Is Immaterialism the True Materialism?

Is Immaterialism the True Materialism?

I will argue for a position that may strike readers as willfully paradoxical—that immaterialism is closer to the spirit of materialism than materialism is. That is, what is officially called “materialism” violates the essence of what is distinctive about the philosophical position so named, and that the doctrine called “immaterialism” captures it. It all depends on what is to be meant by “material”. I can state the argument very simply at first: “matter” can only mean “perceptible by the senses”, but that is a mentalistic conception of matter, and hence alien to the spirit of the doctrine in question; whereas what is “immaterial” is not perceptible to the senses, and hence not essentially tied to the mental. The “matter” of the mind—the kind of stuff or substance that composes it—is an intrinsically imperceptible substance, and hence independent of the perceiving mind. It is also non-introspectable: while we can clearly introspect our own mind, we cannot introspect its immaterial (non-perceptible) substrate. Thus, the underlying nature of mind is doubly independent of the mind we know from the inside—the introspecting and perceiving mind. Immaterialism claims that the mind consists of states of a substance that is neither perceptible nor introspectable, and hence radically non-mental, so that its underlying nature is quite different from its appearance; while so-called materialism locates mind in a substance that is necessarily linked to the perceiving subject, this being what matter is. Spirits are not perceptible, but bodies are, so the former don’t depend on the mind for their existence while the latter are defined by reference to mind. That, at any rate, is the general idea, the metaphysical background.

Perhaps I can clarify what is going on conceptually by reference to Berkeley. According to Berkeley’s idealism, everything “physical” is really mental—tables and chairs, planets, brains. So, if someone claims that the mind reduces to the brain, he is really claiming that one sort of “idea” reduces to another—ideas of sensation (say) reduce to ideas of brain activity. This kind of “materialism” is misleadingly so called, since brains, like everything “physical”, is actually immaterial; this would be a type of immaterialist materialism. If we classify bodily things as immaterial, then reducing mind to body is moving entirely within the mental realm, i.e., the realm of spirit, as Berkeley would say. Under idealism “materialism” is really “immaterialism”. It doesn’t explain the mind in terms alien to it as commonly conceived, as materialism is supposed to do. Materialism supposes that the imperceptible mind is really perceptible (hence material), contrary to what we commonly suppose, because the body is perceptible—seeing the brain is seeing the mind in metaphysical actuality. But once we conceive of matter (brains etc.) in mentalistic terms, we have given up on that claim. In that sense matter is mentally defined, so no dramatic reduction of the mental has been brought about. By contrast, the world of spirit (immaterial substance) is not conceptually tied to the mind as we experience it: spirits have a nature that transcends their appearance. They are not defined either by perception or by introspection (this is why Berkeley sharply distinguishes ideas from spirits). Thus, by locating minds in spirits (mental states in immaterial substances) we are really offering an explanation of one kind of thing in terms of another—the familiar world of mental appearances by a different world of non-appearing reality. It is as if we tried to explain mind in terms of matter conceived as imperceptible! But that is not what matter is, as that term is commonly understood—not what body is. So, immaterialism is true to the idea (and ideal) of explaining mind by non-mind while materialism isn’t. Hence immaterialism is closer to the spirit of materialism than materialism is. Materialism purports to be ontologically transformative, but isn’t once we inquire into the meaning of “matter”; but immaterialism is genuinely transformative because the concept of spirit is not defined by reference to perception or introspection. Of course, it is massively obscure what kind of thing immaterial substance is supposed to be, it being so negatively defined; but the intention at least is to characterize a type of reality that is neither corporeal nor ideational (introspectable). The usual move is to bring in God: spirits are composed of the same kind of stuff as God. God is not supposed to consist of a collection of mental states but of a special kind of non-mental (and non-material) substance—divine stuff of some description. If we explain the human mind by reference to such a stuff, we really do offer a substantive and transformative picture of the human mind, whatever it actually comes down to in the end; while the materialist picture restricts itself to the materials supplied by our mentalistic conception of matter as what is perceptible by the senses. Ironically, matter as so conceived (and there is really no other viable way of conceiving it) is too close to mind to provide a truly transformative theory of mind, whereas immaterialism in the Berkeleyan style does venture to understand mind in radically different terms from those familiar to common experience (e.g., by reference to God). If we think of immaterial substance as noumenal, a la Kant, then immaterialism is supposing that mind is constituted by a type of reality beyond our understanding, certainly not by anything with which we are ordinarily acquainted. The real stuff of the mind is thought of as not accessible to consciousness, by perception or introspection, and yet constitutive of it; but that is not the picture offered by classical materialism, which ties matter to the world of perceptual appearance (the phenomenal world, as Kant would say). If those appearances consist in various mentally defined properties (secondary qualities), then materialism turns out to be the thesis that the mind is explicable in terms of subjective qualities of things—surely not what was intended! Matter would be too mental to fulfill the aims of classical materialism—its metaphysical vision. Spirit, by contrast, is less mental than we might have thought, and hence able to deliver the metaphysical punch denied to materialism. Spirit might be an all-pervading I-know-not-what, a kind of cosmic throb, which mysteriously gives rise to mentality as we know it. That doctrine really does allow for the idea that the mind has its roots in something very different from its appearance. It allows for the idea that the mind might in its hidden nature be quite other than it seems—as materialism purported to do, but actually doesn’t.

The underlying problem for materialism is providing a clear sense for the word “matter”, a sense usable in metaphysical discussions. This is a familiar complaint, and the standard reply to it is to align the material with the perceptual. That is all well and good as a stipulation, though problematic in various ways; but what hasn’t been noticed is that this move robs materialism of its intended impact, because of the invocation of the perceiving mind. It all comes to depend on what perception is and what its objects are. If perception is of sense-data, conceived as internal mental entities, then so-called materialism is a reduction of sense-data to sense-data—hardly what the determined materialist had in mind. The vision was that the mind might reduce to something else, that it might not be sui generis, special, anomalous; it might be just a part of nature at large. But this hope is thwarted by the difficulty of defining “matter” in such a way as to vindicate that vision. The immaterialist position, however, escapes this kind of problem (though no doubt raising other problems): it negatively characterizes the metaphysics of mind, thus allowing for a metaphysics that locates the mind within a broader conception of reality. Not the world of humdrum concrete human perception but the world of invisible, intangible, semi-divine, inscrutable, spiritual, cosmic super-stuff. No doubt this is all very hard to make sense of, but it at least has the form of a unified metaphysical picture that places the mind in a wider reality than that available to its own perceptual faculties. This is why I say that immaterialism about the mind is closer to the metaphysical ambitions of materialism than materialism ever was. Indeed, it is not semantically outrageous to re-name immaterialism “materialism” (implicatures not withstanding), given that we can say such things as “the material (fabric) of the mind is spiritual substance”, meaning thereby that mind is made of a type of material (a stuff) that differs from that of perceptible bodies. Thus, we might speak of two types of materialism, “spiritual materialism” and “perceptual materialism”, oxymoronic as that may sound. Better still, we should drop the term “materialist” in metaphysical discussions (we can keep it to describe the money-obsessed) and talk instead of “spiritualism” and “perceptualism”, or some such awkward locution. Terminology aside, the point is that the position of the immaterialist is that the mind has its being in a substance that is neither perceptible nor introspectable, and which has a wider distribution in the universe than merely in animal minds, possibly pre-dating them. This has the structure of metaphysical materialism without its definitional drawbacks.[1]

[1] There are of course well-known problems with the perceptual definition of matter construed as a necessary condition of materiality (atoms and other unobservable entities), as opposed to sufficiency. The trouble arises most sharply when we try to combine materialism with empiricism. The further we remove matter from perception the more “immaterial” it becomes, as with fields and forces. Much fancy physics is now deemed not “physical” or “material” at all, certainly not “mechanical” or “mechanistic”.

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3 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    As an exercise in pure speculation, what about the following. Take the definition of matter to be the boundary conditions that configure the mind in the experience of perception. Some, not all, such boundary conditions are shared between minds. This definition could be taken further (requiring a stronger hypothesis) that all, or most, the variations in mental states are configured by (changing) boundary conditions, which we also can see (in the form of the brain). As analogy, consider how the variations in a flowing river are caused by the shape of the bank, the rocks, etc – except in the case of mind and matter, we don’t take the extra step to impute the inherent existence of what we see as the rocks, river bed etc. We leave open the question as to what exactly gives rise to the boundary conditions of mind, even whether terms like “what” and phrases like “gives rise to” are appropriate. Even if we leave open the question of “what”, we can still deduce laws, patterns etc of these boundary conditions and how they vary (so in this picture, physics is the logic of such boundary conditions). In this description, I am using boundary in an intrinsic sense (as is sometimes done in mathematics, where the boundary of a space can be defined without embedding that space in some larger space, so that there is no need for there to be an exterior to define boundary). In this context, I imagine someone with an idealist bent would claim changes in the boundary conditions are caused by minds, while one with a materialist leaning would claim the changes in the boundary conditions are free of the mind.

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      • Giulio Katis
        Giulio Katis says:

        Yes, I think I understand your point. If said thing does not have a non-perceptible (“immaterial”) aspect, in what sense is it not part of mind (even if shared across minds). That seems logical. As you note, it seems to answer the question of what explains changes in perceived things, physics has had to imply the existence of non-perceivable things.

        The question as to whether there is something other than mind is perhaps better asked in terms of whether changes in perception can be completely explained by mind, rather than a question that focuses on substance (ie whether these perceived things are made of just mind).

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