Looking for a fight
Forgetting for a moment that no evidence has been presented to support any notion of God, most of the claims regarding the divine literally rely on supernatural infractions upon the laws of physics. Without it no prayer could be answered, no universe willed into being and no angel could appear out of thin air. These are not religious claims, they are claims regarding reality that are precursory to the existence of Gods. So today I battle ectoplasm. My war against Casper the Friendly Ghost.
From time to time I get frustrated with the entire atheist-theist debate. It just feels sometimes that it has become very repetitive, intellectually poor and stale, like we are having the same conversation over and over. Even in the most interesting debates, with intelligent opponents fielding creative arguments, these arguments rarely meet in the middle. Neither side is forced to actually give up ground as either team is absolutely logically correct, but departing from widely different assumptions. Assumptions that are seemingly never touched upon. If God is who theists say he is and if they are indeed his chosen-people. Then perpetration genocide in his name or removing part of your children’s genitalia, although not moral, may indeed be your only logical option to escape divine wrath. Depressingly, evidence for this god or any gods existing is lacking. So people refusing his grave commands have usually been fine, as long as their ‘disobedience’ wasn’t met with the wrath of other theists. Most importantly there isn’t even evidence for the kind of mechanics that would make such a divine being possible or able to command us. So one night I was pretty fed up with all of it. I wanted to debate the core of the theist’s assumptions and take them down in a sweeping flanking-manoeuvre. So, one night many years ago, I went online,.. looking for a fight.
The aether enemy
You see, God and [fe]male circumcision are just a subset of a much broader ontological discussion. A believe, not only in God, but also in the magical stuff that is a prerequisite for God to exist (as defined). The minimal conditions that allow him to do what he is supposed to do. I’m referring to the über-fallacy, the core assumption, within all religions. All of which assume that there exist things outside of the realm of physics; that things can be disconnected from material-limitations, work instantly over arbitrary distances and are made from stuff that is not matter. For in order to assume that things can exist that are unbound by the limits put on matter by the laws of physics, one must assume that immaterial things are real! This is really the only way to reconcile science and religion: to believe that god is part of something that is either off-limits to scientific scrutiny or that has at least so far escaped scientific inquiry. It is the only way to pray, while listening to an iPod.
However, to assume that only the things which you believe exist are immaterial is ‘special pleading’. Which is why theists have been looking hard for other examples that deny the dominance of materialism. Looking for Rhino’s in strawberry fields in order to support their belief that also elephants hide there. It is like all this time theists and atheists have been in a horrendous and all-consuming knife-fight over the [non-]implications of Bible-quotes and Quran verses, losing sight of a much greater war. Except this time it’s a gun-fight.
I reckon quite a few of you may believe this discussion has either been largely settled or does not have many implications for you. But you might be surprised, like me, to learn that there is an unsettling amount among you that don’t think this at all and actually fundamentally disagree with a physicalistic-, purely naturalist -world-view. Turns out mine was not a surprise flanking attack at all. Rather I joined a new front line that seemed to be crumbling fast. It felt like I had joined a losing-war.. at the last minute.
This intellectual battle is not primarily fought against the usual ‘Ken Ham’- , ‘Answers in Genesis’-style theist. Instead it’s one I must fight against moderate Buddhists, ‘new-agers’, non-religious ‘spiritual’ people and, most importantly, other atheists! Indeed it’s not only scholars of theology that are assaulting materialism for being ‘conservative’, ‘close-minded’ and even dogmatic. Among those arguing for the opposing view we count doctors and Professors of Philosophy, Doctors in Neuroscience , Professors in Noetic ‘Science’, Doctors in Psychology and even a lone theoretical physicist. A complete list of those critiquing materialism would suffice to make anyone lose courage. This is also why I have struggled so hard on this. Since I am basically defending the standard model of particle physics (and calling it ‘materialism’) I find it very important to note that, apart from many other Phd’s in philosophy, almost all particle physicists have joined the materialist position. This does not preclude that they are very often quoted by the former, about as often as they are misunderstood.
It is also notable that some very serious budgets in developing artificial-intelligence and entire publications on the subject of A.I. predicate on the materialist position and simply ignore the mind-body dualism of immaterialists as being utterly irrelevant. Never the less, when I started on this journey, years ago, I could not suspect the reading and thinking I would need to do on the fields of neurology, mathematics and artificial neural networks, in order to argue my position in an intellectual honest manner. Some of the philosophical arguments on the immaterialist side refer to ‘problems’ that have, when summed together, swallowed entire careers-worth of time and forests of trees to print it all out. I shall not pretend to be exhaustive on these points at all, if only for your sake, as reader. But at least, I hope, I will have been sufficient.
Although I since long abandoned the idea to cover all of this in a single post. It will still not be remotely possible to address and counter all arguments in the scope of a blog post-series. So my goal must be modest and attempt to invoke thought, address core arguments, include newer data from relevant domains and underline the consequences for the deist-atheist debate. While it is hard to refute opposing views when they are put by such very intelligent and very eloquent opponents, it simultaneously can’t be justified to be irrationally modest. Some of the arguments of these full-time professional thinkers are truly awful; which is mostly obfuscated by the tendency to continuously introduce ill-defined terminology and descriptions for otherwise already adequately defined notions. Circular reasoning and Decartian ‘I can conceive of it so it must exist’-style arguments are quite common in these discussions. Not rarely do these great intellectuals fall into the same ‘thinking-traps’ as us mere mortals. You will need to be the judge if the counter-argument was made to your satisfaction.
Following this intro I will expand on the precise content of the immaterialist-matterialist positions I’m arguing about. This will be necessary if one is to understand my arguments in the subsequent posts.
Following that, the series will largely break down into two parts:
- arguments against materialism unrelated to mind-body duality
- arguments against materialism based on presumed mind-body duality
While the first part will deal largely with quantum-mechanics (and a superficial popular-science understanding of this is assumed in order to reduce volume) it will largely be the easier-reading of the series. The latter part is harder if only because consciousness is very much at the outer-edge of science. We are dealing with a lot less certainty here.
Although I have announced this as a defensive post, I do wish to make a preliminary point at this time: Which is that there are actually very little arguments against materialism and few examples arguing for the existence of immaterialism. This should be very surprising for a latent and implicit view held by more than 2/3’s of the world-population. Electrons and black-holes were speculative once-upon-a-time but now we have examples of them everywhere. If we ever prove the existence of ‘Gravitons’ the particle believed to be associated with gravity-fields, this particle will not ‘hide’ or be rare at all. Immaterialism, namely in the form of various gods, used to be the presumed cause of most natural phenomena (from rain to lightning). Today the range of purported immaterial influences has shrunken enormously as evidence for Ghosts, spirits and the souls-of-ancestors failed to materialise (pun very much intended). If immaterialism was actually true, one would expect it to be an integral part of reality. If elephants can effectively hide in strawberry fields, so should most other animals. By pure symmetry and its alleged omni-presence one would think it had to be at least 50% of reality. Not, as theists maintain, something that is limited to human-souls and supposed divine-omni-presence. This asymmetry is a point theist-immaterialists in particular should explain. So far, they haven’t.
The atheist community is not the only one to be divided in this matter. Plenty of theists accept materialistic naturalism and the standard model of particle physics, right up to the boundaries where it encroaches on their God-view. Materialism is the reason why most Christians treat ‘Angels’ and ‘The Devil’ as if they were allegorical instead of a fact of reality. I count among these Christians the Pope himself, who indicated he does not believe in ‘Hell’. A house divided against itself cannot stand; Therefore the stakes for both naturalism and super-naturalism, for science and religion, couldn’t possibly be higher. Either science will bust the last barriers to the supposed no-go zones or scientists will find their efforts thwarted and themselves forever banned from certain parts of reality.
The war, if you’ll forgive my analogy, cannot rage forever and it is very much yet to be determined which side will have to abandon its trenches. It may seem unimaginable that secularism should ever have to retreat from its current position. But like peat fires can reignite a forest-fire, a shift away from the latent acceptance of naturalism would definitely shape the path of history and steer it into futures most of us would not enjoy. I find it no co-incidence that most nations self-identifying as ‘Islamic’, with a strong latent believe in “Seïtan”, the devil, are among those at the very bottom of civil liberties and scientific inquiry. Afghanistan used to be a modern society where women wore mini-skirts and people bought rock-music on vinyl. Baghdad used to be scientific-capital of the world. Pre-reconquista Spain was once the City-upon-the-hill of religious freedom and tolerance. History is not linear nor has it, counter to what some are saying, de-facto come to an end. We should do ourselves a great disservice if we forgot what’s actually at stake.
A:”Well if there are only material entities, then atheism certainly follows. But there is a really serious problem for materialism: It can’t be sensibly believed, at least if, like most materialists, you also believe that humans are the product of evolution.”
Interview with Alvin Plantinga (University Notre Dame and Christian Philosopher) by Gary Gutting, The Stone, 2014.
Max Planck in ‘Religion und Naturwissenschaft’ (1958)”
As this is a philosophical discussion, in which terms often cover several concepts, it is very important to both make clear what one is arguing for as what one is arguing against. I am for instance not primarily arguing against the ‘Berkeley kind of immaterialism’ that simply denies that particles have an objective reality apart from the conscious observer. Though I’m not a proponent of it, this does not support a dualistic or non-reductionistic view of reality that declares part of reality off-line for scrutiny. Still, as the opposing view of immaterialism does not necessarily make many distinctions among itself, I will never-the-less need to counter a wide variety of arguments, if only to prevent that an argument in favour of such ‘subjective idealism’ is taken as one in favour of the ‘Immortal Soul’ and ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’. By contrast I’m not arguing for a naive form of materialism; one that is still grounded in four Hippocratic base-elements or one that perceives matter as being ‘massive’ or ‘lumpy’. What I’m arguing for is a reductionistic empirical monism: reality is a single integrated system, that exists independent of our observing it, in which we identify things that exist by [in]direct observation.
Mixing, as I have, terms as ‘physicalism’, ‘materialism’ and ‘naturalism’, I could be accused of trying to obfuscate my actual position. So let me expand on it. Naturalism is the world-view that holds that there exists nothing else than that what is connected to the observable world. It is based on the believe of either ‘materialism’ or ‘physicalism’ that respectively state that ‘everything is matter’ or that ‘everything is confined to physics’. I will however treat ‘materialism’ and ‘physicalism’ as if they are synonymous as I believe I’m well justified by the standard model of particle physics. Emotionally I still favour ‘Materialism’ since it is both the older term, the least ambiguous and it emphasises reductionism. I find the fact that we have nuanced and extended but never rejected the atomic-model of Böhr quite romantic. A rebuttal to the quick-saying that science changes all the time. After all, with the exception of gravity, there is currently no force in physics that is not dependant on a specific particle for its transference. So much so that it is widely believed that for gravity such a particle will be discovered and it has, much like the Higgs before it, already been named: ‘Graviton’.
But even if some day a force was found that did not directly associate with a particle I would not consider this a valid argument against materialism. Unless it were to operate and or interact with matter in an arbitrary manner, a description of its systematic behaviour would still be possible. This is not immaterialism since this position typically assumes that the immaterial world has laws, even agency, that work independently from the rest of physics and only ever ‘interferes’ with the material world at arbitrary instances of its own choosing.
It seems to me that the notion ‘materialism’ was clearly introduced to separate observed reality from magical thinking. The fact that we have observed more than strictly ‘material’ things, or that our understanding of what matter itself is has shifted, is not a violation of this intention. Finally, if we redefine ‘materialism’ to all that is linked to matter it is a definition that will self-expand with scientific progress. ‘Physicalism’ in contrast has the downside to implicitly encompass all that is physics already or will be in the future. This opens it up to some justified criticism. Since we don’t know what scientific laws will be added to physics this provides a back-door to re-insert magical thinking packaged as ‘future-physics’. A definition of reality as ‘all that is tied to physics’ must therefore comprise aspects of speculative future discoveries. Under this definition ‘Ghosts of the 11th dimensions’ can be part of this ontological monism, or they might not be. If we go with the notion that reality is directly or indirectly tied and constricted by matter, we have a line of inquiry that can help determine whether those ‘Ghosts of the 11th dimension’ are hypotheses of scientific reality or born in an independent magic realm.
The difference can perhaps be illustrated with the recent events surrounding the EM-drive. This was a hypothetical propulsion system that in initial tests seemed to work by bouncing electro-magnetic waves around in a conical chamber but without explusing any particles. Had this worked this would have violated Newton’s law that stated that for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction. Going off initial inconclusive test-results a more rigorous and finely tuned test was recently conducted. This test proved conclusively that the found effects were due to the earth’s magnetic field and that no real propulsion was taking place.
It must be said that none of the hypotheses surrounding the EM-drive neared the ‘unscientific’. It is not unscientific to want to design a second test when at first you don’t succeed in disproving an idea that goes against established science. It was not a test involving anything supernatural as far as it was conceived. With respect to materialism (as I defined it here) and physicalism the difference is that: if the results had been confirmed for physicalism this would have sufficed to call it part of ‘Naturalism’. Even though further study was needed, if the results were systematic and independent of the researcher it would still be scientific even if the effect was due to ’11th dimension Ghosts’ pushing the drive. For materialism the result would first need to be linked (explained or ‘reduced’) to matter based on an explanation of how it actually worked and how it was causally linked to matter in the first place.
Note also that an EM-drive-theory disconnected from matter would not have been possible since the EM-drive itself was material and undergoing propulsion effects. Since ‘physicalism’ would have temporarily allowed abuse of the EM-drive hypothesis by magic-peddling charlatans it might have been used in all types of scams including ‘free-energy’. ‘Materialism’, or if you wish, ‘Naturalistic Materialism’, in my opinion, covers both meaning and original intent more accurately and has a more robust mechanism for including the frontier of scientific discovery.
Stacking the deck
Notice how my definition of Naturalistic Materialism has actually stacked the deck against dualistic non-reductionistic immaterialism. The moment dualists find something they define as ‘immaterial’, that impacts material things, it is likely to have a systematic agency-free connection that can be investigated and made into a new law of physics. In that case they have not proven immaterialism but merely extended materialism with previously unknown science. As long as what is found is part of the same ‘monism’ such that it’s parts can be explained in function of the matter and physics we already know, it is still part of the same reductionistic model. What theists and spiritualists really want though is a dualism. A model, inspired by Plato, in which the immaterial realm can arbitrarily decide to intervene in our realm and which connects to our world in a purely haphazard, non-reductionistic way. This is the only way they can explain their God. It is the only way by which they can exert some control over the sheer randomness that seems to be part of this world and add meaning and reasons where there are none.
In order to prove that immaterial things exist in a scientific way however, immaterialists must give the world systematic evidence for its existence. But providing such systematic evidence would suggest a reductionistic relation between the immaterial world and the material one, thus breaking the ‘uncrossable’ barier of the dualism and exposing it as a monism. In other words, if immaterialists can provide systematic repeatable evidence for immaterial things they are also providing the foundation for the naturalistic law tying ‘their immaterial thing’ to the remainder of physics. That is not a refutation of materialism or a better explanation for all the behaviour summarized in the periodic table of Mendeleev. Law-violating agency and objective systematic evidence are mutually exclusive concepts. The only alternative is for them to use non-systematic, anecdotal evidence, which will not be very convincing. Especially since all the anecdotal evidence tends to conflict internally.
If the latter tactic sounds familiar that is because anecdotal evidence has been the staple of theist argument since before the written-word. Their arguments will therefore not support dualism although that is what they want and need to prove. Instead what we can expect is for them to focus on proving some kind of Berkelian immaterialism or a certain critique against materialism from ignorance, to later reinsert Jesus, God, Heaven and Casper the Friendly Ghost in a giant bait-and-switch. “You can’t explain wave-particle-duality because God said you shouldn’t”
Obviously, since some of these immaterialists are actually atheists or just ‘new-agers’, I have conflated many of them with theists and perhaps treated them unfairly. I’m honestly not feeling too guilty over this since they are lending assistance to a majority-position, they don’t agree with, but don’t feel the need of address or rebuke.
It is often countered, by proponents of the ‘idealistic’, ‘dualistic’ or supernatural position, that a definition of naturalism as opposed to the supernatural is rather tautological. Meaning its definition is always true and un-refutable and therefore defines really nothing. Since it equates ‘natural’ with ‘everything that is found to exist’ it must follow that only naturalistic phenomena can exist. Making naturalism true by definition. This criticism is not entirely unmerited as may be clear from the section above. It is the fate of such large notions however (Universe, Infinity) that there are no comparable notions or functions to define them with or contrast them against. In the same way ‘infinity’ blocks any number from being bigger than itself by definition. While this criticism holds some merit it is rather laughable to see it used by those who argue for ‘everything that we can imagine and convince others of’. The fairness is embedded in that word ‘found’ as opposed to ‘imagined’.
Still I think we can expand on the definition of naturalism to make it more limiting, more valuable and less self-evident: Naturalism, I think, includes the belief that there can be no phenomena that are able to arbitrarily violate the naturalistic laws of physics. It houses the principle that no immaterial explanatory model should be adopted as long as material, naturalistic causes have not been ruled out conclusively. That whenever current understanding of naturalistic causal relations fails to explain a phenomenon (ex. backward travelling collapse of wave-particle duality after subsequent observation of entangled particle) that broader, more-encompassing relations can be found/should be researched, that satisfy both previously known phenomena as well as the un-explained ones. It contains the belief that these causal relations will be systematic, can be verified independently of the observer and are void of any external causing agency. It’s the assumption that things are knowable until they are either known or proven to be indeterminable. The demand that in order to explain an ‘unknown’, to convert it into a ‘known’, that this requires a translation, a connection or another specification in terms of priorly known phenomena.
It can be noted that only the last demand links my naturalism unwaveringly with materialism. Otherwise science might have been a landscape of independent lumps of ‘knowledge’-clusters. Instead our most brilliant physicists converge on the idea that reality reduces to a single integrated system which they hope, one day, to describe with a Theory-of-everything. The fact that we are made of matter requires that we understand phenomena in material-, physics- terms in order for them to be as reliable as a mathematical system. Please note that such a definition of naturalism does not precluded immaterial things from existing anywhere. We can only speak of the observable. Immaterial things that don’t interact with anything material, either directly or indirectly, can exist with impunity. Likewise a God that can’t be heard, seen, felt and who can’t influence the momentum or spin of a single electron can very well exist. It does imply he can’t see or hear you or even know you exist (or energy would not be conserved).
Notice that such an understanding of what naturalism is also incorporates the continuous expansion on science by allowing in future developments, yet without including science-fiction or pure magic. It is often said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. This is only superficially true. It is the nature of magic to come ‘ex-nihilio’ and quite disjointed from other things that are. The science that is beneath any technology in contrast, is locked in with everything else. Some philosophers state that while naturalists are currently also materialists this would change if ever there was to be found a substance that was not matter. This to me is not actually a contradiction to my definition of materialism since if we, as material beings, find such a thing it must means it interacts with some known part of physics. This, at least indirectly, links it back to matter. It is finding and explaining that link which separates naturalism from supernaturalism. Yet I must also add that I find the concept of ‘non-matter substance’ to be rather suspect and semantically equivalent with ‘non-matter matter’, which is internally contradictory. Then again the entire notion of ‘finding evidence’ or ‘being influenced’ in this world by things that do not answer to the fundamental workings of this world already contains this internal contradiction. So that’s not really surprising. To find a substance that is not matter, by its current definition, is equivalent to finding matter whose properties divert from what we have commonly thought matter should be. This is not immaterialism, it is merely the finding of matter that under certain circumstances has other properties. I would not highlight this as an example of very strong thinking.
In order to clarify how wide my definition of ‘materialism’ actually is I’m taking it to its extremes. One of the surprising findings of black-hole thermo-dynamics was that it mathematically predicts that the information-density of a region of space is upper-bound at the square of its radius instead of by the cube of its radius. Meaning that the maximal amount of information in a region of space fits on the surface-area of the sphere that delimits it. This gave rise to theoretical models op physics that departed from the idea that reality may be just a holographic projection (a 3D hologram) whose actions is determined by the mathematical relations between the structures on the sphere.
This hypothesis may be just a tantalising idea or it may prove a better explanation of everything than anything preceding it. Even in the latter case, if all atoms and electrons proved to be mere projections from the boundaries of the universe, still this would not count as immaterialism to me. Even though matter couldn’t possibly be less ‘real’, ‘massive’ and localised than in this holographic example it would not invalidate laws of conservation of energy, momentum or general relativity. Atoms would still be atoms and most would still bind electrons and hold quarks at the nucleus.
“But wait a second. Is your materialism then still falsifiable, is there anything it doesn’t encompass?”
Sure it does. It doesn’t cover the case when tomorrow all our ancestors appear as spirits to each and everyone of us and continue to arbitrarily walk through walls, push away chairs and live among us. Nor does it allow for global sky-announcements from any assortment of gods putting down the law. But as long as you and I have to be told about it to know about it, I’m not holding my breath.
It must be noted that my definition of materialism holy depends on a entirely reductionistic mechanistic world-view. Things must link together causally. This reductionism does not require absolute determinism, as some would pretend, since it also incorporates the in-determinism and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle included with quantum-mechanics. If all this Naturalistic materialism sounds very familiar to you, it is because for all intent and purpose this is not a new view nor a very original one. It isn’t meant to be and all criticism of ‘conservatism’ or ‘inside-the-box’ thinking may well be founded. I would however rebuke accusations of scientism, which is like blaming the fish for being wet and basically a criticism without a valid alternative. We would do ourselves no favours to abandon an integrated consistent world-view in favour of an agency-driven word-view with arbitrary degrees of freedom that does a worse job of explaining the world we have observed thus far.
Thanks to an axiom-based systematically proven math-system we do not have to perform all summations of 2 + 2 objects in order to verify that 4 objects will always result. Likewise, in a naturalistic materialistic world, not every perpetuum-mobile needs to be tested to determine whether or not it produces ‘free energy’. Similarly we (us humanity) recently tested and scientifically rejected the possibility that the EM-drive could produce trust, in violation of Newton’s law of motion (though not in violation of the conservation of energy). Had the EM-drive been confirmed the naturalists would have needed a more comprehensive law that both incorporated Newton’s law as well as the conditions under which it didn’t hold any longer. An immaterial, supernatural approach instead would have been to add ‘ghost-energy’ or some other arbitrary notion into the equation removing Newton’s law from our tool-box altogether and leaving us only with uncertainty in ‘lieu’ of predictability. While it would not have been impossible for the EM-drive to have worked (in fact many of us where eagerly rooting for the opposite result), nor for the origin of that ‘mechanism’ to have been of an immaterial nature; it is that inverse assumption, of materialism, reductionism and determinability that eventually has pushed mankind out of the bronze-age. Naturalistic materialism is an inductively demonstrated paradigm. This does not make it infallible as it is indeed possible that white ravens exist, despite our exclusively black-raven-observations. But it does mean we would be wrong to abandon it, based on mostly wishful thinking, in face of little to no evidence to the contrary.
In the next post we dive deeper in the ‘non-mental’ arguments against materialism. An arbitrary division that won’t be entirely upheld since many of these arguments are inter-linked. Many of the critique against materialism, as we will see, follows from the evolution of our understanding of it. Others focus on area’s where knowledge still eludes us or on area’s were subjective experiences converge on ambiguous phenomena.