Unification of Mind, Matter, and Consciousness Through an Essence of Relation
In contemporary philosophy, the mind-body problem and the problem of consciousness are often viewed through the lens of physicalism, which claims that all that exists is physical. Physicalism in general, and reductive physicalism specifically, remain inadequate in explaining, describing, or understanding consciousness and the mind because such things diverge in their ontological status and thus cannot be fully accounted for from within a physicalist worldview. Accounting for consciousness, for example, requires the acknowledgment that physical facts cannot describe everything, and that phenomenal experience can impart real and novel understanding of the world. Instead of limiting the manifest world to a single type of ontology with a restrictive epistemic approach, I argue that the world in general, and consciousness and the mind specifically, are best understood through the recognition of ontological and epistemic pluralism. Despite such pluralities, the world is not made up of separate realms of mind and matter because the world is united through a metaphysical essence of relation.
How the body relates to the mind and where consciousness fits into this picture is an issue that has puzzled philosophers for millennia. There seems to be a cyclic appearance of standard theories which hope to solve this problem but continue to fall short, and because I could not adequately cover each theory in a single paper, I will focus on one of the most prominent theories in contemporary philosophy which is physicalism. I will begin by giving a brief outline of a few prominent physicalist theories in the contemporary philosophy of mind which attempt to solve the mind-body problem, and I will explain how consciousness fits into each theory. I will continue by discussing the conceptual and linguistic problems that often arise when attempting to solve the mind-body/consciousness problems, and propose that if these issues are resolved, a more nuanced approach to such problems can be developed. I will end by offering a new way of thinking about these problems. This view will argue that what is referred to as the mind and the body, including consciousness, are real phenomena of a unified reality. No separate realm of mentality to impose a causal issue, and no reduction to purely physical facts which often lead to a denial of the existence of consciousness, qualia, and the mind.
Before I begin, I will briefly introduce a term known as the explanatory gap, and I will provide a few questions that accompany the mind-body problem. The explanatory gap describes the alleged difficulty in providing “a suitably intelligible link” between “a nonconscious substrate” and conscious experience (Van-Gulick 2014). In other words, how does the world give rise to conscious-phenomenal experience? How can consciousness be accounted for? In approaching the mind-body problem, one might first ask, is there a distinct mind and a distinct body? If so, how do they interact? While these aren’t the only problems that the theories described throughout this paper seek to overcome, they are fundamental problems that each theory attempts to resolve.
The most prominent metaphysical theory in philosophy of mind is physicalism. The term physicalism refers to the idea that everything which is often referred to as phenomena of the mind such as thoughts, ideas, sensations, “…all experiences – are really physical things: matter, energy and physical processes” (Bartley 2018). Materialism is a term that is often interchanged with physicalism, but more properly should be viewed as a specific type of physicalism. How consciousness fits into the physicalist worldview depends on the specific type of physicalism that one is arguing for. Before turning to how physicalism explains consciousness, it is important to describe what is being referred to when the term consciousness is used.
A widely accepted description of consciousness is given by Thomas Nagel: “a being is conscious just if there is ‘something that it is like’ to be that creature, i.e., some subjective way the world seems or appears from the creature’s mental or experiential point of view” (qtd. in Van Gulick 2014). Another way of putting it is that a phenomenal experience is something that it is like to see the color red, taste wine, or feel pain. A phenomenal experience, then, is synonymous with a conscious experience. These experiences are fundamentally qualitative.
For the physicalist, if all that exists are physical processes, matter, energy, etc., then consciousness must also be physical and thus explainable in physical terms. One famous conclusion of consciousness from within a physicalist worldview is drawn by philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett. Dennett argues that consciousness is an illusion. He explains that consciousness can be viewed as an illusion in much the same way that the user interface of a smartphone is an illusion – there are underlying information processes that produce the user interface. Dennett extends this idea to consciousness by claiming that phenomenal experiences “are in some important regards illusory; that’s not what’s really going on” (2019: 2:55-3:05). What is really going on, from this perspective, are processes in the brain which produce the phenomenal experience. Dennett doesn’t deny that humans have conscious-phenomenal experiences, only that they are somehow illusory and that humans could go on functioning just as well without them. This is a functionalist account of reductive physicalism. In other words, all conscious experience is reducible to a functional account of the processes in the brain. This is a puzzling conclusion, because on the one hand, Dennett is accepting the notion that humans have conscious experience, and on the other, he is claiming that it is insignificant in regards to human functioning and that it is a false perception of what is really going on. Dennett is very close to admitting conscious experience to reality in saying that they occur, but he opts to conclude that they are an illusion.
More staunch physicalists might explain consciousness by claiming that one’s perception of a sunset is identical with the state of the brain at the moment of that perception. These are identity physicalists. They identify every phenomenal experience (and consciousness) with a brain state. This is a difficult position to defend if conscious experience is to be taken seriously, or if one believes that the mind is something over and above the physical processes in the brain.
The physicalist approach itself is a problem and I will turn to Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument to show why. The Knowledge Argument sets up a theoretical circumstance wherein a scientist named Mary has lived her life in a black and white room. She has had the most rigorous education in science and has learned every physical fact about the world which includes every physical fact regarding color vision. When she is released from her black and white room, and enters the world of color, will she learn anything new? “It seems obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it” (Nida-Rümelin and O’Conaill 2019). If then, Mary knew every physical fact about the world, but learned something new upon her release, it follows that the world cannot be explained with appeal to the physical facts alone, therefore physicalism cannot be true. There have been many criticisms of this argument, but nothing that has disproved its validity with concluding power.
Another physicalist alternative, to which I will turn next, begins with an examination of the language and concepts that are used in developing theories of mind, matter, and consciousness. Michael Tye takes this approach and through his examination of phenomenal concepts, concludes that the explanatory gap is a cognitive illusion. Tye begins by giving several examples of physical phenomena, such as digestion, and provides an analogy to the way phenomenal experience is often described. In the example of digestion, Tye states that when one learns about the function of digestion – “that there are enzymes in the alimentary canals of human-beings that break down food and convert it to energy,” one doesn’t then ask questions such as “why does the action of these enzymes in humans generate digestion? Why shouldn’t the enzymes turn food into energy in the absence of digestion?” (1999: 706).
In the case of phenomenal experience, however, Tye claims that the inquirer continues to ask questions above and beyond the physical-functional description of something like pain. One could have a full understanding of the term pain, and could understand the underlying physical processes that lead to the experience of pain, but might continue to ask questions such as “why does this physical process or brain state feel like this?” or “why do these processes feel any way at all?” (Tye 1999: 706). This, Tye claims, is where the explanatory gap emerges. Tye accepts that conscious experience is a fully physical phenomenon and claims that the cognitive illusion of the alleged explanatory gap stems from “a failure to recognize the special features of phenomenal concepts” (1999: 707). The special features that Tye is referring to include the perspectival nature implicit in phenomenal concepts and the notion that they are “conceptually irreducible” (1999: 710).
For Tye, there is no need to bifurcate the world into subjective and objective, or mind and matter. Tye continues by claiming that there really is no problem with a phenomenal-physical identity claim such as “the visual experience of red = brain state B” (1999: 712). The experience isn’t anything above the physical state, it is ontologically identical but requires a variance of epistemic description (a phenomenal description as opposed to a physical fact-based description). From this, it seems like he is advocating for some type of identity physicalist position, while simultaneously advocating a nonreductive approach. It is difficult to discern exactly what his final position is, and how seriously he takes phenomenology, but it seems as though he is claiming that physicalism is true, and phenomenal concepts are an irreducible way of describing the experience of underlying physical processes. Tye claims that this approach provides an answer to the Knowledge Argument because on this view, everything which exists is physical but cannot be reduced to physical facts – some things must be experienced if one is to gain experiential knowledge. In other words, Mary the scientist must experience brain state B to have the visual experience of red, whereby she gains the phenomenal toolkit required to understand and describe what brain state B feels like (1999: 713).
Tye begins to take us in the right direction but fails to deliver. His claim that the world doesn’t need a bifurcation of “the irreducibly subjective and the objective” produces an error when merged with his idea of experiential knowledge and the irreducibility of phenomenal concepts required in describing a conscious experience (1999: 707). The errors rests in claiming that a bifurcation need not exist, but then proceeding to claim that irreducible subjective experience is required beyond the physical (objective) facts. Further, the idea that a phenomenal experience is identical with a brain state is confused. I will attempt to address these problems and then I will begin to build a new perspective for viewing mind, matter, and consciousness.
It is difficult to know where to start with the first problem. Without a bifurcation of the subjective and objective, is Tye claiming that the world is inherently objective or subjective? Or is it neither? If he had given an answer to this, the question would remain as to whether he was speaking ontologically or epistemically but I digress. It is implied in his argument through the irreducibility of phenomenal concepts, and the necessity of phenomenal experience, that irreducible subjective experience is required to gain access to phenomenal aspects of the world. This is the world of experiential knowledge and is something in addition to the physical facts. In other words, one could know every physical fact about color vision, but in experiencing the sight of red, one would gain a new understanding of the world. It seems clear that a distinction should be drawn, and that Tye himself is implying a distinction, at least epistemically. I will refer to the physical facts about the world as objective knowledge and I will refer to a conscious experience of seeing red or feeling pain as a subjective-phenomenal experience. Phenomenal knowledge, then, is epistemically subjective and physical facts are epistemically objective. I believe this provides a solution to the first problem raised but now I must address the second problem, which is Tye’s claim that a brain state and the phenomenal experience produced by that brain state are identical.
I will address this problem by adding an ontological aspect to the epistemic distinction outlined above. The ontology of a brain state is objective, and the ontology of a phenomenal experience is subjective. The objectivity of the brain state allows for outside investigation, it exists objectively. The subjectivity of the phenomenal experience of the brain state allows for subjective-introspection only, it exists subjectively. A phenomenal experience and a brain state cannot be identical if they have distinct ontologies.
Now that I have responded to the two problems raised with Tye’s argument, I will proceed by establishing a new way of thinking about mind and body. I claimed, in the introduction, to provide a unified account of mind and matter, and thus far I have split the world both epistemically and ontologically. I wish to bridge this gap, now, by arguing for a metaphysical essence of relation.
Although I admit ontological and epistemic pluralism into the view, the position doesn’t necessitate that things exist in fundamentally different ways. It is, rather, that things can differ ontologically at the level of manifestation but not at the fundamental level of being. There is no separate realm of mind and matter, or subjective and objective – rather, one vast realm of relations from which everything emerges. The unique manifestation of something or the other depends on its specific relation to the rest of the world and the amalgam of basic constituent parts which comprise the structure in question. The manner in which structures are arranged and related produces a variety of emergent manifestations with various novel properties.
Consciousness is included in the manifestations of naturally emergent phenomena. Consciousness is the result of a complexly structured biological substrate with a particular amalgam of basic constituent parts which are related in a certain way. This manifestation is further related to the world, and the product is phenomenal experience. Consciousness and phenomenal experience cannot be separated from the world, and as such, they are part of the natural world.
The fundamental nature of being is relation of the world and everything that the world contains. Everything that exists in the cosmos shares a metaphysical essence that relates all of being, resulting in the sublime unity of all that exists and will exist, but which admits a plurality of modes of being at the level of manifestation. When merged with ontological and epistemic pluralism, this metaphysical essence of relation bridges the mind-body gap by providing an interconnection of all that is, while also avoiding the idea that everything can be reduced to science-based physical fact-finding.
The multitudinous forms of manifestation allow for some things to be known objectively, others subjectively. It admits for some things to exist subjectively, others objectively. Some things can be known through a scientific approach of physical fact-finding, other things can only be known through subjective-phenomenal experience. The phenomenal experience is not an illusion, as Dennett would have it. It is an emergent aspect of the natural world, accessible only through conscious experience, but it is very much real. The underlying processes are what are really real for Dennett, but at the same he admits that humans have conscious experience. Instead of calling it an illusion, it is better explained through the recognition that it is also real, but in an ontologically distinct manner at the level of manifestation. Conscious experience is subjectively and phenomenally real. The physical facts are objectively and scientifically real. They are both real phenomena of a unified reality which shares a necessary and fundamental metaphysical relation, but they diverge in their constituent composition, level of emergence, and in their specific position in the web of relations and as a result they occupy a unique place both epistemically and ontologically at the level of manifestation.
Until the pursuit of a more holistic approach to truth and reality is admitted, philosophy will continue to be plagued by the same problems that have haunted it for centuries. To think of reality as not only the domain of science, but also within the domain of lived experience, to accept that there are distinct methods of description and explanation which can give us a new understanding of the natural world, and to recognize that this all takes place in the same natural world and is grounded by an unceasing and necessary relation is a good beginning to establishing a nuanced approach to what is meant when one talks about what is true or real and precisely how it is true or real.
Bartley, G. (2018). Why Physicalism is Wrong. https://philosophynow.org/issues/126/Why_Physicalism_is_Wrong
Nida-Rümelin, M., & O Conaill, D. (2019, September 23). Qualia: The Knowledge Argument. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qualia-knowledge/#TwoVersArgu
Tye, M. (1999). Phenomenal Consciousness: The Explanatory Gap as a Cognitive Illusion.Mind,108(432), 705-725. www.jstor.org/stable/2660075
Van Gulick, R. (2014, January 14). Consciousness. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness/
What is consciousness? Philosopher Dan Dennett Explains. (n.d.). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wm8M_xQrgCk