Posted by Don Salmon on May 11, 2023 at 11:50 am

    Mike Todd posted the following in a different group. They were so well articulated I decided to start the group with this post:



    Physicalism is the view that reality may be exhaustively described by (the equations of) physics. It makes no overt claims about whether reality is fundamentally material in nature. Nevertheless, physics itself posits an exclusive set of properties for its fundaments, which on physicalism are, in toto, the ground of reality; and it may be inferred from these properties that physicalism, as it currently stands, entails that reality is neither fundamentally animate nor fundamentally aware and is therefore, arguably, material in nature.

    The above definition is, of course, my own. However, I believe it more or less aligns with what Bernardo Kastrup, in The Idea of the World, refers to as “mainstream physicalism”. Mainstream physicalism entails scientific materialism. I merely abbreviate this by saying that physicalism entails materialism. By my own (or Kastrup’s) definition, I am not a (mainstream) physicalist.

    As you may be aware, some have attempted more nuanced definitions of physicalism variously inclusive of mind/consciousness/awareness. A few examples of such can be accessed from here:

    I confess to having mixed feelings about the utility of these and similar definitions, and for the time being, I choose to set aside physicalism as an inherently problematic term and to simply say that physics, comprehensively but not exhaustively, describes phenomenal reality. On this view, it follows that phenomenal reality, largely but not exclusively, behaves as if it were material in nature.

    I hope you’ll indulge my adding a few more definitions of my own.

    Phenomenal reality:

    Phenomenal reality is the reality humans experience in perception per se or in perception via instrumentation that expands the range or scope of perception. Phenomenal reality is how humans perceive manifestations of fundamental reality or the ground. Independent of perception, these manifestations may be collectively termed noumenal reality.

    Noumenal reality:

    Noumenal reality comprises manifestations, independent of perception, of fundamental reality or the ground. Noumenal reality per se is unavailable to human perception, because human perception is, among other things, a reframing of noumenal reality, specifically, human perception mediates noumenal reality within a spatiotemporal framework. A complementary expression of this would be: phenomenal reality is the reality of emergent spacetime (though perhaps not the reality of quanta, strings etc.)

    Fundamental reality or the ground:

    Fundamental reality is aperspectival, unconditioned – or as I prefer, unmanifested – consciousness; a processual pure awareness. Like noumenal reality per se, it is unavailable to human perception. Unlike noumenal reality, it may be directly experienced, for example, in certain contemplative states.

    (In fact, I believe such states are the only occasions with respect to which reality may be experienced directly, phenomenal reality comprising, as it were, indirect or implicit experiences – note the absence of a negative comparative – and this goes hand in hand with the view that our conceptual framework is metaphorical in nature. I do not say that I or we may directly experience the ground. I quite advisedly say only that it may be experienced, because I believe that in such experiences there is neither I nor we but simply the ground: awareness of awareness. The miracle is that such limited minds as ours are able to retain impressions of these nondual experiences. Atman is Brahman?)

    Inevitably, the above definitions invite the question of the one and the many. I believe that the three tiers of reality outlined above are one. They only ever exist as an arbitrary three in definitions such as mine, abstracted by the artifice of analysis. In a manner which transcends perceptual and conceptual frameworks (though perhaps neither imagination nor intuition), these three tiers represent a whole in which the opposites of manifest and unmanifest, conditioned and unconditioned, differentiated and undifferentiated, perspectival and aperspectival, indirect and direct, process and stasis, the many and the one, as well as an infinity of others, are united. So, from the ground up:

    “The Way bears one.
    The one bears two.
    The two bear three.
    The three bear the ten thousand things.
    The ten thousand things
    carry the yin on their shoulders
    and hold in their arms the yang,
    whose interplay of energy
    makes harmony.”</div><div>

    I hope you’ll indulge my closing with a few thoughts about what else may be tentatively ventured about the ground. Here, I part ways with Vedanta and a few other Eastern approaches, in that I see the ground as more fruitfully contemplated in terms of process than in terms of substance, and also, as much I agree with Vedanta that phenomenal reality is illusory, I don’t as a result conclude that it lacks truth or value and that those things are to be found only by rejecting and transcending Maya.

    It will be easier for all concerned (including myself) if I leave aside discussion of process vs. substance for now. But regarding the truth and value of phenomenal reality:

    To say, as Dennett, Hoffman and many others do, that our perceptions are in some sense illusory is not to say that they are therefore untrue: they are not literally true, that much is a given, but they may still be figuratively true, and for what it’s worth, this latter is my take on the world and ourselves as we experience all of it in perception.

    More specifically, with regards to what I have called direct and indirect experiences of reality, but which might also be termed transcendent and immanent experiences, respectively, I believe there is enormous value in both – in fact, both may be embraced as sacred – and to ponder where the greater or truer value lies is to overlook a great spiritual truth. They carry across to each other, like the two ends of one road there and back again. As Robert Frost put it:

    “I’d like to get away from earth awhile
    And then come back to it and begin over.”

    Mike Todd replied 1 year, 2 months ago 2 Members · 9 Replies
  • 9 Replies
  • Don Salmon

    May 11, 2023 at 12:03 pm

    Mike, I agree for the most part with everything you write. Since I don’t want to get to much into purely intellectual (philosophic) discussions, I’m going to leave aside your comment about Vedanta except to say, if you’re talking about Shankara’s version of Vedanta, I completely agree with you – there are many others that aren’t illusionist at all – in fact, the majority of Vedantic and Tantric texts are not)


    I wonder if you could elaborate a bit on this comment. This was the only one I think I didn’t understand at all:

    “Physics, comprehensively but not exhaustively, describes phenomenal reality. On this view, it follows that phenomenal reality, largely but not exclusively, behaves as if it were material in nature.”

    “Phenomenal reality,” I had always thought, meant the reality that we experience. As physicist Arthur Zajonc (who has spent his life studying the foundations of science) puts it, “Physics is entirely about quantities, and is completely silent on qualities.”

    So my understanding is, phenomenal reality is completely absent from physics. No color, sound, etc. Did you watch Bernardo’s video series on analytic idealism? There’s a lot I disagree with in Bernardo’s idealist philosophy ,but his critique and parsing of the limitations of physicalist arguments is quite brilliant. When he explains this point about what physics encompasses, he has a very interesting image:

    First, he draws the outlines of a city skyline. He notes that materialist philosophers often tell us that while physics may deal with qualities, it gives us the behavior of the forms.

    So in the video, you see a red line drawn around the outer edges of the buildings in the skyline.

    Then – in quite a brilliant move – first the outlined buildings disappear, leaving only the red line.

    Then the red line disappears, the screen temporarily goes blank and then it is filled up with hundreds of overlapping equations.

    This is exactly the point Zajonc makes – what physics gives us is solely purely mathematical quantities, which we then, apply to our phenomenological experience, which is utterly absent from the perspective of pure physics.

    Finally, I think the point you and Whit are making about how successful physics is in describing the MEASURABLE BEHAVIOR of our experience (I always prefer to use everyday words if possible, so I’m going to leave aside “phenomenological reality) – is that regularly REQUIRES the assumption of materiality.

    Maybe we can go into this further. I suggest the exact opposite. If the universe were actually as materialists claim (I’m also going to use the most commonly used term – “physicalism” is a technical term that I find muddies the water a lot- though technically it’s more accurate), it would be pure chaos. (If you want a deep intellectual discussion of this, Sri Aurobindo devotes a very clear chapter of The Life Divine to this point)

    So, let’s see if I can summarize my questions:

    1. You say physics comprehensively but not exhaustively describes reality, and you seem to also be seeing this comprehensive description includes our experience.

    RESPONSE: Our experience itself is completely absent from physics – even from a “comprehensive” description.

    2. You seem to be saying, if I understand it correctly, that the accuracy of physics’ description of the behavior of measurable aspects of our experience implies a material universe.

    RESPONSE: it seems to me just the opposite. If the universe were as materialists claim, it would be pure chaos.

    • Don Salmon

      May 11, 2023 at 1:08 pm

      I just realized a number of things I’ve left out that may be making this more confusing.

      1. I’m not interested in philosophizing about this. I don’t want to compare philosophies, or create a new one, or propose any philosophic ideas. I’m solely interested clarifying what science as method is about (science as method, rather than science as philosophy)

      2. I’m solely interested in an agnostic approach. My understanding, having been trained as a research scientist, is that science in itself is completely agnostic with regard to the “nature” of reality.

      3. I think I just got something about the way Whit says that physics has been successful by sticking to a materialist view. “Sticking to a materialist view” sounds to me like a philosophic statement, but perhaps I misunderstood.

      if you say, “Physics has been extraordinarily successful by sticking to an examination ONLY of the measurable aspects of phenomenal experience” – which is a bit more complex way of saying what perhaps Whit intended – I fully agree.

      I just want to be careful. When you say “materialist” you’re speaking of a certain philosophic view, which I’m trying to stay away from.

      So yes, physics deals only with extremely limited measurable aspects of experience (that’s the best I can do avoiding overt philosophic statements – it’s just a description of the method used by physicists)

      I know I’ve been clumsily inserting philosophic statements myself so i’d like to set those aside and start fresh.


      Physics excludes all of phenomenal reality but that which can be measured. It does not require ANY philosophic view to conduct research.

      If we can just get clear about this, I’d be interested at the conclusion of our discussion to start another group where we can explore whether it makes more sense, as a philosophic view, to assume a primarily material (ie unconscious, non living) universe or a conscious one. Whether that’s Vedantic, Greek Orthodox, Hasidic/Kabbalistic, Tantric, process philosophy, or another view, would be a discussion for yet a different group.

    • Mike Todd

      May 11, 2023 at 9:46 pm

      Hi Don,<div>
      </div><div>I’ll get back to you tomorrow with what I hope will appear a well-considered response, but for now let me bullet-point where I’ll be coming from and where I’ll be going.</div><div>

      • Fundamental reality or the ground is unquantifiable quality. Quantification is made possible by the existence of regularities, and regularities are, in every sense, wholly unmanifested in the ground as I have defined it.
      • I believe that regularities exist in noumenal reality as I have defined it, and that these regularities, in some ineffable way, prefigure and substantiate those of phenomenal reality, but as they remain unobservable (to us), they also remain unquantifiable (by us), and I cannot conceive – or perhaps that should be perceive – any taxonomy of possible attributes.
      • No one, I hope, would deny that regularities exist in phenomenal reality, and since these are by definition observable, they are also quantifiable, and the attributes made available to us for quantification are those inherent to the spatiotemporal framework of our human perceptual system. I borrow from Donald Hoffman here in positing that phenomenal reality, since its nature is defined by the (perceptual) framework within which it manifests, may be species-specific. Nagel may have been onto something when he asked, What Is It Like to Be a Bat?

      </div><div>I also hope to say something worthwhile about philosophical phenomenology and its relationship to phenomenal and physical reality, the latter of which I consider a subset of the former. And, of course, I’ll make reference to the nature of quantity and quality as aspects of phenomenal reality, and in particular, to their differences and similarities.</div>

  • Mike Todd

    May 12, 2023 at 11:51 am

    Hi Don,<div>
    </div><div>I hope you’ll accept a brief overview for now; I’ll return in a few days to address specific observations you’ve made.</div><div>
    </div><div>Let me preface all this by saying that the following definitions and views are, as ever, my own, although, as far as establishing context, they align with more broadly-accepted views within mainstream science and philosophy.</div><div>
    </div><div>Phenomenal reality is the world of phenomena, of observable events. Don’t let the word “events” fool you, however: observable events are nothing if not mundane – for the greatest part. Examples of observable events are: a black cat crossing ahead, the sound of a bell carried on the wind, the fragrance of a rose garden, the taste of tiramisu, the touch of a plush throw. These examples make clear that observable events, phenomena, are what we would informally refer to as perceptions, or, formally and collectively, the perceptual content of individuated consciousness or awareness.</div><div>
    </div><div>Phenomena appear to us as possessing qualities, and I don’t believe this appearance is false – quality inheres at all levels of reality, on my view. However, the perceptual qualities apparent in individuated consciousness or awareness are undoubtedly categorically distinct from the qualities that exist apart from it: the qualities we perceive, sometimes referred to as qualia, do not exist outside of perception at any level of reality other than the phenomenal. These qualities are aspects of our perceptual system, viz., a (categorical) reframing of qualities that exist apart from it.</div><div>
    </div><div>Yet as much as they are an aspect of individuation, these qualities are far from individual or arbitrary. Rather, there is an overwhelming degree of regularity in their manifestation. Consequently, they are amenable to analysis in the form of quantification – measurement – the assignment of numerical value: the colour(s) of a cat may be assigned value(s); so, too, the sound(s) of a bell; the regularities of rose fragrance and tiramisu taste may also be subjected to analysis and assigned values, albeit of a subtly different tang than those of colour and sound; and at the level of fabric or lower, the regularities of plushness may also yield to the strictures of number.</div><div>
    </div><div>So it is that phenomenal reality may be said to possess both quality and quantity. Nearly all laypersons and most so-called experts would agree on this much. Disagreement arises, most pointedly, on the question of the extent to which quality and quantity may be considered real, or as I would prefer to say, at which levels of reality they inhere – bearing in mind that any levels one might postulate are themselves an arbitrary imposition. My view is that quality, of categorically distinct types, inheres at all levels of reality; quantity, on the other hand, inheres only at levels within which regularities manifest. On my view, then, quantity inheres only at the levels of noumenal and phenomenal reality, and it may therefore be considered, in a sense, less real than quality. (This begs the rather thorny question of whether numbers, and mathematics in general, may be said to exist at deeper levels of reality. I confess to having no answer, much as I admire Lakoff’s theory of embodied mathematics.)</div><div>
    </div><div>So what can be done with quantity? Quite a lot, I would say. Our capacity to recognise regularities and to derive quantities thereof is the fulcrum by which mathematics and physics, and all other disciplines reliant upon quantification, achieve leverage. The proviso here is that what these disciplines describe may be no more (or less) than the reality manifest within our (possibly species-specific) perceptual and conceptual frameworks. Great swathes of philosophers and scientists will throw their arms up in horror at this suggestion, but, as much as I have enormous respect for, and great confidence in the findings of, science as a whole, as well as being grounded in it academically, it’s how I see things. Nevertheless, for all that my take entails a rather limited purview for science – in the words of Robert Frost, a “diminished thing” – I still consider it one of our farthest-reaching roads into reality, a path piercing the deep heart of the woods, although, admittedly, stopping just short of the other side.</div>

    • Mike Todd

      May 12, 2023 at 12:44 pm

      There’s an error: “our (possibly species-specific) perceptual and conceptual frameworks” should more simply read “our (species-specific) perceptual framework”. I’d edit it, but at present the site won’t let me.

    • Don Salmon

      May 12, 2023 at 12:45 pm

      Hey Mike, all great stuff. Don’t have time to respond in any detail now – Jan and I are on a 3 day home/Zoom meditation retreat with Craig Holliday.

      A suggestion to think about – I’ve done doctoral level research and incorporated postmodern philosophy, phenomenology, sweated through Heidegger, Aquinas, Abhinavagupta, and much else.

      Maybe it’s my age (soon to be 71) but my aim these days is writing in a way that a 13 year old utterly unfamiliar with any of these topics would have no problem understanding.

      I always start with:

      What is it that is aware of all this?

      I find that quite easily, in simple everyday language (for that 13 year old kid:>)) all of science and philosophy can be gotten from that starting point.

      I love what you wrote and with very few exceptions agree (and really, not disagreements just maybe a slight shift of emphasis)

      When I get back to this Monday, i’ll see if I can be any clearer. I think in my responses to you and white I’ve covered a whole bunch of different areas and have failed to make clear what my main aim is. Let’s see if the retreat helps me toward simplification and clarity!:>))

      • Mike Todd

        May 12, 2023 at 1:06 pm

        I certainly don’t write for children, it’s true. But then, I don’t believe I need to. Children have an intuitive grasp of the whole that most adults have somehow lost. As Wordsworth observed:<div>

        My heart leaps up when I behold
        A rainbow in the sky:
        So was it when my life began;
        So is it now I am a man;
        So be it when I shall grow old,
        Or let me die!
        The Child is father of the Man;
        And I could wish my days to be
        Bound each to each by natural piety.

        </div><div>Enjoy your weekend!</div>

        • Don Salmon

          May 14, 2023 at 11:20 am

          hi, still on retreat, sorry haven’t gotten back to you – I appreciate your comments, will reply when the retreat is over…

  • Mike Todd

    May 14, 2023 at 12:44 pm

    You may find this article and associated video helpful in clarifying some of the definitions and ideas I sketched in the initial comment you quoted. Naturally, the author has his own idiolect, so there’s an inevitable divergence of terms, yet at the same time, I feel, there’s an agreeable convergence of ideas. In particular, he offers insights into the thing-in-irself, which I referred to as noumenal reality, as well as a complementary perspective on my assertion that consciousness is more fruitfully contemplated in terms of process than in terms of substance (in the section “There is no such thing as consciousness”). And salient to the discussion in which my comment originally appeared, he provides a cogent outline of the distinction between consciousness and its contents (in the section “The faculty and the forms of consciousness”).

    SAND articles require registration but no down payment unless you feel so inclined.

Log in to reply.