Reprogramming Metaphysics

Part of an ongoing discussion.

In recent days in this space, we have been discussing radical materialism, which is the metaphysical theory that the ultimate grounds of being are nothing but matter in motion. Let us ponder the following hypothetical question.

If the cosmos is a machine and nothing put a machine, something like a clockwork but on an immense scales, and if everything, including all non-empirical statements, is merely the outcome of the actions of the mainsprings, wheels, gears and cogs of the cosmic clockwork, then a sufficiently cunning workingman could move certain gears and wheels and change the outcome, with the ease with which a watchmaker could loosen a spring or add a gear and make his clock run slow, or make his clock count an extra hour every day. If the workingman can change the outcome of this cosmic clockwork we all inhabit, and if the truth-value of all non-empirical and metaphysical statements is merely one outcome of the cosmic clockwork, then the workingman can change the truth-value of all non-empirical and metaphysical statements by changing the clockwork.

Somewhere there is a set of atoms in a certain configuration that makes it the case that materialism is true. Could in theory a workingman move one group of atoms from the positive to the negative so that it was no longer the case that materialism was true?

In order for this question to make sense, we must put it in context. To put it in context, let us review the arguments for and against radical materialism.

(I am not using the word “radical” here to mean the materialists kill like Che and wear a red beret. I mean that the proposition that all things all the way to their roots are merely matter in motion is radical, whereas a theory that most but not all things not all the way to their roots are matter in motion is materialism that is not radical.)

ARGUMENT FOR RADICAL MATERIALISM

The proposition of radical materialism rests on an article of faith that a “sufficiently complete” enough statement about of the mass, duration, location, charge and other empirical quantities of all physical objects (including the brain atoms of all thinking beings involved) would completely describe or account for all aspects of reality that the brain perceives, both real and symbolic, abstract and concrete, conceptual and perceptual, phenomenal and noumenal, mental and physical, temporal and eternal, quantitative and qualitative, empirical and non-empirical, necessary and contingent. Hence, all non-empirical statements must be able to be reduced to empirical statements, all absolute & universal statements to contingent & particular statements, and all final causes must be able to be reduced to mechanical causes.

Here “reduced” means that all the information contained in a non-empirical statement can be restated, without any loss of meaning, as one or more empirical statements. It means the information and meaning of the first statement is held in the second statment either explicitly or implicitly.

The idea of reduction is that, in the same way that single atoms in isolation do not have properties like density or color, whereas aggregates of atoms forming apples and balloons do have density and color, these aggregate properties emerge from the isolated properties. Thus, a statement about the redness or density of the balloon or the apple can be reduced, with no loss of information, to a series of statements about the position and properties of atoms, even though atoms in isolation have no color nor density. One can describe the redness of an apple with a number representing the wavelengths of electromagnetic energy rebounding from the surface molecule of the apple, and one can describe the molecules in terms of the position and bonds of the atoms.

One statement can explicitly be reduced to another when, for example, the description of the red balloon can be deduced simply from the aggregates of statements about the smaller red parts of the balloon. One statement can implicitly be reduced to another when, for example, the description of the red balloon can be deduced from the aggregate of statements about the atoms and molecules of the balloon, which, in isolation, do not have redness or any other property of color.

The idea of “sufficient complexity” is that even as certain empirical properties are emergent properties of fundamental empirical properties, so likewise it must be that non-empirical properties of abstract concepts and mathematical objects, such as their accuracy or logical consistency, that these non-empirical properties are somehow aggregates of fundamental empirical properties.

The mere fact that no one and nothing can actually perform or begin to perform the reduction of non-empirical statements to empirical statements is dismissed without comment: the argument holds that even if such a reduction cannot be done now, on Earth, today by human beings, someone else somewhere else sometime yet should be able to do it, because it is, according to this metaphysical theory, something that must be possible. There is no empirical evidence for this theory.

ARGUMENT AGAINST RADICAL MATERIALISM

The argument against the proposition of radical materialism is that empirical statements by design are about physical objects, and contain only facts that can be confirmed or denied by the senses, directly or via instruments or implications. Empirical statements by design exclude information about non-empirical properties. All emergent properties of empirical properties are themselves empirical properties. Therefore a statement including information about non-empirical properties by design is excluded from being an empirical statement and the information therein cannot be an emergent property of an empirical statement.

A certain class of nonempirical statements called conceptual or rational statements are about perceptions, concepts, abstractions, or about deliberate actions which in turn are based on perceptions, concepts, abstractions. Any statement about a symbol is a conceptual hence a non-empirical statement.

An examination of the properties of the two types of statements defines the differences that appear to obtain between them.

Empirical statements by design can only convey information about the magnitudes of measurements of mass, length, duration, temperature, amount, current, luminosity. All empirical information can be reduced to these fundamental physical constants, or a description of the relation between them.

Empirical statements by design only convey information about mechanical causes. Physicists and strict empiricists scrupulously exclude any information about final causes from their descriptions of the motions of physical objects.

Empirical statements by design are contingent rather than necessary; that is to say, they are true in some places, times and conditions but not in others. A statement that is true in all places, times and conditions is called an absolute statement. Only statements of logic, of mathematics, of metaphysics are true absolutely i.e. unconditionally.

Likewise, empirical statements by design are falsifiable. If you make the statement that a lead ball and a wooden ball of different weight but of the same volume thrown from the Leaning Tower of Pisa reach the ground at the same time, that statement can be proved false if, when you drop the balls, the heavier ball falls faster. You may have to be in a cosmos where Aristotle is right and Galileo is wrong, but if those are the results you see, then that is the cosmos you are in. A statement that cannot be proved false in any possible cosmos is a non-empirical statement (“this sentence contains five words” “I think therefore I am” “The sum of the three angles in a triangle always equal the sum of two angles in a square” “In Chess, bishops move diagonally” “Murder is the unlawful slaying of a human being without justification with malice aforethought”). A statement about the ballistics of falling balls can be proved false by looking at Galileo throwing two balls from a tower. Non-empirical statements cannot be proved false by looking at anything. There is nothing to look at.

The reason to stress that empirical statements are the way they are by design is that empirical statements are manmade things. Natural philosophy, in order to adhere to an epistemological doctrine of strict empiricism, defines particular type of statements as being allowable in physics to describe certain types of evidence and conclusions, namely, scientific evidence and scientific conclusions. Statements not fitting these strict definitions may be true or may be false, but they are certainly unscientific. The statements could be the firm conclusions of some other discipline, such as logic, mathematics, economics, ethics, law or philosophy, or the statement could be a speech-act of another nature entirely, such as when a judge sentences as prisoner at the bar to hang — his honor’s statement is not a description of something, it is itself a human action meant to have a certain result.

Non-empirical statements can include non-empirical information, particularly the subset of non-empirical statements called conceptual statements. Conceptual statements are statements about symbols rather than about physical objects.

Symbols can be true or false, accurate or inaccurate. A symbol is false if it does not represent what it pretends to represent. Symbols can be logical or illogical. If a sequence of symbols does not follow the rules of self-consistency or coherence that the objects, physical or conceptual, allegedly represented follow, then the sequence or statement is invalid or irrelevant. A symbol is something made or done by a human being or other intelligent entity. Making or doing is an act. Like all deliberate acts, the act of symbol-making can be helpful or harmful, efficient or efficient, good or bad, purposeful or purposeless, and deliberate acts can only be understood in terms of final cause: you cannot know why a man said what he said until you know what he is trying to say. The word “trying” in that sentence refers to his purpose, his goal, or that for the sake of which he acts, in other words, his final cause.

A symbol is a conceptual object. A symbol represents, stands for, or reminds you of an object, a physical object or a conceptual object. An object cannot represent an object by definition—because if it represents an object, it is a symbol.

A symbol is not the mark used to symbolize the symbol: the sharp sound of the letter T or hissing sound of the letter S is not the same thing as the cross-shaped mark of ink on a page that represents T or the snake-shaped mark of ink on a page that represents the letter S.

A mark is a physical object. If a skywriter with a crop-dusting biplane makes a cloud of smoke in the shape of a cross in the air, that cloud has physical properties that can be described in terms of mass, length, duration, amount, temperature, amount, current, luminosity, and the description will be complete with nothing left over or unexplained. If a stonecutter makes a scar or trench in the ground in the shape of a cross, that mark has physical properties that can be described in terms of mass, length, duration, amount, temperature, amount, current, luminosity, and the description will be complete.

However, a symbol is not a physical object. Suppose the Hero wishes to send a message to Leander across the sundering flood, and they agree upon the following symbols: she will send him a T if she will be waiting to see him on Tuesday, and an S if she will be waiting to see him on Saturday.

Let us also suppose that she wishes, because she is a false lover, to deceive him. As a matter of fact, she will be there on Saturday, so the statement “S” is the true one, and “T” is false rather than true. Since lying to one’s lover is a sin, the statement “T” is also blameworthy rather than praiseworthy. Since Leander has to swim the Hellespont to meet her, and if he makes that heroic and dangerous effort to find the hither shore with no maiden awaiting him, all the effort is expended to no purpose, the statement “T” is also inefficient rather than efficient. Hence the properties of the statement “T” are these: the statement is false, blameworthy, and inefficient.

Please note that these conceptual properties of statement “T” (false, blameworthy, and inefficient) do not change if Hero tells a skywriter to make a cross shaped mark in the sky with cloud-writing or tells a stonecutter to make a cross-shaped mark in the cliff with a hammer and chisel.

Please note that the material properties of the mark representing the statement are empirical and can be expressed empirically. If the skywriter makes a cross two hundred feet in the air, or the stone cutter cuts a cross in the cliff nine inches deep, these properties can be measured.

The mass, location, density, solidity and the size and material consistence and duration of the mark in the sky and the mark on the cliff have nothing in common.  However, the symbol is the same. Statement “T” is false whether written in the sky or written in the cliff.

Please note again that no change of the physical properties changes the conceptual properties. If the stonecutter with furious blows makes the cross-shaped mark twice as deep, or if the skywriter makes a cross-shaped trail of smoke twice as high, neither one can change the statement from false to true, or from blameworthy to praiseworthy. From this we can conclude that the material properties of a mark are independent of the conceptual properties of a symbol.

Now when Leander, dripping and exhausted, reaches the far shore on Tuesday, and finds Hero is will not be back until Saturday, he may wonder why she lied. The only way to answer his plaintive question is to tell him the purpose or final cause of her action. Merely giving a physical description of the location of her body, or even a scrupulously detailed description of the number, mass, and position of the atoms in her brain, will not tell him what he wants to know. A statement of empirical magnitudes, no matter how complete or complex, will not contain nor convey the information pertinent to his question.

Let us emphasize two other points.

If some unthinking and un-deliberate natural process, such as a bird dropping one stick across another to form a cross, or a snake slithering through the mud to leave a double curve, Leander may mistake these for the T or the S of the agreed-upon code; but he will be mistaken. He will think these are symbols, but they are just marks. They have no meaning. They are not messages. This is because a mark is not a symbol. The conceptual properties of the message are not the physical properties of the marks in which the message is embodied and cannot be deduced from them.

Likewise, the suspicious father of Hero may see a sky-writer make a cross in the clouds, but, since he has no concept in his awareness of the meaning of the signs, even if he knows it is a signal, to him it is only a mark. The properties of true or false, blameworthy or praiseworthy, efficient or inefficient, simply do not exist for him, and — let us doubly emphasize this! — no examination of the cloud writing, even if every single molecule and atom of the cloud vapor were weighed and measured so that every single empirical fact about the cross in the clouds were known to him, could he know the non-empirical properties of the statement thus symbolized. He cannot tell and cannot deduce that the statement “T” is false. The truth or falsehood of the statement is simply not an empirical property of the mark in the clouds, and it is not an emergent property. The density of the cloud and the color is an emergent property, but all properties that emerge from an aggregation of empirical properties are themselves empirical. Whether the statement is true or false is conceptual.  The conceptual properties of the message are not the physical properties of the marks in which the message is embodied and cannot be deduced from them.

Hence, let it be emphasized, that marks are not symbols.

Let it also be emphasized that in this world symbols do not exist, so far as well can tell, without marks. If when you think a thought to yourself quietly, and neither write nor speak the thought, there is accompanying brain-activity. Fatigue or strong drink or a blow to the head can interfere with the thought-process, disorganize or banish the marks, or in some other way make a meaningful thinking process meaningless. Likewise, if the cliff crumbles or the wind blows, then the sign in the cloud or the sign in the cliff left by Hero is now no longer true nor false, blameworthy or praiseworthy, since it has no properties at all once it is gone. The statement might still exist in memory or intention, but once it is forgotten past recall, it is gone. I am not here arguing that the conceptual properties of symbols can exist outside of the physical properties of marks. Perhaps they can, perhaps they cannot, but this is not our current concern. I am arguing that the one does not emerge from the other and cannot be deduced one from another.

Now, the diligent materialist attempts to overcome all these objections by saying that brain atoms contain all the information, with nothing left over or unexplained, relating to any question about the relation of symbol to object. If you knew the physical but not the conceptual properties of the brain atoms of Hero, that position and mass but not what they meant nor what they stood for, then (so the argument runs) you can deduce the conceptual properties, first of the brain of Hero, and then of the signs and symbols she leaves floating about in the air and cut in the ground.

This is false. The physical properties of the physical atoms in the physical brain are marks, not symbols. They are like shapes of ink on a page. If you do know the conceptual properties of the brain atoms, that is, if you do not know what they stand for, you cannot read them, and cannot deduce any conceptual properties. You cannot tell if a man is thinking a false thought unless you can read his mind. If I tell you he has six brain cells in his cortex firing but five brain atoms in his hypothalamus not firing, I have not told you what the brain cell motions mean. Even if I tell you the exact charge and duration of the neuro-electrical energy crossing the nerve cell wall, or the position of each and every electron, I have only told you the empirical facts. I have given you the marks of a language you do not speak of letters no human can read. The information is not in my statements and cannot possibly be deduced from my statements.

The brain atoms may represent, stand for, point to, accompany and embody the process of thought, but the process of thought is and can only be described in terms of conceptual qualities, such as true or false, accurate or inaccurate, ethical or unethical, efficient or inefficient, logical or illogical.

THE METAPHYSICS OF RADICAL MATERIALISM

It is no argument against radical materialism to point out that no empirical evidence supports the theory. Materialism, like the dualism of Descartes or the immaterialism of Bishop Berkley, is a metaphysical theory.

A metaphysical theory, like a physical theory, has to save the appearances. If the universe described by the metaphysical theory does not describe or map or model the universe we see around us, then the theory does not hold. In order to save the appearances, it is often convenient to describe the appearances as mere unsupported intuition, and to assert that there is some unknown factor, it can be called Maya, or the Demiurge, or the Deceiver of Descartes, that alters the appearances before human beings are aware of them, distorting the image so that there seems to be non-empirical truth, but in real reality there is not.

Please note that no metaphysical argument rests on empirical evidence by the nature of metaphysical arguments. In physics, the theory changes to fit the appearances. In metaphysics, the appearances change to fit the theory. In physics, if you throw two balls off the leaning Tower of Pisa, and the weightier strikes the ground before the lighter, you abandon Newton’s theory. This is precisely what happened when the procession of Mercury was seen not to follow Newtonian mechanics. In metaphysics, if you perform a brain experiment that proves that your free will does not exist, ergo reasoning does not exist, ergo proof does not exist, you find an explanation to reconcile the appearances to the underlying and inescapable fact that free will exists. You cannot prove a theory of physics with a metaphysical argument; you cannot prove a metaphysical theory with an argument from physics.

The metaphysical argument of materialism has not been argued in this space recently. Most materialists do not study philosophy and do not present their arguments in a rigorous order and fashion. A rigorous materialist would announcing the argument supporting his theory first, before announcing the argument defending his theory from criticism.

One argument supporting materialism is the argument from epistemology. The argument runs that the only things human beings can possibly know to be certainly true are empirical statements. A statement that a human being cannot possibly know with certainty to be true or false is merely useless as a statement about reality. Metaphysics consists entirely of statements that are non-empirical. Ergo metaphysics consists of nothing but statements that are useless. Therefore away with them! Burn the books and libraries of this hair-splitting verbal rubbish! This is the argument (if we may be generous with that word) of Hume and other radical materialists.

The argument from epistemology suffers two defects. One is that a thing can be true without it being known to any human being. For a long stretch of history, I could have used the example of Fermat’s Last Theorem as an example of this—but it has been solved in recent years. Nonetheless, for many years we could have pointed at that theorem and said “it is either definitely and absolutely the case that Fermat’s Last Theorem is true, or it is definitely the case that the theorem is false, but no living man knows.” Likewise here, if empiricism is the only way humans can known truth, and all metaphysical statements are non-empirical, ergo any given metaphysical theory, just as was the Last Theorem, is either definitely true or false, but no human being knows which is which.

The second defect is that a statement denying metaphysics is itself a metaphysical statement, which is at least a paradox, if not a logical self-contradiction. It is something that has to be explained.

OCCAM’S RAZOR

This violates Occam’s razor in that, in order to save the theory, the appearances have to be explained by a completely gratuitous entity, introduced into the discussion for no other reason than to save the appearances: that completely gratuitous entity is the Deceiver of Descartes. If we are all nothing but meat machines programmed by the blind and undirected actions of molecular genetics and environmental pressures, why are we programmed each and every one of us, including the materialists, to be unaware of the truth that we lack self-awareness and free will, but are instead deceived by the delusion that we have self-awareness and free will? It is no answer to smirk, like John Derbyshire, or to cower, like HP Lovecraft, and say that the human mind is so constructed as to not be able to handle the truth, and therefore blind nature for no reason evolved in us a comforting set of delusions to enable us to survive in the middle of the horror of the meaningless machine of the universe—because then the question becomes, well, why did not blind nature design us to be made of sterner stuff? The explanation adds this new entity, the Deceiver or the deception of brain-evolution, to explain away only the fact that the theory does not fit the facts, and it has no other purpose and explains nothing else: it does not spring organically out of the assumptions of the argument. It is ad hoc. Occam’s razor would cut it out.

A theory can be true while being in violation of this principle of parsimony, of course: but it does make the argument harder to make, since the argument now must not only explain the theory, but also explain away the appearances.

REPROGRAMMING METAPHYSICS

Let us now return to our question about reprogramming metaphysics.

But let us suppose for the sake of argument that radical materialism is correct. The cosmos consists of merely matter in motion, and the only true statements are those that concern quantities and magnitudes of mass, length, duration, temperature, amount, current, luminosity. All statements that seem to contain meaning or qualities can (somehow, by magic) be reduced to a statement about quantities and magnitudes of brain atoms. All final causes can be reduced to mechanical causes. All metaphysical statements can be reduced to statements of physics. There are no abstract concepts, only summations or abbreviations of particular concepts built on percepts which in turn are mechanical actions of stimuli setting in motion the mechanisms of the senses and related nerve centers. All statements are contingent, and would be untrue under other circumstances, because any set of atoms in a certain configuration can be configured differently under other circumstances

If this describes the cosmos we inhabit, then I put it to you that the statement, “The cosmos consists of merely matter in motion, etc.” is itself merely a collection of contingent measurements of quantities and magnitudes of mass, length, duration, temperature, amount, current, luminosity. Like everything else in the cosmos, that statement is merely a set of atoms in a certain configuration.

But we established that in our materialist cosmos, any set of atoms in a certain configuration can be configured differently under other circumstances.

Therefore let us suppose that someone, let us call him ‘The Demiurge’ discovers exactly where this particular statement and its truth-value is embodied, and discovers, since it is a contingent and not a necessary statement, upon what other configuration of matter in motion it depends for its veracity.

This statement may be written inside the brain atoms of every intelligent creature in the universe, or it may be written in the subatomic particles of some central and controlling super-atom from which the cosmos unfolded at the dawn of time—it does not matter for the purpose of this question where the statement is written. The theory of radical materialism tells us that this statement and the fact that the statement is true is a material fact that is written in a particular and contingent set of atoms in a certain pattern.

Is it possible hypothetically for the Demiurge, having discovered the location of the statement that makes materialism true in this cosmos, to change the position and configuration of the matter involved, so as to make the statement not true?

If the cosmos is a machine and nothing put a machine, something like a clockwork but on an immense scales, and if everything, including all non-empirical statements, is merely the outcome of the actions of the mainsprings, wheels, gears and cogs of the cosmic clockwork, then a sufficiently cunning workingman could move certain gears and wheels and change the outcome, with the ease with which a watchmaker could loosen a spring or add a gear and make his clock run slow, or make his clock count an extra hour every day. If the workingman can change the outcome of this cosmic clockwork we all inhabit, and if the truth-value of all non-empirical and metaphysical statements is merely one outcome of the cosmic clockwork, then the workingman can change the truth-value of all non-empirical and metaphysical statements by changing the clockwork.

Somewhere there is a set of atoms in a certain configuration that makes it the case that materialism is true. Could in theory a workingman move one group of atoms from the positive to the negative so that it was no longer the case that materialism was true?

I am not asking if a master hypnotist can alter the brain atoms of all intelligent creatures, including himself, so as to imprint them all with the false opinion and misperception that materialism is false. I am asking if the Demiurge can, merely by moving one or many atoms, in one place or in all places, make the configuration of atoms that makes the statement that “materialism is true” a true statement into a configuration of atoms that makes the statement that “materialism is true” into a false statement?

If the answer is no, then I put it to you that there is a metaphysical reality that does not depend upon and cannot be changed by any change of physical reality; and if there is any metaphysical reality that does depend upon and cannot be changed by any change of physical reality, then radical materialism is false.

If the answer is yes, then materialism is false, simply. Once the Demiurge flips the truth-value of the statement “materialism is true” to the negative, then materialism is not true.

In either case, materialism is not true.

As to how we know whether we live in a universe before or after some Demiurge has flipped the truth-value of metaphysical statements of materialism into the negative, and how we would detect the change if it happened, I haply leave as an exercise for the alert reader to resolve. Myself, I cannot think of a single empirical experiment of physics that has any bearing whatsoever on a metaphysical or mathematical proposition.

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