meaning

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If materialism, are there subjects?

In this post I seek to establish one premise: If materialism is true, there are no subjects.

There has been much extended discussion in my post on atheism’s universe, wherein (in the comments) I asserted that, on atheism, there are no subjects. It is high time I clarified my position and drew out its implications.

Materialism and Atheism

My argument is based upon a materialist or physicalist view of reality [I use the terms ‘materialism’ and ‘physicalism’ interchangeably here–I realize they are sometimes used to delineate differences between hard and soft materialists, but for the sake of this post one may assume that any time I mention “physicalism” I mean materialism at large]. I am asserting that: if physicalism is true, there are no such things as “subjects.” I’ve briefly argued elsewhere (see the post linked above) that the only consistent atheism is materialistic. For atheists who are not materialists, I leave it to them to show that their view consistently allows for immaterial entities.

The Nature of a “Subject”

One constant objection to my position is that I never defined what I meant by “subject.” One reason I did not seek to define the term is because  I did not want the debate to boil down into a semantic war over the meaning of subject. There are some features of “subjects” which most parties agree upon, but how to lay out those features is hotly debated. Further, I did not wish to beg the question against the materialist by defining a subject in such a way that no materialist ontology could even attempt to approach it (suppose I defined a “subject” as a “wholly mental feature of reality which acts as the center of consciousness”; in such a case, I’ve added nothing to the discussion because I’ve excluded materialism from the debate without argument).

There is no easy way to define what is meant by “a subject.” I will seek now to define it as broadly as possible, so as to avoid any questions begged.

A Subject: 

  1. Is the referent of the term, “I”
  2. Endures from moment-to-moment as one being. A subject would be the same subject at T2 as it was at T1.
  3. Accounts for any mental states–whether they are actually aphysical or physical.

Hopefully these terms are agreeable to both sides. I’m sure people on either side will want to flesh out the notion of “subject” more, but it seems to me that these points can be acknowledged by all. The first point seems to be fairly clearly true. It is “I” who experience x and not someone else. The second point is necessary for subjects because otherwise “I” would be a different “I” from T1 to T2, and in fact not be the same being at all. The third point, likewise, seems fairly obvious, because it seems mental life is what comprises a subject to begin with. Whether the image in my mind of a cat is a purely physical phenomenon or not, any theory of the mind must take it into account.

Materialism Fails to Account for One and Many

On materialism, what is it that is the referent of the term “I”? Is it my brain (only)? Is it my body? What am “I”? I will here offer a brief argument that no materialist account can take seriously the notion that “I” am distinct from other entities. It is, basically, an offshoot of the “one and the many” problem in philosophy.

Materialism holds that all which exists is matter. Thus, “I” am composed of matter. The problem is distinguishing between everything else and me, for ultimately “I” am just a rearrangement of matter. Suppose that all matter is referred to as (M), and I am referred to by (I). Ultimately, on materialism, (I) is reducible to (M), which is really just all real being on materialism. Why suppose there are separate entities, (I) and (I2) and (I3) when all are, ultimately, (M)? It is much simpler to just suppose that (M) is all and that (I), (I2), and (I3) are (M) in rearranged forms.

Now I don’t suppose for a moment this isn’t highly contentious. Some will come along and say that their own experience is enough to confirm that they are a different being from every other. But why suppose this? Ultimately, that conscious experience is reducible to the brain, which is reducible to matter, which is everything. On materialism, there really is just one “thing”: the material universe as a whole. The “parts” of this “thing” are ultimately reducible to smaller and smaller particles which comprise all the “things” themselves. Ultimately, all is matter, merely arranged in different ways at different times. I’m not suggesting that matter is some kind of single entity. It is particulate. But matter is also one kind of thing. Ultimately, on materialism, all things are just this kind of thing: material. The only way to differentiate between them is by time and place, but even then every individual thing is itself composed of particles of matter. All things are reducible to the same thing.

What can save materialists from this? Materialists would have to embrace a robust metaphysics in order to supply a way out for the problem of “the one and the many.” Yet it seems to me that no materialist can take seriously a robust metaphysics, because they would then have to posit distinctions between entities that are aphysical. Positing such entities or properties would be decidedly contrary to materialism. For example, one solution is that entities are distinct in that all share being itself, but they also have essences which distinguish them from other things (see Clarke, 72ff, cited below). For a materialist to embrace this, they would have to hold that each individual person has an immaterial essence which is such that it makes it distinct from other entities. But of course, that would fly in the face of materialism. It seems to me, therefore, that materialism has no way to answer the problem of “the one and the many.”

Materialism Fails to Provide Enduring Identity

On what basis can a materialist affirm that I, J.W., am the same subject now as I was 20 years ago? All my matter has been replaced. There is no material component of me which is the same as it was back then. Yet my experience tells me that I am the same subject.

How can materialists account for this?

One possibility is that they can simply point out that I am numerically identical to my past self. Although the individual pieces of matter which comprise me are not the same as they were 20 years ago, they were replaced only in portions, during which my body endured as a totality.

The difficulty with this scenario is that it only serves to underscore the problems with materialism. Imagine a mad scientist, who, over the course of a day, cuts my brain into 24 pieces. Each hour, he removes one piece of my brain and places it into another body, which has no brain. He simultaneously replaces the piece of brain with an exact molecular copy. After the day, there is a body which has my brain in it, and my body, which has a copy of my brain in it. Which is me? And, if that question can be answered on materialism (which I doubt), when did my body/brain cease being me and transfer to the other body/brain?

Materialism simply cannot answer these questions. The worldview is baffled by them. Yet in order for something to be a subject, it must endure through time. On materialism, I have not endured through time at all. My entire being–from my fingers to the hairs on my head to my brain–is material, and has been replaced by new material. Where am “I”?

Materialism Cannot Account for Mental States

There are at least five features of mental states which materialism cannot take into account. They are:

  • The feeling of “‘what-it-is-like’ to have a mental state such as a pain”
  • Intentionality
  • Inner, private, and immediate access to the subject
  • Subjective ontology which is irreducible to the third person
  • They lack spatial extension, location, etc. (Adapted from Moreland, 20, cited below)

While delving into these in great detail is beyond the reach of this post, I have already addressed a few of them in my post arguing for Substance Dualism against Monism. It seems that, on materialism, one must embrace supervenience and epiphenominalism in order to preserve mental states. Consider the following:

When I experience thought A’, it is because of a prior brain state, A. My mental states are either identical to, or supervenient upon, the physical state of my brain. The problem with this is that it relegates mental states to epiphenomenalism… This is because the mental state is entirely dependent upon (or identical to) the brain state. On physicalism, a mental state does not occur without a brain state occurring prior to, or in conjunction with, it.

…If it is always the case that Brain state A=> Mental state A’, then Brain state A causes whatever actions we take, for the brain state entails the mental state, which itself is identical to or supervenient upon the brain state to exist. But then, if we cut mental state A’ out of the equation, we would still have Brain state A and the action. Thus, consciousness is entirely superfluous. (Wartick, https://jwwartick.com/2010/11/10/against-monism/)

Reflection upon the supervenience of the mental on the physical leads materialist philosopher Jaegwon Kim to writes:

To think that one can be a serious physicalist and at the same time enjoy the company of things and phenomena that are nonphysical [by this he is referring to consciousness, the causal powers of thought, etc.], I believe, is an idle dream. (Kim, 120, cited below)

Objections

Objection 1: One of the most common objections I have encountered when I reason in this fashion is the common sense objection: “I think, therefore I am a subject!” or, as one commented on another post, “I’m an [atheist]. I have meaning. It’s possible.”

Such notions are scoffed at by materialist philosophers. Paul Churchland, the famed materialist and philosopher of mind, writes:

You came to this book assuming that the basic units of human cognition are states such as thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, desires, and preferences.  That assumption is natural enough: it is built into the vocabulary of every natural language… These assumptions are central elements in our standard conception of human cognitive activity, a conception often called ‘Folk psychology’ to acknowledge if as the common property of folks generally.  Their universality notwithstanding, these bedrock assumptions are probably mistaken.

In other words, the notion that “I’m a subject! I have meaning!” is nothing more than a philosophical dinosaur, a remnant of our ‘folk psychology’ which we should cast off now that we know the truth of materialism. Those who object in such a fashion as materialists seem to be blissfully unaware that they stand aligned against the vast majority of materialistic philosophy of mind. They must justify their position, but cannot, as they arguments above have shown.

Objection 2: Neuroscience has shown that the brain is the center of consciousness. When we think things, we can observe specific areas of activity in the brain. 

This objection is clearly mistaken. The previous arguments have sought to establish the premise: On materialism, there are no subjects. I could easily grant Objection 2 without doing any damage to my arguments. Sure, when we “think thoughts” we may be able to observe effects in the brain. How does it then follow that “we” are subjects? All that this has done–assuming I grant it–is show that our consciousness is somehow related to our brains. It doesn’t demonstrate that mind is identical to brain, nor does it justify the position that “I am a subject.” In fact, it seems to undermine the notion that materialism can explain subjects, because it implies, once more, that “I” am reducible to “my brain” which is, of course, reducible to its component matter as well.

Conclusion: That There Are No Subjects on Materialism and the Implications Thereof

Any one of these problems provides insurmountable problems for materialists who believe they are, themselves, subjects. There is no way, on materialism, to distinguish the one from the many; there is no way for subjects to endure; mental states are reduced to causally inert epiphenomena; and there is no way to account for mental phenomena.

Thus, if atheism is committed to materialism, and materialism cannot account for subjects, it  follows that, without question, there is no meaning on atheism. There cannot even be subjective meaning, for to reference something as a “subject” is, itself, illusory.

Sources

Jaegwon Kim, Mind in a Physical World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).

J.P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei (London, UK: SCM Press, 2009).

Paul Churchland,The Engine of Reason, The Seat of the Soul: A Philosophical Journey into the Brain, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).

W. Norris Clark, The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame, 2001).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Ozymandias and the Plight of Atheism

Ozymandias

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The poem has struck me every time I read it. I am filled with senses of longing, wonder, and terror. Longing, because I want to see the legs of Ozymandias, to know of his Empire, to know how he got to the point of writing the infamous words “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Wonder, because he surely must have known his works would pass, as do all things. But maybe he didn’t think they would, maybe he thought he could preserve himself through all time by making a statue… but all that remains is a placard and part of his legs. His works may have been great enough to despair the Mighty, but they’ve passed, and they are nothing but a memory. Terror, because I realize that without God, this is the plight of mankind. We build ourselves up, but we shall pass. In the fullness of time, the world will fade away, the sun will burn out, and our works–which we may think mighty or great–shall pass away.

The poem of Ozymandias describes atheism. Without God, we are each our own Ozymandias–building futile works for a futile purpose. Our writings, our words, our lives all pass away. The best we can hope for is a saying written in rock which may be discovered somewhere by someone, but even then our futility will only be felt with the sting having passed. No matter how great we become, we die, and we pass into nothing. Each one of us is futile, living a meaningless life in a universe without purpose, without a plan. Travelers may come by Earth one day and see the abandoned wreckage of our cities, and make their own poem about the futility of the human race, who thought it had achieved something, but aspired for greatness in a universe without meaning.

So what are we to do? I’m not suggesting that just because the universe is meaningless, we should become adherents to a religion. I’m suggesting two things: first, atheists should think long and hard about their lives. If atheists are living as though there is meaning, they have imported something from a rival worldview. On atheism, the best we can hope for is a poem dedicated to our memory, which will have long since passed away. And that poem will itself have no meaning, for it to shall pass. And it’s not the passage which makes the universe meaningless–it’s the utter meaninglessness of time now, then, and forever. For what does it matter if I am a Mother Theresa or a Hitler? What does it matter if I am a sinner or a saint? If the world remembers me as a tyrant or a benevolent ruler? Here and now, the only meaning we can construct is our own–and that is a facade, an illusion. For our meaning is contradicted by others, and our meaning is self-created. How can one make meaning? Only by believing it is meaning. So it is a fideism, an atheistic faith in meaning.

Second, I’m suggesting people should be open to examining other worldviews. Suppose atheists are wrong, and there is meaning. To continue living life as an Ozymandias is then the greatest tragedy which could befall one’s life. If one is worth something, then to live as though one is worthless is the worst thing that could happen. So I’m suggesting atheists should examine views which don’t imply a universe void of meaning. Why? Not out of fear–but out of hope. It seems as though the entirety of the human experience is based upon the idea that there is meaning. To deny this is to deny part of what it means to be human. Therefore, it seems intuitively possible that there actually is meaning in the universe. Our experience leads us to believe there is. But that meaning cannot be found on atheism, so atheism has intuitive implausibility. Perhaps we should abandon the (un)belief.

Related post: Atheism’s Universe is Meaningless and Valueless.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation and provide a link to the original URL. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Atheism’s Universe is Meaningless and Valueless

“‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’
says the Teacher.
‘Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.'” – Ecclesiastes 1:2

My most recent post on the problem of evil granting empirical atheism generated some thoughtful discussion. Most importantly, it lead me to the following argument:

1) On materialistic [I use materialism and physicalism interchangeably, as is common in philosophy today] atheism, all we are is matter in motion.

2) There is no objective reason to value matter moving in way A over matter moving in way B

3) Therefore, on materialistic atheism, there is no value or meaning

Premise 1 seems self-evident. Materialistic atheism, by definition, says that “everything is physical, or as contemporary philosophers sometimes put it, that everything supervenes on, or is necessitated by, the physical” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). The physical world is matter.

Premise 2 also seems like it should need little defense, yet atheists continually come up with ideas to try to get around it. For example, one may argue that the subjective suffering of persons should matter. Yet I fail to see how this argument succeeds. Pain and suffering, on materialism, at most supervenes upon neurons firing in the brain (along with chemical reactions and other physical phenomenon). My question for the materialist is: What reason can be provided for favoring matter moving in way A (call it, the way neurons fire when someone is in a state of bliss) over matter moving in way B (neurons firing in the way which causes pain)?

One answer which may be forthcoming is that creatures and persons tend to try to get away from things which cause B. This argument fails to provide an answer to the question, because all it does is push the question back to a higher level. It would change to: Why should we favor physical observable phenomenon which don’t cause avoidance over those that do? Again, the avoidance of B would simply be matter moving in a different way. In order to make a judgment between them, one would have to reach beyond the material world and into the world of objective meaning and value; this is, necessarily, a world which is nonexistent on materialism. Even if one could provide an answer to this second question, say “We tend to not like B. Things we don’t like are bad”, then we would have a purely subjective reality. What of the serial killer who delights in torturing himself, causing things to B? What reason do we have for saying what he is doing is wrong, because, after all, he likes B?

Ultimately, on materialism, everything boils down to matter in motion. Making value judgments about matter in motion is meaningless.

But if everything is matter in motion, then there doesn’t seem to be any way to make value judgments. How does one value a rock over a stick? They’re both just stuff. But then, on materialism, people are just stuff too; albeit more complex. However, if you were to break us down into our ultimately realities, we are no different than the rock. We are matter organized in a different way. Why value us?

There is no objective reason to do so. Therefore, there is no objective meaning or value. Life is purposeless, meaningless, valueless. Atheistic materialism demands this bleak view of the universe. I’m not saying it’s a good reason to abandon that [un]belief. I’m merely saying that those who hold such a view must be consistent.

“Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.” -Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

[In the comments, I have suggested that on materialism, there is no such thing as a subject. The claim has proven highly contentious, so I have created a post to clarify my position: https://jwwartick.com/2011/12/05/subjects-materialism/.]

Check out my post on the Ontology of Morality: Some Problems for Humanists and their friends

SDG

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation and provide a link to the original URL. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.


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