An ‘Ontological’ Approach: four Ontologies & their Interactions

My strategy has been to forge a theory at the level of ontology, i.e., at the deepest level of metaphysics, speculating as to the ultimate nature of reality and of what it is composed. The argument consists of analysing four historical/scientific ontologies and the transitions between them: the first is the ‘original ontology of consciousness’, namely Folk Psychology. I characterised this as an amalgam of, on the one hand, Evolved Psychology and, on the other, Cartesian Interactive Dualism. The first of these is characterised by sentience, affect and empathy. The second embodies what I call the ‘Command and Control’ model of consciousness. The second, which I call ‘Cart-Tonism’ (an amalgam of classical, Newtonian physics and the mechanistic half of Cartesianism), undermined both viewpoints of Folk Psychology, and became the predominant paradigm of contemporary scientific culture. Cart-Tonist ontology was then, in turn, profoundly challenged empirically (and potentially philosophically) by the findings of the ‘new physics’ and especially quantum mechanics. However, this challenge was nullified by what I’ve called a ‘failure of ontological nerve’ by the ‘fathers’ of quantum theory, very much influenced by Logical Positivism. I labelled the most extreme version of this ‘Ideological Empiricism’. This ontology can be reduced to two basic principles; 1) observations are the only reality – there is nothing ‘behind, beyond or beneath’ them. 2) Speculation, in the form of theories (and especially ‘grand’ ontologies), as to what may exist beyond observations is meaningless and futile. I conclude that the current predominance of these two ontologies, Cart-Tonism and Ideological Empiricism, is what underlies the failure of contemporary scientific culture to make any progress in formulating a theory of consciousness.

The fourth ontology, I’m proposing is ‘Whit-Tum world’. This is a synthesis of the later philosophical work of Alfred North Whitehead and the philosophical implications of quantum theory. A key feature of Whit-Tum world is the ‘externalising’ of mind and consciousness by postulating (as Whitehead did) that ‘experience’ (‘sentience’ or ‘feeling’) is the ultimate constituent of reality. Consequently, Whit-Tum world breaks out of the alienating Cart-Tonist cul-de-sac, which has eliminated mind and consciousness from its vision of the world. By linking sensation and affect with ultimate reality, Whitehead, in one stroke, reversed Cart-Tonism’s exclusion of mind and consciousness from nature. Another way to put this is to say that Whitehead’s ontology undid the alienation of consciousness from the natural world, an alienation which is implicit in both Cart-Tonism and Ideological Empiricism (because of its default to Cart-Tonism). Whitehead thus re-established the continuity of the ‘creation myth’ in human history and culture: all previous cultures and societies have formulated some form of creation myth, but two ontologies of Scientism, Cart-Tonism and Ideological Empiricism, broke this continuity. Cart-Tonism is certainly an ontology and even, it could be argued, a creation myth (though since the decline of belief in a supreme being in scientific culture, its account of the ultimate origin of the universe has been frustratingly vague). Where it differs from the human tradition of creation myths is that its account of ultimate reality is inherently meaningless: generally, mind and consciousness have had a role to play in human ontologies. They have tried to connect our affective experience of the world with a theory of its nature and composition. Cart-Tonism’s bleak rejection of this link does I believe justify me in describing it as pathological, when seen from a humanist perspective. As for Ideological Empiricism, its breach with the human creation myth tradition is even more radical, in so far as it explicitly rejects any attempt at ontology formulation. It can be compared to Berkeleian Idealism or even to Buddhism, but differs from both in its conceptualisation of consciousness: it provides no ontological account of it, whereas for both the Buddha and Berkeley, consciousness is explicitly the ultimate reality.

Consciousness & its Functions in ‘Whit-Tum world’

In Whit-Tum world however, rather than being the ultimate reality, consciousness emerges out of the constituents of which everything is composed: ‘matter’ is made from ‘drops of experience’. This ‘experience’ (or sentience or feeling ) accounts for the bizarre behaviour of the constituents of ‘matter’ as observed in quantum mechanics, though as yet we know very little about how this works. In addition, the sentience inherent in the fabric of all reality provides a ‘raw material’ available to all living things, assisting them in their evolutionary struggle to survive and reproduce. This raw material is used in many different ways and at several distinct levels of sophistication: in single-celled organisms it can be used to generate the ‘cellular attitudes’ that Damasio talked about (see chapter fifteen), the basic awareness of ‘what’s happening to me’, as described by Humphrey (see chapter thirteen and fifteen), and the features of intelligent behaviour displayed by, for example, amoeba, as demonstrated by Brian Ford (see chapter thirteen). In the complex nervous systems of mammals, the universal raw material of sentience can be processed into an extensive awareness of the environment. And in the most complex of all organisms (us), it is the basis for the vast richness and diversity of full human consciousness. Language and culture evolved out of our primary, emotional consciousness, and in turn had a transformative effect on the depth and power of our conscious capacities. Of course, again (as with our knowledge of physics) we know very little, in terms of detailed mechanisms, as to how the raw material of sentience interacts with organisms to produce these wonders. The important thing, however, is to seize on Whitehead’s insights so as to move our conceptual world out of the ‘dead’, billiard-ball vision of Cart-Ton world, in which mind and consciousness are by definition excluded, and into the psycho-physical ontology of Whit-Tum world, in which both quantum mechanics and mind and consciousness become immediately plausible and potentially comprehensible.

As to the function of consciousness, I propose that it’s the principle factor in adapting the the human infant’s mind to its environment (and via this, in guiding adult behaviour). Before the vast influences of language and culture kick in, the conscious life of an infant consists of sensations and the infant’s affective reactions to these. As per Jaak Panksepp’s work, the infant is genetically endowed to produce seven primordial affective responses to the sensations that it receives from its environment. While this sensitive process makes the infant vulnerable to psychological damage (seen from a modern perspective), it’s a marvellously effective system for adapting to the infant’s given environment: it enables the infant’s personality and life-attitudes to be finely adjusted to the conditions it finds itself in, even if these conditions are very sub-optimal (hence the danger of psychological damage). I call this process ‘deep learning’ and, according to my argument, it requires Whitehead’s ontological vision of sentience as basic to the fabric of reality in order to be effective: the infant must be conscious of its sensations of the world and it must be conscious of its affective reactions to these sensations if these potentially life-long adaptations are to be effectively established. Later in life the results of deep learning generally slip into the unconscious, but consciousness is necessary when they are being laid down.

  • Publisher: Edwin Mellen Pr (7 July 2019)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1495507424
  • ISBN-13: 978-1495507427

About the Author

Steve Minett was educated at the universities of; Sussex, Oxford, Minnesota and Stockholm. He holds five university degrees, including a PhD from Stockholm. He taught for four years at a study abroad program at the University of Stockholm. He later developed a career in international marketing, working for many multi-national companies, and eventually setting up his own agency. He became financially independent in 2004 (at the age of 53) and has since devoted himself to the study of theories of consciousness: he taught the subject for several years at East London’s University of the Third Age and the North London Buddhist Centre. His website (below) contains 200+  audio-visual film clips, plus recordings from ca. 100 relevant books, all freely downloadable: