August 30, 2013

Is Matter Unconscious?.


When your mind and heart are truly open abundance will flow to you effortlessly and easily.

by Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D; biologist and author of Science Set Free

The central doctrine of materialism is that matter is the only reality. Therefore consciousness ought not to exist. Materialism’s biggest problem is that consciousness does exist. You are conscious now.

The main opposing theory, dualism, accepts the reality of consciousness, but has no convincing explanation for its interaction with the body and the brain. Dualist-materialist arguments have gone on for centuries. But if we question the dogma that matter is unconscious, we can move forwards from this sterile opposition.

Scientific materialism arose historically as a rejection of mechanistic dualism, which defined matter as unconscious and souls as immaterial, as I discuss below. One important motive for this rejection was the elimination of souls and God, leaving unconscious matter as the only reality. In short, materialists treated subjective experience as irrelevant; dualists accepted the reality of experience but were unable to explain how minds affect brains.

The materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote a book called Consciousness Explained (1991), in which he tried to explain away consciousness by arguing that subjective experience is illusory. He was forced to this conclusion because he rejected dualism as a matter of principle:

I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way that dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up [his italics].

This dogmatism of Dennett’s rule is not merely apparent: the rule is dogmatic. By “giving up” and “wallowing in mystery”, I suppose he means giving up science and reason and relapsing into religion and superstition. Materialism “at all costs” demands the denial of the reality of our own minds and personal experiences – including those of Daniel Dennett himself, although by putting forward arguments he hopes will be persuasive, he seems to make an exception for himself and for those who read his book.
Francis Crick devoted decades of his life to trying to explain consciousness mechanistically. He frankly admitted that the materialist theory was an “astonishing hypothesis” that flew in the face of common sense: “’You’, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Presumably Crick included himself in this description, although he must have felt that here was more to his argument than the automatic activity of nerve cells.
One of the motives of materialists is to support an anti-religious worldview. Francis Crick was a militant atheist, as is Daniel Dennett. On the other hand, one of the traditional motives of dualists is to support the possibility of the soul’s survival. If the human soul is immaterial, it may exist after bodily death.

Scientific orthodoxy has not always been materialist. The founders of mechanistic science in the seventeenth century were dualistic Christians. They downgraded matter, making it totally inanimate and mechanical, and at the same time upgraded human minds making them completely different from unconscious matter. By creating an unbridgeable gulf between the two, they thought they were strengthening the argument for the human soul and its immortality, as well as increasing the separation between humans and other animals.

This mechanistic dualism is often called Cartesian dualism after Descartes (Des Cartes). It saw the human mind as essentially immaterial and disembodied, and bodies as machines made of unconscious matter. In practice, most people take a dualist view for granted, as long as they are not called upon to defend it. Almost everyone assumes that we have some degree of free will, and are responsible for our actions. Our educational and legal systems are based on this belief. And we experience ourselves as conscious beings, with some degree of free choice. Even to discuss consciousness presupposes that we are conscious ourselves. Nevertheless, since the 1920s, most leading scientists and philosophers in the English-speaking world have been materialists, in spite of all the problems this doctrine creates.

The strongest argument in favour of materialism is the failure of dualism to explain how immaterial minds work and how they interact with brains. The strongest argument in favour of dualism is the implausibility and self-contradictory nature of materialism.
The dualist-materialist dialectic has lasted for centuries. The soul-body or mind-brain problem has refused to go away. But before we can move forward, first we need to understand in more detail what materialists claim, since their belief-system dominates institutional science and medicine, and everyone is influenced by it.

Minds that deny their own reality

Most neuroscientists do not spend much time thinking about the logical problems that materialist beliefs entail. They just get on with the job of trying to understand how brains work, in the faith that more hard facts will eventually provide answers. They leave professional philosophers to defend the materialist or physicalist faith.

Physicalism means much the same as materialism, but rather than asserting that all reality is material, it asserts that it is physical, explicable in terms of physics, and hence including energy and fields as well as matter. In practice, this is what materialists believe too. In the following discussion I use the more familiar word materialism to mean “materialism or physicalism”.

Among materialist philosophers there are several schools of thought. The most extreme position is called “eliminative materialism”. Consciousness is just an “aspect” of the activity of the brain. Thoughts or sensations are just another way of talking about activity in particular regions of the cerebral cortex; they are the same things talked about in different ways.

The problem is that all these materialist theories are unconvincing. They do not even convince other materialists, which is why there are so many rival theories. The philosopher John Searle has described the debate over the last 50 years as follows:
A philosopher advances a materialist theory of the mind… He then encounters difficulties… Criticisms of the materialist theory usually take a more or less technical form, but, in fact, underlying the technical objections is a much deeper objection: the theory in question has left out some essential feature of the mind… And this leads to ever more frenzied attempts to stick with the materialist thesis.

The philosopher Galen Strawson, himself a materialist, is amazed by the willingness of so many of his fellow philosophers to deny the reality of their own experience:
I think we should feel very sober, and a little afraid, at the power of human credulity, the capacity of human minds to be gripped by theory, by faith. For this particular denial is the strangest thing that has ever happened in the whole history of human thought, not just the whole history of philosophy.

Francis Crick admitted that the ”astonishing hypothesis” was not proved. He conceded that a dualist view might become more plausible. But, he added, “There is always a third possibility: that the facts support a new, alternative way of looking at the mind-brain problem that is significantly different from the rather crude materialistic view that many neuroscientists hold today and also from the religious point of view. Only time, and much further scientific work, will enable us to decide.” There is indeed a third way, namely panpsychism, the idea that even atoms and molecules have a primitive kind of mentality or experience. (The Greek word pan means everywhere, and psyche means soul or mind.) Panpsychism does not mean that atoms are conscious in the sense that we are, but only that some aspects of mentality or experience are present in the simplest physical systems. More complex forms of mind or experience emerge in more complex systems.


In 2006, the Journal of Consciousness Studies published a special issue entitled “Does materialism entail panpsychism?” with a target article by Galen Strawson, and responses by 17 other philosophers and scientists. Some of them rejected his suggestion in favour of more conventional kinds of materialism, but all admitted that their favoured kind of materialism was problematic.

Strawson made only a generalized, abstract case for panpsychism, with disappointingly few details. But like many other panpsychists he made an important distinction between aggregates of matter, like tables and rocks, and self-organizing systems like atoms, cells and animals. He did not suggest that tables and rocks have any unified experience, though the atoms within them may have. The reason for this distinction is that man-made objects like chairs or cars do not organize themselves, and do not have their own goals or purposes. They are designed by people and put together in factories. Likewise rocks are made up of atoms and crystals that are self-organizing, but external forces shape the rock as a whole: for example it may have been split from a larger rock as a boulder rolled down a mountain.

By contrast, in self-organizing systems, complex forms of experience emerge spontaneously. These systems are at the same time physical (non-experiential) and experiential, in other words they have experiences. Strawson’s proposal is that more complex form of experience emerge from less complex ones. There is a difference of degree, but not of kind.

The eminent American philosopher Thomas Nagel has put forward a powerful argument for panpsychism in his recent book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (2012). He frames it in an evolutionary context: “Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself.”

Panpsychism is not a new idea. Most people used to believe in it, and many still do. All over the world, traditional people saw the world around them as alive and in some sense conscious or aware: the planets, stars, the earth, plants and animals all had spirits or souls. Ancient Greek philosophy grew up in this context. In medieval Europe, philosophers and theologians took for granted that the world was full of animate beings. Plants and animals had souls, and stars and planets were governed by intelligences.

In the United States, the pioneering psychologist William James (1842-1910) advocated a form of panpsychism in which individual minds and a hierarchy of lower- and higher-order minds constituted the reality of the cosmos. The philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) saw the physical and mental as different aspects of underlying reality: “All mind more or less partakes of the nature of matter… Viewing a thing from the outside… it appears as matter. Viewing it from the inside… it appears as consciousness.” The physicist Freeman Dyson wrote:
I think our consciousness is not just a passive epiphenomenon carried along by the chemical events in our brains, but is an active agent forcing the molecular complexes to make choices between one quantum state and another. In other words, mind is already inherent in every electron, and the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when they are made by an electron.

Panpsychism raises all sorts of new questions. As the materialist worldview loses its grip, we can begin to think about human and nonhuman minds in new ways.

This article is based on Rupert Sheldrake’s book Science Set Free, published in paperback on September 3. Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of more than 80 scientific papers and 10 books. He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, a Research Fellow of the Royal Society, Principal Plant Physiologist at ICRISAT (the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Hyderabad, India, and from 2005-2010 the Director of the Perrott-Warrick Project, funded from Trinity College, Cambridge University. His web site is

Write Your Comment

  1. Suzanne Camejo

    I must read it and learn

  2. Deepak Singh

    Sylvia you said the right, the God is in our own-self we just need to comprehend by the means of tool called consciousness.

  3. Adrian Ivor Capes

    This is setting up a dummy falsehood to knock down. Science has never stated that consciousness does not exist and 'Materialism' only limits the boundaries of its discourse to what it can claim to be 'true' acknowledging only that the tools of physics have little value in its (consciousness) assessment and analysis at the present state of physical reasoning .... This is a constantly changing position as can be seen by some quantum axioms. Beware of this false method of disproving something which is not the actual position of a discipline and using it as justification fo another false belief.

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