as simpler things); to think otherwise would be irrational, because a thing is at least as complex as the sum of its parts. So it seems to me that consciousness / experience / self-awareness simply cannot be made up of non-living elements.

One strong reason that scientists and scientistics tend to think that consciousness is emergent from (or is otherwise produced somehow by) the brain is the extent to which damage to specific brain tissues affects, impairs or seems to completely annihilate consciousness and its faculties. This is far from proof that consciousness reduces to neurochemistry though.

Take the TV analogy for example. Imagine you have no idea what a TV is how it works and you discover one in operation. You perform various tests on it, discovering that if you manipulate its physical insides, its electrical flow, or even the magnetic field around it, the picture on the screen changes in particular ways, and those ways depend on exactly where and how you messed with the TV’s insides. If you screw with it enough you’ll even find that the video and sound cease completely.

The natural, naive conclusion would be that the TV somehow generates the TV show it’s playing on the screen and speakers and all its conceptual content, but we just happen to know better in this case. But we didn’t create the brain, and it’s too complex for us to fully understand from the ground up, so we can’t really know whether it generates consciousness or merely transceives it.. and in light of other arguments made herein, it seems more likely that it doesn’t actually generate consciousness/mind.

Tanasije Gjorgoski makes a good argument (in the form of reductio ad absurdum) as to why consciousness can’t be a property of a neural network here and here. I’ll reproduce the page at the first link here:

Playback argument (why a neural network can’t be conscious)

Here is simple refutation of neural-network producing consciousness idea. It can be used as attack to much more general set of systems, and hopefully I will be posting a short paper on this issue in next few weeks I hope.

Here is the simple argument:

Let’s say that the system is composed of “digital” neurons, where each of them would be determined by: input from other neurons, internal state, the calculation it is doing, and output it gives to other neurons. And because we assume it is not important how was the calculation made every neuron pk can be changed by any system which does set of output functions yi=f(x1..xj). Let’s suppose additionaly this system is conscious, so we will do reductio ad absurdum later.

Now, let’s say we are measuring each neuron activity and internal states for a 2 (10, 20) minutes, in which the system is conscious (maybe we ask it if it is conscious, it does some introspection, and answers that it is). We store their inputs and outputs as functions of time. After we got that all, we can replay what was happening by:

  • Resetting each neuron internal state to the starting state, and replaying the inputs which come from outside of the neural net, and first inputs which come from inside of neural net (starting state). As the function is deterministic, everything will come out again as it was the first time. Would this system be conscious?
  • Reset each neuron internal state to starting state, then disconnect!! all the neurons between each other, and replay the saved inputs to each of them. Each of the neurons would calculate the outputs it did, but as nobody would “read them”, they would serve no function in the functioning of the system, actually they wouldn’t matter! Would this system be conscious too?
  • Shut down the calculations in each neuron (as they are not important as seen is second scenario – because the outputs of each neuron are also not important for functioning of the system while the replay). We would give the inputs to each of the “dead” neurons (and probably we would wonder what we are doing). Would this system be conscious?
  • As the input we would be giving to each of the neurons actually doesn’t matter, we would just shut down the whole neural net, and read the numbers aloud. Would this system be conscious? Which system?

I have my own reductio ad absurdum against physical reductionism here. I have more or less the same arguments as here with different wording here.

Physicalism defies all heart-based perspectives and kills magic. It also defies tons of evidence for the parapsychological and billions of individuals’ inexplicable experiences. The only reason people subscribe to it (in general, at least) is that it satisfyingly explains (away) all mysteries instead of naturally living with and appreciating the mystery. It’s rooted in scientism and the left-brain-dominant thinking which is endemic to modern cultures. And it makes everything under the sun out to be dead and mundane. I wrote some insights into the fundamental biases behind physicalism at the end of this essay.

So, having ruled out mind reducing to matter/physicality, we’re left with matter/physicality reducing to mind. If this seems impossible, notice that, as pointed out in the above quote, we only know of any material things through perception, and perception can easily be generated by mind.

To be honest, characterizing everything not physical about us as “mind” seems vacuous and overly analytical. I believe there is more to life/consciousness/awareness/experience/the divine spark than either mind or matter. I think mind is an aspect of life, and I think it’s more accurate to say that physical reality is somehow produced by life per se than by mind alone. To wit, all that exists is life.

In what manner and for what reason does life give rise to the perception of material, which appears to be lifeless? I think there are two possibilities: (1) Physical reality is a projection of mind for the purpose of having a particular kind of experience, or (2) Physical reality is a perspective under which we perceive life or a particular part of life, which we incorrectly deem to be lifeless. If (2) is correct, then that raises the question of why some life (or all life?) appears to us to be lifeless.

Firstly, our mode of perception of the world depends heavily on the form of our beings, particularly our bodies (whatever they may really be) and their sensory apparatuses, and not to mention the size-scale at which we exist. We’re so immersed in our God-given (or at least nature-given) mode of perceiving the world that it seems to us that our model of the world is the one and only correct way of seeing it.

Plato’s cave opened our minds to the possibility that the way we see the world may not be the way it actually is. (Maybe there is no “the way the world actually is” because to be a perceiver of the world is to have a be form of being, which implies having a particular, perhaps necessarily arbitrary mode of perceiving the world, but there may be some modes of perception that are more direct or free from illusion than others.)

As another example, a even a periphery study of color vision will dispel any notions of realism in how we perceive objects—or at least their colors—pretty quickly.

So it could just be that our bodies are formulated in such a way that we perceive life (or at least some life), including the contents of our own bodies, as being solid, in stasis, mechanical and lifeless and we call it matter. We as humans, and biological beings in general, seem to be particularly suited for predicting and manipulating the world. Maybe being able to predict and manipulate the world means seeing it as mechanical—or seeing the mechanical aspects of it—and hence seeing it as lifeless.

One particular aspect of our bodies to go back to and consider is the sheer scale of size at which they exist, perform and perceive. Maybe we’re huge! We don’t seem huge to ourselves, but of course that perception is only relative to our own size. Think about it: our bodies contain something in the order of 100,000,000,000,000 cells, and each cell contains something in the order of 100,000,000,000,000 atoms.

If we could perceive matter on the cellular, atomic or perhaps quantum level, maybe we would see it more as a living thing! Just as it’s only in aggregate that quantum effects seem classical and deterministic and rocks seem solid and still rather than spacious and seething with vibrations of atoms and flow of electrons, maybe it’s only in giant aggregate that the flow of life appears still, mechanical and solid enough to be deemed lifeless!

Another possibility is that the entire physical universe is a spirit or a group of spirits that have lowered their vibration so much, for whatever reason, for better or worse, that they became dense enough and unaware and hence predictable enough that they appear material to us. Our bodies would be parts of one those spirits, of course; existing as a carnal being would actually be interfacing our consciousness with its. The being would be so large that it would envelope us and completely dominate our contextual field.

Whether material reality is a projection of consciousness or a way of perceiving it, the purpose of living in a material realm may be for us to interact with each other in a highly consensual/agreed-upon reality. This high degree of consistency would, of course, give us the impression that there’s an objective reality outside of us that has nothing to do with our own minds and their manifestations or with life itself.

Even disregarding most of the above reasoning, the chances that life is primary and material is secondary instead of material being primary and life being secondary are at least 50/50. (Yes, you could reason that the vast majority of the universe appears to be lifeless and life only appears to exist within biological organisms that evolved within the material universe, but you could also reason that the one thing we can be most sure of is our own consciousness/spark of life; everything external to it is, ultimately, theoretical.)

Now consider that the point of view that life is primary and that everything is life allows for much more hope, happiness, magic, and general possibility such as that of life after death, God, parapsychology and the paranormal, spirituality, the Mandela effect, synchronicity, the unity of all beings and between the internal and the external, etc. A more inclusive worldview is much more apt to assimilate beliefs, experiences and phenomena of various kinds that otherwise have to be dismissed or, at best, explained away given a few presumptive premises.

One may think that it’s is a non-theory because it’s not scientific, isn’t rigorously defined and makes no predictions, but it isn’t meant to replace or revise everything, or even anything, we know in science; scientific theory, as far as it’s valid, still stands because it works, while the part of scientific (or scientistic) thinking that’s countered by this theory—e.g. physicalism—has no empirical basis. This “theory” (or metaphysical worldview) merely undoes some undue assumptions about the universe (such as its being completely mechanistic and hence rigorously describable) and makes it more open-ended, allowing for the unknown, the mysterious, and the unknowable and utterly ineffable. It calls a spade a spade by admitting what aspect of the universe we don’t understand rather than dictating restrictions on what’s possible ahead of time.

Also, as per my writing on physical reductionism linked to above, this worldview allows for the possibility of an ultimate, or incremental, understanding/explanation of the universe whose bases are actually meaningful to us, rather than being ever-smaller subatomic particles or dry equations devoid of anything qualitative, because such bases could be found within us on a psychological, emotional or spiritual level.

I mentioned a little bit more in the way of arguing for idealism in this essay.

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