How can we restore substance to matter?

Abstract: Given the difficulty in demonstrating the ontological reality of emergence, some authors propose to make a non-substantialist conception of it. But classical reductionist ontology is already failing to say whether there is a fundamental substance of things. It simply associates an information structure with each observable phenomenon, without justifying or contradicting the existence of an independent substance. I will show that the only possible definition of a substance, in the state of knowledge, is based on this structure, that is to say on the layering of levels of information, due to the absence of level proven fundamental. Any reductionist approach is then forced to reestablish the principle of emergence as the only source of substance for observable reality.

The difficult problem of emergence

Epistemology has been struggling for several decades with the problem of emergence, “the whole which is more than the parts”, a rupture in causality difficult to reconcile with the reductionist approach which makes science effective. Without emergence unfortunately, it is just as difficult to explain many observations which are not directly derivable from micromechanisms. This has led to a “pragmatic” scientific emergentism: researchers attach models to the properties they observe, within their discipline, without seeking to make it a transcendental or transdisciplinary chain.

Among the many authors who have addressed this problem, Michel Bitbol sought a third way by detaching the emergence from materialist ontology. If it is not possible to derive it from physics and the mind cannot do without it, he says, then it must be made a non-substantial principle, at the interface between the two.

Consciousness assimilated to the emerging level of brain activity

Bitbol takes the work of Francisco Varela and Evan Thompson, emergentists, and compares them to that of Jaegwon Kim, classic reductionist. Kim does not denigrate the existence of the phenomenon of consciousness (for him it is the only truly strong emergence) but notes that it is impossible to integrate it into cerebral mechanisms through functionalism. For him there is an explanatory gap. Kim therefore ranks among the dualists.

But while Kim makes emergence the explanatory gap, without assimilating it to conscious experience, Varela and Thompson make this assimilation. For them, the basis of consciousness is the global activity of the brain superimposed on local activity by the phenomenon of emergence. Consciousness corresponds to dynamic patterns of large-scale neuronal activity. The causality is indeed bi-directional: ascending through the neural synchronization which gives rise to the general pattern; descending because the global configuration is a collective order capable of restricting the field of neural stimuli and directing the course of consciousness.

A theory that eliminates more than it explains

The equating of consciousness with overall brain activity eventually led to eliminativism, a position where consciousness loses all separation from neural functioning. It is no longer a strong emergence but a simple appearance of global neural agitation.

This new materialism makes the mind-body problem disappear without really saying why there are local mechanisms and a global level, nor how they interact. Eliminativism bulldozes the neural-consciousness gap without having truly repaired the explanatory gap. It seems that we have progressed mainly in blindness, while the dualists had the lucidity to recognize the difficulty of the question.

Intoxicated materialism

By swallowing whole the mind-body problem, materialism in fact transforms itself. Reductionists have not grasped the extent to which eliminativism has caused a profound mutation of classical physicalism. If there are local and global levels to be taken into account separately in the functioning of the brain, why should this imperative be limited to the mass of grayish convolutions that our cranium houses? The principle potentially contaminates the entire extent of matter. The reality of emergence is definitely part of fundamental physics. It had already begun to do so at the other end of complexity, in quantum mechanics, where the global level of entangled particles retroactively imposes its state on those of individual particles.

Here we are with a monism of matter which has recovered consciousness within itself, but which has ingested an explanatory flaw capable of multiplying infinitely. It can appear in the middle of any causal transition, likely to be renamed ‘correlation’ rather than ‘explanation’.

Flaws hidden in the language

These flaws are fortunately smoothed out in materialism by the fact that it no longer really sees materials but information structures. Under the dominant structuralist look there are no longer any objects, living beings, brains or even particles; there are only sets of information, all linked by precise equations. The flaws do not appear anywhere because they have become acronyms, generally ‘=’ signs. If these signs hold up robustly to experiments, why care whether they are correlations or causation? This is a purely philosophical concern, not a scientific one.

By emancipating itself from the mind-body problem, eliminativist science has also emancipated itself from philosophy. At least it is satisfied with a single philosophy: pragmatism. The only interest in answering a question is that it has useful consequences for further research. Emergence and substance are not part of it.

The substance of things

You now understand why I took this detour through the problem of consciousness to address that of substance. They are superimposable. Like consciousness, substance is a superfluous notion for pragmatic science. What breakthrough would we expect to clarify whether things are substantial or not? The equations unfold regardless of the answer, and things will always behave as predicted by the model, which has no substance of its own.

The more assiduously physicists search for a fundamental substance with refined instruments, the less they find it. They end up in a purely mathematical space, are tempted to believe that the universe is purely made of information. Most physicists have not yet taken the plunge, but nothing really prevents it. Only humility holds them back. How do we know if science is exhaustive knowledge?

An archaic concept or still useful?

Perhaps the idea of substance is just an outdated archaism? Like consciousness, perhaps it is difficult to get rid of because it is a habit deeply ingrained by our upbringing? But what is the idea of substance for, anyway? Before throwing it away, let’s examine the reasons for its ancient success.

Substance designates that which is permanent, as opposed to that which is evanescent. The permanence of a thing is associated with the notion of being, of essence: substance is also what is essential in a thing. But how do we recognize permanence? Impossible without interacting with the thing. The substance can only be identified through the properties of the thing. There is an ambivalence in the term, which addresses what is intrinsic to the thing but is only revealed in an extrinsic relationship.

What does the substance do?

So much so that in science the term is entirely dedicated to properties: we speak of active, toxic, white or gray substance, etc. The term “fundamental substance” is truncated. It actually designates the foundation of the scientific discipline and not any foundation of matter, which remains hypothetical.

The notion of substance only interests our downward look. It allows us to categorize things by their properties and grants them an identity in a time that is specific to them, but preferably close to ours. It is easier to speak of substance for a gold ingot, which has an immutable appearance, than for an ephemeral particle.

Transparent ontology, substantial teleology

Ontological science, that of micromechanisms, has no need for substances. It uses exclusively the upward look, that of the elements which are organized. It is a perpetual dynamic and seeking to delimit a permanence to it is purely arbitrary. Modern ontological science uses interactive models made of pure information. The science still attached to substances is the “old” science, that which uses retorts, test tubes and chemical reagents, which notes changes in color and appearance of cells under the microscope. It describes the world with a downward view, most accessible to the layman. It names and classifies things, associates them with properties and behaviors. It connects our desires to the world of pure information.

In other words, in order not to find ourselves in a state of pure information, little differentiable from other sets of information, we still need the substances, the permanences founding the identity of things, even if they seem artificial at first glance. ontological science. We need our downward look because it is it which carries our own identity on the world, which brings meaning to it, whereas under the upward look only impassioned and soulless mechanisms exist.

The paradox of concrete spiritualism

The substance of things is a necessary notion not for physicalism but for spiritualism, for the action of the spirit on the world. Is this a statement that strikes you as paradoxical? Spiritualism usually seems to feed more on imaginary things and materialism on concrete things. Habit swept away by structuralist monism. The world is One as an information structure. This certainly lacks mystical flavor for a theist but it has the immense advantage of concretizing the One in reality. God is in us, there is no doubt this time. As for the traditional materialist, her science has made materials transparent, made of gaping inter-atomic voids, with no other substance than energy fields.

By winning the game against panpsychism, the materialist saw the ground disappear from under her feet. From now on he floats in the quantum void, and the panpsychic swims alongside her, with a vision of the world that is ultimately quite close. Their only disagreement concerns whether the particles are conscious or not. The panpsychic is still firmly attached to believing in a particular energy field, defining the consciousness of the living, while the materialist sees no evidence of this and does very well without it.

Reality for dummies

Not all of us float in a vacuum, and even the most idealistic among us are bound to land from time to time. What happens when we have our feet on Earth? The ground is very firm, things perfectly concrete, little concerned by our virtual questions. Everything seems entirely substantial, and pragmatism suggests that abandoning the concept of substance will complicate our lives. The questions posed by daily existence are not those of scientists. Even by reducing philosophy to pragmatism, let us not forget to include all questions in its utilitarian approach.

Our peers have understood this well and very few will be interested in my article. Why save a notion that has never been the subject of even the slightest threat in their minds? They feel substantial, without any possible doubt, and not like immensities of void peppered with tiny particles. There is an abyss between the scientific vision of matter and the natural impression it causes on itself, because we are “in” matter. This abyss is the complex dimension. Which encourages me to awaken your double look, which travels in both directions.

Bringing the two perspectives into dialogue

Solving the problem of substance means creating a dialogue between our upward and downward looks. The upward is that of the scientist, the one who wants to understand how matter is constituted. The downward is that of the Self, of a spirit entangled with matter, filled with impressions and representations, including those of science. Even when we mentally unfold abstractions, we do not experience ourselves as a silicon microprocessor. The upward look is a simulation, a theory about the organization of things, a way of refining the representations of the non-Self.

The downward look is the only authentic, spontaneous, unsimulated one, in direct contact with the experience of being an active brain. This is the first information and the only ideally reliable one. No representation of things is certain, but the impression they give us is certain. It can be inappropriate —from a point of view always foreign to oneself— but never false.

The natural assurance of the downward look

The impression of substance is therefore authentic and real, owned by the downward look, cannot be called into question by uncertain theories of the upward look. It does not have the means to do so, and must force itself to modify its theories. It must coincide with the downward look. Our hold on the world extends through these coincidences, through this synergy of the two perspectives. A theory must correspond to experience, and when it comes to a notion as personal as that of substance, the theory about it must correspond to our intimate experience.

Let us then reject all non-substantialist theories of reality. They are clearly forgetting something important: us, our direct experience. It’s the upward look having fun all alone in its own corner. Theories frolic in a universe of astronomical figures, in fact very restricted in the complex dimension, where the entirety of our being is inscribed.

Find the substance

How can we restore substance to matter from which the upward look has drained it? Looking for a hypothetical new fundamental substance is not appropriate. By reducing the constitution of things, mathematical theories go further than material instruments. As they do very well without substance, we cannot demand from them the demonstration that it exists. Energy could be a candidate; but at this level of description of reality it is a simple constant, an immutable mathematical quantity, which only has proven substance in a universe made of information. This hardly corresponds to our experience.

We need to redefine substance at the level where we see it, in things, in the sensory impressions we get from them, in the data our instruments provide us, as extensions of our basic senses. We need a definition of the substance from which all others can be derived, physical, chemical, biological, even psychological.

The complex interface

There is indeed a common point in the use of this term in such varied examinations. This common point, as we have seen, is the permanence of what is examined. Permanence based on recognizable properties. The substance speaks to our downward look. How does it do it? The language of properties is specific to each level of complexity, a concept that must be looked at in more detail because this is where the elementary interface between downward and upward views is born.

A complex level has two indissoluble sides, that of its constitution and that of its integration. Seen by its constituent aspect it is called ‘system’; seen by its integrated side it is an ‘element’. Crossing a complex level (moving from one side to the other) means changing temporal dimension and context. The properties of the element are maintained while the constitution of the system perpetually evolves. The same thing is stable integration on one side, myriad of states on the other. Here is the root of the strangeness of the complex interface, and the reason why the two looks, each dedicated to a side, do not see the same thing.

Substance = set or stack of properties?

The notion of substance is therefore based on the stable properties of the integrative face. For a material, it is the resistance to the pressure of our finger on its surface. The material seems firm, substantial, whereas to the upward look it is essentially made of emptiness. Can we then reduce the notion of substance to the properties of the integrated thing?

This is a bit skimp, because the thing is in reality a stack of properties, of these successive integrations of the complex levels which constitute it. The properties we experience would not exist without the entire underlying stack, whose origins are lost in increasingly fragile assumptions. The only proven substantial reality of a thing is this stack of complex levels. Its individual essence is the stack in question.

What is the substance of a cat?

Delimiting the individuation of the thing is the business of the downward look. It can be that of an observer who sees a cat and individualizes it by calling it that. However, the cat exists in a broader context and the delimitation is arbitrary. The cat itself self-individualizes through its experience of the self, but this experience also includes its environment and therefore again the delimitation is arbitrary. The individuation of a thing thus belongs to a particular downward look, and the same is true for the definition of a substance: it depends on where the downward look wants to hang on.

A substance manifests itself through the complex level where the downward look is concentrated at the same moment. A material is substantial under our fingers because at that moment we are the tactile sensors of the fingers excited by the pressure against the material. Our downward look is focused on this impression. If our attention is diverted from it, the substantial impression also recedes.

A substantial stack of properties

It is possible to extend this definition to any property evaluated by our mind, through our direct senses or through our instruments. All things with autonomous properties in reality have substance, while things purely intrinsic to our minds, pure abstractions, do not.

However, I repeat, a property is never suspended alone in reality. It is the top of a stack of complex levels, a top delimited by our downward look. Substance is the stacking of all these properties, from those that we do not yet know, below the quantum level, to the mental properties of a human being, which makes us grant a substantial personality to our fellow human beings.

The sur-substance

This properly places the notion of substance at the crossroads of our two looks, the more natural and widely shared which goes down this stack, and the more scrutinizing and scientific which goes up it. This crossroads constantly changes level depending on our attention, but the substance retains its permanence.

This new definition of substance can be described as an ‘emergent substance’, however it is not based on a single emergence but on all those which constitute an individuated thing. I propose the term ‘surimposed substance’ or ‘sur-substance’… which will make our impressions more certain, of course.


Ontology, matter and emergence, Michel Bitbol, Phenom Cogn Sci (2007) 6:293–307 DOI 10.1007/s11097-006-9041-z

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