Mysterious Materialism

Image by Kerstin Herrmann from Pixabay

My recent posts have suggested that our world, in all its magnificence, needs nothing beyond physics and emergent complexity to still be mysterious and inspiring, which in turn can lead to being better, humble ecological partners in the community of life. While many human cultures have gravitated toward beliefs in gods, human transcendence, or a higher purpose, I point out that the billion-year timescales of evolution offer plenty of room for unfathomable results that defy our cognitive capacities to grasp. What if all it takes is physics (particles in uncountable relationships) and lots of time for amazingness to emerge? Are you not entertained?

Such a view might predictably be denigrated as reductionist, materialist, and lacking imagination. It’s ironic, because from my point of view it seems to require a super-human amount of imagination: so much that I don’t possess nearly enough on my own—nor has any other human been able to put it all together for us. The very same “failure” of complete end-to-end explanation that causes many to reject the premise leaves me in awe, wonder, and appreciation. One might say that it’s a more challenging concept than the alternatives.

Our recent trajectory has been one of serial demotions, each perhaps more insulting than the last. Earth is not at the center of creation. Nor is the sun at the center of the galaxy. Our galaxy is not at the center of the universe. Our universe may indeed be one among countless others (we can probably never know). Closer to home, we learn that humans evolved from apes, tracing back to slime in our distant lineage. As a corollary, humans are not, in the end, exempt from the laws of life: we are physical beings still subject to—and dependent on—biological and ecological constraints. The proposal I discuss takes the demotion series another step: removing imagined transcendent properties of free will (mind, or soul) and divine favor—instead establishing us as compulsory actors in an extravagant production of physics. It all makes for a rough day, unless your expectations are unusually low.

What could be more humbling than to accept ourselves as piles of atoms executing the interactions of physics? Note that we could use heaps and heaps more humility in our world. Perhaps this is one route to get there: a principle that also more closely binds us to all other life—to our collective benefit.

Deeply Dissatisfying

It seems that a core objection to a materialistic, mechanistic universe, though not necessarily stated so transparently, is that leaving it all to physics is deeply dissatisfying. Determinism seems so pointless and dispiriting—leading some to a self-defeating sense of lacking agency—erroneously and unnecessarily, in my view. Quantum shenanigans that destroy pure determinism don’t make the core insult any easier to bear. The thought that we are simply caught up in a mechanistic dance—no matter how elaborate, unpredictable, and magnificent—is horrifically off-putting to many, and I can certainly sympathize. It’s a hard pill to swallow.

But what would my dissatisfaction have to do with the way the universe actually works? Who do I think I am to dictate the terms? We’re aiming for humble, remember?

To cope with the possibility of a universe that’s going to do what it’s going to do, think about watching a play, movie, or television series. If you’ve never seen it, you don’t know exactly what will happen—even though most shows are a bit formulaic, just like real life. Yet, every cast member follows scripted lines, executing a pre-determined sequence. The experience can still be rather enjoyable, and even teach us valuable lessons about life. In fact, some people have been known to watch the same production more than once, if you’re willing to believe such a high tolerance for deterministic predictability. The other point is that determinism is still operationally unpredictable to us, so that our experience feels completely open-ended.

As an actor in the universe, I won’t refuse to play my part in the great show out of some form of intellectual protest. I do not need to be more special than a really awesome assemblage of atoms that can do cool tricks.

Friends have sometimes described my tolerance for imperfect conditions as being in the stoic tradition. I know little about that tradition per se, but am generally able to accept (and respect) things that are bigger than me. Part of living in the hands of the gods is accepting that fairness will not always appear to operate in my favor. When it comes to sacrificing pleasant notions of my superiority, importance, specialness, or transcendence of physical determinism, I guess I’m not inclined to make a fuss.

Substance or Relational?

I’ll take a brief detour to note that I have heard a materialist worldview called a substance ontology, contrasted to a relational ontology. The first is about pieces; particles. The second is about complex interrelationships. These might even be mapped onto left-brain, decontextualized, disembodied, sterile perceptions vs. right-brain, whole, flowing, contextual, alive. Which is physics? Which am I advocating? Neither. Both.

Physics (everything you sense and experience) involves substances in relationship. Yes, I do have an enormous number of particles in my body, which if desired could be counted at the level of quarks, gluons, photons, electrons, and a smattering of other more exotic particles temporarily passing through. But every one of those particles is in causal contact with the entire past light cone of my position and time in the universe. Every particle in Earth, Sun, Jupiter, the galaxy, and the visible universe has a long-distance relationship to every particle in my body via gravity and electromagnetism. The relational complexity is staggering. Sure, the particle count is enormous, but the relationship count is preposterously large, and dominates. Physics textbooks mostly describe interactions: relations—dependent on intrinsic substance properties but also dynamic relational concepts like position and velocity.

In Feynman Diagram terms, the entire story is in “vertices.” These are diagrammatic nodes representing particle interactions—never a lone particle. Interactions between particles are everything.

So, to me, physics reflects both left- and right-brain realities: substance and relations. Don’t make me pick, as either one seems meaningless without the other. What can emerge from those uncountable relationships is indeed impressively amazing.

Boggling the “Mind”

Discussions of this sort quickly grind on the rocks of consciousness, mind, and all that claptrap. Yes, I also feel that I have a mind of my own. I feel that I can choose freely to turn left or right. I feel like determinism can’t be the way of things, because clearly my actions stem from me and have consequences—impacting the future flow of events in an unpredictable way. But again: what universe cares how I feel about it? It’s not about me or my preferences: how absurd! Insistence on a mind that is somehow more than emergent complexity feels a little narcissistic to me, and that makes me uncomfortable. It privileges me in destructive ways.

An aside about agency. An agent causes something to happen. We indeed have agency, in the sense that we cause things to happen, by being something more than inert lumps and actually interacting with the universe in an incredibly entangled way. An amoeba has agency: it processes options and executes a response that changes the future course of the world. A hurricane has agency, for that matter—sometimes changing course with “a mind of its own” and acting as an agent of destructive energy release. And yes, the actions we perform are processed and coordinated in our very own bodies and brains, constituting physical volition (but still in interdependent relationship to everything around us and into our past). So, sure: we do things. We have roles. We react to complex stimuli that we sense (awareness). These facts do not change if we are piles of atoms arranged as a lifeform governed by physics. It just doesn’t feel psychologically satisfying, and most people want more for themselves.

Back to consciousness: the charge is that the hard-nosed reductionist-materialist has not provided a satisfactory explanation of the sensation of consciousness. Okay, so? Is it then automatically disqualified from the realm of truth? It’s frikin’ complicated, people! We may never have the capacity to close all the gaps, and why is that an expectation or requirement? Can we not admit that there are limits to our intellectual capabilities—especially in the face of staggering complexity? Some respond to the combination of limits and distaste by attributing the mystery to something divine or a thing called free will. The urge is incredibly strong—almost irresistible. It really feels like that’s what’s going on, which is very hard to dismiss. But it also seems comparatively facile and unimaginative.

Just a Great Dance?

The idea that the great dance in which we are caught up is simply an elaborate execution of physics in a complex universe of relationships can be unsettling, often triggering an allergic reaction. I get that. I can’t say that I’m innately attracted to the idea, myself. But who cares? My range of tolerance can expand to include the idea, and I can make the most of it by even being inspired by the phenomenal outcomes. Knowing of no demonstrable exception to the universality of physics would suggest to me that we not invent unsupported complications if the basics are, in principle, able to produce what we witness. Even this “simplest” explanation founded on experimentally verified material relationships becomes too complex to grasp. It’s enough.

Restated, the yawning gulf between the physics we see governing every examined interaction in the universe with no known exceptions and the amazing world of life and experience is not sufficient cause to reject the notion that the two are indeed connected from one end to the other. Just because we don’t have the capacity to trace the convoluted connection in full doesn’t make it illegitimate.

So, I suppose my call is to really stretch and admit that yes: it could really be that disappointingly simple, at base—then loaded up with inconceivable complexity. We do not have,—and perhaps never will have—complete evidence either way, which means we’re dealing with pure belief (or preference) no matter whether we accept or reject the idea.

I am, for the moment, content to believe that the physics we see governing every interaction we can test applies all the way to the most complex emergent phenomena we witness in the universe. I have no defensible reason for asserting otherwise. Don’t ask me how it does it: no one knows, in full, and likely never will. No matter what, mystery will always be present. We could attempt to explain the mystery in the form of a deity, a soul, and/or free will that overrides the semi-deterministic machinery of physics (why even mess with a meat brain, then?)—or accept the form I have adopted: that a set of simple rules manages, inexplicably, to result in all this. I suppose all are inspiring in their own ways. I don’t find my suggested approach at all lacking in its radical coolness and impenetrability.

Why Does it Matter?

I also resonate with the humility that such a view requires. Many of the alternatives conceitedly elevate ourselves (or our consciousness) over the rest of the mundane universe, including over the plants and animals in our community of life. Believing that we all work on exactly the same foundations and got here along the same evolutionary track—in the hands of the gods—is very bonding, and even sweet/precious. I think such a belief can move some very rewarding outcomes.

Yes: I am fully aware how inconsistent and nonsensical this sounds to those who can’t accept my framing. One’s default cosmology can constrain what is imagined to be possible or what can even make sense. The disconnect is: if I shun free will, and imagine a giant dance playing out by the rules of physics, what does it even mean to speak of moving something rewarding? Doesn’t that require free will or the like? It’s just this: our species may suffer its own demise in a mass extinction of our making, or we might recognize the error of our ways and react to that complex stimulus in a complex way that sucks a lot less for us and other species. Regardless of whether this is essentially pre-determined, I’ll be among those agitating for the latter course, based on how my brain processes the multitude of stimuli to which I have been exposed. Just because things go the way they go does not mean it happens without motivated actors playing their parts. In full awareness of my views and their implications, my role is apparently to reject the idea of giving up and deciding there’s no point, and instead to be one of those agents in the dance pushing in one direction.  Independent of success or failure, I operate within the part of the system that will try, and you might be one of those, too. [I won’t mistakenly attribute this to Winston Churchill]

In short, I don’t need exclusive rights to my actions for me to still perform them, with satisfaction. It’s enough for me that I react the way I do given the circumstances my senses perceive. I’m glad to have a part, and to participate in this incredible life. It gives me pleasure to be on the side of all life, and to be an agent trying to nudge humanity in an adaptively beneficial direction.

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14 thoughts on “Mysterious Materialism

  1. "to be an agent trying to nudge humanity in an adaptively beneficial direction."

    Thanks for taking on this role. I hope you can bend the curve on the arc of human progress. It's pretty hard not to be dispirited.

  2. Thank you. It is truly an amazing thing.
    Here I thought: in fact, we do not cause thoughts in our heads, thoughts are "thought" as a result of external and internal factors (connections, projections, analogies, comparisons). We respond to external and internal stimuli. There is no subject within us who would decide how to act, because the body and mind are inseparable in reality. Because there is no consciousness outside the body, like the self-object that decides how to exist with its free will. We are a nexus of past and future, ∞-valued determinism.
    I appreciate your work, it would be great if everyone could read it at least in a small news column 🙂

  3. The subjects of free will (or agency) and consciousness are essentially the same.

    Perhaps by insisting on a reductionist model, you're looking for certainty when, in reality, there can be none. This is the problem when trying to answer a metaphysical question using only hard science.

    How does unconscious matter produce consciousness? An open question.
    'Emergence' (from complexity) is a partial answer. Hydrogen and oxygen atoms make molecules, producing the macro quality of wetness. Awareness (feeling/emotion/whatever) is in a different category altogether (a moment's thought will confirm this).
    One idea which could point towards a possible answer is panpsychism, which says all objects (even atoms) have a degree of consciousness.
    If that's true, then brains could somehow be concentrating the dilute awareness which is in all matter, thus giving rise to what we experience as consciousness.

    That still leaves the question of how atoms (or even electrons) have it. There might be some 'universal consciousness' which imbues all matter with a tiny amount of awareness. In other words, consciousness is the fundamental starting point for everything else. The original force of Nature.

    Which things are definitely conscious? Humans? Yes. Other mammals? Yes. Other animals? Yes. Insects? Yes. Microbes? Yes. Plants? Yes. Molecules? Neutrons?? Quarks??? How far does it go?
    Well, there is a fundamental difference between living and non-living things. Only something living can 'feel' (necessarily so, in order to acquire food, avoid predation etc.)

    The question then becomes: how did life originate?
    It's a mystery…

    • You mistake my quest for reductionist certainty. The posts over the last two weeks (My God: It's Evolution; and A Religion of Life), and this one as well make it clear that I don't think we'll ever nail it all down, which is why I can use words like faith and religion to fill in the gaps. I have made clear that it comes down to beliefs either way (i.e., no certainty to be had), and am happy to throw my belief in the direction of emergent complexity built on the back of vanilla physics.

      By the way, in these matters, "a moment's thought" seldom suffices, and has its own ring of certainty.

  4. Another fine piece! Perhaps using biology in addition to physics could enrich the explanation. Social mammals are not loners. A group is required for survival and reproduction, with inbreeding a dead end itself. The agency experience would seem to frequently require more than one mind in one body. Yet disembodied mind is pure speculation, including panpsychism. The actions you and I seek to somehow rebalance our planetary overshoot must require behavior change by billions. That is the conundrum, as the Maximum Power Principle dominates all living systems I'm aware of. If we are just along fior the ride, the big picture won't be altered by individual preferences. The exceptions make the rule…variations at the tails of the Bell Curve. I'm not optimistic that changes in some group behavior will be the tail that wags the dog. But, like you, I trudge onward. I can't do otherwise! My embodied past confronting the present determines it.

  5. This is perhaps the most insightful thought in another good piece:

    "But what would my dissatisfaction have to do with the way the universe actually works?"

  6. Your recent articles have kept coming back into my head. I don't normally comment on blog articles, but decided to make an exception here. Maybe you find the following interesting and have some comments to either sharpen up the ideas or suggest I'm going down the wrong track…

    My understanding (and I admit I'm far from expert) is that modern (multilevel) theories of evolution stress that any system that experiences variation, selection and replication is subject to natural selection and thus evolves. While individual animals are a product of evolution, so are groups of animals on many different scales and so are larger groupings of interacting species such as ecosystems.

    My speculation is that any system that can be thought of as a product of evolution has some form of consciousness (I am using the term consciousness very loosely – maybe there are better words to use). At a minimum, this means that it is able to produce a coherent reaction to stimuli, and that these reactions are tuned by feedback from the environment in which it is embedded.

    My further speculation is that as individual humans we sense that we are part of many overlapping consciousnesses. Our individual consciousness is typically the one we are most aware of, but we have a dim awareness of being part of larger consciousnesses.

    To me this gives a way to connect modern science to the spiritual traditions that almost all human societies have had (here I admit an even more severe lack of expertise), whether animist or under the umbrella of god(s). We sense our participation in larger evolving groups, and construct models to explain this feeling.

    This in turn suggests a way to me to bring science and spirituality together. We should understand that the feeling we have of being part of something greater than ourselves is our participation in multilevel evolution, and we can use the techniques developed across many centuries and spiritual traditions to try and increase our awareness of the many levels beyond that of an individual human. I suspect this will involve becoming more involved and dependent on our local ecosystems, combined with using the already well developed mental techniques from different spiritual traditions. Presumably, the greater our awareness of being part of larger 'consciousnesses' the more humble we will feel as individuals.

    In my understanding, this view chimes quite well with what you have set out in your recent blog articles. One reason I think this subject matters, is that one of the most effective ways to cope gracefully with our overshoot predicament (or whatever you want to call it), would be to develop a religion that helps us to see ourselves as part of the natural world. While making this consistent with our scientific knowledge is not necessary, it does seem preferable to me (as a scientist)…

  7. "Just because things go the way they go does not mean it happens without motivated actors playing their parts."

    This is a million times clearer than when Daniel Dennett attempts to explain "compatiblism". Why is it physicists make better philosophers than philosophers do?

    • Maybe the secret is that I have had a lifelong disdain for philosophy, and almost cringe to wade into those waters now. But I fell into it honestly, motivated by our predicament, and come at it fresh, without the burden of having read any of the (intolerable) classical philosophy.

      • You're a physicist. So you've spent much of your life practicing philosophy, as you cannot engage in physics without embracing — wittingly or otherwise — a whole set of metaphysical assumptions. It's just how it works. All of science rests in philosophical metaphysics in some way or another. Just as technology is not value "neutral," physics, chemistry and biology are not free of philosophy.

  8. Your statement that "the billion-year timescales of evolution offer plenty of room for unfathomable results that defy our cognitive capacities to grasp. What if all it takes is physics (particles in uncountable relationships) and lots of time for amazingness to emerge?" brought to mind a 2013 blog post from John Michael Greer's old Archdruid Report that imaginatively set the position of humanity (and the Earth) into a multi-billion year framework. Luckily John Michael archived the blog when he retired it, so I can send you a link:

  9. I'm so old I can remember when physicists were worried about the collapse of the wave function. I suppose it's all been renormalized, which sounds like Flanagan's Finangling Factor but apparently is a respectable procedure these days.

    However they do admit there is something out there (and in here) which constitutes 95% of the universe, about which they know nothing so they call it dark matter and dark energy. Perhaps if free will were to be renamed dark will they would be content to admit they know a lot about it but not everything about it.

    For myself, I believe my freely arrived at decisions create little bubbles of consequence which spread out and thin to nothingness, and are one of the myriad threads which collapse the infinite possibility space of the future into the solid fabric of the past.

    If I am delusional, so be it. "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise."

  10. Tom,
    Apropos of your reflections on Daniel Quinn’s work and the broader strokes of your present thinking, I think you’d be very interested in Craig Dilworth’s ‘Too Smart for Our Own Good’. An interesting analysis of our current predicament as drawn from first physical principles brought through to the social sciences &c. The front matter, including a thesis statement and preface, can be found on the publisher’s website:

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