His strange materials

Science tells us what matter is, right? This is what everyone believes, but it is not necessarily true. The idea that science tells us what matter is came from Descartes, a philosopher from 400 years ago.

It is a curious fact about the history of philosophy and science that when science was getting started, the concept of matter was redefined to suit it, and the “new matter” had a narrower definition than the “old matter”.
This immediately raises the question: if matter has been redefined from what it was held to be previously, and the scientific definition is narrower than the old one – is it possible that there is more to matter than what science can tell us?

From here on I will refer to matter not verifiable by science as “strange-matter”, just because I can. Should it exist, I do not think that strange-matter is entirely separate from ordinary matter; rather, I suspect that ordinary matter has strange properties.

Physics is held to be the most fundamental science and the other sciences are in theory reducible to physics. But physics is a mathematical science, described entirely in equations. The question can be rephrased thus: Is there anything in the material world that cannot be described using mathematics? For is there is anything like that, it will be inaccessible to physics and to science as a whole.

Mathematics is a human invention. How do we know it can describe all material reality? In short: we don’t.

Bertrand Russell argued that the abstract nature of physics shows that it must be incomplete.

Physics reveals to us the structure of subatomic particles such as quarks and causative relations between them, but that is all it can tell us. But structure cannot exist by itself. Things have structure; it is not possible for them to just be structure. Therefore there must be more to material reality than what physics can tell us.

The strange-material and the mind

If the strange-material exists, it gives another option to explain those features of mind that science has yet to explain. Features such as:

  • Consciousness: the inner experience of what it feels like to see red, what it feels like to taste chocolate etc
  • Intentionality: this is the “aboutness” that is characteristic of thought. A thought about a cat is “about” that cat, whereas you wouldn’t say that a rock is about another rock.
  • Rationality: abstract thought; arguably the one thing that separates us from animals.

If science is unable to explain any of those things, they must all be immaterial unless the strange-material is an option.

To my mind, consciousness is a clear contender for the strange-material. Science cannot define it let alone explain it; yet at the same time, all animals seem to have it. If science defines the material, doesn’t this imply that sea slugs, echidnas and albatrosses are all part-immaterial? Doesn’t it make more sense to say that consciousness is material, regardless of what science can tell us?

How we got here

So what did “old matter” have that “new matter” doesn’t? Medieval and ancient philosophers held that consciousness and intentionality were both material. It was only rationality that they thought was immaterial. 

Descartes and the other early modern philosophers deliberately excluded both consciousness and intentionality from the new scientific definition of matter, 400 years ago. Even back then, it was clear that science would not explain either consciousness or intentionality, so both of them were not allowed to count as matter. They were shunted into the mind, which was held to be immaterial. Thus Cartesian dualism was born.

Cartesian dualism is very different to the dualism that preceded it. Old dualism says that we are “rational animals” and that our rationality and animality form a cohesive whole. Cartesian dualism says that we are thinking beings – “I think, therefore I am” – and our bodies are entirely separate to our minds.

It is hard to overstate the effects of this. Because Cartesian dualism came to dominate philosophy 400 years ago, it is the only alternative to materialism that most people know. But because Cartesian dualism says that mind and matter are entirely separate, it has a notorious difficulty explaining how they interact. Because modern materialism largely defines itself against Cartesian dualism, this interaction problem in itself makes materialism seem more plausible.

Almost everyone nowadays takes Descartes’ scientific definition of matter for granted, ironically making things more difficult for materialists by placing an impossible burden on science. 

So it is clear that when thinking about the mind/body problem, the definition of matter is just as problematic as mind, if not more so. Part of the answer is to broaden our definition of matter to include the strange-material. 

What would materialism look like?

What would the implications be if there was no such thing as anything immaterial in any way, shape or form?

The majority of materialists hold that anything immaterial is reducible to or dependent on the material. To hold that there is absolutely nothing immaterial at all is called eliminative materialism and is associated with Alex Rosenberg and Dan Dennett, among others.

Eliminative materialism starts with scientism, which says that only science can provide a complete description of matter and that the material is all of reality. Therefore, anything that is immaterial cannot possibly exist in any sense. 

The following is a list of issues usually considered in discussions on materialism and how eliminative materialists handle them. Other types of materialists have a more moderate position on the same issues.

Thoughts: That thought you just had about your cat. Was it really about your cat? A material thing cannot be “about” another material thing. You wouldn’t say that a rock is “about” another rock, would you? Therefore your thought was about nothing at all and all your thoughts are meaningless.

Truth, knowledge, justice: These are just illusions in your mind that have no scientific basis, along with all other ideas and concepts.

Words: How about the word “cat”? Is it about actual cats? Words are supposed to be linked to their definitions, but what is this link? It is impossible for a physical thing to be linked to another one in this way. Therefore the word “cat” has nothing to do with cats and all words are meaningless.

Consciousness: An illusion.

Beliefs, desires, purposes: More illusions.

Your “self”: Science doesn’t know about “selves”. This is another illusion.

Morality: Right and wrong have no basis in science and therefore do not exist in any sense.There are no exceptions, not even murder. To say that anything is wrong is just meaningless word salad. [1]

Mathematics: I was unable to find out if eliminative materialists have a position on mathematics, but given their positions on thoughts and words, I’d imagine they would reject mathematics as being meaningless symbols.

You get the idea. Other things the eliminative materialist denies include meaning, free will, God, the soul and life after death.

The majority of materialists are not eliminative materialists. Nevertheless, the list above shows what topics the materialist must ultimately deal with and explain. It is clear that there is far more to it than simply saying “no God, therefore materialism”.

[1] To be fair, I don’t know if anyone apart from Alex Rosenberg has actually said this. He says that nihilism is true and we should be “nice nihilists”.

Further reading

Eliminative materialists have written books, including:

  • “The Atheist’s Guide To Reality”, by Alex Rosenberg
  • “Consciousness Explained”, by Daniel Dennett

For a critical look at eliminative materialism from a non-materialist philosopher, go to https://www.firstthings.com/article/2011/11/scientia-ad-absurdum

What is bad philosophy?

What makes good philosophy?

Three things in my view:

⁃ Explains what it’s supposed to and with as few mysteries as possible
⁃ Doesn’t contradict or undermine itself or have logical mistakes
⁃ Doesn’t lead to absurdities

The first point is self-explanatory, which means it passes its own test 🙂

How about the third point, avoiding absurdity? In practice, there is no such thing as a normal idea. All ideas lead to some strangeness and absurdities. But absurdity is relative and depends on your sense of what’s plausible. So saying that cats are really cats is better than saying that cats could be dogs, but that is not as bad as saying that cats must be pieces of cheese.

What philosophy lets you do is examine any idea and clearly see where all the lines are – its strengths and weaknesses, the ideas it is related to and the weirdness it leads to. After that it is a judgment call about whether you can accept the weirdness in order to get the good stuff.

Is nominalism bad philosophy?

To summarise my previous post: Nominalism is the idea that we can’t know what things are, and how you “carve up” reality is simply convention with no basis in fact. So cats could be cats, or they could be dogs, or they could be pieces of cheese.

Nominalism arguably fails all three tests:
⁃ It doesn’t explain anything. Instead it unexplains and leads to radical scepticism about everything. It makes the success of science a miracle. I don’t know how you could argue that we can’t know what a cat is but we can do quantum physics.

⁃ It undermines itself. I don’t know how you could argue that we can’t know what a cat is but we can understand high-faluting philosophical ideas such as nominalism. Also can we even say “nominalism is true” if nominalism undermines the very idea of truth?

⁃ It can lead to absurdities although given the above discussion on absurdities this is not its weakest point.

Even though the majority of modern philosophers are nominalists, no one walks around calling themselves a nominalist. I think this is because nominalism is not at the core of their philosophy, it’s more of a side issue. So they have their core philosophical ideas that inevitably lead to nominalism, and they’ve made the judgment call that their core ideas are good enough that it doesn’t matter, they can just assume that cats are cats rather than proving it and get on with their lives.

But this makes nominalism a bit like that strange cousin that no one wants to talk to at Christmas dinner. Nobody likes nominalism but if your core ideas require it it’s hard to get rid of.

Everyone has to make judgment calls like that. It comes down to what you think is plausible and what you don’t.

You’re wrong about everything

The history of philosophy shows us why modern Western people think the way we do. Ideas now regarded as common sense can be traced back to philosophers in ivory towers 400 or even 700 years ago. Unfortunately the most influential philosophical ideas have been the bad ones. To find out more, read on.

Realism vs nominalism 

800 years ago, all Western philosophers were monks who had just rediscovered Ancient Greek philosophy. From Aristotle, they believed that we could understand the world because things have essences. For example, it is the essence of a cat to have four legs, to meow and catch birds. Let’s call this ‘catness’. Whatever cats do under normal circumstances tells us what ‘catness’ is, which then applies to all cats. If we see a cat with three legs, this is a bad thing because it contradicts ‘catness’ and is therefore bad for that cat. We can have true knowledge about the world and not even God can say that a cat is really a dog or should have three legs because that wouldn’t make sense. This view was called ‘realism’.

But after the realists another group of medieval philosophers appeared. They said that there were a lot of edge cases in nature and who could say where the boundaries were. Therefore it is impossible for us to say what a cat is, there is no such thing as ‘catness’, there are only individual cats, and a cat with three legs might not even be a cat. Only God can truly tell what a cat is and what a dog is, and if He told us that cats are really dogs or that they should have three legs, that’s fine because we can trust Him. This view was called ‘nominalism’.

Somehow the nominalists won the argument, but this backfired spectacularly, because if I can’t even look at a cat and know it’s not a dog, how can I know whether God exists? Indeed, how can I do science or philosophy or have any knowledge at all? So it led to radical skepticism about everything. But ultimately without God as an anchor nominalism becomes a free-for-all, as wherever we draw the lines becomes just a matter of convention. So not only could cats really be dogs, in principle cats could be chairs and chairs could be cats and we should call them ‘chaircats’, (as in ‘the chaircat meowed and sat down on the wooden chaircat’) which would make things weird in pet shops. Nominalists have a number of strategies to avoid such absurd outcomes. But if we can’t even know for sure that cats are really cats, how can we ever have true knowledge about the world?

If you think this is an esoteric philosophical debate with no connection to real life, you’re wrong.

We’re all nominalists now

Here’s the thing: because nominalism won that debate 700 years ago, most people today are nominalists. You can see this clearly in the never-ending gay marriage debate.

A realist way to argue in favour of gay marriage would be like this: marriage is such-and-such and exists for such-and-such reasons, and gay marriage is compatible with that, so gay marriage isn’t about redefining marriage but instead about updating our legal definition to reflect reality.

A realist way to argue the traditionalist position would be like this: marriage is such-and-such and it exists for such-and-such reasons, and gay marriage is not compatible with that and we can’t just rewrite reality whenever it suits us. 

But no one ever argues this way. Instead, what we get from traditionalists is ‘God defines marriage and He has said such-and-such’, which is Christian nominalism. The other side treats marriage as though it’s a government-created fiction that we can change whenever we like. This is secular nominalism.

Now, think about this: during over 15+ years of interminable, spiteful debate about gay marriage, almost no one has stopped to consider what marriage is.

That’s ridiculous.

The Western mindset has become an ideas cage that distorts our thinking. Bad philosophy such as nominalism has infiltrated our culture, making it almost impossible to think straight about most important issues. Unfortunately the only way to defeat bad philosophy is with good philosophy. That is why I think philosophy is so important and why I write about it on this blog.