June 16

What comes first, mind or matter?

First there was mind – absolute intelligence, pure consciousness. From this mind came the world and the universe and all forms of living beings. This would be the position of an idealist and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Ralph Waldo Emerson were both idealists. The believed that mind came before matter. Emerson passed his idealistic tendencies along to the next generation of classical American thinkers Charles Sanders Peirce and William James. Both of these later things rejected the dualism of Emerson’s philosophy, but both also seem to have retained a fundamental belief in the primacy of mind over matter. In order to fully appreciate the American strain of Evolutionary Philosophy it is important to be clear about what idealism is. And the best way to get clear about idealism is to compare it to its opposite – materialism. First there was a dead universe of matter and energy. Then some portion of matter became alive and eventually evolved into organisms that developed conscious minds. That is the position of a materialist. Having a mind and a body is one of the most fundamental experiences of being human. Perhaps that is the origin of the dilemma between idealism and materialism.  Idealists believe that some form of mind or consciousness is primary in the universe and all of the material and sensual elements of reality are secondary to mind.  Materialists lean in the opposite direction. They see matter as the primary reality of the universe and mind as a secondary outgrowth of material interactions.The challenge of strict materialism is its reductionist necessity to reduce all of reality to material interactions. Sometimes this can be a hard pill to swallow and impossible ultimately to explain convincingly in every instance. A materialist will have difficulty dealing with any phenomenon that does not have a recognizable connection to matter and at times will resort to dismissing these as unreal – or restrict them to the realm of mere opinion. Materialism when it goes wrong will not admit anything as fact unless it can be observed and measured. Therefore aesthetic qualities and moral values are ever in danger of being seen only as subjective opinions and not matters of fact. The splitting off of fact and value at its worst leaves us with a moral vacuum of relativism in which values of any type are seen as being always only subjective opinions without any normative power to guide us. This leaves us with no standards that are held as universal and no way to collectively guide human behavior.The challenge of strict Idealism is that ideas become disconnected from experience. Ideas that are not constrained by the need for any connection to being visible outside of the subjective experience of the individual makes it impossible to objectively verify any truth claims and in its most extreme leaves us having to accept every ones internal recognition of truth as valid. The internal experience of an idea is all the evidence needed to validate the idea and the range of ideas that can be validated broadens to include even the most wildly speculative or even absurd.  In its negative forms Idealism leads to dogmatic belief systems in which power to impose ones beliefs on others becomes the ultimate arbiter of truth. Some would have accused.

The Pragmatists, although they did retain some of Emerson’s idealism, also attempted to navigate between the two extremes of idealism and materialism. Pragmatism is an attempt to define truth in a way that is broader than strict materialism and yet more constrained than idealism. Strict materialism holds that only the physical universe is real. Strict Idealism claims that it is only ideas that are real. Pragmatism said that what really matters is not the inherent reality of matter or ideas, but rather the relationship between and effects of matter and ideas. Matter is real because it has effects. If you touch a hammer you feel it. If you lift it up it has weight in your hands. If you throw it at a window the window will break. Ideas also are real because they too have effects. The ideas that we hold to be true effect the way we act. They dictate decisions, create desires and generate aversions. They are just as real in terms of having effect on our lives as material objects. If there is an idea the believing of which will have absolutely no effect then to a pragmatists that idea is unreal. And the worth of an idea is always tethered to its effects in the world. The value of an idea is assessed by assessing the value of its results – in the material world – when acted upon. Pragmatism was an attempt to avoid moral relativism on the one hand and dogmatic belief systems on the other.