Philosophy,  Physics,  Psychology

Is the Mind like the Fluidity of Water?

A common argument against the mind-body duality is that mind is an epiphenomenon of chemical reactions in the brain much like  the fluidity of water is a consequence of molecular interactions. This argument seems quite appealing because if we reduce water to its molecules, we don’t see fluidity in each molecule; fluidity is only a property  of the collection of molecules. The mind-brain reductionist similarly argues that the mind’s properties—sensation, thinking, feeling, willing—are features of the brain, although individual molecules that make up the brain don’t have these properties.

Theoretical Problems in Reduction

This still leaves theoretical gaps in understanding how reactions produce the mind (claims about mind-body identity are based on experimental observations). The theoretical problems in the reductionist argument arise at two levels. First, it is in drawing a parallel between the fluidity of water and mental experiences, because the mind describes the world (objects and other minds) while fluidity is a description of the water itself. Second, the notion that molecules are independent objects represents a classical distortion of atomic theory. 

In this article, I will discuss the features of the mind and how they present theoretical problems vis-a-vis classical physics, followed by a discussion of how quantum theory presents a different view of matter that can explain the mind, although it would require us to eschew reductionism. Therefore, when reduction is used, the theory cannot explain the mind and the theory that can explain the mind must discard reduction.

I will conclude by describing a solution to the mind-body interaction problem based on some ideas from the Vedic theory of matter, and discuss how the Vedic theory requires us to treat nature as information  which is logically prior to material objects.

Two Fundamental Properties of the Mind

The mind exhibits two fundamental properties that cannot be reduced to material objects, especially as they were defined in classical physics.

First, classical physical objects only have properties that describe themselves; e.g., a particle’s mass is a property of that particle. The mind, however, describes other objects and its states are about the states of other objects. A material object’s properties are always about that object, because the objects are supposed to exist independent of other objects. If an object had to refer to another object, then the reference must exist in some form prior to the referring object. This property of the mind is sometimes called intentionality or aboutness by which the mind describes other objects or minds; the reference constitutes knowledge or belief about the world. Material objects (in classical physics), cannot have referential properties.

Second, the mind perceives and represents meanings in object collections that could not be reduced to individual objects. An example of this collective behavior is the ability to read a book and derive meanings from it beyond the measurements of the shapes or sizes of the individual squiggles in the book. Or the ability to understand that some set of individual physical frequencies collectively constitutes a musical composition. Meanings are always defined and created in object collections rather than in individual objects. While individual objects have physical properties, object collections additionally have meanings. Since these meanings arise only in collections, and cannot be attributed to individual objects, they cannot be reduced to individual objects.

The idea, therefore, that there is a parallel between the fluidity of water and the mind is flawed because contextuality and intentionality do not have a parallel in water’s fluidity. By definition, intentionality requires one object referring to another, and contextuality represents how an object acquires meanings in relation to other objects. The correct parallel between the mind and water would be if a pitcher of water was used as a picture of the ocean (intentionality) or if water was used a symbol of a changing world in distinction to a stone which would symbolize permanence (contextuality).

Two Fundamental Problems in Atomic Theory

The problem in the mind-body reductionist argument, however, does not end with the issue of parallels between mind and fluidity. The problem is also that the argument assumes water’s fluidity to be entirely due to the properties of water molecules, which is a mistaken notion about the molecules themselves. The mistake arises because the physicist or the chemist draws a classical picture of the water molecule as an object independent of the other objects. This is  incompatible with atomic theory.

To see how water molecules should be understood in relation to the observed fluidity, let us take a short detour into understanding the basic differences between quantum and classical physics, at the level of theories. There are two fundamental differences between classical and quantum physics, which undermine the idea that water’s fluidity is a consequence of the properties inherent in individual water molecules.

First, in quantum theory, there isn’t a fixed set of atoms or molecules that exists prior to a measurement or observation (as was the case in classical physics, where particles detected during observation were the particles that existed prior to that observation). Rather, quantum theory describes an ensemble or collection which can be divided into parts in many ways—each represented by a different eigenfunction basis. In the case of water, atomic theory implies that the total amount of matter or energy could be divided into many different sets of molecules, depending on the specific type of observation being performed. The theory suggests that only the ensemble is real prior to the observation, while the molecules are ‘created’ by the observation setup. The idea, therefore, that fluidity is a consequence of molecules is false, because the molecules don’t exist unless observed, although fluidity (as an ensemble) can be said to exist.

Second, we cannot assert that different molecules in water exist at the same time because these molecules are eigenfunctions which can only be observed one after the other. In classical physics, objects in an ensemble can be simultaneously observed and hence they can be said to exist simultaneously. This leads to the idea that all particles are real even prior to the act of scientific observation. Since in quantum theory these particles can never be observed simultaneously, they can’t be said to exist simultaneously and hence fluidity cannot be explained as a consequence of many molecules because the atomic theory forbids us from assuming that all molecules exist simultaneously.

The idea, therefore, that water is “made up of” independent water molecules whose existence our experimental measurement reveals is inconsistent with quantum theory. The molecules are not only created during observation, they are also created one after another. The type of molecules created during observation depends on the experimental setup (the eigenfunction basis) and can be controlled by the observer. However, the order in which these molecules are created cannot be controlled (and hence cannot be predicted) in current theory.

Mind and Quantum Theory

The fact that the mind sees meanings in collections and the fact that, in quantum theory, the collection is more real than the parts can be used to connect the two: the connection is that the quantum ensemble represents meanings, which is then used to create individual objects. I have discussed this connection in my book Quantum Meaning, which interprets quantum theory as a theory of symbols rather than of objects. The ensemble is the meaning, as it exists prior to being expressed during an experiment. The order of the eigenfunctions represents the serialization of the meaning in an expression of that meaning, as in the case of a sentence that verbalizes some concepts.

This view of quantum theory however upstages most classically held ideas about matter including the notion of independent objects, reductionism, and even the realism of classical objects. Now, meaning is real and is converted into objects (symbols) during observation; this conversion appears as space-time events, quite like we might express (and serialize) the meanings in our minds into words that form a sentence.

Since events (or words) are produced from meanings, they are not independent objects. Quite like we can express a meaning through several different words, but not arbitrary words, there is freedom in measuring reality although not arbitrariness in reality. The meaning in a symbol depends on the other symbols, which are all given meaning collectively and not individually. Each symbol has physical properties, which are measured in quantum theory as frequency, phase and amplitude of a wave. But the same wave can also express meanings, quite like ordinary sounds denote meanings.

The crucial difference effected by this view of atoms is that the causality is given not by the frequency, phase and amplitude of the wave, but by the meaning represented by that wave. The same sound can denote different meanings in different collections, so the physical properties of the individual particle underdetermine the meaning. Since quantum theory only describes physical properties, it is incomplete. To complete quantum theory, we would have to describe the quantum waves as symbols of meanings.

A semantic view of quantum objects allows us to reinterpret quantum observables as representations of contextuality and intentionality—as fundamental properties that can exist even within matter, and not just in the mind. Since this topic is more involved, I will refer the curious reader to the details in the book Quantum Meaning.

Do We Need the Mind?

The quantum reinterpretation, however, raises an important question: If matter has contextual and intentional properties, then why do we need the mind? Can we not say that contextuality and intentionality in matter itself create the mind?

The problem in adopting such a viewpoint is that contextuality and intentionality represent information (or meaning) and while information can be represented in matter, it cannot be created by matter. The problem of information (when information is a fundamental property of nature) requires a basic shift in our thinking because while matter (or energy) is always perceivable, information can exist as ideas which are not perceivable. Indeed, it is well-known that ideas are routinely converted into objects. This fact is widely recognized in mathematics as the immateriality of numbers, and other concepts such as distance and duration. In physics too, while we can measure physical properties such as energy and momentum, we cannot reduce these properties to an object. 

Ideas cannot be reduced to objects because ideas transcend individual objects and are found to exist in many objects. A reductionist program can study individual objects, but how does it study those things that are found in many objects? Clearly, we have to recognize that there is something that doesn’t reduce to the individual objects.

By writing a book, the author does not become identical to the book, although all the ideas in the author’s mind may be represented in the book. Similarly, as the books are printed many times over, the author’s mind is not duplicated many times, although the instantiation of the ideas are indeed multiplied. Information can be encoded in matter, but information can exist outside matter. This approach allows us to separate mind and matter while solving the problem interaction. Now, the mind creates and consumes ideas while matter represents ideas for communication between minds.

The Connection to Vedic Philosophy

The above semantic view of nature and its connection to quantum theory has a basis in Vedic philosophy which recognizes two kinds of matter—gross and subtle. Gross matter encodes information while subtle matter (also called senses, mind, intelligence and ego) produces and consumes that information. The problem of mind-body interaction (which results in the thesis of mind-body reduction) is solved by treating matter as symbols of information rather than meaningless objects. The mind-body interaction is the interaction between subtle and gross matter in Vedic philosophy and it is mediated by the presence of information in two different forms—as material symbols and as mental ideas.

The treatment of matter as symbols of information is already indicated by the pervasive problems of indeterminism, inconsistency and incompleteness in science. When these problems are solved by a revision to the materialist view, the problem of mind-body interaction will not exist, which in turn will entail that the reductionist thesis is also unnecessary. This path of ideological evolution represents a positive development in science, as it expands science to include a scientific study of the mind.