The Birth of Physics in the Sensuous Cosmos

08/12/22 | By Peter Ells


Mind, Quantum, and Free Will

by Peter Ells / IFF BOOKS


Mind, Quantum, and Free Will is engagingly written, with an impressive breadth and depth of scholarship. I found it quite provocative in multiple respects, and believe that most readers with interests in these topics would be enriched by exploring it - Andrew Westcombe, PhD in philosophy; specialising in metaphysics and the mind-body problem

Here I discuss my latest book (Ells, 2022). The mind-body problem is the most important challenge that has baffled humanity for centuries. Part of this problem is to explain how physical goings-on in the brain can possibly be closely associated with feelings and experiences, such as of pain, or the blueness of the sky. These feelings – as we experience them – are utterly mysterious: they cannot be described in physical terms. In the Victorian era Thomas Huxley, who was Darwin’s ferocious defender, described such feelings – which he assumed to arise out of physical processes in the brain – to be as mysterious as the appearance of the Genii “when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.”

One might hope that advances in science could solve this problem, but such optimism is not justified. Suppose you are living in a time when the functioning of the brain is fully understood in physical terms. You accidentally hit your hand with a hammer, feel excruciating pain, and yell, “Get me to hospital!”There would be a complete physical explanation, as to how nerve signals from your hand result in complex processes in your brain, which lead to output signals to the muscles of your jaw, producing the cry for help.

This supposedly complete explanation makes no mention of your experiences, nor of the meaning of your words. We know that such experiences and thoughts are undeniable facts of our existence – yet they play no role in the physical explanation.

Some scientists claim that, as science progresses, the problem of consciousness will ‘dissolve.’ However, when you examine their approach, it is usually to redefine consciousness in a way that is convenient to them. This is merely to solve an easier and different problem. The paradoxical fact that we indeed have experiences does not go away.

Having said that, any proposed solution to the mind-body problem must be demonstrated to be consistent with contemporary physics. My book takes great pains to do this, but it requires radical changes to our conception of the world. Most academics take the physics of the universe to be fundamental and given; and minds are assumed to arise in a few places (say in humans, and in some higher animals).

My approach is to assume that minds are fundamental, and that the physics of the world is to be wholly explained in mentalistic terms. I thus ‘turn the mind-body problem on its head,’ and I explain physics in terms of mind. In more detail: I assume that our universe consists of a multitude of centres of experience that can perceive one another. (Most are extremely primitive, and cannot reason.) They are also agents, in that they have a certain freedom to act, based upon their experiences. Every individual physical entity – a photon, a molecule, a rock, a bird, is such a mind.

I call my position pan-idealism, because, in philosophy, idealism is the position that everything is to be explained in terms of mind. Pan means that these minds exist everywhere, and throughout all ages. Unlike most forms of idealism, pan-idealism is fully realistic about the universe and all its contents.

Many will raise objections to this approach: (1) Isn’t it absurd to assert that molecules have primitive minds? William of Ockham rightly asserted that entities should not be added to a theory without necessity. But there are excellent reasons for asserting that molecules are primitive minds: Without this assumption, academics have failed to make any progress with the mind-body problem over centuries; whereas, with it, one can make significant advances.

(2) Haven’t scientists proven that mental states cannot exist without being grounded in underlying physical states? Such matters cannot be decided by experiment. Biologists show correctly that these two things are highly correlated. But the question of whether the mental depends on the physical or vice versa is a philosophical one.

The book shows how the entirety of physics can be explained solely in terms of mind. Here I can merely sketch some required steps: First, we cannot perceive the physical world directly. Our only access to it is through our perceptions. Second, we check that our perceptions are accurate by comparing them with those of others.

If we were to identify the physics of the world to be one-and-the-same as our combined perceptions, then this definition of physics would be far too human-centred. It would also give a very fragmented and incomplete account of the cosmos. So: Third, we define the physics of the world to be one-and-the-same as the combined perceptions of all centres of experience, where the combination is made in the best manner possible.

Here is a simplified example. Imagine a large group of people looking at a chair. Each sees it from a different perspective. When their percepts are all combined in the most consistent manner possible, this gives a physical model of the chair: the shape of its seat, whether it has armrests, and so on.

But in pan-idealism the world is filled with innumerable centres of experience. Even the molecules of the chair and the surrounding air are themselves centres of experience. All these centres perceive the chair, and the optimal synthesis of their percepts is – by definition – the physics of the chair. Physics is thus characterised in entirely mentalistic terms.

The second part of the mind-body problem involves the limited power of the mind to cause physical changes: I drank water because I felt thirsty. Most philosophers say that we cannot have authentic free will, and that our so-called choices are based on the underlying physics of the brain. But we have an incontrovertible intuition that we are agents: our conscious choices do result in physical changes in the world. Human beings set foot on the Moon because of such choices, and for no other reason.

Another strong argument for free will is that – if mind has no effect on physical goings-on – then this calls the very existence of mind into question. This discourse between us would be utterly absurd if it was merely a sequence of physical events in which our thoughts and experiences are irrelevant.

Why do so many philosophers deny the possibility of free will? It is because, based on the assumption that mind is grounded in physics, it can be proven that free will is impossible. However, in pan-idealism, this assumption is false. Pan-idealism is consistent with physics – and it allows for genuine free will.

A substantive description of physics is essential for the credibility of the book. Not everyone will wish to read this, so I’ve separated it into Part II, which goes back to the original papers of great scientists. The little-known human-interest story of how Einstein was side-lined by fellow quantum physicists is detailed here.

Quantum mechanics, while superbly accurate, remains controversial as to its meaning. Here I show that, those interpretations which describe the collapse of the wavefunction in objective, physical terms, can all be adapted to pan-idealism. Such interpretations include GRW, Pearle’s CSL, and Penrose & Hameroff’s ORCH OR.

Reference :Ells, P. (2022, December), Mind, Quantum, and Free Will: the birth of physics in the sensuous cosmos (Winchester: Collective Ink) ISBN 978-1-78535-965-1

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