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Thursday, December 06, 2012

Materialism Don't Predict Squat

A very curious claim I just came across is that a good argument for materialism is its track record of successful predictions.

1) Materialism itself is a claim that "There exists nothing but matter." (Or matter and energy, or whatever other moving target materialists choose to shoot at this decade.) To the extent it ever predicted anything, it was that matter is an inert substance behaving in a mechanistic way. Quantum physics wrecked that prediction, but materialists simply shrugged and changed what materialism meant.

2) The person who said this probably meant the predictive success of science, but that is simple confusion: materialism does not equal science, and vice versa. For the first two hundred years after the Scientific Revolution, every major scientist of which I am aware was either a dualist or an idealist. Many of them took their understanding of matter to be proof of dualism!

Furthermore, successful prediction in the physical sciences may be about "material" things, but it intimately involves very non-material things, namely, methods of reasoning, scientific laws, and mathematical formula. Therefore, the success of science itself would seem to be an excellent refutation of materialism. E = mc2 is not made of matter, although, of course, any particular instance of communicating it will have some material conduit. But notice how utterly unlike each other the sound waves made when I say the formula and the pixels involved in displaying it here are; yet it is the same idea in each case.

Someone (I can't imagine whom at the moment) may claim that we call these physical things "the same idea" as part of a convention of a "language game"; all very well and good, but we note that conventions and language games ain't physical neither.

12 comments:

  1. Algorithms are not physical either. And they are very much a part of science. I think the moving target has shifted to something like "computation" although the hardware/computing substrate is sometimes fudged (atoms vs. strings vs. neurons vs....) or unspecified.

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    1. Yes. The debtate is reductionism, not 'materialism'. A computer executes an algorithm because of the arrangement of its parts and the flow of electrons etc. Algortihms and information are tools in the reductionists toolkit.
      Reductionism does not do away with ideas, it explains them. The regulator on an old steam engine executes a simple algorithm. It can be explained in terms of inertia, angles, gravity, etc. We can reduce the regulator to the actions of its parts. But it's still a regulator.

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    2. "A computer executes an algorithm because of the arrangement of its parts and the flow of electrons etc."

      False. Without the IDEA of an algorithm, and someone INTERPRETING what happens as the "running" of an algorithm, there is just electrons wigglin' about.

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    3. If what you say is true, it would be nonsense to say the sieve of Eratosthanes running on a Mac is the "same" algorithm as one running on a mainframe. No, they are the SAME because their is an idea of the sieve that is independent of any implementation. And the idea that tracing the electrons around inside a machine "explains" the algorithm is just gibberish, as would claiming watching Shakespeare's neurons firing explains Hamlet.

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    4. Of course a computer executes an algorithm. Different computers can execute the same algorithm. Computers have the notions of steps, state, information. We explain how the robot plays Stravinsky by the algorithm, states, and information in the computer. Change them you might get Debussy. We explain those in terms of circuits.

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  2. Algorithms are not physical either. And they are very much a part of science. I think the moving target has shifted to something like "computation" although the hardware/computing substrate is sometimes fudged (atoms vs. strings vs. neurons vs....) or unspecified.

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  3. "Different computers can execute the same algorithm."

    Right. And this proves the algorithm is not reducible to the mechanisms implementing it. Reductionism fails. Thank you for the demonstration.

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  4. It seems that where the anti-materialist argument falls down is when they make the leap to asserting that abstract things are extra-physical, as opposed to just the physical patterns in our brain; Physical patterns which achieve the task of sameness through some complex but altogether mundane neural circuitry.

    While the particular configuration of physical signals in execution of a particular model of computation may be very different; the symbols perceived in their human readable outputs will be much less diverse and the brain patterns created in the recognizer will be even further constrained.

    Ultimately, a reductionist must believe that the Sieve of Eratosthenes is a particular configuration of neural activity. If anything, neuroscience supports this view. Loci for certain capacities and concepts have been identified with lesion studies and in-situ imaging. Loss of these regions tends to have frightening consequences. People with injury to these regions lose all conception of the existence of these concepts. The most canonical example being people with parietal lesions not just ignoring one half of the space that surrounds them; but asserting confidently that it isn't even missing. These people cannot represent one half of their universe, and cannot even conceive that it is gone.

    I really don't see how your assertions come even close to challenging this view. I don't see how one can reject reductionist view without addressing the results of cognitive neuroscience directly.

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    1. "It seems that where the anti-materialist argument falls down is when they make the leap to asserting that abstract things are extra-physical, as opposed to just the physical patterns in our brain; Physical patterns which achieve the task of sameness through some complex but altogether mundane neural circuitry."

      So what is the "sameness" physically present in the vacuum tubes, in my brain, in my iPad, and in my computer built from hot and cold plumbing when they are all running the Sieve of Eratosthenes?

      "a reductionist must believe that the Sieve of Eratosthenes is a particular configuration of neural activity"

      Yes, you must believe ridiculous things to be a reductionist, that is true!

      "If anything, neuroscience supports this view. Loci for certain capacities and concepts have been identified with lesion studies and in-situ imaging. Loss of these regions tends to have frightening consequences."

      Yes, because most anti-reductionists hold the brain has nothing to do with thought. Amongst those anti-reductionist who hold this view are... Oh, wait, I'm sorry, not a single anti-reductionist holds that view! Oops, complete irrelevancy introduced.

      "I don't see how one can reject reductionist view without addressing the results of cognitive neuroscience directly."

      Because they are completely irrelevant to the question at hand?

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    2. Consider, Unknown, what Berkeley would think about your example: He would say, "Yes, certainly, when neurological subjects report they are thinking, neurologists report they perceive certain patterns on their equipment. Then, through elaborate theories (systems of thought) they connect those light patterns to 'states of the brain.' Yes, certainly, I agree, our thoughts display these systematic regularities all the time. And that proves my point that there must be a infinite mind whose marvelously and infinitely complex universe of rational thought we perceive, even if dimly as through a glass."

      Note: I am not asking you to buy into Berkeley's metaphysics. I am just showing you why any finding of neuroscience fits within it perfectly well: therefore, neuroscience cannot possibly arbitrate between materialism and idealism, and if it cannot do that, it probably also cannot arbitrate between materialism and dualism!

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  5. "So what is the "sameness" physically present in the vacuum tubes, in my brain, in my iPad, and in my computer built from hot and cold plumbing when they are all running the Sieve of Eratosthenes?"

    Each one creates the same pattern of activity in the same neurons in my brain. The locus of neurons representing "Sieve of Eratosthenes". Computers perform computation by symbolic manipulation. That we can bind many different symbols(vacuum tubes, ipad, pen&paper) to the same concept is not spooky. They're all the same because they meet at the same point in our brains. They do that because they're tools that we designed for that purpose.

    "Yes, you must believe ridiculous things to be a reductionist, that is true!"

    "Intuitively ridiculous" is not a viable philosophical argument, especially when we're talking about corner cases in cognition that are counter intuitive. *Why* is it ridiculous?

    "Because they are completely irrelevant to the question at hand?"

    Again, why? Your sarcasm doesn't really make your point any stronger. If loss of the locus for "Sieve of Eratosthenes" means that I can't perform the Sieve and I can't see the Sieve in computers, in what sense is the idea the the Sieve exists strictly in brains "ridiculous"?

    "I am just showing you why any finding of neuroscience fits within it perfectly well: "

    I don't think you're showing it very well. There is a big gap between brain/behavior correlation and "must be an infinite mind..."

    Additionally, there are several aspects to the cognitive neuroscience evidence, you only seem to address the first one.

    #1 We see correlations between brain states and behavior.
    #2 Loss of brain function means a loss of concepts so fundamental that we don't and can't even recognize its absence.
    #3 We exhibit systematic cognitive failures that may be adaptive but are neither rational or logical.

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    1. "Each one creates the same pattern of activity in the same neurons in my brain"

      Ah, I get it now!

      So, if someone doesn't understand algorithms, and I show them my iPad running the Sieve and a mainframe running the Sieve, and they DON'T "create the same pattern of activity" in that person's brain, then they AREN'T running the same algorithm!

      And if I show someone delusional my iPad running the Sieve and a penguin, and that DOES "creates the same pattern of activity" in that person's brain, then the penguin IS running the Sieve!

      I'm glad you've cleared that up for me.

      'I don't think you're showing it very well. There is a big gap between brain/behavior correlation and "must be an infinite mind..." '

      What part of "I am not asking you to buy into Berkeley's metaphysics" did you miss here? I am NOT asking you to believe this, I am showing you that Berkeley's metaphysics fits your evidence every bit as well as your metaphysics does, therefore your evidence is no evidence at all.

      I really start to lose my patience when I say something that explicitly ("I am not asking you to buy into Berkeley's metaphysics") and someone just ignores it.

      "#1 We see correlations between brain states and behavior.
      #2 Loss of brain function means a loss of concepts so fundamental that we don't and can't even recognize its absence.
      #3 We exhibit systematic cognitive failures that may be adaptive but are neither rational or logical."

      Great, there are regularities in our experience. How is this supposed to even demonstrate that this "material world" of which you keep speaking exists?

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