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Sunday, December 09, 2012

Why, If I Post on Materialism in the Future, Comments Will Be Closed

I don't in the least mind intelligent objections to my posts on this blog: after all, I continually post comments from many readers who object to this or that view of mine.

However, I have found that when I post something on the topic of materialism, I am flooded with comments that are so dumbfounding to me that I am not sure how to rationally continue to converse with the commenter.

To cite just one example: faced with the challenge to the materialist view of explaining what makes vastly different physical implementations of a "single" algorithm "the same" other than the non-physical idea of the algorithm, one commenter claimed that it was that all such implementations produced the same neural patterns in our brains. And the same thing is true of all of our categorizations: for example, all the furry little critters we call "squirrels" are so called simply because each of them causes similar firings of our neurons.

When someone says something like this, I simply have no idea how to continue rational conversation with the person. First of all, isn't "neuron" also one of our categorizations? And isn't "similar pattern" another? So right away, this view quite obviously devours its own tail: it attempts to reduce our categorizations of "reality" to "neural patterns," but "neural patterns" is itself a categorization we have made of reality, so it really says nothing more than "we categorize." (Of course, if someone taking this line could show why our category "neural patterns" is somehow specially privileged over other such categories, they might evade this critique. But I have never encountered such a demonstration. Furthermore, if such a demonstration were offered, it would have to appeal to some objective criterion of its own truth that did not invoke "neural patterns," and so would immediately refute itself.)

Secondly, as a man of science and someone who thinks science discovers things about reality, and not just about patterns of neurons in our brains, it seems to me that, for instance, the fact that the one of the things we just happen to call "a squirrel" can only breed with another such thing, and not with one of the things we happen to call "a pig," or "a rock," or "mold," is a pretty good indication that there is something more to this "squirrels" term than simply a statement about our own neurons.

So let's turn to algorithms. In my twenty years working as a software engineer, I often had to implement algorithms. I realized that to do so, what I had to do was first grasp the idea of the algorithm. Then, once I did so, I had to make sure that my code correctly embodied that idea. So, if I was implementing the Sieve of Eratosthenes, I would check my work by seeing if my program, in fact, produced prime numbers and only prime numbers as output (a check which depended on grasping the idea of a prime number, rather than engaging in a literature review of neurological research). Not once did I ever concern myself with the possibility that someone else's neural patterns might not "decide" that my program was not an implementation of that algorithm: if my program was (for the right reason) producing primes and only primes, then the failure of their "neural patterns" to recognize that fact simply meant that they hadn't grasped the idea behind the algorithm. My empirical success as a programmer ought to count as good evidence for these supposedly empiricist materialists that I was and am correct in thinking this way. But, of course, materialists are not empiricists at all: as the logical positivists recognized quite well, all strict empiricism ought to say about, e.g., scientific experiments is that "After I had perceived that I had mixed what I perceived to be chemical X with what I perceived to be chemical Y, I perceived a movement in the mercury of what I perceived to a thermometer of +10 degrees."

In any case, faced with such manifest irrationality as the claim that animal species are really just patterns of firings of human neurons, I find myself at a total loss as to how I might proceed without a total waste of my time. Therefore, if I happen to post on metaphysics in the future, I probably will post with comments closed.