Back Goldfinch looking backwards

Endnote 1 to Mind-Matter Argument 1

The short answer to the objection that matter and mass are far more real than something we can’t see at all, like mind, is that we can’t see matter and mass either. We perceive something in our consciousness — shape, color, texture, heft — and we infer the existence of something that our world names matter. Our deep faith in the existence of substance behind these fleeting images of consciousness is a defining element of our culture. We acquire it in the process of growing up and learning language here.

A longer answer follows. It might help to quote the Wikipedia entry for matter:

Matter is a general term for the substance of which all physical objects consist.[1][2] Typically, matter includes atoms and other particles which have mass. A common way of defining matter is anything that has mass and volume. Mass is the amount of matter in an object and volume is the amount of space occupied by an object.[3] However, different fields use the term in different and sometimes incompatible ways; there is no single agreed scientific meaning of the word "matter". (Source.)

That’s my underlining. So we see that for the scientist the meaning of matter is way more than simple heft along with shape and color, and it is clearly based on long, long chains of inference and assumptions about what words mean. But we are not concerned to be scientific when we dispute the relative reality of mind and matter. We are appealing to our common sense understanding. For most of us matter would be a primary quality of things. That is, most of us suppose like John Locke that matter is more real than what he called the secondary qualities of objects — color, taste, etc. The distinction is made quite clear in this Wikipedia entry:

The primary/secondary quality distinction is a conceptual distinction in epistemology and metaphysics, concerning the nature of reality. It is most explicitly articulated by John Locke in his Essay concerning Human Understanding, but earlier thinkers such as Galileo and Descartes made similar distinctions.

Primary qualities are thought to be properties objects have that are independent of any observer, such as solidity, extension, motion, number and figure. These characteristics convey facts. They exist in the thing itself, can be determined with certainty, and do not rely on subjective judgments. For example, if a ball is round, no one can reasonably argue that it is a triangle.

Secondary qualities are thought to be properties that produce sensations in observers, such as color, taste, smell, and sound. They can be described as the effect things have on certain people. Knowledge that comes from secondary qualities does not provide objective facts about things.

Primary qualities are measurable aspects of physical reality. Secondary qualities are subjective. (Source.)

Galileo, Descartes, Locke, Newton too — and pretty much all of us in the modern Western world unquestioningly go along with this view. And anyone, like Bishop Berkeley, who questions it is likely to be mocked and ridiculed, as I myself have done to the good Bishop — pshaw, tables not there when you turn your back? Nonsense. Samuel Johnson’s refutation of Berkeley is well known from his close biographer, James Boswell:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — "I refute it thus." (Source)

What Berkeley actually did was to look carefully at Locke’s presentation of primary and secondary qualities and show that the difference was illusory, not that the table was an illusion, but that the fancied distinction between primary and secondary qualities was an illusion. It is instructive to examine the actual arguments made by the two men. I will quote from a student paper I found on line. It is called Primary and Secondary Qualities and it is by Charles Kaijo (link 20120615). Let’s start with Locke defining primary qualities:

In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke offers the argument that objects in the world have primary qualities and secondary qualities. For primary qualities, Locke claims that primary qualities are qualities, which exist within the body of an object and really exist outside of our perception. He names these qualities to be bulk, number, figure, and motion (Locke II.8 §9). He supports this claim by stating that if one were to alter the object such as by dividing it, one would find that those primary qualities listed above will always remain (Locke II.8 §9). One such example he gives to illustrate the soundness of this argument is a grain of wheat. Locke asks:

Take a grain of wheat, divide it into two parts; each part has still solidity, extension, figure, and mobility: divide it again, and it retains still the same qualities; and so divide it on, till the parts become insensible; they must retain still each of them all those qualities. For division (which is all that a mill, or pestle, or any other body, does upon another, in reducing it to sensible parts) can never take away either solidity, extension, figure, or mobility from any body, but only makes two or more distinct separate masses of matter. (Locke II.8 §9).

This appeals to my common sense, but I do know that at some point, according to the atomistic view of reality that goes back to Democritus in ancient Greece, you run out of stuff and come into atoms.

Kaijo next gives us Locke’s definition of secondary qualities:

For secondary qualities, Locke claims that they are only powers the object has to cause us to have ideas of color, smell, taste, sound, and texture; these qualities do not actually exist within the object. He supports this claim by stating that primary qualities are objective; whereas, secondary qualities are contingent on perception (Locke II.8 §10). This point is explained in his example of hot and cold water. He challenges the reader to refute him:

Explain how water felt as cold by one hand may be warm to the other. Ideas being thus distinguished and understood, we may be able to give an account how the same water, at the same time, may produce the idea of cold by one hand and of heat by the other: whereas it is impossible that the same water, if those ideas were really in it, should at the same time be both hot and cold. (Locke II.8 §21)

It looks to me like Locke is really concerned in the first place to localize the properties either in the object itself or the subject perceiving them. Thus we get objective and subjective.

Now Kaijo quotes some telling parts of Berkeley’s counterarguments:

In short, let anyone consider those arguments which are thought manifestly to prove that colours and taste exist only in the mind, and he shall find they may with equal force be brought to prove the same thing of extension, figure, and motion. (Berkeley §15)

Kaijo gives us two specific Berkeley arguments tending to that conclusion:

Great and small, swift and slow, are allowed to exist nowhere without the mind, being entirely relative, and changing as the frame or position of the organs of sense varies. (Berkley §11)

It is said that heat and cold are affections only of the mind, and not at all patterns of real beings, existing in the corporeal substances which excite them, for that the same body which appears cold to one hand seems warm to another. Now, why may we not as well argue that figure and extension are not patterns or resemblances of qualities existing in matter, because to the same eye at different stations, or eyes of a different texture at the same station, they appear various, and cannot therefore be the images of anything settled and determinate without the mind. (Berkeley §14)

For my part, I can’t help noticing that the Bishop has omitted the property of solidity Locke mentioned in his example of the grain of wheat. No doubt because it would be tricky if not impossible to show that that one could vary depending on the subject’s condition relative to the object examined. Still, I suppose Locke is well refuted on the basis of three of the four qualities he named as belonging to the object rather than the subject.

For me, though, it is clear that even the attribution of solidity to an object is dependent on images in the subject’s consciousness. And in that case you would definitely have solidity being an inference from primitive images rather than an image directly evident to the consciousness. Paralleling my judgment there is what I read in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy under the heading of Locke’s Philosophy of Science, 4 Locke and Newton:

In the early manuscript, De Gravitatione, Newton denies knowing the “essential and metaphysical constitution” of matter (Newton in Janiak 2004, p. 27), and he retains the position in much later texts, including the 1713 General Scholium “We certainly do not know what is the substance of any thing. We see only the shapes and colors of bodies, we hear only their sounds, we touch only their external surfaces….But there is no direct sense and there are no indirect reflected actions by which we know innermost substances”(Principia, 942). (Source.)

It is then a matter of faith alone if a person insists that matter and mass are more real than mind because they are primary objects of knowledge where mind is only an inference from events in consciousness out of which we construct what we call the real world. All three — mass, matter, and mind — are inferences. We do not directly apprehend any of them.

A major philosophical concept in Buddhism is emptiness. It might briefly be understood as the idea that substance does not exist. All things are empty of substance. See the netpage linked here (20120615) for some clarification.

But see below on Newton.

As always, the lovely Stanford University Encylopedia of Philosophy provides a high-level treatment. Main article here. A quick look at a relevant paragraph is linked to this little icon:    What I appreciate about good student Kaijo is that he quotes Locke at enough length for us to get a flavor of the real thinker.

There has been considerable scholarly debate concerning the details of Locke's account of the distinction. Among the issues are which qualities Locke assigns to each of the two categories. Locke gives several lists. Another issue is what the criterion is for putting a quality in one list rather than another. Does Locke hold that all the ideas of secondary qualities come to us by one sense while the ideas of primary qualities come to us through two or is Locke not making the distinction in this way? Another issue is whether there are only primary qualities of atoms or whether compounds of atoms also have primary qualities. And while Locke claims our ideas of primary qualities resemble the primary qualities in objects, and the ideas of secondary qualities do not resemble their causes in the object, what does ‘resemble’ mean in this context? Related to this issue is how we are supposed to know about particles that we cannot sense. It seems clear that Locke holds that there are certain analogies between the middle sized macroscopic objects we encounter in the world, e.g. porphyry and manna for example, and the particles that compose these things. Maurice Mandelbaum called this process ‘transdiction.’ These analogies allow us to say certain things about the nature of particles and primary and secondary qualities. For example we can infer that atoms are solid and that heat is an greater rate of motion of atoms while cold is a slower motion. But these analogies may not get us very far in grasping the necessary connections between qualities in nature. Yet another issue is whether Locke sees the distinction as reductionistic. If what we mean by reductionistic here is that only the primary qualities are real and these explain the secondary qualities then there does not seem to be a clear answer. Secondary qualities surely are nothing more than certain primary qualities that affect us in certain ways. This seems to be reductionistic. But on Locke's account of “real ideas” in II. XXX both the ideas of primary and secondary qualities count as real. And while Locke holds that our ideas of secondary qualities are caused by primary qualities, in certain important respects the primary qualities do not explain them. Locke holds that we cannot even conceive how the size, figure and motion of particles could cause any sensation in us. So, knowing the size, figure and motion of the particles would be of no use to us in this regard. (See IV. III. 11–40. Pp. 544–546)