Thursday, November 19, 2009

Materialism and "empiricism"

Commenter Thoughts directs our attention to his (?) essay, Materialists should read this first. This essay is, however, problematic on a number of points.

In his essay, Thoughts points out a contradiction in materialism, inveighs at great length against materialism and its dogmatic adherents, and suggests the alternative of empiricism.

On one hand I can't object to a general exhortation against dogmatism and an irrational attachment to outdated ideas contradicted by modern observations. On the other hand, it's not at all clear that Thoughts intends only such a facile reading.

There is a notable difference between the ordinary, common use of terminology and its use by experts and professionals. If I gave you tickets to a classical music concert, you would probably not be too surprised to hear Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Vivaldi on the program, even though a professional musicologist would consider only one of those composers (Mozart) to actually be classical. You might even be unsurprised to hear Aaron Copland or Leonard Bernstein. (And if the tickets turned out to be to Cosi fan tutti, you might well object, "That's not classical music, it's opera!") Likewise, professional philosophers have a detailed taxonomy of philosophical ideas and writing. A professional philosopher may use "materialism" to denote something very different from what an ordinary philosophically literate person might mean.

Thoughts does not explicitly disambiguate what usage of "materialism" he intends, but his use of broad generalities to characterize materialists and their intellectual failings suggests that he's talking about the larger audience. However, he presents a technical philosophical definition: "Materialism is the belief that everything is due to matter and the flow of matter from place to place." This apposition of the general population with the technical meaning is suspicious: one might similarly criticize the Philadelphia Classical Music Appreciation Society on the basis of its name alone for ignoring Bach (Baroque) and Beethoven (Romantic).

Furthermore, for all the many denunciations of materialists' dogmatism in his essay, Thoughts does not give us any concrete examples. It's one thing to simply mention a bad argument for an incorrect position as a rhetorical springboard to a good argument for a better position, but when an author lays the anonymous denunciations on so thick as in this essay, a careful reader suspects a fallacy of the converse and an ad hominem argument. And Thoughts strengthens this suspicion with a description of his preferred alternative — "empiricism" — that is thin to the point of vapidity, consisting mostly of the banal exhortation that we should pay attention to the evidence and keep an open mind.

Also too his choice of alternative is curious in the context. Materialism (and "dualism" (technically dualistic idealism or mentalism) are ontological positions: they purport to describe how the world actually is. Empiricism is usually taken, however, as an epistemological position: a methodology to gain knowledge about how the world actually is. (Empiricism as an ontological position — that all that exists is perception — is if anything even more philosophically discredited than naive materialism.)

It is a matter of historical fact that materialism as a formal philosophy was developed in the 18th century and achieved wide currency in the 19th century as classical, non-relativistic physics made profound advances and especially as scientific biology demolished vitalism. As such, the formal definition of materialism, that everything can be characterized by matter and its interactions, or more popularly as that everything is matter in motion, reflects this early scientific view. It is also a matter of historical fact that since the development of materialism, modern science has made additional advances — notably Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics — which have changed our understanding of physical reality as much as did classical physics. Thoughts argues that these modern scientific advances fundamentally demolish materialist philosophy. But do they?

If we take the terms of 18th and 19th century philosophical materialism literally, with matter meaning specifically atoms and motion in the specifically Newtonian sense of change in an atom's position in absolute space over absolute time, then of course materialism is at least in some sense incorrect, or at least naive. But we must ask: do people today who can reasonably be described as materialists subscribe to this view of physical reality? Do they actually "deny observation" to preserve their view? Is the view of physical reality as "matter in motion" essential to materialism? And most importantly, how much does our modern understanding of relativity and quantum mechanics actually change the philosophy of materialism?

One should always be skeptical of an opponent's description of an opposing philosophy. Wikipedia describes several notable philosophers and scientists as "scientific materialists" (presumably falling in the category of materialists that Thoughts criticizes), including Daniel Dennett, Willard Van Orman Quine, Donald Davidson, John Rogers Searle, Jerry Fodor, and Richard Dawkins. If Thoughts wishes to make his charge stick that materialists deny observation and ignore well-established modern physics, we should expect the support of citations and quotations from at least the most notable advocates of materialism. It might be the case that Thaddeus Hicklehooper* of Muncie, Indiana has a naive and out-dated view of physical reality, gleaned from his C- in Introduction to Philosophy at the Adult Learning Annex, but who cares?

*Not a real person

Thoughts' choice of critique of materialism is also puzzling. He critiques materialism not on the obvious grounds that reality is more complicated than atoms moving and bouncing around, but on the basis of a specific interpretation of time:
If everything is due to the flow of matter and time is like the succession of frames in a motion picture [emphasis added] then at every instant reality is a frozen three dimensional pattern, like a single frame in a movie.

Materialism does not allow the transfer of information from the past to the present except as recorded data so the frozen instant is all that exists in the materialist paradigm. The instant is frozen because there is no time for motion to take place at an instant.
Note how Thoughts apparently extends the definition of materialism in the bolded passage. This particular view of time is certainly not part of the stated definition of even 18th century materialism, and Thoughts offers not even an argument why we should consider this definition essential to materialism. And indeed this definition seems not only unjustified but perverse: if we consider materialism to be matter in motion, then motion must be an intrinsic property of material reality; viewing time as a succession of frozen images denies motion as an intrinsic property. Furthermore, the assumption of a continuum is a fundamental part of classical (and even non-quantum-mechanical relativistic) physics; if instants in time are "frozen", there must be not only infinitely many of them, but this infinity has to be the same cardinality of the real numbers. A lot of our prosaic intuitions simply fail even at the "lesser" infinite cardinality of integers. And of course it's astonishing to suggest that philosophers, scientists, and ordinary philosophically literate people have been for three hundred years unaware of Zeno's paradox until an anonymous blogger has brought it to our attention.

It is also surprising that Thoughts lumps physicalism in with materialism. [see comment] Thoughts correctly disambiguates materialism from physicalism. But pPhysicalism is precisely the technical philosophical term denoting the "modernization" of 18th and 19th century materialism to a modern relativistic and quantum mechanical scientific understanding of physics. If materialism in the technical sense is matter in motion, then physicalism is the sole existence of "physical substance", whatever the physics du jour proclaim that is the nature of that substance. (Physicists today considered this "substance" to be a collection of relativistic quantum mechanical fields.) Worse yet, the distinction between materialism and physicalism is a technical distinction in professional philosophy; it would be perverse to insist that ordinary people make this fine distinction, or to infer only from their terminology that they necessarily and essentially rely on an outdated view of physical reality.

And indeed the fine details of physicists' ontology are not necessary to materialism. The essence of materialism is not what can be deduced from a specific ontology, but rather the rejection of idealism and dualism, an essence specifically noted by Wikipedia, materialism
is different from ontological theories based on dualism or pluralism. For singular explanations of the phenomenal reality, materialism would be in contrast to idealism and to spiritualism.
In his essay, Thoughts actually notes this essential contrast: philosophers "have split into two main groups," materialists and dualists. The essential property of philosophical materialism is its monism, not the specific details of physics.

And, while they profoundly change our view of physical reality, the truth is that Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics don't much change philosophical views that rests on a classical understanding of reality. Relativity and quantum mechanics don't even change a lot of science; wide swaths of scientific and engineering endeavors can safely ignore relativity and quantum mechanics, including a lot of astrophysics, orbital mechanics, and even electronics (while transistors do depend fundamentally on quantum mechanics, most electrical engineers ignore the quantum underpinnings and work at the level of classical approximations of their emergent behavior). Newtonian classical physics might be a "special case" of relativistic quantum mechanics, if by "special case" we mean 99.999..99% of observable phenomena.

Even the 0.000.01% of "edge" cases of relativity and quantum mechanics don't affect our materialistic philosophy much. Relativity doesn't change anything important; if anything it reinforces materialism: time and space are now interactions of matter; they don't sit "outside" matter, actually eliminating a puzzling dualism within material reality. And the only aspects of quantum mechanics that pertain to a materialistic philosophy are the Copenhagen interpretation, which simply denies that science has anything to say about ontology whatsoever, and the role of the observer in quantum mechanics. But the first is just cowardice — quantum mechanics does have something to say about ontology; it's just too weird and counter-intuitive for many people, including many scientists, to believe. And the role of the observer is pure speculation; we have absolutely no evidence to prefer any special role of "consciousness" to more prosaic, materialistic (or "physicalist") views such as the Many Worlds or Transactional interpretations.

Finally, Thoughts exhortation that, "The problem of how we can experience anything will require a scientific rather than an ideological approach," falls flat. Even the relatively naive 19th century view of materialism is the result of a scientific understanding of reality, and the philosophy easily survives modern scientific knowledge just by tweaking the specifics of what we consider "substance" to be. Materialism hardly requires a massive denial of observation or a dogmatic rejection of the relevance of "any cosmology after 100 AD."

43 comments:

  1. A few words in defence.

    You say that I have used "materialism" in a vague fashion and state that "A professional philosopher may use "materialism" to denote something very different from what an ordinary philosophically literate person might mean." but then say "However, he presents a technical philosophical definition: "Materialism is the belief that everything is due to matter and the flow of matter from place to place."". These two criticisms seem to be in opposition to each other. On the one hand I am vague and on the other precise.

    You then deploy the old accusation of epistemological-ontological confusion that is such a ready weapon in criticising theories of mind. This is a mis-reading of the essay (Materialists should read this first ) which is suggesting that materialists and dualists have prejudices that prevent them from acquiring further knowledge and the solution to this is an empirical approach. You say that materialists and dualists describe the world as they believe it is, I agree, to overcome this fixity New Empiricism is a plea to find out more about the world before having an immutable opinion.

    Moving on. On the subject of direct reponses to Dennett, Quine, Dawkins and the rest, perhaps I should produce an essay for each. My intention in "Materialists should read this first" was, as you spotted, to tackle popular materialism. The materialism in which people have heard the popular lectures and TV programs of Dennett and Dawkins and casually believe that we are all like computers and that there are no difficulties in the theory of mind.

    You then move on to attack the extension of the definition of materialism to include a particular idea of time "This particular view of time is certainly not part of the stated definition of even 18th century materialism". Well, its not stated but what Whitehead called the "Alexandrian" idea of time was nearly universal before the nineteenth century. The absence of time in the definition of 18th century materialism is due to the fact that modern ideas of time were not discovered until the nineteenth century and only widely acknowledged in the twentieth.

    I agree with your connection between Zeno's paradox and the problem of materialist time. Yes, those philosophers who dealt withy the philosophy of time have repeatedly told us that there is a problem. What I am pointing out is that this problem is also at the root of the regress arguments in the theory of mind.

    When you say that "It is also surprising that Thoughts lumps physicalism in with materialism. But physicalism is precisely the technical philosophical term denoting the "modernization" of 18th and 19th century materialism to a modern relativistic and quantum mechanical scientific understanding of physics." I think you have misread my article, it actually says exactly the opposite (see "Note 1" in the article).

    You say that "The essence of materialism is not what can be deduced from a specific ontology, but rather the rejection of idealism and dualism". Well, I pointed out the opposite - that dualism is a rejection of materialism - but also noted that materialism and dualism love to debate with each other because they share the same Alexandrian cosmology. They reject each other.

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  2. continuation.....

    You say in your article: "And, while they profoundly change our view of physical reality, the truth is that Einsteinian relativity and quantum mechanics don't much change philosophical views that rests on a classical understanding of reality." As I said in my article, materialists will deny that modern physical ideas have any relevance to their philosophical position. My basic point is that the regress arguments and the Aristotlean problem of self awareness are about our idea of time so relativity in particular will indeed be relevant. If dimensional time exists and the metric of spacetime has an uneven signature (+++- etc), then there are alternatives to describing experience in terms of material flows. One alternative might be to consider experience as a multidimensional geometrical form (See Presentism and the denial of mind).

    Finally my "exhortation that, "The problem of how we can experience anything will require a scientific rather than an ideological approach," does not "fall flat", what I am asking is that philosophers and neuroscientists take a closer look at modern physics and use a twenty first century understanding of science rather than an eighteenth century outlook.

    Having said all that, thank you for an enjoyable discussion of the article.

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  3. You say that I have used "materialism" in a vague fashion...

    I did not say your definition was vague, I noted that you equivocate between the formal and informal senses.

    You then deploy the old accusation of epistemological-ontological confusion that is such a ready weapon in criticising theories of mind.

    I did not say you were confused about epistemology and ontology, I noted that you appose an ontological term with an epistemological. Furthermore, you do not present a theory of mind in the essay, nor do I criticize one.

    This is a mis-reading of the essay ... which is suggesting that materialists and dualists have prejudices that prevent them from acquiring further knowledge...

    It is unclear whether it is the mis-reading or your essay itself that suggests these prejudices. Assuming the latter, your essay does not "suggest" anything: you admirably say right out that materialists and dualists have prejudices. You do not, however, offer support that any significant materialists actually hold or promote the prejudices or positions you describe, nor do you offer any support that any opinion held by any significant materialist is held immutably.

    Simply having an opinion -- especially an opinion supported by observational facts -- is not evidence of fixity or immutability. Indeed the characterization of opposing opinion as dogmatic and the plea for an open mind, especially when this tactic is used directly as support for a particular position is a common feature of poorly-supported positions.

    My intention ... was, as you spotted, to tackle popular materialism.

    But you have not tackled "popular" materialism; frankly I have no idea what "popular" materialism actually is: I suspect that the vast majority of ordinary people have only the vaguest idea about philosophical materialism is and who have no idea what Marx, La Mettrie, Hobbes, Dennett or Dawkins have contributed to the philosophy.

    Regardless, you have provided no evidence as to even a popular materialism; you proffer only your own opinions which, as a stated opponent of the philosophy, we must view skeptically as probably biased and possibly fictitious.

    The materialism in which people have heard the popular lectures and TV programs of Dennett and Dawkins and casually believe that we are all like computers and that there are no difficulties in the theory of mind.

    I think it's perverse to claim that Dennett and Dawkins have "casual" beliefs about the theory of mind or that there are no "difficulties"; such a comment seems outrageously biased and tendentious. And if this is what you mean by "popular" materialism, an honest critique would name them directly and use quotations and citations to substantiate your opinion.

    You then move on to attack the extension of the definition of materialism to include a particular idea of time...

    Indeed. You seem to admit the definition of time you criticize isn't canonical to 19th century materialism, and its been a well-known element of controversy since ca. 400 BCE. You don't make the case that this view of time is any more necessary to materialism than any particular theory about electromagnetism or the mass of the proton.

    What I am pointing out is that [Zeno's paradox of the arrow] is also at the root of the regress arguments in the theory of mind.

    You do not seem to point out that connection in the cited essay.

    I think you have misread my article, it actually says exactly the opposite (see "Note 1" in the article).

    I did indeed misread you on this point: I read "both" in the subsequent sentence as referring to materialists and physicalists; on a close reading it clearly refers to both materialists and dualists. My sincere apologies. I'll correct my essay.

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  4. I've corrected the essay. Note, though, that it is still unjustified to apply the technical distinction to ordinary "popular" usage or to make very specific inferences from popular uses.

    As I said in my article, materialists will deny that modern physical ideas have any relevance to their philosophical position.

    Indeed you did. But just saying that doesn't make the argument incorrect. And the argument in your essay is subtly different: you argue that materialists deny that relativity deny the relevance of relativity and QM to actual science.

    Technically the argument is not that we can just dismiss S/GR and QM as scientifically irrelevant. The argument is more like: if some phenomena (e.g. a theory of mind) were adequately accounted for by "matter in motion", and if "matter in motion" is (under ordinary conditions) later adequately accounted for by S/GR & QM, then nothing about S/GR & QM actually changes nothing about our scientific theories of mind, in much the same sense that S/GR & QM don't change anything about how we play pool or send rockets to Mars.

    I am asking is that philosophers and neuroscientists take a closer look at modern physics and use a twenty first century understanding of science rather than an eighteenth century outlook.

    But you have offered no evidence that philosophers and neuroscientists are not looking at modern physics (ok, I'll buy that philosophers often don't, but philosophers are generally (with few exceptions) bullshit artists one step above theologians).

    You offer no evidence that a closer look at modern physics would productively improve our understanding of neuroscience. AFAIK, only Penrose has suggested that quantum effects play a substantial role in neurobiology, but his ideas are entirely speculative, without any evidentiary support.

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  5. ... then nothing about S/GR & QM actually changes anything about our scientific theories of mind...

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  6. I am saying that dimensional time is a part of experience. That you can hear whole words and see movements. I am also saying that our experience is like what Dennett calls a "Cartesian Theatre", again a hallmark geometrical consequence of the existence of dimensional time.

    Listen and look, is your experience in the geometrical form of a "view" with objects waving in the wind? This looks like geometry rather than dynamics and if it is possible to dislodge people's dynamical idea of time and their consequential presentism people might come to accept their experience for what it is.

    It is curious that Dennett, in "Consciousness Explained" introduces the "Cartesian Theatre" as if all his readers would know immediately what he meant and then mocks it as an impossibility. Of course its impossible as a consequence of dynamics but its not impossible as an n-dimensional geometric form.

    If experience has more than 3 dimensions then a knowledge of the geometry of spacetime will be crucial to understand it. (Relativity deals largely with the dynamical consequences of the universe as a 4D manifold).

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  7. I am saying that dimensional time is a part of experience.

    I'm not sure what you mean by "dimensional" time, instead of just time, but yes, time is something that seems more-or-less immediate to experience. So what?

    I am also saying that our experience is like what Dennett calls a "Cartesian Theatre"

    Dennett makes a good case in Consciousness Explained that our experience might "seem" like a "Cartesian Theatre", but such a view is unjustified on the empirical facts.

    Of course [a Cartesian Theatre is] impossible as a consequence of dynamics but its not impossible as an n-dimensional geometric form.

    First, Dennett does not make the case that a Cartesian Theatre is logically impossible, he makes the case that such a view is not supported by the facts.

    Second, I have no idea what you're talking about: n-dimensional geometry is a profoundly difficult field of mathematics.

    If experience has more than 3 dimensions...

    I don't know how many dimensions experience has; I don't even know if the statement is meaningful. I do know that our best modern physics says that objective reality has three large symmetric dimensions (space) and one large asymmetric dimension (time).

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  8. What are the "facts" that Dennett uses to disprove the existence of a Cartesian Theatre? His idea that the phi effect does not involve an actual modelling of moving lights (ch 5) has been disproven, MRI shows that the brain models the change in position of lights as an actual wave of topological activity on the cortex (Larsen et al 2006) and there are now numerous experiments showing that experience is delayed the requisite 0.2-0.6 secs for this modelling to become conscious content.

    But Dennett is disingenuous from the start in claiming that the Cartesian Theatre is where "it all comes together" (p107). This is not our experience, our experience is simply that things are arranged around us. Our Cartesian Theatre is geometrical but Dennett, being dedicated to dynamical explanations, insists on a dynamical interpretation and suggests that those who believe they experience a "view" are actually maintaining that they believe experience is a material flow into a point! To quote "Cartesian materialism is the view that there is a crucial finish line or boundary" a "locus" for experience. Well, this is true of Cartesian Materialism - the Res Cogitans is the imaginary place and Descartes got to this idea by invoking dynamical explanations. But our experience does not involve stuff flowing into an unextended locus, the Theatre is geometrical, I don't experience a single strand of objects flowing into a point, my experience is laid out around me. It is like this in both my perception and my dreams.

    So the predictions of Dennett's multiple drafts are wrong (see Blankenburg et al 2006 as well) and Dennett wastes his breath criticising poor old Descartes. Of course there isnt a point in the pineal that receives a flow of data!


    Blankenburg, F., Ruff, C.C., Deichmann, R., Rees, G. and Driver, J. (2006) The cutaneous rabbit illusion affects human primary sensory cortex somatotopically, PLoS Biol 2006;4(3):e69.

    Larsen, A., Madsen, K.H., Lund, T.E., and Bundesen, C. (2006). Images of Illusory Motion in Primary Visual Cortex. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 2006;18:1174-1180.
    [edit]

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  9. Let's cut to the chase. Dennett might or might not be mistaken, but you've not shown he's unacceptably dogmatic.

    Thoughts, I honestly don't know whether your ideas are ground-breaking genius or crackpot crazy.

    I do know that it's unconvincing to heap scorn and approbation on those who disagree with you -- especially those such as Dennett who have a reasonably good reputation for scientific integrity.

    Dennett might well be wrong; indeed the entire scientific community might well be wrong. It's happened before; it'll happen again. But you need to show directly that you're correct; even the wrongness of an opponent's position is no evidence that your own is right.

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  10. Thoughts is blithering. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to postulate anything other than "matter in motion" to underlie mind and consciousness. The trap that people like Thoughts fall into is confusing the sufficiency of material explanation of mind and consciousness with the necessity of mind and consciousness following from the structure of physical reality.

    It's like complaining that a Picasso can't possibly consist of nothing more than paint on canvas, because the existence of a bunch of tubes of paint and a blank canvas do not by necessity imply the existence of Picassos.

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  11. Comrade, with all due respect, I think you are misreading Thoughts' substantive position. His position -- on my admittedly limited reading -- has problems that seem severe, but not the specific problems you state.

    As best I can tell, Thoughts' is not arguing for something more than materialism (he (?) appears as contemptuous of dualists as materialists), but something different from 19th century classical-physics materialism, as indicated by his approval of physicalism.

    I contend that that most so-called "materialists" are really physicalists in a technical philosophical sense. I contend that -- as far as I know -- quantum mechanics and relativity don't seem to change much of our understanding of a lot of physics, especially biology, neurophysiology and the theory of consciousness. To take a thoroughly 19th century metaphor, one could achieve consciousness on a bunch of abacuses. I suspect Thoughts would disagree.

    I also contend that it's one thing to get frustrated and vent from time to time, but one sounds like a crackpot when one starts off an argument denouncing the closed-mindedness of his or her opponents.

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  12. I contend that -- as far as I know -- quantum mechanics and relativity don't seem to change much of our understanding of a lot of physics, especially biology, neurophysiology and the theory of consciousness.

    I'm not sure what physicalism is as distinct from materialism, nor do I have any idea how there could be different types of materialism, but you are 100% right about this.

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  13. In technical philosophical taxonomy — which makes as many ultra-fine distinctions as any scientific field — materialism is the philosophy that there's nothing more than literally atoms and motion; physicalism is the more modern distinction that is somewhat more loose about what the underlying "material" of reality actually is.

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  14. Time to weigh in I'm afraid. Actually, Thoughts' mistake is he's basically got his metaphysics wrong. The problem Thoughts is highlighting is the implication of Leibniz's law which states that if A and B are the same thing then they can't be different. How do I know for example when I've picked up the wrong umbrella? Well, my umbrella is black whereas this one is beige therefore they aren't the same umbrella.

    The problem which Thoughts correctly highlights is that this causes problems because if say I have the fabric in my umbrella replaced so that it was green, if I follow Leibniz's Law strictly then I would be forced to say that it wasn't my umbrella.

    Presumable, and this is frankly the most charitable way I can conceive of the point, Thoughts means to say that from a materialist position I can't have a thought because once the arrangement of atoms in my brain has changed, we're not talking about the same thought.

    If I'm not wrong about my interpretation then the problem is simply that Thoughts has committed the materialist to a restricted version of Leibniz Law. The whole problem falls apart if I allow for example for my umbrella to have the property of black at t1 and green at t2. A thought then for a materialist will be a state of the brain that has one configuration at t1 and a different one at t2. This is essentially the point he seems to be trying to get at but rather ridiculously asserting that it's a position a materialist can't hold. As this is the crux of his argument then we can pretty much ignore the rest because Thoughts has ceased to actually be arguing with anything other than the phantom of his own misconceptions.

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  15. Comrade Physioprof says:

    "'m not sure what physicalism is as distinct from materialism, nor do I have any idea how there could be different types of materialism"

    This is the crux of the problem. There is a difference between physicalism and materialism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts this well in its entry for physicalism it states:

    "Physicalism is sometimes known as materialism. Historically, materialists held that everything was matter -- where matter was conceived as "an inert, senseless substance, in which extension, figure, and motion do actually subsist" (Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge, par. 9). The reason for speaking of physicalism rather than materialism is to abstract away from this historical notion, which is usually thought of as too restrictive -- for example, forces such as gravity are physical but it is not clear that they are material in the traditional sense (Dijksterhuis 1961, Yolton 1983)."

    Once spacetime is included in our calculations the materialist stance becomes shaky - violations of causality, action at a distance and all sorts of phenomenon become physically conceivable and materialist certainties evaporate.

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  16. Barefoot bum said:

    "But you need to show directly that you're correct; even the wrongness of an opponent's position is no evidence that your own is right."

    Well, from the point of view of debating materialism it is only necessary to show that materialism is highly dubious. It is not just dubious but distinctly nineteenth century, modern physics shows materialism to be a special case.

    The big problem here is that the discoveries of Relativity are actually evidence for the four dimensional nature of reality. The increases in inertia of subatomic particles in accelerators, the tiny amount of slowing of clocks in airplanes etc. seem like marginal effects but they are actually evidence that dimensional time exists. Materialism is not a 4D paradigm, it does not allow a flexing spacetime. See Wikibook special relativity. To me this is obviously just the tip of the physical iceberg because a block universe is not a complete physical theory.

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  17. That Guy Montag said:

    "The whole problem falls apart if I allow for example for my umbrella to have the property of black at t1 and green at t2. A thought then for a materialist will be a state of the brain that has one configuration at t1 and a different one at t2."

    This is precisely the problem I am addressing. I contend that we can actually experience change. We can see things move and hear whole words, not just phonemes or instants. This suggests that we are extended in dimensional time (See Time and conscious experience). As a physicalist I have no problem with this observation - after all, time exists as a dimension that is interdependent with the spatial dimensions.

    As a materialist I would be forced to say that at any instant I have a brain in a fixed state and that previous states are only available as "records". Sure, at t2 I have a record of a green umbrella as it was at t1 but this is just an extension of a static 3D brain state. How can I know about the umbrellas or act on the basis of the umbrellas in this paradigm, a paradigm where nothing moves? I can start an action in the next moment but then the previous instant has gone, how can I know that this action was in response to the umbrellas? I could write a report in the next instant but then....

    As it says in the article materialists: "... use the time-extended nature of their actual experience to knit together the impossible instants of their theoretical idea of the world into a continuous whole without realising that this continuum is impossible in their Alexandrian cosmology."

    See also Perceiving perception..

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  18. This is the crux of the problem. There is a difference between physicalism and materialism.

    <shrugs> So most "materialists" are really physicalists who are not as formal and precise as you about their terminology; "materialism" is used informally as a synecdoche.

    Well, from the point of view of debating materialism it is only necessary to show that materialism is highly dubious.

    You're speaking mostly to an audience of corpses, buried in frock coats.

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  19. Barefoot Bum:
    "You're speaking mostly to an audience of corpses, buried in frock coats."

    But if we return to Dennett, Dawkins and other modern, evangelical materialists we come across statements such as (Dennett 1999):

    "A curious anachronism found in many but not all of these reactionaries is that to the extent that they hold out any hope at all of solution to the problem (or problems) of consciousness, they speculate that it will come not from biology or cognitive science, but from–of all things!–physics! ....... Not just philosophers and linguists have found this an attractive idea. Many physicists have themselves jumped on the bandwagon, following the lead of Roger Penrose, whose speculations about quantum fluctuations in the microtubules of neurons have attracted considerable attention and enthusiasm in spite of a host of problems. What all these views have in common is the idea that some revolutionary principle of physics could be a rival to the idea that consciousness is going to be explained in terms of “parts which work one upon another,” as in Leibniz’s mill."


    I am maintaining that Dennett is wrong, consciousness requires a physicalist explanation, it is not the case that "consciousness is going to be explained in terms of “parts which work one upon another,” as in Leibniz’s mill". Leibniz's mill is parts that are static at each instant but we contain time.


    Dennett, D. (1999). "The Zombic Hunch: Extinction of an Intuition?", Royal Institute of Philosophy Millennial Lecture http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/zombic.htm

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  20. I am maintaining that Dennett is wrong...

    Indeed. But according to the cited passage if Dennett were wrong, he would be wrong because he has the science wrong, not the philosophy. He's not saying that reality doesn't have a quantum or relativistic nature, he's saying that the quantum/relativistic nature is just not particularly relevant to theories of consciousness.

    It's definitely the case that you simply cannot explain black-body radiation without a specifically quantum mechanical view. You cannot explain the orbit of Mercury without GR.

    On the other hand, we can talk about a lot of physics, including kinetic/potential energy, chemistry, orbital mechanics, biology, physiology, without every thinking very deeply about QM/SR/GR.

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  21. Note that Dennett's phrase "...the idea that consciousness is going to be explained in terms of 'parts which work one upon another,' as in Leibniz’s mill," introduces a simile; similes, like metaphors, are taken to make comparisons, not as an absolutely literal commitment.

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  22. Fundamentally, Thoughts, a careful reader will infer the weakness of your positive argument from your negative argument against an unattributed, straw-man materialism. If you had a positive case, you would simply make it.

    I don't know that you actually are, but if you start off sounding like a crackpot, why should I investigate further on the off chance you might not be?

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  23. Agreed, Dennett includes the following simile "..AS in Leibniz's mill" but this is a simile for what Dennett considers to be a statement of fact, ie:

    "..consciousness is going to be explained in terms of “parts which work one upon another,..” "

    I have read almost all of Dennett's work (he is one of the more important philosophers of the 20th century) and this form of materialism is a persistent, implicit message although it is not explicitly stated in many places. Philosophers tend to hate being "pinned down", like politicians.

    I agree with you that simple forms of physicalism such as lumps of wood pushing on one another or particles such as electrons pushing on one another are inadequate to explain much at all. Certainly this level of materialism cannot even explain the "pushing"!.

    You accused me of "unattributed, straw-man materialism", well, I have demonstrated that one of the leading materialists of our time fits my definition of materialism and have shown that my definition is consistent with the definition in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Anyway, the important point is that you yourself do not think this form of materialism describes your world view or the world view of many people who call themselves "materialists". I would caution them against using Dennett as an icon.

    I would like to see an avoidance of an association with the term "materialism" by those who believe that our experience is more than electrons and ions working one upon another and who support a scientific explanation of our experience. I would also like to see an avoidance of the term "emergentism" because, in the Philosophy of Mind this is almost always used where there are no accepted hypotheses about how a particular phenomenon occurs. "I don't know how it happens" is much better than "it must be an 'emergent property'".

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  24. I have demonstrated that one of the leading materialists of our time fits my definition of materialism

    No, you have not. You absolutely have not demonstrated that Dennett fits your entire definition. You have not demonstrated that Dennett has a commitment to your description of time as a succession of motion pictures. You have not demonstrated that Dennett denies QM/SR/GR, only that he considers them no more important to theories of consciousness than they are to the long-term stability of the solar system.

    I would like to see an avoidance of an association with the term "materialism" by those who believe that our experience is more than electrons and ions working one upon another and who support a scientific explanation of our experience.

    But "electrons and ions working one upon the other" is a scientific explanation of our experience. At least it seems to be. If you want to propose an alternative, propose it and let it stand or fall on its own merits.

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  25. You say "But "electrons and ions working one upon the other" is a scientific explanation of our experience. At least it seems to be. If you want to propose an alternative, propose it and let it stand or fall on its own merits."

    OK, suppose I accept that what you meant was that conscious experience is a succession of instantaneous objects (no-one has seen an electron).

    What is it like to experience objects? Could you see an object if the experience had no spatial or temporal extent - if it had no simultaneous parts? If your experience does indeed contain more than a vanishingly small dot then what is the experience? If it is not vanishingly small it has extent, if it has extent it is a geometrical form, what is that geometrical form? Is the form a "view". If it is a "view" then it is a very strange geometrical form indeed: one involving projective geometry. If any of this seems reasonable we have gone beyond the "ball bearing" model of Newtonian physics already.

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  26. OK, suppose I accept that what you meant was that conscious experience is a succession of instantaneous objects (no-one has seen an electron).

    I didn't actually say that conscious experience is a succession of instant, so in what sense can you "accept" that's what I meant? How does your interpretation follow from my remarks?

    And why is it at all relevant that no one has seen an electron?

    If you're going to draw interpretations from my comments, please actually substantiate that interpretation with a reasonably coherent argument. It's intellectual bad faith to just put words in my mouth. I have extremely limited patience for this sort of commentary.

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  27. I didn't actually say that conscious experience is a succession of instantaneous objects...

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  28. Under even a classical, 19th century materialist account of the universe as "matter in motion", it seems fairly obvious that we can consider motion to be an intrinsic property of matter. There are two ways of talking about this intrinsic property in a classical way.

    First, the momentum of an atomic particle is just one more dimension of its properties, along with position in space-time. Each "frame" in your movie has a couple of hidden dimensions (direction and magnitude) holding each particle's instantaneous momentum.

    Another way of looking at it is that the classical view of time is a continuum of cardinality aleph-1. This means it's not really possible, except as a convenient mathematical fiction, to take a single frame: Every "single" frame is really an infinity of frames covering some arbitrarily defined measure of time. (We take this view because it's not possible even as a mathematical fiction to talk about two immediately successive frames; there's always an aleph-1 infinity of frames between any two defined frames.) In this case, the "motion" of a particle is encoded in the infinity of frames.

    Your view of time is simply a straw man. At best, it is ancient history, and represents a naive view even of classical materialism.

    We happen to have a particular account in QM (the uncertainty principle) of why motion is an pseudo-intrinsic property of matter, but this account and its details are not necessarily particularly relevant: the details of QM don't substantially change the materialist view that motion can be viewed as an intrinsic property of matter. There are two alternative possibilities: Either some theory other than QM accounts for motion as an intrinsic property, or motion itself is a true intrinsic property of matter. In either case, we need make no changes to an empirically adequate physical account that depends only on motion as an intrinsic property of matter.

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  29. You have to also understand that a continuous function is often a convenient, useful and empirically justifiable approximation of a discrete function (as we know from probability, thermodynamics and economics). If we create an empirically adequate account of some high-level phenomenon that uses a continuous function, finding out that the underlying reality is discrete doesn't necessarily invalidate the continuous explanation.

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  30. One more point: It's a different argument to say that Dennett (or anyone else) should use philosophical terminology in strictly prescriptivist manner, that he is unclear or ambiguous for using the word "materialism" when he does not intend that word to be interpreted as strict, literal adherence to some 19th century account of materialism.

    Your argument seems to be that Dennett really does intend a strict, literal adherence to some 19th century account of materialism.

    Strict prescriptivism is a matter of no small controversy; thus you have to bear the burden of proof for each and every every element of a definition you ascribe to Dennett. It's intellectual bad faith to simply assume Dennett intends strict prescriptivism and interpret his comments accordingly.

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  31. I am not convinced that Dennett thinks much of modern physics in the context of Philosophy of mind. I did provide a quote where Dennett(1999) himself says exactly this: "A curious anachronism found in many but not all of these reactionaries is that to the extent that they hold out any hope at all of solution to the problem (or problems) of consciousness, they speculate that it will come not from biology or cognitive science, but from–of all things!–physics!"

    Anyway, Dennett aside, you are clearly not a Newtonian Materialist. You say: "I didn't actually say that conscious experience is a succession of instantaneous objects, so in what sense can you "accept" that's what I meant? How does your interpretation follow from my remarks?"

    I could not answer your assertion that "But "electrons and ions working one upon the other" is a scientific explanation of our experience" because it seemed highly unlikely that you meant actual electrons or ions because it is widely accepted that these cannot be directly experienced. So I interpreted your remark as applying to objects that are the results of ion and electron action. I am sorry if that was mistaken.

    The second part of my post was asking how you thought my conscious experience could be described. If your experience does indeed contain more than a vanishingly small dot then what is the experience? If it is not vanishingly small it has extent, if it has extent it is a geometrical form, what is that geometrical form?

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  32. I am sorry if that was mistaken.

    Bygones. It's helpful to explicitly substantiate your interpretation.

    I could not answer your assertion that "But "electrons and ions working one upon the other" is a scientific explanation of our experience" because it seemed highly unlikely that you meant actual electrons or ions because it is widely accepted that these cannot be directly experienced.

    You appear to have a very different view of science than I do; correct me if I'm wrong, but this comment suggests you might have a logical positivist interpretation of science. See my series on the scientific method for my own views, which differ substantially from the positivists.

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  33. I take the view that there is definitely "something". This is an unfalsifiable, metaphysical statement and hence, according to your definition elsewhere in this blog, unscientific. The "something" that I would choose is a geometrical form that, because it is extended in at least four dimensions, including time, is self-aware. This "something" is the raw form of a scientific observer, consisting as it does of the manifold of events that is required to give meaning to measurements. (ie: it permits 11101101111 011011011110 to be embodied as two events in the spacetime of the scientist's mind and hence be understood). See Simultaneity, the key to understanding mind.)

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  34. I take the view that there is definitely "something". This is an unfalsifiable, metaphysical statement and hence, according to your definition elsewhere in this blog, unscientific.

    Why is it specifically unfalsifiable? It's the best explanation to account for the fact that we have experience; if there weren't something, we wouldn't be here to experience anything. Again, you appear to be taking something of a logical positivist view towards science.

    The "something" that I would choose...

    Choose as you please, it's a free country. Why should I care what you choose to believe? If I cared what people chose, I'd still be arguing with Christians.

    I'm just not interested in your or anyone else's metaphysical choices. I don't care if you choose to believe in geometrical space-time, the Christian God, reincarnation, or shape-shifting lizard creatures secretly controlling our governments.

    If you have an argument to make, if you want to talk about provably scientific truth, I'm all ears. If, however, you want to talk about your religious beliefs, I just don't care.

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  35. When I said there was "something" I was making the same point as you:

    "It's the best explanation to account for the fact that we have experience; if there weren't something, we wouldn't be here to experience anything."

    What is the "something"? I am saying it is experience itself. When you say "experience anything" it seems to me as if you are talking about an action. I could be misinterpreting what you have said but if you did mean that experience is an action I would disagree. Conscious experience is simply present, it is there. If you did indeed mean that conscious experience is an "action" we seem to be back with the idea that it is a succession of events such as "acquire object", "focus eyes", transfer light to retina", "transfer retinal contents to LGN" etc.. But none of this is my conscious experience, the experience is events arranged in an extended space and extended time.

    So, for me "Conscious experience" is the "something" that we have (you seem to be agreeing with this). It is a form, not a succession of actions. It is the manifold of events that we call an "observation".

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  36. What is the "something"? I am saying it is experience itself.

    Well, there's no question that experience exists. Indeed in some sense we have to define "exists" as "being (in some sense) like experience."

    However, the question becomes, does holding experience as the fundamental ontological basis of reality — basically adopting subjective idealism — constitute the best scientific theory? Scientists seem to answer in the negative: It's very hard (as the naive empiricists found in the 19th century) to create predictive scientific theories using experience as an ontological basis; we've had far more success viewing experience as an emergent epiphenomenon of a fundamentally mindless reality.

    If you did indeed mean that conscious experience is an "action" we seem to be back with the idea that it is a succession of events such as "acquire object", "focus eyes", transfer light to retina", "transfer retinal contents to LGN" etc.. But none of this is my conscious experience, the experience is events arranged in an extended space and extended time.

    That's one model of how consciousness works.

    But none of this is my conscious experience, the experience is events arranged in an extended space and extended time.

    This statement looks suspiciously like the fallacy of division. None of the parts of a bus are a bus: how can a bus emerge from a collection of things none of which are a bus?

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  37. The fallacy of division would occur if I had inferred the properties of the parts from the whole. It is indeed the case that a bus emerges from its parts.

    You say: "we've had far more success viewing experience as an emergent epiphenomenon of a fundamentally mindless reality."

    And this is what I am also doing except that reality is not "fundamentally mindless". Conscious experience is an emergent phenomenon that results from the existence of a spacetime of at least four dimensions and with a non-uniform signature (+++-, +++-+ etc).

    The introduction of another, independent direction for arranging events is necessary to explain our experience because if we stay with a presentist*, 3D model we end up with regresses, the symbol grounding problem etc. and we cannot even explain how something moves. Conscious experience emerges from linking an information processor to a 4D manifold of events.

    Unfortunately, with a 4D explanation we have a block universe so although dimensional time is now included (we have experience that contains movement) the "change" aspect of time in experience is still not accounted for.

    I can only speculate about the nature of change - perhaps it signifies yet another, timelike dimension. There is an interesting review of time-like dimensions at http://library.iyte.edu.tr/tezler/master/fizik/T000573.pdf .

    * Or any model that relies on successive, staged, 3D states.

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  38. (Note: I inadvertently failed to publish Thoughts' earlier comment.)

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  39. Conscious experience is an emergent phenomenon that results from the existence of a spacetime of at least four dimensions and with a non-uniform signature (+++-, +++-+ etc).

    We know that consciousness does indeed appear to be an emergent phenomenon, and we know that space-time is, at least in some sense or at some level of abstraction four-dimensional, so at a philosophical level, it doesn't seem like you're saying anything new here.

    I don't have the slightest clue what you mean by a "non-uniform signature". I'm neither a physicist nor a neuro-biologist; I'm a philosopher. After a certain level, I'm simply unable to evaluate your argument on its scientific merits. You would be better off publishing the details in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

    if we stay with a presentist*, 3D model we end up with regresses, the symbol grounding problem etc. and we cannot even explain how something moves.

    I've noted several times that this model is a straw man of modern philosophical thought. I'm extremely impatient with obtusity.

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  40. I'm an amateur philosopher...

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  41. You "it doesn't seem like you're saying anything new here."

    Well, I don't either! The description of our experience as a geometrical, 4D manifold of events should not be contentious in the light of relativity theory and, with the recent experimental confirmation that dimensional time exists, philosophers of mind generally should be saying "Ah, so experience really could be extended in time, the specious present is real, not specious".

    If conscious experience is a 4D manifold then two major problems remain:

    1. Where are the measurable, 3D components of the 4D manifold in the brain and are there rearrangements of the 3D content during the transformation to 4D experience?

    2. We still don't understand change or "becoming". If dimensional time exists how do I know I am not in my own past?

    In answer to (1) I would guess that theories like the em theories of mind (McFadden, Pockett etc) are possible and have the advantage that virtual photons look the same as interactions across zero space time intervals. But where? In the thalamus, ILN, single neurons....

    In answer to (2) it is disturbing that you could be at any point in your past and the extension in time within your experience plus your memories would make it seem as if "becoming" was occurring. Even though, being in the past your future would be fixed it would appear as if change were real. Is "becoming" an illusion? My hunch is that there is more to the universe than can be dreamt of in a 4D philosophy and physics.

    So, there you have it, I predict that there is a multidimensional field of events (em, qm, chemical etc) in the brain that we call "conscious experience". The field is elusive because it contains very little information and probably involves only a few thousand neurons, it is probably in the thalamus and can re-locate within its main location within limits. It is necessary for the brain to function, accidents show that if you destroy it you become a zombie (delirious, akinetic mute, etc - all results of thalamic trauma) who is limited to simple information processing.

    "New Empiricism" is about describing the field of events (conscious experience) without necessarily defining where it resides in the world.

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  42. With all due respect, Thoughts, you've failed convinced me you've developed anything more than some mystical mumbo-jumbo. My incredulity may well be due to my relative lack of detailed scientific understanding; in that case, however, you would be better served by publishing in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

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  43. There is nothing mystical here if the extension in time that occurs in our conscious experience, such as hearing whole words and seeing movements, is identical to events being laid out in the dimensional time of physics. To put it another way, if you accept that the "specious" present is not specious then what I have written is not "mumbo jumbo".

    We had better leave it there. Thanks for the debate.

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