Throwing Down the Gauntlet on the Hard Problem of Consciousness (5): Sunrise of the Idols

As the reader likely gather from the prior section, classical Aristotelian physics, or natural philosophy, contrasts with modern physics in the tradition of Galileo, Bacon and Descartes in a manner far deeper than a superficial consideration can reveal. One must in fact conclude that, in some essential sense, classical physics and modern physics are undertaking different projects. The former did not intend to study matter in abstraction from form. Classical physics, therefore, should be understood as a science of concrete entities and not abstract ones. Concrete literally means “grown together,” while abstract means “drawn away.” [1] Thus, these terms suitably express the nature of the respective traditions to which we have applied them. As we indicated above, the Aristotelian physics that had dominated much of medieval philosophy always understood matter and form to constitute, together, the substance of any given entity. The matter being what the entity was made of and the form being the entity that was made of it. Matter, for classical and medieval science, was a relational term and was always conceived, therefore, in respect to some form. This is eminently reasonable, since if matter is conceived of as a medium or “that out of which” a concrete thing is made, then obviously it will be something and this something is just the form of it. Even iron and copper ore, for instance, despite that it is not a chandelier, is not nothing. Rather it is matter in the form of ore actually, and in the form of a chandelier potentially.

Given that the form constitutes the nature of an entity while the matter constitutes its medium, it will be clear that quality pertains to the former and quantity to the latter. The reason for this follows from the meaning of these terms. Quantity is, by definition, always a modification of quality and quiddity. In other words, how much of something there is only makes sense if there is something to begin with. Put in the terms of the Schoolmen, quantity is an accident, not a substance, and self-evidently not an essence. Thus, quantity supervenes on quality and quiddity which it can modify. [2] Even pure number is not an exception, since three for instance, does not have three member, but instead is what it is to have them.

As we have indicated, the scientific revolution began by inventing matter eo ipso as generic qualityless stuff. This was accomplished by abstracting out of concrete form-matter substances, the formal and material principles and then either treating them independently (in the manner of Descartes) or ignoring the former altogether as well as the concrete source from whence they was derived. Bacon openly declared this to be the approach of the new science. Indeed we find in Bacon’s advocation a supreme irony of modern intellectual history, for the same thinker who accomplished more than anyone toward articulating this representation of qualityless matter also warned against the same manner of mismanaged abstraction. In his magisterial 1620 work Novum Organum Scientiarum, in which he wished to set forth an instauration of the sciences (Aristotle’s collected works were referred to as “the Organum” at that time, which translates in essence as “the means” or “the methodology”), Bacon inveighed against the idolatry of Aristotelian Scholasticism and other thinkers of the past, who treated their own figurations as things in themselves. They may have invoked “names of actual objects, but confused, badly defined, and hastily and irregularly abstracted from things.” He offers the examples of “Fortune, the primum mobile, the planetary orbits, the element of fire, and the like fictions” as idols of this sort. Still, following the results of our inquiry above, Bacon appears to have inadvertently advocated for just the same manner of mistake in the Novum Organum as he chastised in the organi antiquis. For all of his poetical opprobrium against the motes in the eyes of the Schoolmen, the Lord Chancellor may have been blind to an idolatry closer to home, for matter without form does not exist except as an “idol in Newtonian space.” [3]

Descartes was neither so harsh nor grandiloquent as Bacon (his mathematical disposition was evidently not given to rhetorical flourish of the likes of Bacon). Still, Descartes consummated the first part of the operation that Bacon encouraged with the former’s division of substances into res cogitans and res extensa. As Bacon characterised it in the Novum Organum, an idol is a representation that is regarded as a thing in itself outside of the representation of it: “[if] the notions (which form the basis of the whole) be confused and carelessly abstracted from things, there is no solidity in the superstructure.” [4] By this token, Descartes peopled the stage of future minds with such “Idols of the Theatre.” Bacon’s typology of idols delineates various means by which these representations are generated including custom, fancy, disposition, and the intrinsic frailty of human apperception. The Lord Chancellor warns especially against the “abstractions of the philosophers,” which Descartes helpfully set forth as a tenet of his method:


The intellectual abstraction consists in my turning my thought away from one part of the contents of this richer idea the better to apply it to the other part with greater attention. Thus, when I consider a shape without thinking of the substance or the extension whose shape it is, I make a mental abstraction.

The Frenchman’s most famous application of this method resulted in the Cartesian dualism that set the keynote for western science and philosophy in the modern era. The monumental discoveries by Galileo and Newton in the fields of astronomy and physics both testify to, and depended upon, this manner of thinking that Descartes described, and which Bacon decried as idolatry. Matter, following the early modern thinkers, was conceived of as an empty placeholder for the predication of quantity. [5] Abstraction of matter from its perceptible appearance was originally applied as a methodological tenet to “save the appearances,” [6] as the inestimable Owen Barfield argued in his 1957 book by that title. This was to say that positing an inert formless matter as underlying stuff provided a theory that could explain and predict observations. What began as a methodological postulate, however, soon became the de facto metaphysic of the modern world. This despite the protest of the majority of the philosophers that we have quoted. Bacon characteristically tries to ride two horses with one bridle and as a result is often hailed as the father of the scientific method despite levying clever counterpoints to his own advances.

Barfield pointed out that the true nature of the scientific revolution was not in the fact that Copernicus set forth a novel theory of planetary motion in defiance of the tyranny of the Catholic Church. Indeed, as many historians have noted, Aristarchus of Samos had offered a similar model already in the third century B.C. Interestingly, Copernicus was almost certainly aware of this fact, though despite that he “took pains,” in his own words, “to read again the works of all the philosophers on whom I could lay hand,” Aristarchus receives no mention in Copernicus’ epochal 1543 work De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. [7] Furthermore, an Archbishop and an eminent Cardinal in the Catholic Church had in fact written a joint letter in 1536, importunate that Copernicus should publish the theory, though the astronomer resisted for almost ten years fearing derision from his fellow astronomers. Nor was the spirit of the scientific revolution merely a consequence of other discoveries by the ingenious thinkers of that time. As Barfield notes, the scientific revolution was born rather with Galileo’s vocal insistence that if a theory could explain observable phenomena with sufficient accuracy—if it could sufficiently save the appearances—then it he same thing as the truth. In Barfield’s words, the scientific revolution was “a new theory of the nature of theory.”

Such a proposition likely strikes many readers as incredulous. After all, wasn’t the heliocentric theory simply true? It requires only a small amount of reflection to see that it is not so simple. For instance, if the sun itself is just one of countless stars spangled indifferently amidst the roughly two trillion disparate galaxies that cosmologists approximate to exist in the universe today, then it makes little sense to posit an heliocentric theory as more than a theory, which is to say, as more than a hypothesis to save the appearances, or “a likely story,” to borrow Plato’s phrase from the Timaeus, to account for a given situation. To imagine that the Copernican theory disproved the Ptolemaic one, therefore, is incorrect for the same reason—“the stage is too big for the drama,” in the words of the physicist Richard Feynman. [8] Heliocentricism is a theory amongst other theories but becomes, in Bacon’s terminology, an idol of the theatre—idolatry of the theoretical sort—to affirm otherwise. The history of gravitation tells a similar story. A typical argumentum ad lapidem is to say “I don’t believe in gravity, it is just a fact.” But let us consider what this really means. Experience demonstrates that a ripe apple will fall from a bough when loosed, et “demonstratio longe optima est experientia,” to quote Lord Bacon, whose turn of phrase one can scarcely laud with sufficient admiration. Thus we can conclude that “the apple fell because of gravity,” and we would be correct in this judgement, but nevertheless have said very little if we were speaking before 1687, since “gravity” simply meant “weight,” or “heaviness,” from the Latin gravitas. To say that the apple fell because of heaviness was to appeal to a fact about the nature of the apple. When Newton published Principia, he posited gravity as an universal law, whose force was inversely proportional to the square of the distance between two massive bodies and directly proportional to the product of their masses. In this conception, to say that “the apple fell because of gravity” means something different than merely saying that it fell because of heaviness. In the Newtonian model, gravity is an universal force operating between massive bodies, though the great Cambridge physicist “feigned no hypothesis” as to the nature of it:

I have not yet been able to discover the cause of these properties of gravity from phenomena et hypothesis non fingo….It is enough that gravity does really exist and acts according to the laws I have explained, and that it abundantly serves to account for all the motions of celestial bodies. [9]

Thus again we discover the golden thread of our exploration, since gravity for Aristotelian physics refers to a quality (i.e. heaviness) while for early modern physics it has been translated into external quantitative relations, hypostasised as an universal law. Today, we still say “the apple fell because of gravity” but from the view of contemporary physics (i.e. since 1915), we will be forced to concede that by “gravity” we no longer refer to anything with the term, for Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity reveals gravity to be an illusion caused by the power of massive bodies to warp the geodesic of spacetime in their vicinity. Thus, what for Aristotelian physics was a quality of substances and bodies, for Newtonian physics was a quantity of force which “does really exist,” for modern physics does not exist.

If we consider that quality implies consciousness of it in the same manner that a river implies flowing and an outside implies an inside, then we can trace the evolution of the hard problem through this history of ideas. As a result, to discover the claims of certain scientists and philosophers who (dis)solve the hard problem by denying that consciousness exists in the first place no longer will strike us a shock, but rather appears as a natural consequence of the world conception that has evolved in Western civilisation since the seventeenth century. We will offer a brief survey of some contemporary approaches to the hard problem in the next section. Suffice it in this section to have delineated the phylogeny of the paradigm in which the very question is framed as well as the manner of thinking that generated that paradigm.

Having followed this history of ideas, one will be hard-pressed but to but to conclude that the hard problem is an ineluctable consequence of attempting to explain what one had first methodologically effaced while still employing the same method that effaced it, and while sustaining the same paradigm that was derived from that method. In this respect, what Chalmers calls “the hard problem” ought really to be called “the impossible problem.” In other words, if we define real as physical and physical in the manner of contemporary science—as particles without qualia—then we will be at a loss to explain where the experience of qualia comes from, and how a specific configuration of such particles in the form of a nervous system could provide for the experience of them either. In other words, no phenomenon should break the laws of physics in virtue of what “the laws of physics” is supposed to mean. If a phenomenon appears to break those laws, we will be forced to select between (1) ignoring, rejecting, or explaining away that phenomenon in terms of the known laws, or (2) modifying those laws so that they do indeed account for that phenomenon. The latter (2) is often a driving engine of scientific progress, as for instance, the vindication of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity to account for discrepancies in the precession of Mercury’s orbit around the sun in respect to predictions based off of Newtonian mechanics. The former (1) seems to characterise the general situation in respect to the hard problem of consciousness, though everything that ends up in the second category begins in the the first. Today, we find ourselves in the absurd position that qualia, the most immediate objects of our experience, are not allowed to count as observations in this relevant sense that they could challenge the laws of physics, which were ostensibly developed from those observations—“transcendentally beholden to them,” to borrow the philosopher Evan Thompson’s descriptive phrase. Arguably, as “the sabbath was made for Man, and not Man for the sabbath,” so the laws of physics should be a function of immediate experience, not a circumscriptor of it. Obviously, this is quite an extensive topic to which great thinkers have dedicated their professional careers and to which we have no hope of giving adequate treatment. Suffice it to have explored the issue and to have suggested that the hard problem indicates that the future may demand an evolution of the laws of physics. [10]

Before we proceed to another topic, one small objection to the above is worth addressing. While the laws of physics indeed appear to proscribe the existence of consciousness, one might suppose that the biological sciences provide a sufficient supplement so that no new scientific (r)evolution is necessary. Establishing logical coherence amongst the manifold disciplines of science, as well as the other fields of human inquiry, is a subject the buckles of whose shoes I am hardly fit to unlatch, but towards which I have intended to dedicate my professional career. Suffice it here to note that the biological sciences suffer the same insufficiency as physics in respect to our concern. Both of them assume a naturalistic picture of organisms in which consciousness, in the sense above, finds no place. The biological sciences differ from pure physics only in that they attempt to provide a diachronic account of how consciousness could emerge from unconscious matter just as physics attempts to provide a synchronic one. If, however, it is indeed as the physicists have claimed since Galileo’s day: that secondary qualities have no place in objective nature, then it is senseless to conjecture a process whereby the experience of such qualities was gradually evolved while at the same time enlisting them to describe the unknown entities that preceded them. If, as Galielo wrote in The Assayer in 1623, and as developments in physics since that time have appeared to corroborate to an extreme degree (i.e. consider Eddington’s tables [11]), “that tastes, odors, colors, and so on are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we locate them are concerned, and that they reside in consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated,” then it is the height of contradiction to recount a story of how consciousness emerged from unconscious processes unless it is done without appeal to any of the qualia which ostensibly supervene on that very consciousness which has yet to emerge and which therefore “would be wiped away and annihilated” in any projection before that time. At most, such Darwinian style account would have to be treated as “a likely story of how evolution would have appeared to a being endowed with the same faculties of perception as the ordinary man of today if he or she could have been present at a time before the existence not only of him or her, but of the very principle of perception itself, had been evolved.” [12] It is an awkward country, to say the least.

Thus, whether in a synchronic or a diachronic scope, an account of consciousness in terms of what it is not will inevitably land itself in similar difficulties. The verdict of this inquiry to this point is that an account of this manner will not be forthcoming without sacrificing the meaning of its terms, and the latter seems tantamount to an evolution, if not a revolution, amongst the sciences. Even if a scientific revolution were in order, it would not be the first such event, and we hope humanity will survive with its Faustian spirit to ensure that it will also not be the last.

Special thank to Owen Barfield, Henri Bortoft, and Rudolf Steiner.

[1] Con (“with,” “together”) + crescere (“grow”), ab (“away from”) + trahere (“draw,” “pull,” “bring.”)

[2] It is feasible, though impossible to verify, that all things in the natural world are in some manner quantifiable, as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas interpreted the Biblical dictum, “Deus omnia fecit in numero, pondere et mensura,” “God fashioned all things in number, weight, and measure.” (Wisdom 11:21)

[3] “Idols in Newtonian space” is Owen Barfield’s phrase from Saving the Appearances (1957).

[4] Cf. section LXI of Novum Organum in respect to idols of the theatre:

The idols of the theatre are not innate, nor do they introduce themselves secretly into the understanding, but they are manifestly instilled and cherished by the fictions of theories and depraved rules of demonstration. To attempt, however, or undertake their confutation would not be consistent with our declarations. For since we neither agree in our principles nor our demonstrations, all argument is out of the question.

This is to say, of the genus of idols, the species is theoretical. The kinship of theatre and theory is easily overlooked.

[5] Cf. Barfield’s characterisation:

“[Modern consciousness] had clothed them with the independence and extrinsicality of the unrepresented itself. But a representation, which is collectively mistaken for an ultimate—ought not to be called a representation. It is an idol. Thus the phenomena themselves are idols, when they are imagined as enjoying that independence of human perception which can in fact only pertain to the unrepresented.” Ibid., 62.

[6] The first recorded use of the specific phrase seems to be Simplicius’ sixth-century commentary on Aristotle’s De Caelo. The phrase meant that a hypothesis could explain phenomena but was not on that basis necessarily true; even two contradictory hypotheses could explain the appearances, as did the Ptolemaic and Copernican versions of the movements of the planets.

[7] Bortoft cites Arthur Koestler who affirmed that Copernicus was without a doubt familiar with Aristarchus. In fact, according to Koestler, Copernicus had even included Aristarchus’ name in a personal manuscript of De revolutionibus and later crossed it out in ink.

[8] Cf. Also Stephen Hawking from The Grand Design, 2010:

“Although it is not uncommon for people to say that Copernicus proved Ptolemy wrong, that is not true. (41)…one can use either picture as a model of the universe…the equations of motion are much simpler in the frame of reference in which the sun is at rest (42)….If there are two models that both agree with observation, then one cannot say that one is more real than another (46).”

[9] 1713 “General Scholium” in the second edition of Principia. 1692, in his third letter to Bentley, Newton had written:

That one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum without the mediation of anything else, by and through which their action and force may be conveyed from one another, is to me so great an absurdity that, I believe, no man who has in philosophic matters a competent faculty of thinking could ever fall into it.

The physicist Ernst Mach expressed his exasperation with Newton’s methods, even protesting in a notebook entry of 25 October 1879 that Newton “affects logical rigour where none is present” and that he “conceals assumptions.” The interested reader is again directed to Steffen Ducheyne’s “An editorial history of Newton’s regulae philosophandi” for a discussion on the stormy development of Newton’s thinking.

[10] Cf. Jerry Fodor, after devoting his working career to the philosophy of mind and the hard problem of consciousness, concluded that “Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be conscious. Nobody even knows what it would be like to have the slightest idea about how anything material could be conscious.”
Philosopher Colin McGinn weighs in with a similar conclusion: “You might as well assert, without further explanation, that space emerges from time, or numbers from biscuits, or ethics from rhubarb.”

[11] Physicist Arthur Eddington’s Gifford Lectures (1927), the two tables:

Table No. 2 is my scientific table….My scientific table is mostly emptiness. Sparsely scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges rushing about with great speed; but their combined bulk amounts to less than a billionth of the bulk of the table itself. Notwithstanding its strange construction it turns out to be an entirely efficient table. It supports my writing paper as satisfactorily as Table No. 1; for when I lay the paper on it the little electric particles with their headlong speed keep on hitting the underside, so that the paper is maintained in shuttlecock fashion at a nearly steady level. If I lean upon this table I shall not go through; or, to be strictly accurate, the chance of my scientific elbow going through my scientific table is so excessively small that it can be neglected in practical life. Reviewing their properties one by one, there seems to be nothing to choose between the two tables for ordinary purposes; but when abnormal circumstances befall, then my scientific table shows to advantage. If the house catches fire my scientific table will dissolve quite naturally into scientific smoke, whereas my familiar table under-goes a metamorphosis of its substantial nature which I can only regard as miraculous.


[12] “A likely story” (εἰκότα μῦθον) is, of course, Plato’s phrase from Timaeus (29d) for an hypothesis that saves the appearances. When we speak of a “theory” today in a scientific context, we mean the same thing, though we are not so keenly aware of our theorising activity as Plato seemed to have been. Owen Barfield indicated this shift in people’s theory of theory, as well as the paradox that it is bound to generate in any Darwinistic account of evolution in his extraordinary little book from 1957, Saving the Appearances.


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