Some thoughts on information and meaning (3)

One of the most surprising things about the universe, until one takes the freedom of a Creator into account, is its contingency. Perhaps I dealt with that a little in the first essay in this short series, in which I mentioned the restrictive nature of “Humpish information”, excluding all kinds of other possibilities, as well as its communicative and teleological (and therefore non-scientific) nature. But it’s even more surprising when one considers the number of things that are true, such as valid mathematical constructions, but which don’t pan out in actual reality. One would expect truths of logic to lead to necessary reality (as the Greek philosophers seem to have assumed) – but only some do.

An example might be string theory. This looks, in fact, increasingly unlikely to have a place in fundamental physics at all, but disregarding that possibility, one of the problems with it has been the large number of string theories that are mathematically true, but of which all but one (if that) cannot be the basis of reality. Something, or someone, has chosen to make the world this way, rather than all those others.

As Sir Arthur Eddington stressed, this produces the mystery that the mathematical laws of physics don’t explain the universe at all: they just provide, all being well, a correct description, leaving the rather important term “+ it exists” entirely unaccounted for. To use another of his examples, physics works as well in the world of Jaberwocky as in the real one.

Our Hump friend Ian Thompson, within his attempt at a theistic basis for science, gives an account of quantum physics derived from the Aristotelian view of things (coincidentally, I think, this piece appeared around the time I made a reference to A-T ideas of “substance” here – no wonder he critiqued it in the comments, since he uses the term somewhat differently). He sees quantum substances as having a persistent propensity (in A-T speak “potency”) which, in discrete time-steps rather than continuously, give rise to particular actions (A-T “act”). The wave functions constitute the “forms” of quantum objects.

Aristotle would have seen this in terms of form (propensities, that is the behaviours towards which something tends, or in my terms in this series, “Humpish information”) given to what he called “primary matter”, which is never encountered in nature, because it has no form to encounter (sound weird to modern ears? Try “dark matter”!). But it might be a useful way of distinguishing what could be true, but isn’t, from what actually exists – you could have a form, such as a string theory, with no instantiation in the “existence stuff” that is primary matter.

Ian goes on to suggest that the mental counterpart of his view of matter is that mind is a substance of its own consisting of love, or desire (the persistent propensity of mind, whose “form” consists of thoughts and perceptions, our own “Humpish information”). Decisions are the acts of love/desire, and have physical effects.

One of the ideas that seems related to this comparison is the breaking down of the strict barrier Descartes erected between mind and matter, which has intrigued many of the greatest quantum scientists. A recent article by philosopher Galen Strawson brings these things together in an interesting way by suggesting that the explanatory problem in science lies not with mind – for that is familiar first hand to all of us – but matter, which eludes efforts to explain it, as I attempted to suggest in my initial discussion on the profound mystery of the fact that stuff exists.

Strawson suggests that “mind-stuff” and “matter-stuff” may actually be the same thing, so that mind is actually a physical substance, but to him “physical” would mean something very different from our usual understanding. I understand from his profile that Strawson is actually a pan-psychist – one who believes that all reality is mind. Quite what he understands by that I’m not sure, but I correctly gleaned from his writing that he’s conscious of following the thinking of Arthur Eddington, who was a theistic Quaker.

Eddington considered the mystery inherent in the fact that all we can ever know of the world is what our minds tell us about it – and furthermore, that that knowledge is inevitably – can only be – interpreted via the kind of reality we experience by our human senses and thought. The more we dig down to the nature of physical reality, the less comprehensible it becomes – almost as if we were trying to reach behind the “propensities” of matter to “primary matter”, which is inaccessible to us. All we have to work with are analogies like “particles”, “waves” or “fields”. Maybe, then, Aristotle had things right in his form/matter duality.

And maybe Strawson is right too, in saying that mind and matter are made of the same stuff – “primary matter”, or “formless existence”, which God, through the Logos provides with the appropriate kind of information for its particular existence as an inorganic particle or an element of human mind.

Why speculate on such a thing? Well, it is pure speculation, I grant you – God is unlikely to reveal the nature of life, the universe and everything in one of my blog posts. But it does solve the mind-body problem at a stroke! Mind can interact with matter because, on this understanding, they are both made of the same stuff – which is mind-stuff or matter-stuff according to the particular form with which God endows it, meaning that we shouldn’t try to account for mind in terms of chemistry or physics, but in terms of what lies behind both mind and matter: form and “existence”.

Theologically it’s interesting too – because it means that Ian Thompson’s concept of the mind as love/desire, which is an entirely appropriate way to consider it because the God of love made our minds to love and desire him as their greatest good (another standard A-T idea) – also made the material components of tbe universe through love and for love, in that their propensities or potencies are directed towards the particular “good” for which God has made them. We’re back with Thomas Aquinas and inherent teleology, at the expense of the passive, ateological and “disenchanted” material world of Baconian science.

If you remember my last post I suggested that the meaning our minds build from the information God has put into the Universe adds up to an increasing understanding of God himself, provided only that we are in tune with the author of that Universe, Jesus Christ. My metaphysical meanderings here suggest a way in which that might work out, as the material world, like our minds, is just another aspect of God’s self revelation in the Creation. That actually resonates with another pre-scientific concept – that man is a microscosm within himself, in whom the whole of God’s Creation is represented. I speculate that such a representation might be valid because of the breaking down of the Cartesian division between the world of mind and the world of matter, which always caused more problems than it solved, as many philosophers agree.

The problem (and this has been the sub-text of all three parts of this short series) is that it also breaks down the barrier between the world that science studies and the rest of created reality, excluded by methodological naturalism. At least it makes the efficient causes studied by science a rather dessicated examination of reality, which is actually rich with the wisdom and love of God.

If matter-stuff isn’t fundamentally different from mind-stuff, then as I asked in another recent post, “What are these ‘natural causes’ anyway?”

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to Some thoughts on information and meaning (3)

  1. Ian Thompson says:

    We can sort out the terminology later, to see how we use ‘form’ and ‘substance’ and ‘potency’ in different ways.

    The important point is, as you say, regaining the ‘interaction’ between mental and physical things. Descartes did have ‘interactive dualism’ after all: it is just that now we pretend to be bewildered about how that could be possible. A distinct lack of imagination, I would say.

    To understand how it works, we have to remember that love is (most often) love for doing something physical. The purpose of love is to help people both mentally and physically: it is built into the nature of what love is. The mental and physical are distinct kinds of substances, but the mental substance is of a nature to cause physical effects. They are both part of one world. Part of one person, indeed, to form an integrated being of mind and body.

    That way, we have mind and body interacting and intertwined, but without monism like Strawson’s panpsychism or (more popularly among philosophers) Russell’s neutral monism. You seem to prefer this second option, but I do not. I take it that there really exist physical objects, and that there really exist mental loves and thoughts, all in the same world of living, thinking and loving people.

    (We do have, though, to take a more general view about causation within multiple levels, or between multiple spaces. Not trivial, but still possible.)

    • Ian Thompson says:

      I did not quote you accurately.
      You talked about ‘breaking down the strict barrier’ between mental and physical things.

      I say that one way to achieve this is to allow them to interact properly.
      The other way is to say what they were not distinct in the first place.

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

        Thanks for the interaction, Ian. I don’t pretend to have a huge amount invested in the exact nature of reality: if it’s an answerable question, it will no doubt hinge on the subtle drawbacks of one view over another, which means guys like yourself who know the field and invest the effort will be the people to consult.

        If I’m attracted at all by the “monist” conception, it’s because it draws attention to the question of what “really exists” means, and potentially either makes the mental as solid as the material or, on the other hand, recognises the material to be as elusive as the mental.

        But as I read your ideas, they too seek to avoid the illusion that minds are in some other realm that can study the world as “other”, but also the idea that they are “nothing but” physical in the eliminative materialist sense.

        In terms of the background to the post – methodological naturalism – the discussion does seem to raise the question of where to draw the boundaries, if any: God is love, and God is mind – but is not part of this world unless one abandons theism for panentheism. Yet his mind has just as many effects on the physical world – like bringing it into being as well as governing it.

        The other area that seems to impact on MN is the question of non-physical agents: powers and principalities, angels and demons. I think where the Enlightenment thinkers conceded their existence at all (which was maybe not much), they would be put on the “supernatural” side of the equation and so excluded from science.

        But as far as theology goes, they are firmly part of creation, and have minds which are closely analogous to ours – which are, it seems, impossible to exempt from scientific study. If I understand St Paul right, the powers are also essential to the daily running of the physical world (even if caught up in the issue of sin).

        It seems to me the more one admits Christian teaching, the more like a colonial boundary-drawing exercise methodological naturalism becomes, rather than the “plain and obvious” demarcation that those like Joshua Swamidass assume.

        And I still contend (with Craig Keener) that insisting on MN in one area of ones life – be that science, history or biblical studies – becomes almost inevitably a habit of thought in the areas where it ought to have no place.

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