There just has to be something more, you know?

A non-ma­te­ri­al­ist thought ex­per­i­ment.

Okay, so you don’t ex­actly be­lieve in the God of the Abra­hamic scrip­tures ver­ba­tim who pun­ishes and sets things on fire and lives in the sky. But still, there just has to be some­thing more than just mat­ter and en­ergy, doesn’t there? You just feel it. If you don’t, try to re­mem­ber when you did, or at least em­pathize with some­one you know who does. After all, you have a mind, you think, you feel — you feel for cry­ing out loud — and you must re­al­ize that can’t be made en­tirely of things like car­bon and hy­dro­gen atoms, which are ba­si­cally just dots with other dots swirling around them. Okay, maybe they’re waves, but at least some­times they act like dots. Start with a few swirling dots… now add more… keep go­ing, un­til it equals love. It just doesn’t seem to cap­ture it.

In fact, now that you think about it, you know your mind ex­ists. It’s right there: it’s you. Your “ex­pe­rienc­ing self”. Maybe you call it a spirit or soul; I don’t want to fix too rigid a de­scrip­tion in case it wouldn’t quite match your own. But cog­ito-ergo-sum, it’s definitely there! By con­trast, this par­ti­cle busi­ness is just a math­e­mat­i­cal con­cept — a very smart one, of course — thought of by sci­en­tists to ex­plain and pre­dict a bunch of care­fully de­signed and im­por­tant mea­sure­ments. Yes, it does that ex­tremely well, and you’re not down­play­ing that. But that doesn’t ex­plain how you see blue, or taste straw­berry — some­thing you have di­rect ac­cess to. Par­ti­cles might not even ex­ist, if that means any­thing to say. It might just be that ob­ser­va­tion it­self fol­lows a math­e­mat­i­cal pat­tern that we can un­der­stand bet­ter by vi­su­al­iz­ing dots and waves. They might not be real.

So ac­tu­ally, your mind or spirit — that thing you feel, that you — is much more cer­tain an ex­tant than sci­en­tific “mat­ter”. That must be some­thing very im­por­tant to un­der­stand! Cer­tainly you can tell your mind has differ­ent parts to it: hear­ing, see­ing, rea­son­ing, mov­ing, re­mem­ber­ing, em­pathiz­ing, pic­tur­ing, yearn­ing… When you think of all the things you can re­mem­ber alone — or could re­mem­ber — the com­plex­ity of all that data is mind­bog­glingly vast. Imag­ine the task of ac­tu­ally hav­ing to take it all apart and de­scribe it com­pletely… it could take aeons…

Imag­ine then, for a mo­ment, that you could iso­late just one part: some rel­a­tively in­signifi­cant por­tion of your vast mind or spirit. Let’s say a sin­gle, sec­ond-long ex­pe­rience of walk­ing with a friend; cer­tainly minute com­pared to the en­tirety of your life. But still, an ex­tremely com­plex ob­ject. Think about all you are per­ceiv­ing in that sec­ond… your mind is in­cred­ible! No, I’m not talk­ing about your brain, I’m talk­ing about your ex­pe­rienc­ing self, your mind, your essence, how­ever you might think about that ex­pe­rienc­ing en­tity. Now imag­ine iso­lat­ing some small as­pect of that mem­ory with your friend, dis­card­ing the mas­sively de­tailed ex­pe­riences that are your vi­sion, your sense of bal­ance, how hun­gry you are for na­chos… Say, a con­cerned aware­ness of your friend’s emo­tional state at that in­stant. This too is a highly com­plex ob­ject, so it too has parts, which I may not be able to de­scribe in finer gran­u­lar­ity, but they’re there. Now let’s say you’re some kind of su­per-in­tro­spec­tive sa­vant, who can sense the con­cep­tual frag­ments of still finer, sharper as­pects of this…

I’m do­ing my best here to ap­proach what “a tiny piece of your soul” might mean. But no mat­ter; per­haps you have a bet­ter idea of what that is. In any case, sup­pose you some­how iso­lated this tiny frac­tion of a mind or spirit, and took it out of the con­text of all the countless other de­tails we didn’t look at. Now it’s dis­con­nected from all that other stuff: vi­sion, bal­ance, na­chos, nu­ances of em­pa­thy…

Sup­pose you man­aged to some­how look at this ob­ject, by which I mean ob­serve it in some way — It is part of your mind, af­ter all — and con­sider a pos­si­ble out­come. So that we’re pic­tur­ing roughly the same thing, imag­ine that as you ob­served it, this piece of your soul is not writhing and thrash­ing about spas­mod­i­cally, but ap­pears in fact calm, and fo­cused on its task. Sup­pose it moved reg­u­larly, like maybe in a cir­cle, for ex­am­ple. How cu­ri­ous it could turn out to be! What would we call this tiny, al­most in­finites­i­mal speck of your mind?

I say we call it “elec­tron”.


Like many read­ers of this blog, I am a ma­te­ri­al­ist. Like many still, I was not always. Long ago, the now-rhetor­i­cal pon­der­ings in the pre­ced­ing post in fact de­liv­ered the fatal blow to my nag­ging sus­pi­cion that, some­how, ma­te­ri­al­ism just isn’t enough…

Finish read­ing in: The two in­sights of materialism

(these were origi­nally a sin­gle post, so some com­ments be­low re­fer to the se­quel.)