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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 2007 > Mar > Mar 24

Re: Defending The Indefensible - Reason

From: Cathy Reason <CathyM.nul>
Date: Fri, 23 Mar 2007 16:26:44 -0000
Fwd Date: Sat, 24 Mar 2007 06:14:52 -0400
Subject: Re: Defending The Indefensible - Reason

>From: Martin Shough <parcellular.nul>
>To: <ufoupdates.nul>
>Date: Tue, 20 Mar 2007 21:57:24 -0000
>Subject: Re: Defending The Indefensible

Hi Martin

>Nice to hear from you again. We must complete our last
>discussion some time .

Indeed we must, although I'm afraid my understanding of
parcellular mechanics is likely to be no better now than it was
last time.

>I'll try and keep this brief I think.

I doubt I can match you for brevity, but I'll do my best ;-)

>Well I was sketching a historical context rather than intending
>to "define materialism" there. However I stand by the statement
>(which I think I made very explicitly elsewhere in another
>passage) that its meaning derives from its anitithesis to
>spiritualism (the philosophical doctrine that reality is partly
>immaterial and therefore spiritual; more generally, the belief
>in incorporeal entities and forces) and culturally related
>movements such as vitalism, and that it owed its form to 17th C
>conceptions of mechanically interacting matter.

Although materialism is these days more often opposed to
Cartesian dualism, rather than to spiritualism (mentalism,
idealism or whatever you prefer to call it). Cartesian dualism
bears no cultural relationship to vitalism, being an ontological
doctrine and not an epistemological one. No ontological
materialist of the nineteenth century would have regarded any
"incorporeal entities and forces" which may be found in the
physical theory of the time as anything other than material. I
doubt if any modern physicalist would do so either. In this
sense, I believe your historical understanding is in error.


>More and more physics seems to be about relationships of flows
>of information. (There is a thriving digital subculture which
>sees the ultimate physical models as just computational
>algorithms.) What status and function does mind have in the
>information loops? I certainly don't know. It is a fascinating
>problem. But ironically it's only an interpretation of mind in
>terms of the "archaic distinction" between matter and spirit
>that denies that mind can be part of the loop, that denies
>science the right to model it, and then complains because
>science won't recognise it.

A lot depends on what you are assuming about the nature of mind.
There is nothing about a distinction between matter and spirit,
"archaic" or otherwise, which requires that mind cannot be
scientifically understood, or be "part of the loop". If you are
assuming nothing a priori about the nature of mind, then I agree
that what you are saying is wholly unexceptionable - but it
certainly is not the case that materialism, either in the
nineteenth century or today, assumes nothing a priori about the
nature of mind.


>>But the doctrine of physical completeness - which is actually
>>what most people today mean by materialism -

>"most people today" yes, because _today_ materialism has
>acquired different connotations from those of yesterday (when it
>had a clearly defined meaning as the obverse of spiritualism)
>and this is precisely because the scope of the idea of "physical
>completeness" has expanded like a floodtide and washed across
>archaic category boundaries to submerge both of those ancient
>islands - but for small hilltops, where tiny remnant populations
>of archaists gaze balefully at one another across the rising

In which case the question remains, does materialism in its
modern sense (or what you see as its modern sense) make a priori
assumptions about the nature and type of the entities which fall
within its scope, or does it not? If not, then materialism as a
concept is now tautological, indeed redundant.

>But physical science defines as physical any entity that is
>basic to its model of the world. It is perfectly capable of
>considering not just "observers" but mind in general or human
>consciousness in particular to be essential to that model. A
>great deal of interpretation of QM has revolved around such
>issues. Personally I suspect that the persistent difficulty of
>these points of view is exactly because they are too much a
>historical product of the obsolete dualism and that the
>physicality of mind in the world will not be understood until
>yet another completely new framework of possibililities is
>stumbled on. In other words I think mentalism or spiritualism is
>as crude and primitive as its evil twin materialism. Obviously
>we can't know ahead of time what this framework is, though we
>can have suspicions. But it will be calculable in some sense,
>predictive in some sense, and economically integrative, and it
>will still be physics, call it whatever you want.

As I indicated to you on a previous occasion, it's impossible
for me to argue whith this conception of physics because it's so
all-encompassing as to be meaningless. The entities which are
basic to physics are simply those entities which are basic to
the constitution and structure of the universe. No-one can or
would argue with such a doctrine, because it's completely


>>So first, it's clearly not true that materialism is "archaic".

>I said "archaic philosophical distinction" of materialism from
>spiritualism. I didn't say that there was no type of thought
>today that had any historical connection with materialism.

But if you're right there really shouldn't be, because the
version of materialism you espouse is so trivial as to be
unworthy of mention.

>If you think that transition from 17th-19th C "matter" to those
>21st C "entities" can be made as simple as a few changes of name
>then I'm doubtful about the possibility of further fruitful

Of course it cannot. That indeed is the point. The science has
changed beyond all recognition, but the philosophy has in no way
kept up with these changes. Physicalism is simply materialism
with a few changes of name.

>>To the extent we regard the entities of physical science
>>as mathematical abstractions, this is evidently rather daft -
>>how are conscious living beings supposed to be made up entirely
>>out of mathematical abstractions?

>Your odd subtext is that it would be possible for unconscious
>dead beings or objects to be so made up.

The subtext is rather that no-one can know what it is like to be
a dead being or an unconscious object, and hence no-one can know
how they are made up.

>Well look, there has to
>be _some_ substrate, whether your preferred route of abstraction
>tends towards the cybernetic or the astral. But the answer to
>your question is that I don't have an answer to Wigner's
>question about the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.

It has nothing to do with the _effectiveness_ of mathematics. It
has to do with the nature of the mathematical objects
themselves, and the impossibility of interpreting them as
measures of anything outside themselves other than relationships
with other mathematical objects or, ultimately, relationships
between phenomenal observations.

>And the great thing is that science tells me it's perfectly OK
>not to have an answer. I don't have to do penance or cast runes
>or believe in anything just for the "fun" of it. I have some
>optimism that, if we all let it, science has a chance of
>answering in due time.

Yes, if you are going to stick to the trivial conception of
materialism you describe above, this is perfectly reasonable,
since you are making no a priori assumptions or metaphysical
commitments. But that is not at all what materialism is usually
taken to mean.

>>But the philosophical significance of QM and Relativity is
>>precisely that the entities of modern physical theory can no
>>longer be interpreted as measures of some sort of metaphysical
>>"stuff" - or that if they could, no-one knows how to do it.

>This is not right. Metaphysical stuff is by definition exactly
>what physics could not _want_ in it, and it defines in its own
>terms what is physical by means that have only historical
>connections with materialist philosophy.

This is fine if you are going to stick rigidly to pure
operationalism (which is indeed what Bohr and others suggested
we should do). But how many people are prepared to do that?
David Bohm is reported to have said that, in his opinion, no
physicist would ever be prepared to do that. And as soon as you
go beyond pure operationalism, as soon as you make the
assumption that the entities of physical theory refer to some
ontological reality outside of themselves, you are making some
sort of metaphysical commitment, whether you like it or not.

>QM is full of physical
>"stuff" that already _looks_ metaphysical to materialists but
>why should it want to import what by definition it could not
>deal with? What it may need, though, is some _different_
>physical stuff. It will have to find/invent what it needs.

QM will find/invent nothing at all Martin, since it is purely an
abstract theoretical construction. It's real-life human beings
who will do the finding and inventing. And real-life human
beings are prone to all sorts of individual and social
prejudices and preconceptions, which predispose them to find and
invent what they want as much as what they need.

>That no-one knows how to reconstruct QM is correct, but that it
>will need to be reconstructed is an increasingly widely held
>view in connection with the stubborn issue of gravitation and it
>is possible to speculate that this might allow reinterpretation
>of the old issues surrounding determinism/indetermisnism and the
>status of so-called hidden variables.

And it's quite reasonable to speculate along these lines. But I
think your interpretation of the actual state of affairs is
rather too generous. What I see is not so much an opening up of
possibilities, but a shutting down.

>But if the fact that no-one knows all the answers now is
>unacceptable, then I guess the vandals must be right. It's the
>End. Science has Failed. Turn out the lights and leave the
>hordes to sack it. This is the implication of the views you are

If science has failed (and that is an "if" because I'm not
necessarily endorsing the view that it has) then surely the
appropriate course of action is to ask why. Smolin appears to
put the blame on an increasingly rigid and institutionalized
bureaucracy with the academic community itself. It's certainly
true that science as a social enterprise is a very different
thing today from what it was fifty years ago. It may also have
something to do with the exponential increase in the cost and
complexity of the equipment needed to perform even basic
observations in some fields, together with an increase in the
complexity of theories and correspondingly in the amount of data
needed to specify them.

>>Given this situation, it seems to me we have three alternatives.
>>One is to stick to pure operationalism - eg, the Copenhagen
>>interpretation. The second is to throw out materialism. But the
>>third is simply to hold on to materialism regardless and just
>>ignore the philosophical implications of the last hundred

>Do you think it possible that there might be an alternative you
>haven't thought of? For example, to worry less about bookish
>definitions - or rather, not to project that worry onto the
>activities of physics - and just carry on doing and thinking
>science until someone understands how to re-categorise things in
>a way that resolves apparent conflicts between present
>interpretative options on a new level?

Yes indeed, this is exactly the pure operationalism I mentioned
above. It looks like Bohr was right again.


>My personal view is that most people don't actually think about
>it in 'ism' terms at all, exactly because they are not inclined
>to be philosophers, not of a deeply speculative turn of mind,
>just well-educated, competent practicioners of their specialisms
>who try to make modest advances that people in other fields
>rarely care much about except for lucky accidents when some
>result escapes from a backwater of materials science into the
>big time because it happens to be relevant to superconductivity
>or whatever But isms, schmisms, what does it matter to them?
>Just make the experiment and write the paper. And why not? Not
>everyone can be at the frontiers of profound problems as a pure
>theoretical physicist, which has been described as one of the
>most difficult of all human activitites; and only a few of those
>can be lucky and clever enough to be in at the birth of a new
>paradigm of thought. But you, and some others, seem to find some
>cause for opprobrium in this fact. I don't. Neither I think does
>any person with a sensible and pragmatic view of what science is
>and how it works. But I've been boring on this elsewhere.

The question is whether this is really what is happening or
whether latent or even unrecognized assumptions are restricting
the development of theory, not in the mainstram of science, but
at the very frontiers of knowledge. Why might this be? Perhaps
because theory has been allowed to proliferate in the absence of
any sort of empirical test. Perhaps because the sheer difficulty
of doing observations in some fields means there are no longer
enough genuinely independent observers to produce the avalanche
of new observations which could trigger a Kuhnian paradigm
shift. Perhaps because academia as an institution is now so
ossified that it could not resond to such an avalanche of
results even if it were to appear. Or perhaps for some other

Kuhn's theory of science is after all retrospective rather than
predictive - but science simply hasn't been in existence long
enough for us to say that it follows a regular pattern of
punctuated equilibrium. Science today is not what it was twenty,
thirty, fifty, or a hundred years ago.

>What motivates it is the search for something that works. Yes it
>is possible to discern a subtle change in mood, the feeling that
>maybe those arguments that ruled out deterministic underpinnings
>for all time should be revisited.

I don't think there's anything subtle about it Martin. It looks
to me like a wholesale attempt to turn the clock back to the
materialist dogmas of the past. Admittedly, I haven't taken a
poll of any sort but it does look to me like a generational

Let's be quite clear about this - nothing could possibly be
objectionable about an expansion of the range of inquiry, even if
that involves re-examing some of the assumptions of the past.
For example, although I think Penrose's Orch OR is ad hoc and
unlikely to amount to much in the end, I fully appreciate what he
is trying to do, and above all, I appreciate the philosophical
integrity with which he is trying to do it.

What is objectionable is work which seems motivated solely by a
priori philosophical considerations, in which the philosophy is
amateurish, self-contradictory and shambolic beyond belief. In
this respect I think Bohr was extraordinarily far-sighted - he
appears to have predicted exactly what would happen if
physicists started trying to turn themselves into amateur
philosophers and in effect, to have warned them to stick to pure
operationalism - an wise injunction which has subsequently been
described as "mysticism" or even "brainwashing".

>You evidently dislike this
>rather much for personal emotional reasons - "peddling" "old
>fashioned" "distinctly dusty". I wouldn't myself want to
>proscribe any attempt to make theories that work. If they don't,
>they don't. I think they might. But you are free to make any
>alternative suggestion you wish.

I dislike nonsense that is peddled as solving problems when in
fact it does nothing of the kind, Martin. Particularly nonsense
that involves a lot of waffle about decoherence (check out that
dreadful article in last week's New Scientist) and which tries
to pass off anything remotely embarrasing to a modern
materialist point of view (such as Wigner's idea about
consciousness "collapsing" the wavefunction) as an obsolete
notion we should erase from our mental vocabulary.


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