Exploring a metaphysics of mind

Carrying on the trajectory of previous posts we’ve reached the idea that although there is a “physical reality out there” (what Owen Barfield calls “the particles” or “the unrepresented”) there is no way we can encounter it directly. All our perception comes through sense and mind representations, which to the extent that we share what we perceive with others are public representations. That applies as much, we found, to the application of mathematical symbolism, as to more analogical symbols like “atoms are particles” or “genes are units of heredity”. Both can tell truth, but are inevitably incomplete and distorted representations of total reality.

Barfield’s own principal contribution is to have realised that those perceptions are not fixed, but have developed down the history of humanity in a way he sees as evolutionary. Early man participated entirely in “the appearances”, so that the boundary between self, other, fact and meaning was blurred. Increasing self-awareness, for example through Greek thinkers, led to a more distinct separation of “self” and “other” until, in our own scientific age, it has become an extreme polarisation between ultimately unknowable and meaningless “reality”, and subjective “illusion”. Barfield sees that we need to move on to a stage of conscious participation, but I won’t explore that further here.

We’ve got, therefore, to what seems a rather discouraging point: the only reality we can know is, to a great extent, an invention of our own nervous systems and minds. It sounds like the most nihilistic reductive materialist’s masochistic vision. Not only is “meaning” in the sense of moral, historical, aesthetic or spiritual significance a human construct, but so are the very physical realities we take for granted in daily life or, at the more advanced level, physical science. We ask, “Why is the rainbow coloured?” and get back the answer that it isn’t really; but quanta are interesting, if meaningless, too, once you get to know the maths.

Admitting God into things transforms everything. Not only is the “unrepresented” then seen to be purposefully created, but the “appearances” we see are also more likely to bear some meaningful relation to them. Indeed, if we too are purposefully created by God, then the representations we perceive may well be a kind of truth that we are intended to understand. The power of reason we apply to them is also in some way analogous to God’s wisdom, rather than being an unreliable epiphenomenon of genetic adaptation for survival.

That God-given correspondence to reality need not be restricted to the bare physical issues, but extends to the whole breadth of meaning too. If the rainbow, as a rainbow, is what we are created to see, then talk of “illusion” is silly. But since we have already established that all our perception has its origin in our minds (including within that the lower mental processes like image processing), it will be equally silly to talk of the aesthetic joy of seeing the rainbow as subjective and illusory, and will reinforce that even the idea of the rainbow as God’s covenant sign with creation, given through Noah, has potentially universal significance. All these impressions are collective representations of overlapping kinds, and absolute distinctions within them therefore arbitrary.

As Barfield points out, this raises all the old theological questions about where God’s activity ends and ours begins. A baby, for example, is born with the ability to perceive and respond to its mother’s face. But the process of learning to discern the (representational) world of objects, sounds and so on is a key stage in early cognitive development. The infant’s ability to see others as individuals like herself is likewise a uniquely human but early stage, as is the acquisition of language which, we saw recently, by giving us true thought helps us construct the social version of reality which we inhabit, but never independently of other minds. Trends of thought like Cartesian dualism are purely social and intellectual changes, yet they have polarised our western worldview into “mind” and “object” in a way not altogether healthy, as we’ve discussed.

How much of that, then, is God’s “creative” activity, and how much “human invention”? When we begin to regain a more participatory view of the world, the question begins to look less meaningful. Barfield starts to explore this in relation to the Incarnation, tying the progressive revelation of God-in-man culminating in Christ into his “evolution of consciousness” theme. But one could equally relate it to the biblical notion of man as the image of God, and particularly that idea of Athanasius that mankind was created, uniquely, with the very life of Christ the Logos, an image marred by sin but regained in the Incarnation and Passion of Christ. Or one could incorporate theories of concurrentism, whereby even human choices stand in subsistent relationship to God’s role as Creator.

However we see it, though, there is the necessity to recognise the involvement of God both as transcendent Creator of the physical reality, and as imminent Father of our humanity, somehow involved in our active understanding of what he has made. These are very deep waters, so I propose to illustrate things with a simple analogy, to wit a stylised fable of the history of television as a medium for the communication of meaning.

So we’ll attribute the whole television project to the wise benefactor of a low-tech human race, named Dr Shakespeare. As a great playwrite and director he hits on the idea of people across the world being able to grow and benefit from great art experienced in their homes. All the dramatic ideas are in his head, just waiting for a participating audience.

There are technical needs, like an entire technology of television, so that people can see and hear as they would were they in Shakespere’s own theatre. Assume that he personally oversees the development of all the technology we have now, and sees to it that a TV is in every house. Yes, I know it sounds a bit like George’s Orwell’s Big Brother, but you’re only allowed to read into this imaginary world what I put into it! The point is that the benefactor is responsible not only for the sending end, but the receiving end.

OK, so he writes, produces, films and transmits a play that has all the richness you’d expect from someone with his name. It has meaning at every literary and symbolic level. Production values are second to none. It also has the common touch, so that according to their capacities the viewers are challenged, moved, delighted and so on in all the ways that true art can achieve. Each brings to the experience the shared cultural experience that makes any great author public property, but also his own life-history and personal associations.

In this way, Shakespeare has successfully communicated much or all of his own artistic and humanitarian vision and meaning, and yet, as humans in the grip of great art will, each viewer has brought something unique to the play and so made it his own.

Now let us suppose that technically inquisitive minds, ignorant or doubtful of Dr Shakespeare’s existence, begin to investigate how all this works, initially by taking the back off the TV. their research will quickly uncover the equivalent of what investigation of our physical world shows us: there are no people, and no play, in the television at all. It was all just a representation by our senses of what turns out to be … nothing but modulated VHF waves, filling the air around us. The play is nothing but an illusion, a human construction put on ultimately mysterious phenomena, which are nevertheless expressible as partial differential equations.

There is (and can be) no indisputible evidence that the meaning discerned by human viewers was previously “put into” the radio waves. Yes, modulation and digital patterns can be detected, but they bear no direct similarity to the sights and sounds constructed by those people who say their (constructed) experience of them reduced them to laughter, tears, deep reflection or social action.

Others, though, contend that not only does the very existence of TVs and waves testify to someone “standing behind” them, but that the very ability of viewers to gather coherent information and profound meaning out of thin air, via sophisticated apparatus, is evidence that what is of true human significance is truly being carried by a medium which, in and of itself, has no concept of meaning. Mind connects to mind through a medium. God speaks, and it is so.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.


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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.
This entry was posted in Creation, Philosophy, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Exploring a metaphysics of mind

  1. Ian Thompson says:

    I sense some conflicting intuitions here!

    At one place you seem to agree to “the biblical notion of man as the image of God, and particularly that idea of Athanasius that mankind was created, uniquely, with the very life of Christ the Logos, an image marred by sin but regained in the Incarnation and Passion of Christ. ”

    At another place you quote approvingly
    “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
    For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways.
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

    Are humans (with Christ’s help!) able to understand these deep issues, or not?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      I guess in an exploration of new (for me) ideas, some internal contradiction is probable… I should have done the usual preacher’s trick of missing out the first verse of the quotation in the assurance that few would look it up!

      The point I wanted to stress from the citation was the effectiveness of God’s creative word, rather than our ability or othersise to understand his instruction. But I don’t think those two are really in great conflict either in my piece of in the passage (which, after all, is a word from God through the prophet, teaching his ways whilst assuring them they’re too high to be understood).

      The picture I’ve tried to present in the OP is of experienced reality as a communication from God to us, through the medium of the cryptic physical creation, but also through his mysterious enabling of our own faculties. We can gain various insights into what he’s doing in this creative process, but the how and the why remain hidden in him, together with much of the nature of “reality-as-it-is”. Yet he’s achieved it for and in us.

      So (once put under your justified pressure to account for the discrepancy!) I’d say that all our understanding comes from God, but that that understanding is always limited by what he has chosen to show us, and/or what we are capable of comprehending (much the same thing).

      There will always be infinite depths in God that we cannot begin to approach, some of which are of direct concern to our lives, as they were to Israel’s in Isaiah’s time. Christ will help us to understand what is needful and helpful, but we should never fool ourselves we’ve reached a final underatanding – much like the attitude needed for science, I suppose.

  2. Avatar photo GD says:


    You have taken a somewhat unique approach, which is expected from any of us attracted to a creative approach; the question of meaning, as you have stated, takes us into deep water. Thus, thinking God’s thoughts after Him is odd when we consider that His thoughts are greater than ours. Yet Athanasius is elaborating on Paul’s teaching, that we as Christians, have the mind of Christ – I think we can now begin to understand why the Patristic writings contain so much discussion on the nature of Christ. It is insufficient to invoke Genesis and the image of God as a final statement for these discussions – in fact that is a beginning (as Genesis has always been meant to be) a beginning leading to Christian understanding and of meaning. The ultimate meaningful (and yet to atheists, meaningless) statement is (as Moses taught), is to say the name of God with understanding and meaning.

    So how can we reconcile what science shows, in that wave packets terms neurons, provide responses in eyes, which then are processed in neuron-circuits termed brains, to present pictorial (and other sensory) representations, with personhood and being a human being that believes, understands, decides, and considers the most non-physical concept we can consider, that of good and evil?

    I contend that science cannot provide a meaning in such a context, because human beings do science, and not the other way around. But human beings will always provide a dilemma to us, since other human beings may argue that science can do that (provided human beings believe that is so) – and the circle again is formed – I conclude with: so human!

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      If my appraoch here is unusual, it’s still only tugging the skirts of a number of thinkers we’ve been looking at with broadly similar ideas.

      I agree with your final paragraph, perhaps emphasising that science is a subset of humanly perceived reality, rather than the true reality of which humanity is a subset (as you say, science doesn’t do us).

      There’s always a tendency for scientists to baulk at abstract concepts like “meaning” because they seem to many non-physical and “woo”. But Barfield and the others have given good reasons why the physical concepts in science are no more concrete, and so the polarisation between “physical” and “non-material” isn’t the real problem.

      The problem, it seems, is that the very definitions and processes of science are limited to things that are separated from their meaning, so expecting science to provide a meaning is like expecting mathematics to produce a hot dinner, or statistics a translation of Homer. Yet there are those who seem to be saying “One day, it will!”

      • Avatar photo GD says:

        Hi Jon,

        I agree with your last paragraph- I have tried to understand how extreme materialist deal with the problem of meaning; they seem to have argued themselves in a corner – I am making a very general comment. The approach taken by some to deal with the problem posed by materialism (and ultimately to deal with the delusion, encountered by extreme materialists, who believe is imposed on humans by natural selection, to ensure we meet some ethereal fitness criteria – I have not consulted references for this general comment) has been to invoke language as signifying a something – taking this approach may offer a way out for some. Thus, why is this delusion of meaning imposed by NS, and the resulting utterances, when human beings in fact use languages that differ and make it impossible to convey meaning between various groups with different languages? The odd way out seems to be that it all started with pointing and sound making – however even a cursory examination of this hypothesis shows us, that this would lead to greater confusion, resulting in a ‘less fit’ situation. I sense these people with such simplistic views inevitably fall back on their extraordinary belief that ‘science will eventually reveal all’, or alternatively, ‘if science cannot show the why, it is not worth knowing’.

        How is that for displaying (blind) faith in science!

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          I like this (recent) quote from neurosurgeon Michael Egnor:

          Materialism — the belief that reality without remainder consists of dense stuff extended in space — is gibberish. It’s self-refuting, to the extent that it’s sufficiently coherent to refute anything. If materialism is true, then immaterial things like propositions, such [as] the proposition that materialism is true, can’t be true. Materialists, saddled with a (literally) meaningless metaphysical anchor, grasp at the nearest thing to philosophy that they can find. Metaphors are nearby. Materialist metaphysics is mostly metaphors. Metaphors seem like metaphysics, if you don’t think too hard, and both start with “m,” which seems to be enough.

          • Avatar photo GD says:


            I like the quote Jon.

            the following may at first glance appear of topic, but it adds to the overall view that may find expression in form and interlinked phenomenal causality in Nature. I find an article by M. P. A. Branderhorst et al. “Coherent Control of Decoherence”, Science 320, 638 (2008) fascinating, in that these authors point to an extraordinary aspect of performing quantum physics. Obviously the technical and theoretical matters are for physicists. My interest is to note the implications of such work to a wider view of science – the opening sentence of this article is, “Manipulation of quantum interference requires that the system under control remains coherent, avoiding (or at least postponing) the phase randomization that can ensue from coupling to an uncontrolled environment.” This (and the rest of the paper) shows that human beings manipulating a particular system at quantum level are faced with a variety of ‘coupled phenomena’ which, for the specific experiment, may be viewed as ‘interference by the environment’. It may also imply that at the quantum level, we must go to great lengths to ensure we can study a specific event, with minimal interference by – of all the things that make up the world, including the physicist conducting the experiment. The article shows this applies to a very wide range of scientific and biological matters, and we are also left with a clear understanding that human agency can ‘override’ the interlinked quantum world through human manipulation and intellect. It points to the interlinked view of Nature, but also to human agency as having a dominating role when attempting to manipulate or probe the physical world we term Nature.

            • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


              Ian Thompson would be the physicist to consult here, but there’s no escaping the inability to escape mind in quantum physics, especially.

              The pundits seems to be divided on the extent to which human operators actually influence the events themselves, or just their own understanding them, but the net practical result is the same: there is no view from nowhere in QM any more than there is in relativity or (as the last zillion posts have endeavoured to show) in any event that reaches our minds whether directly or indirectly.

              Whatever careful reasoning, abstraction, design of experiments etc we do, we will never escape the fact that it is irreducibly human animals doing the lot. Whatever is not human reality (illusions and all) cannot be known by humans. Definitionally.

  3. Lou Jost says:

    I agree that “the only reality we can know is, to a great extent, an invention of our own nervous systems and minds.” Discovering something about the underlying causes of our experience requires lots of deep thought and experiment. Our degree of success is measured objectively in how well we are able to predict those experiences in realms beyond the ones that generated our hypotheses.

    As you’ve taken pains to explain in previous posts, our intuitions about the nature of reality are wildly wrong, even as approximations, when we apply them to scales that were beyond what evolution could equip us for through natural selection. This strongly implies that there is no extra “sensus realitatus” given to us by a god or gods; we have to work our little pea brains really hard to figure stuff out, and even then most people do not understand the results. We constantly fall into traps probably caused by the evolutionary origin of our brains, traps like attributing agency to things when there is none.

    Your implication that a god designed us to have those illusions is an odd one. If so, then this same god was content to let humanity (including post-Jesus humanity) bumble about without germ theory, etc, for millenia, until scientists figured it out by themselves.

    • Lou Jost says:

      The history of physics is basically the story of defeating one after another of our most basic and deeply ingrained intuitions about external reality, like the illusions of absolute time and space, and the solidity of matter.

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        That’s what’s so reassuring about your posts, Lou. One spends several thousand words over a couple of months discussing the problems some of the planet’s deepest thinkers have found with scientism, and by way of reply you say, in effect, “But scientism says…”

        It kind of confirms where the intellectual high ground lies.

        Hint – when did time and space as absolutes, and the solidity of matter, become entrenched beliefs requiring disillusionment? Both came from the philosophical foundations of the early-modern scientists (the clockwork universe and atomism).

        • Lou Jost says:

          Glad to oblige. As for where the high ground lies, just look at that comment of yours. Do you really believe that people didn’t think time and space were separate things until early-modern science came along? Those old concepts don’t come from a clockwork universe, and the new view doesn’t undo the clockwork universe. The relativistic picture (not including QM) is also a clockwork universe, only in four dimensions. The clockwork universe is a red herring.

          Intellectual high ground means, at a minimum, not misrepresenting things (no matter how many thousands of words you do it in). In my opinion, you often misrepresent biology and physics. I suppose you are “seeing what you want to believe”.

          • Lou Jost says:

            And the solidity of matter is an invention of early-modern scientists and atomists??? That’s exactly the opposite of reality. Everybody in pre-scientific (and even post-scientific) cultures sees a solid table (as you yourself said). The atomists did not establish that belief, they are the ones who overturned them.

          • Lou Jost says:

            Another thing about the intellectual high ground– arguments are not normally refuted just by calling them a “dirty” word (like scientism). If I am wrong that advances in modern physics are largely won by escaping from our common-sense preconceptions, which serve us poorly in realms beyond our ordinary environment, then give us some counterexamples rather than simply calling my point “scientistic” as if that resolves the issue.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    One has to use dirty words like “scientism”, Lou, because there are few arguments to respond to, as you have always just reaffirmed the assumptions that Eddington, Barfield and the others used as their starting point for refutation, and you show no engagement with their arguments, let alone any sign of having studied the sources.

    OK – just one example to suggest where you might start reading next… the solidity of matter, as a matter of experience, is an empirical truth. A wooden club kills a bear. That’s not an illusion – it’s a representation, as a painting of a bird is a representation, not an illusion. Quite frankly for most of the billions of people (and organisms) in the world, the microscopic nature of that constant experience is a matter of supreme indifference. If the clever guys harness their esoteric discoveries to make useful technology, they say, bully for them, but until they themselves stop sitting on chairs and drinking from glasses their talk of “illusion” is tosh.

    The more considering ones will ask why the scientific representation of empty space between particles is not doubly an illusion, since it employs the illusions of position, size and so on, and builds its abstract models using exactly the same minds and perceptions it says are illusory in universal experience.

    To get specific – in the history of thought, let’s look at the Greeks. Democritus thought matter consisted of tiny solid particles (atomism, like I said), and it was his ideas that underpinned modern science (replacing Aristotle) from Boyle until Rutherford. Democritus’ rivals were Thales, who thought matter was water (solid?), Anaximenes who thought it was air (solid?), and Heraclitus (540-475BC) who thought it was fire (solid fire?).

    To Aristotle, the solidity of matter was a property of the immaterial form imposed on matter, and not of primary matter itself, which was not perceptible even if it existed (he was one step ahead of most scientific descriptions there). And he treated it empirically: the issue of subatomic structure, solid or otherwise, didn’t arise. It was “Why are stones hard? Because their formal nature makes them hard.”

    What about non-Greeks? Shape shifting (including solid beings becoming the sea, or the wind) was a common theme in many mythologies. The Babylonians saw (solid) man as created from Tiamat’s (liquid) blood. Spirits walked through walls regularly.

    As to the interdependence of time and space, you’ve shifted the goalposts (again) from talking of time and space as absolutes. To touch on the latter, have you not even understood the classical concept of time as cyclical and repetitive – the Great Year, and all that stuff I covered months ago? The Hebrew idea of time as linear was radical. And to the uneducated mind, time was never a constant until mechanical clocks began to standardise it: a long day was a boring one, a short one an interesting one. Hours were equal divisions between sunrises and sunsets, whatever the time of year. And so on.

    And on non-relativistic space, Newton might have been surprised by Einstein, but one can hardly say that the world, even now, is feeling disillusioned and throwing away their watches or BMWs because time and space are the same. On the contrary, a tribesman would be justified to ask the scientist spelling out his “illusion” to say, since time and space are the same things, what in fact they are. And why space goes in all directions and time always forwards. And when the scientist replies that he doesn’t really know (and maybe start waffling about a parallel universe where time goes backwards), the tribesman will chuckle and get on with providing for his illusory family.

    • Lou Jost says:

      “Quite frankly for most of the billions of people (and organisms) in the world, the microscopic nature of that constant experience is a matter of supreme indifference.” Yep, and I agree that this is not just a human construction. It is a useful one. Contrary to your statement, it did not come from Democritus or other atomists, unless chimps and birds know Greek.

      It is an illusion. You are right to say that we have replaced this illusion with a more accurate one that works beyond the scales of everyday experience, but it is an objectively more accurate construct. Science progresses by escaping our narrow intuitive constructs.

      You say I don’t engage your source material. I don’t have as much time for this as you do, so yes, I usually don’t have time to read everything you mention. But I’ve often gone back to some of your sources. From the very beginning of my commenting here at Hump, I have made many comments explaining how you were, in my opinion, misunderstanding or misrepresenting those sources. In your early post on mimicry, in your Mediterranean lizard post (that error wasn’t your fault but the fault of the science writer who wrote a bad popular summary, though you should have looked at the original article instead of a popular summary), and especially your comments on quantum mechanics and relativity and evolution. In my opinion, on the subjects that I know something about, you generally “see what you want to believe”. In the one post where I made an effort to go back to all your sources (your summary post about half a year ago on your problems with evolution) my corrections were about as long as your post. So don’t say I don’t engage.

  5. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    The esteemed blogger TOF has re-posted a series of slides on Duhem’s takedown of falsification and positivism here.

    You need to concentrate to keep up with the abbreviations etc, but it’s relevant to the science-end of what we’ve been discussing. I should point out, though, that the inevitable mind-dependance of science has been only a small fraction of the concern in these posts. The nature or reality is much bigger than science, unless, of course, you’re a positivist, when it’s the only hammer you have and everything’s inevitably a nail.

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