Quantum physics – is reality all in the mind?

February 2024 Forums General discussion Quantum physics – is reality all in the mind?

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    The issue is whether the mind is therefore a “function of matter”.  To say that it is amounts to reductionist physicalism.

    It is the same kind of reductionism that says there is “no such thing as society, there is only individuals (and families)”. 

    And how do you arrive at me believing this?

    I won’t bother discussing with Bird, because I don’t exist “of myself.”

    I am only in his mind.



    What we have to discuss are the real issues affecting mankind around the world



    But we have an inconsistency. The SPGB excludes non-materialists, yet includes non-materialists.

    Materialism is the belief that only matter exists.

    So we should avoid inconsistency and lift the exclusion of non-materialists. Then I would have no problem with members believing in free will and being dualists, emergence theorists, etc., as long as they want socialism.

    Since these are not materialists. So, accept the religious too, thus being consistent.



    Carl Sagan on the need for human humility.





    I wouldn’t say emergence theorists are non-materialists.   For instance, in the cognitive sciences they would hold that mental states are indeed very much dependent (or “supervene) on the material brain but are nevertheless not “reducible” to, or wholly explicable in terms of,  the firing  of the brain’s neurons.  To say they are is reductionist and this is what emergence theory opposes.


    What emergence theory holds is that reality consists of multiple levels in which each level is dependent on the one below but not reducible to it.  Mind-brain relations are analogous to the relations between society and individuals.  Society depends on the existence of empirical individuals  – just as thoughts depend on the brain – but society is more than the sum of its parts.   It exerts “downward causation” upon individuals.  Meaning individuals are influenced by the kind of society in which we live which is surely something on which all socialists would agree.


    If you are going to be a reductionist you might as well go the whole hog and explain EVERYTHING in terms of the movements of subatomic  particles.   Any other explanation above the level of theoretical physics is essentially redundant.  A thief who broke into a jewellers shop to steal some jewellery did not do so because he wanted it for the dosh he could make  by selling the stuff.  Rather it was because of  the quirky behaviour of those quarks operating at the subatomic level that pushed his body into doing certain things over which he had no control.   It was all predetermined. Problem is you have no way of showing how this is the case. It just a theory no more or less plausible than any other theory


    Thoughts “exist” but according to you “Materialism is the belief that only matter exists.”  So are thoughts just “matter” then?  I dont think that is a very helpful way of defining matter – i.e. to extend the term to cover everything that “exists” (what is meant by “exists” anyway?) . It makes the term almost meaningless


    I take matter to refer to sense data- what is empirically knowable via our senses..  Matter is indeed objective in this sense in that it is independent of, and predates, our existence – even if as LBird suggests , we cannot apprehend matter separately from our consciousness of it which is socially conditioned.   Marx seems to hold the same view of  matter and made this point in Capital vol 1 about the nature of  (exchange) value to distinguish it from the use value of commodities

    “the value of commodities is the very opposite of the coarse materiality of their substance, not an atom of matter enters into its composition”


    Would you consider that the law of value does not “exist” because value is not composed a single atom of matter?

    • This reply was modified 4 years, 2 months ago by robbo203.

    (Beginning of this was accidentally deleted when I was composing it. In brief, I was saying that mind is a property of matter and its evolution takes place because the matter that is our brain and nervous system is constantly in motion, neurons sparking etc. Internal factors continue to make impressions.)

    hitherto done so. His responses, making him a socialist or a monarchist, are likewise resulting from his past experiences and the multiplicity of causes and effects within him, subconscious as well as conscious.
    But all of this takes place in his organism because of the nature of the matter of which his nervous system consists. They are the property of his material organization. His consciousness is not the consciousness of existences differently organized, though it will be closer to some (mammals) and further from others (insects). His consciousness will accord with what is necessary to his existence, where theirs will accord with what is necessary to theirs.

    We are born into a society, which of course, is our primary environment, and will thus initiate chains of causation within us different from many initiated by a different social framework. Recognising this, we seek to persuade our fellows with our views because we know (in spite of our talk of “free” will) that will is subject to motive, and we seek to motivate others in the direction we want their thought to take – just as this act on our part results from the way our thought has been motivated. If people had free will, persuasion would be useless, as everyone would be above motivation, free from cause and effect. Similarly, such divine independence would mean we would only have feelings we wanted to have, so we would never be angry, never grieved, never political, and have no ideas.

    Everything is explained in terms of the movement of particles, otherwise there would be no motion, so no history, no production, no forming of societies, and no thoughts or actions. We are ourselves cells, forming societies, and like all cells, all matter, all beings and things, in perpetual motion and transformation. This is hardly reductionism.

    It is true that we can only conceptualize the material world and our inner worlds (resulting from material motion) as far as our senses permit.
    They limit us to what is necessary for us, and from this should come the humility our species has hitherto lacked.



    I can now see where you are coming from. Mind, as mental antecedents produce mental effects, does seem to take on an existence of its own. However, each and every thought or feeling that arises is a spark of electrical, and hence material, motion, confirming that it is a property of the cerebral/neural/chemical matter in motion.

    This of course is further evidence of the resultant and determined nature of the will.


    “Mind, as mental antecedents produce mental effects, does seem to take on an existence of its own. However, each and every thought or feeling that arises is a spark of electrical, and hence material, motion, confirming that it is a property of the cerebral/neural/chemical matter in motion.”


    John,  I am still not quite clear what you mean by this.  If mind produces mental effects –  that is, exerts downward causation – then it is somewhat misleading to say thought is a “property” of the cerebral/neural/chemical matter in motion. That suggests thought is a product of cerebral/neural/chemical matter in motion whereas it would be better expressed as thought <b>entailing</b> cerebral/neural/chemical matter in motion.

    The discovery of “neuroplasticity” in recent years has conclusively demonstrated that the brain is quite malleable or capable of adaptation in response to various stimuli, meaning that it is indeed receptive to downward causation. Learning a new skill, for instance, can create new synaptic connections within the brain and even induce the growth of new nerve cells.

    <b><i>”This of course is further evidence of the resultant and determined nature of the will”</i></b>


    I am mindful here of  John Horgan’s critique of Sam Harris’ a  book, as follows:

    “But just because my choices are limited doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Just because I don’t have absolute freedom doesn’t mean I have no freedom at all. Saying that free will doesn’t exist because it isn’t absolutely free is like saying truth doesn’t exist because we can’t achieve absolute, perfect knowledge.
    Harris keeps insisting that because all our choices have prior causes, they are not free; they are determined. Of course all our choices are caused. No free-will proponent I know claims otherwise. The question is how are they caused? Harris seems to think that all causes are ultimately physical, and that to hold otherwise puts you in the company of believers in ghosts, souls, gods and other supernatural nonsense.
    But the strange and wonderful thing about all organisms, and especially our species, is that mechanistic physical processes somehow give rise to phenomena that are not reducible to or determined by those physical processes. Human brains, in particular, generate human minds, which while subject to physical laws are influenced by non-physical factors, including ideas produced by other minds. These ideas may cause us to change our minds and make decisions that alter the trajectory of our world”  (my emphasis in bold)






     ‘These ideas may cause us to change our minds and make decisions that alter the trajectory of our world” 

    But, of course, only if they are in accord with the material conditions of life. Men make history but only within the cultural and economic context within which they find themselves. Historical trajectory makes some ideas practical and others idealistic and/or ideological. This differentiates human history from that of natural evolution because our culture creates the world in which we live. I understand John’s anger at ‘human arrogance’ but we must not throw out the baby with the bathwater and occasionally celebrate what our intelligence as a species has achieved in such a short time. We are a very young species and I prefer to concentrate on our potential future rather than our destructive past.


    So the ongoing action of mind is like the propulsion of any physical object. To say mind exists is the same as saying walking exists. A walk is not a separate existence but an action of the legs. So mind is an action of the brain. Propulsion is not an existence. These are properties of existence. So to say mind is an existence is to say walking is an existence, or propulsion an existence.


    Robbo, you don’t change your mind; your mind is changed.


    Wez, our intelligence is a two-edged sword, and could be our undoing or our achieving a brighter future.

    We should avoid using this faculty as another crutch of self-glorification and remember that what we do is what we do. What an orangutan does is what an orangutan does. Forever comparing, to boost our self-aggrandisement and approbation, is to be addicted still to the conquest syndrome. Let’s just do what we can do to make a society which no longer needs such arrogant delusions.


    Robbo, verbs are not things; they are words, describing processes, actions of things. Hence, mind, an abstract, indicates a collection of verbs – thinking, feeling, dreaming, worrying, hoping, yearning, suffering, enjoyment. These verbs are of course not material existences, but are properties of material existences. They do not warrant the name of non-material existences, because they only exist as processes, as terms of material motion.


    Robbo, you don’t change your mind; your mind is changed.


    Yes but what is involved in having your mind changed? Is it a purely physical process? Is it simply driven by the  firing of the brain’s neurons? If that is what you are saying then we are back to the fatal flaw of reductive physicalism which reduces any kind of sensible understanding of the world around us to absurdity.


    Mind utterly depends on the brain – there is no argument about that. But the mind is not some passive epiphenomenon that dutifully reflects  in some sort of mechanical fashion the underlying physical processes going in the brain,  It is an active or creative agent in its own development that exerts downward causation  on the very thing upon which it depends – the brain – in ways that I have already mentioned and more besides.


    Some folk here reading this thread might wonder what relevance it has to changing the world which is what we socialists supposedly want to do.  Well actually it has quite a lot of relevance in a background sort of way


    We talk about the need for a  materialist understanding of the world in order to effect a revolutionary change.  The historical materialist approach to  changing society posits a distinction between society’s economic base and its superstructure – ideology, religion, politics etc.  Marx was at pains to point out that the relationship between base and superstructure was NOT a mechanically determinist one whereby the former determined the latter.  There is a two way interaction going on and it is only in the final analysis that the greater weight of economic factors are determinative.


    We can see a parallel between that and this discussion on reductive physicalism in the context of mind-brain interactions.  Reductive physicalism is the equivalent of the mechanical materialism which Marx explicitly rejected. Indeed our whole approach as a political party to revolutionary change based on education and propaganda would make no sense if we truly believed mind was purely a property of the physical brain. We are after all trying to persuade workers to change their minds about capitalism!


    It is no surprise to learn that  mechanical materialism played an important role in the early bourgeois revolutions  – for example the 18th century school of French Materialists.   Its reductionist approach is totally consistent with atomism and individualism.  Hence the rise of mythologies at the time concerning the origins of society as a result of a “social contract” drawn up between what were essentially pre-social individuals “living in a  state of nature” . As  if there ever was such a thing as a “pre-social individual”


    This is a foundational myth of individualist thought no better expressed than by the Iron Lady herself: “there is no such thing as a society, only individuals and their families”.   This is the ideology we socialists are supposed to be battling against, not apologising for. Our emphasis on the social nature of human beings is something that accords fundamentally with our own outlook as socialists.


    In a sense  the logic of reductive physicalism is the self same logic that expresses itself in mechanical materialism.  Its tendency is relentlessly  atomistic in not wanting to see the wood for the trees.


    I’ll end here with a quote from David Graeber summing up the broad outlines of Roy Bhaskar’s “critical realist” approach which is one that I strongly endorse and recommend to all here:

    Reality can be divided into emergent stratum: just as chemistry presupposes but cannot be reduced to physics so biology presupposes but cannot be reduced to chemistry, or the human sciences to biology. Different sorts of mechanisms are operating on each. Each, furthermore, achieves a certain autonomy from those below: it would be impossible to even talk about human freedom were this not the case, since our actions would simply be determined by chemical and biological processes….the higher the emergent strata one is dealing with, the less predictable things become, the involvement of human beings of course being the most unpredictable factor of all (Towards and Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. 2001).




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