Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Materialism: Still Mostly Misunderstood!

It is sad that in an era with so much information available, too many remain ignorant - for example when they write blogs on topics they know little or nothing about. In a way it's understandable, because in-depth treatment often requires extensive investigation and or research. Most superficial bloggers, who just want to get a blog up to tear into someone or some philosophy they hate, can't be bothered to invest the time. So, of course, they end up writing codswallop.

Such is the case with the philosophy of Materialism, which is generally treated as if it's one monolithic entity rather than a diverse set of approaches and views. In this blog I want to clear up some of those misconceptions and also show why one form (Modern or Scientific Materialism) remains the best to economically explain such things as consciousness, and the operation of the brain.

One reason Materialism gives so much grief to intellectual poseurs is that it is categorizable in so many different ways. Because of the complexity, most simple-minded mentalities just ditch any nuance and opt to portray the cartoon version. The problem is that this choice renders most of what they write irrelevant and insipid, especially when they claim generalities, for example asserting "Materialism commits the identity fallacy by equating mind and brain". Indeed, such general statements make them look like blinking idiots.

Differentiating Types of Materialism:

Perhaps the earliest form of Materialism was Mechanical Materialism or the theory that the world (and universe) consists entirely of hard, massy material objects, which, when imperceptibly small, were described as "atoms". This set the stage for the "atomistic materialism" promoted by the Greeks, Leucippus and Demokritos, who used it as a basis for the philosophy of Epicureanism. It may rightly be said, therefore, that this was the precursor of the reductionist/materialist/realist school of thought. This version denies that immaterial or apparently immaterial things (such as minds) exist or explains them away as being material things or motions of material things.

It is very ironic (but true) that a Greek Materialist like Demokritos would have serious problems with modern scientific Materialism and its claims for immaterial (but physical!) fields, atoms and waves! Indeed, more than one observer has indicated these early Materialists would resoundingly deny Modern Materialism!

Wherefore this "Modern Materialism" so unlike its predecessor? The need for it became manifest by the time Ernest Rutherford began his simple atomic experiments, and then Max Planck discovered the quantum (E= hf) ...leading to Erwin Schrodinger's and Werner Heisenberg's depiction of atoms as vibrating wave states of different energy. See, e.g.


This meant that not only did immaterial entities exist, but they could also be quantified and have physical existence.

Thereby, modern physics conceived matter as made up of such things as electrons, protons, and mesons, which are very unlike the hard, massy, stonelike particles of primitive mechanical Materialism. Further distinction between matter and energy was also broken down via Albert Einstein's theory of special relativity which showed that energy has inertia. His most famous equation: E = mc^2, became the basis of atomic energy via nuclear reactions - both via fission and fusion.

The explosion of the first atomic bomb at Alamagordo, NM, showed in no uncertain terms this new physics wasn't some airy fairy hogwash but as real as a ten million degree fireball that could roast a human body in two nanoseconds, reducing it to a few drops of goo and fried bones. Thus, the connection from the modern physics to a new, more powerful form of modern Materialism, became inevitable.

Later, when further work on the synaptic clefts of the brain showed it to be the scale (~ 300 nm) that Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle could apply, it became feasible to apply modern Materialism to the brain itself. But I am getting a bit ahead of myself!

The point made here is that this newfound Materialism marked the first wholly PHYSICALIST version. This sort of Materialism allowed the concept of a "material thing" to be extended to include all of the elementary particles and other things that are postulated in fundamental physical theory, even continuous fields and points of space-time (see e.g. Richard Penrose's Twistor theory).

Up until the quantum theory, few thinkers had been able to discriminate the physical from the material. Most naturally assumed in simple-minded fashion that if a thing was physical it had to be material. Probably the first hints of this being false occurred in the 1850s with the electricity and magnetism experiments of Michael Faraday, who showed iron filings could be disturbed from a distance by an invisible force. That became known as "magnetism". Later - he placed filings on a card and let an electrical wire go through the card and still found the filings disturbed but now arranging themselves into circular patterns. Thus, he made the connection that a moving electric charge can create a magnetic field which has a similar effect to a magnet!

Moving on, one beholds a more refined form of modern Materialism which is usually referred to as Hylozoistic Materialism. In this paradigm, everything is composed of physical entities (generally) but it introduces special laws applying to complexes of physical entities, such as living cells or brains, that are not reducible to the laws that apply to the fundamental physical entities. (To avoid inconsistency, such a theory may have to allow that the ordinary laws of physics do not wholly apply within such complex entities.) Such a theory, could also be called "emergent Materialism," and these can shade off, however, into theories that one would not wish to call Materialist. These ascribe vital characteristics to all matter, while its counterpart, panpsychism, attributes a mindlike character to all constituents of material things.

A couple of examples include Rupert Sheldrake's "morphogenetic field" biology, which basically maintains that cells divide and organize based on a supra-physical field that carries some intentionality with it. British researcher Lyall Watson carried this even further in his controversial book, Supernature.

In general, however, modern Materialism disavows such "intentionality" as being unnecessary and moreover, harboring an unproven teleology. (All physicalist Materialisms reject teleology - or the imputation of hidden purpose - in any form) Up to now Sheldrake, for all his words, hasn't been able to isolate his "morphogenetic field" and neither has Lyall Watson shown that some "super mind' exists in nature and directs it.

Rather less drastic is epiphenomenal Materialism, according to which sensations and thoughts do exist in addition to material-physical processes but are nonetheless wholly dependent on material processes and without causal efficacy of their own. They are related to material things somewhat in the way that a man's shadow is related to the man. In this form, the mind is defined as a kind of immaterial "shadow" of the brain. As we know, if a man is eliminated so also is his shadow, and in like manner, when a brain dies (brain death, no EEG signals) there is no more operative mind. Thus, mind does exist but is contingent for its existence on the brain. Up to now no one has been able to prove that a human mind yet functions once the brain is deceased.

Less well known, physicalist Materialism groups into deterministic and indeterministic categories. In the former, we find people like Albert Einstein, who refused to accept the brain's thoughts were able to arise other than by predictable, deterministic interactions. However, with the advance of modern quantum theory this simplified view gave way to an indeterministic paradigm. Much of this was championed, for example, by quantum physicists such as Henry Stapp.

Stapp pointedly noted that uncertainty principle limitations applied to calcium ion capture near synapses shows they (calcium, Ca++ ions) must be represented by a probability function.[1] More specifically, the dimension of the associated calcium ion wavepacket scales many times larger than the calcium ion itself. This nullifies the use of classical trajectories or classical mechanics to trace the path of the ions.

However, no sooner had he explicated this, than a new form of quantum determinism arose from the Stochastic Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics used by David Bohm. This then provided a more refined vehicle for determinism to operate, but this time in a quantum acausal form. Much of this was described in an earlier blog:


Inteestingly, both indeterministic and deterministic forms were found to be amenable to brain neural net manipulation, posing the possibility of remaking the human brain-mind. See:


Interestingly, in a number of ways acausal determinist quantum theory has fed directly into another offshoot of Materialism known as Central state Materialism. On account of recent developments in biochemistry and in physiological psychology, the plausibility of Materialism overall has greatly increased. At the same time, there has been a resurgence of interest in the philosophical defense of central-state Materialism. Central-state Materialists have proposed their theories partly because of dissatisfaction with the analytical behaviorism of the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Ryle himself is reluctant to call himself a Materialist, partly because of a dislike of all "isms" and partly because he thinks that the notion of matter has meaning only by contrast with that of mind, which he thinks to be an illegitimate sort of contrast. (In other words, a kind of false choice).

This leads us to consider the modern nexus of the preceding main forms of Materialism (physicalist- acausal determinist - central state) and the operation of Mind.

Mind and Brain in the View of Modern Materialism:

Assume "mind" denotes brain in action. Then we have no identity fallacy here at all, because a distinction exists at specific levels. Physicists such as Henry Stapp have referenced "cortical thresholds" for different brain action to yield thoughts, while David Bohm has shown (Quantum Mechanics, p. 169) that a thought emerges at a particular confluence of organized brain states and energies.

Meanwhile, the central state Materialist holds that any given human at time t, exhibits a program state capacity such that:

P1 -> [1, 0, 0, 1.............N]

P2 -> [0, 1, 1, 1.............M]

such that EFFECT [E] <-> P1(N), P2(M)

Here the processes P1 and P2 are hidden from scrutiny and represent transfers of data bits in the parallel architecture (between its ‘accumulators’ and ‘registers’, and manipulated by switching elements such as already described) of a living brain. These go up to some number of (N,M) parallel steps where N = M generally. The effect is recursive (feedback loop programmed in) so that the program has the capability to adjust to input parameters and alter the effect or output, accordingly). In this way, we have a kind of "central state" processor that responds to biochemical dynamics. (e.g. an action potential to trigger P1 or P2 must have a minimal magnitude for peak voltage of 40 mV and a resting membrane potential of ~ 70 mV.)

This view, of course, is already that of the 'Strong AI' (Artificial Intelligence) school of computing. The difference is that for the working brain storage of information work is via qubits (truncated for quantum bits) where the superposition of a combined data element (1 + 0) applies: U = U(1) + U(0). In general, for any given n-bit combination – with n a whole number, a qubit register can accommodate 2 to the nth power total combinations at one time. Thus, 16 combinations could be held in memory for 4-bits, 32 for 5-bits, and so on. This change marks an exponential (two to the n, or 2^n) increase over any classical counterpart. Since, human brains typically can hold the equivalent in memory of whole libraries, it seems that qubit processing is at least worth serious consideration.

Moreover, as I showed earlier, quantitative testing in a simulated environment (using neural networks) shows that a human-computer interface is feasible, e.g.


What about thought? Again, it was physicist David Bohm who first pointed out (ibid.), the very precise analogy of quantum processes to thought. In particular, the quantum "wave packet collapse" (e.g. to a single eigenstate, from a superposition of eigenstates) is exactly analogous to the phenomenon of trying to pinpoint what one is thinking about at the instant he is doing such thinking. More often than not, when one does this, as Bohm notes- "uncontrollable and unpredictable changes" are introduced into the thought process or train.

Often, people are heard to say: "Sorry, I've lost my train of thought". What they really mean is the the thought coherence they’d earlier enjoyed has been obliterated, so that they have to commence the thought process anew. The coherent state has "collapsed" into a single state which they no longer recognize. In this way, as Bohm pointed out, the "instantaneous state of a thought" can be compared to the instantaneous position of a particle (say associated with a B-wave in a brain neuron). Similarly, the general direction of change of a thought is analogous to the general direction of change in time for the particle's momentum (or by extension, its phase function). Now, let's get into more details.

Assume the total set of one's thoughts contains waves of frequencies ranging from f' (highest) to f, then the quantum potential V_Q can be expressed:

V_Q = h(f' - f), where h is Planck's constant.

Thus, V_Q has units of energy as the other potential functions in physics, e.g. gravitational and electrostatic. On average, the greater the number of possible states, the greater the difference (f' - f) and the greater the quantum potential. In general,

V_Q= { - ħ2/ 2m} [grad R]^2 / R

Of course, in a real human brain, we have a "many-particle" field (especially since we're looking at neuronal complexes) so that the quantum potential must be taken over a sum such that:

V_Q= { - ħ2/ 2m} SIGMA_ i = [grad R_i]2 / R

The velocity of an individual B-wave (de Broglie wave) is expressed by:

v(B)= grad S/m

Where m is the mass of the particle associated with the B-wave, and S is a phase function obtained by using:

U = R exp( iS/ħ)

Where R, S are real. Thought then occurs with the collapse of the neural map -associated wave function U and the onset of a new phase function S’ as a result, such that the B-waves in an original P-wave packet can become dislodged and arrange as a modulated waveform. This modulated waveform is also driven in part by the quantum potential.

Again, in the many -particle realistic situation of the brain, a change in momentum (P) of each particle (xi, x2, x3......xn) must be referenced. So we need:

P_i = dS(x(i), x2, x3......xn) / dx_i

Now, we reference the diagram (Fig. 2) which shows the situation for one such particle (x1) in the wave train, at the onset of an initial thought. The B-waves are initially enfolded in a wave packet we call the P-wave (for "pilot" wave) packet as neurons (and their B-waves) interact with each other, the associated quantum potentials are activated and fluctuations occur in the synapses - associated with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Ultimately, the fluctuations become large enough in amplitude to allow the trapped B-waves to break from their respective P-wave packets and form their own modulated sets or wave trains (bottom of diagram). This mental condition associated with this is what I call a "primordial thought". I emphasize here, the nature is of a proto-thought and certainly nothing like thinking of a new way to solve cubic equations, or challenge special relativity! But it marks the start!

In general, more complex thought will occur when Heisenberg -type fluctuations apply, of the form:

delta (p) delta (q) > ħ

And these fluctuations don’t exceed the amplitude (A) of the modulated wave form, as shown in the bottom of the diagram. The origin of logical or rational thought would arise when numerous modulated wave trains of the form shown reinforce each other in a process we call "constructive interference". The logical nature of the thought is validated so long as the momentum shift (see arrow direction in diagram) of the total wave train is not disturbed or disrupted. Since quantum superpositions can also link fields, e.g. electrical in the brain, then it is possible for these fields to also exist outside the brain's immediate physical dominion.

Complicated? YES! But no one approaching the topic of how thought and consciousness arise in the three pound organ known as the human brain would expect it to be otherwise! The beauty of it is that with the advent of modern quantum mechanics, we now have the tools to finally get at how thought and consciousness emerge from purely physical (but immaterial) processes. Will this be too much for some to accept? Of course, because most of those will never have taken a physics course in their lives, far less quantum mechanics (which they denounce as "nonsense" - because they can't grasp it!)

A last point: this neural interfacing capacity may well be the basis for uploading human neural maps into super-computers to gain immortality. This is briefly touched on in the new TIME magazine ('2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal'). Of course, this is bound to drive the fundies nuts as they'll no longer be able to send us to their ignorant "hell"! Our consciousnesses will be permanently ensconced in the quantum innards of supercomputers.... I plan to explore the ramifications in a future blog!

[1] Stapp, Henry, P.: 1993, Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics, Springer-Verlag, p. 42.

1 comment:

Frenetic Zetetic said...

You are one of the few who doesn't paint with the wide materialist brush, because you use critical thinking.

I wish the same were said of the other 99% of people "doing science" today.

Materialism has its uses for sure, but we start epistemologically shooting ourselves in the foot when we try to use it as the be-all-end-all ideological underpinning of reality exploration.