Reflections on BEING

Being is one of those ideas only philosophers worry about, and not even all of them. There’s a good reason for that. I’ve recently read a few philosophers who touch on the subject. Harman and DeLanda debate what being is in “The Rise of Realism” (2017), while Umberto Eco devotes a chapter to it in his “Kant and the Platypus (1997), and Meillassoux touches on it in “After Finitude” (2015). Eco’s essay ties the others together and points out that being appears to mind only against the possibility of “not being”, and that concept presupposes language that discloses limits to our capacity to rationalize experience. Eco is clear however in that being, should it be more than a mere fantasy of mind, must precede mind. It must be, ontologically, mind-independent, though it becomes visible only to mind and by way of a linguistic shadow.

I am not convinced of that last part. A shadow yes, a blindspot to mind like the blindspot on the human retina caused by the placement of the optic nerve. But it is a phenomenal blindspot and prelinguistic; a genuine epistemological limit. At the same time it is no mere coincidence the recognition, the conceptualization, of this blindspot happens only in humans who also notice that it necessarily reflects itself in language.

So what am I talking about? As philosophers discuss it this purported ontological reality splits into two levels, the particular, and the universal. In the particular philosophers speak of an essence that lies at the core of every particular in this universe, from quarks to all their assemblies both natural and artifactual taken as discrete objects. Every rock, grain of dust, star, animal, statue, and more. Harman extends object-ness to every mind, thought (even outright fantasy), and relation, even to such arbitrary sets as my right arm, the statue of liberty, and the present queen of England. The being of these particulars is what, in addition to their properties, histories and relations, makes up their individual existence.

This being is sometimes associated with what medieval scholars called “haecceity”, or “thisness”, distinguishing particulars from those otherwise identical. The question comes down to whether this impenetrable essence exists mind-independently, or is merely a mirage a product, ultimately, of the nature of human, language-using, consciousness. It has to be human mind specifically because there is no evidence that higher animals (who I take it have sophisticated subjective arenas adapted to their way of life) concern themselves with being. They do not recognize any blind-spot.

Harman says every particular, even imaginary ones, have being. DeLanda denies this. In DeLanda’s view, if we could (and we cannot) know every micro detail about some particular object, if we could know its entire history, including details of all its relations with other objects, if we could literally exhaust all of what could theoretically be known about an object, then we would exhaust the object, encompassing all of what that object is leaving nothing left over. Harman insists that even that would not exhaust the object itself; haecceity is logically prior to everything else. So who is right here? It seems to me that ontologically this is a tossup. Both DeLanda and Harman concede that “knowing every micro detail” is an impossible goal. Mind comes up against a limit. We cannot ever know every detail so how can we be sure there is something left over? Perhaps DeLanda is right in that being lies at this asymptotic limit. It is nothing more than a word standing for “those details we can never know”.

An honest ontologist has no business insisting on residual being one-way or another. Epistemologically the situation is different. Like being itself, only humans, using language, concern themselves with epistemology. Recognizing a “limit to what can be known” about any particular is in part to accept that something more might lie beyond “what can be known”. To label that possibility ‘being’ is simply to name that which we cannot know but perhaps is. What this represents ontologically is indeterminate, but for human mind, recognizing that a blind-spot exists, being seems a reasonable and possibly useful hypothesis. It is reasonable, because we cannot communicate (language) without presupposing existence. Useful because it gives us a reason to reject idealism; to assume there is a mind-independent world.

This brings us to the universal. As associate the particular with haecceity, the universal relates to something the scholars called quiddity. Quiddity is the aboutness of something, that which is common to its type. Kitty cats and lions are both feline. What justifies our carving out this class and assigning to it both kitty cats and lions but not poodles? Today most people would answer with DNA, jaw and tooth shapes, claws, and many other morphological features, but the scholars knew about most of those as well. Their interest was in the logical principles that characterize classes or kinds and what must be the case, ontologically, to make the classification work.

Like haecceity, quiddity might be no more than a stand-in for those principles and if we could theoretically know every one of them down to their finest detail, there wouldn’t be anything left. But what is interesting about quiddity is it applies up the whole chain of nested classes to the whole universe. It is the something in the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” What is common to everything there is (we can debate the details of that if we want) and does not belong to what is not? That would be being.

So what does everything that exists have in common? Trivially, they have existence. Is there anything more to it than this? Once again human mind cannot resolve the ontological question. At least everything that exists must, perforce, have existence. But are existence and being simply synonyms, or must something have being to exist? It doesn’t matter here any more than it did for particulars.

We cannot in principle exhaust existence (witness the endless debate in which philosophers engage on “what exists”) so how could we hope to discover, in any positive way, what might be left over if we did exhaust it? But in this case, we fare no better epistemologically. Mind at least can grasp the particularity of particulars. Human mind can become aware of a blind-spot, the inability to encompass every detail, but at least as concerns the particular we are justified in creating a word for “that which we cannot know about this”. As concerns the universal, we cannot even to that or if we do, it cannot be justified.

As concerns the global being, even human mind has nothing to grasp onto. Metaphysically speaking there can be nothing to grasp onto because unlike a particular rock or even thought, mind itself is a part of that universal. Mind exists in some sense and so “has existence” (and so being if everything else has it) in common with everything else. This also holds for language which also exists and has existence (at least) in common with everything else. To be able to speak about something presupposes being able to distinguish that something from everything else. But as concerns universal being, that which everything has in common, is to presuppose a reality-foundation (or reality concept) for which in principle there are no distinctions to be made. Existence alone is uni-vocal, something everything has in common, how much more so being if there is indeed any such thing.

Where does this leave us on the matter of being? I would say in an ambivalent position. I believe every language has some equivalent to the English verb “to be”. In English this construct and its conjugates applies to material objects (“that is a horse”), and actions, attitudes, or states (“to be creative”, “to be good”, “to be a disaster”) whether those of the physical world or strictly the subjective arena (“to be depressed”). It might perhaps be this broad application that persuades Harman to grant equivalency of existence (being an object) to everything from rocks to thoughts and all their relations (“to be taller than”). But perhaps this is merely an affect of language and should not be counted in an ontology?

If I teach my daughter the word cat, and eventually she displays an ability to tell cats from other animals, has she implicitly understood quiddity or is she merely learning to identify the morphological characteristics that distinguish cats from other animals most of the time? Suppose if she comes to know a particular cat as “Ben”. Has she thereby grasped the notion of haecceity or merely understood that “Ben” is one particular cat easily distinguished from others by subtleties of size, coloration, and so on? Eco insists that all of human language automatically and necessarily involves a generalization from the particular to the class, at least as concerns naming things, but as it turns out in many other contexts as well. Even grasping the idea that Ben is a “particular cat” implies there are “other cats” who are not Ben.

From how we use ‘being’ and how we try to talk about it using language we should infer nothing more than that it names, by implication, or gives some reference to our mental blind-spot, that which we suppose exists in the form of something we cannot know, something our cognitive capacities cannot in principle encompass. There must be such a blind-spot. Why? Because everything that we are counting as subjective experience and the world in which it is immersed has existence in common. We cannot get outside this commonality to distinguish it from anything else. It is the something that we cannot name because it has no particular about which to generalize and applies equally to being in the universal and the particular. Is there anything in common between all cats besides their various biophysical properties (including for example being born of other cats), with characteristic behaviors and relations?

Concerning thinking and experience (including the experience of thinking) if there is a common factor besides the properties we could theoretically come to know (and bearing in mind that even in theory we cannot come to know every micro detail of those properties), it might as well not be there. ‘Being’ stands for the blind-spot. It stands for something that might exist (ontologically) besides all the micro details of properties, relations, and history (Harman), or it stands for the theoretical sum total of such properties which we can only asymptotically approach (DeLanda).

As concerns anything that philosophy might explore it doesn’t matter. What the notion of being delivers, philosophically, is purely epistemological; there must be a blind-spot, there are things the human mind cannot know and because we cannot know them (like Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”) we cannot name them. We can only refer to them indirectly with a place-holder; being.

So why does this blind-spot belong only to human experience? Eco thinks it is language, the necessarily limited product of limited mind, that reveals the blind-spot we call being. I do not believe this is correct. It is only a coincidence that human beings recognize the blind-spot and happen to have language that we use to try to make sense of it. I agree with Eco that only a “rational animal” with a sufficiently powerful language, can attempt some evaluation of the blind-spot, but I think we develop the language, words like ‘being’, because there is something about our prelinguistic experience that suggests the need.

Does lion consciousness then lack such a blind-spot? No, there is a blind-spot in all animal consciousness, but it is invisible to even the higher animals. There is nothing in what it is like to be a lion that suggests anything like the need for an idea of being. It isn’t that lions don’t have “the language”. They don’t have any need for such language because there is nothing about the way they experience the world that suggests it.

If it isn’t language that reveals the blind-spot, what then is it? The key here is personality, in oversimplified terms the agent that appears to itself as a locus of experience. As Hume famously noted (and thus put a stranglehold on philosophy since his day) we cannot find our personality when we look for it, we only find our own minds (perceptions, memories, and so on). Hume was technically correct. His mistake was concluding that therefore, there was nothing there. Hume also derided being. He is one of those philosophers who simply does not believe mind might have “blind-spots”, a philosophical hubris shared by many philosophers down to the present day.

But the blind-spot that makes personality invisible is not the same as the one obscuring being though the principle underlying both is the same. You cannot analyze that which you do not ‘transcend’ in the sense of “rising above” or in some sense being “inclusive but more-than”. We cannot evaluate being because everything in the universe, including mind, takes part in it equally. It might as well not be there because it, should it even be real, is a common denominator of all mind-dependent and mind-independent reality.

Analogously, we cannot evaluate personality because we are it and we cannot distinguish ourselves from ourselves. But unlike being, personality must exist because it is that in our subjective arena which is partially distinct from mind and thereby provides for the possibility of self-evaluation of mind. It is only “partially distinct” because it exists in some sense in (amalgamated with) and expresses only through mind. No matter what we, as agents, experience or choose we experience and choose in mind. This partial transcendence explains why a first person analysis of mind always ends in philosophically slippery speculations that are not ever definitively closed. Unlike lions, we are reflexively aware of mind, but because we are “personalized minds” we cannot distinguish the personal from mind as such.

I have written much more on the subject of personality and its relation to mind in other essays. See “Why Personality”, “Why Free Will”, and “Physics and the Evidence for Non-Material Consciousness” among others. My point of raising it here has only to do with why it is that humans, persons have any epistemological purchase on being at all. As I have already noted, this purchase is something of a negative quality. We experience a hole, an empty place in our examination of experience but unlike personality, we cannot ever know if that emptiness represents anything positive that belongs in our ontology.

What is “the Soul”?


In all the other essays in this blog, as controversial as they might be, I could at least argue from some part of the content of our experience. Whether or not libertarian free will is real (or even possible) can be debated, but most people at least do admit that it seems like it is real and that we exercise it. The same is true of values: truth, beauty, and goodness. Are they illusions? Do we make them up, deliberately invent them? Perhaps we really detect their presence, they are real and stem from the same source as consciousness itself.

When it comes to the soul, however, we are at a loss. Simply put we experience nothing what-so-ever of our soul. Now philosophers of religion and theologians will perhaps disagree with me here, but their world is quite mixed up as concerns the soul. Mostly they use it as a word to mean just about anything they want having some bearing on what they take to be our “experiential core”. ‘Soul’ has been used as a synonym for ‘essence’, ‘personality’, ‘mind’, and any combination of any of them even including the body. I do not believe the soul is any of these things. To put it bluntly, we do not experience anything of the soul.

If we do not experience it, why should I think there is a soul at all? The answer has to do with the conviction that God, if he exists, must be both infinite, good, and the source of personality. If “God’s purpose” has to do with personality’s progressive alignment with the “will of God” as described in my first and third books, and more briefly my blog essay “Why Free Will”, then it doesn’t make sense if, on material death, the personality simply vanishes from the universe never again to be expressed. If we are supposed, progressively, to become perfect, like God, in a spiritual sense, this process certainly is not completed by the end of a very short (in cosmic terms) mortal life. What is the point of the fixed temporal reference of personality (see “Why Personality”), of all that we acquire, if it vanishes after a few score years on Earth?

If all this process has a point then personality must somehow survive mortal death. When we die our brain-based consciousness is obliterated, but not the information, the pattern configured into it by God. There is no consciousness here, something that we might best relate to having surgery under general anesthetic. In that case, consciousness (along with its configuring personality) is placed into a deep sleep. With no consciousness in which to operate, personality simply ceases to experience anything, and that includes the passage of time. But as our brain-based consciousness returns to wakefulness, the personality is again expressed.

The inference that there must be a soul if God is real is one of the “consequences of Infinity” I discuss at length in my books and here in “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”. In this case, a consequence that lies strictly beyond our subjective experience. Unlike personality, whose direct apprehension skirts the edge of our self-consciousness and must be present to explain, for example, recursive self-consciousness, the soul doesn’t have to be there at all as far as we, that is our personal selves on Earth are concerned. In short, it has nothing to do with our mortal lives.

Following material death consciousness ceases, but after some unknown duration we wake up again. The person emerges in association again with mind, that is, a consciousness produced by contact with Cosmic Mind (see “From What Comes Mind”). There is also, I presume, some vehicle of expression, something analogous to a body recognized by other persons as the locus of the individuality that is our-self. The vehicle isn’t material by our present reconning but it can be seen and identified by the expanded perceptual systems of its own type. Other post-mortal persons can see and discriminate one another from some environment. In this new case, the mind isn’t brain-based, but rests on something not material, not measurable by physical instruments, and within a vehicle with which the new person-mind combination can express itself. What kind of stuff is that? Is it the same “spirit stuff” of which God is made? I do not know and as we cannot detect it, we cannot say much about it. But if non-material reality actually is real, a part of the Universe’s fundamental ontology, there can be any number of levels or layers or types of “non-material stuff” between God and the material world with which we are familiar.

So we have “the person” and we have a consciousness (likely greatly expanded over our present matter-based version), and a vehicle of expression, but so far no memories. As I noted in my “Why Personality” essay the person has no purchase on its identity without memories which, in our case, are brain-based and so vanish when we die. This, I believe is where the soul comes into the picture. It is, if you will pardon the metaphor, the lifeboat, the escape mechanism that retains memory of the mortal existence. Memories with which we are re-associated when we “wake up”.

What memories? All of them? In our present estate the soul must evolve, grow, along with us even if we experience nothing of it. It is something like a baby within us albeit a baby we do not experience. Possibly it contains all of our memories, God must remember them after all, but I do not think so. Human life is filled with experiences of no spiritual value, that is no bearing on the free willed choice to “do God’s Will”. Experience of physical pleasures are obvious examples, but there are many others. What does have bearing on our future, what is of “spiritual value” are the experiences we have as result of instantiating (or attempting instantiation) of one or more of the values (see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?”) the only “stuff of spirit” with which we, with our brain-based minds, have contact. I hypothesize (and this is purely a speculation) that the memories we retain and wake-up with are the instances of value choice we make during our mortal life. Every time we make a positive spiritual choice, a choice to fit or instantiate some value into the world (more precisely to attempt that instantiation since we are not always successful and often only partly successful) that choice is recorded in the soul.

If true, this has interesting consequences. Notice in describing this mechanism I have said nothing about any intellectual belief in the reality of God. Atheists and theists alike make “spiritual decisions”, choices based on and for “reasons of” truth, beauty, goodness, or some combination of them. We commonly relate these to “the moral” and choosing “the moral” in any given instance has nothing directly to do with the intellectual baggage carried by the choosing individual. It might seem that “a believer” has more reason to make value-laden decisions than “an unbeliever”, but this is only theoretical. There are, in real life, many atheists who make more of these decisions than many theists. All of them have a soul.

Suppose we take two normal people (atheists or theists it doesn’t matter). One of them makes some value-instantiating decision on average every day of her life, at least those in which she was aware of herself and values. Lets say she had 50 years of such experience since becoming “self-aware” and before she dies or dementia degrades her brain enough to destroy her sensitivity to values. Our other person, on average, makes only one value entangled choice once every month over the same 50 years.

Upon waking in the post-mortal life our first candidate will retain some memory of every day of those 50 years, more than 18,000 memories. Even those she has forgotten in the mortal life will be available to her. By contrast our second candidate will have memories of 600 days of his previous life. Our two candidate’s status, as concerns personality, consciousness, and expressive vehicle when they wake is the same. But one of them retains far more memories of her prior experience (even if she was an atheist and never attended a church in her life) than the other even if he believed in God and attended church every week! To the extent that “going to church” motivates you to make more spiritual decisions the experience is of value. If it does not then, as with what you believe about God, it makes no difference what-so-ever.

Although this is the variation that recommends living a better, more value-entangled, life on Earth, I do not know how much of a difference it makes in the end. Like two siblings born 3 or 4 years apart, the difference in ages makes a considerable difference in their comprehension of the world for a few years, but by the time 30 or more years have elapsed the age difference is washed out. This is the meaning, I believe of Jesus’ parable of the harvest. Everyone gets the same thing in the end. Even a 75 year life on Earth is but 28,000 days. It might take trillions of days measured in Earth-time to reach some provisional end to the process of “becoming perfect as God is perfect”, more than enough time to obliterate the difference of a few thousand memories. But in the early times of the post-mortal career, there will be a difference. Our first candidate will advance in the program more quickly than the second.

I would make two quick observations before ending this. First philosophers have debated the nature of such identity transfers or duplication. Usually these are cast in terms of clones or star-trek-like transporters, but the notion has been applied to God. Does God move the person (and/or soul) from Earth to somewhere else, or does he use his omnipotence and perfect memory simply to recreate them? While such thought experiments are indeed puzzling as concerns clones or transporters they amount to a difference that makes no difference as concerns God. God is not subject to the second law of thermodynamics. Either way, the resulting copy, if that is what it is, is perfect, suffering no degradation whatsoever. From the subjective view of the individual no difference could be discerned. Either way, we will wake up aware that we are the same person who lived another life in another place and that the memories we find in the contents of our new consciousness belong to that person, us.

Second there inevitably arises the question of soul death. Can a soul die? Since it is non-material I do not think it can suffer death by accident or be murdered. But if free will is genuine, we must be able to commit suicide, to choose not to continue in the post-mortal adventure. Suicide of this sort is probably very rare if it ever happens at all in the post-mortal experience, but it must be possible if we are genuinely free. There is nothing to suggest that the post-mortal experience is timeless, the soul is not immortal in an unqualified way. On the other hand, I am not sure simple cosmic-suicide is possible on Earth. We can kill our body, but in that case the automatic life-boat mechanism kicks in and that person/soul combination survives having developed up to the point of physical suicide. In the next life, we begin where we left off here whether we were 80 or 10!

It might be possible to kill our souls on Earth through consistent, repeated choices of evil, choices in opposition to what is represented by the values. If we are (individually) evil enough, so steeped in evil that we lose the capacity to discern values altogether, we also lose the capacity to know right from wrong, and not just most of the time but always. We become, in short, iniquitous! It is possible (though I do not know) that in such a case our souls can wither and die. From that point on, in the life of that mortal, no survival raft exists and such personality vanishes (perhaps merging back into the infinite as a drop of water merges with the ocean) on physical death. Notice that this suicide entails the repeated exercise of free will choice. A single horrifically evil decision would not seem to be enough to obliterate the soul. Accident or disease, the degradation of the physical brain to the point that value discrimination is no longer possible, might freeze the soul in its present status at that time in the life of the individual, but God well knows that the individual has not chosen this outcome of his or her own will and the survival mechanism remains operative.

My speculative story ends here. I have gone into these things in more detail in my books (the first and third). More importantly it is there connected up with what we do experience of spirit. I emphasize here, in conclusion, that this is nothing but a speculative story based not on direct experience but on inference from basic assumptions about the nature of God and the purpose of experience, in particular the point of free will in a physical universe of purposeless mechanism. I tell this tale because it fills a hole in the theology I describe in my first book. If God’s “perfect universe” takes billions of years to complete, then the short mortal experience, something usually less than 100 years, we have on Earth cannot be the end of the story even though we have no experiential (subjective or otherwise) evidence of this mechanism’s operation.

Physics and the Evidence for Non-Material Consciousness


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.