Thursday, July 05, 2007

process philo/theo and mind

In the circles I haunt, I rarely hear process philosophy or theology invoked in discussions about the philosophy of mind. One of my old professors, John Haught, wrote a book from a process perspective titled The Cosmic Adventure, a title invoking the thought of influential process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Although I ultimately disagree with Haught on the issue of whether the universe manifests some inherent purposiveness, I find a section from Chapter 3 of his book worth quoting here. I found Chapter 3 online at Religion Online.

Excerpt follows:

The flow of our own personalities through time cannot be divorced from the general context of the universe on which their becoming is borne. Bergson was himself dualistic in his divorcing mind and life from matter. But he was correct in his situating our own becoming in the stream of a universal becoming. Whitehead has radicalized this insight of Bergson’s and has eliminated any dualism. He has emphasized the continuity between our own becoming and that of physical reality. We are in utter continuity with the processive universe.

If we take this continuity seriously then we must abolish the dualistic tendency to read our mental activity as though it were not also part of the inner essence of nature. Scientific thought, under the impact of dualism, has simply assumed that mental occurrences are not part of the cosmic arena, that mentality and nature belong to completely different realms. However, as Whitehead emphasizes:

. . . this sharp division between mentality and nature has no ground in our fundamental observation. We find ourselves living within nature. . . . We should conceive mental operations as among the factors which make up the constitution of nature.

I suspect that most of us have been so influenced by dualism that we find it quite difficult to think of our mental activity as part of the occurrences that make up nature. We somehow feel that our minds are outside of nature. And this feeling of mental exile is understandable as long as we conceive of nature itself as mindless. But it is precisely this assumption of the intrinsic mindlessness of nature that Whitehead asks us to question. Any absolutely clear line of demarcation that segregates our mental functioning from its cosmic matrix is purely arbitrary -- indeed an illusion, a vestige of dualistic mythology.

Scientific materialism itself denies that there are any arbitrary breaks in nature. Everything is on a continuum with everything else. Everything that exists is explicable in terms of the mass-energy plenum. Our mental processes are also in principle fully explicable in terms of matter and energy. Seemingly, therefore, materialists are monists, since for them reality is reducible to the one realm of the physical. They apparently reject any dualism that would give to mind a separate ontological status. However, although they are monists metaphysically speaking, in that they reduce reality to only one kind of stuff, they remain dualists in their epistemology, that is, in their view of knowledge. They demand that we be objective in our understanding of nature, and this objectivity requires that we keep our subjectivity detached from the object, nature. The scientist’s own mind must remain at a distance from the object being investigated in order that an "objective" perspective become possible. This divorce of the scientific subject’s mind from the object being examined amounts to an epistemological dualism.

The attempt by materialists to hold together a metaphysical monism of matter with an epistemological dualism of mind over against matter seems to be incoherent. For on the one hand the materialist philosophy asserts that beings with minds evolved out of the cosmic process and, therefore, are continuous with nature. But on the other hand the same philosophy maintains that the minds of these beings are separate from the natural world during any valid act of knowing. It is very difficult to piece these contradictories together from the point of view of logic. Furthermore, materialism’s epistemological dualism leaves open the door for the "existential" alienation of the subject from its cosmic context. It establishes a way of thinking that eventuates in the sense, expressed earlier by Klemke that I am a stranger in an indifferent and hostile universe. The epistemological dualism implicit in scientific materialism inevitably leads to the feeling that nature is without purpose and that my own conscious life lacks any grounding in the universe.

The consensus of much recent thought, however, a great deal of it coming from physicists themselves, is that mind is intrinsic rather than extrinsic to nature. The universe is permeated not only with process but also with mentality. As in the ancient mythic visions, our own minds actually belong in the context of the cosmos.

I find much to agree with in this passage. The idea that mind and matter are part of a natural continuum is appealing to me, and Haught here seems to be arguing against substance dualism (which I'd normally associate with those of a more religious bent, not those of a scientific bent). I disagree with his implication (more explicitly stated in other parts of The Cosmic Adventure) that nature is inherently purposive. For all Haught's talk of Buddhism and Taoism, his agenda is to argue Godward, to rescue and rehabilitate theism, to reimagine God in process philosophical terms while keeping God from being unrecognizable to more traditional theists. I think nature is moving in a certain direction, but this is only because that's the way of time and matter, not because the direction has somehow been ordained (or co-ordained, as process theology sees God and nature as mutually influencing each other) by a divine intelligence.

I also think that Haught's characterization of contemporary physicalists misses the fact that physicalists come in many shapes and sizes. Those who argue for supervenience, for example, will not relate to Haught's claim that "materialists are monists, since for them reality is reducible to the one realm of the physical." Advocates of supervenience might best be described not as monists, but as nondualists who, like me, see mind as rooted in matter but as following rules that are qualitatively different from the physical laws governing simple clumps of matter.

My objections aside, I see Haught's passage as a fair caution to the physicalists among us: it's necessary to guard against the epistemological dualism to which Haught refers. This dualism is visible among physicalists who agree, along with substance dualists, that qualia are a "problem" requiring explication. From the process point of view, what exactly is the problem? If subjectivity and interiority are simply another aspect of nature, what's to reconcile? Why speak of "first-person and third-person ontology" when both are actually one?

I encourage you to read the above-linked article. Haught is a clear, compelling writer. You might not agree with him-- and I sure don't-- but you won't regret a walk through his mental garden.



Malcolm Pollack said...

Good post, Kevin. This insistence upon dualism is, in my opinion, sorely misguided, whether it is merely regarded as an epistemological issue (though this position is, I think, less prevalent among scientists than Professor Haught would have us believe), or an ontological truth of the world, as some philosophers (such as Bill Vallicella and Titus Rivas, as well as most religious believers) would have it. I've been tilting at this windmill myself for quite a while now.

That said, a comprehensive scientific understanding of exactly in virtue of what our brains generate our subjective consciousness is still some distance off, and may indeed require some fundamental shift in our understanding, some new paradigm.

I also think you are quite right to call Professor Haught on his teleological view of Nature; I was bothered by the line:

The epistemological dualism implicit in scientific materialism inevitably leads to the feeling that nature is without purpose and that my own conscious life lacks any grounding in the universe.

This seems to imply that simply by being entirely included in the natural world, we are somehow brought on board for Nature's purposeful ride. The underlying assumption here, I would imagine, is that Nature acquires its purpose from God; if so, though, then why can't dualistic minds do the same?

As someone who is 99.44% atheist, I reject this notion of a god-given purpose for nature, anyway. But this raises an interesting question for the godless physicalist: if we assume, as I do, that human purposefulness and intentionality have arisen through a blind and physical evolutionary process, might the same sort of thing have happened at larger scales?

Kevin Kim said...


Thanks for your comment. As to your last question, I'd side with Carl Sagan and say, "It's probable."