What Matters

A recent discussion at Plato’s Pub concerned the nature of matter, the common substrate which might be present beneath or behind the characteristics of all things that exist.  An object might be made of certain elements, have certain dimensions, have a certain mass, and reflect light in certain ways; we can measure all these attributes.  But we do not know whether there is a common essence or substrate that is behind all those characteristics, a common essence which would be shared by objects having different measureable characteristics.  Is an object more, in some sense, than what we can measure and represent by equations?  If so, what?  For millennia, philosophers have struggled for an understanding of matter.


Hedda Mørch, a Norwegian philosopher, came up with an original idea.  She first presents another problem: how we obtain human consciousness from neurons and electrical impulses.  We do not understand the essence or the core of consciousness; we know it isn’t neurons and electrical waves, but we do not know what it is.  There is a commonality with the problem of the essence of matter.  We can measure all of the apparent parts of consciousness and of matter, but we cannot understand what consciousness is any more than we can understand what matter is.


Mørch proposes an interesting hypothesis, a sort of panpsychism.  What if matter, right down to its basic elements, is conscious?  The essence of all objects is consciousness.  Our brains are made of matter, which is then already conscious.  Voila: two problems solved with one solution.


Please check the link to assess whether I have fairly represented the essential point:



There are a number of problems with this hypothesis.  First of all, we have no idea what consciousness at this level means.  Is it awareness or sentience or identity or what?  We also have no idea how one would combine the googolplex of consciousnesses to result in one object or one human consciousness.


These are significant difficulties.  But a rather less serious assessment resulted in the following facetious speculation:



I do not so much disagree with Mørch’s hypothesis, as find it unnecessary.  I am not convinced that one needs to find a common essence in physical matter or an agreed explanation of consciousness derived from physical characteristics and phenomena.


Consider an alternate hypothesis.  Matter is what we can measure, and the relations between what we can measure, both with respect to the element of matter under consideration and, more importantly, with respect to the relations that elements of matter have with other elements of matter.   Consciousness arises from the relations which occur among the constituent parts.  Objects differ from one another because they have different measureable characteristics.  Consciousnesses differ for the same reason.


Human identity arises from the relations that our consciousness has with the outside world; it is a fabric of relations, not a self-sufficient core.  The same with matter within a universe that is, quite literally, filled with it.  Matter is the sum of relations between various constituent elements.  There is no universal substance underneath, nor does there need to be.

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