Why I am not a materialist — take 2

by Neil Rickert

In an earlier post (almost three years ago), I asserted that I am not a materialist.  I have had people argue with me about that, and suggest that I was being disingenuous.

In the debates between Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer, Shedrake’s opening statement includes a bunch of questions related to materialism, that he poses to Shermer.  So I thought I would give my answers to those questions.  And then you can decide for yourself whether I should be considered a materialist.

Mechanism

Sheldrake’s first question: Is nature mechanical?

I have never thought so.  I take biological organisms to be an important part of what we mean by “nature”, and biology has always seemed very different from mechanics.  Rocks, earthquakes, etc — yes, I consider those to be mechanical.  But not living things.

People disagree over what they mean by “mechanism”.  Living things don’t fit with what I consider to be mechanism.

Sheldrake ends that section with:

Michael, do you think of yourself as a complex machine or as a conscious living organism?

I answer — I consider myself a conscious living organism.

I’ll add this.  I do think of my physical body as a complex machine.  But I do not identify myself with my physical body.  To identify myself with my body would be an example of what Gilbert Ryle called a “category mistake.”

Consciousness

Sheldrake asks: Is matter unconscious?

I think so, though I would not know how to tell.  There are some people who adopt the thesis of panpsychism — everything is a little bit conscious.  While I cannot rule that out, it does seem unlikely.

I’m not sure of Sheldrake.  From the fact that he poses this question, I can only wonder whether he is a proponent of panpsychism.

The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century gave birth to modern science by creating a radical dualism between unconscious matter and conscious, non-material minds possessed only by humans, angels, and God.

I don’t go along with traditional dualism (or Cartesian dualism).  I see no need to invent an immaterial substance.

By denying the existence of immaterial consciousness, atheistic materialists got rid of God and angels at one stroke. There were no longer two realms of reality, matter and consciousness; there was only one reality, matter.

That view seems too restrictive.  As I see it, there is matter and there is behavior.  Science studies motion, but motion is not made of matter.  For sure, it is matter that moves when there is motion.  But we study motion independently of the particular matter that is moving.  I have previously identified myself as a behaviorist, though perhaps not a traditional behaviorist.

When I say that I do not identify myself with my physical body, I am instead thinking of myself as something like a system of behaviors, with the physical body being an implementation detail.

I am puzzled by people who say that consciousness is an illusion.  As best I can tell, something like consciousness is required in order for illusions to be possible.

Sheldrake ends this section with:

Do you believe that you have free will?

Yes, I do, though there is considerable disagreement about what we mean by “free will.”

Conservation laws

In his third question, Sheldrake asks: Is the total amount of matter and energy always the same?

I’ve never been sure of that.  The conservation laws work well in physics.  The apparent long term stability of the solar system seems to argue for them.

Conservation is, in part, a conceptual construct.  Our every day experience is that energy runs down.  We account for this by saying that entropy increases.  Roughly speaking, we hold that the amount of energy remains the same, but it loses its effectiveness.  This is how we have chosen to conceptualize our world.  But our construction of concepts does not seem to completely account for conservation, which is why I remain unsure.

Sheldrake connects this to Big Bang cosmology:

Do you believe that the total amount of dark matter and dark energy is always the same (except at the moment of the Big Bang)?

In truth, I have never fully accepted Big Bang cosmology.  The evidence seems to be pretty clear in the existence of a cosmological red shift.  But I am not yet convinced that a Big Bang origin is the best explanation of this.  Some of the possible alternatives do appear to allow subtle exceptions to the conservation laws.

Laws of nature

In his next question, Sheldrake asks: Are the laws of nature fixed?

I take the skeptical view, that there are no laws of nature.  Or, more precisely, if there are laws of nature then those are unknowable to us.

There are, of course, laws of physics and other scientific laws.  But I see these as human constructs.  I see them as part of how we choose to conceptualize the universe.  As far as I can tell, there is nothing that compels us to conceptualize it in the way that we do.  We have changed how we conceptualize our world from the mechanics of Aristotle, to that of Galileo and Newton, then to relativistic mechanics, and later to quantum mechanics.  I see this as scientific pragmatism.  When we find a better way of conceptualizing our world, we jump to that in what Kuhn called a “paradigm shift.”

Purpose

Is nature purposeless?

I’m unsure how to answer this, because it is not clear what is being asked.

Biological organisms seem to behave in a purposeful way, where the purpose is continued existence.  But the question appears to be about nature as a whole, rather than about individual organisms.

According to the Gaia hypothesis of Lovelock and Margulis, there appears to be some sort of homeostasis of the biosphere as a whole.  That would make it purposeful, with a purpose of maintaining stasis.  However, when we look beyond that to the stars and galaxies, it is hard to see anything that looks like purpose.  It all has the appearance of happenstance.  So even if Gaia can be said to be purposeful, and individual organisms can be said to have purposes, they all appear to result from happenstance.

Biological inheritance

Is all biological inheritance material?

Given my behaviorist view, I tend to take an organism as a system of behavior rather than a physical body.  And the initial processes that begin the existence of a new organism come directly from the parents, rather than being a product of DNA.  So no, I don’t see that as all material.  The DNA is material, but life itself appears to be continuous.

The question is about inheritance.  Some of the characteristics of a new organism are derived from the environment in which it developed.  This includes the environment of the uterus or the egg or seed.  And those are provided by the parent, so characteristics that derive from parental environment would allow some sort of inheritance that is not directly from the DNA.

However, it does appear that inheritance is predominantly via the DNA.

Memories

Are memories stored as material traces?

Human memories appear to be reconstructions, rather than retrievals from a store.  So I am skeptical of store–retrieve models of memory and I am skeptical of the “brain as computer” views of human cognition.

Minds

Are minds confined to brains?

I tend to think of the mind as mostly metaphor.  We use that term to express that which does the thinking.

As far as I can see, brains do not think.  People think, and use their brains to make thinking possible.  But I don’t see thought as confined to brains.  Our thinking is very much about our relation to our world.  I’m doubtful that a brain in a vat would have any thoughts at all.

Telepathy

Are unexplained phenomena like telepathy illusory?

They appear to be illusory.  They do not appear to withstand rigorous testing.  If phenomena such as telepathy do exist, then they appear to be very weak and of little or no importance.

Medicine

Is mechanistic medicine the only kind that really works?

I’m not quite sure what “mechanistic medicine” is supposed to mean.  Some medication acts to stimulate behavior.  But there are other ways of affecting behavior, such as changing one’s outlook on life, changing ones exercise habits or changing one’s diet.  And there does seem to be a placebo effect.

I don’t think those all fit well under the title “mechanistic medicine.”

Am I a materialist?

Feel free to offer your opinion in comments.

My own assessment is that my outlook is different from that of Michael Shermer, but it is also different from that of Rupert Sheldrake.  I don’t see the term “materialist” is being particularly useful as a way of describing my outlook.

 

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8 Responses to “Why I am not a materialist — take 2”

  1. Hi Neil,

    “I take biological organisms to be an important part of what we mean by “nature”, and biology has always seemed very different from mechanics. Rocks, earthquakes, etc — yes, I consider those to be mechanical. But not living things.”

    What or where is the distinction? A single static rock, or a moving rock is simple mechanics. A moving rock is a collection of moving atoms, is a collection of moving elementary particles. Though the rock as a whole might be moving in uniform motion it’s particles are moving in relation to each other. The rock isn’t as simple as the large scale makes out. If the moving rock contains the incomplete fossilisation of a dead organic system is it still a rock? How could you tell from the outside? Is a dead animal where bacterial decay has stopped or has been prevented, so only chemical processes continue, is that life any longer? Is a dead human decaying with bacterial action alive? The bacteria are alive, and the living person had bacterial action inside them as well. What about the brain has changed, and when did that change take place? Is that change not a mechanistic change?

    “Living things don’t fit with what I consider to be mechanism.”

    Why? What makes your understanding of the complex physics, chemistry, biology of cells, brain cells, non-mechanical? What, if anything, is added (you’re not a dualist) to make these things stop being mechanical and becoming biological?

    Why can’t they be both mechanical and biological? Why can’t biology be a subset of mechanistic physics?

    “I answer — I consider myself a conscious living organism.”

    Why not both? I consider myself to be a complex machine that has reached a degree of complexity and function that it self monitors – and a mechanistic computer can be made to self monitor. What does it feel like when a complex machine has multiple levels of complex feedback such that it can not only monitor itself but can also monitor its own monitoring process? It feels like being a conscious living mechanical organism.

    It seems to me that the terms ‘mechanism’ and ‘mechanical’ are being used as if they apply only to the mechanics of the industrial revolution.

    “I do think of my physical body as a complex machine. But I do not identify myself with my physical body.”

    The problem is that the brain does identify itself with the body to a great extent. A tennis player can detect sensory signals and process them such that to him it feels as though he is personally bodily feeling the ball hit the sweet spot on the racket, or not. The racket becomes and extension of the person. It seems that through the long adaptation of evolution we have come to feel that our own mechanistic bodies are part of the ‘I’ that is me. The brain is adaptable to what it includes in its image of the self.

    By the same token a brain malfunction can make body parts feel alien. This self business, along with consciousness and personal identity generally are tricky things, with lots of well documented illusions going on, and many more easy to stimulate. It seems a bit of a stretch to declare that this conscious self has something about it that makes if so difference from other systems that it ceases to be mechanistic.

    Parts of the brain are very mechanistic. Single neurons are very mechanistic, from their overall behaviour to their internal chemical processes.

    “Is matter unconscious? I think so, though I would not know how to tell. ”

    I agree.

    Is the brain made of matter? Yes. Then matter can be conscious. Is a rock made of matter? Yes. Then matter can be non-conscious (or minimally conscious at least). Where does the consciousness kick in, and how? What is there about this that precisely prevents you from accepting (at least until evidence to the contrary comes in) that matter can be conscious if arranged in certain ways?

    We can also ask how we know we are conscious beings that are not mechanisms? Again, what does it feel like to be a mechanism that has such complex processes that it feels like a conscious entity? It feels like this.

    “There are some people who adopt the thesis of panpsychism — everything is a little bit conscious. While I cannot rule that out, it does seem unlikely.”

    Why is it unlikely? I think it’s unlikely because we can look at conscious systems, from us, to various mammals, and have some degree of measure of consciousness related to the number and formation of the neuronal systems. In small systems of just a few or few hundred neurons we can detect features of memory that are also seen in conscious brains – it looks like these systems have some of the elements that are required by a conscious system.

    But look at bacteria. They seem to have functions relating to survival – they are survival machines, perhaps one of the crucial features of organic evolutionary life. Survival machines perform process that maximise their survival in their environment. It they don’t then they don’t survive. If they do it better they have greater chance of passing on the genes that maximise survival. But there are many ways of surviving maximally – it’s a many peaked landscape, so life is diverse.We have this in common with them too, but is their anything about them that strikes us as conscious?

    “Science studies motion, but motion is not made of matter.”

    In a sense it is. If there was no matter, would there be anything to move. Very much like the Cogito: I move therefore I am.

    “But we study motion independently of the particular matter that is moving. ”

    Well, we study models of motion, not actual motion, if there is no matter. And, we could argue that such study involves brain activity, which involves the motion of chemicals – synaptic junctions, ions of the action potential, internal neuron processes. Thinking is a mechanistic process. Thoughts about motion are models, mappings, of brain activity that has some complex and messy representation or correspondence to the motion of the external (even hypothetical) systems it is modelling.

    “When I say that I do not identify myself with my physical body, I am instead thinking of myself as something like a system of behaviors, with the physical body being an implementation detail.”

    Sounds like you’re thinking of a model of your brain-body behaviour, but your brain-body system is still mechanistic as far as I can tell. There’s nothing else.

    “I am puzzled by people who say that consciousness is an illusion. As best I can tell, something like consciousness is required in order for illusions to be possible.”

    I think you are missing what it is that’s being called illusory. Is there a process that consists of a mechanistic brain system that causes the brain to contemplate itself? Yes. That is real. Does the brain feel this conscious process to be something other than mechanistic brain processes? yes. That’s the illusion.

    It’s the same with free will. The brain’s processes cannot detect the mechanistic systems that are causing its thinking processes. To the brain it feels like it is a free floating mind, and that freely wills decisions, free of the physical processes of the brain – I will it, and my will is not caused by my physical brain processes. The illusion with regard to free will is dualism. Feeling as if we are free floating minds with free will is the illusion. In reality (so it goes) it seems more likely that we are mechanistic systems that have this illusion of dualism.

    “Yes, I do, though there is considerable disagreement about what we mean by “free will.””

    Exactly. Of the two types of incompatibilists:

    Dualists: free will exists (and immaterial minds exist, or perhaps souls). So, because these minds act on the world the world cannot be entirely deterministic. Determinism is incompatible with their free-will, their dualism.

    Determinists: The world is deterministic, or non-deterministic, but mechanistic such that there is no evidence of anything of the dualists claims. Such a world is incompatible with free-will. One would have to show there is some dualist realm, and that it acts on this world, to make the world non-deterministic (again deterministic here is really a sense of mechanistic that includes indeterminate ‘quantum’ stuff).

    When compatibilists make the points you do here it seems like you’re saying, no I’m not a dualist, but there is something that makes us non-mechanistic; and no, there is no dualist realm, but we have some form of freedom that I’m prepared to call free-will. These seem like a fudge. I’ve still not got to the bottom of why this is your point of view.

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  2. Remaining points relating to Sheldrake’s questions

    On conservation laws, big bang, etc., …

    I’m of a similar view, but perhaps not for the same reasons. All cosmology is inferential. That’s not saying much since all we know about the world consists of what our brains infer about it from experience. But there are degrees of evidence from which inferences are made. All the conservation laws seem to work, in as far as we can test them. The Big bang seems to be a reasonable but non-conclusive inference. Nothing we know tells us anything at all about anything ‘outside’ this universe – to such an extent that we can’t even tell if that notion bears any correspondence to reality, whether there is any ‘outside’, in any way one cares to take that term. Everything becomes more speculative the less evidence we have to support it. Some cosmological models are based on derivations from other models that do seem to have some relation to reality as we perceive it. But many incompatible models may be constructed this way, so again, whether any model we currently have tells us anything about great distances, great times, origins, ‘outside’, is all speculation. I have no problem with speculations, or metaphysics, as long as we acknowledge what they are. That’s my issue with religion – they are making prescriptive and proscriptive decisions in this world based on wild speculations on something ‘outside’ this universe. It’s nuts.

    Laws of nature …

    They are our models of reality. They seem to work. They may bear no more than a passing correspondence to anything in reality. It might be better to say: nature just ‘is’, and we make models of it that suit our purposes to various degrees.

    “Is nature purposeless? I’m unsure how to answer this, because it is not clear what is being asked. ”

    I agree. But, we can take what theists seem to mean by purpose and deny that we have any evidence to support such purpose. We seem to do stuff that seems to have some purpose. But if my earlier comments on mechanistic survival machines is right, then it will look as if there is purpose. Alternatively, we observe some co-ordinated behaviours that we repeat as if the brain-body system requires those behaviours (e.g. finding food), and ‘purpose’ is merely the term we give to that mechanistic behaviour.

    “According to the Gaia hypothesis of Lovelock…”

    Lovelock’s is still a mechanistic process. He does not mean anything like the theistic sense of purpose, or as if the earth somehow has a behaviour that we label as purpose. A three term (PID) controller has purpose in that sense, and it is entirely mechanistic – if you allow electronics or computer implementation to be mechanistic, but even if you don’t a fully mechanical controller could be devised.

    “And the initial processes that begin the existence of a new organism come directly from the parents, rather than being a product of DNA. So no, I don’t see that as all material. ”

    What about non-sexual reproduction? Isn’t that part of the cellular mechanism? Isn’t that inheritance? Didn’t non-sexual reproduction begat sexual reproduction?

    “However, it does appear that inheritance is predominantly via the DNA.”

    In what way is that not mechanistic?

    “Are memories stored as material traces?”

    Yes they are. Definitely. Try Eric Kandel’s work.

    “Human memories appear to be reconstructions, rather than retrievals from a store.”

    What are they reconstructed from? Memory stores. On the reconstruction process you might consider dynamic RAM in computers. This is effectively static logical states maintained by a continual reconstruction of those states.

    The issue with human recollections is that they are better considered as the processing of information that is derived from memory in complex ways, possibly along with new information arising. Think of your last birthday, if you can remember it – just for a moment, and note what comes to mind. Stop. Do the same tomorrow. You may remember the same things, but others may ‘come to mind’, other details. These memories are not static but are reconstructions, as you say. But they are reconstructed from other data stored in ‘memory’ of cells, neurons. The detailed static (dynamic really, because neurons are active systems) records are inaccessible to conscious thought – another case where memories appear to come to us, bidden or not, with out any conscious awareness of how that happens. But those consciously inaccessible do exist, and are only available to consciousness after some processing.

    “Are minds confined to brains? I tend to think of the mind as mostly metaphor. We use that term to express that which does the thinking.”

    I agree. The brain does the thinking. It thinks it has a mind, and a long history of human thought has convinced us that the mind exists as something that is not the brain. That’s the illusion.

    “As far as I can see, brains do not think. People think, and use their brains to make thinking possible.”

    What does that mean, ‘people think’? This is the shift move that compatibilists make.

    “But I don’t see thought as confined to brains.”

    What else is doing it then?

    “Our thinking is very much about our relation to our world. ”

    It may well be, but that isn’t addressing what is doing the thinking. You’ve switched topics, from what is doing the thinking to what is being thought about.

    “I’m doubtful that a brain in a vat would have any thoughts at all.”

    I think you’d need to say a lot more about that brain in a vat to be sure. We may soon have an answer: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/head-transplant-man-will-be-attached-to-new-body-in-under-an-hour-and-aim-is-immortality-doctor-says-10198982.html

    The brain in a vat considers a brain, in a vat, wired up to receive all the stimulations other supplies a brain needs – including sensory inputs, simulated responses to actions in the world. I’d be curious to know what difference that would be to having a head moved from one body to another. Take it further, and move the brain to another body-skull system. Isn’t that a brain in a vat?

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  3. Your final question

    Are you a materialist?

    I think you are close, but like many humans seem unable to make that step to materialism and physicalism. That’s how I see many compatibilists. Coel Hellier, on the other hand, is closer to being a materialist physicalist, and may even consider himself to be one, but he too is a compatibilists. It seems to me that there is a range of compatibilisms. Some look like dualism, some don’t – looks like semantic soup that wants free will while at the same time denying everything free will seems to entail.

    Now I believe you when you say you are not a dualist. But everything you say seems to be what a dualist would say, except for the non-physical realm. You seem to reject dualist realm of souls and minds, but you make statements that are just like statements of dualists.

    I still struggle to see what you actually think. I see plenty of statements about what you don’t think, or statements declaring what you are not.

    None of that’s a criticism by the way. I’m just trying to explain why a ‘don’t get you’, if you see what I mean.

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    • Thanks for your comments. I probably won’t reply in detail to the other comments, because I think we are mostly talking past one another. But let me try here.

      You seem to reject dualist realm of souls and minds, but you make statements that are just like statements of dualists.

      If I want to give a completely mechanical account of the world, then it seems to me that denying souls and minds is not enough. I would also have to deny people, cats, plants.

      We see a ripple in the stream, or perhaps even an eddy. We don’t think of that ripple or eddy as an independent thing. Rather, we see it as a disturbance in the flow of the stream.

      In a completely mechanical account of the world, it seems to me that people, cats, plants would be merely disturbances in the flow of mechanical things (such as molecules). However, we are compelled to see people, cats and plants as actual things, because our own livelihood depends on seeing them that way. Our language is an intentional language, a language that emphasized intentions and purposes rather than mechanics. People, cats and plants are intentional objects, but not mechanical objects. They are conceptual constructs. For that matter, time and space are conceptual constructs, so are intentional objects rather than mechanical objects. A rock, by contrast, is a mechanical object.

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  4. The rock is a mechanical object. But the rock was part of something bigger. If we look closer it has components – some rocks are pretty uniform, others have mineral veins, etc. The simplistic notion of a ‘rock’ is itself a construct, evidence by the fact that we are both using the term ‘rock’ but might have quite different things in mind. But because a rock is simple, compared to animals, the conceptual construct ‘rock’ versus the actual seems like a straight forward representation.

    With ‘people’, ‘person’, ‘me, ‘you’, we have far more complex variations that can be represented by these simple words. The mapping of concept to thing isn’t so straight forward.

    But still it remains, a person consists of a brain-body system that is made of matter, some of which can be found in a rock. In fact there’s not much, if anything, in a human body, in terms of elements, that are not found in rocks.

    I remember being young and learning at school how material our brain body systems are. I remember the surprise – What? We have iron in our bodies? Really?

    Our language is intentional perhaps because that’s how we evolved language. Somewhere, presumably slowly, it started to dawn on humans that they were things in the world – I don’t know to what extent various animals are able to think of themselves in the third person in that way. We see ourselves, and we think rocks don’t see themselves.

    I can see the difference between a rock and a person in these respects. The rock is simpler, and as far as we can tell it doesn’t have anything remotely like consciousness. Deepak Chopra aside it seems the only examples of anything we can recognise as being conscious are systems with brains. But the only material difference between all the elements in a human and an actual human is the organisation and dynamic state of that matter. But many of the components can be kept in their dynamic state artificially outside a brain-body system – and where this is difficult it is sure only a technical problem.

    It still seems to me you are choosing (being caused to choose sans free-will) to look at humans differently, to categorise conscious systems differently – and that’s a function of your perception and not the facts about the brain-body system. “we are compelled to see people” – yes, but we are compelled to see many illusions as if they are reality.

    Why can it not be the case that humans are complex mechanisms that are so complex and complex in such a way that they exhibit this behaviour that we label consciousness; and that we label it consciousness and feel it is something special because evolutionarily that has been an efficient perspective.

    In these times of human culture, education, free time, we can contemplate these issues and theorise about them. But evolutionarily was there any need for such contemplation? If a brain-body systems works more efficiently by acting as if the conscious processing is a thing in its own right, rather than going through the mental process we are now doing of trying to second guess what our own brain-body is thinking and why, then that would explain why the feeling of having a mind rather than a mechanistic brain-body is so convenient. When I pick something up I’m not theorising about the mechanics of the bones, muscles, tendons, nerves that make that action work as my brain wants it to.

    It seems to me that everything we know, all the actual data we have, suggests humans are biologically mechanistic systems. Nothing we know provides evidence of anything additional. therefore the only thing that makes consciousness appear to be something else, to be non-mechanistic, is our perception of it.

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    • It still seems to me you are choosing (being caused to choose sans free-will) to look at humans differently, to categorise conscious systems differently

      By contrast, mechanical systems don’t actually categorize at all.

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  5. Yes they do. Human mechanical systems categorise.

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