Should We Be Suspicious of Vacuous Actuality?
materialists agree (against idealists) that “the physical world” is
actual, and they also agree on the nature of the actualities comprising
that world. They both accept a materialistic analysis, according to which
these actualities, at least the most elementary ones, are wholly devoid of
experience. We can, following Whitehead (1978, p. 167), call this the
idea of “vacuous actuality.”
This idea has seemed so
self-evident in the modern period, since the time of Galileo, Descartes
that no special name for it, beyond “realism,” has been deemed necessary.
To be a realist, holding the physical world to exist apart from our
perceptions and conceptions of it, has been virtually identical with
accepting the reality of “matter” understood as vacuous actuality.
In the present section,
however, I will mention seven reasons for at least entertaining suspicions
about the reality of vacuous actualities. I will then, in the following
section, suggest four positive reasons for adopting an alternative form of
realism, according to which experience and its spontaneity, like the
lady’s turtles, go all the way down.
To begin with a purely
philosophical reason to be sceptical of vacuous actualities: In the
foregoing discussion, I suggested that this idea of nature’s ultimate
units is at least as speculative as the idea that these units experience.
I now point out that it is even more speculative: we know from our
own experience that experiencing actualities can exist, but we have no
experiential knowledge that a vacuous actuality is even possible.
Closely related is
question: What does it mean to say that physical things exist?
pointed out that our immediate experience provides only two meanings of
“to be”: to perceive (percipere) and to be perceived (percipi).
Simply to be perceived, however, is not to be actual but to be merely
an idea in the mind of some perceiver. Only “being a perceiver” (which
for Berkeley included the notion of being an active agent) gives us a meaningful
notion of what it is to be an actuality.
Berkeley, of course,
used this argument for his idealist view, according to which the physical
world exists only as perceived (by divine and finite minds); but Leibniz,
by positing “petite perceptions” in nature’s elementary units, showed
Berkeley’s point to be compatible with realism. As Whitehead (1967a, p.
132) says, Leibniz “explained what it must be like to be an atom” (now
there’s a title for an essay!).
It can, of course, be
pointed out that we cannot say very much about what it must be like
to be a bat, let alone an atom. But to be able to say only a little bit
about what we mean by believing that such things are actual, existing in
themselves (apart from our perceptions and conceptions of them), is better
than being able to say nothing at all.
A third reason is the
recognition, recently emphasized by historians of science, that the
“mechanical philosophy of nature,” according to which the units of nature
are wholly devoid of experience, spontaneity, and the capacity for
influence at a distance, was adopted in the seventeenth century less for
for theological-sociological reasons, such as defending the existence of a supernatural deity, the reality of
supernatural miracles, and the immortality of the soul (Easlea, 1980, pp.
100-15, 125-38, 233-5; Klaaren, 1977, pp. 93-9, 173-7).
For example, this idea
of nature’s elementary units, according to which they were wholly inert
and (in Newton’s words) “massy, hard, and impenetrable,” proved (to the
satisfaction of Boyle, Newton and their followers) that motion and the
mathematical laws of motion had to have been impressed upon these
particles at the beginning of the world by an external creator. The fact
that this strategy eventually backfired, as this idea of matter eventually
led to an atheistic, materialistic worldview, has long obscured the
original theological motives. Now that we know them, however, we have an
additional reason for suspicion.
The philosophy of
science gives us a fourth reason, which is that science, like any other
activity, abstracts from the things it discusses, focusing only on those
aspects germane to the questions being asked. As Chalmers (1995, p. 217)
says, “physics characterizes its basic entities only extrinsically,
in terms of their relations to other entities . . . . The intrinsic
nature of physical entities is left aside”—which is reminiscent of
Whitehead’s (1967b, p. 153) “physics ignores what anything is in itself.
Its entities are merely considered in respect to their extrinsic reality.”
This insight is ignored
when Searle, for example, says that “science tells us” what the ultimate
units of nature are like in themselves. It does no such thing. It tells
us about those aspects of those entities that its methods have been suited
to reveal, and those aspects, for all “science” knows, may well be
abstractions from the full reality of those entities. Simply to equate
those abstractions with the concrete entities themselves is to commit what
Whitehead (1967b, p. 51) called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”
A fifth point is that
our direct experience, phenomenologically analysed, also gives no evidence
of vacuous actualities. Some dualists and materialists seem to consider
it obvious that some actualities are devoid of experience. John Beloff
(1994, p. 32), for example, says that, “when it comes to unicellular
organisms, I am confident that they are devoid of all consciousness
whatsoever” (which seems to mean all experience whatsoever). Perhaps they
think they can know this simply by looking; but, of course, our sensory
perceptions do not tell us what things are in themselves.
McGinn may seem to be
giving such an argument when, to support his claim that the brain is
“utterly unlike” our experience, he describes the latter as “damp grey
tissue” (1991, pp. 100, 27). His argument, however, is more
sophisticated. He is pointing out that our senses “essentially present
things in space with spatially defined properties” (p. 11), the relevance
of which is that purely spatial entities cannot intelligibly be thought to
have experience (pp. 13, 60, 79).
McGinn is right about
these matters, but his pessimism about the problem of consciousness is
partly grounded in the further assumption that sensory perceptions
constitute our most direct observations of nature. Our sensory percepts
of nature, however, arise from an extremely complex, indirect process.
When a surgeon, having cut open a skull, looks at and touches the
patient’s brain, the percepts symbolized by the words “damp” and “grey”
result from chains of billions of neuronal (and in vision photonic)
events, plus the mysterious process through which the data received from
the neurons get transmuted into the sensory percepts.
A far more direct
experience of nature is the surgeon’s experience of his or her own body,
through which the perception of the patient’s body is mediated—a point
that I will develop below in providing positive reasons for thinking of
nature’s units as nonvacuous. The negative point here is that, given the
fact that sensory perception is a very complex, constructive process, the
fact that it presents us with a purely spatialized nature may tell us more
about sensory perception than it does about the nature of nature itself.
At this point, however,
one could well counter: “True, we cannot directly perceive that physical
entities do not have experience, or even that they do not have temporal
duration. Another necessary basis for reasonably inferring that anything
has experience, however, is that it appear to be capable of spontaneity or
self-motion. Our paradigmatic examples of physical things, such as rocks,
tables and planets, seem to be completely inert. The attribution of
experience to them, therefore, would be baseless.”
The answer to this
problem illustrates the way that empirical discoveries can be very
relevant to the conceptual dimension of the mind-body problem. The
relevant discoveries here, such as those resulting in cellular and atomic
theories, have shown that things devoid of signs of spontaneity are not
simply individuals but large clusters, or aggregational societies,
thereof. For a considerable time, of course, it was assumed that the more
ultimate units were to be understood by analogy with those visible things:
atoms were essentially like billiard balls, only a lot smaller.
The chief philosophical
implication of quantum physics, however, has arguably been to show the
falsity of that assumption (Capek, 1991). A sixth reason to be sceptical
about vacuous actualities, accordingly, is that science has increasingly
undermined what had probably been the main basis in everyday experience
for inferring their existence, the assumption that the ultimate units of
nature must be analogous to the “solid material bodies” that Popper &
Eccles (1977, p. 10) take as “the paradigms of reality.”
Because it is so
crucial to the issue of plausibility, I should emphasize a point implicit
in the previous paragraph: that to affirm some version of panpsychism or
panexperientialism does not necessarily entail attributing
experience to things such as sticks and stones as such (as distinct from
their unitary constituents). The idea that this conclusion is
entailed has provided the primary grounds for dismissing it out of hand.
For example, the charge by McGinn (1982, p. 32) that panpsychism is
“absurd” is based on his assumption that it implies that “rocks actually
have thoughts,” and the similar charge by Popper & Eccles (1977, p. 55)
that it is “fantastic” follows from his assumption that it attributes
feelings to things such as telephones.
There have, to be sure,
been versions of panpsychism, such as those of Spinoza, Fechner and
Schiller, that did take the “pan” to mean literally everything, so that
experience (perhaps even consciousness) was attributed to all identifiable
objects. Leibniz, however, distinguished between true individuals
(“monads”) and aggregational societies of such, attributing experience
only to the former, and many other panexperientialists, such as Whitehead
and Hartshorne, have done the same.
Being in this tradition
myself, I would not follow Chalmers (1995, p. 217) in thinking that a
thermostat might have even a “maximally simple experience.” Likewise, I
would resist Seager’s conclusion (1995, p. 285) that anything with quantum
coherence, such as liquid helium, must have a primitive state of
consciousness (which seems to follow from Seager’s apparent assumption
that quantum coherence would be a sufficient, not merely a necessary,
condition for the emergence of a unified experience).
A seventh reason is
provided by the mind-body problem itself. Given our conscious experience
and a naturalistic worldview, one task of rational thought is to describe
the ultimate units of nature in such a way that the emergence of creatures
such as us is intelligible (apart from any appeal, even implicitly, to
supernaturalism). The speculative assumption that these units are vacuous
actualities allows for two possibilities: dualism (including
epiphenomenalism) and materialism. The failure of both of these positions
seems terminal. The mind-body problem can reasonably be taken, therefore,
as a reductio ad absurdum of the view that the ultimate units of
nature are vacuous actualities. As Seager says, because the problem of
the generation of conscious experience is a real problem and so otherwise
intractable, “one can postulate with at least bare intelligibility that
[experience] is a fundamental feature of the universe” (1995, p. 282).
Should We Affirm Panexperientialism?
David Ray Griffin Page