Book Review: The Universe in a Single Atom

Picture of me blowing smoke

We’ve all heard of or noticed it… The solar system: a sun and planets, mostly empty space. The atom: a nucleus and electrons, mostly empty space. As above, so below! The analogies are in-exact, but they still serve to illustrate that the stuff of the universe is mostly empty. That part is true unless you count fields. Fields aren’t made of atoms but they do pervade empty space. In this book there isn’t much discussion of fields, though they are mentioned. Mostly the book is about consciousness, but I’m going to focus on the metaphysics of Buddhism as the Dalai Lama summarizes it because as must be the case it grounds the Buddhist view of consciousness, identity, and has implications for the matter of free will.

It all begins with that emptiness. It is worth quoting some key passages here because they hold in their language the key to their truth and error.

“At its [the theory of emptiness] heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own existence in it, and the way things actually are. In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possess self-enclosed, definable, discrete, and enduring reality. … The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error, but also the basis for attachment, clinging, and the development of our numerous prejudices.”

“All things and events, whether material, mental, or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena.”

“Effectively, the notion of intrinsic, independent existence is incompatible with causation. … Things and events are ’empty’ in that they do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality, or absolute ‘being’ that affords independence.”

“In our naive or commonsense view of the world, we relate to things and events as if they possess and enduring intrinsic reality. We tend to believe that the world is composed of things and events, each of which has a discrete, independent reality of its own, and it is these things with discrete identities and independence that interact with one another.”

Is his eminence correct about our ordinary, commonsense way of seeing things? I do think my automobile is a discrete particular I can positively identify in part because it endures through time. But those existence (enduring through time) and identity (my car, is a different particular from your car) criteria exist only because a mind (mine or yours) abstracts them from the concrete reality of the object. Independence here (in both the commonsense and philosophical view) implies only independence of a particular from mind. The object exists and has certain characteristics that I can name, but I do not create them. Nor, however does it imply that there endurance is any more than temporary, for a time, and that one day they will cease to exist.

Obviously automobiles can interact with the world causally. Certain of their properties, mass for example, have causal implications. If all the Dalai Lama is saying here is that no object, no event, is permanent, eternal, then this is but a trivial truth. It seems to his eminence that “independent existence” entails changelessness, not merely “mind independence”. Of course he is right that material object or event is eternal, but that does not mean it lacks all independent existence if only “for a time”. The object is not empty, even though it is temporary.

I do not agree with a lot of what Graham Harman believes, but he does handle this issue well. In summary:

1. Everything (material things, events, thoughts, intrinsic and extrinsic relations, etc) is an object.
2. Every object has both an essence and dispositional properties. The dispositional properties can be enumerated and quantified, the essential properties never entirely known.
3. Even given #2, objects and their essences are temporary. They come into existence at a time and go out at another time.
4. It is through their dispositional properties, not essences, that objects interact causally and relationally.

Harman claims to be a realist albeit from a continental background. While he need not represent here the majority opinion in modern philosophy he is comfortable with objects having an essence which does not participate in events (causally or otherwise) and at the same time dispositional properties that do. I suppose what makes this possible is temporal dependence, something the Dalai Lama denies is possible for essences. Because no eternal object exists (East and West [mostly] agree), they cannot (in the Lama’s view) therefore have essences. In the Western view (if one holds there are essences), this object, essence and all, had a beginning and will have an end. Putting this another way, the one physical phenomenon to which essences relate, or in which essences participate, is time!

Another quote is telling: “By according intrinsic properties of attractiveness, we react to certain objects and events with deluded attachment, while toward others, to which we accord intrinsic properties of unattractiveness, we react with deluded aversion.”

If there is one thing all modern western philosophy has in common it is the assumption that there is such a thing as “mind-independent reality”. The debate in Western terms is over what can be said or known about the mind-independent world, not its existence. To a realist, real objects (whose dispositional properties are discoverable by mind) exist and have all their properties, essential or otherwise, prior to and independent of their apperception by any individual mind, human or animal. Not all objects are like this of course. Thought-objects (Harman a big fan) of course do not, but even some material objects. A particular automobile, once built and prior to its someday destruction, is mind-independent now, but its origin in the past, its coming into existence as a mind-independent object, cannot have been possible without some mind’s intervention in the causal stream.

Who today, in the Western tradition, would say that attractiveness was an intrinsic property? It is in the Western sense, a relational property between some (possibly) presently-mind-independent object’s dispositional properties and some mind! One of the insights of modern science is that the mechanisms of the mind-independent universe (essences or not) are teleology-free (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”)! Attractiveness, by contrast, is implicitly teleological. It is attractiveness for the purposes of some mind whether for some pleasure, survival, or merely aesthetic appreciation.

In the Dalai Lama’s view, the ground of all reality is empty of all properties. At this ground, there is no distinction to be made between mind-dependent and mind-independent reality. All are equally empty. His eminence takes this to be a fundamental truth. So when we get to what amounts to an illusion of a differentiated world he does not, other than superficially (from within the illusion) distinguish between mind-dependence and mind-independence, emptiness all!

There is yet another problem. The emptiness doctrine might be incoherent. If the fundamental ground of everything including space and time is emptiness where does all this illusory stuff come from? That is to say where does anything that can have illusions come from? Emptiness at least implies quiescence. Not only must it be free of any real, mind-independent, stuff, it is free also of any process. Nothing happens! How is it that anything comes to be at all?

How does the emptiness doctrine impact the matter of free-will? If the differentiation of everything is an illusion, then that we (an illusion) have an effective will must also be illusion. One of the great differences between Hinduism, and especially Buddhism, as compared to Judeo-Christianity and Islam is that the former religions aim at being a “vessel of the divine”. The personal goal of those religions is to realize the emptiness of all that is. The net result is quiescence, merging with emptiness as a drop of water merges with the ocean. Will, among our illusions, has nothing therefore to do. In fact doing anything, willing anything is counterproductive, and precisely what leads to desire and misery. It isn’t that God wants us to do nothing, it is that like everything else God is empty. Technically speaking there is no “divine” only the empty ground of all that is.

Western religions, by contrast are religions of action. God and the universe are not nothing. They have positive existence. The goal of these religions is to bring what God wants (ultimately for us to love one another) to fruition and this takes place only when we freely will (of our own volition) and so act (or attempt to act) to bring that state about now and in the future. If free will does not exist (not because all is empty but because only brain-states have any causal efficacy) obviously this would be impossible; impossible that is to “freely choose” to do God’s will.

If a transcendent God of a sort envisioned by Western religions exists (this is not to say the real God would in all qualities be what is said of him in Western holy books see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology” for a less conflicted portrait) not only must free will be real, it must be the linchpin of the process for getting from the present to the future God intends (see “Why Free Will?”). But why would an omnipotent transcendent God set things up this way? Why not just make the universe the way he intends it to be from the beginning? The answer can be inferred from our sensitivity to values (see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?”) free will itself. What God intends must be that universe resulting from the mass-exercise of value-sensitive minds freely electing to instantiate (literally “make instances of”) the values.

If the Dalai Lama’s metaphysics of emptiness was true, and everyone on Earth achieved union with it, human history would end; everyone would starve to death! By contrast if the transcendent God exists, and everyone freely chooses, to the best of their evolving capacities, to do his will (the collective instantiation of truth, beauty, and goodness being love) the life of every individual on the world would be paradisaical! Because we (who are not illusions in this view) are partnering with God, freely choosing his way rather than what might be our own, the universe ends up better (apparently) than what God could have done by himself because all value-discriminating wills in the universe are freely on board!

The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama 2005

Who can critique the Dalai Lama? He is a smart, wise, man with a curiosity about pure science, and a pragmatic streak about technological applications. Should they benefit mankind, alleviate suffering, they are good. The Dalai Lama seems to have wanted to write this book thanks to a life-long fascination with science coupled with insights of his years of Buddhist training. He tells us as a boy growing up he had no training in western science whatsoever, but he was fascinated with a few (first-half 20th century) examples of western technology belonging to his predecessor. As a young man, once vested in his office, he availed himself of a new-found access to many of the world’s greatest minds, philosophers, scientists, artists, and so on. He has gone on talking and learning from great minds ever since.

After this introduction, the book looks at the physical (cosmology, quantum mechanics, relativity) and then life sciences. I was hoping he would not get into a “Buddhism discovered it first” argument, and mostly he does not. He comes close on the subject of quantum mechanics but I think mostly because at the time, the people from whom he learned it still took seriously the idea that individual human minds (for example that of a researcher) could be responsible for wave-function collapse. If this were true (the idea has long been put to rest as concerns individual minds) the tie-in with the Buddhist mind-first world-view and deep exploration of that first-person (consciousness) world would indeed be strong.

Even within quantum mechanics his eminence is sensitive to the great gulf between the western scientific paradigm and the focus of Buddhism. He well illustrates these differences while pointing out to scientists that much of what they take to be the “structure of reality” is a metaphysical assumption. It does not follow necessarily from scientific methodology which so well illuminates structure as concerns the physical world.

But this same methodology can say very little about consciousness. It is with consciousness that he spends much of the book examining the views of modern brain-science and how they might relate to Buddhist discoveries. The views of these different worlds stem as much from the purposes of their separate investigations as the technique; empirical 3rd-party evaluation versus highly-trained rigorous introspection. Becoming a master monk takes as many years as obtaining a PhD in physics (more in fact), but he mis-uses the term ’empirical’ here. What the monk does and what the monk learns in the doing should not be dismissed by western science, but it is still subjective and for that reason not empirical. He advocates for joint research. Neuro-scientists together with trained monks, he thinks, might help unlock some of the mind’s mysteries. He also is aware that not all mysteries are unlock-able!

In the book’s penultimate chapter he uses the then-new technology of genetic manipulation to plead with the scientific community to take it slow. He wants us all to be asking the right questions concerning the long term affects of the possibilities on our humanity. Here the contribution of Buddhism is the importance of compassion, of constant awareness of the mission to alleviate suffering. He is very good at identifying frightening possibilities in the technology and lists them. At the same time, aspects of the field, the need to produce more food, provided it isn’t motivated purely by financial gain, can be good. In his last chapter, his eminence returns to the same subject, a cooperation between science and Buddhism’s focus on bettering the human estate, not only physically or biologically, but socially, psychologically, and spiritually.

The book is full of interesting philosophical implications I will perhaps explore on my blog. These have more to do with physics, cosmology, and what western philosophy calls metaphysics than with consciousness which Buddhism takes more or less for granted. The idea that the stuff of the universe is fundamentally phenomenal suffuses all schools of Buddhism, while in the West the idea, while not unknown, is viewed with great suspicion. Where consciousness is concerned, his emphasis falls on intentionality, our capacity to direct our attention, but he never mentions free will. Like consciousness itself, perhaps Buddhism takes free will for granted.

From What Comes Mind?

This essay is about mind in general, consciousness, the “what it is like to be…” experience. What follows applies to human and animal mind. I include a note at the end about animal mind in particular. My focus is on consciousness as such, why it exists at all and why does it have the form it has. This will not be so much about the contents of conscious phenomenal gestalt, qualia, intentionality, beliefs, memories, and so on.

Many of the essays on the blog impinge on philosophy of mind. Although the assertions, analogies, and connections to philosophy here are mine, they rest broadly on the theory of mind presented by The Urantia Book. It is after all with mind that we experience the mind-represented sensory world, assert propositions, make intentional choices, sense values, and experience our agency.

The Urantia Book’s philosophy of mind is theistic and dualistic, but not in the way of Cartesian or for that matter Thomistic dualism. It does have elements of each of these (although the Thomism is about personality not mind as such) but also shares much with “property dualism” of the sort championed by David Chalmers. The purpose of this essay is to present the theory and note certain relations to philosophies of mind common among present-day philosophers. The theological basis of this theory is to be found here. I begin therefore with property dualism.

Chalmers is at base a materialist. There cannot be any super-natural power in his theory, but there is nevertheless a supra-natural effect. In his view, minds emerge from nothing above and beyond physical brains. No intentional power adds mind to brains, but the emergent mind does, nevertheless, have real powers and potentials that are nowhere present in brains simplicter antecedent to mind’s emergence. These qualities include the form of our subjective arena, its qualia and the ever present awareness of our intentional agency, our will, its power of downward causation.

This is a new type of cause in the universe perhaps best described by Nicholas Rescher in “Free Will: A Philosophical Reappraisal”. Rescher advocates for far more freedom in our intentions and acts than many other advocates of free will (see Richard Swinburne’s “Mind, Brain and Free Will” for a much narrower view). His argument for the unique quality of mental-cause is that it is timeless; he calls it initiation rather than cause, it being simultaneous with its effect. This comes out to the impossibility of ever identifying a “mental cause” independent of a brain-state correlate! There is more on Rescher’s view here.

What manifests in mind (pace Aristotle) are final and formal causes where before mind there were but material and efficient causes. We experience, directly and only in the first person, the causal efficacy of our agent-purposeful-volition. The combination qualia (emergence upward), and agent-intention (downward causation) has been called a “radical emergence” to distinguish it from the more ordinary emergence that produces, from physics, only physical if novel properties. As far as we know the only such phenomenon in the universe, the only radical emergence there has ever been, is mind (see note on emergence at end)!

Chalmers’ must ask: how can this possibly work? Cartesian dualism after all is universally challenged based on a single irresolvable issue, the matter of how a non-material substantive entity interacts with a material brain. Property dualism faces the identical problem. How exactly does physics, without a built in phenomenalism, produce a non-material phenomenalism, and how then does that turn around and become a literal cause, effectively directing (however minimally) the physics of the brain? Chalmers’ answer, and the answer, in variations, of many contemporary philosophers of mind, is that physics is not without built-in phenomenalism (or proto-phenomenalism).

Both panpsychism and various sorts of monisms posit the existence in (the monisms) or the emergence of phenomenal (or proto-phenomenal) qualities from physics (cosmology for panpsychism) alone. These qualities are forever undetectable by physics but are, nevertheless, built-in to physics! There spring immediately to mind two further questions: where exactly, or how, do these phenomenal/proto-phenomenal qualities inhere in physics, and what precisely is phenomenal about them?

To the first question, none has any answer. They could, of course, say “God put it there” but the whole point of the exercise is to find a solution without postulating a minded being having such powers. But if we rule out a minded source we are left at best with a supposedly mindless source of mind. We have done nothing but push the interaction issue to another part of the rug.

The second question is equally vexing. No one wants to say that the fundamental constituents of matter (atoms, quarks, the quantum field, the monists) or the universe taken as a whole (panpsychists) are conscious or minded. The claim is that the phenomenal builds itself up as the basic building blocks (atoms or galaxies) themselves are built up. But they nevertheless insist there is something inherent in these entities that is the real root of the consciousness we have. The problem is that when asked in what do hypothetical proto-phenomenal qualities consist, none can say, or even speculate. It seems that, short of mind as we know it, we cannot say in what the proto-phenomenal consists.

How does my view help? It does not explain the interaction mechanism. It does account for the reason the mechanism cannot be explained by mind of our type. It does, however, account for why we cannot give any account of that in which the proto-phenomenal might consist. We cannot give such an account because there need not be any proto-phenomenal qualities for which to account.

Starting with the property dualism, brains produce subjective-conscious-minds in a way analogous to a radio producing music (compression waves in air that we interpret as music or speech or whatever, but this detail has no bearing on the analogy). Destroy the radio or alter its function and the music disappears or becomes distorted. This is exactly what happens to mind when brain function is altered away from normal working limits; from distortions of consciousness to mind’s destruction. Real minds do not survive the destruction of brains any more than music survives destruction of the radio. From a common sense point of view, it is perhaps legitimate to view the radio as the real and perhaps sole source of the music.

But the radio does not produce music ex nihilo. Rather it interprets information present in a spacetime field in the radio’s vicinity. The radio is the “source of the music” in that it alone is responsible for the conversion, interpretation, or translation of information present in the field from its electromagnetic form ultimately to compression waves in air, an entirely different phenomenon! One way to look at it is to say brains are responsible for the conversion or interpretation of some spacetime pervading field into the form of our consciousness. More accurately, we should say that the field has the power to evoke consciousness from the doings of brains.

The field need not, by itself, have any phenomenal qualities at all. It need not itself be conscious or minded in any sense of those terms any more than the electromagnetic wave is music. Electromagnetic information isn’t music until the radio makes it so, and the field isn’t phenomenal until the brain makes it so, or at least this is all we need to specify about it. The field is a constant throughout (as far as we know) the universe. Radical emergence is effected from the brain-field combination.

The field I have elsewhere called “Cosmic Mind” (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”). Perhaps this a poor terminological choice as I do not mean to imply the field is conscious or even phenomenal in some uncharacterizeable sense. It mght be proto-phenomenal, phenomenal, or even conscious, but none of these matter to the model. As far as human beings and human consciousness is concerned the only property the field has to have is a capacity to evoke our subjective experience from our brain-states. If it has other properties, or indeed even purposes, we have no way of knowing.

In another, perhaps simpler analogy, imagine some material object (a ball on a pedestal) in a dark room. The ball has certain physical properties (mass, shape, and importantly here it happens to be opaque). Now a point light-source is turned on in the room. The ball now throws a shadow. Nothing about the physical properties has changed. The light-source does not add the shadow to the ball, but the shadow emerges from the properties of the ball (shape and opacity). Turn the light off, the shadow goes away. Remove the ball in the presence of the light and the shadow also goes away. The ball is the sole determiner of the properties of the shadow, but only in the presence of the light!

Mind, in other words, springs from brains as Chalmers envisions it, and this is why it is properly a property dualism. Viewed from the material, it is a radical emergence (upward) and has, because of its novel properties, also downward casual qualities. Mind’s appearance, however, its form and nature, is the result of an interaction. The emergence of subjective consciousness from brains is enabled by Cosmic Mind. Consciousness is the music produced by brains in the (everywhere) presence of Cosmic Mind.

Unlike an electromagnetic field Cosmic Mind is not physical and that quality explains mind’s non-material quality. Cosmic Mind’s postulation accounts for mind’s relation to brains (mind’s physical root) and its subjective first-person-only phenomenology (mind’s non-material root). Qualia would appear to come from the brain side, our representation, via the senses, of the physical world. Intentionality is related to purpose, to final cause, something that doesn’t exist in physics. This quality must somehow be contributed by Cosmic Mind. How does Cosmic Mind interact with the physical? Aren’t I faced with the same “interaction problem”, perhaps pushed around a bit, as old fashioned Cartesian dualism?

The short answer is yes. It is the same problem, the same also faced by property dualism and panpsychism, and also Russelian, and any dual-aspect monism. The presence of Cosmic Mind is (like Cartesian mind) normally associated, directly or indirectly, with God, but one could leave its final source in abeyance as phenomenal monists and panpsychists do with their protophenomenal properties. None of these other theories ever say what exactly the phenomenal or proto-phenomenal qualities are let alone from where they come. Unlike the quasi-materialistic theories, Cosmic Mind is not (or need not be) phenomenal or proto-phenomenal (let alone conscious) at all. The emergent effect, subjective phenomenalism, only occurs when brains appear — Cosmic Mind being always on the scene. Unlike quasi-materialisms, this explains why we find the phenomenal only in association with brains and why we cannot even speculate about the protophenomenal in physics. It isn’t there to be found.

What about my other promise? Why is explanation of the interaction mechanism forever out of our reach? To support the radical emergence taking place, the field cannot, itself, be material (like the electromagnetic) or we would be back to unsupported radical emergence. Since it isn’t material it remains forever outside the capacity of physics (having only material instruments) to detect. Moreover, since the emergent dualism effected by the brain is also non-material the mechanism producing it is a mix of the physical (brain states) and non-physical (Cosmic Mind). Physics (in this case a synechode for neurophysiology resting on biology resting on chemistry and so on) can only measure the material side and it does! We can measure and find (roughly) consciousness-correlated brain states! What we cannot measure is the evocation subjective experience from their functioning.

What physics wants is an equivalence relation. But proving equivalence relations (for example the equivalence between thermodynamics and statistical mechanics) needs experimental confirmation, physical measurement, of the phenomenon from both ends as it were. This is precisely what is not possible concerning mind.

Where does Cosmic Mind itself come from? I’m a theist for this reason and many others. God covers a multitude of problems. The origin of course, but also the interaction. We can never spell out the mechanism but God knows the trick! Theism has no particular burden here. Panpsychists and monists do not tell us from where come their postulated “phenomenal properties-of-physics”, or for that matter even in what they consist. The latter question I have answered!

If we let materialist philosophers get away with “we don’t know, they’re just there” (concerning the proto-phenomenal) why shouldn’t theists? A non-material field pervading spacetime is no less conceivable than undetectable phenomenal properties underlying physics. One of Chalmers’ suggestions is “psychic laws” in parallel with physical law. Postulating Cosmic Mind answers more questions than proto-phenomenal physics or psychic laws, specifically why we cannot specify, or even speculate about, what qualities the proto-phenomenal has.

For more of my essays on this and related subjects see:

Essays:

Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind
Physics and the Evidence for Non-Material Consciousness
Why Free Will
Why Personality

Books:
Why This Universe: God, Cosmology, Consciousness, and Free Will (2014)
God, Causal Closure, and Free Will (2016)

Note: On emergence

I have allowed in this essay that mind is the only example of radical emergence of which we know, but I believe there are two others, the universe itself, the big bang, and life.  This essay is not the place to go into either, but it is the theme of my book “God, Causal Closure, and Free Will” linked above.

Note: On the subject of animal mind

Since mind is associated with brains we might speculate about where it appears in the development of animal nervous systems. The short answer is I do not know but at least it seems to be present, a “what it is like to be” subjectivity in all the mammals and birds and possibly all vertebrates. If Cosmic Mind is all of a piece, everywhere uniform throughout the universe, how is it that animal consciousness seems less rich than the human? The answer here is on the brain side in the same way the shape of the shadow depends on the ball.

The electromagnetic field is filled with information all jumbled together. It can be made coherent (by radios) through the process of tuning. When a radio is tuned to a particular “carrier frequency” amidst the jumble, all of the electromagnetic modulation around that frequency can be detected and interpreted say as music from one, speech from another and so on. But notice also, that even if we single out a particular carrier, radios can vary widely in the quality of their conversion/reproduction. The sound emerging from older, more primitive, radios contains less of the information than that coming from newer more advanced electronics.

Cosmic Mind need contain only one signal. Being non-material it might as well be undifferentiated as we couldn’t measure any differentiation anyway. But there are, like radios, brains of various qualities. Like an older radio, the mind evoked by the brain of a mouse is less rich than that of a dog, the dog less than an ape, and the ape less than a human all bathed in the same field. This seems to be the case for consciousness as a whole, but is not the case concerning specific qualia. A dog’s aroma qualia are far richer than a human’s, as is a bird’s visual qualia (birds have four types cone cells in their eyes supporting ultra-violet visual qualia). There is nothing surprising about this if qualia in particular are closely tied to the physical root of the subjective arena. Some more primitive radios can be optimized to reproduce a narrow range of audible frequencies better than a more advanced radio even though the latter does a better job over-all.

In accounting for this difference this “Cosmic Mind” hypothesis at least matches the accounting for qualia by panpsychism and dual-aspect monisms. In the latter theories, more primitive brains produce less rich phenomenal qualities from the basic proto-phenomenal building blocks but nothing blocks optimizations in different brains. In both cases, the onus for the quality (richness) of qualia lays with brains. But the quasi-materialisms cannot so well account for intention, purpose (something the higher animals clearly have), unless one posits its proto-presence as well. Such a move puts teleology firmly back into physics, and in that case we are half-way back to theism.

Physics and the Evidence for Non-Material Consciousness

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There is an old story of the net and the fishermen. A net having a weave that lets any object smaller than 10 inches long slip through it. Fishermen cast the net in the lake and harvest fish always ten inches long or longer. The fishermen mistakenly conclude that there are no fish in the lake smaller than 10 inches. Philosophy 101 students easily recognize the fishermen’s mistake. If there were fish in the lake smaller than 10 inches they would slip through the net.

Now imagine that there is some constraint on these fishermen that prevents them from weaving nets any more finely than they have. Is there any other means by which they might acquire evidence of fish smaller than ten inches long? As it happens there is. They can take some of the larger fish, keep them alive in captivity, and mate them. If successful, they would see that fish lay eggs, eggs hatch into little fish, and little fish, properly fed, grow into fish ten or more inches long! Having done this sort of thing many times, our fishermen can correctly induct, from many particular observations, that there are indeed fish in the lake smaller than ten inches because those smaller fish are the descendants of the bigger fish and one day will become bigger fish themselves.

Although the analogy is imperfect, physics, that is the present state of our body of science, has something in common with that net. Our senses and all the instruments and physics we can derive from them are physical. No matter how refined we make our instruments they are physical things and cannot measure or detect anything that isn’t also a physical thing. Quantum mechanics doesn’t help here. Ruth Kastner (“The Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”) goes so far as to conclude that the solution to various quantum puzzles is to locate quantum phenomena outside of spacetime. But they remain very much physical nevertheless. As indeterminate quantum phenomena emerge into spacetime they become deterministic, fully participating in the time-bound causal web, subject to causal closure.

No one, even died-in-the-wool physicalists, deny that there is any logical proof of the absence of anything real that isn’t physical, but nevertheless most commit themselves to the proposition that no non-physical entity can be real based on the capacity of physics to be self-explanatory. There are also those who simply define ‘reality’ in such a way as to preclude anything that isn’t physical from being real, and therefore chalk up anything historically adduced for such reality to utter illusion, a mirage.

As with the problem of the net, we ask if there is any possible evidence for there being something real in the universe that isn’t physical? Unlike with the fish, we cannot merely encompass some part of the physical and watch it to see if it produces something non-physical. We can try of course. Experiments and observations have been going on since Newton, some would say since Galileo, without such a transformation ever being witnessed. Scientists and philosophers have long conceded that the non-physical, should it exist, cannot in principle be detected and measured with physical instruments, the only kind we can build. They further concede that it is, technically, an inductive error to conclude there is nothing other than the physical in the universe based on this incapacity alone.

What warrants that further conclusion is the observation that physics is causally closed on itself. It is one thing to concede that we could not in principle measure anything non-physical. But when we measure that which is physical, we discover that these measurements alone fulfill all explanatory requirements for the present state-of-the-universe. Physical causes and nothing but physical causes result in all the effects we can measure throughout the cosmos. Physical causes result only in physical effects and physical effects spring from nothing more than physical causes.

For my purposes, as with physics, ‘reality’ is associated with causal efficacy in the physical. Anything that is or can become a cause in the physical is real. Cause is to be taken to mean “contributing cause”. It need not be the sole cause, nor the physically proximate cause. To be a cause it is only required that some physical effect is the ultimate result. The causal closure hypothesis is related to the observation that physical effects have, at least, physical proximate causes. All measurable physical effects seem to have, immediate antecedents that are also physical. But this does not preclude the existence of non-physical causes. For a non-physical cause to be real, it is only necessary that an observer be able to connect up a purported cause and an effect measurable in the world. I will have more to say about this “connecting up”.

Among modern philosophers there are some (Chalmer’s, Nagel, Lowe, Haskers, Foster, O’Connor, and others) who push back on the physicalist claim. They argue that there is reason to believe that there is something both real and non-physical in the universe, specifically consciousness, that is a subjective through which we experience anything at all including our observation of the physical. Physicalists rejoin that this phenomenon, consciousness, is not a “non-material reality”. It is merely a way of viewing the material itself. A rain cloud looks very different from above and below, but both views are merely different perspectives of the same single thing. We confirm this assertion by tracing, physically, from the top to the bottom of the cloud and determine that it is the same entity viewed two different ways.

This does not appear to be possible as concerns consciousness. No physics has ever traced, physically, all the way from subjective experience to the physics (technically biology — brain states) that purportedly underlies it. Many (mostly scientists) argue that we just haven’t got there yet and we will someday make that tracing. Others, many more of them philosophers, argue that the physicalist rejoinder is more hubris than reality. That it might turn out impossible, in principle, to ever make that mapping. Of course this doesn’t mean brain states have nothing to do with consciousness for obviously they do. What it means is that consciousness is not (or may not be) merely “another view” of brain states.

I am not going to address those arguments here but I am going to explore the question whether or not this phenomenon we call consciousness is in fact evidence and in what way it is evidence for the existence of something real that is beyond the reach of physics because it is non-physical.

For any evidence to be evidence, the phenomenon for which it is adduced has to be real. There cannot be evidence for anything that is by definition unreal. At the same time any evidence, if it is evidence of anything at all, has to emerge from, or become available to, our subjective experience as observers. The evidence must appear in consciousness. From our own subjective points of view there is no evidence of anything in the universe, physical or otherwise, that doesn’t emerge in or through our experience — aided or unaided by instruments or quintessentially mental formalism like logic.

How do we fare here as concerns consciousness? Its reality is one of the matters in question. The independent reality of consciousness is controversial. We cannot demonstrate, physically, that it is real. On the other hand, as all evidence of any kind emerges through experience it seems strange to insist that our experience is nothing but illusion. What happens to the evidential status of physics itself if the consciousness that interprets physical evidence as such is only an illusion? Can evidence be real if the status of the “evidence interpreter” is not? What happens to the truth status of the proposition “physics is causally closed” if the subjective arena asserting that proposition is an illusion?

This threat to the veracity of physics is a real problem for physicalists who insist that consciousness cannot be real. It at least suggests that it might be real, that its reality cannot be ruled out by fiat and might have to be accepted for the sake of our seeming capacity to comprehend the world.

The evidence for the non-material character of consciousness also emerges in consciousness! An idea cannot be weighed but it nevertheless appears that ideas are instrumental in the process of moving our bodies and thus our capacity to control aspects of the world confirming the correspondence between experience and physics. All of human society, our technological infrastructure, political institutions, and history are a function of this relation between quintessentially non-material ideas and the physical world. Somewhere in the distant past lies an ancestor, a hunter-gatherer who carried a club and a piece of chipped flint. Having both of these objects and a knowledge of making rope or twine from plant stems, this ancestor thought to attempt tying the flint and the club together producing something novel and more utilitarian than either the flint or club alone. An idea became a physical thing, an ax, through the controlled (purposeful) movement of a body that tied the flint and club together.

Many of the actions we take appear, to experience, related to the ideas we have. Using our bodies, we can pattern the physical by mapping ideas onto it. This is what I spoke of above as a “connecting up”. That I use an idea, a mental picture perhaps of some intended physical end-product, along with appropriate motions of my body, to produce that end product. The connection between the idea and the end product is obvious and immediate to us. It is not a connection between the physical and something non-physical outside of ourselves (magic unicorns perhaps), but between ourselves (subjective experience), our bodies, and the final physical output. We understand that our physical hands fashioned the physical end-product and that our hands moved in response to physical nerve impulses. The connection backs up to what it was that set those nerve impulses in action; a non-physical idea coupled with a non-physical intent to attempt its implementation (a mapping) in the physical.

We take this relation so “for granted” that mostly we do not even notice it. The productive conjunction between ideas and objects, mediated by bodies, means that ideas are real. Through the mediating influence of the controlled body ideas are causally efficacious. This could not be so if ideas were nothing more than illusions. True ideas have correlative brain states that are physical, but we do not subjectively manipulate brain states. We juggle ideational contents of subjective consciousness directly and these have a quintessentially non-material character.

The non-material quality of ideas is not of course proven by their association with physical actions whose consequences are also manifest in consciousness. Deterministic brain states not manipulated in consciousness might result in both ideas (and all of consciousness) and movement thus explaining their apparent connection. If this were true however it would have to be true about every product of humanity from the first struck flint to the space station and for that matter all the institutions and historical contingencies resulting in the present state-of-the-world. A staggering set of deterministic coincidences for which we, that is subjective experience, can take no credit whatsoever.

One cannot have this both ways. Either the subjective arena has no causal efficacy whatsoever or there is here a genuine connection between non-material cause and physical effect. If we wish to suspend judgement on this dilemma we yet must acknowledge that subjective experience does at least rule out physicalist declarations of its impossibility. Our experience counts as enough evidence for the reality of the non-material to question the physicalist assertion that there cannot possibly be anything other than the physical in the universe. Subjective experience seems to be telling us that the non-material is real and the entire history of human civilization at least warrants our concession to the possibility.

The evidence suggests, if it does not formally demonstrate, that something real and non-material is possible and obtains inside the otherwise physical universe. Consciousness (broadly speaking) is that reality. All of the philosophers cited above are materialists but not physicalists. They share with the physicalists a conviction that everything inside the material universe, including consciousness, takes origin in nothing more than the physical. They break with the physicalists in asserting the non-physical can, in fact, emerge from the purely physical and that in this universe, consciousness is that non-physical emergent entity.

Once emerged, they assert, the non-material cannot be fully traced-back to the physical. Subjective experience is not merely another viewpoint, another way of “looking at” something physical, but a novel thing in itself. Once it comes to be, from out of the physical, it can no longer be fully reduced to the physical. This view is called “property dualism”. Two phenomenon, mind and physics, but ultimately a single source, physics. But this view has its own problem with the contents and qualities of experience. Even if the non-material cannot be reduced in any logical way to the physical (more or less the position of all the philosophers cited above) it must, nevertheless originate from nothing more than the physical and this means that some evidence of the transformation from physical to non-physical should lie in the physical past, in the history of the universe. That no such evidence has ever been observed is not proof that non-material origins are not purely physical.

To date no mechanism has been discovered in physics that would plausibly result in such a transformation. If it is true that no such mechanism exists, physics is really causally closed, then the emergence of the non-physical from the physical alone is not possible and no historical marks are there to be found!

Every one of these property dualist theories of the non-material amounts to presupposing either an opening in causal closure or an invisible (to physics) set of causal laws or properties in the physical that add the qualities (to physics) required to produce the non-material. The first approach implies some evidence of itself within physics as noted in the previous paragraph. None has been found, and none of our present theories of the world require any provision for it.

Metaphysically speaking, the second approach is no less supernatural than the hypothesis of a divine being. It may lack the being’s anthropomorphic qualities but its presence and interaction with the physical are no less inexplicable. The “coming to be” of these psycho-physical laws (Chalmers’ term) wants explaining, and their interaction with the physical is no less a mystery than the interaction problem posed by a substance-dualism of mind or for that matter God. For a more detailed treatment of this issue specifically see my “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”

To wrap up I summarize what I hope I have accomplished.

1. Physics can measure only the physical.

2. Physics leaves in abeyance the question of some non-material reality inside the physical universe. It remains logically possible. Physics has no evidence for it, but all physics can assert with authority is that explanations of indisputably physical phenomena require no reference to it.

3. There are subjective observers inside the physical universe. These observers all have bodies made of matter and subject to measurement by physics. But they also have “subjective experience” whose qualities are not subject to physical measurement.

4. Either the qualities of subjective experience are not real or they are real and can make some contribution to physical cause; they can configure physical cause (movement of a body) to produce physical effects patterned by a non-material idea. The non-material idea can be mapped to physical reality or put conversely physical reality can be patterned, configured, by non-material ideas.

5. Either the whole of human history and achievement is a blind accident or non-material ideas are causally efficacious and therefore must be real.

In “An Epistemological Argument for Free Will” I argue that free will is real and our experience warrants that belief. None of what is discussed above impinges directly on free will. Our ideas might be both real and non-material without our having free will. The connection between ideas and the physical might, after all, be fully determined even if ideas are in fact the initial patterns of the physical result. But the subsequent free will argument does rest, metaphysically, on the reality and non-materiality of consciousness.