More than matter

If a witty and penetrating short defense of ‘dual-aspect idealism’ – salted with anecdotes of sitting at the feet of AJ Ayer and Gilbert Ryle – might do it for you, then Keith Ward’s latest is worth a perusal, More Than Matter. I’ve a review in the new Philosophy Now. A taster:

Ward inclines, then, to an idealism which gives priority to mind – what he calls ‘dual-aspect idealism’: minds are the inner aspect of an apparently-material person, living in an apparently-material world. “What the reality underlying those appearances may be in detail we do not know,” he continues. “But since minds are the only sorts of reality we know to belong to the world of things-in-themselves, it is reasonable to think that reality does not exist without mind and consciousness, evaluation and intention, understanding and action … Minds are not illusory ghosts in real machines. On the contrary, machines are spectral, transitory phenomena appearing to an intelligible world of minds.” This leads Ward to further reflections on issues such as whether the universe can be said to have purpose, the nature of what it is to be a person, and whether minds can exist in disembodied forms.

Critics of dualism will want to know how Ward links the (inner) mental and the (apparently) physical. The short answer is that he offers suggestive possibilities, often via process philosophy. His fuller response would first point out that there’s an assumption hidden in the search for such a linkage which could be a mistake. It’s the reductive assumption, that things need to be broken down into their smallest parts in order to be best understood, and then reassembled. What if, instead, simple elements are sometimes best explained in terms of the wholes of which they are part? On this view, the cosmos is more like an evolving organism than an assembled machine; and in the same way that a person is commonsensically thought of as a psychosomatic unity, so the universe is some kind of unity too. Only it’s (unsurprisingly) hard to describe exactly in what way it is a unity – and so materialist or dualistic language tend to be our default positions, in the modern West, at least.

Even if inclined towards some kind of idealism, not all readers will want to follow Ward to his final conclusion, which defends a religious understanding of things. But, nonetheless, he offers a powerful challenge to the prevailing, although perhaps shaky, orthodoxy. The basic mistake made by materialists, following the explanatory successes of science, is to presume that science’s methodological materialism implies an underlying ontological materialism (ie, that all that exists is matter). What is forgotten in this slippage is that science merely observes reality, whereas humans participate in reality, with values and purposes. Moreover, participation is, in fact, prior to the ability to make observations, as mind is prior to material appearances. All in all, it’s simply more commonsensical to hold an idealist view of reality, which includes values and purposes.