Musing on materialism

  (02 April 17)
  by Greg Spearritt

Adam Frank, professor of astronomy at the University of Rochester in New York, suggests in a recent article that materialism – the view that consciousness can be completely accounted for through the actions of neurons – is untenable because of the way matter behaves at a quantum level, with its “probability waves, essential uncertainties and experimenters disturbing the reality they seek to measure”.

We really don’t know what matter is. It’s always a surprise hearing that what we think of as solid matter is mostly empty space: a hydrogen atom, for instance, is (as I recently heard the analogy) like a football stadium with its nucleus the size of a pea and its single electron flitting around the perimeter of the stands. But closer examination of these quantum particles just increases the bewilderment. Frank tells of being “stunned” when a professor described an electron to him as “that to which we attribute the properties of the electron”.

Observing and characterising these particles is fiendishly difficult. Apart from the fact that they behave weirdly and appear to offend basic logical principles, our observing always gets in the way. Frank concludes that subjectivity has a key role to play in what we once thought of as sheer physical reality, such that materialists are deprived of the solid, objective “matter” their position depends upon.

Two issues with this come to mind.

First, as one of the online comments on the article suggests, materialists see consciousness as a consequence of neurons. These are biological cells, not quantum particles, and like all objects outside the quantum realm they do not exhibit quantum behaviour. Quantum weirdness is thus as relevant to consciousness as it is to horses or trees.

Second, it’s not just electrons that can be tautologically described. Don Cupitt points out that we cannot escape language. What is a horse? What is a tree? Why, that to which we attribute the properties of horses, or trees, of course. We can’t (Kant) know anything as it is in itself, whether it’s a quark or the Sydney Harbour Bridge. We can only approximate by using the most apt form of words that we can to capture what we perceive about the object. As we perceive more, our language can become more precise, but it’s only ever a model – bound by the assumptions and biases inherent in that language – for whatever it is that actually exists.

To the best of our knowledge, if you take neurons away from any life-form, you take away consciousness. That doesn’t prove causation, of course, but it sounds at least plausible to me that consciousness is an outworking or by-product of said neurons. Whatever they are.

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