Our senses and our world, part three

If we agree that a tomato in the dark refrigerator is only potentially red—not truly red when no light is shining on it—then must we agree that the properties of objects do not exist when they are not perceived? Is sugar not sweet when it is not being tasted? And is salt not salty when it is not being tasted? Are they only potentially sweet and potentially salty? If that is the case, then we have abandoned dualism and are functioning in the realm of idealism. In that realm, minds and thoughts and ideas (and spirits) are real, but the material world is only in illusion formed by our minds and thoughts and ideas (and spirits).

Imagine a small pile, half a teaspoon, of white crystals on the kitchen counter. They might be sugar or salt, but you don’t know which. Clearly, by tasting a few of the crystals, you will know if the pile is sugar or salt. Does that mean that the crystals are neither sugar nor salt until they have been sampled?

Taste is the quickest way to discern sugar from salt, but a chemist could provide other tests that would identify the crystals apart from their taste. Sugar consists of hydrocarbon molecules, but table salt is a lattice of sodium and chlorine ions. These chemical facts remain true even if the crystals are not tasted. Therefore, we do not have to taste them for them to be either sweet or salty.

By the same token, the brown table in the center of the room is not brown in the dark, but it is still a table, hard and unyielding. If I walk into that table in the dark, it will bruise my shin and cause me to lose my balance. Even in the dark, when it is no longer brown, that table retains all its other physical properties as a material object.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? As it begins to tumble, it crashes into other trees, and the crackling of the branches sends vibrations through the air. When it finally hits the ground, it creates a thump that shakes the ground. That thump will be discernable for some distance in the ground, and it also will cause vibrations in the air. Now perhaps no person is in the forest to hear the crackling and the thump. If a scientist has left a listening/recording device in the forest—trying to gather evidence of a surviving ivory-billed woodpecker or of Bigfoot—that device will register the sound of the falling tree. Squirrels and sparrows will hear the crackle and the thump. But what if there are no squirrels, no sparrows, and no scientific listening device? Will the tree still make a sound? A Christian (or Muslim or Jew) is likely to say that God is still in the forest. God will hear the sound of the falling tree. If God is not present, then there is no tree and no forest, and (of course) no sound. On the one hand, this proposal lends itself to Berkeley’s brand of idealism—things we call material are ideas in the mind of God, and as a result they are real to all created beings that have senses and minds.

But a tree is big enough to make a sound. One leaf, falling from the tree, might not make a sound that is heard by any human being, squirrel, sparrow, or scientific device. Does God still hear the leaf when it lands on the floor of the forest? Perhaps. Philosophy alone cannot answer that question.

But substances in the material world must have a certain quantity to possess the qualities we apply to those substances. The half-teaspoon of sugar or salt was sweet or salty. One molecule of sugar, or one sodium ion linked to one chlorine ion, would have no flavor. Half a teaspoon of water is wet. One molecule of water is not wet. A steel knife is sharp. One iron molecule from that knife is not sharp.

I will address the atomic theory of material substances more completely a bit later in this writing. But we must concede right now that the smallest particles of matter lack the qualities that they attain when they gather in large numbers. A single molecule of chlorophyl is not green. It is too small to reflect any light. But millions of molecules of chlorophyl, gathered in the same leaf, are green. This fact forces us to reconsider our opinion about the reality of the material world, that world which is revealed to us by our senses. J.


Metaphysics (part three of three)

Pure numbers and “natural” laws (such as the law of gravity) demonstrate that thoughts and ideas are not illusions. They exist, even though they are not composed of matter and are not merely the results of material changes in a human brain. Demonstrating that the material world also is not an illusion seems more difficult. Who can show, beyond all doubt, that all of us and the world around us are not the contents of someone’s dream? Or, in a more modern approach, who can show that we are not elements in a computer-generated simulation of reality rather than existing in reality itself?

Already ancient philosophers suggested that the most real of real things are thoughts or ideas. We use the word “table” to identify pieces of furniture that have a similar design and function, even though the tables we experience can be different heights, sizes, colors, and be made of different materials. The same can be said of the words “tree” and “dog.” Other philosophers answer that “table” and “tree” and “dog” are merely invented labels, words that have no meaning apart from the way we use them to categorize real things. This assertion becomes more difficult when we analyze immaterial concepts such as “beauty” and “justice” and “love.” Not only are those ideas real; they impart reality by existing within the items or actions we notice happening in us and in the world around us.

Many thinkers describe a world in which “mind over matter” expresses the philosophy of idealism. Some claim that a positive mental attitude can bring about healing and prosperity. Others point to logical inconsistencies in the material world which we seem to inhabit. Dreams, hallucinations, pareidolia (such as seeing animal shapes in clouds or faces in abstract designs), and illusionists (Doug Henning and David Copperfield, for example) all warn us that the world we perceive might not be the world that truly exists. Many prominent philosophers have taught idealism, speaking against the philosophies of materialism and dualism.

One problem with idealism, from a practical level, is that the world does not always conform to what our minds believe. I trip over a table in the dark because my mind did not think it was there and did not expect it to be there. More significantly, ideas are shared from one mind to another through material means of communication—largely through sight (the printed word) and sound (the spoken word). Idealism seems to falter when offering a comprehensive view of our world. George Berkeley suggested that all material objects are formed by ideas, but that their reality rests in the mind of God. For that reason, we might encounter material objects we did not expect, because God’s mind upholds their reality. This answer appeals no less than the assertion that God has created a material world which is upheld by his power but which is as real as any mind or spirit created by God and depending upon God for its existence.

Immanuel Kant distinguished between the phenomena which we perceive and the noumena which cause those phenomena. All we can know is the phenomena, the perceptions which reach us through our senses. The noumena, the causes of those phenomena, are unknowable. They are as likely to be immaterial ideas as they are to have any material form. Kant would have been fascinated with more recent explorations into subatomic particles. Physicists have found that the raw ingredients of matter are very different from the world we perceive—they do not even follow the rules of Euclid’s geometry and Newton’s physics. Kant would say to all of us today, “I told you so!”

Dualism has many advocates among modern philosophers. Some twentieth century materialists conceded the reality of ideas, but they went on to say that the nonmaterial ideas were not part of a different world that overlaps the material world but has its own rules. Instead, they said that nonmaterial ideas exist as the material world seen in a different way. One example given by those philosophers is the university. One can show a visitor to the university the buildings and grounds, the professors and students and administration and staff, the books and papers and scientific equipment. Has the visitor then seen the university? It exists in all those things, yet it is none of those things. It is an idea that coexists within those things; but it could not exist without those things being present.

A second example would be a sport like baseball. One can show a visitor a bat and ball and glove. One can show a ballpark. One can introduce the visitor to baseball players, managers, coaches, and umpires. One can hand over a rulebook and invite the visitor to read the rules of the game. In the end, the visitor has not seen baseball until that visitor has witnessed part of a baseball game. The game is the real idea of baseball. Its existence, in a way, is beyond any of the elements of the game; yet baseball would not exist without the equipment and players and rulebook.

Given that approach to dualism from a materialist approach, the human mind and soul can be said to exist, to be real, but their reality still depends upon the material existence and survival of the human body and brain. God could be said to exist, but only as a Mind or Spirit that inhabits the material universe and needs that universe for His existence and survival.

A contrary spin on dualism begins with God, a Spirit who has no material form, but Who creates matter and everything that consists of matter. His creation is not an illusion; the material world exists, but it relies upon its Creator for continued existence and survival. Time and space are ideas created by God, as are human minds and spirits and—potentially—other spiritual beings created by the same God. This form of dualism, acknowledging the reality of the material world but making its existence dependent on the spiritual reality, best fits the traditional beliefs and teachings of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. J.

Metaphysics (part two of three)

I have described the three metaphysical approaches usually found in western philosophy: materialists claim that the spiritual and mental world (the world of thoughts and ideas and spiritual matters) is an illusion; idealists claim that the material world is an illusion; dualists assert the existence of both material and spiritual/mental realities in the world. A fourth option logically follows those three. That option is encountered in Hindu and Buddhist thought, but it frequently is neglected by western philosophers. This approach says that the material world is an illusion, but that the spiritual/mental world is also an illusion.

Operating with this fourth perspective, many Hindus and Buddhists use physical exercises to convince themselves that the material world is an illusion. They practice asceticism, denying themselves food and shelter and other comforts, to show that these things are not needed. They also practice meditation in various forms to show themselves that their minds, their thoughts, their selves are also not needed. Some westerners have taken up yoga for self-improvement, but the original purpose of yoga was self-annihilation. Enlightenment comes, not when people find themselves with a better self, but when people realize that they have no self at all.

The problem with materialism—with claiming that mind and spirit are illusions, since they cannot be scientifically detected—is that mind and spirit are very much part of our daily experience. Descartes began his philosophy by demonstrating his existence by the fact that he was thinking, and he was asking questions. “I think; therefore, I am.” Materialists reply that what we consider our thoughts and feelings are all products of our bodies, particularly of our brains. Our senses perceive a world around us, our brains process that information and respond appropriately, and other organs in our bodies sometimes supply needed chemicals for our response to the information we have received about our world. One reaction might be a surge of energy that helps our bodies fight a danger or flee from a danger. And when our brains sense such a surge of energy, they evaluate the information available. (Am I frightened? Am I angry? Am I falling in love? They all feel about the same.)

Researchers have mapped the human brain, showing how different parts of the brain accomplish different kinds of thinking. One part is responsible for mathematical calculations, another part relates to language and communication, and still another part deals with creativity and the arts. It may even be that one part relates to religious perceptions and beliefs. Memories are stored by loops of cells within the brain exchanging impulses: the more those loops are repeated, the better we remember the information stored there. The brain also contains redundant functions. When part of the brain is damaged, therapists help those affected to regain what was lost (mobility of parts of the body, speaking and language, etc.) as other parts of the brain compensate for what was lost. From this research, some philosophers conclude that everything we attribute to mind and spirit actually is generated by chemical and electronic events in the physical human brain.

As an initial response, I point to my desk. On top of the desk is a stack of bills that need to be paid. In one drawer are records of bills already paid and other financial matters. Another drawer has a diary in which I record memories about each day, as well as plans for future writing projects. Also on top of the desk are notes about writing projects in which I am currently engaged. Clearly, that system can be disrupted by a house fire, a tornado, or an unsupervised child. If one of those things happened, I would not lose my mind. I might forget a few things, such as paying for this month’s electricity. I might lose some important records of ideas that I wanted to share with other people. But even if the entire desk disappeared tonight, I would still be able to think, to remember, to create, and to function as a thinking being. If I use a scrap of paper to help me compute a mathematical equation, that would not mean that math would not exist apart from that paper on my desk.

All this is an analogy and not a philosophical argument. But it sets up the proper response to materialism. Granted that our minds and bodies communicate with each other through brains, nervous systems, enzymes, hormones, and other physical things. But the operation of our minds transcends the physical manifestations that science can detect. Numbers exist beyond the physical world, whether we are discussing a number equal to the number of apples on the kitchen counter (two) or the number equal to the relationship of the circumference of any circle to that circle’s diameter (pi, which is approximately 3.14, or about 22/7). Space and time are not material: they measure physical objects, the space between them, and the motion of those objects and other changes in them and among them. If they are not perceived, time and space do not exist. But the perception of time and space does not rely upon human eyes and human brains to exist (nor upon any physical eyes and brains, or mechanical sensors and data processing machines). Time, space, number: these are all ideas that are non-material yet are as real as anything in the material world.

Robert Pirsig (author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) uses the law of gravity to demonstrate the same principle. Isaac Newton first calculated and published the law of gravity, which governs everything from falling apples to the orbit of planets around the sun. Gravity existed before Newton was born, and it worked the same way before he discovered the equation that describes gravity. The law of gravity has no mass, occupies no space, and neither consumes nor releases any energy. It is an idea—an idea that was true and real even before Newton happened upon it and shared it with others. Even if someone were to say that the law of gravity existed in the mind of God before Newton found it, the law of gravity remains evidence that the world contains ideas—reality that is not material and not reduceable to events that happen in the material world. J.

Metaphysics (what is true?)

In western philosophy, the answers to “what is true?” or “what is real?” have fallen into three categories. Regrettably, the names for these categories each have different meanings in other contexts. Philosophers seeking to explain what is real tend to be materialists or idealists or realists.

Materialists, in this pursuit, are philosophers who say that only material things are real. In other words, something that cannot be detected and measured and described scientifically does not exist. God, then, does not exist. Angels and demons do not exist; fairies and jinn do not exist. Bigfoot and surviving Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers apparently do not exist, since material and scientific evidence for them is lacking and incomplete. The human mind or soul or spirit, as distinct from the body and its parts, does not exist. What we perceive as our mind or soul or spirit, according to a materialist, is entirely the result of mechanical, chemical, and electrical events within our bodies, especially in our brains.

Idealists, on the other hand, say that reality consists entirely of mind and thought, or of soul and spirit. The material world is an illusion. Dreams, hallucinations, and the tricks of illusionists can be offered as evidence that the material world is not real, since our senses that describe that world can be fooled. Paradoxes about the material world also reveal it to be an illusion. Ancient Greeks demonstrated that motion is impossible, since the fastest runner cannot beat a tortoise in a race if the tortoise is given a head start. By the time the runner reaches the tortoise’s starting line, the tortoise has gone a certain distance; by the time the runner reaches that point, the tortoise has again gone further. Our senses show us that the runner will pass the tortoise, but reason and logic seem to say that passing the moving tortoise is impossible. Reason and logic, therefore, support idealism, a world of ideas where material entities are results of those ideas and do not exist on their own. Goodness, beauty, quality, love: these things really exist. Their reality shapes the illusion which we often treat as the real world.

Dualists hold that material and ideal entities both exist; both are completely real. Science perceives and measures the material world but is incapable of evaluating the ideal world, the world of minds and spirits, the world of thought and feelings. Not every dualist believes in a god or gods; those that do believe generally attribute creation—the beginning and existence of material things—to the divine spiritual Being or beings. Most dualists describe each human being as compound, consisting of both body and mind, or body and spirit. As the material body can be dissected and seen to have various parts, so the ideal being can be sorted into mind, heart, will, soul, spirit, self, and perhaps other categories.

Most people who take time to think about what is real probably conclude that dualism represents the real world better than materialism or idealism. Many professional philosophers, however, have good reasons to opt for materialism or for idealism. Some are skeptical, for example, of the description of a human being as both material and spiritual—the philosophers refer to that model as the “ghost in a machine.” Other options have been considered—one ancient option which stands apart from these three traditional options, and other approaches that acknowledge duality in what is real but still consider either matter or mind/spirit to be the primary reality. J.