Upward, downward and pluralistic causation

Going on with my exploration of Creative Evolution by Amit Goswami. This time I’m going to explore the basic metaphysics of his theory a bit, specifically causation. Does consciousness cause everything (Goswami)? Or matter (classic scientism)? Or something else? Let’s start with a history of science lesson: old Newtonian physics relied on what is called a clockwork universe. For everything that happens one might point out all the physical causes and added up they completely describe and explain the physical properties of that event. This view was hard to swallow for religious people because it hardly left room for either God (except as the primary force), consciousness or free will. Right now the dominant physical theory is quantum mechanics. This theory is not absolutely deterministic, even on a quantum level, because while there are clear causes, and clear possible effects, CHANCE and RANDOMNESS have been introduced as well.

That is: it’s no longer true that specific causes always have the same effects. Newtonian physics led to the expectation of an upward causation model of science. That is: the laws uf physics would explain the laws of chemistry, which would explain the laws of biology etc. However, that has proved false as well. There’s no way to describe the theory of natural selection (for instance) merely as the sum of physical laws. That is: at the complexity level of biology one of the laws that emerges is the law of natural selection. The fittest in any population survive. In philosophical terms: there are no bridge laws between the physical laws and the biological ones. I don’t think any intelligent person can deny that law. It explains a LOT. However, the question is, does it explain as much as its strongest defendants think it does. I think it’s clear by now that I don’t agree with that either. So there are laws at each level of scientific inquiry that can’t be reduced to the laws of the physics.

There are examples in the fields of economics, computer science, psychology, sociology etc. For instance in the field of psychology and medicine there is clear evidence that people are influenced by what they believe. This is on the border between the two fields mostly. Psychosomatic illnesses are best treated by a combination of psychotherapy and medicine. And one has to conclude that at least one reason the medicine part is necessary is that the patient BELIEVES that medicine is necessary. Some people would like to dismiss this whole field with a slight of hand: those people (we never seem to think we’re one of them) are just making too much of a fuss. They should get their act together and get a grip. But it turns out that people who’ve been told by their doctor that they have a cancer one can die off, are more likely to die even if it is later found that they did not have cancer in the first place. The placebo effect is a more positive spin on the same thing. It’s not that the medicine doesn’t work – it’s that people get better just because they’ve been reassured that they can and this pill will work. This obviously complicates the whole field of medicine, but that’s not my point. The point is: mind influences matter. While it’s not clear from science how this works, the facts cannot be denied. If we work with a one cause scenario, this is a real problem. If however we accept that the words we speak, the thoughts we have, impact the world (as they do daily after all), just like the laws of physics do, then there really isn’t an issue. Teed Rockwell concludes from this that there is simply no longer any reason to believe in a monistic universe.

That is: there are emergent causal properties: properties in this world that emerge from the physical, but have the ability to shape what’s around them. For instance cultural memes like fashion causes us to wear certain colors, fabrics and dress shapes. The meme causes this: it’s a causal property. But there are other things that influence what we wear as well, our budget, where we live, the available fabrics and paints. In fact: the fashions of the day are influenced by many of those factors as well. So he calls himself a pluralist: perfectly happy to see multiple causes in the universe. Amit Goswami is a monist: he sees only one ultimate cause: consciousness. Everything else derives from that. This is the exact philosophical opposite of the classic physical stance. Both are responses to Cartesian dualism – which has two original causes: spirit AND matter. However, and Goswami explains this well, dualism has the inherent problem of how to relate the two. So he picks one: spirit.

Teed Rockwell instead notes that there is always the problem of how to translate one set of rules into another science. Instead of trying to translate one into the other why not just except that none of them explain everything and therefore there’s no reason to not have several? I think it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about having several causes and on various levels. In fact pluralism of a kind was suggested by theosophist Dr. J.J. Poortman in his ‘Vehicles of Consciousness’ (still available at the Dutch Theosophical Publishing House.

There however we come across an idea that has a long philosophical and religious history: pluralistic materialism. The idea that the soul too has a vehicle (or rather several), distinct from (though during life usually attached to) the body. (see my summary of the theosophical version of how this applies to human beings). Goswami goes into all that only as a sideline. He does hint, using Rupert Sheldrake’s morphological fields, at information and consciousness that isn’t physical in the usual sense of the word.

He doesn’t elaborate however beyond suggesting a hierarchy with unitive consciousness at the top. While that hierarchy and the hylic pluralism it implies makes sense to me – I don’t think it makes sense to make that unitive consciousness as powerful as Goswami thinks. I think free will is essential to our experience as human beings and this does imply, as Rockwell suggests, a pluralistic causation model.

6 thoughts on “Upward, downward and pluralistic causation”

  1. 3 ? and a comment related to ” …. pluralistic causation”
    How do you define spirit?
    Where might reality be?
    What does mind not influence?

    Several seems okay.

    Thank you for this blog of yours.

  2. “Pluralistic causality” has a name! Alright!

    I’ve thought along those lines myself, it’s neat to be able to label it now. I’ve never understood people who seem to think that either “spirit” or “matter” have a monopoly on causality. I think I stand close to where Descartes stands. I see them as possibly two sides of the same coin, two modes of manifestation of the same “stuff.” I’ve read that the “mind-body problem” never concerned Descartes–that he just kind of accepted that the two work together as a whole somehow, without feeling the need to explain how. Kind of a dubious position for a philosopher, but I forgive it. 🙂

  3. Hi Dan,

    I think it’s perfectly reasonable to accept you don’t know all the answers, even for a philosopher 🙂

    Yes, I was very happily surprised to to read this philosophy student starting about pluralistic causality. Hadn’t heard it before either. However, there is the issue of: how does it all come together into ONE world? And Blavatsky does talk of a ‘first cause’ – I’m planning to go into all that next week (if I don’t get side tracked).

  4. from my point of view the idea that consciousness is the first cause is 180 degrees off base.

    beyond consciousness is infinite awareness which is infinite intelligence.

    now we cannot define this infinite for to define infinite is to limit infinite..’

    therefore “God” cannot be defined.

    what do you think???????

    I know it appears that consciousness causes awareness but appearances can be very deceiving.

    with the evolution of consciousness process we advance in awareness not consciousness.

    consciousness is a flow of thoughts. our level of awarenss determines the quality of our flow of thoughts.

    what do you think??????

    1. I think my explanation was clearly a bit misleading (and simplistic).

      In this case consciousness is defined to include everything not-physical: the divine is included. God can’t be defined, obviously- but It can still be postulated as the source of everything, which is what Amit Goswami does.

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