William James: The Mind-Stuff Theory

Principles of Psychology: The Mind-Stuff Theory

Evolutionary Psychology Demands a Mind-Dust.


In a general theory of evolution the inorganic comes first, then the lowest forms of animal and vegetable life, then forms of life that possess mentality, and finally those like ourselves that possess it in a high degree. As long as we keep to the consideration of purely outward facts, even the most complicated facts of biology, our task as evolutionists is comparatively easy. We are dealing all the time with matter and its aggregations and separations; and although our treatment must perforce be hypothetical, this does not prevent it from being continuous. The point which as evolutionists we are bound to hold fast to is that all the new forms of being that make their appearance are really nothing more than results of the redistribution of the original and unchanging materials. The self-same atoms which, chaotically dispersed, made the nebula, now, jammed and temporarily caught in peculiar positions, form our brains; and the ‘evolution’ of the brains, if understood, would be simply the account of how the atoms came to be so caught and jammed. In this story no new natures, no factors not present at the beginning, are introduced at any later stage.


But with the dawn of consciousness an entirely new nature seems to slip in, something whereof the potency was not given in the mere outward atoms of the original chaos.


Leibniz, in his brain mill illustration has us imagine a brain. Now let’s expand it to the size of a building upon walking in what do we see? We will mostly see fat, protein, and water, which translates to neurons, which translates to axons, dendrites and the synapses between them. The essential ingredient missing is consciousness! Nowhere in the physicalist account of quarks and gluons, of electrons and neutrons, of chemical stuff and so forth will we see a feeling, motive, desire, or idea, which is the most intimate part of our being!


The enemies of evolution have been quick to pounce upon this undeniable discontinuity in the data of the world, and many of them, from the failure of evolutionary explanations at this point, have inferred their general incapacity all along the line. Every one admits the entire incommensurability of feeling as such with material motion as such. “A motion became a feeling!” – no phrase that our lips can frame is so devoid of apprehensible meaning. Accordingly, even the vaguest of evolutionary enthusiasts, when deliberately comparing material with mental facts, have been as forward as anyone else to emphasize the ‘chasm’ between the inner and the outer worlds.


There does some to be an intrinsic part to nature that can’t be seen with the microscope or the fmri. This is the explanatory gap so infamous in philosophy of mind. What cannot be accounted with the scientific eye is consciousness, which we can be separated into two categories. Intentionality and phenomenology. Intentionality is built of ideas, motives, and desires. When we go to war or pay our taxes we are driven by these. The power of the will is within intentionality. Phenomenology consists of perceptions, sensations and feelings, such as the prick of a pin, or even as complex as the warmth of love. Objectively examining something is differently than subjectively experiencing. The chasm is also known as subject and object or mind and matter. Common sense points to a dualistic nature but common sense and science can only get us so far. This is where the wavy-wavy waters of metaphysics must sail into the dark oceans of intuition and reason.


“Can the oscillations of a molecule,” says Mr. Spencer, “be represented side by side with a nervous shock [he means a mental shock], and the two be recognized as one? No effort enables us to assimilate them. That a unit of feeling has nothing in common with a unit of motion becomes more than ever manifest when we bring the two into juxtaposition.”


            This isn’t very clear so let me dissect it further. If one were to handmake a valentine’s day card for their lover and accidently cut their hand with the scissors, the cut would have caused a wound which would expose the nerve. The unmyelinated c-fiber, which exposes the nerve, would send a message to the brain, and the lover’s hand would be held and he would say “ouch!” However, nowhere in the physical description is the feeling of pain. The feeling is subjective. Again, this is the explanatory gap. The matter of the unmyelinated c-fiber doesn’t explain the mental sensation of pain. 


And again:


“Suppose it to have become quite clear that a shock in consciousness and a molecular motion are the subjective and objective faces of the same thing; we continue utterly incapable of uniting the two, so as to conceive that reality of which they are the opposite faces.”


In other words, incapable of perceiving in them any common character. So Tyndall, in that lucky paragraph which has been quoted so often that every one knows it by heart:


“The passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously; we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from one to the other.”


Or in this other passage:


“We can trace the development of a nervous system and correlate with it the parallel phenomena of sensation and thought. We see with undoubting certainty that they go hand in hand. But we try to soar in a vacuum the moment we seek to comprehend the connection between them . . . There is no fusion possible between the two classes of facts – no motor energy in the intellect of man to carry it without logical rupture from the one to the other.”


Because of this disconnect, many men have came to the conclusion of some form of monism, that there is one simple “stuff” that makes up the whole of reality. For example, looking objectively, one sees material stuff, so they come to the conclusion that all is matter in motion. The other conclusion is that all we experience in the world are ideas of stuff, so they come to the conclusion that ideas are what constitute reality, and if there is an outside world then the ultimate idea of it lay in god’s mind.


None the less easily, however, when the evolutionary afflatus [1]is upon them, do the very same writers leap over the breach whose flagrancy they are the foremost to announce, and talk as if mind grew out of body in a continuous way. Mr. Spencer, looking back on his review of mental evolution, tells us how “in tracing up the increase we found ourselves passing without break from the phenomena of bodily life to the phenomena of mental life.”


So strong a postulate is continuity! Now this book will tend to show that mental postulates are on the whole to be respected. The demand for continuity has, over large tracts of science, proved itself to possess true prophetic power. We ought therefore ourselves sincerely to try every possible mode of conceiving the dawn of consciousness so that it may not appear equivalent to the irruption into the universe of a new nature, non-existent until then.


Merely to call the consciousness ‘nascent’ will not serve our turn. It is true that the word signifies not yet quite born, and so seems to form a sort of bridge between existence and nonentity. But that is a verbal quibble. The fact is that discontinuity comes in if a new nature comes in at all. The quantity of the latter is quite immaterial. The girl in ‘Midshipman Easy’ could not excuse the illegitimacy of her child by saying, ‘it was a very small one.’ And Consciousness, however small, is an illegitimate birth in any philosophy that starts without it, and yet professes to explain all facts by continuous evolution.


            The question of what consciousness is, no matter how simple it is, still persists to be an impossible question to answer for scientists.  So the explanatory problem itself persists no matter how youthful and elementary consciousness is.


If evolution is to work smoothly, consciousness in some shape must have been present at the very origin of things. Accordingly we find that the more clear-sighted evolutionary philosophers are beginning to posit it there. Each atom of the nebula, they suppose, must have had an aboriginal atom of consciousness linked with it; and, just as the material atoms have formed bodies and brains by massing themselves together, so the mental atoms, by an analogous process of aggregation, have fused into those larger consciousnesses which we know in ourselves and suppose to exist in our fellow-animals. Some such doctrine of atomistic hylozoism [2]as this is an indispensable part of a thorough-going philosophy of evolution. According to it there must be an infinite number of degrees of consciousness, following the degrees of complication and aggregation of the primordial mind-dust. To prove the separate existence of these degrees of consciousness by indirect evidence, since direct intuition of them is not to be had, the first duty of psychological evolutionism.


            William James is already taking a metaphysical position with his theory of “mind dust” in claiming two types of “stuff”, that of mental atoms mirrored with physical atoms. But we must step back and question whether maybe every physical atom has some sort fundamental intrinsic consciousness contained therein. That every atom has both an intrinsic mental property and an extrinsic physical property is a possible theory. This is a form of “pan-psychism”, one of the many postulates that attempts to unravel the depths of consciousness. Here we find ourselves in the wavy-wavy waters of metaphysics once again, where we can’t quite see the north star, and where we see how reason only gets us so far.   


All italics are of course not my own thoughts, but what is not italics are my own comments.

[1] Impelling force

[2] Matter inseparable from life



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