09 January 2013

Monist Minnie

I never realised quite how many philosophers were monists of one sort or another.  The list would include Zeno, Parmenides, Plato, Plotinus, Spinoza, Berkeley and, if you count panpsychists, you've got to add in Leibniz, William James and now, it seems, Galen Strawson as well, and a host of others I've missed out.

Whatever nuanced flavour of monist they are, the thing that unites them is that they all think that the universe is just one kind of stuff, or, if you like, one kind of consciousness. It's very similar to the common religious notion that spirituality stems from one source but has many different expressions. In fact, I have a theory that Parmenides bunked off to India via Halifax and re-surfaced as Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha. The timing fits.

Of course, Buddha taught that this world is illusion, and today science is confirming it.  Things are not what they seem to be.  The commonality of experience, of thought, of toe-stubbing,is deluding us all the time.

Still, what does it mean?  Bertrand Russell, who started off in the idealist tradition in philosophy which essentially viewed the mental world as in some way more fundamental, more basic, that the material, physical world, later moved to reject that idea and came to the view that the material world really does exist independently from us i.e. it isn't just the way we perceive the world that makes it what it seems to be.  He identified a problem with the monist viewpoint and put it like thusly...

"When you think, you think of something; when you use a name, it must be the name of something. Therefore both thought and language require objects outside themselves. And since you can think of a thing or speak of it at one time as well as another, whatever can be thought of or spoken of must exist at all times. Consequently there can be no change, since change consists in things coming into being or ceasing to be."

Well, I'm not sure about that: does it not it depend on exactly what you are meaning by 'change'? Also on what you mean by exist?  Because we can think about something does not mean that it actually exists, rather that it subsists and is dependent on the mental machinery that is doing the thinking about it. Anyway, Russells' antipathy to monism might have stemmed from his work on the logical foundations of mathematics, and the realisation that, if monism holds up, mathematics gets stonewalled at the number one..... because there isn't a number two!  There are no discrete things, numbers, sets, classes or whatever you want to call them.  All is one.  But distaste alone isn't going to make the problem go away: we can construct our ideas about mathematical relationships between discreet objects to a fantastic degree of logical coherence without any of it corresponding to anything 'real' at a more fundamental level - whatever that means.  Russell might be like Aesop's fox - jumping up many times, but failing to get to the luscious grapes hanging there, tantalisingly just out of reach and slinking off in disgust, tail between legs, muttering 'bet they're not ripe anyway.' Maybe.  But mathematics stuck on the number one isn't going to build an aeroplane, is it?

It's just common sense that things are seperate isn't it?  Well no.  Remember we're all stardust, and if the universe turns out to be one single entangled quantum field, then, as Gribbin would have it "Particles that were together in an interaction remain in some sense parts of a single system, which responds together to further interactions. Virtually everything we see and touch and feel is made up of collections of particles that have been involved in interactions with other particles right back through time, to the Big Bang… Indeed, the particles that make up my body once jostled in close proximity and interacted with the particles that now make up your body. We are as much parts of a single system as the two photons flying out of the heart of the Aspect experiment." Eughhhh!  But Nadeau and Kafatos agree....“If non-locality is a property of the entire universe, then we must also conclude that an undivided wholeness exists on the most basic and primary level in all aspects of physical reality.”

As to panpsychism, Galen Strawson holds to the view that there is an experiential conscious aspect to what exists because of the very fact that experience DOES exist.  In other words, that consciousness is somehow basic and fundamental to reality but we have the idea that it is an emergent property of complexity instead because anything else seems barking mad.  In a way, his is an argument from incredulity which I cannot buy into.  He sais "how could experience arise just from putting wholly non experiential things together in a certain way or in a certain pattern......"why have we simply assumed that the physical is in its fundamental nature non experiential?  What's the evidence for that idea?  There is none."  He goes on to argue that it is just pure prejudice that we have assumed it to be otherwise and why not instead assume the opposite and sidestep the whole problem of explaining the emergence of consciousness from non-consciousness.

I can think of a few good reasons and I think he's over egging the problem of emergence and building that into the insurmountable problem it may turn out not to be.

I knicked Scot's photo for this post, but he's busy driving the Mars rover so might not notice.....:-))

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