Measured Against Reality

Friday, October 06, 2006

Philosophy Friday - Materialism

I’ve decided that I’m going to start doing something called “Philosophy Friday”, where I right about some philosophical idea that interests me, a brief history of the idea, and why I like it. Today, the first philosophy Friday, will be about materialism.

Materialism holds than the only thing that exists is matter, and everything action in the universe is governed by matter and the forces between it. More basically, it says that anything that has any effect on anything in the universe (or the universe itself) is material, and subject to the laws of nature.

The first philosopher to detail materialism was Lucretius, working off of the work by Democritus and Epicurus (among others). He wrote that all that exists is matter and void, and that everything is the result of motions and conglomerations of base particles (named “atoms” by Democritus). This would prove to be remarkably prescient.

Materialism is also one of those words that can have heavy overtones, some people use it almost as a slur, as if the world being material is an inherently bad thing. Wikipedia says, “Materialism has frequently been understood to designate an entire scientific, rationalistic world view, particularly by religious thinkers opposed to it, who regard it as a spiritually empty religion.” I’ve found that much anti-evolution propaganda uses in this way (although this is based on only a few pamphlets).

One of the things that lead to be believe that materialism is correct (besides being the most parsimonious hypothesis for how the world works) is a fairly simple thought experiment (that might not remain a thought experiment for much longer). Imagine that every single molecule, every single atom, every single quark and electron have been copied exactly. All umpteen trillion of them. Their quantum states and positions relative to each other have been completely and accurately measured, and faithfully reproduced. Imagine that you had been duplicated, “quantum Xeroxed”, so to speak.

What would the resulting duplicate be? Would it be you? It would have your face, your heart, your brain, your stomach, your bones, your scars, your lunch in its stomach, your neurons in its brain, even your bacteria in its mouth. Would it have your thoughts? Your memories? Your opinions? Would it think like you? Would it be possible to tell the difference between the you and it?

To me, it seems impossible that it wouldn’t have your memories and opinions along with your lunch in its stomach. Which means that dualism is wrong, and materialism is the most plausible philosophical stance. But this thought experiment is one of the best ways I’ve found of examining whether the universe is monist or dualist, because they both predict different outcomes (although I’m not exactly certain what a dualist would expect to happen). But since this is based only upon what you think would happen, it’s really only a gauge of what you personally perceive about the world around you, I’ve just found that, when materialism is presented like this, people find it more plausible.

Thus concludes the first Philosophy Friday.

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  • I remember using a similar thought experiment years ago to come to the conclusion that the mind (or consciousness) is really nothing more than part of the functioning of the physical brain.

    The brain is definitely the most fascinating part of the body... but hey, look who's telling me that.

    By Blogger Jeremy, at 2:43 PM, October 06, 2006  

  • But it isn't any *fun,* Stu, and that's half the battle. Materialism, while alluring to one's logical senses, is entirely unappealing to the soul.

    And if man isn't a soulful creature, then I'm not a man, and neither are you.

    By Blogger Mr. Fantastic!, at 6:11 PM, October 06, 2006  

  • The statement that it's unappealing to the soul is entirely subjective. I find it wholly appealing. I think a material world is far better than any dualist one (but as with anything, if it turns out that the world is dualist, then it is what it is).

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 6:54 PM, October 06, 2006  

  • The problem, of course, with this kind of thought experiment is that we know it cannot be done. A thought experiment such as this exists in the realm of immateria, which means it contradicts itself and dies.

    What I believe is that it is possible to exist and function as if the world is purely material. But other kinds of philosophy (ethical, moral) require us to put a value on what we do that is not obviously related to this perspective. What is the greatest good, for example, if all is nothing but materia and the interactions thereof?

    So it is necessary, in practice, to believe that the world is not purely material - or if you can't stomach that belief, to act as if it is a legitimate perspective. I suppose at worst, you'd still have to accept that the human animal is wired materially to suspect that immateria exist, and so you will always have that with you.

    Lastly, why such a suspicion? Because of a specific kind of rational perspective that attempts to know everything but is also aware that it cannot. Hence, it must accept that blind spots exist, and that such blind spots cannot be proven to be material in nature.

    By Blogger ~autolycus, at 9:56 AM, October 07, 2006  

  • Hi,

    very interesting! About the duplicate problem, I think that it is a natural impossibility. If I had a duplicate, he had to be in a different space-time coordinate and from that moment his complex physical structures would change inmediatly.


    visit my blog!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:02 AM, October 10, 2006  

  • how can you argue from it seems to me impossible to the complete rejection of an idea???

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:12 AM, October 16, 2007  

  • This can't work as a matter of fact, that is exactly what I believe.

    By Anonymous contactos en barcelona, at 12:09 AM, August 11, 2011  

  • Very effective material, thanks so much for this post.

    By Anonymous muebles en leganes, at 11:23 AM, October 09, 2011  

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