Saturday, March 11, 2017

The materiallists' phony demand for evidence

Let's say "anti-materialists" point to EPR effects to try to demonstrate that materialism is an incomplete description of reality: E, P, and R devised their thought experiment precisely to show that the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics is unsatisfactory, because it implies that "spooky action at a distance" exists, contradicting materialism (as it was then formulated). But when experiments seem to show that there is "spooky action at a distance," then materialists simply say, "OK, well then that is part of material reality as well."

In other words, materialism is a completely non-falsifiable thesis, since:

1) To defease non-materialist ideas, materialists say, "Well, show me how (God / angels / spirits /
the soul / etc. ) can show up in an empirical, measurable way." (We won't go into the matter of whether that is a good test for truth or not: let's just accept the materialists's challenge for argument's sake.)

2) But, once some phenomenon is actually confirmed to exist by measurement, however contradictory its existence was to an earlier version of "materialism," it will simply be claimed that "the material" includes this new, unprecedented phenomenon as well.

Therefore, this demand for "evidence" is phony. Materialism is not a "philosophical position" (in fact, as philosophy is "experience without reservation or arrest," all "positions" are not philosophical!), but an ideology.

(And, by the way, this is why some of my students are wrong to worry about "whether idealism is true": to try to declare some particular philosophical system as "true" is to create an arrest in experience!)


  1. Aren't idealism and materialism both equally non-falsifiable ? As commonly understood they both are alternative ways of describing the same underlying reality. To my mind materialism provides a clearer framework ( and one from which it is easier to eliminate mystical trapping) compared to idealism - but ultimately it seems a matter of personal taste which cloak you wear.

    1. "Aren't idealism and materialism both equally non-falsifiable?"

      Yes! The idealist's advantage here is they generally don't make claims like "Science has proved idealism to be true."

      "and one from which it is easier to eliminate mystical trapping"

      Big advantage for idealism here: "mystical trappings" are closer to the truth than idealism or materialism!

      "but ultimately it seems a matter of personal taste which cloak you wear."

      Both can be "isms", but in the hands of say Oakeshott or Collingwood, idealism avoids that trap. It is *possible* for a materialist philosopher to avoid it as well, but rare. (Santayana is an example here, or perhaps Langer.)

    2. Rob, not to bash you here again, but I don't understand how materialism provides a 'clearer framework' with which to work from. Material objects are abstractions from our fundamental experience of the world; they have no more legitimate claim to be ontologically primacy than any other experience - such as me eating French fries with ketchup right now.

      Experience is what is primary in any ontology. Any ontology that denies this is contradictory, stupid, and not open or self-critical; it isn't philosophically sound.

  2. Hmm. I think the Copenhagen interpretation survives Epr and Bell quite well, doesn't it? I think Bohr would object to saying there is spooky action at a distance, because Bohr would object to you saying anything beyond relationships between observable phenomena. I am not saying this contradicts your main point, but I do wonder if Bohr might have simply sidestepped it.

    FWIW my gut reaction to the CI was revulsion. Alas I find it increasingly convincing over time.

    1. "Hmm. I think the Copenhagen interpretation survives Epr and Bell quite well, doesn't it?"

      Well, OK, by EPR thought they were refuting it with their thought experiment.

      And indeed Bohr might have sidestepped it.

  3. The philosopher Bas van Fraassen has made this point. What counts as "materialist" has changed over time to account for advances in physics and other sciences. On Fraassen's account, materialism is not a doctrine so much as it is an attitude.

  4. Gene, this really surprised me, and shed a lot of light on Oakeshott and Experience and It's Modes. I realized that I had been approaching EAIM as a 'system', but Oakeshott denies this right in the introduction.

    His Idealism is just a point of view; a perspective from the totality of experience (philosophy) regarding other forms of inquiry or understanding. It is not 'suggestive' as far as 'this is how philosophy of x should be'; it is more along the lines of 'these are the contours of this world of experience; here are the implications of this world of experience; and finally, here is the relevance of this world of experience with regards to what it can say about the totality of experience'. It isn't a system, and he seems to take a cue from T. H. Green in that Idealism is not something that can be argued for from a set of premises (because those premises themselves would include metaphysical assumptions that beg the question), but rather, a point of view from the standpoint of philosophical experience - experience without reservation, presupposition, or arrest; experience that is 'self-critical' throughout, and always seeks a firm grasp on the concrete whole that is all of experience.

    Wow. This post was methodologically very helpful!


George Berkeley, Common-sense Realist

"According to Berkeley, the perceived world is itself a language -- or, rather, a discourse in a language. Berkley intends this claim...