What comes first, mind or matter?

Jeff CarreiraNew Paradigm Thinking10 Comments

First there was mind – absolute intelligence, pure consciousness. From this mind came the world and the universe and all forms of living beings. This would be the position of an idealist and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Ralph Waldo Emerson were both idealists. The believed that mind came before matter. Emerson passed his idealistic tendencies along to the next generation of classical American thinkers Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. Both of these later things rejected the dualism of Emerson’s philosophy, but both also seem to have retained a fundamental belief in the primacy of mind over matter. In order to fully appreciate the American strain of Evolutionary Philosophy it is important to be clear about what idealism is. And the best way to get clear about idealism is to compare it to its opposite – materialism. First there was a dead universe of matter and energy. Then some portion of matter became alive and eventually evolved into organisms that developed conscious minds. That is the position of a materialist. Having a mind and a body is one of the most fundamental experiences of being human. Perhaps that is the origin of the dilemma between idealism and materialism.  Idealists believe that some form of mind or consciousness is primary in the universe and all of the material and sensual elements of reality are secondary to mind.  Materialists lean in the opposite direction. They see matter as the primary reality of the universe and mind as a secondary outgrowth of material interactions.The challenge of strict materialism is its reductionist necessity to reduce all of reality to material interactions. Sometimes this can be a hard pill to swallow and impossible ultimately to explain convincingly in every instance. A materialist will have difficulty dealing with any phenomenon that does not have a recognizable connection to matter and at times will resort to dismissing these as unreal – or restrict them to the realm of mere opinion. Materialism when it goes wrong will not admit anything as fact unless it can be observed and measured. Therefore aesthetic qualities and moral values are ever in danger of being seen only as subjective opinions and not matters of fact. The splitting off of fact and value at its worst leaves us with a moral vacuum of relativism in which values of any type are seen as being always only subjective opinions without any normative power to guide us. This leaves us with no standards that are held as universal and no way to collectively guide human behavior.The challenge of strict Idealism is that ideas become disconnected from experience. Ideas that are not constrained by the need for any connection to being visible outside of the subjective experience of the individual makes it impossible to objectively verify any truth claims and in its most extreme leaves us having to accept every ones internal recognition of truth as valid. The internal experience of an idea is all the evidence needed to validate the idea and the range of ideas that can be validated broadens to include even the most wildly speculative or even absurd.  In its negative forms Idealism leads to dogmatic belief systems in which power to impose ones beliefs on others becomes the ultimate arbiter of truth. Some would have accused.The Pragmatists, although they did retain some of Emerson’s idealism, also attempted to navigate between the two extremes of idealism and materialism. Pragmatism is an attempt to define truth in a way that is broader than strict materialism and yet more constrained than idealism. Strict materialism holds that only the physical universe is real. Strict Idealism claims that it is only ideas that are real. Pragmatism said that what really matters is not the inherent reality of matter or ideas, but rather the relationship between and effects of matter and ideas. Matter is real because it has effects. If you touch a hammer you feel it. If you lift it up it has weight in your hands. If you throw it at a window the window will break. Ideas also are real because they too have effects. The ideas that we hold to be true effect the way we act. They dictate decisions, create desires and generate aversions. They are just as real in terms of having effect on our lives as material objects. If there is an idea the believing of which will have absolutely no effect then to a pragmatists that idea is unreal. And the worth of an idea is always tethered to its effects in the world. The value of an idea is assessed by assessing the value of its results – in the material world – when acted upon. Pragmatism was an attempt to avoid moral relativism on the one hand and dogmatic belief systems on the other.

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Mind over matter - Biblical Jiu JitsujohnChimpLiesbethjon freeman Recent comment authors
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Kimberly Blozie
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Jeff, Great blog. Been thinking about this too. The thing that stumps me is that it takes a human mind in order to comprehend and name relationships, matter, atoms, things, even the evolutionary process, morals and deep truths. Without the mind and language, there truly is nothing and only potential. Only now can we look back and carbon date, name, and postulate on our unfolding Universe. And on the other hand, one could say “Ahh, but before even rudimentary bacterial consciousness/mind, “dead” matter took us, billions of years through space/time in order to arrive at where we are at”. That… Read more »

Kimberly Blozie
Guest

And here is the other thing your blog highlighted in my experience… Is the deepest motive in each of us the edge of the evolutionary impulse? And is the deepest experience of ideas in us, the same? You had said in your blog “The challenge of strict Idealism is that ideas become disconnected from experience. Ideas that are not constrained by the need for any connection to being visible outside of the subjective experience of the individual makes it impossible to objectively verify any truth claims and in its most extreme leaves us having to accept every ones internal recognition… Read more »

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

What came up reading this blog is the difference between consciousness ‘as pure potential’ and ‘mind’ as it is used in this blog –as ideas being expressed. If I connect to Chopra (on Twitter) he splits this in three things: The universe is simultaneously material , mental as energy and information, and spiritual as the field of pure potentiality: material, mental en pure consciousness, or as he says: Nothing or no thing is the source of everything. So ‘mental’ comes only after material, while ‘consciousness’ is before… Rumi: Infinite Potential: I look into your eyes and see the whole universe… Read more »

jon freeman
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The mind vs matter formulation leads us astray. Yes, before the universe there was potential for the universe. But what did that potential consist of? If we accept the “big bang” theory, then that potential is inconceivably huge and consists of matter-energy, compressed in a way that we cannot imagine. Does that potential have mind / consciousness? Bottom line answers:- 1) we don’t know and can’t know 2) it doesn’t make any difference. What matters is what happened next. The word “mind” has human-scale connotations and even “consciousness” has its overtones. But my definition of “mind” is a “container for… Read more »

Liesbeth
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Liesbeth

It is interesting, I agree with you. But I have just been reading -with these questions in mind (the question what is that pure potential that is BEFORE matter and mind) and I have been looking into modern philosopher Jean-Luc Marion (1947); Marion is influenced by Descartes, Kant, Husserl, Heidegger and Derrida and he is looking for the divine that is not a product of our own thinking. He says that the essence of our consciousness is that it is always focussed on something. Consciousness is focussing itself: Thinking means focussing (on an object) or creating a concept (idea). When… Read more »

jon freeman
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You could potentially see the whole universe as a revelation, or self-revelation from its point of view. But is its self-creative exploration simply passive, random, accidental? Or is there indeed something intentional present? And how would we know? (Note the parallel between this and purist Darwinism as seen by Dawkins compared to the auto-poetic model of Elisabet Sahtouris.) Might humanity itself even be the first part of our known universe that has the capability for conscious, intentional evolution? I hesitate to promote my own work, but you would find the depth beneath what I am saying here in my book… Read more »

liesbeth
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liesbeth

I will read your book. I look forward to it.

Chimp
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Chimp

I think it’s natural for humans to struggle with how God created man and the universe. God’s thoughts are simply beyond a humans ability to comprehend. We mortal humans, including Steven Hawkins, can not and will never know. Look at it this way, if my workbench had a mind, Im positive my workbench would think itself evolved from absolutely nothing also. Bang!

Best regards,
Chimp

john
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john

For what seems to me to be a cutting edge discourse on this mind body problem & subjective experience, see/read …..Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter by Terrence W. Deacon. I wonder if the Idealist viewpoint so separates us from the world that we act as we do ……..ie as if we are separate……not of the earth……….but on the earth……… That we are like a bird (soul) landing in a tree and eventually leaving……rather than fruit of the tree…….eventually nuturing new growth, new life, new trees. ……….and therefor have a stake and moral obligation/resposibility. That we are to return…..gain… Read more »

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[…] Here is a post from secular philosophy that colors this in: http://philosophyisnotaluxury.com/2011/06/16/what-comes-first-mind-or-matter/ […]