Philosophy Challenge: is there an alternative to physicalism?

  • June 23, 2013 · 1:00 PM
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Philosophy Challenge: is there an alternative to physicalism?

Mike T. (university math professor) has challenged Plato's Cave philosophers to suggest and defend an alternative to physicalism.

Here is Mike's plea:

As water to fish: physicalism

April 9, 2013 by mike

Years of exposure to the toxic effects of mathematics have rendered me unfit for human society and civil discourse. I used to happily acquiesce in whatever I was told was true, whether it was that fiber is good for you or that the Moon is made of roquefort. Now however, grown cynical and suspicious, I find myself doubting the most innocent statements and wondering, “How do they justify that?” Consider the following:


By physicalism, I mean the idea, roughly speaking, that everything can be explained by physics and that the scriptures thereof can written down in mathematics. This sort of conception used to be labelled materialism; it was, at that time, envisioned that reality amounted to point masses or particles flying around and colliding like billiard balls or influencing one another by gravity or magnetism or electric charge. As present-day physics is filled with more ghostly entities—probability amplitudes, warped space-time, vibrating branes, and so forth—the term materialism has given way to the broader physicalism.


Now so far as I can tell, what we would call a well-educated person in the Western tradition has a very strong tendency to assume automatically, without question, almost without awareness, the validity of physicalism. The “truth” of their position is evident to them. The idea that it might be an assumption is as invisible to them as water is to fish.


Notice that I refer to the “well-educated” person. I have in mind the sort of person who is considered knowledgeable, who follows world affairs, who has a college degree, who is perhaps an academic or intellectual, who tends to be a leader in the community and who, even if only unconsciously, helps shape the views of those in his or her orbit.


It is quite possible—perhaps likely—that the majority of people do not subscribe to such a doctrine. There are, after all, still many religious believers and many who avidly follow their horoscopes.
And of those who do subscribe to physicalism, we may find some who at the same instant unconsciously believe or even loudly proclaim their belief in some basically contradictory idea or -ism. (Think, for example, of the inwardly skeptical politician who is sharply aware that a strong affirmation of religious faith is crucial to his survival.)


Yet despite all this, I have the impression that physicalism is the foundation of the way our educated class views the world.


This is understandable in the case of scientists and engineers. After all, they spend their working lives looking at the world from from the standpoint of physicalism. And of course they may contaminate administrators, financial planners, and others who have to come to them for advice. But I think this influence of physicalism is felt even in the humanities, a place where one might hope to seek refuge from it. Though it is proclaimed there that the heart and spirit of the enterprise is Man—his thoughts, songs, arts, accomplishments—yet in the literature of, say, the last century and a half, the feeling comes through that Man is simply an accident, thrown up by the blind and random forces of nature, who is now faced with the impossible task of justifying his own significance. This seems the sort of mindset that would be a very natural consequence of underlying physicalism.


A thing that seems to me quite strange is that although it is the well-educated who are likely to believe in physicalism, they are unlikely to feel any need or to have any ability to justify their belief. (There are, of course exceptions; quite possibly the present reader is one.) Indeed, the fact that they subscribe to such a belief is a principal reason to describe them as “well-educated.” To do otherwise is to invite the adjectives “superstitious,” “naive,” or “ignorant.”


Of course given this situation, one of the first questions that occurs to me is this: How does one justify physicalism? And hard on the heels of that, a second question suggests itself: “What are the alternatives?” Surely if we are going to believe in physicalism, it must be because it is the best of the choices before us. But what choices?


Two possibilities are idealism or religion of some flavor or other.

I have little feel for idealism or how one might contrast it to physicalism. I suspect the same is true for the average well-educated person.


As for religion, it looks to me as though matters have reached such a state that we cannot compare them; it is automatically assumed that people cannot discuss religious matters and physics at the same time; they are said to operate in different domains. (This is not at all the same sort of discussion the atheist may have in mind when he says he certainly can discuss them at the same time; physics rules, and religion is a delusion produced by neuropathology or less honorable means.)


Are there other alternatives?

Very likely. And yet—again—strange to say, no one seems conscious of them. Or at least conscious of them as alternatives. That is, not as systems of thought that can be brought into the same arena with physicalism and compared by noting contrasting assumptions, consequences, or how well they comport with physical or psychological reality.
So let me leave you with these questions:

What—if any—are the alternatives to physicalism? And why is it preferable to all of them?

http://www.mdeetaylor.com/?p=326

-----

Join Plato's Cave philosophers: Prove to Mike that he is fit for human society and civil discourse; and that there are still mysteries to our existence worth celebrating.

Be sure to check the Plato’s Cave discussion and files sections where you can read, post and download documents that are relevant to this topic.

-Steve, Organizer

 

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  • A former member
    A former member

    Only 6 months late for the party. But I just got here and needed some dialectic to animate the brain. 1) In support of Physicalism:That which is most objective and least subject to opinion is that which is not speculated about, but that which is observable with the senses. Anything beyond the senses cannot be certain and is therefore illegitimate. -Against: The rational mind is capable of extrapolating beyond the senses. It must be admitted that there is a super-sensible world to explain the existence of things like numbers, which are obviously real but are not sensible objects.

    December 24, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      2) Alternatives to Physicalism - Skepticism and immaterialism: The windowless monads of Leibniz, and the immaterialism of Berkeley where substance is only an idea in the individuals mind and God mediates those idea/objects in his mind.

      December 24, 2013

    • A former member
      A former member

      3) Alternative - Any philosophy that roughly encompasses Phyicalism. Ex:Classical philosophy, which was prior to real scientific instruments of observation. Meaning all of existence was rationalized in a single view. The unmoved mover as the creative agent, a cosmology for natural and supernatural existence , the physical properties of creation, and the theoretical ends for its existence. Physicalism would lie as the sensible center of this construct.

      December 24, 2013

  • Jairo M.

    Good to see the one and only Ben Forbes Griffith, the amazing Alan gaynor, the Compassionate and Wise Amanda More, the fearless Assistant Dale Johnson, the brilliant mathematician and story teller Mike Taylor, the Practical Philosopher Rami Kuttaineh, and the Swami Oxfordananda. And others. And excited new folks. One of the best meetups of the year. I missed out the first hour or so, I wish these meetups were recorded in audio at least. Or maybe we should get a transcriptionist to record a transcript of the discourse.

    July 1, 2013

  • mercedes j.

    Enjoyed meeting all Plato's Cave who attended a well planned discussion. Thanks Mike and Steve for all your work resulting in an interesting afternoon. Deep thoughts. Daring participants. Bravo.

    June 24, 2013

  • Rami K.

    Had to leave while things started to get interesting however the points I heard and can recall, which of course will be less than all the good ones made, is that yes consciousness exists and it is essential for providing meaning to the universe. I recall Alan had excellent ways for understanding from an existential point of view. I really appreciated Jason's remembrance about the nature of language and its effect of separating the described from the self.

    Not sure if we came to conclusions as to physicalism and its possible alternatives. The general consensus appeared to be that yes it is useful, yes we need to appreciate the results of the study of the physical universe and continue to benefit from its study, and yes somehow it is not a complete comprehension or understanding of the universe and existence on the whole.

    I am thankful for and do encourage Mike Taylor to continue in his writings and exploration of this topic and hope the message boards continue on the thread.

    June 23, 2013

  • amanda m.

    So what is a responsible adult to do? Certainly, children bring happiness which is an emotion, not a worship of the physical. But to bring them into the world is to have to embrace some kind of struggle which fills the days with at least constant concern for finances and the mundane. We have slipped back down Maslow's Heirarchy of needs to a kind of physicalism that most are reluctant about. Except. Except. There is an anti-materialism now among people under 30. In the extreme, there are the homeless. Once you know you can't have that roof over your head, are now the homeless the philosopher kings? Because they have by necessity been forced away from the -striving- in the material world? Even as their days are filled with a way to -get in out of the rain. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs

    June 23, 2013

  • amanda m.

    When one looks at personality, I do see some who are materialistic in the yuppie sense. They oddly enough appear to me of having a sandbox idea of grabbing that extra toy. It's mine. I find it almost infantile. But perhaps since modern life is now again a true struggle for a roof over our heads and food in our bellies then we have to revert to that kind of almost animal behavior on the other end? What hope is there for college graduates who can't consider much about any kind of enlightenment when they are caught in a near-homeless trap that is life in these times. It forces a materialism - not the kind that some cushy pundit in Washington thinks so many have but the struggle for the 'legal tender.' For basics. My uncle was born in 1935 and he said that most felt it was almost criminal to have a child in the midst of The Great Depression.

    1 · June 23, 2013

  • D.F.

    qualia anyone? That is what I have for today as well as the french word ennui ;0) http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/quinqual.htm

    June 23, 2013

    • D.F.

      To quote from an essay written ostensibly to an old lover by Doug Stanhope (posted on his website) who had been mentioned by name in a stand-up routine: the story I told about you was one of beauty and how difficult beauty is to grasp for any length of time. Yours was the object of beauty that stayed with me - over any sunset or mountain top. I apologize if that upsets you due to the seedier specifics. The qualia of which he wrote about is ineffable, instrinsic, private, and only directly/immediately apprehensible. There are philosophers and theorist who spend (or waste depending on your perspective) their lives pondering that intersection of what stays with us.

      June 23, 2013

    • D.F.

      Barthes uses Derrida to explain his reader response theory in which my experience coincides with the experience of someone else at a crossroads. That crossroads will be felt and interpreted differently because we came from different places and at least in the immediate believe we are headed somewhere down our own individual line. That crossroads is what stays with us and that crossroads is our own sunset or mountain top. That crossroads will also change our direction in some way. As the sophists noted you can’t step in the same river twice and the river continue to flow.

      June 23, 2013

  • amanda m.

    One way I think of this is western thought. I often think of the Paradigm of western science. That thought goes something like this: Gather data. With perfect data I can describe the world. But here is the kicker I can then say how the world will be. Eastern thought allows for serendipity and an understanding that there are random things. Scientists don't even realize they have this belief system as they go merrily on their way gathering their data. There is no crystal ball. Yes, western science has made great strides on this model. But model, it is. Similarly I find nothing in scientific discoveries to address the actual conversation on spirituality as related to Einsteinian physics. It is actually silly.

    June 23, 2013

  • Alan G.

    "Modern thought" J. P. Sartre began his study on phenomenological ontology entitled Being and Nothingness, "has made considerable progress by reducing the existent to the series of appearances which manifest it." His goal in this was to eliminate certain dualism that he felt embarrassed philosophy and to replace them with the monism of the phenomenon. Phenomenology, I think, is far more skeptical than modern day physicalism. It does not presume that there is a thing-in-itself hidden behind the appearance. Instead, it argue that the appearance reveals being and that there is nothing else. The problem for physicalism--which I believes denies the existence of the knowing subject in its essential freedom--with phenomenology is that the subject and its object are merged in the relation between them and form an indivisible whole that irks the physicalist. I hope I will get an opportunity to expand on this approach to ontology when we meet today.

    June 23, 2013

  • John

    Take the statement, 2 + 2 = 4. Both sides are identical, hence its status as an equation. But imagine someone saying, “I privilege one side of the equation over the other - I'm an additionalist. It’s the side with the addition that really matters – the other side can be safely dismissed.” Something analogous is going on with physicalism I think. While there are differences on both sides of the equation – the left side indicates an arithmetical operation while the right side doesn’t – they stand in a relation of equality, identity. So I would resist confusion of identity relations, which are symmetrical, with those of reduction, which are asymmetrical. Of course someone can hold a reductionist or physicalist position, but it shouldn’t be confused with one of identity.

    June 22, 2013

    • Rami K.

      Let's never forget the base. Plus two is only two. It is a clear indication that +2=4 is an incomplete equation; +2= is open; while +2 seems a mere expresion of ego.

      June 23, 2013

  • Alan G.

    Has anyone or can anyone cast physicalism as an axiomatic system? If not, how can we claim that physicalism is either testable or falsifiable? If it is not possible to axiomatize it, show how it is testable, or show how it is falsifiable, how can we accept it as our default framework?

    June 23, 2013

    • Rami K.

      I hear you Alan and I find Love is the only default framework which is universally accepable.

      1 · June 23, 2013

  • Alan G.

    I cannot arrive at definitive conclusions about the existence of an alternative to physicalism unless I am able to convince myself that physicalism is not just a deterministic dogmatism.
    If it is neither dogmatic nor deterministic, it seems only fair that the burden of that proof reside with the proponents of physicalism. We can see--in outline form--that proof: physicalism as an axiomatic system.
    I have written three essays that are relevant. Only the first one is new. However, I will provide links to all of them here:
    1. On Dogmatism -- http://files.meetup.com/284333/On%20Dogmatism.pdf
    2. On Scientism --http://files.meetup.com/284333/On%20Scientism.pdf
    3. On Dimensional Quantification Notation -- http://files.meetup.com/284333/On%20Dimensional%20Quantification%20Notation.pdf

    June 23, 2013

  • Envie

    Had to make an adjustment to schedule to gain help in moving heavy things. Regrets.

    June 22, 2013

  • John

    Sorry about the separate posts - I'll post what I wrote in a single file on the message board if anyone's interested.

    1 · June 22, 2013

  • John

    But I think those who are sympathetic to something along these lines tend to forget that the identity relation is symmetrical: to say that mental states are the same as physical states is to say that physical states, at least certain ones, are the same as mental states. Instead there's the tendency to slip from a symmetrical relation of identity to an asymmetrical one of reduction. Assuming this asymmetry, the mental only is the physical, just reduces to the physical, resulting in a physicalist perspective.

    1 · June 22, 2013

  • John

    Similarly, though more controversially, mental states (the idea of a "mental state" is itself problematic, but I'll use it as shorthand for the sake of discussion – you can read “states/processes” in what follows) are understood by some as identical with physical states, neurophysiological or brain states in particular (I think the idea of mind-brain identity is also deeply problematic, but again I'll take it up for the sake of discussion). So, assuming mind-brain identity, the state "pain" can be described neurophysiologically, in terms of the relevant neuronal activity, or psychologically, in terms of mental concepts like "pain". So the statements "he is in pain" and "his neurophysiology is in such and such a state" have the same referent, are true of the same thing (obviously a whole lot more can be said, including the question of phenomenal experience, but set that aside for now).

    June 22, 2013

  • John

    This looks to be a great discussion, especially as framed by Mike's thoughtful post - I'm sorry I can't be there. Obviously a lot can be said, but I thought I'd mention one issue that seems to me to be a common source of confusion. We take a certain range of phenomena as falling under both physical and psychological descriptions. The act of someone flipping a switch can be described both in physical terms, as the movement and interaction of physical bodies, as well as in intentional terms, as a person simply flipping a switch. A further explanation of this same event again can be either in terms of the neurophysiology and mechanics of muscle movement, or in terms of mentality, i.e., he flipped the switch because he wanted the lights on. So there are certain events, namely actions, that can be described in both physical and mental terms. Both descriptions refer to the same event, so in this sense the descriptions are equivalent, though not necessarily reducible to one another.

    1 · June 22, 2013

  • Alan G.

    I have been so busy getting a divorce and writing the play for Sunday 30th of June: Into the Mirror: The Act of Accptance that I have not been able to write directly to this fascinating topic. I hope to turn my attention to it after rehearsal tonight.

    June 22, 2013

  • Steve

    Good attorneys are often asked to defend a client or case that they do not personally believe in. I guess the same might be said of good philosophers. The challenge here is to suspend your disbelief (if necessary), collect the best evidence, and make the best alternative to physicalism case that you can. -Steve

    May 28, 2013

    • Jairo M.

      Based upon careful scientific research and logical deduction, this is a book for all who have an interest in the nature of the reality in which they exist. My Big TOE is not only about scientific theory, function, process, and discovery - but also speaks to each individual reader about their innate capabilities. Readers will learn to appreciate that their human potential stretches far beyond the limitations of the physical universe. Watch http://www.youtube.co...­ and other related videos.

      June 22, 2013

    • Jairo M.

      Thomas Campbell urges to view our body, senses, and brain and consciousness as a data field. And consciousness of what is happening now is the data stream. If I am annoying, egotistical, etc. then I get a feedback and reflection from others that is also annoying, egotistical, etc., but if I am friendly, kind, peaceful, joyful, etc. I get from others likewise.

      June 22, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Mac needs to fix his breaks. :(

    June 22, 2013

  • Alan G.

    I will propose a modified phenomenological existentialism as an alternative. I will also challenge the group to agree to some principles of anti-dogmatism!

    June 17, 2013

  • Patricia G. A.

    Maybe

    June 17, 2013

  • Mike T.

    I have put up another post about physicalism at http://www.mdeetaylor.com/?p=385. The idea is to put down what it seems to me is usually meant by this idea. I call it "Tea with Physicalism." Feel free to explain why I have gotten it wrong.

    June 14, 2013

  • christopher

    Most talk of physicalism these days is in terms of supervenience relations. Recall that M supervenes on P if a change in M necessarily implies a change in P. For a physicalist, a universe physically identical to ours would also be mentally (or spiritually, if you want) identical as well.

    May 30, 2013

    • Rami K.

      Your statement christopher reminds me of the robin williams film, "What Dreams May Come."

      June 8, 2013

    • christopher

      Steve, I don't think I've presented it as an alternative. As I tried to make clear, supervenience is one of the ways philosophers talk about physicalism these days, as opposed to the way Mike T has hashed it out (ie, everything can be explained by physics and physics is written in math). Note here that Mike's version is an epistemic claim, whereas supervenience is an ontological relation (and thus more suited to the topic).

      June 10, 2013

  • Rami K.

    This week's On Being with Krista Tippett: "Uncovering the Codes for Reality" [http://www.onbeing.org/program/...] Krista interviews physicist professor S. James Gates Jr. Dr. Gates is one of the premiere investigator scientists of supersymmetry and a highly interesting person on several levels. Here is a scientist for you to consider.

    June 9, 2013

  • Rami K.

    Yes

    1 · June 1, 2013

    • Jairo M.

      Okay here is my attempt to re-interprete some concepts in my words, which may cause mistakes and produce the incorrect view, so take it with great skepticism. So if the objective of us in becoming Buddhas, or enlightened beings, is to expand our consciousness or cognitive field so that we no longer are stuck in flatland but are in space, including flatland, then that means that we will no longer have any one particular limited point of view at any one time but we will instead have all points of views all at the same time. We would then have a "space of view."

      June 9, 2013

    • Jairo M.

      If I am an ant crawling across a table I would have an ant's point of view, and the essence of the table object would be a flat land and I would have no idea of what a table is. But if I am in my human body looking at the table and the ant, then I would have another point of view, and I could recognize the table as some essence that has the function of allowing me to put my notebook on the table object and type these words in here. But if I look on the floor and see what I initially think is a snake but I later find out is only a rope, then I had one point of view which was mistaken and later I had another point of view which was more accurate and true to the essence of the object, the ropey substance. So points of views are risky because they could be mistaken views. But a Buddha would have all points of views at the same time and a space of view, therefore a Buddha would never be mistaken. That makes a Buddha an omniscient being. Wouldn't that be swell, to be a Buddha?

      June 9, 2013

  • Jairo M.

    I was revealed the answer (and the Truth) my friends, it is blowing in the wind. Actually the Universe is permeated with love and that is what stuff comes from. Atoms and everything smaller and larger than these are made from Love. In the beginning there was only Love, and Love let there be light and so forth. I don't know what to call this Big T.O.E., Philioism or Agapeism?

    May 30, 2013

  • christopher

    Although Mike describes physicalism as the claim that everything can be explained by whatever the physical sciences determine the fundamental stuff to be in the end, I hope we don't end up belaboring the fact that humans might require other things (like computers, say, or other computational resources) to help with the calculating, etc.
    Also, Stanford has a useful definition:
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/physicalism/

    May 30, 2013

  • Steve

    About my upload in the Plato's Cave files section:

    ". . .Robert Lanza’s work is a wake-up call to all of us that even on the grandest scale we still depend on our minds to experience reality. Issues of “quantum weirdness” do have a place in the macroscopic world. Time and space do depend on perception. We can go about our daily lives and continue to study the physical Universe as if it exists as an objective reality (because the probabilities allow that degree of confidence), but we do so with a better awareness of an underlying biological component, thanks to Dr. Lanza. I cannot speak for NASA or other NASA scientists, but personally I look forward to hearing a more detailed explanation of this biocentric view of the Universe from Dr. Lanza.”
    —David Thompson

    Thompson is an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

    1 · May 28, 2013

    • Jairo M.

      So could it be that scientists cannot prove that consciousness comes from the unconscious physical stuff. And likewise, the physical and the biological did not arise from consciousness. But can we not say that consciousness provides the feedback for Volition to make decisions, selections, and guide the direction of mobility expressed through the interface that is the brain? Mind over matter is not as evident a factor because there may be a large gap of space and time between the thought desire and the thought action.

      May 30, 2013

    • Jairo M.

      Here is the typical sequence of operation: I think or feel what result in the future would make me happy, or reduce my discomfort or save my ass. So I have a picture or a visualization of the future in mind. But I compare the desired future ideal outcome and compare it to the recent present conditions. I see through feedback process that there is a discrepancy between the ideal state and current state. So I calculate where I need to go or what I have to think in order to achieve the target future ideal state. My subconscious goes to work to help me achieve my goal. But I have to be careful what I wish for, it may come true.

      May 30, 2013

  • Jairo M.

    There is something(s) other than physicalism, but that does not mean that they are alternatives meant to replace physicalism. So the question could alternatively be expressed as "Is there something other than physicalism, or is this all there is?"

    1 · May 29, 2013

    • Jairo M.

      I was reading up a little on the Vedic Theory of Everything, I forgot where, I will look it up and tell you later. But as I can recall, they posit several layers. We are most familiar with the material. And so what Professor Mike T. is noticing is that due to our society's focus on Physicalism, we are practically made ignorant of the other layers. The other layers are probably orthogonal dimensions, probably so separate and non-overlapping that simply calling them domains like we did with Truth won't work, because we noticed that domains can overlap. It is as if the various layers are on different frequencies or at least isolated in such a way that we can't notice interference between the layers-frequency bands.

      May 29, 2013

    • Jairo M.

      Okay, I just got an idea. Why not call these different layers Channels? So we are accustomed to viewing the channel we are on, the material, as the only one there is, or at least physicalism is successful by totally ignoring and focusing on the material to such an extent that we forget that there are other channels. So the Vedas discuss at least four major channels, with the first one being the physical or material.

      1 · May 29, 2013

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