On Matter

On Matter

Matter is very versatile stuff. And it is capable of amazing feats: it excludes other matter from its place; it exerts gravitational force; it can condense into black holes; it can be extremely hot or extremely cold; it can be positively or negatively charged; it can emit radiation; it can cause massive explosions; it can change from solid to liquid to gas and back again; it can travel at widely different speeds; it can combine into different life forms; it can chemically react with other matter; and it can produce consciousness. Space (and time) has nothing like this richness of capabilities, and what powers it does have derive from matter (as in General Relativity). Matter is multifaceted, a highly accomplished actor on the world stage. It isn’t just brute extension or simple solidity or bare occupancy. We tend to underestimate its talents because they are not visible to unaided sense and because we haven’t witnessed its entire history (no one has ever seen a black hole form). And this is before we get to exotica like dark matter and quantum mechanics. Many of these powers are unexplained, possibly inexplicable; yet we know they exist (e.g., electromagnetic charge). Some are counterintuitive or contrary to common sense (e.g., atomic bombs). There may still be surprises in store for us. Light has surprised us several times: its speed, its particulate make-up, the color spectrum. Matter is like planet Earth: far more active and changeable and varied than we tend to suppose (I am speaking of its geology). Matter, like Earth, has a long and tumultuous history: the big bang and the formation of galaxies; volcanic upheavals, drastic climate change, chemical revolutions. Neither is a dull dead lump. Earth produced life; matter produced consciousness: we don’t know how but we know it is so. The brain is made of matter organized in a certain way, and it is the basis of consciousness. This is one of its many achievements, and not wildly out of character: matter is capable of many remarkable things and this is just one of them, though perhaps the most remarkable of all.

My point is that conscious matter is not something to recoil from (as Locke long ago urged): matter is capable of many amazing things and producing consciousness is one of them. No doubt this ability is deeply mysterious (as Locke also urged), but it appears to be so and the alternatives are unpalatable. It seems uncanny and impossible because we don’t comprehend the full nature of matter—its nature isn’t perceptually given. If we had found that the head was home to a remarkable ball of light, constantly changing, with many a variation of color and brightness, we might not be so inclined to jib at the suggestion that it is the basis of consciousness (by contrast, the brain has a dull dung-like appearance). But we have to accept that the brain is the de facto basis of consciousness, like it or not. It is just that its potency is hidden from us—like the explosive power of the atom (so much from so little!). There is no Second Substance allied with the atom that accounts for its explosive potential, as there is no immaterial substance tethered to the brain that accounts for its power to produce the mind. There is just matter exercising its astonishing range of abilities. The brain appears to offer the right conditions for this power to manifest itself, mysterious as that may be. Metamorphosis is not alien to matter; indeed, metamorphosis is endemic to it. We must not conceive of matter too geometrically, with shape and size predominating; nor should we think of it too practically, with solidity being its prime characteristic. We should recognize the impressive versatility and potency of matter, as evidenced in its behavior from the big bang to the present time. Matter contains multitudes.

One of the properties of matter I have not mentioned (there are several) is color and other secondary qualities. Some material things are red: how is this possible? By rights they shouldn’t be, because matter is objectively colorless. But matter interacts with the nervous system so as to give rise to impressions of color; it is capableof so doing. Thus, a color is “projected” onto a material thing and it sticks there, clinging to the surface, as it were. Color is, we are inclined to say, a mental property that has attached itself to insensate matter. Thus, the mental has invaded the physical, joined forces with it, infiltrated it: the two have become united in a single thing. This is not so far from what the brain does in relation to the mind: it brings mental and physical together (sensations and neurons). I will say that color is an “interaction effect”—a result of the interaction between external object and brain. It needs both: nothing is red without the joint action of object and sensory system. This suggests a bold hypothesis: consciousness is an interaction effect of the material brain. I mean this hypothesis to be super-speculative, as befits the subject. The brain interacts with the material environment in perception and with the material body in action, but it also interacts with itself—this is what is meant by neural “connectivity”. Neurons interact with other neurons in enormously complex ways and at different levels of description (electrical, chemical, informational, representational, phenomenological). The hypothesis, then, is that consciousness is an interaction effect of such myriad interactions. I don’t mean it is reducible to them; the effect is of an “emergent” character. This is quite commonplace with interaction effects from the chemical to the social. In some way we don’t understand, neural interactions give rise to conscious states; this is the kind of fact a conscious state emerges from.

Note how limited this claim is: it is not intended as explanatory, still less specific and detailed; it is merely a hypothesis about what to look for in searching for the neural basis of consciousness. Not in properties of individual neurons (like single action potentials), nor even in properties of ensembles of neurons (cascades of nerve impulses), but in interactions between neurons. Logically, it’s like looking for the origins of political movements in interactions between individuals: something new emerges from such interactions. The individual neurons have properties that may transcend what we know, and their interactions convert these properties into the conscious states we experience, by methods we don’t understand. There is therefore plenty of mystery in the interaction hypothesis, but it is not entirely toothless. We might call it “interactive materialism” (compare “central state materialism”); it is one class of materialist hypotheses, where by “materialism” we simply mean “brain-based”. Its full name might be “mysterian interactive non-reductive neural materialism”. We already know that parts of the brain can interact with other parts to produce properties not derivable from each part alone–as with language parts and emotion parts, or perception and thought parts, or memory and imagination parts. The interaction theory of consciousness extends this idea to the generation of consciousness itself—neural units interacting so as to produce (mysteriously) conscious experiences. Putting it in terms of the traditional identity theory, pain (say) is identical to an interaction of C-fibers and other associated fibers, not the firing of C-fibers alone. In principle, evidence could be found that supports this hypothesis (or refutes it). The underlying idea is that matter has the capacity to interact with itself and in special (unknown) circumstances this gives rise to consciousness. Brains provide these circumstances (we don’t know how) and they evolved millions of years ago (we don’t know when), thus unlocking yet another latent power of matter. The gravitational powers of black holes are released by increasing the density of matter; the mental powers of brains are released by suitable interactions between their constituents (of an unknown nature). No interactions between neurons, no consciousness.[1] Ordinary chunks of matter afford no such interactions between their parts, so they won’t be conscious; ditto for empty space. But the brain is essentially an interactive organ within its own confines, and on an unprecedented scale. This is the necessary correlate of consciousness, its material signature. But even if the interaction hypothesis is false, we can still say that consciousness is among the powers of matter, which is not the inert solid lump it has often been depicted as. Consciousness is as natural to matter as its other powers are. It is one of matter’s gifts to the world, for good or ill.

[1] This theory is no doubt wide of the mark, but it may not be as wide of the mark as every other theory hitherto proposed. Surely it is true that the brain’s interactive powers outclass those of any other natural object.

6 replies
  1. Free Logic
    Free Logic says:

    I don’t understand why, in philosophy, people are still trying to work with such problematic concepts as matter. I don’t mean the word as such of course, but the concept. I understand the rich and long history of it, but after hundreds of years, wouldn’t we be better off, pragmatically speaking, with a more refined concept of the physical than matter? What you describe as “interactive materialism” is definitely a step in this direction of defying the gravitational pull of “matter”. Why just modifying it as opposed to coming up with a better concept without such heavy and not really helpful historical baggage? It doesn’t have to go all the way to the barely comprehensible conceptual vocabulary of Whitehead’s process philosophy, but meaningfully changing the vocabulary to enable more productive and reasonable conversations about the importance of interactivity to being(s) will go a long way. Sticking to matter won’t.

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      According to the OED “matter” just means “physical substance”, but the concept of the physical is also in bad shape. As I use it in this paper, it means something like “the stuff that composes planets, mountains, hearts, and brains, among other things”.

  2. Mark L
    Mark L says:

    I can agree with most of what you are saying, very likely consciousness is produced by matter. I like your interactive materialism concept – there is a kind of feedback loop going on with these interactions perhaps and I’ve always wondered how conscious a brain in a vat would be without all of the external stimulus or interactions as you would say.

    However we have expanded the concept of materialism to include some rather outlandish things and, to echo what Free Logic is saying – it has a history.

    I doubt that the early proponents of materialism had in their minds such things as collapsing wavefunctions, delayed choice quantum eraser experiments, or entanglement – which could best be described as shared wave functions or spooky action at a distance or even contagious magic (as sir James Fraser might have called it).

    Also, if Sir Roger Penrose is to be believed – consciousness is the collapse of the wave function itself – I can’t think of anything less material than the collapse of a wave function.

    So yes – conscious matter is not something to recoil from, but simply because it now seems to include the immaterial – problem solved – the goalposts are now in superposition.

  3. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    I have wondered if the relationship between music and musical instrument could provide a crude but helpful lens on the mind-matter question. A musical instrument produces music, but only in the sense that it provides the boundary conditions for music to occur. The instrument doesn’t provide the medium of music (that is the air), and in itself the instrument (its physical shape) only gives us a hint of the form of music (standing waves of certain frequencies, intervals, etc). We could imagine a very complex musical instrument that via feedback plays itself (meaning the physical shape of the instrument, that comprises the boundary conditions of music, changes in part due to the music that it itself is playing).


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