What is Reality?
Like really really.
Would you believe it if I told you no-one knows? Well… no-one knows. There is a world — this thing we call Reality — and yet no-one has the slightest clue as to what it really is (like really really). Next to the brute fact of Reality itself, the fact that there is a Reality — a Reality we are a part of — and yet we don’t know what it is (in any kind of ultimate sense) is perhaps the most peculiar aspect of our already inherently peculiar existence. It’s madness, absolutely, and yet it’s the situation we find ourselves in.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we don’t know anything about Reality. In fact, we know lots of things about it: the laws of physics, say, or the fact of evolution or the price of Bitcoin on any given day. Instead what I’m saying is that, despite our abundance of knowledge re what Reality is like or the things that make it up, we still have next-to-no grasp on what it really is — fundamentally.
For the majority of human history, we lived under the impression that Reality is the handiwork of God/Gods. He/she/they/it made this, whatever this is, and he/she/they/it also made us — whatever we are. Until recently, that was the end of the story. And for most, I imagine, it sufficed as an explanation — even if it left some niggling discontent. Everything we couldn’t understand we simply ascribed to God and that was that. Easy.
Perhaps the most profound innovation of Western society was our doing away with God. A few centuries ago, spurred by Enlightenment ideas, we took Occam’s Razor and cut God out of the picture, just like that. Positing an omniscient entity responsible for the existence/maintenance of all things was — a number of thinkers agreed — somewhat excessive, if not downright irresponsible. Accordingly, our present picture of Reality does not include a God (or Gods) overseeing the orbit of planets or the NBA playoffs. Not because we know — as in have evidence — they don’t exist, but rather because we don’t. Thus Reality, through the modern secular lens, is strictly God-free.
So, what do we reckon it is? Reality, I mean. The most reliable sense of things we have is the image painted by modern science, which pictures Reality as a four-dimensional space-time manifold. What that means, basically, is that the structure of our universe, as it were, is made of spacetime — as in space and time mashed together — which is itself comprised of elementary particles: electrons, up-quarks, and down-quarks. All of the things we observe around us represent different configurations of these three fundamental building blocks. The most fundamental fact, according to science, is that Reality is a network of spatiotemporal relations between finite — yet infinitesimally small — points of matter. The structure of spacetime and the behaviour of these elementary particles are, of course, mediated — and indeed enabled by — the various laws of physics. How did it all come to be? Who made the laws of physics? How did it all get started? Things get a bit squirly along this line of questioning. Our current position is that it all started with a bang — a big one! The implosion of a star, to be precise. But what happened before the Big Bang? you might ask. Good question! No-one knows. That said, we’re pretty confident spacetime had a beginning; as in before there was Something there was Nothing. What does that even mean? you ask. Again, good question! No-one knows.
The further back one reaches, the more fundamental a question one asks, the more deeply mysterious things appear, and thus the more religious-sounding the answer one is likely to be met with. The fact of the matter is we don’t know how things got started — who or what started it and why — nor do we know what — if anything — this is all headed towards. For all we know, there could be a God/s behind the curtain pulling the strings, blowing up stars simply for the fuck of it.
Contrary to the intuition of most, whether or not there’s in fact a God running the show, knowing either way doesn’t get us any closer to resolving the ultimate mystery that is Reality. After all, if God made everything, who made God? How, in other words, does one get Something from Nothing? No-one knows! The situation remains a mystery whether or not you believe in God. Similarly, even if you think the idea of an almighty God is quaint and instead believe that we’re living in a simulation, that gets us no closer to resolving the dilemma, either. Although it’s entirely possible that we are in fact living in a simulation, we must then ask the question, who programmed the simulation in the first place? Or what’s more, who created the base-layer Reality? Thus the mystery doesn’t disappear, it merely gets bumped up a level— from one Reality to another.
As you could appreciate, that we don’t know what this is — fundamentally — presents somewhat of a problem for philosophy. Not a problem that rules the whole enterprise redundant— as in the kind of problem Wittgenstein reasoned himself into — but a pretty big one nonetheless. For the structure of our reasoning (in terms of the big questions in philosophy) is, whether or not we care to admit, based on some elementary facts about the universe — as in ‘what really is’ — that we sort of just arbitrarily decide upon and run with. In other words, our philosophising is, by necessity, based on certain epistemic foundations — foundations that are, as it happens, far less than solid. The fact that, despite thousands of years of doing the thing (philosophising, that is), we have largely failed to converge on the big questions is itself, I suggest, emblematic of this underlying problem. Since we don’t know what this is, at the level of ground truth, we can’t help but diverge in terms of our answers to higher-level questions. We start with different axioms and so end up in very different places.
Take the issue of consciousness — as in what is it and why!? — for instance. While the hard-problem is inescapable, just how hard one considers it to be depends, at least in part, on whether or not consciousness is taken to be an intrinsic property of Reality — as in baked into the physics of things — or rather an emergent property of matter that arises at some level of organisational complexity (*whether or not that sentence makes any sense itself depends upon certain foundational assumptions*). If it’s a fundamental property of the universe, inherent to all matter, then we would simply take it as a primitive — a given — like spacetime and gravity and the rest of physics. If, however, we take it to be something that comes into being only once matter is configured in such a way as to give rise to it, we then have the burden of having to explain, again, how Something could arise from Nothing. Where we land on the issue of consciousness, as with free will and the other big ones, depends on certain fundamental assumptions. To get the philosophical project off the ground, at some point we must simply pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. How exactly we do this — how we tie our shoes, so to speak — then invariably affects how we move through the rest of the terrain.
So, what are we to do? We could, as Wittgenstein did, throw our hands up in the air and admit defeat. But we are not so cowardly! As Schopenhauer might have said, where there is a Will there is a way! Now which way is that?
Thankfully (for those of us who like doing philosophy), philosophy does not require our knowing — let alone coming to agreement on — what Reality really is. Most questions do not require our getting Something from Nothing, rather they simply require we accept the fact of the Something — whatever it is — and get on with the job. To get at the more practical variety of philosophical questions, such as those concerning how to live, or how to structure political systems and societies, we need not know whether or not we’re living in a simulation or whether there’s a God/Gods doing their thing behind the scenes. All we need to accept is that there is a world, and that it has the sorts of characteristics that lead to such questions arising in the first place, and we can get on with things.
While it might sound like a trivially easy task, remember, this is philosophy. Agreement never comes easily — no matter how self-evident the subject in question might at first seem. Believe it or not, the question of whether or not there really is a “world-out-there” is itself the subject of much philosophical debate. The two sides of the debate even have names — that’s how serious it is! On one side there’s the realists: those who believe in the existence of an external world. On the other, there’s the idealists: those that claim that there is no such thing, and that instead, it’s all just mind. An extreme form of idealism is what’s known as Solipsism, the idea that there is no world outside of one’s own head. Yes, people really believe these kinds of things! In all cases, however, there is a world; only its features, however fundamental, differ according to each view.
In any event, the belief in an external world is generally the starting point for any philosophical inquiry (though it need not be in principle). How do we know that an external world — as in external to our minds — exists? We don’t! The only we way we ever deal with the world is through the senses, through the tentacles of our minds. It could certainly be the case that “the world” is entirely illusory. Hence the idealists. So why do we believe in an external world? In a sense, because it’s the most parsimonious, the most intuitively agreeable. It might be ultimately mistaken, but just as we take the value of logic or evidence as axioms, so too do we take the existence of “the world out there” as a given, a fundamental primitive.
This should give you a sense of just how deep our uncertainty runs, philosophically speaking. This begs the question, how do we know anything? It’s another great philosophical question. In fact an entire branch of philosophy (epistemology) is dedicated to it. The answer: you guessed it, no-one knows! Since antiquity we’ve been trying to figure out how we know what we know, how through these five senses we could possibly acquire reliable knowledge re the world and the things in it. Makes you wonder, what even is knowledge? Surely we know this one, right? Nup — no-one knows.
So how the fuck can we get anything done — again, philosophically speaking — when we can’t even agree on such seemingly self-evident things as “the world” or “knowledge”. How, in other words, can we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps when we can’t even agree we’re wearing boots? In the same way as quantum mechanics kinda just works, without our truly ‘understanding’ it, so too do we just keep on philosophising like it ain’t no thing. While hairy problems exist at the foundations, we largely just ignore them — so that we can get shit done. Philosophy’s super practical like that.
For most practical intents and purposes, we don’t need to know whether there really is a world out there, or whether there really is such a thing as Knowledge, in order to do philosophy. Nor for that matter do we need to know what Reality is, at any kind of fundamental level, in order to have a good time with — (as?!) — it. But we want to know! So what are we to do? Keep on philosophising, I guess.
As we saw, science provides what amounts to the most reliable guide as to what Reality really is — some kind of four-dimensional geometric structure made of spacetime with little bits of matter, called particles, filling it up and creating points of relations. From this view, we take such things as life and consciousness to be almost trivially parochial in the scheme of things (important to us but that’s about it), an entirely random occurrence that resulted from the chance interaction between particles bangin’ together. A kind of happy accident — the happiest, perhaps. Intuitively, we find this explanation grossly dissatisfying — although of course, in itself, that means very little; Reality, it seems, is fundamentally non-intuitive. Thus we should not expect to grasp her readily. But it’s worth asking, what makes the scientific picture of Reality any more reliable — or deep — than other pictures of Reality, say, those presented by great works of literature?
As I’ve already argued, the description of things at the level of physics is merely one level of description. It is no more “fundamental” than the description provided at other levels of emergence. The reason that we use physics, as our primary resource for understanding Reality, is not because it’s more fundamental per se — as is commonly thought — but rather because of it’s universality. For all we know, our form of consciousness and our form of life here on Earth is but one distinct/non-representative flavour of life and consciousness — a pretty cool sort, no doubt, but bearing no generalisable contact with Reality — and thus understanding our particular kind of experience and life might not amount to understanding all forms of life and consciousness, should other forms exist throughout the universe/multiverse. The laws of physics, however, hold throughout the entire cosmos. In other words, they are universal. Should other forms of life and minds exist throughout the functionally infinite expanse of spacetime, whether or not they have metabolism or use DNA for replication, they must obey the laws of physics. This is what makes the laws of physics so gangster: no matter who you are you gotta do what they say.
Philosophically, physics thus removes us and our seemingly parochial circumstances from the centre of the cosmic picture, and instead places us at the periphery — as just another example of what the laws of physics can do, given — in our case — 13.8 billion years.
The reason we use physics — as opposed to literature — for our picture of things, is that we’re trying to understand Reality here, not just human Reality. The question this raises, however, is what if human Reality — as in Reality as we experience it — actually provides a more “fundamental” insight into the real goings-on here than we give it credit for? What if consciousness is fundamental? What if our particular minds, as put forward by the East, are indeed windows onto the Universal Mind — the “Brahman” — and thus the kinds of experiential truths we are acquainted with are in fact universal truths, on par with the kind provided by physics?
There is good reason to believe that at least some properties of our minds are universal, such as their capacity for suffering and well-being. For while it’s possible to imagine minds that are incapable of one or the other, or experience very different forms of well-being/suffering, it’s this qualitative character of mind that defines them. If there is no qualitative experience, no ‘something that it is like to be some thing’, ergo there is no mind. Whatever kind of experience a mind has, it must be situated somewhere along the well-being-to-suffering continuum. In other words, it must be really good or really bad or somewhere in-between to be that mind. Thus there are at least certain respects in which our experience of Reality is not parochial at all but instead wholly universal, sharing in common certain characteristics with all actual and possible minds. And yet the picture of the world provided by physics leaves this out — nowhere can we point to a given law that gets at the fact that Reality, or at least pockets of it, has the property of experience.
Whether or not our human minds truly are windows onto the capital-m Mind, a full and complete explanation of Reality must — I suggest — somehow account for their existence. Not only is Reality a four-dimensional thingymajiggy, a pure mathematical object, it’s a four-dimensional thingymajiggy that, in part, thinks and feels and suffers and cries and even pisses itself laughing from time-to-time. Whether or not our particular minds are insignificant, in the cosmic scheme, they are as much a fundamental fact of Reality as quarks and quasars.
While our scientific account of things provides us with the closest thing to a rock-solid basis for anything amounting to a “comprehensive worldview”, it is also wholly deficient in terms of capturing what, at least to us, are Reality’s most essential features. Indeed, science — though I’m somewhat at pains to say this — accounts for almost everything but that which matters, that which gives Reality meaning. Of course, for those who champion it, this is a virtue — not a vice — of the physicalist picture of things. The fact that we‘ve removed ourselves — our particular brand of experience — from the centre of the universe is, according to many, our greatest philosophical accomplishment. But what if we’re missing the forest for the trees? What if, in attempting to purge our parochiality, we have simply dismissed the most ontologically significant object we have access to? That is, our minds.
As I formerly mentioned, our prevailing ontology — materialism — puts us in a tough spot, intellectually, causing us to either trivialise or dismiss entirely the myriad facts of human experience. For when we view Reality in the abstract as something defined by spatiotemporal relations between fundamentally physical objects, either we must downplay the significance of such seemingly non-physical properties as human meaning, values, and experience generally, or we must instead find a new place them. Most opt for the former. And though there is, as always, certain ‘in-between positions’, these two perspectives — of the perceived primacy of the physical, on one hand, and the seeming significance of the experiential, on the other — are almost invariably in tension.
Even if experience can ultimately be reduced to physical processes, in doing so we nevertheless lose what is metaphysically significant about it. In attempting to account for mind, we merely explain it away. Say consciousness really is just the emergent property of particles put together in a certain way. We can conclude from this that, “yep, it’s all physical — just as we thought!”. And we would be right. But we must also then come to grips with how fundamentally mysterious physical stuff is. Mind from matter is an entirely different class of emergence than a chair, even though the emergent characteristic — as in something from something else — is the same.
Part of the trouble with leveraging the physical sciences to form our worldview, is that it invariably constrains it. For the most part, this is a virtue — it imposes certain boundary conditions on what Reality is/could be. It provides us with something like a firm epistemic foundation for grasping the Great Mystery. But yet it’s reductive framework necessarily excludes from the picture that which is not amenable to reduction. While this helps keep us honest — by preventing us from being seduced by pure speculation — it also leads to a certain kind of myopia, where we replace ‘what really is’ with ‘what it seems to be made of’. Irrespective of whether physicalism ultimately holds, reductive accounts of Reality will always leave most of the picture out of the picture. To be clear, I’m not eschewing reductionism here, merely the use of reductionism as our only epistemic tool for developing a metaphysic. Reductionism is an extraordinarily powerful methodology for acquiring knowledge about the world — but it has its epistemic limits, limits we ought to be aware of.
One proposed solution to this problem is to find a place for the things we care about in the laws of physics. There’s an obvious logic to it. If physics excludes the things we care about, well, figure out how to include them — at the level of physics. For instance, we could try and sneak consciousness somewhere into the quantum mechanical picture. After all, “there’s plenty of room at the bottom” — as Feynman put it. Plus everyone’s already doing it… Alternatively, if we don’t want to place it at the foundations, we could try and search for a new law that explains the emergence of life and consciousness. Something like the fourth law of thermodynamics: “All things, given enough space and time, tend towards life and mind”. Despite the appeal to such a solution, trying to smuggle the things we care about into the laws of physics is almost certainly a dead-end. While there exists legitimate attempts to place consciousness in the physics of things, most attempts at including the things we care about into our physical understanding are disingenuous/delusional — baseless claims intended to either sell books or promote an excessively hopeful view of the human situation (or both).
Even if we could find a place for life and mind at the level of physics, which I more than doubt, it still wouldn’t solve the problem as I perceive it. The problem is not that we don’t have a physical law that explains consciousness or the evolution of life — though it’d be nice to have — but rather that physical laws cannot, even in principle, explain the significance of either. What I’m concerned with is what Reality really is — at the highest level — not just how it works, at the lowest (though that’s cool, too).
It’s important to emphasise here that the understanding provided by physics need not be fundamentally wrong, in order for this line of argument to hold. The point is rather that such an understanding provides but one dimension of understanding, one level of description. Reality, as we know, is manifold; thus it can only be grasped, in its totality, from myriad levels/angles/dimensions.
What I’m arguing for here, I guess, is what we might call a ‘non-reductive’ view of Reality. That is, a more comprehensive world-picture that takes into account multiple levels of explanation. Although on the surface this might sound all well and good — after all, who wouldn’t be for “a more comprehensive world-picture that takes into account multiple levels of explanation” — what this actually means, in practice, is more than a bit unclear. Reality is more than a four-dimensional spacetime manifold made of little particles and anti-particles which emerge from underlying quantum fields! It contains life and death and consciousness and good and evil and struggle and loss and art and beauty and Nabokov! But what does that make it exactly? And how ought we to explain it?
It’s one thing to criticise a particular view of things — in this case, the reductionist paradigm — it’s another, however, to propose a viable alternative. That’s where the ‘non-reductionists’ generally come unstuck. Non-reductionists, you see, tend to be full of problems — grievances with the status quo — but curiously short on solutions. And that’s, in part, what pisses the reductionists off so much. Here they are doing so much to transform our understanding of things, discovering the fundamental forces of the cosmos and what have you, only to be met with the hollow assertions of those who claim “Yeah but there’s more to it!”. See, for the most part, few philosophically-minded scientists would claim that the physical sciences tell us all there is to know about Reality. On the contrary, most would readily admit that the kind of knowledge served up to us by science amounts to only a very partial account of the whole pie, so to speak. That said, somewhere along the way, the scientific picture of Reality was generalised and translated into a kind of picture of Reality writ large; a picture that — at the risk of beating a dead horse with the stick — leaves oh so much out.
See, the thing is, it’s actually much easier to convert scientific knowledge into a palatable metaphysic or ontology than it is to take our experience of things and reverse engineer it into anything resembling a reliable and coherent — let alone universal — sense of things. We can, in confidence, make claims as to the role that physical things are playing in the universe. We can prove. We can, similarly, make claims as to the rules by which these physical things behave. We can predict. It’s much harder, however, to take our experience of Reality and draw from it anything like universal truths as to the ‘ultimate nature of things’— without making grave philosophical errors along the way. Reductionism and materialism — which really go hand-in-hand — are the most respectable philosophical positions, it’s believed, precisely because they’re less dependent upon metaphysical assumptions than those that place mind or life anywhere near the centre of things. In a sense, the reductionist/materialist paradigm represents a reaction to theism — the kind of voodoo philosophy that characterises our past. Thus one has sympathy for it. However, the notion that either reductionism or materialism (or both) avoids, or is somehow less dependent upon, metaphysical assumptions is entirely mistaken. It’s simply dependent upon a different set of assumptions — namely, that mind doesn’t really matter.
On the other end of the metaphysical continuum, as we saw, are the idealists — those that believe that Mind (not matter) is the crux of this whole thing. According to the idealists, the physical phenomena we observe — the contents of consciousness — are but projections of our own minds. As crazy as it seems on its face, there is actually a rather deep philosophical appeal to Idealism. It has to do with Descartes’ “I think; therefore I am”. All that we have access to is the content of our own minds. Even though we can be absolutely mistaken as to what that content is and what it means, we cannot — as a matter of logic — be mistaken that there IS the content of our minds. Realists take issue with idealists on the basis of, among other things, intuition: there really does seem to be a world all the way out there! Moreover, they’re critical of the Idealist position on the basis of the seemingly privileged status they ascribe to the human mind. As Copernicus pointed out, we’re not at the centre of the universe, the realists remind the idealists. Assigning special ontological significance to humans and their circumstances is almost definitely a mistake, they suggest. Idealists, however, counter with what amounts to an unassailable argument of their own: the only thing that’s a sure thing is the mind, the world is an additional — and intrinsically uncertain — postulation. We can and never will verify the existence of the external world — it’s epistemically impossible. If we’re being legitimately “scientific” about the matter, they argue, we would apply Occam’s Razor to the situation and thus remove whatever additional baggage our hypothesis contains. In this case, the world. Thus all we’re left with, as a matter of concrete absolute certainty, is mind. Ipso facto, mind is fundamental.
It’s interesting to note that humanity’s most sophisticated wisdom traditions have arrived at something approximating the idealist position. Mind, according to yogic thought for instance, really is fundamental. We, as individual minds, are parts of the underlying/overarching Mind — the great cosmic creative principle, the “Brahman”. Though our minds are generally muddied by their conceptual overlays, with clear perception, one can — the yogis claim — experience unity with the intrinsic intelligence/consciousness of the cosmos. It’s a bold claim, and yet these experiences are readily available — and readily had. Thought what exactly these experiences mean, in terms of how/what Reality actually is, is hard to say. At least it’s empirically true that there are human experiences that suggest, in an extremely compelling fashion, that there is a supreme creative intelligence behind all of this — if not a God, certainly something to that effect. In light of such experiences, religious traditions begin to make a lot more sense.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that the most developed contemplative cultures are wholly mistaken. They may have the kinds of experiences they’re telling us about, and indeed they most certainly are, and yet it’s possible that they’re interpretations of these experiences are plainly wrong. This is the dilemma of human experience — as in what to make of it in metaphysical terms? Just because we can have the kinds of experiences that suggest of something like an immaterial God, it does not by necessity follow that an immaterial God must exist. These experiences may, at the end of the day, be fully explicated in terms of evolutionary logic. We have such transcendent experiences, perhaps, because it serves a particular evolutionary function — whatever that may be.
The virtue of such Mind or God-based explanations of Reality is that they include the whole picture in the picture. Our minds are not quite so mysterious when Mind is held to constitute the fabric of Reality. At least, no more mysterious than the existence of matter. The vice, however, is that they don’t actually explain Reality. Reality is God, Reality is Mind — but, then, what is Mind? Who/what is God? In other words, Idealism — as well as theism — only opens up another can of worms.
It appears quite likely that the trouble here, the fundamental issue, is that there are limits to what can be known. There may always — it seems almost certain — exist space between that which ‘is’ and that which ‘is known’. Not only because there is so much to be known, and that no amount of time would ever get us all the way, but rather because certain kinds knowledge are, for us, simply out of the question. The things we most yearn to know shall perhaps forever remain veiled behind the cosmic curtain.
If so, the role of the philosopher would be not so much to try and reach behind the curtain as much as to try and take what is already known and parse it into a coherent picture of things. The primary role of the philosopher, given such a state of affairs, would be that of a ‘synthesiser’ of sorts — one who connects the dots, crafts the narrative. Given what we know, rather than what we don’t, what can be reliably said about this most curious situation we find ourselves in? That is, what is Reality really?
What I’m personally interested in, is whether or not we can bridge the materialist picture of the world with the various facts of the matter that such a picture leaves, in my opinion, all too conspicuously absent. Can we not, I wonder, find a way to include such things as life and mind and meaning and the rest of it into a conception of the world that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bath water? Is there, in other words, a philosophical middle-ground — a position that reconciles the fact of the physical with the revealed truths of experience? We shall see.
A more expansive conception of the world, and our place in it, is possible if we replace our materialist ontology with one that views matter and mind as ontologically equivalent. We can call this , somewhat pompously, “the principle of ontological equivalence”. What this entails, in terms of a metaphysic, is a certain brand of monism; that is, the philosophical position that holds there is only one type of stuff in the universe — that whatever Reality is, it’s all one kind of thing. Idealists and Realists are both monists of different kinds. The former hold that all there is is mind-stuff, whereas the latter crew hold it’s all material-stuff. What I’m arguing for is a different kind of monism — a sort that’s the philosophical equivalent of that Old El Paso “Why don’t we have both?” ad. What if, I put to you, whatever singular substance Reality is made of, it is both mind-stuff AND material-stuff. What if the fabric of Reality, in other words, is both mind and matter? As in what if they’re both two sides of the same coin?
While this view might seem contradictory, on its face, let me assure you it’s not. We can, without losing our intellectual dignity, simultaneously hold the view that it’s all just one thing, and the view that this thing is also two things — that is, mind and matter. How? Well, it’s rather simple actually. There is only one substance — the fabric of Reality — but this substance exhibits two intrinsic properties: mind and matter. Mind and matter are not diametrically opposed, ontologically, they are — that’s right — ‘equivalent’. In other words, they’re one and the same. The upside of this is that all of the things that are properties of minds — meaning, values, well-being, suffering — are all of a sudden baked into the foundations. The foundation for morality, for instance, becomes equivalent to the foundation of Reality itself — for values are now, thanks to our philosophising, an intrinsic property of the universe. BOOM.
Maybe you feel as though this little manoeuvre amounts to little more than a philosophical party trick, a metaphysical sleight of hand. You can’t just make one thing two! While it might seem like magic, one needs to appreciate that something like this is already implicit in the materialist position, though it’s just not readily admitted. We’re told it’s physical all the way down, and yet there mind is. We try and explain it in terms of emergence and yet the fact remains that physical stuff produces mental stuff. Already we’re saying that there is something about matter that enables it to experience — even if we’re saying that the types of experience we care about depend on particular configurations (in the same way a chair depends upon a particular configuration of atoms). It’s really not that much of a leap, then, to conclude that this thing — mind — is in fact an intrinsic property of matter, that the capacity for experience — or indeed experience itself — is latent in the substance we call matter. Somehow, matter is mind — and vice-versa.
Dave-o vs Materialist
Dave-o: Man, how spooky is this mind-stuff!?
Materialist: Oh that’s just emergence! You know, like heat or colour. Nothing mysterious about it.
Dave-o: Yeah that’s what they say, but man… I dunno… it doesn’t feel physical… it feels… well, I dunno — but it feels.
Materialist: I’m sorry but it’s all just atoms, I’m telling you!
Dave-o: Maybe atoms are conscious then?
Materialist: Oh no no absolutely not! Absolutely not!
Dave-o: How would you know what — if — it’s like to be an atom? Do you even know any?
Materialist: The whole proposition is just absurd: atoms, conscious? Huh!
Dave-o: Dude I dunno, I took acid once and fuck I swear everything was alive!
Materialist: You did what!?
When we conceive of all things as the product of a single substance, a substrate that is at once physical and non-physical (or neither), we get a number of things — philosophically, that is. As I mentioned, we get ourselves a solid foundation for morality, for the fact of human values becomes a fact of Reality, equal in ontological status to atoms and the forces that govern them. Plus, the hard-problem — while still hard — becomes something else, and at least in some respect, somewhat more tractable. What’s consciousness/why?, in light of this kind of substance monism, is made no more mysterious than what is physical/why? The hard-problem simply becomes the problem of Reality. As in what the fuck is it!?
Part of why we’re so reluctant to include consciousness/life/humanity into our fundamental conception of things is that we’re explicitly trying to avoid being parochial or simply projecting our own reality onto Reality writ large (anthropomorphising). From our past, we’ve drawn the conclusion — rightly — that we are susceptible to underestimating just how large this whole thing is, and prone to overestimating just how significant we are. Now we risk making another grave error. That is, ignoring the metaphysical significance of our own situation, of what our existence and experience means in terms of what Reality really is.
Although it’s understandable, our reluctance to include our first-person experience into our cosmic schema, it’s entirely necessary that we do. For we are not outside of Reality looking in, we are Reality itself. This is not mere anthropomorphism, it’s simply a logical truth. We are part of the very fabric of Reality — whatever that is — not something external to it. When you fully grock this fact — of our being commensurate with Reality — it has the effect of shifting how one thinks about the world we’re in, and indeed what we are as inexorable parts of it. When you appreciate that we’re not on the outside looking in, but rather something like ‘stuck in the thing looking at the rest of the thing’, you begin to appreciate just how essential it is that we include ourselves — and our predicament — into our account of what Reality really is.
The idea that the universe is conscious is a popular one amongst the New-Age community — and the subject of scorn by more straight-laced/hard-nosed folk. And yet it is true, if not precisely in the way such New-Agers claim. By virtue of our being conscious, the universe — by logical extension — is also conscious, for we are one and the same. All of the properties we exhibit are, by definition, properties of the universe, as fundamental as anything else. Our account of things must reconcile this.
To be clear, none of this conflicts with our scientific understanding of things; rather it only challenges the metaphysic that has been extrapolated from it. Thus it is not so much a radical subversion of our present picture of the universe, but rather a broadening/deepening of it. One that takes seriously both the views from nowhere — the objective third person perspective — and the view from somewhere — the subjective first-person side. It’s not that Reality, in light of this expanded conception, is no longer a four-dimensional spacetime manifold thingymajiggy with particles and fields and the rest of it. That all still holds. Instead, it simply becomes a four-dimensional spacetime manifold thingymajiggy with particles and fields that is a conscious, alive, self-knowing entity within which the great battle of life and death, love and loss, good and evil takes place.
That, or something approximating it, is what Reality really is.