Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Materialism is NOT "self-refuting"!

One of the annoying canards atheists have had to deal with over the past several decades is the claim that our base philosophy - physicalist materialism- is "self-refuting". When religionists assert the idea of materialism is self-refuting they mean that the reductionist basis of materialism is inadequate to account for a non-material or non-physical phenomenon such as thought. Effectively, the apparent non-material existence of thought is enough to convince religionists, especially supernaturalists, that materialism is trumped. They forget, or never processed in the first place, we are invoking PHYSICALIST materialism by which invisible fields, forces etc. are fully represented!

They forget, or care to ignore, that we know life itself can be accounted for by things not necessarily alive, such as DNA, proteins etc. Of course, a better way to put this is that these inanimate elements or factors are necessary conditions for life as we know it. There may be other “sufficient conditions”. Today, when one pragmatically addresses causality, it is preferable to use necessary and sufficient conditions rather than allude to some vague, undifferentiated causality.

Thus, for a car accident to occur, being in a car and on the road is a necessary condition. Sufficient conditions may be that the driver’s blood alcohol was over 0.15 and that his brakes gave out at the critical instant at an intersection.

The argument that materialism is “self refuting” was originally put forward in the popular context by C.S. Lewis (originally an atheist who “saw the light” then became a Roman Catholic). More recently, philosopher Mary Midgley has argued that materialism is a “self-refuting idea”.

Catholic philosopher Ed. L. Miller probably circulated the idea most widely via university philosophy courses) with his textbook: ‘Questions that Matter’. In his chapter on Materialism, Miller’s efforts fall flat when he takes on the sophisticated arguments of philosopher J.J. Smart, who uses quantum physics and its indeterminism to extend the basis of that philosophy away from its ancient (and overly simplistic) Greek origins.

As we know, modern materialism is now more accurately physicalism – since it embodies not merely the atoms of Demokritos, but also the indeterminate physical aspects of matter addressed by quantum mechanics. This includes existence of de Broglie (matter) waves, multiple fields, as well as quantum nonlocality (verified in Alain Aspect’s 1982 experiments at the University of Paris) and the principle of superposition of states as well as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. What this means, is that the hackneyed arguments people originally gave – based on attacking ancient Greek materialism- no longer hold water.

In the aspect referred to above, Miller attempts to discredit Smart by asking:

If all thought is purely the result of physical brain activity then why should the content of this thought be anything special... why pay any attention to it if it is thus self-refuting?”

This, however, is based on several egregious assumptions, not the least of which is the unproven belief that self-refuting thought can be unimpeachably identified within the physical matrix that engenders consciousness. As I note in my (2000) book, 'The Atheist's Handbook to Modern Materialism' (p. 164) - since there's no practical method to identify the site of a specific thought (where the associated quantum wavepacket collapses at specific synapses.) nothing can be said about the quality or content of the thought. In other words, the supernaturalist can't make any claims about thought in a purely Materialist context. Including whether it is "self-refuting".

Second, it assumes that a physical-based thought is less enriched, human or nuanced than one emanating from ....I don't know....a "soul-driven" brain? But since none of these geniuses has put forth an objective test to discern the two types of thought, it's somewhat like arguing how many angels are on the end of a pin!

The physical theory of quantum mechanics enters brain behavior since, as physicist Henry Stapp has pointed out (‘Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics’, p. 42), uncertainty principle limitations applied to calcium ion capture near synapses shows the Ca++ ions must be represented by a probability function. Specifically, the dimension of the associated calcium ion wavepacket scales many times larger than the ion itself- nullifying the use of classical trajectories etc.

Since the Ca++ wavepacket information is ultimately describable in terms of quantum mechanical wavefunctions, e.g.

U (x,y,z) = u1(x, y,z) + u2(x,y,z) + u3(x, y, z) + …..uN(x,y,z)

Then there is necessarily a “superposition of states” applicable until wavepacket collapse. This means any nascent thought within the wavepacket is literally in a “black box”. That box isn’t “opened” until the thought itself emerges whether in speech or writing.

“Opening” the box (selecting the single thought to be expressed out of all competing ones) would be analogous to disturbing a system with a measuring apparatus. In this case, as David Bohm notes (Quantum Physics, Dover, 1951, p.128) each of the terms above in u1, u2 etc. must include an exponential function with “an unpredictable and uncontrollable phase factor”, call it ‘φ'.

Thus for each term above, include the factor: exp (iφ) with the phase factor φ changing with the order of the term. For example, the first term would be written:

U1(x,y,z) exp(i φ1)

In his 1991 book, ‘Consciousness Explained’, Daniel Dennett invokes a somewhat superposition –based analogy (albeit not at the quantum scale) in his “multiple drafts” description of consciousness. In this, the brain fashions multiple drafts for thought, for example, before a final single draft emerges. Dennett, by the way, does an excellent job in dispelling once and for all the need for a “commander pilot” or “soul” that has to be “seated” in the brain to direct it or enable it to perform.

None is needed, because in truth and fact, the way the brain works in generating “multiple drafts” and producing a final outcome (as a thought) renders any “pilot” redundant. In these type of theories, Dennett’s and mine (at the quantum level) we see that the “soul-pilot” emerges as an illusion. Our own brain has been complicit in this in creating the illusion there is someone or something behind the eyes, and pulling the strings. There isn’t.

The belief there is something “behind the eyes” is a carryover from ancient, Aristotelian modes of thought. The same modes evident in Aristotelian physics which maintained that heavier objects traveled faster when dropped from a height because they “desired to reach the Earth more quickly”. Hardly!

It is unfortunate that humans for the most part remain in the throes of antiquated modes of thought more peculiar to the ancients. Julian Jaynes (‘The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind’, 1976) perhaps best described these as “lacking the sense of metaphor … that characterizes a more advanced mind”.

However, as science makes greater inroads these antiquated relics will surely fall away as people realize that invisible “entities” that were invented hundreds of years ago have no basis in reality. And once science can provide an answer, even an improbable one, the use of any competing non-natural hypothesis must fall by the way side – unless the proponent wishes to be guilty of the fallacy of ignotum per ignotius .(Seeking to explain the not well understood by the less well understood). At the end of the day, natural explanations therefore will always trump non-natural ones – because the latter are always “less well understood” by definition. And up to now, no non-natural realm has been demonstrated even remotely, only speculated on)

In a way, it is ironic that the theologian’s “soul” is the real self-refuting basis for thought. This is because absolutely no evidence exists for a “soul”. It is pure theological conjecture. Meanwhile, we know the brain exists – it can be measured, weighed and thoughts – as altering levels of brain activity- actually recorded using positron emission tomography.

We know the possession of a brain is at least a necessary condition for the most rudimentary thought. To this point no one has demonstrated that thought originates without a brain. When they do, one might be able to seriously consider the possibility. As for sufficient conditions for thought, it’s plausible that at least one is that when an action potential has been propagated by an axon, the neuron on the opposite side of a synapse fires.

Again, the necessary condition is already in place, and the sufficient condition uses that and goes beyond it.

Until the religionists disprove this is the case, or can show their own necessary and sufficient conditions for thought (in particular that it can occur without benefit of material medium) they are wasting their time in semantic exercises of unknown utility.

In some ways this argument bears similarity to the “ether’ once postulated in physics. It was believed for many years that light needed a medium (“ether”) to propagate and couldn’t do so in a vacuum. This is somewhat analogous to the feeling of many vitalists that a “soul” is required for thought.

In physics, the Michelson-Morley experiment finally rendered the ether a redundant anachronism, or an unnecessary ‘macguffin’, inserted because people believed it was “needed”. But now we know light can indeed propagate in vacuo. I am confident that one day the “soul” will be rendered just as redundant in terms of thought and consciousness.


Steviel said...

Nice attempt to defend materialism, however it's quite clear that this ontological view is false considering it is incapable of explaining consciousness, as well as falsified by the experiments such as the Delayed Choice, which shows us that a collapse of a wave function is caused by a measuring device or conscious observer, just as effectively.

1. Consciousness either preceded all of material reality or is a ‘epi-phenomena’ of material reality.
2. If consciousness is a ‘epi-phenomena’ of material reality then consciousness will be found to have no special position within material reality. Whereas conversely, if consciousness precedes material reality then consciousness will be found to have a special position within material reality.
3. Consciousness is found to have a special, even central, position within material reality.
4. Therefore, consciousness is found to precede material reality.

What does materialism even mean when at the both fundamental level, there is no material present? Both Holographic Principle and the quantum information theory state that we perceive as material reality is conceptional and not primary. And what creates the illusion of matter is information form the quantum gravity level.

“The ontology of materialism rested upon the illusion that the kind of existence, the direct "actuality" of the world around us, can be extrapolated into the atomic range. This extrapolation is impossible, however.” - Werner Heisenberg

I think it's time we adopted new paradigms instead of sticking to this self-limiting preconception.

Copernicus said...

Part (I)

Steviel, how much quantum mechanics have you actually taken, if any? I am referring to serious QM at the upper undergrad or grad level.

In fact, there is no relationship at all between collapse of the wave function" and any conscious observers. This is bunkum that has been recycled in many popular texts but which the discerning reader would do well to steer clear of.

Two of the best books you can read that have dispelled this nonsense are: 1)'Superposition and Interaction: Coherence in Physics', by Richard Schlegel, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980, p. 179 and 2) 'The Cosmic Code'(1982) by Heinz Pagels.

In (2) Pagels shows that appeals to consciousness triggering collapse of wave functions embody a misreading of quantum measurement theory as a purely statistical ‘information theory’. (Indeed, the invocation of 'wave function collapse' only applies to the Copenhagen Interpretation of QM, but there are others as well (e.g. Many worlds, Sotchastic Interpretation of Bohm & Hiley).

In (1) Schlegel uses the amusing example of how Eugene Wigner became ensnared by over-thinking wave function collapse and the modes of consciousness required to effect it, finally deciding a chimp might be able to do it, but not a cat! Thus, using a reductio ad absurdum basis the authors shows the absurd mental traps and mazes one can get into if not careful.

Pagels (2) goes on to endorse the best policy in such matters as simply being a ‘fair witness’. That means absolutely avoiding embellishment of the results, including projection of ‘fantasies’. If one insists on reading more into quantum measurement results than their statistical significance allows, self delusion ensues.

Meanwhile, Schlegel (1) makes the point **it is not evident that for a given observer (that is, within a given coordinate system) all physical systems can be put into a superposition of different classical states. **

He adds:

"The evidences of superposition that we have are for micro-level phenomena."

Thus, the "delayed choice" exps are neither here nor there if one does not properly interpret them on the stastical basis of the wave function.J.D. Franson in a 1985 paper Franson introduced the phrase ``delayed determinism''. This sounds very strange but, as he was at pains to point out in his paper, this is an integral part of quantum mechanics and may well be part of a **local realistic theory**.

Copernicus said...

Part (II) of response:

As to your postulates (1-4) these have not been proven or even demonstrated by you. They are mere assumptions on your perceptions of consciousness. Trotting them out doesn't make them proofs.

As to 'What does materialism even mean when no material present?' - well here you demonstrate that you aren't discriminating what I desigated as materialism (Physicialism) and the crude version of the Greeks. In Physicalism (see: Euan Squires ('Conscious Mind and the Physical World' 1990), one can have fields such as for electromagnetism present even minus material parrticles. For example, photons are the media bearing the EM field but that are not "material".

As for "the Holographic Principle" what exactly do you mean by that? Is that what you construe as nonlocality? Before you jump on that bandwagon please see Pagels' book, as he correctly attacked the basis for 'real nonlocality' by arguing that the separate polarization records at each analyzer are themselves totally random sequences. Hence, one cannot obtain any useful information except by correlating two sets of records in the manner shown.

At genuinely vast distances - say 10 light years between analyzers A1 and A2, such correlation can never be practicably testable. (Owing to limitations of signal transmission imposed by special relativity) In that sad event we are left with either one totally random record (say for A1) or another, but with absolutely no prospect of comparing the two and getting positive information.

As for quantum information theory even in the Copenhagen context, it certainly does not state that material reality is perceived as "conceptional" (I believe you actually mean conceptual.) Rather, it is based on correctly treating the wave function (psi) as a statistical artifact and then only using the limited basis of defined expectation values with rigorously limited boundary conditions to draw conclusions.

Btw, your quote of W. Heisenberg is interesting, but it is useful to note that he never produced a single peer-reviewed paper to support his claims!

As for "adopting a new paradigm" - based on what? Obscurantism? Or supernaturalism? Until such time as **experiments** actually merit it, we will continue to use the most proficient modelling methods and these rely on reductionism and physicalism. If you have proof of a superior way, based on actual measurements - then I'm more than willing to look at it!