Warning: amateur Sunday philosophising ahead!
The media reports of CERN’s experimental confirmation of the Higgs hypothesis have framed it as all about the particle not the field. The particle is incredibly rare: CERN made half-a-dozen by smashing nuclei together at energies not seen elsewhere in the universe since the first moments of the Big Bang and they decayed in trillionths of second. The same may have happened in Klingon accelerators, but that doesn’t affect my point.
The thing that’s there all the time and everywhere is the Higgs field, described as a molasses that slows down some everyday elementary particles – the fermions (protons, neutrons, electrons), giving them mass, and leaves bosons (photons) alone to zip around weightless. (Corrections welcome. The “slowing down” is presumably a loose metaphor, as there’s no such thing as absolute motion, and a proton stationary in some inertial frame would still have mass.) All particles are oscillations in quantum fields; the Higgs particle is a rare oscillation in the Higgs field, which spends its working aeon giving mass to fermions.
Which brings me to consciousness. Philosophers bash their heads against a brick wall by asking what it is. Beyond “you know it when you have it”, the project does not seem to advance. “Qualia” is just a pretentious label for “WTF, unsolved problem”. The most fruitful current line of inquiry is “how does consciousness come about in the brain? What is its the neurological correlate?” That looks soluble in principle by ordinary scientific methods. But there’s another question, the way the schoolmen and Descartes looked at it: “what stuff can be conscious?” Technically, of what substance is consciousness the accident or attribute?
There are two options, and neither is appealing. Dualists say consciousness is an attribute of mind-stuff. This can be conceived as a soul-sized packet – I have one, you have another, Fido may have one -, or pantheistically as a single universal mind.
- Objection 1: the mind-stuff has never been observed. But then, neither has the Higgs field, which we are now invited to believe in; this has also only been inferred indirectly, by a long chain of inference and related observations. Not conclusive.
- Objection 2: how can the mind-stuff be causally affected by matter, for instance by a photon striking a receptor in the eye and generating an electrical signal in the brain? Matter must have some mysterious property enabling it to give rise to conscious experience. Dualism does not solve the problem to which it’s supposed to be an answer, which is the implausibility of matter being conscious.
Materialists say that it’s the matter that’s conscious, stupid, and laugh at the myth of “ghosts in the machine”. However that commits them to a strange view of matter. The physical properties of all instances of an elementary particle are identical. But some, a tiny proportion, support consciousness, by mechanisms not yet elucidated but, it is assumed, following the standard models of natural law. So all elementary particles (or possibly all particles of a particular common type; it may be the electrons or the protons) are consciousness-capable. If not, the materialist answer to the “what substance?” question is handwaving.
The natural physical mechanism for this would be, it seems to me, another invisible universal
quantum field. [Update: see comment by John Casey below.] The rarity of the consciousness interaction is not a decisive objection. Conscious brains are much rarer in the universe than similar-sized lumps of rock, but much more common than Higgs particles.
So materialists should line up with Spinoza. The universe as a whole supports mind, and in a sense is mind.
Thank you, class, for your attention, You may now return to documenting the failings of the presidential candidates.
Image credit. The Warhol stuff has no hidden meaning and doesn’t actually jibe with Spinoza’s rigorous monism, but it’s pretty.