Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What is mind: Information or Substance?

Some philosophers, including Kenneth Sayre, David Chalmers & others, think that the existence of mind can be explained if only we could allow 'information' to exist in reality as a property alongside physical attributes such as mass, charge etc. This is taken then within  'neutral monism', whereby physical and mental are just two different ways of looking at what actually exists. They just consider different properties if some single (monistic) substantial reality.  This was advocated by Bertrand Russell, etc., and is increasingly popular today. It allows for 'property dualism', but not 'substantial dualism'.

In fact, such neutral monism has features that make it strange as a fundamental theory. I agree that it at first sounds good to have 'information' is the fundamental basis for both physical and mental realities. However, information is essentially mathematical and formal. That is what information essentially means. And anything mathematical cannot change! And one thing we know about the physical and mental worlds, is that there are causes and changes there. Furthermore, mathematics is necessary -- it cannot be otherwise -- but the world we live in is contingent -- it could be otherwise. This holds whether or not we believe in free will. To say that reality is made out of information is like going back to Pythagoras, whose follows took the world to be made out of triangles. That is all form and no substance. There is no actuality. Clearly not the best choice for theory of reality!

I insist, instead, that in order to understand the existence of physical and mental things, we need to treat them as actually existing. They cannot be merely concepts, hypotheses, forms, or information. We may describe some of them by mathematics but actual things are not constituted by mathematics. This amounts to taking an Aristotelian view of reality, wherein every real thing is some kind of substance and has powers for change. This can immediately be contrasted with an extreme Platonic view, wherein only ideal forms are real, and things in our world are merely some kind of image or shadow of those ideal forms.

Following Aristotle, we can analyze the nature of individual things. We see how they all have some form and are all composed of some matter (Greek hyle). I am going to say that objects all have some form, and that form is a form of some underlying substance or stuff. By the term ‘form’, I refer not just to the external shape of an object, but to all the internal structure and descriptive details necessary to make a full account of what actually exists at a given moment. Spatial structures are forms, and so also are any other structures needed, whether they are spatial or not. This use of the term ‘form’ refers only to static or categorical properties that can be attributed at any one time. It therefore excludes causal principles since these describe what might happen at later times. The form and substance of each thing can be intellectually distinguished, but they never exist apart in reality. It is never the case that the form of a thing is here and the substance of it is over there.

This is to adopt a realism that takes seriously the need for substance and also for changes and processes involving substantial objects. Each object cannot merely exist self-sufficiently but must be closely linked to others by causes and/or effects. We therefore need a serious account of how causes exist and operate and how the causal powers of objects are related to their substantial nature. Because science is continually discovering new kinds of causes and new ways of causation, the realism here is not a naive realism wherein we take as real just what appears to our senses. There are enormously many things and causes that science postulates that are not apparent to our senses but are inferred from empirical or theoretical considerations.

The present realism, because it stresses the leading role of causes and powers in generating new processes, is going to be called ‘generative realism.’ If we want a slogan, we could say
“No process without structure, no structure without substance, no substance without power, no power without process."

My slogan can indeed be interpreted physically. But it is not confined to what is physical, since I want to apply it to mental and spiritual things too, and also consider applying to what is divine (God). All I am doing here is to avoid purely formal accounts of these things as being complete descriptions: as well as form, we also need process, substance, power, etc. I want to avoid purely abstract descriptions of mind, or accounts which are purely mathematical! Certainly a mathematical theory of communication can exists as a description of the forms of things, but things are not themselves purely mathematical. Because I apply the slogan also to mental, spiritual and divine things, I do not follow a purely neutral monism. I see all physical, mental, spiritual and divine things as existing substances with powers, process and form each. These are not 'distinct levels of abstraction' of some single monist substance.

Many past descriptions have been more poetic than literal. So much so, that we wonder if true statements can be accurately made about what is 'mind' and 'spirit'. So I have been seeking to form a non-metaphorical account of the way God starts the process, and how it is carried on through spiritual and mental worlds to the physical realm. 

I admit that there are still questions concerning whether units of measure are even possible for these things. I am more inclined that science has to develop more towards a theory of dispositions (affordances) and qualities, even if there are no numbers to go with them. Think even now how cognitive modeling works in psychology: they examine structures and processing, even without the 'units of measure'.

The objects in minds certainly carry information, but they are much more than only information! For example, to describe something only by information tells you nothing about the propensities it has for various effects. This is the 'further' that you mention: objects can and should be characterized also by capability, productivity, potential actions, dispositions, etc. And that the specific actions depend on the form (in-form-ation) of the object. This is not impossibly difficult. Psychologists interested in preferences and motives do it all the time.

In order to understand more, we have to get a better idea of all the different kinds of desires and affections. I claim that all mental propensities / affordances / dispositions are in fact various desires and affections: that is what their substance really is. And every kind of thought and concept and information-in-the-mind has to be caused by some appropriate kind of desire: in particular, the desire for knowing that particular thing, and then for using it to produce the wanted effects. That is, each kind of concept stage of Piaget (etc) must be linked to an individual kind of desire and affection. That is were Erikson comes in: he examined the stages and levels of emotional (psychosocial) development. He did this independently, but I report in my book that his levels agree surprisingly well with Piaget's levels. (This agreement was first shown by John Gowan.)   Mental propensities are the true substance of the mind, not information.

In part, this is extracted from a forum at Skeptiko
that discusses my book "Starting Science From God"


  1. Ian,

    While being inspired by a careful reading of K. Sayre, my foundation for thinking about "neutral monism" is right from E. Swedenborg. DLW has a Title at #44 "Divine Love and Wisdom are substance itself, thus the very and only Reality.(Very and Only One)"

    Hence, in my humble personal view, Reality is a neutral monism from Love (ultimate meaning) and Wisdom (ultimate applied use).

    Swedenborg describes a series of dualisms, such as Esse and Existere, that resolve as a unity.

    There is a clear example in physical theory - matter and energy. Each has a category of units of measure, appropriate to phenomena empirically detected. Study each aspect as separate, yet corresponding, and physical theory (unity of the categories) emerges.

    Likewise, all that I can garner from the philosophical position of Informational Realism, as espoused by Sayre and L. Floridi - stikes me in a similar manner. Formal information, (think Shannon's mathematical theory of communication) melds with logical possibilities (real world meanings).

    I strongly appreciate your thinking. I think your stance about how information science doesn't support the New Church Philosophy - is restricting the "meaning" and specificity side of information to Platonic roots. Information as "choice" between real logical vectors is source of the infinite variety in the reality we experience.

    The idea that there is a Res Potentia has recently been acknowledged by Stuart Kauffman.

    1. Neutral monism is the claim that everything is comprised of the same one kind of substance.

      If you had said "Reality is a neutral monism comprised of Love (ultimate meaning) and Wisdom (ultimate applied use)", then that would have been consistent.

      However, you said "Reality is a neutral monism from Love ...". What does from mean here? Is it that
      (a) everything is constituted by love & wisdom as a present ingredient, like objects out of clay?
      (b) everything is produced from love & wisdom, like objects produced from the nuclear reactions of the sun?

      If we touch a rock on earth, are we touching love and wisdom? Or are we touching that was produced by love & wisdom, but in which love and wisdom may or may not presently reside?

      You talk of matter and energy. Do these also 'resolve as a unity' with Love and Wisdom?