Materialism Revisited

Part of an ongoing, if not neverending, conversation. We are discussing the favorite topic of materialists everywhere, Materialism. Dr. Rolf Andreassen has volunteered to act as my assistant from the audience to see if we together can pull off the trick of deducing our way from our separate axioms and mutually alien worldviews toward anything like a mutual understanding.

The questions are directed at him, and the comments written in the second person, albeit any reader may participate to his heart’s content. An alert reader will notice that I am trying to discover the unspoken axioms of epistemology and ontology, that is, the metaphysical theory of what Materialism holds to be real or unreal, knowledge or opinion. I suspect there is a paradox hidden at this level, which makes the conclusions of Materialism so startlingly unlike reality.

One difficulty that arises in any philosophical conversation is that what is being discussed is usually an unspoken axiom or assumption not shared by the two parties in the conversation. This is why the patience of Job and the humor of Socrates is needed to thread through the labyrinths of such conversations.

Let me mention a particular as an example of an unspoken axiom. When I asked why you said that a given physical state must always give rise to a specific mental state, you answered that, if a given physical state did not give rise to a specific mental state, then it would be possible (for example)  that a man could lie without having decided to do so.

I said that I could not see how this answer was related to this question. There is some connection between question and answer you have in mind which I do not comprehend. In this example, you seem to be assuming that “a man could lie” is a specific mental state, whereas “he decided to do so” is a physical state.

This seems to be a circular argument. You believe that all mental states are physical phenomena because all mental states are physical phenomena. When asked to give evidence or support, you repeat that all mental states are physical phenomena because it is impossible that they should not be. When asked again, you reply that men do not think when their brains are destroyed, therefore each physical constellation of brain atoms must and does produce one mental state and only one mental state.

Now, as a matter of logic, it simply does not follow that because something is necessary for another thing, it is also sufficient.

For example: if I burned all copies of THE RETURN OF THE KING worldwide, and killed all persons who read or had heard rumor of this book, it would be true that all copies of the book would be gone, and all readers dead. It is not true that the ending of the story would be changed. The statement, “Frodo fell into the Cracks of Doom” would nonetheless be a false statement, even if all the evidence that could support the statement, the book and the book readers, were destroyed.

The story is not the book. The book tells the story; burning the book might mean we will never find out the ending (as for example, we will never find out the ending of the DE RERUM NATURA of Lucretius), but it does not make false statements about the plot and character into true ones. Likewise, the evidence is not the truth.  The evidence reveals the truth. Hiding evidence does not change the truth.

Again, if I smashed my radio while it was playing Beethoven’s Seventh, the song would not turn into an Unfinished Symphony. The song would still have an ending, even if that ending, because my radio was smashed, is beyond what my sense impressions can prove or know.

Your philosophy simply and steadfastly refuses to admit that there is a difference between the thing that refers to another thing, and the thing referred-to. In pseudo-legal terminology, you are conflating, the signee with the signor, the pointee with the pointer, the referent with the referee.

Also, as a matter of logic, merely because one thing has a relation to another thing, it does not follow that it has and must have an unambiguous one-to-one and ONLY a one-to-one relation.

For example: if I took all copies of THE RETURN OF THE KING, and changed the spelling of Gollum name on page where he falls into the Cracks of Doom, so that it read Golem, this also would not change the ending of the story. This change is not significant. The reader’s eye will automatically skip over it, or perhaps the reader will dismiss this change as a typo.

As a counter-example, if Professor Tolkien rose from the dead and recalled all copies of his book and then printed a ‘Director’s Cut’ of the story, improved and revised, and in this version it is Frodo rather than Gollum who falls into the Cracks of Doom, the ending of the story would indeed be changed, to the degree that something as imponderable as a story can be officially changed. The statement “Frodo fell into the Cracks of Doom” would in that case no longer be a false statement.

I have the strong suspicion that your radical materialist philosophy, whether you know it or not, does not allow you to make true and false statements, which in turn leads to the paradox that your philosophy demands you dismiss your own philosophy as being neither true nor false, but merely spoken words which are merely brain electron motions without meaning making air vibrations without meaning, or written words which are ink marks on a page or pixels on a screen alike without meaning.

You have assured me my suspicions are unfounded. Very well: let us pursue our questions and see.

  1. We agree that you can disorganize my powers of reasoning by interfering with my brain, that is, drugs or physical trauma. We agree you cannot, with current technology, reorder my brain to make me come to one particular conclusion or the other. From this it follows that there is no empirical evidence that ordering or reordering the brain determines one particular conclusion or the other. Do you agree?I am not asking whether or not it is true or false that physical brain conditions determine mind states or specific conclusions: a thing can be true whether or not the physical evidence is available. I am asking whether you have physical evidence available.
  2. I submit that if you are making an argument not supported by physical evidence, then you are not talking about physics. You are drawing an abstract conclusion supported by abstract reasoning. Do you agree?
  3. Can true knowledge be found by abstract reasoning?
  4. When I asked you whether you could make the Pythagorean Theorem false in my brain, you did not answer the question asked, and instead drew the distinction that you could not, with current technology, make me BELIEVE the Pythagorean Theorem false.
  5. Suppose hypothetically that each and every rational being in the cosmos had his physical brain elements organized in such a way that they believed the Pythagorean Theorem false. Would in reality the theorem be false? Would that belief necessarily be a true belief?
  6. Questions 2 and 3 and 4 of the previous letter asked three questions, not one. 2 asked whether it was possible to make a truth false, 3 asked whether it was theoretically possible to reorder brain elements to make me think a truth was false, 4 asked whether it was actually possible in real life given current technology. You attributed the answer to question 4 to question 2, which still remains unanswered, and forms the core of our inquiry: does truth exist outside of the mind of the observer?You say you understand the distinction between abstractions, such as Euclidean objects, such as triangles, and real and concrete things, such as the planet Venus, but you ‘disagree that it is applicable.’ Let me ask a follow up question or two.
  7. Is the planet Venus as described by Ptolemy, an abstraction or a real and concrete thing?
  8. Is the Right Triangle as described by Euclid a real and concrete thing or an abstraction?
  9. Do abstractions exist? Are they real? If so, in what sense of the word “real”?
  10. Can true statements be made about abstractions?
  11. Is a true statement made about an abstraction false if an observer faithfully believes it false?
  12. You do not agree that the triangle to which Euclid refers in his proof of the Pythagorean Theorem does not exists in time and space. Where and when is it, precisely? In my brain? In Euclid’s dead brain? Made of ink marks in the pages of a book?
  13. You qualify the answer by saying that it depends on what we want to use Euclid for. You then say if you want to use Euclid to build a house, then Euclid is referring to all right triangles in flattish space that ever have or will exist. Did Euclid ever with his eye see and examine all triangles that ever have or ever will exist in flattish space?
  14. Does Euclid make any reference to space, flattish or not, anywhere in his work? If not, what has this to do with my question? If I ask you about triangles and you answer me by talking about tulips or Tupperware, you have departed from the discussion.
  15. Are you answering that if I want to use Euclid to build a house in flattish space, then the triangle in 1.47 exists in time and space, and has a specific location and duration, but that if I want Euclidean geometry to exist as a formal system, then the triangle in 1.47 does not exist in time and space, and has no location and no duration?
  16. Your answer says that ‘If you want Euclidean geometry to be a formal system, then granted, it does not refer to anything which actually exists, but it is also meaningless for that very reason.’ This seems to mean that all formal systems refer to things that do not exist, and are therefore are meaningless. Are all formal systems meaningless?
  17. Do you agree that Materialism is not an empirical conclusion? It is not based on physical evidence and not subject to disproof by physical evidence.  If Materialism were an empirical conclusion, what physical evidence would persuade a faithful skeptic that Materialism is and must be false, in the sense that it does not describe the phenomena?
  18. Is Materialism the conclusion of a formal system?
  19. I still do not see how it is that the inability of Rigellian Squids to intuit straight lines has anything to do with their ability to use their reason to deduce from the axioms of formal geometry the conclusions that do and must follow from it. Instead of questioning further, let us simply agree that you see some sort of relevance to the discussion that escapes me. I will ask, however, whether on the planet of Rigel, is it a true statement that the area of the square built on the hypotenuse of a right triangle equals the sum of the areas of square built on their legs? Is it a true statement, but the squids are unable to reason their way to this conclusion due to a failure of their powers of reasoning? Or is the statement true only at Sol and not true at Rigel? Is the statement itself false?
  20. Why do you take exception to referring to the triangle referred to in Euclid 1.47 in the singular. Is there more than one triangle involved?
  21. If there more than one idea of a triangle involved, what is the number?
  22. You agree that if someone says that the triangle referred to in Euclid 1.47 is not a right triangle, that someone speaks a false statement: but if all formal systems are meaningless, and if this triangle is part of a formal system, how can any statement about it be true or false?  Surely meaningless statement are, as a class, beyond true and false: the statement “the Tillerman’s weird would half-naught Tuesday hue” is not a false statement but meaningless; whereas “right triangles are equilateral  triangles” is a false statement. Agreed?
  23. I asked whether there was a motion of atoms which even hypothetically could make the triangle of Euclid 1.47 into an isosceles triangle. You refused to answer the question. I will ask it again using different words. I was not asking about the curvature of space, which, in any case, is a not a concept related to Euclid, nor anything mentioned anywhere in his formal system. Is there any adjustment of real physical properties of atoms and particles which can be made which can make the Right Triangle in Euclid 1.47 not have the properties deduced in that proof, namely the Pythagorean property that the area of the square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the areas of the squares built on the two remaining legs?Again, I am not asking whether changing the definitions and common notions with which Euclid begins his work would lead to different conclusions. Obviously the Pythagorean Theorem does not apply to non-Euclidean geometry. We do not even have congruent figures in non-Euclidean geometry, much less a consistent relation between the sums of figures of different sized.
  24. You again in your answer said that a merely formal system is meaningless, and yet you answered by hypothesizing about the formal system of non-Euclidean geometry, talking about the Einstein-ish abstraction of ‘adjusting spacetime.’ Again, I am not following your reasoning. Let me ask a hypothetical. If I think “if A then B” and it is the case that whenever A is the case B is the case, but it just so happened that A is not, at the moment, the case, is the statement “if A then B” a false statement (because A is not true) or perhaps is the statement “if A then B” meaningless because it refers to a merely formal system?
  25. You said it was false that if the objective moral truths are those to which all human brains, given enough time and information, would eventually come, then altering all human brains, if done by a theoretical neurosurgeon of sufficient patience, would actually alter the moral truths themselves, and not alter merely the human perception of those truths. You answered that the neurosurgeon would merely make the human race make a mistake about morality. If so, is morality an empirical science, like ballistics, whose truths are conditional upon the outcome of controlled experiments and observation?If not, is morality a formal system?

    If morality is a formal system, is it meaningless on the grounds that all formal systems are meaningless?

    Is there some third alternative form of knowledge aside from empirical/conditional knowledge and unconditional formals systems? If so, what is it?

  26. I am flabbergasted that you answered in the affirmative that you know it to be wrong to punish the innocent. Perhaps I was not clear about the question. I am asking whether the fact that it is wrong to punish the innocent is

26 A. a mere opinion you hold because it pleases you?
26 B. or is an article of faith for which you can give no rational account?
26 C. or is the result of an empirical experiment, such that, had the results gone the other way, you would hold the opposite conclusion?
26 D. or is the conclusion of a mere formal system?
26 E. or is a clear and present truth obvious to any sane man who has a conscience?
26 F. or some other form of knowledge not mentioned yet?

27.  But, in case you were serious about that answer, and in case my question was unambiguous, let me ask this:

If it is known, that is, a fact beyond dispute, that it is wrong to punish the innocent, from whence comes this knowledge?

Would this knowledge be true even if no person, either at Sol or Rigel, happened at present to know it?

28.  I am baffled again that you say not all rational creatures know it is wrong to punish the innocent. I am not talking about children too young to speak or madmen unable to control their actions: I am talking about creatures able to reason.

Who does not know this? Are there sane and rational people, not sociopaths, who do not have a conscience that tells them it is wrong to punish the innocent?

29.  On what ground do you make the statement that the right combination of sense impressions can cause insanity? Do you mean that the right combination of traumas to the brain or intoxicants can cause insanity?

30.  If there is a man who is sane, by whatever definition of sanity we wish to use, but who dies not know that it is wrong to punish the innocent; and if he is furthermore guilty of punishing the innocent, it is the statement “his action was wrong” a true statement or a false statement?

Assume for this hypothetical that we hold small children and madmen blameless for their acts, since they do not know the difference between right and wrong.

31.  If it is a true statement, on what sense impression (if it is an empirical truth) or on what formal system (if it is a non-empirical truth) is this statement based?