Berkeley Most of those who have views about consciousness seem to be monist materialists. Indeed, the essential problem of consciousness is often formulated as being how we reconcile it with materialist physics, without any expectation of anyone’s asking why we should want to. An embattled minority still rally round the dualist flag, but that ‘s more or less it so far as popular metaphysical options are concerned.

But popularity isn’t everything, and there is of course another position with an impeccable philosophical pedigree in the shape of idealism, the view most famously propounded by Bishop Berkeley with the maxim ‘to be is to be perceived’. According to Berkeley things only exist because they feature in some mind: we are saved from a capricious dream-world of our own only by the mind of God, which encompasses and sustains everything, guaranteeing the consistency of the world and keeping things going when no human being is perceiving them. Axel Randrup and Peter B Lloyd, in different ways, have taken this same path, concluding that the solution to the problem of consciousness is easier if we assume that the mental world is the real one and the physical world a construction or fiction arising out of it.

What could motivate such a stance? I suspect that both Randrup and Lloyd have other reasons than consciousness for their idealist views, but both think it solves problems in that area which would otherwise pose formidable difficulties. Randrup sees a contradiction in the normal materialist view: it requires us to think that all of our mental life arose out of the evolution of simple matter, yet at the same time insists that that matter is wholly independent and separate from the mental stuff of consciousness. Lloyd thinks that the ‘hard problem’ becomes easy on an idealist view: the problem is about reconciling our experiences with the physical world, but if there is no physical world then we’re home and dry.

Although I can see the appeal of these views, I don’t think either argument is really convincing. It’s not strictly contradictory to say that the mental arises from the physical and then reflects the physical. There is, indeed, a tension involved in having both mental and physical stuffs in your account, but that can be resolved as easily by materialism as idealism, or, a little less easily, by a plausible dualist system.

I don’t think the hard problem is really a matter of reconciling our experience with the physical world so much as accounting for our phenomenal experience in any way whatever. It’s as though we were examining a distant building in foggy conditions: we can see an elaborate roof high up which appears to be floating in space: we can also see the lower part of some columns near the ground, but nothing else is visible. Unfortunately the roof seems to be a completely different size and shape from the building suggested by the columns, and not even aligned with it. Well, says Lloyd, it’s OK because the columns you can see are really just a kind of illusion: actually there’s nothing there at all. That solves the consistency problem, but what we really wanted to know was what’s holding the roof up: and that problem is at least as bad as before.

However, idealism does have some things going for it. Randrup, rightly I think, rejects the argument that idealism leads automatically to solipsism. It’s true that if all we have to go on is our own perceptions, we could achieve a nice bit of ontological parsimony by denying that anyone else’s perceptions exist. But materialists are not immune to that argument, since even they would generally accept that our experiences are the only evidence we have about the nature of external reality. They are obliged to justify their belief in the outside world by quoting the remarkable consistency and saliency of some of the hypothetical real-world entities which we take to be behind our perceptions: but idealists can take a similar line to support their belief in other people and even physical entities, without committing themselves to the independent reality of all these entities.

This does leave the idealists needing an explanation for the consistency of our experiences other than their having a source in an independent real world. For Randrup, this is a matter of intersubjectivity, a sharing of perceptions by groups of minds: for Lloyd, a more orthodox Berkeleyan, it arises from the metamind of which we are all parts, and which we can and perhaps should, call God.

Randrup is keen to explain that idealism does not mean we have to abandon all our science and just begin treating the world as being more or less an arbitrary dream: our theories need some reinterpretation but they remain valid. The trouble is, I think, that once the real causality of the world has been relocated elsewhere, the scientific story seems to be redundant. If the world were being spun out the imagination of a communal mind or metamind, why would it bother with all the details of chemistry and sub-atomic physics (though some aspects of modern physics might well be taken to resemble an imagined story whose inconsistencies had gradually got out of control)? Why would it stage a long history of evolution, and why would it take so long over working out something which it had thought up for itself?

Moreover, where are we left with consciousness? Whether you like it or not, one of the great attractions of computationalism, and to a lesser extent other materialist explanations is that they seem to offer a reasonably plausible and quite detailed explanation of what is going on – a real reduction of mentality to something easier to cope with. If idealism is true, we more or less have to accept the mental life as an unanalysed given, which is rather unsatisfying. In fairness, I think both Randrup and Lloyd would have at least some things to say by way of explaining consciousness, while none of the materialist theories on offer is anywhere near complete and satisfactory. But if we have to assess which of the two accounts looks more fully developed and offers more in the way of partial explanations, I don’t think there’s much contest.


  1. 1. Paul Belitz says:

    How do we relate to, and bring material from out of the ineffable? We have “visions”, and then we interpret the vision into prosaic terms so that others may understand it. This social compact (or inevitability) feeds back into the questions that we ask of the ineffable. Our knowledge is not the recognition of a pre-existing ideal (Plato); our knowledge is not a new discovery (sophists). Our knowledge represents answers that are arrived at, always within the terms of the questions asked (Aristotle).

    Your materialist ontology seems not to be able to question the implied foundational assumption that being precedes consciousness. Good luck getting anywhere without confronting that fallacy.

  2. 2. peter.hankins says:

    No, I do question that assumption, and I accept it may possibly be mistaken. But on balance a more-or-less materialist assumption looks like a better bet to me. Your phrase about bringing the material out of the ineffable encapsulates it nicely, I think: having a primarily philosophical, rather than mystical leaning, I’m looking for explanations: so any theory which tells me that things come from something ultimately inexplicable is going to be less attractive to me.

    (I corrected the address on your first comment, btw)

  3. 3. Paul Belitz says:

    It’s only inexplicable as long as our current ‘psychical conditioning system’ restricts our model to the use of empiricism and rationality, to the exclusion of intuition. Anyway, my intention is to destroy mysticism, although I can see how your ‘modern’ sensibility may take my constructions differently.

    Which came first; the plate being slid across the table through an applied force, or the intention to perform said task?

    While being is said to precede consciousness, a haven is created for the ‘expert’ class to prescribe ‘proper’ expressions of being for the plebian masses. Let’s use some logic here. Is society more likely to prosper when everybody is thinking or when thinking is restricted to a small expert class?

    Reality; covering up the ‘basic fault’ (the gap between reality and our perception of reality), provides better job security than does exposing that fault.

    ….And those that refuse to fulfill their communitarian requirements will be put in prison. WHOOP Te do, now that is thinking!

  4. 4. s squared says:

    Some time ago, I have discovered a web site by Dr. Richard Stafford:

    He claims he has deduced (already in the 1960s) the laws of physics from first principles, i.e., the laws of physics are a tautology, and must hold in ANY mental model of reality.

    If this is true, I think it deserves the widest recognition, because it has vast implications for the philosophy of science and the philosophy of mind.

    A similar view is proposed in the book “Science from Fisher Information” by B. Roy Frieden, but I have not (yet) read that book.

  5. 5. peter.hankins says:

    Paul – if we can find a way of bringing intuitive insights back into a realm where they can undergo objective evaluation, hurrah for that: the problem with intuition tends to be that we differ about what it says – as the introspective school of psychology discovered.

    I don’t feel I’m having my views on these subjects dictated by sociopolitical pressures, or by a group of experts. Of course we’re all influenced by our surroundings, but that in itself doesn’t mean we’re wrong. I might be emotionally committed to the truth of the proposition that 2+2=4, because it was taught to me by my dear old nanny; but so long as I properly appreciate the objective reasons for believing the same thing and give fair consideration to counter-arguments, it doesn’t really matter.

    s squared – deducing the laws of physics from first principles is a grand aspiration, and some of them look as if they might reduce to logic in part at least. But – without having read any of the books you mention – I doubt whether the laws of physics can be tautologies. Reality seems to be determined by something less than logical necessity but more than mere chance: a deep philosophical problem.

    I am planning to read “The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From?” by Victor J Stenger when I get the chance. On the basis of reviews, his ideas sound promising.

  6. 6. David Pearce says:

    There are forms of monistic idealism other than naturalized variants of Berkeleyan idealism.
    Swallow hard, and assume that what “breathes fire into the equations” of physics is consciousness itself. If so, then the “hard problem” simply doesn’t arise; yet nor does the Berkeleyan idealist-style claim that there is no mind-independent external reality. [There is still the mystery of why there is something rather than nothing; but this mystery is shared by idealist physics and materialist physics alike]

    On this kind of monistic idealism, an unobserved rock on the far side of the moon, for instance, exists independently of the perceptions of any observers. The unobserved rock it not itself a perceiving mind because it is just the mereological sum of its constituent microqualia. On this account, the fundamental difference between conscious minds and the mind-independent world is that conscious minds are quantum-coherent entities, whereas rocks (and brains in a dreamless sleep, etc) are effectively mere classical aggregates. [cf. Sellars’ “grain problem”]

    One reason this perspective seems so far-fetched is that it violates our intuitive conception of the intrinsic nature of the stuff of the world – stuff whose behavior is exhaustively described by the equations of physics. But if vibrations of a 10-dimensional superstrings, say, are intrinsically modes of microqualia, then so much the worse for naive intuition about the nature of 10-dimensional superstrings. The intrinsic nature of the stuff of the world is a subject on which the formalism of physics is silent.

  7. 7. peter.hankins says:

    Very interesting. The hard problem does not arise in its usual form, but there’s still a need (or at least, I still feel a need) to explain qualia (or consciousness). Could they be something to do with superstrings, the intrinsic stuff or substrate (I hope I’ve interpreted the suggestion correctly)? Possibly, but I feel the same sort of incredulity that normally arises from attempting to regard qualia as part of ordinary physics: they just don’t seem the same kind of thing at all. My imagination fails me when I try to conceive how quantum coherence could be applicable to microqualia. Of course, the failure of my imagination is not a disproof.

  8. 8. David Pearce says:

    Yes, there is still the need to explain consciousness. Worse, there is still the need to explain the exact values of its myriad textures. Where is all the _information_ needed to specify the different textures of sentience to come from – assuming that physics is both closed and complete i.e. there is nothing in the world that is not formally encoded in the equations of physics.

    But _if_ idealist physics is true, then perhaps the solutions to the equations of physics numerically encode the textures (and interdependencies) of microqualia. No, we don’t know how to “read off” these microtextures from the values of the solutions. To do so would take some kind of cosmic Rosetta Stone. But on this conjecture, there are no hidden parameters or missing variables that the existing quantum mechanical formalism omits. QM is indeed closed and complete.

    Explaining unitary conscious mind as a form of quantum coherence is still a challenge. Under what conditions in an environment as warm as an organic brain can the macroscopic coherence of microqualia (fleetingly) occur and solve the binding problem? But for the monistic idealist, this problem is a technical challenge, not an ontological mystery – whereas materialists who invoke quantum mechanics to create sentience out of insentience are trying to magic a rabbit out of the proverbial hat.

    Perhaps monistic idealism offers another payoff. Orthodox physicalists face not just the Hard Problem of consciousness, which is bad enough, but the spectre of either causal overdetermination or epiphenomenalism. But according to the idealist physics story told here, you really do remove your hand from the flame because it feels agonizingly hot. For once, commonsense may be right.

    I share your sense of incredulity.

  9. 9. mostyn jones says:

    Hello Peter (if I may). I was impressed by your perceptive review of my “Making mind-brain relations clear”. Here are some thoughts of my own.
    (1) I tried to show how the perennial mind-body problems in dualism, reductionism, etc. can be avoided by a realist view that consciousness is what specific brain events are physically like behind perceptions of them created by sense organs. For example, pain is what certain brain events wholly consists of. It exerts their forces, which EEGs can detect. So the pain I experience from a first-person perspective is perceived by others as my brain events from their third-person perspective.
    You replied that this just restates the mind-body problem, for it doesn’t explain why there’s a first-person perspective. Perhaps you’re reiterating conceivability arguments (Kripke, Chalmers, etc.) that neuroscience can’t explain first-person pains because it’s always conceivable that third-person neural activities aren’t accompanied by these pains. This is a common reaction to my theory.
    My reply is that this isn’t conceivable in my theory since pains are the underlying substance of certain neural activities. This echoes Maxwell’s 1979 reply to Kripke. Chalmers acknowledges that this type of reply exploits loopholes in conceivability arguments. He adds that there are no strong reasons to reject realist approaches to physicalism (mine being an example). They may ultimately provide the best integration of the mental and physical, he concluded.
    But perhaps you mean something further by saying that I don’t explain why there’s a first-person perspective? I’m searching here, but perhaps you mean something like I don’t explain why the universe came into being with a first-person perspective. I’d reply here that this is a cosmological question about how the universe was created, rather than a theory-of-mind question about how minds can be physical – so it wouldn’t threaten my physicalism.
    (2) In §6 I said that unified consciousness comes from highly active, highly connected neural circuits, and goes when this activity ceases. This seemed to you broadly functionalist. I can see why you say this. But keep in mind that what’s conscious here isn’t information flow, as in functionalism, but electrical flow, which is quite different mind-brain identity theory based on type identities.
    (3) You’re understandably skeptical about consciousness being a substance, since consciousness comes and goes, while matter is conserved. You could add that a substance is supposed to be an enduring stuff, but consciousness isn’t. But in my theory, consciousness, itself, is actually an enduring stuff that doesn’t come and go, for it’s the substance that certain molecules always consist of down to fundamental levels. Instead it’s the unity of consciousness that comes and goes. This unity arises from strong, unified neuroelectricity. As this electricity wanes, the brain’s consciousness dissolves into negligible, subliminal microexperiences.
    (4) Finally, you say that in treating consciousness as a substance I have it underlying observable physics yet doing work. This seems problematic to you. Again, I can see your point. But keep in mind that physicists admit that they only describe forces in terms of their observable interactions with particles – and that they can’t ultimately say what it is that exerts these forces. As Bertrand Russell noted, physics can’t tell us what quanta are like in themselves, but only what their observable effects are. I’m simply filling in what they’re like in themselves. In general my paper sets out to avoid the perennial problems (including functionalism’s) that have deadlocked mind-body theories, and it does so by just filling in what physics is silent about, namely, what brain matter is like behind perceptions of it.
    Thanks again for your interesting comments. I welcome any further comments from you. Though please keep my email address under your hat! Cheers, Mostyn Jones

  10. 10. Peter says:

    Mostyn – many thanks for these illuminating remarks. It seems best to me if I reproduce your comment over on the original post and then respond to it there (hope this is OK with you).

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