A common argument against the mind-body duality is that the mind is an epiphenomenon of chemical reactions in the brain much like the fluidity of water is a consequence of molecular interactions. This argument seems appealing because if we reduce water to its molecules, we don’t see fluidity in each molecule; fluidity is only a property of the collection. The mind-brain reductionist similarly argues that the mind’s properties are features of the brain, although individual molecules that make up the brain don’t have these properties.
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Theoretical Problems in Reduction
This still leaves theoretical gaps in understanding how reactions produce the mind (claims about mind-body identity are based on experimental observations). The problem is in drawing a parallel between the fluidity of water and mental experiences because the mind describes the world (objects and other minds) while fluidity is a description of the water itself.
In this article, I will discuss the features of the mind and how they present problems vis-a-vis classical physics, followed by a discussion of how quantum theory presents a different view of matter that can explain the mind, although it would require us to eschew reductionism. Therefore, when reduction is used, the theory cannot explain the mind, and the theory that can explain the mind must discard reduction.
I will conclude by describing a solution to the mind-body interaction problem based on some ideas from the Vedic theory of matter, and discuss how the Vedic theory requires us to treat nature as information that is logically prior to material objects.
Two Fundamental Properties of the Mind
The mind exhibits two fundamental properties that cannot be reduced to material objects, as they were defined in classical physics.
First, classical physical objects only have properties that describe themselves; e.g., a particle’s mass is a property of that particle. The mind, however, describes other objects and its states are about the states of other objects. A material object’s properties are always about that object. This property of the mind is sometimes called intentionality or aboutness by which the mind describes other objects or minds; the reference constitutes knowledge or belief about the world. Material objects cannot have referential properties.
Second, the mind perceives and represents meanings in object collections that could not be reduced to individual objects. An example of this collective behavior is the ability to read a book and derive meanings beyond the measurements of the shapes or sizes of the squiggles in the book. Or the ability to understand that some frequencies collectively form a musical composition. Meanings are defined in object collections rather than in individual objects. While individual objects have physical properties, object collections have meanings. Since these meanings arise only in collections, and cannot be attributed to individual objects, they cannot be reduced to individual objects.
The idea, therefore, that there is a parallel between the fluidity of water and the mind is flawed because intentionality requires one object to refer to another, and contextuality represents how an object acquires meanings in relation to other objects. The correct parallel between the mind and water would be if a pitcher of water was used as a pictorial representation of the ocean (intentionality) or if water was used as a symbolic representation of a changing world in distinction to a stone which would symbolize permanence (contextuality).
Two Fundamental Problems in Atomic Theory
The problem in the mind-body reductionist argument, however, does not end with the issue of parallels between mind and fluidity. The problem is also that the argument assumes water’s fluidity to be entirely due to the water molecules. To see how water molecules should be understood in relation to the observed fluidity, let us take a short detour into understanding the basic differences between quantum and classical physics, at the level of theories. There are two fundamental differences between classical and quantum physics, which undermine the idea that water’s fluidity is a consequence of the properties inherent in individual water molecules.
First, in quantum theory, there isn’t a fixed set of atoms or molecules that exists prior to a measurement or observation (as was the case in classical physics, where particles detected during observation were the particles that existed prior to that observation). Rather, quantum theory describes an ensemble or collection which can be divided into parts in many ways—each represented by a different eigenfunction basis. In the case of water, the atomic theory implies that the total amount of matter or energy could be divided into many different sets of molecules, depending on the specific type of observation being performed. The theory suggests that only the ensemble is real prior to the observation, while the molecules are ‘created’ by the observation setup. The idea, therefore, that fluidity is a consequence of molecules is false because the molecules don’t exist unless observed, although fluidity (as an ensemble) can be said to exist.
Second, we cannot assert that different molecules in water exist at the same time because these molecules are eigenfunctions that can only be observed one after the other. In classical physics, objects in an ensemble can be simultaneously observed, and hence they can be said to exist simultaneously. This leads to the idea that all particles are real even prior to the act of scientific observation. Since in quantum theory these particles can never be observed simultaneously, they can’t be said to exist simultaneously and hence fluidity cannot be explained as a consequence of many molecules because the atomic theory forbids us from assuming that all molecules exist simultaneously.
The idea, therefore, that water is “made up of” water molecules whose existence our experimental measurement reveals is inconsistent with quantum theory. The molecules are not only created during observation, they are also created one after another. The type of molecules created during observation depends on the experimental setup (the eigenfunction basis) and can be controlled by the observer. However, the order in which these molecules are created cannot be controlled (and hence cannot be predicted) in current theory.
Mind and Quantum Theory
The fact that the mind sees meanings in collections and the fact that, in quantum theory, the collection is more real than the parts can be used to connect the two: the connection is that the quantum ensemble represents meanings, which is then used to create individual objects. I have discussed this connection in my book Quantum Meaning, which interprets quantum theory as a theory of symbols rather than objects. The ensemble is the meaning, as it exists prior to being expressed during an experiment. The order of the eigenfunctions represents the serialization of the meaning in an expression of that meaning, as in the case of a sentence that verbalizes some concepts.
This view of quantum theory upstages classically held ideas about matter including the notion of independent objects, reductionism, and even the realism of classical objects. Now, meaning is real and is converted into objects (symbols) during observation; this conversion appears as space-time events, quite like we might express (and serialize) the meanings in our minds into words that form a sentence.
Since events (or words) are produced from meanings, they are not independent. Like we can express meaning through many different words, but not arbitrary words, there is freedom in measuring reality although not arbitrariness in reality. The meaning of a symbol depends on the other symbols, which are all given meaning collectively. Each symbol has physical properties, which are measured in quantum theory as frequency, phase, and amplitude of a wave. But the same wave can also express meanings, quite like ordinary sounds denote meanings.
The crucial difference affected by this view of atoms is that the causality is given not by the frequency, phase, and amplitude of the wave, but by the meaning represented by that wave. The same sound can denote different meanings in different collections, so the physical properties of the individual particle underdetermine the meaning. Since quantum theory only describes physical properties, it is incomplete. To complete quantum theory, we would have to describe the quantum waves as symbols of meanings. A semantic view of quantum objects allows us to reinterpret quantum observables as representations of contextuality and intentionality—as fundamental properties that can exist even within matter, and not just in the mind. I will refer the curious reader to the details in the book Quantum Meaning.
Do We Need the Mind?
The quantum reinterpretation, however, raises an important question: If matter has contextual and intentional properties, then why do we need the mind? Can we not say that contextuality and intentionality in matter itself create the mind?
The problem is that while information can be represented in matter, it cannot be created by matter. The problem of information (when information is a fundamental property of nature) requires a basic shift in our thinking because while matter (or energy) is always perceivable, information can exist as ideas that are not perceivable. Indeed, it is well-known that ideas are routinely converted into objects. This fact is widely recognized in mathematics as the immateriality of numbers, and other concepts such as distance and duration.
Ideas cannot be reduced to objects because ideas transcend objects and are found in many objects. A reductionist program can study objects, but how does it study meanings in many objects? We have to recognize that there is something that doesn’t reduce to the individual objects.
By writing a book, the ideas in the author’s mind are represented in the book. Similarly, as the books are printed many times over, the author’s mind is not duplicated many times, although the instantiation of the ideas is multiplied. The instance is different from the idea. Science studies these instances or objects, but it discards the ideas. It doesn’t realize that there is something in the instance, that is not limited to that instance because the same idea exists in many instances. Since information can exist in many instances, the instances are physical and the idea is conceptual. The idea has reality but it is a different kind of reality than the individual things.
The Connection to Vedic Philosophy
The above semantic view of nature and its connection to quantum theory has a basis in Vedic philosophy which recognizes two kinds of matter—gross and subtle. Gross matter encodes information while subtle matter is that information. To encode information, the abstract information is converted into contingent information. Therefore, even gross matter is information, although it has been elaborated. For instance, the idea of a table can be elaborated into a form with color, shape, size, etc., which are also different kinds of information.
The subtle matter is abstract ideas and the gross matter is contingent ideas. Their interaction is not one between two kinds of substances — mind and body — but between a single type of reality (information) that has many different forms (abstract and contingent).
The treatment of matter as symbols of information is indicated by problems of indeterminism, inconsistency, and incompleteness in science. When these problems are solved by a revision to the materialist view, the mind-body separation will not exist, and hence reduction will be unnecessary. This path represents a positive development in science, as it expands science to include a scientific study of the mind.
We tend to perceive time and space, body and mind as separate things, many times refusing -for practical reasons – to admit that they are connected on a continuum. Our society is built on mass production, avoiding as much as possible the spirit that manifests in everything, even at a molecular level. If we would be scientifically demonstrated that the connection between body and mind is a matter of quantum principles, as the Vedic texts had long since anticipated, I think we would avoid behaving as egotistic individuals. We really are all parts of the same One Whole, and as long as we confine ourselves to part-part relationships without seeing how we all relate to the whole, we will be bound by the laws of effect and consequence, popularly known as karma and hence we’ll have to settle for repeated cycles of suffering. However, if we find our true position in the direct interaction with the whole as you say in Is the Apple Really Red?, then we might just be able to taste the true freedom from the conditioning laws of this universe.
Hello, Ashish Dalela
There is too much ‘nitty-gritty’ physics for me in this article (though that would surely be risible to you folk), but I wonder if you and your other readers might be interested in this article below, and perhaps the blog itself – assuming you are not already familiar with it:
Thanks for your comment and pointing me to the blog. I agree. Before science (or computers) can present knowledge of the world they must have the ability in an object to refer to another object, which cannot be explained in current science (since all objects only describe themselves, not other objects). This is a fundamental issue in science concerning all objects, and cannot be a property of emergent or designed complexity.
I have described in other posts how the “knower” of the world is more abstract than the thing it knows, when this knowledge concerns other objects. For instance, your sense of seeing represents the idea of color, which is more abstract than the individual colors like yellow, red, green, etc. We cannot describe the senses of perception unless we can find a material analogue of color, taste, smell, touch, form, sound, etc. which are necessarily more abstract than the objects they perceive.
Even in physical measurements, we can measure the frequency of a light wave but we must describe frequency (as a property) in an abstract manner – i.e., not by referring to a measuring instrument (material object) – because that material object cannot be defined unless all its properties are already defined (and which will include frequency). If we don’t describe frequency in an abstract manner (and refer it back to a measuring instrument) then we are using frequency to define an object which is supposed to define frequency. This is called circular reasoning.
In early empiricism, it was noted that all physical properties are byproducts of objectifying sensations, not byproducts of abstracting objects. That means your senses must be prior to the objects. Similarly, the mind is prior to senses, because you can imagine or think, even when you cannot sense (all creativity is just ideas, before they become sensations). In that sense, you can reduce the objects to sensations, the sensations to ideas, and so forth, but you cannot invert the process of reduction.
What people call near-death experiences are essentially mind and senses getting detached from the body – quite like you can understand color and beauty even when you cannot point to a particular shade of green or a particular kind of beautiful object. If beauty and color were always derived from objects, then you could never detach these ideas from the objects themselves; they could not have an independent existence. So, near-death experience is evidence that color and beauty can be independent of specific shades or color, or particular forms of beauty.
To understand near-death experience, we must first find a theoretical model in science in which some entities are more abstract than others. I frequently discuss this theoretical model in books and posts.
Thank you for your interesting reply, Ashish Dalesha. It is a theme often taken up on that Uncommon Descent blog on a less dedicated and discursive level..They often use the term ‘qualia’ in that context.
Astonishing how crass scientists can be, isn’t it? Well, the ones I mean are partisans of scientism rather than of science. I’m thinking of the dolts who equate the physical size of a brain with its intellectual capacity!
I believe we tend to diverge in that I believe that per the Trinity of the Christian God, (a family of three persons, yet a single God) , ultimate truth is ultra personal even in its transcendence. Some take its transcendence to mean that it is less than personal.
I was initially drawn to eastern religions, particularly enjoying Aldous Huxley’s essay on comparative religion, The Perennial Philosophy. I decided to return to the Roman Catholicism of my infancy, though it was a few years, I think, before the beauty of the concept of samadhi was replaced in my admiration by Christian eschatology. Now, one of the greatest joys of heaven I feel will – God willing – be meeting old friends and acquaintances and members of my family. For this reason, notions of empirical science must give way to reflections on science simply as knowledge.
One particularly striking aspect of NDEs and mystical experiences, I believe, is the pre-eminence of beauty accompanying the feelings of love and peace. Interesting that Einstein stated that the criterion he resorted to when selecting his hypotheses was aesthetic. Scientism seems to true empirical science, as ‘painting by numbers’ s to a beautiful Constable landscape or the Pieta..
I think we are very similar in terms of a personal God, although the number of forms of God in Indian philosophy are infinite (not just three). All these forms are together the Absolute Truth (quite like the trinity is a single God), and they are separated only in our understanding when we want to focus upon a certain aspect of this Absolute Truth. There are potentially as many forms of God as there are devotees, although these forms are not separated entities.
The difference probably is that we don’t consider anyone specifically to be family and friend or enemy and foe in any ultimate sense. Many people that you consider stranger right now were probably acquaintances in previous lives, and many that you consider friends would be strangers in future lives. All living beings (including animals) are souls that carry their past actions and impressions into future lives, reaping the rewards and punishments of the actions that haven’t yet been rewarded or punished in the past lives. In short, there is reincarnation, because there is responsibility, although there is no eternal heaven or hell. The living being has free will, and s/he can fall into matter, get out of matter, and fall back again (if s/he wants).
I sometimes wonder why people in the West debate the problem of theodicy at great extents but don’t accept reincarnation – which is how the East solves this problem. Just as there are near-death experience studies, there are also past-life memory studies. What reasons underlie this discrepancy? I’m interested to know about it …
I think there are a lot of uncommitted people in the West who do tend to believe in reincarnation, although probably not in order to solve the problem of theodicy.
As regards committed Christians, the question theodicy would far less of a deterrent than it is to atheists and agnostics. Solving the question of theodicy as a satisfying intellectual achievement could never be a priority, still less and overriding priority for the committed Christian’s belief in his God, but despite the over-reliance on legalism and ritual of many older Catholics, there is just the one overriding priority, namely selfless love, willingness to suffer for one’s faith.
There is a vast spiritual war going on all around us all the time – the Christian, however, ‘leading with his chin’, believing that passive strength, the strength to endure, limited only by the scope of our magnanimity, not by the ‘active’ physical strength we are, for the mot part, born with.
You would, I believe find many of he YouTube clips of the Christan apologist, William Lane Craig fascinating, and perhaps as impressive as I do. He states that cruelty and evil generally in this world was inevitable, given God’s desire to give man free will. The freedom to choose good or evil, subject to God’s prevenient grace – so.. a weird paradox. Unfortunately some Protestant fundamentalists ‘go overboard’ and consider they are already saved! So they don’t have to fear their sins will condemn them on Judgment Day.
Another interesting Christian apologist is the Northern Irishman, John Lennox, a Cambridge professor of Maths and Logic, I think. Have you read any of C S Lewis? Or G K Chesterton?
I am inclined to believe we originated and lived in some mode in a preternatural existence in heaven, prior to our incarnation, but it’s not important to my faith. I also wonder if a kind of ‘deja vu’ sense of a place I have sometimes experienced, which some might attribute to a previous life,
might be the experience of someone else I tapped into momentarily in the Holy Spirit.
By the way, I believe the Holy Spirit coordinates the strands of our intelligence, often to optimal effect when we are asleep (when we can’t interfere with its actions as deliberately, being in a more passive and (etymologically) docile state.
Do you know much abut the Shroud of Turin?