About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Monday, December 03, 2012
Is materialism “known to be false”?
Posted by Unknown at 7:00 AM
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Buddhists have a problem. They deny the existence of an immortal soul or Atman (doctrine of anatta) but believe in rebirth as a consequence of dependent origination and karma. Since there are no individual entities but only relationships ( emptiness/sunyata), the tendency is to believe that the universe itself is consciousness in order to have an explanation for how incarnations can be related.ReplyDelete
And, that idea alone, rebirth based on Karma, but no immortal soul, is itself problematic. IMO, it's as offensive as the traditional Western monotheistic idea of hell. (Of course, so is the traditional Hindu version of reincarnation, if I can't remember what my immortal soul did wrong in a previous life.)Delete
"the best available physics does do away with “materialism,” if by that one means a view of the world based on “microbangings between microthings,”ReplyDelete
Exactly. Which is why it's best to ditch the term "materialism."
But "naturalism" is too broad. Naturalism is compatible with vitalism and other forms of strong emergentism, which we know are false.
Naturalism is also compatible with the sort of property dualism espoused by Chalmers and others. (Which is also wrong.)
The position we should be defending is physicalism (which, of course, is completely compatible with quantum weirdness).
I do not actually agree that strong emergentism is known to be false (to the contrary, I think it has a good chance of being true, depending on what one means by the term), though I agree about vitalism. I'm also with you on Chalmers-like dualism, but I am sympathetic to mathematical Platonism. So, no, physicalism isn't going to do it for me.
Physicalism is typically taken to be an account of concrete things. Abstract objects needn't be physical, but conscious experiences do. (Insofar as you see abstract objects as structures, I suspect that even these might fit comfortably into a physicalist ontology, but we needn't go down that road.)
You mention Churchland, Dennett, and Rosenberg -- all of whom insist on physicalism, not mere naturalism. Most dualists running around in philosophical circles these days (Chalmers, E.J. Lowe) would consider themselves naturalists as well. I think you're casting the net too wide (especially since there are no good objections to physicalism, or so I argue).
Strong emergentism would mean that some facts about concrete events fail to supervene on the physical facts. This is rejected by all physicalists. I argue that we do in fact know this sort of emergentism is false -- for roughly the reasons that Sean Carroll gives: we know that physical laws aren't violated in living things (including brains).
(BTW: I'm using your _Nonsense_ book in a class this semester; the students love it.)
glad your students are enjoying Nonsense on Stilts!
> Abstract objects needn't be physical, but conscious experiences do. <
No argument from me there.
> You mention Churchland, Dennett, and Rosenberg -- all of whom insist on physicalism, not mere naturalism. <
Not so sure about Dennett, at least from the exchanges I witnessed btw him and Rosenberg at the workshop.
> I argue that we do in fact know this sort of emergentism is false -- for roughly the reasons that Sean Carroll gives: we know that physical laws aren't violated in living things (including brains). <
That’s not a good reason to reject emergentism, and it is interesting to note that some non-fundamental physicists are emergentists (see my series of essays on the topic, linked to above).
Love this post. This is getting right at the heart of the issue. I do wonder, though, where you stand these days on Emergentism. I'm noting that you avoided the concept in your post.ReplyDelete
I understand why you might prefer "naturalism" over "physicalism" but the absence of micro things and micro bangings doesn't mean there aren't things. It's the expectation of finding smaller versions of larger things that's tripping us up. What's a material version of a homunculus? Atom, I guess. Well, we shouldn't expect atoms to have atoms. Nor should we expect a universe that contains consciousness to have mini minds. Micro minds micro thinking? Smaller parts of larger things are not just smaller versions of the larger thing. They are fundamentally different. I'm comfortable, personally, saying "physicalism" in the same way I'm comfortable calling a table a table, even though, if you take its legs off, it is no longer a table; even though its atoms have smaller parts that act in very odd ways. If at the very bottom we only have fields and relationships, well then, that's the nature of the physical world, not the refutation of it. There still is stuff.
Shying away from the word "physical" because we can understand the underlying structure in a way that seems, to our senses, non-physical, makes as much sense as either saying there is no consciousness (Or in Smethan's case) nothing but consciousness, because we don't find micro minds micro thinking.
I don't know of Ross and Ladyman address it, but along with the misconcept of microbangings should go the notion of "Nothingness." It's no wonder a Buddhist like Smetham would bundle this notion in there too. But there is no, nor was there ever, "empty space". There is no, nor could there ever be "space between the nucleus and the electron." Massimo, I wish you would stop using this locution.
Yes, the relative distance between the electrons and the nucleus is large, but there is a hugely powerful field covering that seemingly vast distance. Idealists keep looking for gaps into which to insert their idols, but there is no such gap here. We can't think our way through the illusion of existence, we can't think our way into that space. The field, the EM interaction in that space is nothing less than everything we care about from molecules and light to pizza and love.
So I would caution you not to talk about nothingness as though it were an option. Show me one example of nothing. Show me how non-existence is even possible. I'm with Parmenides on this one. That which is not, is not.
I am quite sympathetic to some (non mystical) notion of strong emergence, as discussed in my posts before the recent workshop on naturalism to which I participated:
> There still is stuff. <
Well, what sort of stuff gives ontology to mathematical objects?
> no, nor was there ever, "empty space". There is no, nor could there ever be "space between the nucleus and the electron." Massimo, I wish you would stop using this locution. <
The locution is perfectly appropriate as long as one understands “empty” to be filled by fields. There is a completely reasonable sense in which outer space, for instance, is “empty” compared to space on earth, I don’t see what’s unreasonable about that. It still doesn’t leave room for any mystical mumbo jumbo.
> Show me one example of nothing. Show me how non-existence is even possible. <
I don’t have, nor have I ever claimed, an example of the former. As for the possibility of non-existence, that’s actually an open question in both physics and metaphysics (see the infamous diatribe between Krauss and others: http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2012/04/lawrence-krauss-another-physicist-with.html
As I understand it, "emptiness" in the Buddhist tradition should not be equated with "nothingness". Perhaps it may be better understood as the inherent absence of existence of things in themselves: all things arise dependent upon all other things. Like many other terms simple literal translations from one culture to another does not seem to work.Delete
Sorry, I got a little rhetorically overheated there. I didn't mean to suggest that you were arguing for nothingness per se. The link to the Krauss post was very germane. I don't mean to fawn, but you pick all the right battles as far as I'm concerned.Delete
No need to apologize! Yeah, I'm developing an instinct for good battles... ;-)Delete
Shorter Massimo review: "It's all maya, all the way down!"Delete
So much to comment on and so little time, Will have to read his paper firstReplyDelete
Yes, Wheeler, a decidedly conservative individual, a bit like Bohr, said yes to 'all is information' said yes to 'reality is observer-dependent', but wanted no part of 'quantum consciousness'. Did he think that this was going too far? Would love to know more
I don't think any quantum physicist would say that these particles are made of wave functions, but rather they are described by wave functions. Unless of course you think these particles are simply information [ insert juvenile snicker here ].
I went for about 30 years thinking that I was the only person in the world who felt 'all is information' and so on. Would scour the bookstores every few years to see if others were publishing these ideas, but not until I started looking at this blog did I run into something that led me to Wheeler's "It from bit". There were about 15 others who pretty much felt the same way. Finding out they were respected authorities in other fields seriously helped even while reading about 'argument from authority tch tch tch...'
But Baron P if you are reading this, it was Anthony Peake who led me to Bohm.
OK, as long as you don't blame me.Delete
:). He was kicked off Wikipedia as some sort of crackpot pseudoscientific woo master. Hopefully his interpretation of what happens to us in our final moments of life will turn things around for him.Delete
I hope everyone remembers you can't talk about anything without specifying an agreed upon context.ReplyDelete
Yes, but that leads to the next question: Without context, does the thing even exist?Delete
Here you link back to your previous posting on Mathematical Platonism, where you stated "There are, naturally, plenty of objections (and counter-objections) to the notion of mathematical Platonism. Arguably the most obvious one is the issue of epistemic access, which asks how exactly we can gain reliable mathematical knowledge (which we apparently do) if mathematical objects really are abstract and mind-independent."
I just wanted to point out the new book by Paul Churchland entitled "Plato's Camera: How the physical brain captures a landscape of abstract universals". Its a sound biologically based analysis of the stated theme, giving a plausible answer to the issue of epistemic access. Strongly recommended.
Great post! I recommended it on the Secular Buddhist Association (SBA) forum. In case you're interested in the discussion that followed, here's the thread.
Just to quickly sum up, the participants there (including I) raised some doubts about the Buddhist origins (or at least early Buddhist origins - i.e. in the Pali Canon) of Smetham's assertion regarding consciousness as fundamental reality.
you really seem enamoured with Every Thing Must Go. i'm thinking of tracking down a copy nowReplyDelete
“Materialism” is not a very useful concept. We do not know what constitutes the stuff of existence. Calling it “matter” is circular and adds nothing to our knowledge, and so “materialism” is neither true nor false, only empty.ReplyDelete
The concept “naturalism” likewise does little to help. If by it one means to say that there is nothing beyond that which is, then its negation is a logical absurdity. If it is used in opposition to deism, then it is operating beyond its scope, which should be a framework within which one tries to learn why the world is as it is. A belief that intelligence is behind the laws of nature is no more supernatural than the belief that it is not; neither belief has clear evidence to back it, and neither is prima facie ridiculous.
Science and philosophy are faced with difficult, perhaps intractable questions, among them whence consciousness, whence the universe, what is the ontology behind Bell’s theorem? It is counterproductive to burden oneself with ill-defined concepts such as materialism, naturalism, or their negations.
In the face of the unknown and unknowable, an attitude of humility mixed with curiosity is best. We may speak of what we know not, but always with the admission that we are speculating. It is right to fight superstitious belief but wrong to replace the superstitions of old with unfounded beliefs of the present. A quote from a lecture by Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) nicely sums up this attitude: “We are not endeavoring to chain the future, but to free the present. We are not forging fetters for our children, but we are breaking those our fathers made for us. We are the advocates of inquiry, of investigation and thought. This of itself, is an admission that we are not perfectly satisfied with all our conclusions. Philosophy has not the egotism of faith.”
also, it seems to me (i'm not exactly a scholar of the pali canon or the abhidharma) that panpsychism is the only solution for buddhists once concluding that the self is an illusion in any meaningful sense of the word illusion. i mean, most people just accept that perceptions, feelings, and sights can only exist when someone is perceiving them, but this is exactly what buddhism seems to deny - there is only conscious experience, no sense in understanding anything about a perceiver who persists over time separately to them. but then if there is nobody who is conscious, why is there consciousness? having had some experience in buddhist meditation myself, i can see very clearly how if you take any metaphysical conclusions from them, conclusions about emptiness and panpsychism are very easy to take - in fact, while having these experiences and after them for a time, it is very, *very* hard not to take these views* after feeling the reason they get so popular.ReplyDelete
so is this the reason why panpsychism is taken in buddhism? because it seems the only way to make sense of anatta if consciousness is a fundamental quality without a person to have it - particularly when many schools of buddhism like to say there is in fact no fundamental differences between two people, no individuals, or anything at all really.
* for this reason and others (buddhist meditation is not really that good and in fact made my life much, much much worse) i tend to be skeptical of anyone making sweeping claims about meditation and encourage everyone to do the same. if someone tells you anatta, anicca, and the other ones can improve your life, chances are it won't work for you.
the: also, it seems to me (i'm not exactly a scholar of the pali canon or the abhidharma) that panpsychism is the only solution for buddhists once concluding that the self is an illusion in any meaningful sense of the word illusion.ReplyDelete
I've quibbled with the "self is illusion" meme myself. At least among Secular Buddhists (or naturalists who show an interest in Buddhist meditation and ethics), I think what they have in mind is not quite so literal, but more along the same lines as psychologist Bruce Hood - see here.
I've had more positive experience with Buddhist-derived meditation (e.g. mindfulness practice a la Jon Kabat-Zinn), but this is hardly the place to discuss that.
yeah, i know about that one, but i'm not really convinced by it in regards to illusions. secular buddhists are pretty diverse, but yeah they seem to be in the "self as construct" camp. the self - or at least, large amounts of what we'd describe as that - being some sort of construct doesn't seem that unreasonable, but i'm not sure why that earns the title of illusion, since i'd normally reserve that for things that don't actually exist. personally i'm sick of all talks about the self since nobody has a good, satisfying definition and the people who seem to want to discuss it the most just want to go "illusion but not what the word illusion means but what i mean it to mean", or push some kind of meditation or whatever. i suppose the most charitable interpretation of the anatta doctrine - or at least the one with the least teeth - is the idea that our sense of self can be mistaken. i wouldn't be surprised if we're partially mistaken about whatever the self is, but i doubt we're really totally misinformedDelete
another idea or interpretation - put forth by owen flanaga in his bodhisvatta's brain book - is that anatta is better understood by applying the doctrine of anicca to the self and people in general. that's a purely metaphysical notion though and i don't think that most secular buddhists who are into it are that much of a fan of the metaphysics per se
the: Well said. I can tell that you know what you're talking about. Having you checked out the SBA (see reference above)? These topics tend come up a lot on their discussion forum, so you might want to pursue them there. (I use the same handler there as I do here.)Delete
i saw that forum, and while i'm not really considering posting there, it was defnitely my favourite buddhist forum i've ever seen. most of the rest of them are "dharma is infallible" or "syd arthur guottomo said 'i'm right' so he's right" only to be replied to "but the translation is wrong he really said 'no, i'mt right'" and so on and so forth. annoyingly dogmatic basically. these guys at least are trying to take the stuff that's valuable to them and their lives and leave the questionable stuff behind, so good on them.Delete
Hi Prof.Massimo Pigliucci this is an interesting piece of article that you have written and charlatans like Smetham needs to be exposed by learned persons like you...a similar argument was put forth by Dee'quack' Chopra and Robert Lanza as "Biocnetrism" which i think you must be aware of. Here my late friend and guide Ajita Kamal along with Prof Vinod Wadhwan debunk this hokum in this interesting article. It was published in several blogs notably in Richard Dawkins dot net as well...hope you get time to read this link:ReplyDelete
While it is a mistake to say that QM brings consciousness ineliminably into the picture (it does not, because that is based on one class of controversial interpretations of QM), it would also be a mistake to say that quantum phenomena are independent of consciousness (as that is also based on a set of interpretations of QM). The fact is, we don't know what causes the "collapse" of the wavefunction.ReplyDelete
In other words, physics still doesn't have an answer for Schrodinger's cat, but there are a lot of strange players on the table.
However, that said, that doesn't mean that every interpretation that tries to solve the cat problem is equally reasonable, given everything else we know. There seems to be a view that because the problem isn't solved, all theories should be given the same amount of deference.
Here's an excerpt from the Nauenberg paper: "Forty five years ago I wrote an article on this subject with John Bell who became, after von Neumann, the foremost contributor to the foundations of quantum mechanics, where we presented, tongue in cheek, the von Neumann paradox as a dilemma:ReplyDelete
The experiment may be said to start with the printed proposal and to end with the issue of the report. The laboratory, the experimenter, the administration, and the editorial staff of the Physical Review are all just part of the instrumentation. The incorporation of (presumably) conscious experimenters and editors into the equipment raises a very intriguing question... If the interference is destroyed, then the Schrodinger equation is incorrect for systems containing consciousness. If the interference is not destroyed, the quantum mechanical description is revealed as not wrong but certainly incomplete (Bell and Nauenberg, 1966)."
Can we be clear here? All that he and Wheeler are saying is that attempts to link the quantum theory with consciousness are premature. Even Bohm would agree to that.
Maybe we can think of consciousness as a 'soul' function of any set of objects >=2 to allow for information transmission. This allows for collective consciousness at any level you like. So if we talk about Kidder's "Soul of the Machine" or the soul of the electorate, we are talking about the same thing, just different levels.
Wheeler was very ambiguous for a lot of the time - probably because he was worried about the implications of his notions for his career ... I am speculating here - but the following quotes are Wheeler ->ReplyDelete
Directly opposite to the concept of universe as machine built on law is the vision of a world self-synthesized. On this view, the notes struck out on a piano by the observer participants of all times and all places, bits though they are in and by them-selves, constitute the great wide world of space and time and things.
The Question is what is the Question?
Is it all a Magic Show?
Is Reality an Illusion?
What is the framework of the Machine?
Darwin’s Puzzle: Natural Selection?
Where does Space-Time come from?
Is there any answer except that it comes from consciousness?
What is Out There?
Or, is IT all just a Magic Show?
Now materialism is the notion that extended solid stuff exists independent of mind. Now shown to be false!
Caution: ‘Consciousness’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the quantum process.” (John Wheeler)ReplyDelete
I think (again) Wheeler was not being very clear about his ideas - I think what he means is that individual consciousness does not have a precise effect - he considered it to be a collective consciousness.
Also - do you think that Stapp is wrong - he seems to be saying that the fundamental nature of ultimate reality is mind-like. If I have misread him it would be useful to know!ReplyDelete
Another point worth making, that very few people have seemed to notice, was that my article was primarily about the views of Stapp supported by some other physicists such a Zurek and Penrose etc.ReplyDelete
If you do some research on the views of Stapp who has written a book called THE MINDFUL UNIVERSE I think you could only conclude that I have pretty much presented his views adequately - although Stapp does not share my views on the connection with Buddhism. Stapp, however, has written that quantum theory is consistent with the idea of a God.
I think that some of the people on this blog do not have an adequate knowledge of the field. Here is a quote from Bernard d'Espagnat ->
The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment.
The experimental physicist Anton Zeilinger, who has carried out some of the most precise and subtle quantum experiments currently possible, has written in appreciation of the great twentieth century physicist John Wheeler’s work of Wheeler’s:
…realisation that the implications of quantum physics are so far-reaching that they require a completely novel approach in our view of reality and in the way we see our role in the universe. This distinguishes him from many others who in one way or another tried to save pre-quantum viewpoints, particularly the obviously wrong notion of a reality independent of us.
Are you sufficiently conversant with this area of discourse - it does not look like it!
I have read Sean Carroll's stuff and he clearly someone who wishes to maintain a subtle materialist position in the face of contrary evidence. Here is another quote from Stapp ->ReplyDelete
…the re-bonding [between mind and matter] achieved by physicists during the first half of the twentieth century must be seen as a momentous development: a lifting of the veil. Ignoring this huge and enormously pertinent development in basic science, and proclaiming the validity of materialism on the basis of an inapplicable-in-this-context nineteenth century science is an irrational act.
The people criticizing me here do not have a sufficient knowledge of the territory!
Philosophers of mind appear to have arrived, today, at less-than-satisfactory solutions to the mind-brain and free will problems, and the difficulties seem, at least prima facie, very closely connected with their acceptance of a known-to-be-false understanding of the nature of the physical world, and of the causal role of our conscious thoughts within it.ReplyDelete
Stapp, Henry: ‘Philosophy of Mind and the Problem of Free Will in the Light of Quantum Mechanics’ p19
Well, well. No one seems interested in continuing the discussion now that I have posted some supporting evidence for my case. I have found this to be the case when 'philosophers' launch an attack based on lack of evidence and lack of clear reasoning - as soon as you make a water tight case they dissolve into the immateriality they are ultimately composed of!ReplyDelete