For quite some time now, we have been investing immense resources and ingenuity in efforts to prove that all there is is stuff and in understanding what stuff is and how it works. The effort, which was first energized by Reformers’ pious zeal to disenchant nature and, by force of the mantra “Matter doesn’t matter!” to lay bare the awesome glory of God, was soon overtaken by the mantra “Never mind mind; only matter matters!” that empowered technology, its unintended offspring, and turned science into a potent agent of secularization. One immanent frame—that mathematization of science will show how God can think the material world—was replaced by a paradoxical other—that mathematization must rid science of the idea of a cosmic mind.
Shunning Platonist realism, mathematical instrumentalism is now reaching the moment of truth: it must either show that all-too-human mathematics can be mere manipulation of symbols (in one physical form of inscription or another) or withdraw Occam’s razor from materialist reductionism and accept mind as an irreducible aspect of reality.
In Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel sought to prophesy the imminent collapse of the paradoxical reductionist frame. Even though fear of religion—and of those who would speak in some deity’s name—will surely keep zombie (mindless) science on life support for the foreseeable future, we might mitigate future-shock by imagining what the next frame might be. My own projections cycle through the impact of three names: Eddy Zemach, Brian Cantwell Smith, and David Bohm.
Given current physics, Zemach argued in “Deities,” our consciousness must be considered so mysterious and so alien as to suggest that its feeble magical powers to act on the material world disclose, in gnostic hope and despair, the state of humanity as the state of fallen deities, either exiles from a pleroma to which we might return or instruments deployed to study and manipulate a material world. Am I—like NASA’s Mars rover, through which I observe the Martian landscape—the scientific instrument of higher beings?
As Cantwell Smith looks toward a more complete science—a science that would provide an account of its own possibility (an account of how matter might be able to think about itself)—he suggests an account of consciousness as emerging when stuff (like brain matter) comes to organize itself in ways that are no longer limited to responding to a proximal environment (as is a thermometer that registers heat by direct cause and effect), but are able to respond to events that have not yet happened in light of events that happened long ago and far away. Some blobs of stuff come to represent a distal environment (things that may be elsewhere in time or space) by discovering an ability to refer to things with which they are not, and may never be, in physical contact. Representation of a distal environment gives blobs of stuff an objective world, a world of independent, persisting objects. Having an objective world makes it possible for such blobs to recognize themselves in that world as subjective loci of awareness (consciousness is objectivity). Henceforth, reference-capable blobs of stuff can become so dominated by their discoveries of objective knowledge as to be able to forget, but perhaps also to remember, that objectivity itself is subject to the norms and values that express the interests of the biological entities that produce it.
Is this all there is? Must we choose between one immanent frame in which our weak but substantive consciousness is doomed to gnostic alienation, and an alternate frame in which consciousness emerges as a fragile aspect of the universe through which the universe comes to know itself and we gain the power to thrive or to despair? Does the latter frame offer more than the former, or less?
Bohm’s speculative “implicate order” may offer a glimmer of hope that we might not need to answer that question. In Bohm’s “holographic” universe, matter and mind would be competing, partial explications of an underlying unity. Bohm reminds us that René Descartes, the whipping boy of substantive dualism, invented analytic geometry to show that extension and thought are—even to us—two sides of the same thing.