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THE CHALLENGE OF PSYCHO-PHYSICS

I've called this talk 'Materialist Theories of Consciousness' but it might have been more accurate to have called it 'Monist - or Epiphenomenalist - Theories of Consciousness'. 'Monism' is the view that there is only one stuff in the Universe so in some way, matter and consciousness must be the same stuff. A hard materialist monism maintains that subjective experience is a pure product, or 'epiphenomenon', of the mechanical, unconscious operations of the brain: 'the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile' to use the famous (and to my mind quite unexceptionable) formulation of Pierre Cabanis, author of a Rapport du physique et du moral de l'homme published in 1805.

There is however a different kind of monism or epiphenomenalism which I discussed in a talk I gave here some eleven years ago under the title Notes towards a definition of spirituality. This takes the view that it is subjective experience that is the stuff of reality and what we think of as being physical reality or matter is best understood as a complex of 'sensations' and that such sensations, including Locke's secondary qualities, are measurable and can therefore be studied objectively. So the study of physics is inseparable from psychology and the study of psychology inseparable from physics and the two together become 'psychophysics'.

One of the leading figures associated with this approach was the Austrian physicist, Ernst Mach (1838-1916). Mach traces his central idea back to a moment in his youth when, after having been very impressed at the age of fifteen by reading Kant's Prolegomena to any future metaphysics, 'the superfluity of the rôle played by "the thing in itself" abruptly dawned upon me. On a bright Summer day in the open air, the world with my ego suddenly appeared to me as one coherent mass of sensations, only more strongly coherent in my ego.' [1] (p.30, fn)


[1] Ernst Mach: The Analysis of Sensations, and the relation of the physical to the psychical, Chicago and London, Open Court Publishing Company, 1914. Mach's book was originally published in German in 1897 but was much revised in subsequent editions. I have used the 'Forgotten Books' facsimile reprint.


So the world should be understood exactly as it is experienced - as a complex of sensations - not as something that is in itself independent of those sensations and somehow produces them:

'For us the world does not consist of mysterious entities which by their interaction with another, equally mysterious entity, the ego, produce sensations, which alone are accessible. For us, colours, sounds, spaces, times are provisionally the ultimate elements whose given connections it is our business to investigate ...' (pp.29-30)

This did not inhibit scientific research. It just meant that what the physicist was analysing was sensations, not any other reality assumed to exist independently of the sensations, giving rise to sensations:

'Bodies do not produce sensations, but complexes of elements (complexes of sensations) make up bodies. If, to the physicist, bodies appear the real, abiding existences, while the "elements" are regarded merely as the evanescent, transitory appearance, the physicist forgets, in the assumption of such a view, that all bodies are but thought-symbols for complexes of elements (complexes of sensations). Here, too, the elements in question form the real, immediate and ultimate foundation which it is the task of physiological-physical {sic - PB, distinctly and deliberately not physiological-psychical] research to investigate.' (p.29)

Mach is not arguing that the world exists only in minds - therefore that the world when unobserved by a human mind subsists in an extra-human mind. Mach was an atheist. In his view our minds are simply places where elements that exist whether we exist or not are associated and experienced in a particular way:

'I have the sensation green, signifies that the element green occurs in a given complex of other elements (sensations, memories). When I cease to have the sensation green, when I die, then the elements no longer occur in the ordinary familiar association. That is all. Only an ideal mental-economical unity, not a real unity, has ceased to exist. The ego is not a definite, unalterable, sharply-bound unity. None of these attributes are important; for all vary even within the sphere of individual life; in fact their alteration is even sought after by the individual. Continuity alone is important ... But continuity is only a means of preparing and conserving what is contained in the ego. The content, and not the ego, is the principle thing ...' (pp.23-4)

Mach's name survives as a measurement of heat and also (by a process we may be able to explain when we come to Richard Dawkins' notion of 'memes') as a brand name for Gillette razor blades.

The reason I've started with him is that he was at the centre of a controversy that could be said to have been the springboard for the development of Soviet philosophy. The Soviet Union has a particular interest in this discussion because of course materialism was its basic obligatory philosophical idea. Taking 'religion' as being an ideology that binds a society together we could call it the basic 'religious' idea. But in the very early days of the Bolshevik tendency which came into existence in 1903, three of the seven editors of the leading Bolshevik paper proclaimed themselves to be admirers of Mach. In particular, Alexander Malinovsky, whose name in revolutionary politics was Alexander Bogdanov (1873-1928), wrote a three volume book outlining a complete philosophy which he called 'Empirio-Monism'.

The 'monism' in the name reflects the conviction that there is only one stuff in the world or at least only one stuff that can be the object of attention. The 'Empirio' refers to Empiricism, the ancient doctrine that we can only know what is given us by the senses. Mach called his philosophy 'Empirio-Criticism' and he was a frequent contributor to a journal called The Monist. Where Mach favoured the word 'sensation' to describe the only stuff of the universe, Bogdanov preferred 'experience'. The political attraction of the doctrine for Bogdanov was the view that reality is created through human experience, in particular by human labour. Science is not a matter of passively recording the characteristics of a given external world but of actively organising the chaos of our sensations or experience in the service of our own human interests. Bogdanov felt that he had strong support for this view from Marx, in particular the first of Marx's Theses on Feuerbach:

'The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism - that of Feuerbach included - is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of an object or of contemplation but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively ...' (my emphasis - PB). 

So Marx is calling for a subjective, practical, active conception of the material 'thing'.

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