What is substance?

I’ve written enough posts now that it’s hard to keep track of when I’m repeating this… but fortunately most of the subjects that I talk about don’t grow stale after a single post.

One of the most fundamental debates in philosophy is the nature of substance.  What is reality made of?  The traditional lines are between realists and idealist – the distinction being that the realist things that substance is mind-independent and the idealist thinks that substance is mind-dependent.  Humans are instinctively realists, but the question is not one easily resolved.  I would describe the problem thus: there does appear to be a world that is observer independent, filled with consistent patterns.  This world seems to have brought us into being through the physical process of evolution – this theory well explains our existence, the mechanics of our mind, and our experiences.  However, technically speaking, we have no mind independent experience of this world.  In other words, no human has ever known the world in a mind independent way – without the mind there is no world as we know it.

One alternative proposed by Husserl for this debate was that we should bracket the question off.  Husserl basically asked ‘who cares whether substance is mind independent or mind dependent?  What difference does it make?’  This leads in to Husserl’s notion that the properties of an object that we should attend to is its phenomenological properties (basically its experienced properties).  This sounds idealist, but it kind of isn’t.  Husserl wants to focus on experience, but he wants to set aside the question of whether that experience is of something other or of one’s own being.

Given my inclinations towards phenomenology, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’m very sympathetic to Husserl, though I need to be upfront in saying that my knowledge of his philosophy mostly comes from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  I think that human experience can be well-subsumed within his framework. 

It may seem like many of our scientific theories are dependent on assuming an independent reality, but I’m not sure that is necessarily the case.  Technically speaking all scientific observations are made phenomenologically – they are explanations of our experience.  I do not think that the explanations suddenly spring a leak if they fail to specify whether they think the substance of experience is indepedant of the mind.

Let me know what you think 🙂


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