My alternative to materialism – an outline

by Neil Rickert

Since posting “Why I am not a materialist” some comments have suggested that I really am a materialist since I am not proposing anything supernatural nor any immaterial spiritual soul.  Well, fair enough, if that is all that materialism implies.  However, the reason that I deny that I am a materialist, is that I disagree with a lot of what materialists say.  It seems to me that for those who declare themselves materialists, their materialism dictates their approach on how to explain things.  And I don’t want my methodology to be dictated by metaphysical assumptions.


Perhaps the clearest difference that came out in discussion on the earlier thread, is that related to how we look at information.  I have been using that term for Shannon information, so that information consists of a sequence of symbols.  And I have been insisting that those symbols are intentional objects rather than material objects.

I won’t try to explain the difference here — I will leave that to future posts.  But let me at least illustrate with an example.  When I drive down the street, I come to an intersection with a STOP sign.  Most of us would take that STOP sign to be some kind of symbol.  It is not the material content of that stop sign (the metal and other materials from which it is made) that lead to it being a STOP sign (or symbol).  Rather, it is our intentions toward that STOP sign that make it a symbol.  And that is why the stop sign, as a symbol, is an intentional object rather than a material object.

It turns out that many materialists are eliminative materialists.  And what that usually means, is that they want to eliminate intentionality from the discussion.  Some of them say that intentionality is a bit like phlogiston, a bad idea from the past which is no longer useful.  So when I insist on discussion information in terms of intentional objects, they see that as not being part of their materialist view.

In previous discussions that I have had, mostly on usenet, it has become clear that some people will take me to be some kind of dualist, if I insist on talk of intentional objects.  I have even been called a dualist on account of some of the things that I say about mathematics.  Apparently, the view of some is that platonist mathematics is dualist (and never mind the fact that I am not actually a mathematical platonist).

The problem is further complicated by the fact that what philosophers write about intentionality often seen as vague and perhaps mystical.

I am not a mysterian.  So let me be clear about.  I do believe that, at least in principle, we could build an artificially intelligent agent that would be seen as having intentions and being able to refer to intentional objects.  It would not be easy to build such an agent, and I doubt that it would done with the kind of computation system that AI proponents consider.  But I do believe that it is possible.

The outline

Here’s a broad overview of how I look at things.

The materialist wants to reduce everything to material.  In some weak sense, I want to reduce everything to intentions.  However, saying it that way goes too far.  To say that the material world is made of intentions would be to adopt something like Berkeley’s idealism.  That is certainly not my plan.  Rather, the idea is that our knowledge of the material world reduces to intentions, including our intentional interactions with the material world.  This is actually consistent with what scientists do, intentionally carrying out experiments in their labs so as to gain knowledge.

That leaves us with intentions as a kind of starting point.  The reason that I am not a materialist, is that I do not take material to be the starting point.

There is still something missing.  If all I do is start with intentions, and attempt to extend from there to what can be reduced to intentions, then that does almost seem dualistic.  For the material world has been left out.  We still need to connect the world of our intentions with the material world.

One way of connecting the material world and the intentional world is to explain how intentions arise out of material interaction.  I have attempted to do some of that in my posts on purpose as a part of nature.  However, this explanation is not and could not be a reduction.

In the other direction, we can go by naive realism.  The idea is that our knowledge is reduced to our intentions.  And then we accept to that the material world is pretty much consistent with that knowledge.  Naive realism is, of course, a metaphysical thesis, and I have said that I do not do metaphysics.  So I should clarify that.  What I mean is that none of my conclusions depend on metaphysical assumptions.  It is conceivable (though implausible) that Berkeley’s idealism is “correct” and naive realism is “wrong”.  As long as my reasoning does not actually depend on the realism/idealism/something else assumption, then I am not relying on metaphysics.

That’s a brief outline of how I am looking at things.  I shall try to fill in some of the details in future posts.

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