Promise of materialism?

The “Tuesday’s talk” thread was getting a bit long, so I thought I’d create this post where the discussion can continue further.

Kleiner posted this note:

“Do you think empirical science has to have a materialism metaphysics? I don’t think it does. In fact Aquinas makes arguments that begin (but do not always end) with empirical data. I would argue that without something immaterial, science (or any kind of intelligibility) is impossible (see recent Machuga lecture).
“In short, what I resist is your tendency toward reductionism. Moving from the claim that the body matters to full blown materialism. Moving from science to scientism. I just don’t see any real justification for these moves. In fact, making those moves undercuts your science. I think Hume is right, if you are going to restrict yourself to nothing other than empirical data, then you cannot even justify science (causation).”

No, I don’t think an empiricist has to be a materialist, George Berkeley and Ernst Mach were empiricists, and idealists. But that’s not what Kleiner has in mind, I think. He and Machuga really have in mind an argument between nominalists and realists.

The nominalist believes particular things (whether atoms, bodies, or simple ideas) are real, and all general things (concept of “DOG”, concept of “MASS”) somehow “ride upon” (supervene) upon the particular things. These general things are sometimes called “universals.”

The realist, on the other hand, thinks that these general things must be real. If they weren’t real, then there would be nothing in virtue of which all the particular dogs come to be correctly classified under the concept “DOG.” This might not sound compelling in the case of dogs, so here’s a more gripping example. Sceintists end up talking about kinds of things, like hydrogen. Well, what makes it true that this little bitty thing and that little bitty thing are both hydrogen atoms? “They have the same structure,” we answer. “Same structure”? Isn’t that just to say there is a thing (same structure) those two particular little bitty things have in common? That’s a universal, folks.

The realist then continues: universals, by definition, aren’t particular things. But every material thing is a particular thing. (Try to name one that isn’t!) So does it not follow that there exist immaterial things? And as a follow up: If we can somehow perceive or pick up on the existence of these immaterial things, then how can we be purely material beings?

(How’s that, Kleiner?)

My own answer — well, let me try this out as an answer, and see what happens — is that the question “is it material?” simply does not apply to universals like structure or function. It’s sort of like taking an adjective, verb, or adverb and asking what thing it refers to. Those parts of speech don’t refer to things; they’re not like nouns. They describe what things do, or what they are like. So the universal “DOG” actually is the property or cluster of properties dogs have in common. And if someone asks, “Is that universal material?” I want to answer, “No, but neither is it immaterial. It’s not a thing. It’s a property.” It’s tricky here because we can easily start talking about properties as if they are things — thus turning adjectives into nouns — and then start thinking that names of properties name things (i.e., universals). But we’re being misled by grammar.


4 thoughts on “Promise of materialism?

  1. Kleiner

    Very nice summary of the issue.

    Two points:

    1) Since science does not have to be materialist, then scientific naturalism does not have to substitute, say, neuroscience for the soul. I think you try to fry too big of a fish in your talk. What you should argue is that the scientific naturalist has to do away with any supernatural signification for the soul. But the non-materialist scientific naturalist might well still think that there is an immaterial soul (albeit, one without any religious significance). In other words, I think you could still be some kind of an Aristotelian (Aristotle denies that there was a divine craftsman and has a notion of the soul with no real supernatural significance).

    2) I don’t think the universal is a “thing” either. I am not a Platonist, so I would share in your reservations about reification. But just because it is not a “thing” does not mean it is “nothing”. Aristotle and Aquinas call it form, and form is not a thing. It is best characterized as “act” or “power”. But just because “act” is not a thing does not mean it is not real and really intelligible.
    Now, have Thomistic metaphysics been reified? I think so, but that is an interpretative mistake. This is part of the reason I consider myself a “Heideggerized Thomist”.

    In other words, I think I can say most of the things you want to say, without coming to the conclusions (materialist scientism) you come to.


  2. Kleiner

    Let me try putting this another way:
    “Language is the house of Being” – Heidegger

    What does that mean? It means at least this: that language is not just related to the world, instead language and the world are intermingled in the most intimate possible way. Langugage bears the meaning of the world. But Heidegger wants to move away from the subject-object dichotomies of old, instead language occurs not “in the subject” and not “in the world”. This is why he makes odd statements like, “We don’t speak language, language speaks us.”
    Language is that by which truth is disclosed (aletheia). The nominalist is wrong in thinking that we “posit” meaning onto the world through language (in fact, I think we could call this “enframing”). The realist often falls prey to a reifying tendency. Both over-stress a radical subject-object split (setting up the problem of the “bridge” – getting the “out-there” real into the “in-here” consciousness). Heidegger tries to avoid these mistakes.

    What is the point of all this? Language reveals the [real] way-of-being of entities. Different kinds of thinking (language?) disclose differently, and some modes of thought might cover over as much as they disclose. (For instance, Heidegger wants to move us away from the reifying tendency of thinking which tends to disclose static “properties” as “present-at-hand”). But just because the “way-of-being” of a thing is a verb (“existence”) rather than a noun, does not mean that there is not something to really disclose (a real way-of-being, “existential” structures).


  3. Huenemann Post author

    It’s interesting to think about naturalism without materialism (and here I’m not thinking of some sort of radical idealism, like Berkeley’s or Mach’s). In Phil 4410 the other day we heard a short lecture by Daniel Dennett, and he remarked that when people ask him if “memes” are physical things, he puts on a puzzled expression and asks, “Are words physical things?” The apparent answer is: sorta yes, sorta no. I would want to insist on some sort of supervenience, at least, between seemingly nonphysical things (like words, love, interest rates, patterns) and physical things. Maybe this way: when physical things do THIS sort of thing, or THAT sort of thing, they are using words, in love, etc. I realize I’m invoking “sorts” here, and I’m not sure what to do with them. I’m reading Armstrong’s “Universals: an opinionated introduction” right now to try to make my mind clearer about it.

    I can’t say much about Heidegger, though it is clear that words do things with us just as much as that we do things with words.


  4. Huenemann Post author

    I still believe that with every alleged incident of God/human interaction, there is a competing explanation of the event that is purely natural — perhaps a psychological one, or a sociological one. And since it’s rational to prefer natural explanations to supernatural ones, etc.

    I’m not sure that Nz is entitled to any sort of transcendence — that we can heroically separate ourselves from tradition and create our own set of values. Moreover, it’s difficult to say whether he really thought we could do so. Some passages suggest so, others suggest the opposite. Maybe this is the best view, for Nz: while we can’t lift ourselves completely out of tradition, we can come to recognize many of the limiting ideologies that have shaped our beliefs, and compensate for them by daring ourselves to think the opposite. But even here the results will be messy. I’m not sure that Nz can say that a horrific figure like Hannibal Lector (Silence of the Lambs) isn’t some sort of superman, along with his cited heroes (Goethe, Napoleon). He often is aware that what he’s envisioning should be chilling and horrifying. Someone once said that God saves us from belonging only to ourselves. Nz wants us to belong to ourselves, and he’s willing to face the consequences. (I’m not; that’s why Kleiner calls me a ‘chicken-sh*t Nzean.)

    Spinoza has very much the same view, though he thinks our essence is reason, and reason moves us forward into a more familiar morality. Sp’s ‘free man’ is one who is guided only by his essence, and though he is egoistic and ‘beyond good and evil,’ he sees the utility in community, friendship, democracy, etc. But here’s the question: is reason our essence? Do we have an essence? Will the self-determined individual be a democrat? That’s a bit pollyanish, if you ask me.

    So each path forward seems to me potentially dangerous!



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