The Problem for Mainstream Physicalism

We look at the world as physical or material, but we are not perceiving reality as it really is. Why is this?

We have evolved through a process of natural selection to survive. Our intuition is that the mind is like a camera or a window that faithfully shows us the world we are looking out on. But, if we were to see the world as it is, we would have trouble surviving. There would be just too much information pouring in, which in turn would affect our ability to survive. Materialism tells us that reality has no inherent “qualities”, is completely abstract and that matter itself can only be described through a process of measuring (finding “quantities” of things).

All our perceptions are encoded and inferential only. Evolution by natural selection does not favour the ability to “see” the world as it really is. This means our idea of what reality is, is demonstrably false. For example, science tells us that when we see the colour red, that perception of red is happening inside our mind. It is a felt experience. The colour red as we know it, does not exist out there.

So, the material or physical world we see, and experience is just a representation that our minds create. Materialism itself is like the map of reality, but of course it is not the territory. The map is NOT reality itself. Our technical perception enhancing instruments do not change this fact because like everything else, these instruments are filtered through our human experience which creates order for us out of what would otherwise appear to us to be chaos. Bottom line is that what we see as reality is what we NEED to see to survive and to maintain our structural integrity.

This map we’ve created is wildly successful in helping us navigate unseen reality. But the problem that arises for materialism is that the map is breaking down (ie: doesn’t work in every scenario and some of our new technology flies in its face). In other words – we now need to take a look at what is beyond physicalism (our map of reality).

We started out at the beginning of the Enlightenment carving out a safe space for science to work by saying ‘let the scientists focus on the material physical world (what is seen or perceived by us) and leave the Church to manage people’s inner world’, the world of experience and quality. In this way, the qualitative experiential aspect of ourselves was cut off from anything “out there” that we called matter. It protected and allowed scientists to get on and work away in peace without risk of being burnt at the stake by wandering into the metaphysical domain.

Science then busied itself measuring everything it possibly could and eventually over time, decided that matter is all that is real. Reality is only that which can be described through the process of measuring alone. We forgot that those measurements are just descriptions of the thing being described and not the thing itself. Physicalism now says that the description somehow precedes the thing being described. This is a nonsense!

Another way you could put this is that we now ‘believe’ that matter can be exhaustively defined through measurement or quantities. No ‘qualities’ are needed. We then go the next step and say, in fact, qualities are not even real. This is a circular non logical approach because the starting point of everything in our reality is our experience or the ‘quality’ or ‘qualia’ of it.

Under physicalism’s approach, none of our experiences are real, love itself cannot be real. Surely, most of us think that love is perhaps the most important quality or experience that we ever have.

Let me ask you to imagine for a moment that you are not conscious in any way. You now have no awareness at all. What is left?… Nothing is left! So, without this starting place of qualia, experience or consciousness, we have nothing. There is nothing to measure, no quantities to describe. Physicalism forgets or chooses to ignore this. That’s not to say materialism isn’t useful. Of course it is! From an evolutionary standpoint it is exactly what we should have expected before we started measuring. But it doesn’t then follow that materialism can adequately describe all of reality or even all of what we think of as the scientific realm of reality. Afterall, science and religion are just cultural labels or symbols for artificial divisions we ourselves have created.

The problem we have here, is that EVERYTHING starts out as pure experience. Think back to your world as a 5-year-old child when it was full of sights, sounds, tastes and smells. A time before the mind started conceptualizing its reality through culture and language. As adults the level of sophistication we reach is truly mind boggling. We’ve even created many new abstract ‘qualities’ through our measurements of matter. Things like, mass, charge, momentum and geometric relationships which have all recreated our known world.

But what we are encountering now is not some problem to be solved in the future by science but is a fundamental flaw at the very heart of science. Back in the 1990s, David Chalmers described this as the hard problem of consciousness.

Matter has no stand-alone existence. It cannot explain experience, yet experience is the starting point. It comes BEFORE everything else. You could say that it is all we have. Anything beyond experience is either a felt or a theoretical abstraction that we ourselves create.