Saturday, July 22, 2017

Mysterious Stuff

Materialism is the belief that everything in the universe - including our bodies, our brains, our thoughts, our sensations - all of it is reducible in principle to material "stuff". There's no mental substance, no mind, just brains and the functions the brain performs. But if that's so, then what is the material stuff everything is made of? What, exactly, is matter?

Physicists, many of whom are materialists, tell us that matter is made up of particles which are themselves simply a "wave function", but then what's a wave function? What's it made of? No one seems to have an answer.

This video takes the viewer down to the smallest bits of matter, but when we ask what these smallest bits are comprised of the only reply from physicists is a shrug of the shoulders. At some point matter just seems to dissolve into energy, forces, and fields which are themselves inscrutable. They can be measured, but if we ask what it is, precisely, that we're measuring we just get another shrug for an answer. The fundamental nature of matter is a riddle:
Neuroscientist Michael Egnor helps us understand the provenience of the idea that everything is made of matter. He writes:
The materialist conception of matter derives in part from Democritus and Lucretius (two ancient materialist philosophers), but I believe that the most cogent view of matter as held by modern materialists is that of Descartes.

Descartes defined matter as res extensa — literally, substance extended in space. Matter, in the Cartesian view, is characterized by extension — length, width, and depth, and by associated properties such as mass that accompany extension in space. In the Cartesian view, all subjective mental properties, such as qualia and intentionality, were defined away — excluded — from matter itself. How, then, could the mind exist if subjective properties had no basis in matter?

In order to explain subjective experience and the mind, Descartes posited the existence of a second substance, res cogitans, which entailed subjective mental experience and which was [not] composed [of] matter in human beings. This was Cartesian substance dualism. The body and the mind were separable substances, each existing in its own right. Furthermore, Descartes believed that only humans had minds. Animals were automatons, essentially mindless machines made of meat.

Modern materialists have discarded Descartes’ mental substance, and have tried to explain nature and consciousness via matter alone. Modern materialists are Descartes’ descendants: although they have discarded Cartesian dualism, they retain Cartesian materialism. To the modern materialist, what really exists is matter extended in space, tangible stuff, and all intangible stuff (like the mind) needs to be explained in terms of tangible matter. Hence the bizarre cornucopia of materialist theories of mind, such as philosophical behaviorism, identity theory, computer functionalism, and eliminative materialism.
Of course, none of this explains what matter actually is. If it's "extended substance" then what kind of substance? And how can such a nebulous entity explain human cognition, human values, or any of the products of human consciousness? Egnor puts the question this way:
How, from a materialist perspective, can we explain the laws of physics? How can we explain abstract things, like universals and mathematics, if all that exists is matter extended in space? How can the mind arise from matter — how can meat think? How can we square the materialist understanding of nature with quantum mechanics, which reveals very non-materialist properties of matter at its most fundamental level?
Matter is a mystery and the belief that everything is made up of, and/or arises from, this mysterious substance is really nothing more than a prejudice that derives from a naturalistic worldview. There's no reason, in fact, not to believe that the fundamental stuff of the universe isn't material at all but rather mental. Indeed, this is the direction that modern physics has been moving in since the early years of the twentieth century. Perhaps, so far from mind arising from matter, the sensation of matter actually is a product of mind.

Just as Copernicus sparked a revolution in science by getting us to look at the solar system from a different perspective - a heliocentric rather than a geocentric perspective - looking at the world from the perspective of mental substance rather than material substance could spark an analogous revolution not only in science but also in metaphysics.