Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Fight against Substance

Alerted by this post on Fragments of Consciousness, I read the excellent new Stanford Encyclopedia article on Neutral Monism by Leopold Stubenberg. The article distills the essential framework of this approach, disentangling it from the particular features associated with its most prominent historical proponents (of whom Bertrand Russell understandably gets the most attention).

One of the threads of the discussion is the battle neutral monists have fought against “substance thinking” in constructing their ontologies. Many other philosophers have dealt with this problem, notably Hume (not to mention Heraclitus), but the discussion in this paper reminded me how difficult it is to keep substance thinking from creeping back in to our presuppositions about reality almost against our will.

Common sense leads us to view the world around us as made of stuff. It also led us historically to view the human mind (or soul) as another kind of substance, an invisible stuff. The evil triplets of substance dualism, materialism and idealism were the philosophical derivatives of this view. Of course, the progression of modern physics gives the lie to the solidity of the world around us; but the common sense notion of a world of stuff is deeply rooted.

A neutral monist could posit that the world consists of a neutral substance which gives rise to minds and physical objects under certain specified conditions. But the mysterious nature of this newly proposed substance undercuts the appeal of the approach. Russell proposed that the neutral element be conceived as events or occurrences (I’m also immediately reminded of Whitehead’s “actual occasions”, although he is not mentioned in the article). By utilizing an “event ontology”, one can propose that certain relations or connections give rise to a physical object or a conscious experience within a network of events which is itself neither physical nor mental. Of course, at this point there is still much heavy lifting to do, which may or may not succeed. One must explain why the relations can do the work they need to do. It still may be (I suspect)that an atomistic event must have both an objective and subjective pole to do the job, and this moves us from strict neutrality to more of dual-aspect view.

In any case, I’m convinced that reaching a deeper understanding of reality requires us to continue to look past the appearance of static substance and instead evaluate theories which treat the world as a network of events in which we are embedded.

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