16 Jul 2009

The Problems With Materialism

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Hi my name’s Bob and I’m a recovering materialist. I’d like to thank my sponsor Gene, who talked me down from the ledge a few years ago…

Over at Crash Landing, my frequent critic Tokyo Tom decided to throw caution to the winds and went head to head(s?) against Gene Callahan and me on materialism. Specifically, Tom labors under the belief that something doesn’t “really” exist unless it’s physical, or at the very least corresponds to something physical. Now you have to overlook Gene’s impatience, but in my book we whupped Tom good. It wasn’t even close.

However, I sympathize with Tom because several years ago I thought the exact same thing he did. Rather than write a huge essay here, let me just give some bullet points. What I’m trying to get you to see is that it is a completely baseless bias to reserve “objective existence” only for items of the physical universe. So here goes:

* Does Sherlock Holmes exist? Where is he then? Can you point to him? (And don’t point to a book talking about him; that’s not Sherlock Holmes himself, that’s a book describing him.)

* OK so maybe he exists in our thoughts, and thoughts are “really” just a part of our brains. But why do we say that? Why aren’t our brains just “really” a part of our thoughts? We know brains exist, and we know minds exist, and for some reason we attribute more objective reality-ness to the former. Why?

* This is the deep part. We know that our subjective experiences are real. We only hold a theory that there is a physical world. It is logically possible that we are in the matrix, that this is all a dream, that we are being deceived by an evil demon, etc. But as Descartes famously argued, we can’t be mistaken about our own consciousness.

* Now here’s an argument Gene used on me back in the day, which at the time I dismissed as flippant. But now I realize, I had to just blow it off, because it was crushing. Daniel Dennett convinced me at the time that consciousness was a “user illusion.” During evolution, it became advantageous for our ancestors to learn to “talk to themselves,” and so our bodies now create the illusion of consciousness. But Gene asked a simple question, “Whom are they fooling?” (Actually I bet Gene’s question was less grammatical.) You can’t have a “user illusion” if there really is no user!

* Is 2+2=4 an objective, true statement? Is it physical? Can you point to it? Sure, you can point to two balls, and then another two balls, and then say that all four of them are, well, four balls. But that’s not the same thing as grasping the truth of the equation, and in fact, it’s entirely possible that one of the balls will disappear while you’re counting (maybe it’s a ball of ice on a stove), or will multiply while you’re counting (maybe it’s a ball of Tribble fur). So when you try to “demonstrate” 2+2=4 with physical objects, it might not work. But you rule out such counterexamples, because you know a priori–without having to look at the physical universe–what the equation means. So all of mathematics seems like a pretty important thing that exists and yet is not physical.

* OK let’s assume that all of reality consists entirely of atoms (or quarks or whatever). We’re watching them bounce around, obeying the laws of physics. Whoa, say what? What the heck is a law of physics? Where is it? Can you point to it, weigh it, see how much bathwater it displaces? No, it’s just a pattern governing the motions of the “real” stuff. But is the law itself real?

* This last point is at once incredibly obvious and yet unbelievably profound. (That’s how I roll on Free Advice.) You can control matter with your mind. (!!) In fact, right now I am making the molecules in my “fingers” (just an arbitrary label we give to these group of cells) move in very specific ways, in order to influence the electric charges in my “laptop” (another label for molecular configurations). I know scientists can peer really hard at the action, and tell me that it seems to be completely due to the laws of physics with no ghostly interference from the spirit world, but I tell ya, I can really control my fingers with my mind. We can sit here all day, and my predictive powers over the motions of the molecules in my fingers will be uncanny. So by the positivist’s own criterion, it seems as if there is more to existence than mere matter in motion.

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