An ongoing debate in ontology concerns the question of whether ideas or the physical reality have primacy. In my view, the physical reality is clearly ontologically primary, because it makes possible the thinking and idea-generation which exist only as very sophisticated emergent processes depending on multiple levels of physical structures (atoms, cells, tissues, organs, organisms of sufficient complexity – and then a sufficiently rich history of sensory experience to make the formation of interesting ideas supportable).
One of my favorite contemporary philosophers is David Kelley – an Objectivist but one very open to philosophical innovation – without the dogmatic taint that characterized the later years of Ayn Rand and some of her followers today. He has recently released a video entitled “Objective Reality”, where he discusses the idea of the primacy of existence over consciousness. Here, I seek to address the primacy of the physical reality in its connection with several additional considerations – the concepts of essences and qualia, as well as the implications of the primacy of the physical reality for human agency in the pursuit of life and individual flourishing.
Some ontological idealists – proponents of the primacy of ideas – will claim that the essence of an entity exists outside of that entity, in a separate realm of “immaterial” ideas akin to Plato’s forms. On the contrary, on essences, I am of an Aristotelian persuasion that the essence of a thing is part of that very thing; it is the sum of the qualities of an entity, without which that entity could not have been what it is. The essences do not exist apart from any thing – but rather any thing of a particular sort that exists has the essence which defines it as that thing – along with perhaps some other incidental qualities which are not constitutive to it being that thing.
For instance, a chair may be painted blue or green or any other color, and it may have three legs instead of four, and it may have some dents in it – but it would still be a chair. But if all chairs were destroyed, and no one remembered what a chair was, there would be no ideal Platonic form of the chair floating out there somewhere. In that sense, I differ from the idealists’ characterization of essences as “immaterial”. Rather, an essence always characterizes a material entity or process performed by material entities.
Qualia are an individual’s subjective, conscious experiences of reality – for instance, how an individual perceives the color red or the sound of a note played on an instrument. But qualia, too, have a material grounding. As a physicalist, I understand qualia to be the result of physical processes within the body and brain that generate certain sensory perceptions of the world. It follows that different qualia can only be generated if one’s organism has different physical components.
A bat, a fly, or a whale would certainly experience the same external reality differently from a human. Most humans (the ones whose sense organs are not damaged or characterized by genetic defects) have the same essential perceptual structures and so, if placed within the exact same vantage point relative to an object, would perceive it in the same way (with regard to what appears before their senses). After that, of course, what they choose to focus on with their minds and how they choose to interpret what they see (in terms of opinions, associations, decisions regarding what to do next) could differ greatly. The physical perception is objective, but the interpretation of that perception is subjective. But by emulating the sensory organs of another organism (even a bat or a fly), it should be possible to perceive what that organism perceives. I delve into this principle in some detail in Chapter XII of A Rational Cosmology: “The Objectivity of Consciousness”.
Importance of Ontological Realism to Life, Flourishing, and Human Agency
Some opponents of ontological realism might classify it as a “naïve” perspective and claim that those who see physical reality as primary are inappropriately assigning it “ontological privilege”. On the contrary, I strongly hold that this world is the one and that, certainly, events that happen in this world are ontologically privileged for having happened – as opposed to the uncountably many possibilities for what might have happened but did not. Moreover, I see this recognition as an essential starting point for the endeavor which is really at the heart of individual liberty, life extension, transhumanism, and, more generally, a consistent vision of humanism and morality: the preservation of the individual – of all individuals who have not committed irreparable wrongs – from physical demise.
I am not an adherent of the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, which some may posit in opposition to my view of the primacy of the single physical reality which we directly experience and inhabit. Indeed, to me, it does not appear that quantum mechanics has a valid philosophical interpretation at all (at least not until some extremely rational and patient philosopher delves into it and tries to puzzle it out); rather, it is a set of equations that is reasonably predictive of the behavior of subatomic particles (sometimes) through a series of probabilistic models. Perhaps in part due to my work in another highly probability-driven area – actuarial science – my experience informs me that probabilistic models are at best only useful approximations of phenomena that may not yet be accessible to us in other ways, and a substantial fraction of the time the models are wildly wrong anyway. As for the very concept of randomness itself, it is a useful epistemological idea, but not a valid metaphysical one, as I explain in my essay “Putting Randomness in Its Place“.
In my view, the past is irreversible, and it happened in the one particular way it happened. The future is full of potential, because it has not happened yet, and the emergent property of human volition enables it to happen in a multitude of ways, depending on the paths we choose. In a poetic sense, it could be said that many worlds unfold before us, but with every passing moment, we pick one of them and that world becomes the one irreversibly, while the others are not retained anywhere. Not only is this understanding a necessary prerequisite for the concept of moral responsibility (our actions have consequences in bringing about certain outcomes, for which we can be credited or faulted, rewarded or punished), but it is also necessary as a foundation for the life-extension premise itself.
If there were infinitely many possible universes, where each of us could have died or not died at every possible instant, then in some of those hypothetical universes, we would have all already been beneficiaries of indefinite life extension. Imagine a universe where humanity was lucky and avoided all of the wars, tyrannies, epidemics, and superstitions that plagued our history and, as a result, was able to progress so rapidly that indefinite longevity would have been already known to the ancient Greeks! This would make for fascinating fiction, and I readily admit to enjoying the occasional retrospective “What if?” contemplation – e.g., what if the Jacobins had not taken over during the French Revolution, or what if Otto von Bismarck had never come to power in Germany, or what if the attacks of September 11, 2001 (a major setback for human progress, largely due to the reactionary violation of civil liberties by Western governments) had never happened? Unfortunately, from an ontological perspective, I do not have that luxury of rewriting the past. As for the future, it can only be written through actions that affect the physical world, but any tools we can create to help us do this would be welcome.
This is certainly not the best of all possible worlds (a point amply demonstrated in one of my favorite works, Voltaire’s Candide), but it is the world we find ourselves in, through a variety of historical accidents, path-dependencies, and our own prior choices and their foreseen and unforeseen repercussions. But this is indeed our starting point when it comes to any future action, and the choice each of us ultimately faces is whether (i) to become a passive victim of the “larger forces” in this world (to conform or “adapt”, as many people like to call it), (ii) to create an alternate world using imagination and subjective experience only, or (iii) to physically alter this world to fit the parameters of a more just, happy, safe, and prosperous existence – a task to which only we are suited (since there is no cosmic justice or higher power). It should be clear by now that I strongly favor the third option. We should, through our physical deeds, harness the laws of nature to create the world we would wish to inhabit.