Thursday, May 18, 2006

On defining matter, and materialism

shulamite said...
Why doesn't anyone bother to define matter in this debate? There is a continual confusion between "matter" which is a certain potency out of which something can be made, and "a material thing" which is something made out of matter and another principle.

VR: These are Aristotelian concepts based on a type of hylomorphism which contemporary materialists are inclined to reject. The material is typically identified with the physical, so materialism is sometimes called physicalism. In fact, I don't see a way to distinguish the two. Naturalism, unlike physicalism, says that everthing is "natural," but is there any scientific scenario according to which something can be part of nature but not be accounted for by the discipline of physics? The physical is supposed to be whatever is quantified over by physical theory. Only there is a problem, because clearly present physics is incomplete. So, for example, if someone were trying to define materialism in the 1960s and it turns out that string theory is true, then that would disprove materialism , since it would not have been true that whatever exists can be defined in terms of the physics of that time. On the other hand, If we say that the physical or the material is whatever some future physics will quantify over, then it could turn out that possibly, ultimate physics will quantify over God, souls, angels, and all that stuff that your average materialist says does not exist. Of course, you can turn around and say that of course these entities will be ruled out of the ultimate science by methodological naturalism, but since we are trying to figure out what "natural" means so that we can define naturalism, this isn't going to get us anywhere.

At this point I would like to point out something weird. We often get attempts to define "natural" in terms of the absence of the supernatural. Consider the following quote from the front page of the Secular Web:

In the words of Paul Draper, naturalism is "the hypothesis that the physical universe is a 'closed system' in the sense that nothing that is neither a part nor a product of it can affect it. So naturalism entails the nonexistence of all supernatural beings, including the theistic God."

I see lots of problems with this. Draper's trying to define naturalism, right? So he first defines it in terms of the physical universe, as if we knew what physical meant. And then he simply asserts that God would have to be supernatural, and therefore ruled out. But if we don't know what natural means we sure as heck don't know what supernatural means.

What J. J. C. Smart suggested once was that physicalism means that what exists are entities which are similar to those entities postulated by current science. Ok, but similar in what way? Is a string similar to an atom? Is the soul dissimilar to an atom? How do we use this criteria.

Following William Hasker, I have defined materialism in the following terms:
1. The physical level is to be understood mechanistically, such that purposive explanations must be further explained in terms of a non-purposive substratum. This will be called the mechanism thesis.

2. The physical order is causally closed. No nonphysical causes operate on the physical level. The physical is a comprehensive system of events that is not affect by anything that is not itself physical. (I really should have said physical in the final analysis.)

3. Other states, such as mental states, supervene on physical states. Give the state of the physical, there is onely one way the mental, for example, can be. Somethings this is called the supervenience and determination thesis. The idea is thatthe state of the supervening state is guaranteed by the state of the supervenience base. Thus it might be argued that biological states supervene on physicals tates. Imaginae a scenario in which a mountain lion kills and eats a deer. Even though "mountain lion" and "deer" are not physical terms, nevertheless, given the physical state of the world, it cannot be false that a mountain lion is eating a deer.

This is the best I can do on the matter. The link here links back to an old post of mine on the matter.

1 comment:

Blue Devil Knight said...

I think your characterization of physicalism (or, metaphysical naturalism) is good.

My naturalism is mainly a rejection of traditional supernaturalism, which allows for miracles and other events that would provide exceptions to the nomic closure of the natural world. However, if you were a traditional philosopher of science, it wouldn't be hard there from your characterization: every cause is associated with some law which tells you the relevant nomic associations that miracles, freedom, and the like would violate.

Despite the fact that we don't yet know the "fundamental" laws of physics (or if such things exist) I think it isn't particularly problematic. At the levels most interesting to both parties, things behave pretty classically (e.g., in brains, for instance, classical statistical mechanics is used to predict the electrical properties of neurons with great success, so we don't have to get our girdle in a knot over quantum wierdness. Most naturalists think that, at the very least, it is such electrical properties upon which mental properties supervene in terrestrial organisms).