Materialism revisited

This is a violation of my only-posting on Fridays rule, but I have a string of lame excuses to explain the violation. They do not sound very convincing even to me, so I will not repeat them in this place. But I did get most of chapter written on my latest project (I am editing a posthumous collaboration between A.E. van Vogt and C.S. Lewis called ASLAN IS A SLAN) so I hope I can be excused.

(Just kidding about ALSAN IS A SLAN, by the way. I am actually working on a novel called COUNT TO A TRILLION, which is my contribution to the don’t-hold-your-breath & it-ain’t-gunna-happen sub-genre of “mundane” far future super-space-opera. The idea first propounded by Mr. Vinge known as “The Singularity” is the idea that technological progress will accelerate at an increasing rate, including the re-engineering of the human brain and thinking systems, allowing for unlimited expansion of human consciousness and thinking power, until an asymptotic growth will one day be reached, a singularity, beyond which no merely human author could speculate, because the post-singularity posthumans would be incomprehensible. My somewhat saturnine take on this is a conservative one: I do not believe human nature will change even if we are all downloaded into computers mainframes occupying mega-structures larger than ringworlds. We will be oppressive and aggressive and in general act like stubborn jackasses after the Singularity as we did before: we will merely be incomprehensible jackasses. Postjackasses! The book is also about a gun-toting Texan, who is a jackass, who falls in love with a posthuman Space-Princess. A Postprincess!)

In any case, here are some questions about materialism I started to write to an opponent, but it ran on for too long, and so I offer here, now addressed not to him, but as an open letter to anyone who would care to comment. It is a repeat, and, I hope, a clarification of a basic question about the materialistic world view I simply don’t get. I don’t get how you can have a theory that seems to theorize that the mind, including the mind being used to deduce the theory of materialism, either does not exist or is impotent to function.


Back when I was an atheist, I was not a materialist, because there seemed (to me, at least) to be insurmountable philosophical difficulties with the proposition that matter-in-motion was a complete explanation, or even an incomplete but satisfying one, for the mental life of men and animals.

Materialism is an idea, is it not? If materialism is true, at least one idea must be true, and I am aware of it. But if materialism is true, then the material brain-particles of which I am not aware, but which I hypothesize exist, are the real components of the thought, the only reality the thought has: and the thought itself, and my thoughts about the thought (such as my conclusion that it is true) have no necessary truth value.

In other words, by accepting materialism, I am accepting that the things I know directly and without reasonable doubt, without any interposing medium of sense impressions, i.e. my thoughts and my self-awareness, are an illusion or an epiphenomenon whose reality is open to question; but I am also accepting that theoretical particles that I have never seen, i.e. my brain-electrons, are the only reality whose reality I can firmly affirm.

It seems like I am giving up something I know for certain in exchange for a highly doubtful theory based on not a single fact or single bit of evidence about a group of entities whose existence I know only through deduction — and yet deduction is a type of thinking.

Keep in mind, in our current state of technology, we can make people drunk, we can erase their short-term memory, we can perform electroshock or introduce other traumas that clearly affect the person’s ability to think. But we have not one experiment which has shown any control of any kind over the content of thought. A sober Republican can be made into a drunk Republican by injecting his veins with alcohol; but a sober Republican cannot be made into a sober Monarchist by injecting his veins with the theory of kingship. We can put mind-altering drugs into a hypo; we cannot put a theory into a hypo.

The theory of materialism says, in effect, that even though we cannot in fact put a theory into a hypo, we should in theory be able to put a theory in a hypo. As best I can tell, this assertion is a speculation without a single fact to support it. (If we could put a theory into a hypo, materialism is one of the theories we could put in the hypo: in which case, you do not know if you believe materialism because materialism is true, or if you believe materialism merely because you’ve been injected.)

There are more sightings of UFO’s from more credible witnesses than there are sightings of theories being put into hypodermics. Not a single eyewitness, reliable or not, claims that he saw Titania fall in love with Bottom because she drank a love-potion.

So my question is, if you will be so kind as to contemplate it, on what material grounds do you believe materialism? I am not asking you if you have a philosophical argument to support a belief in materialism: I am asking if you have a scientific observation that supports it?

According to materialism, all my thoughts about any topic (including the topic of materialism)

1. can be completely explained with nothing left over,

2. can be completely predicted with no indeterminacy left over (aside from what quantum uncertainties inhere in matter itself), and

3. can be completely understood with no additional explanation or interpretation needed

merely by an examination of the position and vector of my brain-particles.

Now, at first glance, this seems a reasonable proposition. If the brain is like a book, the position of the ink-particles that make up the letters and words in the book completely determine the contents of the book. By understanding where all the letters are, we understand the contents of the book, its meanings and messages. The book is in motion, because the letters change according to outside stimuli, so the analogy is not exact, but  analogy is close enough to be helpful as an image.

Perhaps a better analogy would be a series of letters written on a row of dominoes that stand or fall according to the toppling motion of other dominoes: and as the dominoes topple, different letters are visible to the viewer, spelling out different words with different meanings at different times. The dominoes here represent the material or efficient causes of one thought or one sense impression forcing the next thought in the sequence into existence.

The analogy is more complex if we consider that the apperception (the internal mechanism by which we are aware of our own thoughts) and the viewer who does the reading (the numenal self) and the act of reading and of understanding, are also made of rows of dominoes that topple or stand according to the impact of other rows of falling dominoes set in motion by the act of thinking or perceiving. Nonetheless, even the most complex computer basically is like a row of toppling dominoes, except with electrons flowing or not flowing across circuits.

On second thought, we find something mysterious, even paradoxical, in this description: because the analogy leaves something out. It leaves out the fact that no such thing as a “letter” exists in the material world. Because point number 3 — that the motion of brain atoms can completely explain the thoughts and conclusions on any topic — is manifestly false and absurd.

The letter L is not a letter in the material world, it is merely a right-angle make of ink. The letter 0 is a circle of ink, and the letter T is two right angles bisecting a line. No matter how closely you examined the position of each and every atom in those molecules of ink, you would not discover anything other than the material properties of the ink. The material properties include thinks like their mass, position, motion, and duration. Qualities like the temperature and color of the ink are visible in the aggregate, but ultimately can be reduced to a description of the mass and position and motion of light-waves or the density and aggregate motions of the air and paper to which the ink is exposed.

Nowhere can the meaning of the letters be found. The letters have no meaning without an observer. Worse yet, the letters in certain combination, such as TLO, have no meaning (at least none known to me), whereas the same letters, occupying the same mass and duration of ink-molecules, when spelled out in a different order, such as LOT, can mean a lot to me.

Here we come to the gulf the theory of materialism has to cross. On the one side of the gulf, we have entities like thoughts and intentions, and we use the language of human action to speak of them: thoughts have qualities like “meaningful” & “meaningless” and “true” & “false” and “purposeful” & “futile.”

On the other hand, on the far side of the gulf, matter either gross or fine has qualities like “mass” and “volume” and “density” and “position” and “duration”.

This division is inescapable. Neither you nor I can speak of human action in terms of merely mechanical motions; we introduce concepts like free will, choice, intention, truth, logic, meaning, purpose, final cause, efficiency, desire, conscience, right and wrong each time we speak about what humans are doing and why they are doing it. The only exception is cases where we are limiting our discussion to a bodily motion over which the person has no awareness or control: a man in a sack thrown out of an airplane has a parabolic fall-path that can be defined with scientific precision. A mannequin with the same mass would fall in the same way. A man in a jeweler’s shop trying to decide what ring to buy for his fiancee does not have any path that can be defined except in reference to the man’s will and preferences. We cannot even speak of a mannequin having a desire to impress a girl or save money except by analogy: we do not even say a sentencein a book is false except when we mean the author of the book wrote down a falsehood. The only time we attribute intentions to inanimate objects is when they are tools or symbols.

On this side of the gulf are our internal awareness: thoughts and ideas. On the far side of the gulf is our external awareness: the world we believe exists because we trust our senses are accurate. On this side of the gulf is the world composed of symbols and ideas and intentions. On the far side of the gulf is the world composed of phenomena, composed, as best we can tell, of atoms and energies. A person who says that he believes or concludes that everything in the world is gathered on the far side of the gulf utters a paradox: because the act of believing or concluding is something that can only be done on this side of the gulf, in the world of symbols.

Well, the one cannot be turned into or reduced into the other by any operation. Adding lengths to a given length will not make a line true or false. Lines do not admit of true and false, only sentences or statements can be true or false. Speeding up the acceleration of a falling stone will not make a meaningless falling stone meaningful: falling stones do not have meaning, only symbols have meaning. Increasing the volume of a sphere will not make it logical or illogical: logic describes a relation between the meaning of statements and parts of statements.  

Now then, if my brain atoms are merely like rows of dominoes with letters written on them, some random particle of cosmic rays passing through my front lobe could flip my thought, let us call it LOT, and make it LOL or TOT or LIT. The rest of the dominoes, before and after, would remain the same, including the domino in the position of the check-digit which is T when the statement is held to be true. My awareness of the my thoughts, since that thought is still marked T, would seem to me in my self-awareness, still to be true, even though the composition and (we must assume, if materialism is true, the meaning of thoughts is based on their material composition) the meaning of the thought is now changed. Instead of the statement: “I believe in materialism because it explains a lot.” I now believe: “I believe materialism because it explains LOL.”

So, if I am a materialist, how am I to be sure that my belief in materialism is not caused by and only caused by a stray cosmic ray striking through my cortex and flipping one brain-electron out of place that composes the thought I used to belief in materialism? How do I know that thought should not actually be LOL instead of LOT, or how do I know that the truth-checker digit for that thought, the electron that registers my conclusion, is supposed to be T rather than F?

So much for the analogy. The absurdity of the third proposition is evident the moment it is spoken or written: because it is spoken or written in a particular set of meanings without reference to any material measurements such as mass, length or duration. The sentence itself that says any topic can be understood as brain-atom positions is not itself an mechanism to adjust brain atom positions. In order for that sentence to be true, it would have to be a theory composed of atoms held in a fluid I could inject into my arm that would alter my nerve-motions so as to make me aware of it. Merely by speaking or writing in symbols, the statement refers to ideas that cannot be reduced to descriptions of brain-atom motions.

Occam’s razor cuts against assuming entities not necessary to explain the phenomenon. A similar principle requires us not to reduce entities that are necessary: any philosophy that concludes the instrument we use to do philosophy (the faculty of reason) is powerless or meaningless is a self-contradictory philosophy and a self-refuting conclusion. 

Please note that I have not once used a word like spirit or ghost or souls. That is not what I am talking about. I used words like mind and intention and reason. I am not here arguing in favor of spiritualism, or even arguing in favor of dualism: I am merely arguing against materialistic monism.