His strange materials

Science tells us what matter is, right? This is what everyone believes, but it is not necessarily true. The idea that science tells us what matter is came from Descartes, a philosopher from 400 years ago.

It is a curious fact about the history of philosophy and science that when science was getting started, the concept of matter was redefined to suit it, and the “new matter” had a narrower definition than the “old matter”.
This immediately raises the question: if matter has been redefined from what it was held to be previously, and the scientific definition is narrower than the old one – is it possible that there is more to matter than what science can tell us?

From here on I will refer to matter not verifiable by science as “strange-matter”, just because I can. Should it exist, I do not think that strange-matter is entirely separate from ordinary matter; rather, I suspect that ordinary matter has strange properties.

Physics is held to be the most fundamental science and the other sciences are in theory reducible to physics. But physics is a mathematical science, described entirely in equations. The question can be rephrased thus: Is there anything in the material world that cannot be described using mathematics? For is there is anything like that, it will be inaccessible to physics and to science as a whole.

Mathematics is a human invention. How do we know it can describe all material reality? In short: we don’t.

Bertrand Russell argued that the abstract nature of physics shows that it must be incomplete.

Physics reveals to us the structure of subatomic particles such as quarks and causative relations between them, but that is all it can tell us. But structure cannot exist by itself. Things have structure; it is not possible for them to just be structure. Therefore there must be more to material reality than what physics can tell us.

The strange-material and the mind

If the strange-material exists, it gives another option to explain those features of mind that science has yet to explain. Features such as:

  • Consciousness: the inner experience of what it feels like to see red, what it feels like to taste chocolate etc
  • Intentionality: this is the “aboutness” that is characteristic of thought. A thought about a cat is “about” that cat, whereas you wouldn’t say that a rock is about another rock.
  • Rationality: abstract thought; arguably the one thing that separates us from animals.

If science is unable to explain any of those things, they must all be immaterial unless the strange-material is an option.

To my mind, consciousness is a clear contender for the strange-material. Science cannot define it let alone explain it; yet at the same time, all animals seem to have it. If science defines the material, doesn’t this imply that sea slugs, echidnas and albatrosses are all part-immaterial? Doesn’t it make more sense to say that consciousness is material, regardless of what science can tell us?

How we got here

So what did “old matter” have that “new matter” doesn’t? Medieval and ancient philosophers held that consciousness and intentionality were both material. It was only rationality that they thought was immaterial. 

Descartes and the other early modern philosophers deliberately excluded both consciousness and intentionality from the new scientific definition of matter, 400 years ago. Even back then, it was clear that science would not explain either consciousness or intentionality, so both of them were not allowed to count as matter. They were shunted into the mind, which was held to be immaterial. Thus Cartesian dualism was born.

Cartesian dualism is very different to the dualism that preceded it. Old dualism says that we are “rational animals” and that our rationality and animality form a cohesive whole. Cartesian dualism says that we are thinking beings – “I think, therefore I am” – and our bodies are entirely separate to our minds.

It is hard to overstate the effects of this. Because Cartesian dualism came to dominate philosophy 400 years ago, it is the only alternative to materialism that most people know. But because Cartesian dualism says that mind and matter are entirely separate, it has a notorious difficulty explaining how they interact. Because modern materialism largely defines itself against Cartesian dualism, this interaction problem in itself makes materialism seem more plausible.

Almost everyone nowadays takes Descartes’ scientific definition of matter for granted, ironically making things more difficult for materialists by placing an impossible burden on science. 

So it is clear that when thinking about the mind/body problem, the definition of matter is just as problematic as mind, if not more so. Part of the answer is to broaden our definition of matter to include the strange-material. 


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