Saturday, July 13, 2013

Why I Find Materialism Unconvincing.

It is not uncommon to here people make statements like, "Consciousness and thought are emergent phenomena from the physical processes of the brain.  Consciousness and thought may not be present in the individual neurons, true, but neither is ferromagnetism present in individual atoms.  Bringing a lot of neurons together makes a qualitative difference, just as bringing a lot of iron atoms together does."

Gehirn, medial - beschriftet lat

I've never found this kind of statement to be at all convincing, and I think I should explain the foremost reason why. 

We start out with no ideas or experience of the world.  First come our sensory experiences:  we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel.  Rather quickly we form ideas about these experiences:  for instance, that the toy does not cease to exist just because we cannot see it any more.  

One of the first divisions we make is between things and people. (We undoubtedly think of plants as like things and animals as like people, at least at first.)  People are in some ways like things; they both persist in existence.  In other ways, though, they are different.  People have intentions; things do not.  People have knowledge; things do not.

When we are a little older, we give names to these.  What behaves like a thing is a material object, what has been called in philosophy for millenia a body.  People are said to have bodies, too, which accounts for why they are in so many ways like things; the differences are accounted for by saying that they have spirits, which have the properties not found in bodies (knowledge, intention, etc.) and lack those properties that are found in bodies (position, size, shape, color, etc.).

From this perspective, it is clear that if anything is to have wrong knowledge -- if anything is to be deceived -- it must be a spirit, not a body or a material object.  Material objects are what is left when we have abstracted away traits like knowledge, so they cannot even have mistaken knowledge.  The idea that "consciousness is an illusion of the body" is just nonsense.

This is, however, precisely the idea put forward by many philosophical materialists.  They believe the universe and everything in it to be bodies in the sense discussed above.  The awkward fact remains that each of us knows the universe only because we have knowledge, and we are aware of the universe only because we have awareness; as soon as we formulate the concepts of spirit and matter, it is first of all clear that we have spirits, and only secondarily clear that we also have bodies.  Without spirits we would not even know the meaning of matter.

What, then, are we to make of the fact that the condition of the brain has such an obvious influence on the ability to think?  First of all, I would say that this is probably analogous to the obvious influence that the condition of the eye has on the ability to see; yet no one would today say that vision is actually in the eye.  Secondly, the approach of Aristotelian philosophy to which we are heirs does not by any means deny the existence of a strong but mysterious connection between the spirit and the body; the soul is the form of the body.

How can anyone think this way in the information age?  Doesn't artificial intelligence prove that knowledge can emerge from carefully arranged material objects?  What about the Turing Test?

Material objects can obviously store and manipulate information.  A library of books is an example; an Egyptian temple wall covered with hieroglyphics is another.  Even without knowing how to read the symbols, we can quantify the information by calculating the Shannon entropy.  Books do not actually contain knowledge, though, because the symbols do not have meaning in themselves.  

The same is actually true about AI.  A machine running an AI program can respond in an appropriate way to external stimuli, but it does so without understanding the meaning of the stimuli or the purpose of the reactions; those are known only to the programmer and the user.  It is really no different than the speaker in a telephone handset; the speaker can transform electronic signals into the sounds of a human voice, but it neither has nor needs any understanding of what is being said.

As for the Turing Test, that really works better as a test for how gullible someone is.  For some people, an 8-ball would pass the Turing Test.

Finally, one might object that the whole problem arises from dividing the world into people and things in the first place.  Maybe things have thought and purpose, too, either in a way we might not understand or as a latent ability -- like a man who is blind because of a problem with his eyes, even though he has no problems with his visual cortex.  If you think that and that different objects remain distinct, you might be an animist; if you think all things together have a collective knowledge and purpose (both perhaps latent), you might be a pantheist.  Many people and many cultures have embraced some variation on this theme.  Such ideas may have no room for the separate existence of spirits, but they are still very different from materialism.


  1. I think your comment about the division between things and people is really a division based on movement. Things don't move. People, and animals, do. HOw would this be changed for someone with autism? They are unaffected, apparently, by the world around them.

  2. Not exactly. The moon moves, and a ball can roll across the floor, but they're both things.

    When you start talking about people with autism, though, you seem to mean EMOTIONALLY moved. But even there, people with autism are indeed affected by the world around them. They don't like their schedules changed, for example.