The Nature of Matter & Mind – Neutral Monism


Quantum mechanics and relativity have shown us that the nature of matter is vastly different than materialists and mechanists ever imagined. Even so, trying to accommodate conscious minds into the natural order has led to the hard problem of consciousness and other seemingly insoluble problems. Indeed, even in the field of consciousness studies more and more researchers in both philosophy and the cognitive neuroscience of consciousness are becoming skeptical that any form of materialism or reductionism can resolve the hard problem of consciousness. The two emerging contenders seem to be strong emergence versus some form of panpscyhism. Unfortunately, the terms of the ancient debate between strong emergence and some form of inherence such as panpsychism have not changed very much in the last few hundred years. So we allegedly have conscious agents either inexplicably popping out of brains as in strong emergence or we have something intrinsically experience-like hiding at the metaphysical “center” of fundamental physical entities inexplicably combining to form mature minds. To see the way out, we must begin by noting that with the exception of conscious experience itself, both views share a physicalist or ontologically reductive framework. On both views, with the exception of consciousness itself, the world is just as physicalism or ontological reductionism says it is. Can we do better? Michael Silberstein thinks yes and that neutral monism of the sort defended by William James and others is the key. The latter holds that the very idea of mind and matter as essentially distinct in the first place, is the root of the hard problem. Neutral monism deflates the hard problem and allows us to reconceive both matter and mind in a harmonious and naturalistic way, all of which puts meaning back into the heart of nature.

The hard problem of consciousness has led some scientists and philosophers to embrace the notion of strong emergence or panpsychism. But Michael Silberstein argues that they aren’t explanatory or even all that different at bottom. He argues that people are led to such views because of a mistaken conception of matter. Following structural realists like James Ladyman, he argues against the traditional idea that matter has intrinsic properties. On his view, it is relations (structure) which is fundamental, rather than the objects which stand “in” those relations. As such, entities “arise out of” relations to other things, and so have no independent existence on their own. Silberstein goes further and proposes a contextualist understanding of structural realism. When applied to the domain of mentality and consciousness, he gets out a view similar to that of William James and his neutral monism. He also finds similar ideas in Buddhism and in the work of phenomenologists like Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty – where the self and world are interdependent – as against the traditional representational view of there being the subject/mind on the one side, and the external world on the other, which leads to skeptical problems about how knowledge of reality could be possible at all to begin with.

This talk was given by Michael Silberstein at Wesleyan University on 10/12/2015.

Category: Philosophy
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