Matter or Not Matter?

The first (negative) definition of consciousness is often formulated as "consciousness is what distinguishes a human being from the animal or inanimate body". This definition, however tautological it may seem, conveys a clear idea of a specific feature in conscious beings that makes them essentially different from the rest of the world. Categories like "the spirit", or "an idea", were commonly used as the opposites of "matter", or "the body", to express this difference: consciousness was said to belong basically to the realm of the ideal, rather than that of the material. But is this distinction of material and immaterial sides of the world adequate enough?

One historically known solution is provided by abstract monism, denying the existence of one of the opposites: either everything is called "matter", in a kind of vulgar (naive, intuitive, mechanistic, metaphysical, or natural-scientific) materialism, or inversely, everything is claimed to originate from some side of consciousness, like in innumerable variety of idealistic teachings. It should be noted that idealism is much more diverse than vulgar materialism, which is associated with a higher level of abstraction and more distant relation to practical activity. The attempts to substantiate idealism with materialistic elements, and to enrich primitive materialism through somehow accounting for the ideal, may lead to different kinds of dualism, which does not relate consciousness to the non-conscious world, but rather admits their independent existence. Depending on the proportion and arrangement of materialistic and idealistic elements, one could distinguish logical dualism of the Cartesian type, agnosticism, positivism, pragmatism, realism etc. This cannot overcome the inherent incompleteness of the two types of abstract monism, since the opposites are combined in an abstract way, rather than synthesized, and they merely coexist as different ideas within the same thought, hindering any congruence and consistency.

Abstract monism and dualism are not constructive, in the sense that they try to merely expel the problem of relating consciousness to the non-conscious, so that no further study is possible. In abstraction, the opposites are either identified (everything is conscious, or everything is non-conscious), or they are simply superimposed as entirely independent and unrelated entities. As a result, one cannot speak of formation, or development of consciousness; the ideal is imagined to be eternal and unchangeable, and all the observable diversity of the world is either attributed to the chaotic nature of matter, of denied as an illusion, an imagination, a dream.

The only solution that can bridge the abyss between the conscious and the non-conscious is to admit that consciousness is yet another manifestation of something present in the non-conscious things, processes etc., different in quality, but not in kind. In other words, consciousness does not emerge from nothing—rather, it forms as a natural continuation of natural development, being yet another level of hierarchy.

But is it possible to preserve the integrity of the world and escape its splitting into two non-intersecting realms, while asserting the qualitative difference of consciousness (or its counterparts in the non-conscious nature) from the other sides of the world? Isn?t it a kind of dualism too? Yes, if no development is admitted and all the entities are thought to be existing for ever in the same form, or a variety of forms. No, if any distinction is to refer to a specific level of hierarchy, or stage of development, becoming a unity on a higher level.

The principal problem of philosophy

The principle of the integrity of the world is the cornerstone of philosophy as such, and no treatment can be called philosophical if it does not try to build a unified picture of the world, and suggest a unified approach to its creative assimilation. This integrative principle unfolds in a triple view:

  1. Uniqueness. Nothing can exist "outside" the world, and the very thought of another world puts that "another world" within the world, where the thought has been initiated. There is only one world, which could be formulated as: the world is all.

  2. Universality. The wold is diverse, and it comprises any possible distinction, thus consisting of innumerable partial "sub- worlds", so that every distinct part of the world plays the role of a world for its constituents. The world is bound to shape itself in every possible way, and go through all the possible manifestations. In other words, the world is everything.

  3. Unity. Any two things are somehow connected in the world, however different they may seem. Specifically, any thing is virtually equivalent to its environment which complements it to the world. That is, the world is a whole.

This 3U principle may seem to be too general to offer any practical implications. However, it may be unfolded and applied to any specific situation, so that the philosophy of any kind of things could be derived from the unity of the world. In particular, the integrity of every separate part of the world acting as a world within itself is to obey the triple principle, which gives clues to understanding how a conscious being can create worlds. Yet another immediate consequence of the unity of the world is that every two things in the world have something in common, and phenomena akin to consciousness can be found on any other level. That is, one is sure to encounter analogs of conscious behavior in inanimate or biological systems, so that their study would help to comprehend human consciousness, bringing in more understanding of which portion of their existence can be called conscious and which cannot.

The fundamental principle of the integrity of the world suggests a constructive approach to study development of consciousness and subjectivity, since it relates them to the rest of the world and indicates where they fit in the whole, and how they grow out of its syncretic uniformity.

1. The world as matter

At any level, the world is comprised of many coexisting things that move and interact according to the natural laws appropriate for that level. There is nothing else in the world, and every phenomenon can only be instantiated in a number of things interacting with each other in a definite way, which constitutes its material side. Everything is material in this sense, since everything exists in the same world, and there are no different worlds that would not be a part of the only world embracing them all.

However, for every particular thing, being material does not mean that there is nothing in it except matter. An idea like that is incompatible with the very existence of different things, as if one did not distinguish golden decorations from sheer bar of gold, or a painting from a dirty rug. Such an exaggerated "materialism" can dominate under certain social conditions: thus, a typical bourgeois cannot think of a work of art, or a scientific discovery, otherwise than in terms of money invested in it; similarly, a hungry person can hardly appreciate fine cookery, until the pains of hunger get discharged.

Vulgar materialism does not distinguish the properties of things from the things themselves; in the bourgeois philosophical literature, the very word "materialism" only refers to that very kind of materialism, as if there were no other, more consistent materialistic philosophies, such as dialectical materialism.

Speaking of consciousness, the materialistic approach would seek for its material support, the bodily things and their interactions that lead to the phenomena associated with subjectivity. That is, no spirit can exist outside material things, and no explanation of consciousness is possible unless its material substrate is indicated. However, spirit can never be reduced to matter, and one has to find out, in which respect it is different.

2. The world as reflection

The shapes and properties of material things, their arrangement and involvement in other things, their motion and interaction, their development—all those manifestations of things are different from their matter, though they could not appear without matter. Every thing is characterized by its place in the whole of the world—or in a system of things involved in a common motion—and this is the ideal aspect of the thing, as an opposite to material.

Since the world is unique, it cannot communicate with anything else, and any relation of material things is a special case of the world's universal relation to itself, reflection. The world is reflected in itself, and it "returns" to itself with every act of interaction, and it reproduces itself in every process of development. This reflexivity is as ubiquitous as materiality, and as important for the integrity of the world.

The overestimation of reflection is a distinctive feature of philosophical idealism, of either objective or subjective kind. For primitive minds, it looks like magic, that the same material can take so many different shapes, and the same shape can be cast in different materials. Also, considering reflection in an abstract way as absolutely opposite to matter will necessarily demand inventing somebody, who would impose shapes on raw matter, producing things. Primitive people observed their own ability to produce certain kinds of things, and they fancied that any thing at all (including humans) must be produced by some mysterious being, a god. This is the usual way abstractions distort the picture of the world.

Consciousness should be related to the ideal aspect of the world, thus being put in the same row as existence, motion, life. That is, consciousness is not material on itself, but it can only exist as a relation between material bodies. The specificity of this relation is yet to be determined, but the very kinship to the other processes and properties in the world is already a solid basis for constructive study.

3. The world as substance

According to the principle of integrity of the world, its material and ideal sides cannot exist without each other. The reality of every thing is the unity of its materiality and ideality, and the very distinction between the material and the ideal may only refer to a definite way of unfolding the hierarchy of the whole.

Like vulgar materialism and idealism resulted from exaggerating, respectively, the ideas of matter and reflection, the idea of substance primary to both matter and reflection has historically been made an abstract foundation of a number of philosophies (Spinoza, modern pragmatism, philosophical relativism etc.). However, isolation of the world's substantiality from the material and ideal levels is bound to get lost in unsolvable problems, and it cannot remove the ideological conflict between materialism and idealism. The only true solution would be synthetic: the material and the ideal are the two sides of the same reality, and they cannot exist without each other. In particular, this means that any consistently objective study must consider the ideal component of the object, and virtually its relation to the subject; however, one does not need to introduce consciousness, to describe the non-conscious world, since there are forms of reflection more appropriate at that level.

Every real thing can become a material constituent of a higher- level formation—but this would not remove its ideal aspect; the distinction of the material and the ideal is hence relative, depending on the level of consideration—which, however, does not make them any less opposite. It could be observed that a thing serving as matter for a higher-level thing is ideal in a different respect than the thing made of it. There is hierarchy in both matter and reflection, and any reality is hierarchical, the levels of hierarchy reproducing the phases of development. Any hierarchy could be understood as matter becoming reflection, and reflection becoming matter, and it is this mutual penetration that constitutes reality.

To grasp the reality of consciousness, one has to understand how its ideal nature is related to the material implementations. That is, there are certain properties of matter that are indispensable for consciousness formation, and the presence of consciousness is to leave material traces in the world. One is to study the historical forms of consciousness, as well as the possible directions of its future development.

Levels of reflection

As indicated, the roots of consciousness are to be sought for in the ideal side of things, and ideality is hierarchical. That is, we need to find the level of hierarchy, at which consciousness enters the world, and the same level is to be also marked by the appearance of the subject. Presumably, this must be a fundamental distinction, to reproduce the drastic difference of conscious and non-conscious reflection. We know only one as fundamental distinction, that of living creatures and inanimate things. Hence the hierarchy of reflection could be expressed in the triadic scheme, ordering the levels of ideality by their generality:

  1. Existence. This is the most general form of ideality, which can be ascribed to anything in the world, including inanimate things. Something must first of all exist, to have any specific features. There may be different kinds of existence, differing by their specific forms of being, motion and development. These special existences may be hierarchically organized, in their turn. However, they all are characterized as the levels of existence. Following one of the possible directions of development, from syncretism to analyticity, one comes to the distinction of inanimate existence and life.

  2. Life. This is a special kind of existence characterized by the distinction and opposition of an organism and its environment, which may include other organism. All the laws of non-organic motion and development apply to living beings as well, but there also are new regularities applicable only on this level. As existence, a thing is syncretically reflecting the world, being a part of it; inversely, the thing is syncretically reflected in the world, being virtually identical to its environment. On the level of life one encounters external reflection, when an individual organism is essentially a part of the genus, and its relation to the world is mediated by the creatures of the same, or a different kind. While similar indirect relations may be found in inanimate nature as random and optional, they constitute the basis of existence for a living organism, which cannot live without quite definite interactions with other organisms (metabolism).

  3. Activity. This is the most universal kind of life, allowing for subjectivity. The living thing and its environment get re-united on this level due to the formation of an "artificial" environment, culture; however, this unity differs from the syncretism of existence, and the identity of the individual and its environment has to be repeatedly broken and reproduced in a cyclic way. The subject is originally a living creature, but a very special kind of living creature that can be included in the society of other similar beings, reproducing the ways of behavior developed in this society regardless of their immediate physiological significance. This implies a new, internal reflection, or communication, which serves to transfer the modes of action from one member of the society to another. While similar transfer of behavioral schemes appears in animals only as a transitory feature, communication plays the dominant role in the subject, so that every act is socially oriented, and represented in every individual as such, which is called consciousness.

The mind, reason, consciousness etc. arise on a certain stage of development, forming a specific level of hierarchy, namely, the social level. However, consciousness must be always associated with some kind of life, and it is certainly related to inanimate existence. Consciousness is not matter, but it cannot exist without a material implementation, which does not need to be unique. The world is hierarchical, and a higher-level formation can be implemented in different combinations of lower-level elements, which constitute its material base, while the way of implementation represents its ideal side. This is the germ of consciousness in the inanimate world. Hence, there is no unbridgeable abyss between conscious and non-conscious existence, and one could find a continuum of intermediate levels both between the "physical" existence and life, as well as between conscious and non-conscious life. Still, the level of consciousness is qualitatively different from life and inanimate existence, and it can be represented in any particular biological system only to a certain degree, so that both the form of implementation would restrict the possible manifestations of consciousness, and the participation in conscious acts would influence biological development, leading to the forms that could never be stable without social support.

[Philosophy of consciousness] [Philosophy] [Unism]