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Jonathan Westphal Neutral Monism

Jonathan Westphal has been a student of Rudolf Steiner's Philosophy Of Freedom his whole life. This led him to develop ideas on neutral monism. (See correction in comment below) Below is an article and a review of his latest book.

Neutral Monism
Jonathan Westphal December 16, 2016 Consciousness / Jonathan Westphal: The Mind-Body Problem / metaphysics of mind

Neutral monism has a fascinating history, from Mach and Chancey Wright (b. 1830 in Northampton MA, where I happen to live) through William James, the American New Realists, including E.B. Holt and Ralph Barton Perry, many of them very much Harvard figures, Bertrand Russell, from 1919 to 1927, to Moritz Schlick and A.J. Ayer.

There is a slightly overlooked aspect to the view that fits in with the post-Hegelian preoccupations of the time. Here are a few lines from Chauncey Wright’s Philosophical Discussions:

Our own mind is not “first known as a phenomenon of the subject ego, or as an effect upon us of an hypothetical outward world, its first unattributed condition would be, by our view, one of neutrality between the two worlds.” Rather, “The distinction of subject and object becomes … a classification through observation and analysis, instead of the intuitive distinction it is supposed to be by most metaphysicians.”

The neutral monist wants us to start with neutral data, some of them having to do with the objects of sense, such as colors and sounds and so on. But also included by neutral monists such as Mach are times and pressures! This sounds odd, but it is really a testament to Mach’s powerful philosophical naiveté. The naive approach paid off well for him in science too, and he was sensitive to things that other researchers missed or did not notice. An example is Mach bands. Mach’s photography of the shock wave shows the same cheerful empirical spirit. Another fine example is the difference in appearance of shapes under rotation. An eighth rotation of a square makes the horizontal distance across the square narrower, so that what is a perceived is more of a diamond than a square.

What did this approach do for the mind-body problem? Take as an example a neutral item the color that I see, like the pale green (a very New England colour) of the door to my left. Is this color physical or psychological? It is hard to say. The natural thought is that the color is paint, so that what you buy at the paint shop are colours. On the other hand what color you see is determined by all sorts of things having to do with the psychology and physiology of the one who is looking at it. The answer of Mach and the other neutral monists was that pro tem a colour is neither physical nor psychological. Asking which it is is a bit like asking whether I am looking at the first, or second or third. An object becomes the first or second or third only by being put in some sort of order, and, according to the neutral monists, though the neutral data such as colours retain their neutral character come what may, in one series of things they can be regarded as physical (for example in connection with the action of light on the coloured surface) and in another they can be regarded as psychological (for example the saturation of colours is often different in the left and right eye).

So where does this get us? Russell, rather surprisingly, having said that physical and psychological items are distinguished “only by their causal laws” (this is in “On Propositions”) allows that unperceived material things obey only physical laws, images obey only psychological laws, and sensations obey or can obey both. So for Russell during this period sensations are the only genuinely neutral elements. His view then is a sort of sandwich, with the genuinely neutral elements only in the middle. Yet if thoughts do not obey physical laws and unperceived material things obey only physical laws, how is this a genuinely neutral monism?

I have tried to give an account in The Mind-Body Problem of the way in which the neutral monist deals with causal relations between mind and body. The neutral monists seem not to have been struck by this problem, contenting themselves with naturalistic dithyrambs about the oneness of things. But that does not tell you how a puncture in the stomach lining will give you the pain of the ulcer. What seems to me very significant is the overlap of two elements in the two different cases, here a searing. The pain is a searing one, but what the stomach acids do the lining of the stomach is searing too. Searing is something that can take a physical or psychological interpretation, and that is very interesting. The fiery aspect of searing can be seen physically on inspection of the ulcers. In connection with this sort of example I offer an account in the book of what causal relations must be for the neutral monist – I hope that readers will find it interesting.

I am also naturally very interested in the way in which images can turn into sensations. If we could get a grip on this, we would be able to understand the way in which a mental image could have an effect on the body. It is also very interesting that thoughts can become images, and the other way round, in hypnopompic and hypnogogic imagery at the borders of sleep.

A few words, as promised, about the difference between neutral monism and double aspect theories. Neutral monism has categorically physical things and categorically mental things in its ontology. If something is physical, and not psychological, it cannot be placed in a psychological series. With the double aspect theory, however, something can be viewed either as physical or as mental, either as extension or as consciousness, or whatever the “principle attributes” of matter and mind are. This difference between the two theories has an important corollary. With neutral monism there is psychophysical causation, as with interactionist dualism, but not so with with the dual aspect theory. True, we can look at a book under the aspect of economic position (it has a price of $15, say) or we can look at it under the aspect of subject matter (its subject is astronomy, say). But the economic object and the object of the subject matter do not interact. For they are the same thing, viewed under different and incompatible aspects. Double aspect theorists owe more to Spinoza, neutral monists to Leibniz and Hume.

To conclude, may I offer a big thank you to John Schwenkler and The Brains Blog for hosting a great discussion? I have had a lot of fun and learnt a lot. I hope that everyone has enjoyed it and benefited from it as much as I have. Cheers John!

Book Overview

Philosophers from Descartes to Kripke have struggled with the glittering prize of modern and contemporary philosophy: the mind-body problem. The brain is physical. If the mind is physical, we cannot see how. If we cannot see how the mind is physical, we cannot see how it can interact with the body. And if the mind is not physical, it cannot interact with the body. Or so it seems.

In this book the philosopher Jonathan Westphal examines the mind-body problem in detail, laying out the reasoning behind the solutions that have been offered in the past and presenting his own proposal. The sharp focus on the mind-body problem, a problem that is not about the self, or consciousness, or the soul, or anything other than the mind and the body, helps clarify both problem and solutions.

Westphal outlines the history of the mind-body problem, beginning with Descartes. He describes mind-body dualism, which claims that the mind and the body are two different and separate things, nonphysical and physical, and he also examines physicalist theories of mind; antimaterialism, which proposes limits to physicalism and introduces the idea of qualia; and scientific theories of consciousness.

Finally, Westphal examines the largely forgotten neutral monist theories of mind and body, held by Ernst Mach, William James, and Bertrand Russell, which attempt neither to extract mind from matter nor to dissolve matter into mind. Westphal proposes his own version of neutral monism. This version is unique among neutral monist theories in offering an account of mind-body interaction.

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What Are Cognitive Rights?


Science Of Cognition: Cognition is how we acquire knowledge. The science of cognition can lead an individual to free thinking and self-determined action, or it can be misused by creating cognitive bias in the individual. Cognitive abuse has many names such as mind control, brainwashing, or marketing.

Cognitive Rights: Cognitive rights are an extension of the recognized human right of free thought to include free thinking. Free thought is the right of an individual to hold or consider a fact, viewpoint, or thought, independent of others' viewpoints. Free thinking includes the right of the individual to pursue and acquire knowledge in their own way. The right of free thinking is violated when someone seeks to exploit an individual by manipulating cognition to change a person’s beliefs, behaviors or identity.

Evaluation Of Cognitive Environment: Each day people try to influence our thinking. This can be helpful in our pursuit of truth or it can be cognitive abuse depending on the cognitive environment. The question is whether the environment and methods used are respectful of individual cognitive rights or exploit and manipulate to serve the agenda of another.


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Here is a chart of views gained on my recent video posted on YouTube. The video started off in the first day getting more views than any of the other 140 videos I have posted on YouTube. You can see the tall bars. Then suddenly the views stopped. YouTube controls the views you get by controlling how easy is is to find with search and recommendations. They even make it difficult for subscribers to be informed of new videos. The video criticized the censorship of Google and YouTube. So to prove me right Youtube censored my video. Many reports are confirming this is happening across the internet.

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By Andrew

[The POF 1.12] "All science would be nothing but the satisfaction of idle curiosity did it not strive to enhance the existential value of human personality. The true value of the sciences is seen only when we have shown the importance of their results for humanity."

Science as an enterprise functions through individuals. Nothing is done in science that doesn't take place first in one, then in a shared community of people's thinking, knowing, and acting.

"..The final aim of the individuality can never be the cultivation of any single faculty, but only the development of all capacities which slumber within us.

[1.13] This book, therefore, does not conceive of science and life in such a way that a person must bow down before the world of ideas and devote their powers to its service ((A curious description of the doctrine of determinism)). On the contrary, it shows that they take possession of the world of ideas in order to use them for their human aims, which transcend those of mere science." R.S.

We each have but one life to experience and make our impression on the world with. There is no greater determining factor on our behavior and personality then our perception of the world in which we are living. Perception is radically altered by the concepts we bring to bear on our experience of the world.

[4.3] "There is a far-reaching difference between the ways in which, for me, the parts of a process are related to one another before, and after, the discovery of the corresponding concepts."

Just as choosing to know the rules to a complex game you choose to play is indispensable in succeeding, we may conclude that by virtue of being alive(playing a game), we have a (self determined) moral imperative to seek true knowledge about our lives and the reality which constitutes it. That is, the pursuit of knowledge is a personal process by which the existential value of all our lives hinges. Humanities collective progress concerning this situation comes down to us as a massive conceptual heritage. By deciding to participate you become one of those who uses the method of science(philosophy) to increase the existential value of humanity, and consequentially yourself.

Where does humanity stand as a whole in terms of possessing and accessing true knowledge of reality? How rich is our existential existence?

The feeling that we have it all figured out is a persistent enemy of knowledge both in our personal lives, and in the greater development of humanities understanding. To forget this is to guarantee yourself to be partially blinded to reality, a potentially hazardous endeavor. The remedy? Do not forget to revel in contemporary mysteries, periodically. The primary "mystery centers" (by volume) of our time are the great branches of academia and universities. To be involved is to participate in or follow the vanguard endeavors of philosophy and science.

One of these fundamental "known-unknowns" which persists in our age of scientific discovery was relatively recently named "the hard problem of consciousness" by philosopher David Chalmers. Popularly, it walks hand in hand with the problem of how humans could have any kind of freedom. But it gets deeper than that. We have quite a few running mysteries in contemporary science. Perhaps the one which looms largest, although not popularly, is the problem of the Big Bang and its initial cause(s). Known in some circles as science's "one free miracle" given which it could explain everything else. The nature of the solar system, Earth, as well as our galaxies behavior are still hotly debated. The question of the origin of life has captured our imaginations. Another one which pops up on the social conscience is the mysteries surrounding Quantum Mechanics. Exotic terms like "dark matter" "dark energy" and "anti-matter" provide chaff for fiction writers and consumers. In fact, every branch of science has its mysteries, it's anomalies. Our exposure to them depends on how closely we associate with the field.

But when Chalmers coined his term he meant something a little more than a mere collection of anomalies. A "hard problem" is insurmountable. It's a crack in the foundation, under it, all through it. This contradicts a narrative called the "Gap Theory of Scientific Progress." That is, all that we have left to do is fill in the little missing pieces of a mostly complete and smoothly functioning scientific theory of the world. The cult classic "Structures of Scientific Revolutions" by Thomas Kuhn is a must read on this subject. Predictably according to Kuhn, these two philosophers of science (not practicing scientists entrenched within a paradigm) are signaling to their specialized peers that there is indeed a bifurcation running through the heart of our current scientific paradigm. Curiously, being able to spot the problem doesn't guarantee you know it's cause.

"The hard problem of consciousness is the problem of explaining how and why we have qualia or phenomenal experiences—how sensations acquire characteristics, such as colors and tastes."

"It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does."

The problem revolves around the proper explanation regarding the boundary between a personal or subjective experience(that of redness for example) and the universal or objective cause of it. What is given prior to analysis is the subjective experience, so it's status as a "real" entity in reality cannot be questioned. Given something like the experience of redness, we now need to explain what kind of process can account for this. In our attempts to do so we turned to the object outside our body which caused it. Here the problems begin. We have one definite category of reality, the "subjective." The next step we imagine is to find a cause for the so called effect. Notice again how Chalmers frames the problem.

"It is widely accepted that experience arises from a physical basis,"

Wide acceptance is a hallmark of paradigm science, but as a Kuhn tells us, this is often in the final moment where stumbling blocks are met. Chalmers follows the contemporary imperative to introduce a second category of reality which fits the role of objective cause, a dualism. Why do this? Our current science has long followed a Materialist ideology in its attempts to explain objects, with much perceived success. In fact the problem today is that we have become so accustomed to this approach that it appears to us self evident. By introducing this physicalist dualism we have created an insolvable conceptual snare. A hard problem. A question of how to bridge two sides of reality. Most recently, certain philosophers have predictably suggested we could just hack of the problematic subjective side. This is the parable about sawing the branch you're perched on. We cannot be so coarse as to simply deny the conduit for which the whole problem arises originally, within consciousness(subjectiveness).

According to Kuhn, a paradigm shift often moves from one center to another pre existing center. So what existing philosophical tradition will be the inherent of the progress of western science? I would like to survey briefly a candidate theory championed by a little known early 20th century philosopher.


Published in 1890, the then strictly academic philosopher Rudolf Steiner's essay 'Atomism, and it's Refutation' is a short, straight forward, conceptual dismantling of the theory of atoms as fundamental constituents of reality. Pointing to the exact issues Chalmers does, Steiner considers inherent contradictions in (still) current theories of sense impression. The cause of the problem for Steiner revolves around the particles fundamental conceptual ineptness to fulfill its designated role within the system. Even then, the paper stood in radical opposition to contemporary Physics, which regards the particle as the true bearer of reality. With a sense of extreme anachronism he dismisses the whole reliance of particles within his model. I wonder how many more essay were ever published in this vein? This type of thinking went out of vogue as Materialism flowered in the 19th century. Let's revisit what was once and may become again a central paradigm Steiner deems 'Monism.'

"To recapitulate. The physicist explains all sense-perceivable, all sense-perceptible qualities by motion. So, what moves cannot yet have qualities. But what has no qualities cannot move at all. Therefore, the atom assumed by physicists is a thing that dissolves into nothing if judged sharply.

So, the whole way of explanation falls. We must ascribe to color, warmth, sounds, etc., the same reality as to motion. With this, we have refuted the physicists, and have proved the objective reality of the world of phenomena and of ideas."

- Atomism and its Refutation, R. Steiner

In the POF, particularly in chapters 6 through 8 of the original English translation, Steiner goes about dismantling the reality of atoms in even greater depth.

[8.4] "Every kind of reality which is assumed to exist outside the sphere of perception and conception must be relegated to the limbo of unverified hypotheses."

[8.12] The dualist believes that the whole world would be dissolved into a mere abstract scheme of concepts, did he not posit the existence of real connections beside the conceptual ones. In other words, the ideal principles which thinking discovers are too airy for the Dualist, and (s)he seeks, in addition, real principles with which to support them."

[6.30] "To form a link between subject and object is impossible for any real process, in the naive sense of the world "real," in which it means a process which can be perceived."

[8.11] "Dualism makes the mistake of transferring the opposition of subject and object, which has meaning only within the perceptual world, to pure conceptual entities outside this world. "

[8.22] "The imperceptible forces of which perceptible things are the bearers, are in fact, illegitimate hypotheses from the standpoint of Naïve Realism. But because naïve realism knows no other realities, it invest it's hypothetical forces with perceptual content. It thus transfers a form of existence (the existence of percepts) to a sphere where the only means of making an assertion concerning such existence, via sense perception, is lacking.

[8.23] This self-contradictory theory leads to Metaphysical Realism."

[8.4] Position and motion are extracted from the rich world of percepts. They are then transferred to the fictitious world of atoms. And then we are astonished that we fail to involve concrete life of the principles of our own making, which we have borrowed from the world of percepts."

[16.1] Monism declines to seek outside the world the ultimate grounds of the world which we perceive and think. For monism, the unity which reflective observation adds to the manifold multiplicity of percepts, is identical with the unity which the human desire for knowledge demands, and through which the desire is fully satisfied."

Steiner is trying to express to us a scientific world view in which we can no longer see a bottom up physicalist approach as valid. This, as mentioned was radical for his time, and has only grown more so as we descended into the assumption of atoms as real entities of nature. However, it's radical nature does not displace the fact that his published views were also in a sense, surprisingly predictive of things to come. As the quantum revolution unfolded just after his death, it ushered in many more problems which forced exoteric Science(as we have seen) to deal once again with the shortcomings of a Materialist approach to explaining reality. The Materialist's precious particles underwent such a radical conceptual barrage that it has fractured their trust in them, if at least in the forward thinking radical minds of our time. Those who allow themselves to entertain such dilemmas without referring to the refuge of dogma and pushing ahead indifferently, within a specialized micro set of "reality."

Since Steiners death, anyone who reckoned with the conceptual shortcomings posed by this Materialist view in light of further unfolding discoveries have famously failed to overcome them. Einstein, the worlds most famous genius worked on a unifying theory for decades. Never achieving this goal.

"Hence it is clear that the space of physics is not, in the last analysis, anything given in nature independent of human thought. It is a function of our conceptual scheme."

"One has to find a way to avoid the continuum(together with space and time) altogether. But I have not the slightest idea what kind of elementary concepts could be used in such a theory."

- Einstein

Einsteins conceptual hang up, like many before and after him, is due to his being guilty of making the mistake Steiner associates with Metaphysical Realism above. Einstein needs there to be a "real" natural process to unify perception with reality, beside our conceptual understanding. His refusal to give up this requirement proves to be an unconscious assumption, hence his inability to think around it.

"(Einstein's) adherence to the continuum did not (quoting Einstein) 'originate in a prejudice, but arises out of the fact that I have been unable to think up anything organic to take its place.' "

There exists a host of curious quotes from the famous QMers, Planck, Bohr, Heisenberg, Bohm and Feynman illustrating their bafflement. What we must take from this is not that the obscure Steiner was that much more brilliant, a polymath genius in the rough (that he may none the less prove to be so, eventually). These men were highly skilled thinkers. The take away must be that reality is not necessarily unknowable, but indeed so coherent that no amount of genius can make it fit in to a bad replica (a bad theory). It proves Materialism is on a dead end track. Steiner's real advantage was one of perspective.

Steiner insists that progress rests upon our acceptance of thoughts ability to access universal ideal principles which in reality are the "underside" (or nexus point) of our perceptual content. We can think of it as replacing the vague notions of "forces of nature" and "laws of nature."

[8.28] "Monism replaces forces by ideal relations which are supplied by thought. These relations are the laws of nature. A law of nature is nothing but the conceptual expression for the connection of certain percepts."

Steiner replaces the assumption of a visual boundary(or some other sense boundary) between us and reality, with a conceptual one. Where before we had no ability (even aided by technological development i.e. Electron Scanning Microscopes etc.) to transcend this boundary with our natural perception, thought bridges the so called gap.

This system has absolute implications for every field of science for which particles are related. Given that physics has been classically, the darling of the sciences, it's tenants are like tracks each other science has followed in tail. The picture we get is of a change in the vanguard of the philosophy of science. A paradigm shift. This as mentioned is already occurring. Things like the Relativity/Quantum Mechanics face off of the 1920s, and later String Theory are the pre-tremors. The stage is set for a major ground shift to occur, and I believe Steiner, even by 1900 was uniquely positioned to predict its outcome in a way that nearly no other mind would be or is still able to still. (With exception in my opinion to the work done by contemporary physicists Tom Campbell)

The system Steiner gave us prior to the dawning of our contemporary physics is one where the absolute "limits" of our perception are unrequitedly accepted, in that we do not seek to push through them, or class them as the prime barrier to our perceiving reality. Instead for Steiner, the barrier is between the content of the self and the world as a unity. The barrier is pre-conditioned by nature, but it is not absolute. Through our thinking we recursively cross the boundary between the manifold of broken off (subjective) percepts and the unified conceptual world of which they came. Reality does not emerge into perceptions from the very small, it emerges from the unity of concept with percept, provided by thinking. Physicists want to dive in and "see" reality, if only they're technology can extend their sensory perception. What they fail to realize is that there never was a world below the visual to see! This is an extraordinary realization. When they look in smaller and smaller portions of space, they should instead be examining their thinking. By uniting the correct universal concepts with the perceptions as given, a scientist can know reality.

Steiner DOES want us to accept the validity of a realm of reality for which we cannot "see." But he cautions rigorously against building theories in the air. So what realm is he pointing to? He wants to open our scientific eyes to a world that is composed of objects and processes which have a conceptual side completely bound together with its perceptible side, forming an all encompassing whole. A whole in which the human being is perfectly situated to grasp.

Science must abandon the idea of bottom up atomistic physics and begin again with this new method. A "New Science" in the tradition of Goethe and others. Luckily it hardly means a full 180. We can not lose the baby as the saying goes. All of the conceptual principals Materialist have put in place along the way must remain! It is merely the cumbersome model of particle physics that will go, and with it all of the pesky misapprehensions it ushers in. A welcome change. As our conception of the world changes, our perception changes. When we live in a new world we become new beings. Think of what language has done for our species, perhaps a "new science" can do something similar?

100 years down the line, there does now exist academic precedents for these ideas outside of Steiner. To quote the Digital Physics Wikipedia page, "In physics and cosmology, digital physics (also referred to as digital ontology or digital philosophy) is a collection of theoretical perspectives based on the premise that the universe is describable by information. According to this theory, the universe can be conceived of as either the output of a deterministic or probabilistic computer program, a vast, digital computation device, or mathematically isomorphic to such a device."

Here the word 'information' takes on a central role, becoming a buzz word in some circles. This takes little effort to transform into the concept the word concept points to. The world is fundamental related by concepts (information).

There now exists a breed of highly scientific, brilliant individuals who feel the need to theorize once again beyond Materialism. I believe they deserve to be influenced by the greatest ideas mankind has brought forth on the subject, therefore I believe they deserve to devour Steiner's opinions on the subject. What I see as needing to happen is a collaboration between philosophers, scientists, and the material produced by Steiner before (and after) 1900. As Steiner may help shed light on exoteric Science's dilemmas, so too should exoteric Science help shed much needed light on our obscure polymaths later esoteric Anthroposophical system. Neither exoteric nor esoteric science's content and participants should be scoffed out without visitation accompanied by an understanding of this new more comprehensive science. I encourage qualified individuals to help undertake the testing of this exciting potential revolution in the way we relate to reality as a species.

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© Tom Last 2017