A Material World?

Is it time to reconcile materialism and dualism?

More than 50 years ago Wilfrid Sellars challenged philosophers to explain how to reconcile the universe as we ordinarily experience it with what issues from the sciences, especially physics. In 1963’s Science, Perception, and Reality, he wrote:

The philosopher is confronted not by one complex many-dimensional picture, the unity of which, such as it is, he must come to appreciate; but by two pictures of essentially the same order of complexity, each of which purports to be a complete picture of man-in-the-world, and which, after separate scrutiny, he must fuse into one vision. Let me refer to these two perspectives, respectively, as the manifest and the scientific images of man-in-the-world.

Sellars’ exhortation echoes the physicist A. S. Eddington who, in his 1927 Gifford Lectures (subsequently published as The Nature of the Physical World, 1928) had spoken of setting out to write his lectures by drawing up two chairs to two tables.

Two tables! Yes; there are duplicates of every object about me – two tables, two chairs, two pens.

One of them has been familiar to me from earliest years. It is a commonplace object of that environment which I call the world. How shall I describe it? It has extension; it is comparatively permanent; it is coloured; above all it is substantial.

Table No. 2 is my scientific table. It is a more recent acquaintance and I do not feel so familiar with it. It does not belong to the world previously mentioned – that world which spontaneously appears around me when I open my eyes, though how much of it is objective and how much subjective I do not here consider. It is part of a world which in more devious ways has forced itself on my attention. 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.

Eddington’s first table is at home in Sellars’ manifest image, the picture of the universe that guides our everyday interactions with our surroundings – including the interactions of scientists in their daily lives and in their laboratories. This picture includes our own self-awareness, our impressions of conscious states and the qualities of experience. The second table belongs to the image of the universe we obtain from physics. The difficulty, remarked by both Eddington and Sellers, is to understand how these images are related.

All this comes sharply into focus when you ask yourself how consciousness, a central component of the manifest image, fits into the physical world. Philosophers have not hesitated to provide answers, including

1. Dualism: consciousness is not a physical phenomenon, but something immaterial, which, although perhaps dependent on physical processes, is not reducible to such processes.

2. Materialism: consciousness is an illusion promoted by philosophers and theologians; indeed the manifest image as a whole is nothing more than a fabrication. Only the scientific image is credible.

Do these options – and their many variations – exhaust the possibilities?

Note that both options start with the assumption that mentality – consciousness – is immaterial. The dualist sees consciousness as an add-on to the physical universe. Features of the everyday manifest image incommensurate with physics are assigned to this immaterial domain. For the dualist, there really are two tables, one belongs to your conscious experience of the universe, the other to the physical universe.

The materialist provides an elegant solution to Sellars’ reconciliation problem, but one that flies in the face of what appears most obvious and certain. Our interactions with the universe, including those of the scientist investigating the physical ultimates take place within the manifest image. Throw this out and rational action would be impossible.

So, which will it be: dualism or materialism?

Neither. The key to understanding our place in the universe, the key to reconciling the manifest and scientific image, lies in the idea of reconciliation. Both dualism and materialism presume that the images are irreconcilable. We need not concur.

Easy to say, but what would be required for reconciliation?

First, the idea that the mental and the physical are radically distinct can be rejected. This is not to say that the mental is the physical. It is to say that dividing the universe into mental things – conscious states, for instance – and physical things – physical states – is a source of error. To be sure, mental categories and our manifest acquaintance with everyday phenomena cannot be represented in the vocabulary of physics. But the fact that we cannot translate talk of mental phenomena and their characteristics into the language of physics no more shows that mental occurrences are immaterial than the fact that talk of the Evening Star cannot be translated into talk of the Morning Star shows that the Evening Star and the Morning Star are distinct heavenly bodies. (“They” are in fact Venus.)

The idea that the mental and the physical are “distinct only in conception” was forcefully defended by Spinoza, among others, and more recently by the American philosopher, Donald Davidson. It provides the golden key required to open the door to a reconciliation of the manifest and scientific images.

Second, rather than starting with the idea that the manifest and scientific images are, if they are pictures of anything,  pictures of distinct universes, or realms, or “levels of reality”, suppose you start with the idea that the role of science is to tell us what the manifest image is an image of. Tomatoes are familiar ingredients of the manifest image. Here is a tomato. What is it? What is this particular tomato? You the reader can probably say a good deal about what tomatoes are, but the question at hand concerns the deep story about the being of tomatoes.

Physics tells us that the tomato is a swarm of particles interacting with one another in endless complicated ways. The tomato is not something other than or in addition to this swarm. Nor is the swarm an illusion. The tomato is just the swarm as conceived in the manifest image. (A caveat: reference to particles here is meant to be illustrative. The tomato could turn out to be a disturbance in a field, or an eddy in space, or something stranger still. The scientific image is a work in progress.)

But wait! The tomato has characteristics not found in the particles that make it up. It is red and spherical, and the particles are neither red nor spherical. How could it possibly be a swarm of particles?

Take three matchsticks and arrange them so as to form a triangle. None of the matchsticks is triangular, but the matchsticks, thus arranged, form a triangle. The triangle is not something in addition to the matchsticks thus arranged. Similarly the tomato and its characteristics are not something in addition to the particles interactively arranged as they are. The difference – an important difference – is that interactions among the tomato’s particles are vastly more complicated, and the route from characteristics of the particles to characteristics of the tomato is much less obvious than the route from the matchsticks to the triangle.

This is how it is with consciousness. A person’s conscious qualities are what you get when you put the particles together in the right way so as to produce a human being.

Although he would not agree, Eddington’s “familiar” first table is his second table. Eddington and the rest of us understand ourselves as inhabitants of the manifest image. The scientific image tells us what it is we are understanding.


These matters are discussed more fully in The Universe as We Find It, Oxford University Press 2012.

Image credit: MR McGill

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Joel Bright 2 January 2024

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Abraham Joseph 24 July 2017

The only way to end the confusion is to totally reject the old dichotomy of Newtonic times, and try to look at consciousness ( or simply the SELF) and the material universe in a new dichotomy, ie, the 'substance and structure.'. If one can look at the material universe simply the STRUCTURE of an organization where as a hidden substance rules its momentum, the issue is solved!
Would love to share the following link, wherein this issue is elaborated:http://patternsofapproachtodiscoverreality.blogspot.com/2014/06/rethinking-ultimate-stuff-of-universe.html

Regarding the birth of the self, this link may help:http://unrecognizedobjectsofthemind.blogspot.com/2017/05/the-physics-behind-birth-of-human-self-i.html

Plain SENSE demands that, just like the plan of nature behind the structure of an atom, a similar plan should have been there behind the structure and dynamics of human self too!

Dingo Dongo 28 March 2017

Since when does materialism state that "consciousness is an illusion promoted by philosophers and theologians"? Virtually every materialist around accepts the reality of consciousness: they just think consciousness is material/physical in nature. I'm not even sure if Daniel Dennett thinks consciousness is an illusion.

What an odd definition of 'materialism'!

David Morey 3 February 2017

For me consciouness is a feeling, involved, causal activity. We face choices from a set of immaterial possibilities due to causal openness, we actualise one of the possibilities, forsaking the rest, in all its material reality. Such is fully conscious process. Other processes may be more or less conscious, more or less causally open or closed, we only know in a manifest way what human processes are like to act out in human causal activity. But other processes can be open, have an active aspect, such as electrons jumping between different states in atomic orbits and omitting photons. No openness means no immaterial possibilities involved in the process, clearly such processes have no need for consciousness to assess which possibilities are good or worth repeating.

Adam Hibbert 31 January 2017

Useful, but perhaps over simple. 'When you put the particles together in the right way' suggests a fairly straightforward reductionism between consciousness and physics, which risks missing the exotic quantity involved - the semantic entity, the one that sees the world as 'this-sided', the one that has, not just information, objective and universal, but *meaning*, the world encoded according to that entity's partisan perspective.

I think it would be immensely helpful achieving the desired reconciliation if we could more frequently keep in mind those semantic qualities, which are part of a system, historical, sociological *and* biological, which does not readily reduce to a bounded, individual body. The particular arrangement of particles encodes what it means for this semantic entity to be a part of that web, and can't be interpreted without a better grip on both entity and web.

I propose that we begin by recognising that we are artificial intelligences, ourselves - our parents and our society cultivates an AI in each new human body, which is a hardware. We will not find ourselves (the self of the hard problem) through a microscope trained on our bodies. What's needed to achieve true reconciliation is a better theory of how this software functions, altering our bodies in the process. Neuroscience has an important role to play, but perhaps no more than, say, Axel Honneth's inter-subjective architecture of Recognition.

Tue Pho 14 December 2015

Bình luận ngắn. Nhị nguyên là một trạng thái và khả năng của ý thức. " Quả cà chua" đã có là do ý thức đã dừng trên một đối tượng của nó. Và sau đó là các nhận dạng riêng, mô tả, phân tích. màu đỏ, bên trong là hạt. Tiến trình này thực chất là một sự " âm " vào bản thể. Nếu không định vị, và có nghĩa là không mắt kẹt trong một đối tượng, ý thức nằm trong một trạng thái hòa đồng với chung quanh nó. Tức rằng, cái tôi quan sát cũng chính là cái cà chua, một ngọn đèn, một con người " đối diện" trước nó.. Tại thời điểm xác định nảy sinh hai tình huống. Hoặc nó tiếp tục phân tích, và rơi vào một tiến trình cô lập, nảy sinh của nhị nguyên. Hay nữa nó trượt qua điểm dính và tiếp tục vận hành trong một chuyển động toàn thể, tức là thần. Ý thức, tức khả năng nhận thức vẫn còn đó nhưng nó đã vươn đến một cấp độ khác, trực tuyến, không có bất kỳ mâu thuẩn. Trái cà chua không bị chẻ ra...Sự hòa giải nằm trong trạng thái xuất thần, và chuyển động. Tôi di chuyển với tốc độ bình thường, lập tức phát sinh các đối tượng và trở kháng: một con người:, một chiếc xe...Khi di chuyển với tốc độ ánh sáng, không có bất ký trở kháng trong nó. ...Nhìn cách khác, con người chính là một sự rơi rớt từ ánh sáng.