The small matter of matter

We didn’t get rid of the ghost in the machine; we got rid of the machine — Noam Chomsky

Ulrich Mohrhoff
16 min readJan 8, 2022

In 1962, cognitive psychologist George Miller¹ wrote:

Consciousness is a word worn smooth by a million tongues. Depending upon the figure of speech chosen it is a state of being, a substance, a process, a place, an epiphenomenon, an emergent aspect of matter, or the only true reality. Maybe we should ban the word for a decade or two until we can develop more precise terms for the several uses which “consciousness” now obscures.

No official ban was imposed, yet the word largely disappeared from scientific discourse until it resurfaced with a vengeance in the 1990s. Its resurgence was catalyzed by “the hard problem of consciousness,” a phrase coined by David Chalmers² to focus attention on the “objectively unreasonable” circumstance that the information-processing capacities of our brains give rise to our “rich inner life”. (Fact check: they don’t — see below.)

Why did this seem “objectively unreasonable” to Chalmers, as indeed it had to many others before him? To find out, we need to go back to the “mechanical philosophy” that originated with Galileo and his contemporaries. This held that the world is a machine, operating by mechanical principles much like the remarkable devices that were being constructed by skilled artisans of the day, and that stimulated the scientific imagination much as computers do today.

Central to this doctrine was the idea that the entire world could in principle be constructed by a skilled artisan using gears, levers, and other mechanical components interacting through direct contact without any mediating forces. The intention behind this doctrine was to get rid of the “occult powers” which were invoked by neo-scholastic philosophers to perform tasks mocked by the nascent science, like transporting shapes from things to perceivers or making steam rise and rocks fall. The mechanical philosophy provided the very criterion for intelligibility in the sciences. Galileo insisted that theories are intelligible, in his words, only if we can “duplicate [their posits] by means of appropriate artificial devices.” The same idea, which became the reigning orthodoxy, was maintained and developed by other leading figures of the scientific revolution, notably Descartes.

While Descartes believed to have firmly established the mechanical philosophy, he acknowledged phenomena that appeared to escape the reach of the mechanical philosophy. Primary among them was the creative aspect of language. Descartes realized that the way we use language is creative and therefore not simply caused by what it seeks to describe, and that (in view of the intimate relation between thought and language) this applies to human thought as well. Although today Descartes is remembered mainly for his philosophical reflections, he was primarily a scientist and presumably thought of himself that way, as his contemporaries did. Being a scrupulous scientist, he invoked a new principle to accommodate these non-mechanical phenomena. This is how philosophers came to think of two mutually irreducible substances, matter (res extensa) and mind (res cogitans).

Then came Newton, who showed that even the properties of matter do not conform to the principles of the mechanical philosophy. To account for the observable behavior of matter, it is necessary to resort to interactions without contact. (This post illustrates how galling that concept has remained up to the present day.) Not surprisingly, Newton was condemned by the scientists of his time for invoking the despised occult powers of the neo-scholastics. Newton largely agreed,³ writing

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

Yet invoke that absurdity he did, conceding⁴ that

hitherto I have not been able to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from phenomena, and I frame no hypotheses; for whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this philosophy particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena, and afterwards rendered general by induction.

In other words, Newton did not understand the cause of those properties, and by “understand” he as well as his critics meant: understand in terms of action by contact. In his 1949 work The Concept of Mind, the behaviorist Gilbert Ryle ridiculed Descartes’ concept of mind as a “ghost in the machine.” It is commonly believed that Newton conclusively demonstrated that the world is a machine, and that we can therefore dismiss the ghost. As Noam Chomsky⁵ has pointed out, the opposite is the case: Newton exorcised the machine, leaving the ghost intact.

Modern commentators observe that by providing a local (direct-contact) interpretation of gravitational attraction, Einstein’s general theory of relativity overcomes the non-locality that was an absurdity to Newton and his contemporaries. These commentators miss a crucial point. What happened in the 19th and early 20th Century was not simply that effective forces were introduced to make all interactions local. (To get a grasp on how this was supposed to work, recall the bucket-brigade analogy used in this post.) What happened was that matter came to be defined by the laws it obeys; it came to be “that which satisfies the laws of physics” — this before quantum mechanics revealed the impossibility of making all interactions local.

Is there a way to characterize matter without invoking the laws of physics, a non-tautological way to describe that which satisfies the laws of physics? If all the properties that matter can have and all the ways in which it can behave are defined by physical laws, the answer is negative. So maybe we should do for “matter” what George Miller suggested we do for “consciousness”: ban the word until we can develop more precise terms for the several uses which it now obscures.

Isaac Newton (left) and René Descartes (right)

Recall Descartes’ reason for elevating mind to the status of a second irreducible substance, to wit: the creativity of human thought and language. Needless to say, there will be constraints on the symbolic systems that we can think up and/or formulate, and it makes sense to distinguish between two kinds of constraints: constraints that are imposed from “inside,” by our cognitive makeup, and constraints that are imposed from “outside.” The external constraints evince themselves through those aspects of our experience that we are unable to change. They consist in lawful concurrences of perceptions (defining particular kinds of objects), lawful connections between successive perceptions (defining laws of causality), and lawful relations between individual objects (defining interaction laws).

What is primarily governed by these types of lawfulness is sense impressions in phenomenal space. But since our sense impressions are governed by them, we are in a position to objectivize our sense impressions, to think of them as experiences of external objects. (NB: “External” here means that the objects are perceived as external to us; it does not imply that they are external in an ontological sense.) In other words, sense impressions are the only “stuff” that is given to us. We do not get another stuff if we synthesize our sense impressions into a symbolic system and call it “matter.”

The ghost and the machine

Until quantum mechanics came along, it remained possible to characterize matter not only as “that which satisfies the laws of physics” but also as “that which is described by the laws of physics.” Quantum mechanics makes it clear that even such classical posits as the electromagnetic field were never entities that physics describes; they have never been more than calculational tools. While the calculational tools of classical physics made it possible to predict future observations, those of quantum physics allow us to statistically correlate measurement outcomes.

Quantum physics does not change the fact that we are given sense impressions, nor the fact that the lawful concurrences, connections, and relations among sense impressions make it possible to think of them as experiences of external objects. What it does is to add to the classical domain of objectivized bundles of sense impressions a quantum domain, whose existence is inferred from statistical correlations between the behaviors of such classical objects as detectors and measuring devices.

The division of external reality into these two domains has momentous consequences. Chief among them is the impossibility to conceive of classical objects as existing independently of experiencing subjects. In order to attribute to classical objects this kind of independent existence, it must be possible to attribute the same independent existence to the quantum objects of which they are composed, and this is ruled out by the contextuality of quantum objects and their properties.

Reminder (to my Aurocafe subscribers): The properties of quantum objects are contextual in that they are defined by the experimental contexts in which they are observed, and the quantum objects themselves are contextual in that they are individuated by the experimental contexts in which they are observed. Because of this mutual dependence — classical objects being composed of quantum objects, and quantum objects owing to classical objects not only their properties but also their existence as individuals — we can regard neither classical objects nor quantum objects as existing independently of us experiencing subjects.

It might be argued that this mutual dependence merely calls for a tertium quid. It does not require this third entity, which accounts for the existence of both classical and quantum objects, to be us. But there is also this: measurement outcomes and detection events are genuinely fortuitous, and nothing accounts for their occurrence but the fact that they are observed.

The statistical correlations that quantum mechanics predicts have a considerable bearing on how we should think about matter and space. For one thing, if (in our minds) we keep partitioning space into ever smaller regions, we will reach a point beyond which the distinctions we make between regions can no longer be objectivized, a point where they cease to correspond to anything in the objective world. Hence if we want to think of physical space as a self-existent expanse, we cannot think of it as intrinsically partitioned; we will have to think of it as intrinsically undifferentiated, as lacking parts. All actually existing spatial relations are relations between something here and something there (i.e., relations between physical objects or their components).

For another, if a quantum object has a form, this consists of spatial relations between component parts; if a quantum object lacks component parts, it therefore also lacks a form. What quantum mechanics takes away from earlier conceptions of form is the notion that forms are the surfaces of things that have “stuff” inside. The only thing that has spatial extent is space itself; there is nothing else — in particular no kind of “stuff” — that has spatial extent. What quantum mechanics adds to earlier conceptions of form is that the ultimate, not further divisible constituents of matter are formless.

And so there is nothing to prevent us from holding that a fundamental particle observed here and now with these properties and a fundamental particle observed there and then with those properties are one and the same thing. If we think of fundamental particles as the ultimate constituents of the physical world, as most physicists do, we are thus in a position to affirm that the number of ultimate constituents is one. Putting two and two together, we arrive at the conclusion that the shapes of things resolve themselves into reflexive relations (meaning self-relations) entertained by a single, formless Ultimate Constituent.⁶

What are we to make of the difference between those two domains? Arguably the most illuminating way to understand the relation between the classical and quantum domains is to conceive of the latter as instrumental in the manifestation of the former. We may think of the process of manifestation as a transition from the unity of the aforesaid Ultimate Constituent to the multiplicity of the manifested world. In this transition there are stages, which are characterized by the emergence of formless particles, non-visualizable atoms, and partly visualizable molecules, respectively. Instead of being considered constituent parts of the manifested world, as they usually are, these quantum objects are best thought of as instrumental in the manifestation of the world. They pertain to what occurs between the Ultimate Constituent and the manifested world.

We now have two candidates apiece for the meaning of “matter” and of “space”. We may think of space as an intrinsically undifferentiated expanse, or we may think of it as the totality of existing spatial relations (i.e., relations that obtain between material objects or their component parts). We may think of matter as an Ultimate Constituent, or we may think of it as the apparent multitude of relata among which spatial relations hold — “apparent” because the relations are reflexive; they hold between numerically identical relata.

In each case the two possible meanings are related, and neither can be dispensed with. If we define space as an intrinsically undifferentiated expanse, we need the spatial relations holding among the material constituents of the universe to account for the existing differences between here and there, and if we defined space as the totality of existing spatial relations, we need an intrinsically undifferentiated spatial expanse to account for the spatial character of the relations. By the same token, if take “matter” to stand for the Ultimate Constituent, we need the (apparent) multitude of relata to account for the multiplicity of the manifested world, and if we identify matter with the totality of relata among which spatial relations hold, we miss the numerical identity of the relata and the process by which the material world came into being, beginning with the Ultimate Constituent’s entering into (or entertaining) spatial relations with itself.

When we speak of the manifestation of the world, we must not forget that the world is manifested to us. The manifested world is the joint product of two agents, the Ultimate Constituent and our collective self. By entering into reflexive spatial relations, and by subjecting them to a certain lawful order, the former gives rise to the physical world as we understand it today (leaving aside whatever is purely speculative). We for our part construct this understanding on the basis of our sense impressions and of the lawful concurrences and relations we discern among them, and we do this in conformity with the logical or grammatical structure of human thought or language and the spatiotemporal structure of human sensory experience. The obvious success of this “cooperative effort” testifies to a remarkable convergence of the two kinds of constraints mentioned above — those imposed from “inside,” by our cognitive makeup, and those imposed from “outside,” by the Ultimate Constituent and the lawful order it imposes on its reflexive relations and the regularities these impose on our sense impressions.

Convergent as they are, the two stories do not mesh. Ideally we should have a single story told from two complementary perspectives, yet we fail to understand the connection between our brains and our humble selves, their sense impressions, and their ability to make objective sense of their subjective impressions. About this connection Einstein famously remarked⁷:

The very fact that the totality of our sense experiences is such that by means of thinking (operations with concepts, and the creation and use of definite functional relations between them, and the coordination of sense experiences to these concepts) it can be put in order, this fact is one which leaves us in awe, but which we shall never understand. One may say “the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.” It is one of the great realisations of Immanuel Kant that the setting up of a real external world would be senseless without this comprehensibility.

This is the problem seen from the inside. The same problem seen from the outside finds expression in Chalmers’ bafflement mentioned at the beginning of this post. We find solutions to both versions of the problem if we turn to the philosophy of the Upanishads and its modern interpretation and amplification by Sri Aurobindo.⁸ Its fundamental affirmation is that there is no need for more than one irreducible substance. Ultimate Reality relates to the world not only as the one substance that constitutes it but also as the one consciousness that contains it. In the original poise of this supramental consciousness, Reality’s aspect of substance is involved in its aspect of consciousness: all there is is a consciousness creating its content. However, in order to set the stage for the adventure of evolution, Reality involves its aspect of consciousness in its aspect of substance: all there then appears to exist is an inconscient substance that entertains reflexive spatial relations:

In a sense, the whole of creation may be said to be a movement between two involutions, Spirit in which all is involved and out of which all evolves downward to the other pole of Matter, Matter in which also all is involved and out of which all evolves upward to the other pole of Spirit. [LD 137]

The involution of Spirit in Matter may be described as Spirit turning itself inside-out: in the supermind’s primary poise, all relations are internal; they are self-evidently both self-relations and relations in consciousness, obtaining among the contents of consciousness. When the involution of Spirit in Matter is complete, all relations are effectively external; they obtain between what appear to be separate objects or numerically distinct material constituents.

In the descent of Spirit towards Matter there arise different poises of consciousness and corresponding planes of existence or frames of experience, in which the stages of creation become progressively suppressed: supermind gets involved in mind (considered as the power of forming expressive ideas), mind gets involved in life (considered as the power of developing expressive ideas into material forms), life gets involved in matter (considered as the principle of form), and the principle of form gets involved in an (apparent) multitude of formless particles (which is another candidate for the designation “matter”). At each stage of this involution, some of the supermind’s unity is lost. Mind retains the unity that allows it to freely realize its creative ideas, limited only by the freedom of other minds to realize their creative ideas. (In contrast, there are no “other” superminds.) And life retains the unity that allows it to freely execute ideas, limited only by the freedom of other lives to do the same.

In the ascent from Matter towards Spirit there emerges: first the unity of each re-identifiable material object, then the unity of each living being such as a bacterium or a plant, then the unity of each mentally conscious being, and eventually the unity not only of each but of all supramentally conscious beings. In contrast to the progressive involution of Spirit in Matter, which gave rise to different planes of existence, the progressive evolution of Spirit in Matter takes place within a single plane of existence, the physical world. As a consequence, the freedom of each living being is restricted not only by that of other living beings but also by the inert resistance offered by the material basis. The freedom of each mentally conscious being in turn is restricted not only by that of other embodied minds but also by the recalcitrance of the vital force on which it depends.

Each major evolutionary advance thus calls for a certain integration of the lower principle into the higher. Yet only the final integration can be complete. The force of life, while to some extent capable of modifying the physical forces acting in a living organism, cannot integrate these forces to such an extent as to turn the material substratum into a perfectly pliant medium. Nor can mental consciousness integrate the force of life to such an extent as to turn it into a spontaneously effective instrumentation. Only the supermind has the power of integrating all stages of the creative process into a spontaneous expression in matter of the infinite Quality at the heart of reality.

The increase in freedom and in the scope and efficacy of action, which accompanies each major evolutionary advance, is tantamount to a progressive realization and dynamization of unity. And with unity comes an internalization of the relations that hold among the many. In the ascent from mind to supermind, not only will the “others” that are external to each mental self become internal the one self of all, but also

[t]he outer world itself will become inward to the spiritual awareness, a part of itself, intimately embraced in a knowledge and feeling of unity and identity, penetrated by an intuitive regard of the mind, responded to by the direct contact of consciousness with consciousness, taken into an achieved integrality. [LD 753]

In us mental beings the unity of our material constituents is partially realized, and this most significantly in our brains, where the internalization of the relations that hold among their molecular, cellular, and higher-level components accounts for our conscious experience of an external world and for the rest of our “rich inner life.” For to the extent that these relations have become internal, they no longer are solely relations between components or constituent parts but also are internal to a conscious self — they are relations that hold among the contents of a consciousness.

The prevailing cognitive/functionalist attempts to explain consciousness in terms of a brain’s “information-processing capacities” do not merely seem “objectively unreasonable.” They are entirely beyond reason. In trying to account for the ghost in the machine in terms of the machine’s functioning, this explanatory strategy remains stuck in the mechanistic philosophy of the 17th Century. Descartes may have been the first to clearly see that there is no way to explain the subject in terms of its objects. To understand the emergence of subjects in what appears to be a world of objects, one needs Sri Aurobindo’s concept of involution or something very much like it.

First we have to understand how the One came to be involved in the Many. By entering into reflexive spatial relations and subjecting the same to the seemingly unbroken reign of physical law, the One has concealed its unity and along with it its consciousness and its freedom. By turning relations that are internal to its consciousness, constituting its content, into relations that are external to an apparent multitude of particles — the valueless dust from which according to certain traditions we are made and to which we shall return — it removed itself from the scene, setting the stage for the adventure of evolution.

Once we understand how the One came to be involved in the Many, we can form an idea of how it is possible for the One to progressively emerge, along with its consciousness and its freedom. We are in a position to understand how patterns of electrochemical pulses in a brain can be at once physical representations of external objects and mental representations for a conscious subject. To the extent that the relations between the constituents of these patterns remain external, these patterns are physical representations, and to the extent that some of the same relations have become internal to a conscious subject, constituting its phenomenal objects, they are mental representations.⁹

  1. G.A. Miller, Psychology: The Science of Mental Life (Harper & Row, 1962).

2. D.J. Chalmers, Facing up to the problem of consciousness, Journal of Consciousness Studies 2 (3), 200–219 (1995).

3. Letter to R. Bently, quoted in F. Cajori, Sir Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy and His System of the World, Vol. 2, p. 638 (University of California Press, 1934).

4. Ibid. p. 547.

5. N. Chomsky, Science, Mind, and Limits of Understanding, in: S. Wuppuluri and G. Ghirardi (Eds.), Space, Time and the Limits of Human Understanding, pp. 513–521 (Springer, 2017).

6. Having floated the idea that the shapes of things resolve themselves into reflexive relations entertained by a single, formless Constituent, the obvious question to be addressed next concerns the variety of types of fundamental particles that exist. That question has been addressed in this post.

7. A. Einstein, Physics and Reality, Journal of the Franklin Institute 221, 349–82 (1936).

8. Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine (Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publication Department, 2005). Cited as “LD.”

9. See this post for a related discussion.

Originally published in Aurocafe on January 7, 2022.



Ulrich Mohrhoff

Author of “The World According to Quantum Mechanics: Why the Laws of Physics Make Perfect Sense After All” /