Tuesday, October 20, 2009

When and where can materialism be true?

[The following considerations carry over into a third post, which you should read after reading the first installment and this post.]

I would like to expand on my previous post about certain epistemological and metaphysical problems vis-à-vis Einsteinian relativity (ER, special and general, ESR and EGR). In that post, I argued that, inasmuch as ESR is construed as a realist theory, it entails inherent contradictions in purely materialistic (Minkowskian) terms. Specifically I argued (1) that the nature of analytic truths transcend the limitations of four-dimensional spacetime (4DST), inasmuch as they are true everywhere and 'everywhen', which is impossible on a realist-materialist reading of ESR; and (2) that our grasp of ESR as a cosmic truth defies the limitations of 4DST by virtue of the fact that we simultaneously 'deflate' naïve phenomenological observations in light of the reality of cosmic behind 'behind the phenomena' in a different frame of reference. Now I would like to clarify just why these claims present a challenge to materialism.

According materialism, there are no immaterial realities (such as abstract thought or angels or immanent forms). One way or another, everything we know, do, and are, is fundamentally material, and thus limited to 4DST. Specifically, every instance of thought is itself a material phenomenon with hypothetically measurable proportions in 4DST. My memory of my seventh birthday, then, just is the constellation of spacetime in the larger constellation of spacetime known as my brain. Likewise, my grasp of analytic truths (e.g., no part is greater than its corresponding whole) just is a segment of spacetime. When many people grasp the same (part-whole) truth, they are just instancing a sufficiently similar constellation of spacetime in their brains. Thought is not, then, a mental event, but one physical occurrence among many others. Indeed, events, far from being abstract entities, just are concrete rearrangements of spacetime. Any truth is what I shall call 'occurrent-true' in 4DST just by deforming 4DST in a way proportionate to the sameness of the propositional content in question.

But this should immediately alert us to the problem I am raising: if there is no 'all at once' (or “absolute time”) in which diverse things can happen, as ESR stipulates, then no identical event can happen in more than one frame of reference. Specifically, it is impossible, on a materialist reading of ESR, for one and the same constellation of spacetime (aka 'the same idea') to occur in more than one segment of 4DST. Yet, the entire point is that by instantiating analytic truths, and a the truth of ESR itself, we are instantiating entities which are identically true, and thus identical, in countless frames of reference all at once.

For a materialist, my memory of my seventh birthday can only occur at disparate times, because the so-called mental event of remembering it is limited by 4DST. The reason why no one can have my memory of my birthday party at the same time as I do, is because no one is coterminous with my aggregated share of spacetime. So, obviously, my memory cannot transcend spacetime, by, say, being entertained at once in my head and in a neutral simulator on a planet light years away, since my memory intrinsically happens in and by me. Of course, admitting this sort of limitation to “mental” events (phantasmata), like memories and sensations, is compatible with Aristhomism, since Thomistotelians grant that phantasmata are material, somatic events.

The real conflict comes in, however, when we speak of abstract truths. For if we deny these truths, as real events, can be perfectly and identically true everywhere and all at the same time, then we are exploding their intrinsic truthfulness. If I say my grasp of the unmarriedness of bachelors cannot be instantiated in an identically true fashion at all points in 4DST, then I am simply denying the truth that bachelors are unmarried. For, if in my frame of reference fr1 it is a true event (in my brain) that bachelors are unmarried, but in some distant frame of reference fr2 near Alpha Centauri the exact same mental event (about bachelors) cannot be occur at the same time, then I am just saying the proposition “bachelors are unmarried” (P-bu) is not always true, which of course completely misses the point of what an analytic truth is: namely, one that is always and everywhere true. If a materialist argues that analytic truths can't be true in more than one brain, like my memories of my childhood can't be in more than one place than in my head, then they are, again, just violating the meaning of analytic truth, reducing its universality to contingent occurrences in this or that place at this or that time. Analytic truths, as a class of abstract thought, are not subject to the same somatic limitations as phantasmata; otherwise they simply cease to be analytic. Denying the truth of analytic truths may be a way out for the materialist, but it seems a very high price to pay.

Nonetheless, it seems that not even the high price of denying analytic truths is sufficient to redeem materialism. For consider the claim of materialism itself (calling it proposition P-M): “Materialism is true, not only as we see things, but everywhere in the universe. It is true all over the cosmos that there are no immaterial realities.” That's easy enough to claim, but it once more raises the specter of incoherence in 4DST. If P-M is a material event in our frame of reference fr1, it automatically surpasses the bounds of fr1 by being 'occurrent-true' in all frames of reference frN. This is just what Aristhomism means by “spiritual” or “immaterial” reality: it is not subject to material limitations. Materialism may claim its truth holds at every point in the cosmos, but it thereby attains an immaterial transcendence of matter itself.

In the same way, ESR can only be true, despite our phenomenological failure to see empirically outside our frame of reference fr1, if at the same instant in which it is deployed an 'occurrent-truth' about corresponding realities in a different frame of reference frX grounds the deflationary impact ESR has on empirical phenomena in fr1. Whatever the empirical truth-making conditions tm-C (in frX) might be in order for a deflation of phenomena in fr1 to be true (based on ESR), we are simply unable to know them empirically in fr1––and yet we must simultaneously know that tm-C do ground ESR-deflations in fr1, otherwise ESR no longer really holds in fr1. In the same way that the occurrent-truth value of P-M entails its occurrent-truth in all frames of reference, so likewise the omni-spatiotemporal breadth of ESR (when combined with EGR) as a theoretical confinement to 4DST in and of itself entails transcendence of 4DST.

(As an aside, if a materialist retreated into a constructivist, as opposed to realist, reading of ESR-EGR, he would thereby undercut the empirical support materialism has traditionally invoked from ESR-EGR. If ESR-EGR is just a convenient series of operations which we use in fr1, devoid of any objective truth value in the cosmos as such, then materialism cannot draw upon the empirical findings of ESR-EGR to ground a materialistic confinement to 4DST based on ESR-EGR.)

Meanwhile, an Aristhomist can reconcile the seeming paradoxes of 4DST-transcendent abstraction by invoking at least some immaterial reality. ESR and EGR can be true “all at once” since their nature qua abstract truths never takes place “over time.” The truth of ESR-EGR are instantaneous truths about non-instantaneous entity-events. If they were not true “the whole world over,” then they would ipso facto no longer pose a threat to the omnitemporality of abstract thought, and thus post no threat to immateriality as such. Abstract truth is not a physically coherent, quantifiable reality limited to 4DST––but no less real for being superphysical. Reality, in other words, is not simply physical and thus not simply material. Ergo, on a realist reading of ESR-EGR, materialism is false.


Mike L said...

If I say my grasp of the unmarriedness of bachelors cannot be instantiated in an identically true fashion at all points in 4DST, then I am simply denying the truth that bachelors are unmarried.

That doesn't seem quite right to me. If two different events in 4DST fall under the same physical laws--e.g., my dropping my coffee mug onto my lap at 3PM, and my dropping it onto my lap at 5PM--then it is just as true to say at 3PM as at 5PM that gravity pulled my coffee mug down onto my lap, even though they are two different events in 4DST. Similarly, asserting at 5PM that all bachelors are unmarried is relevantly the same as asserting it at 3PM, even though they are different events in 4DST. For both assertions are true.

The Cogitator said...


Nice to have you commenting on my blog rather than the usual vice versa! I have arrived, heheh.

Your point is well taken and I will ponder it more. But for now my initial "gut-reaction" is to say two things.

1. It is an inchoate impression on my part that analytic truths are true in a way that statements about coffee mugs aren't, namely, true even when unactualized. It is a time-indexed truth in fr1, and only after 3PM, that your mug fell at 3PM. But in frZ (say in the farthest reaches of outer space), it is "not yet" true that your mug fell, let alone exists. So, the falling of your cup is, I grant, a truth confined to 4DST, but not the kind of truth I'm focusing on in opposition to materialism.

It is only true after 3PM that "your coffee mug fell at 3PM," whereas analytic truths seem to be true even before specific cases of them obtain, since they are the logical conditions under which relevant specific cases can occur. E.g., it could never be true of the pencil on my desk that a segment of it is not larger than the whole pencil unless it were already true, even prior to there being pencils, that "no part is greater than the whole."

2. It also seems too Newtonian to say gravity "pulled" your mug down, since EGR redefined the "force" of gravity merely as the total 'texture' and 'shape' of spacetime. Hence, at 3PM what actually happened is that one segment, mereologically speaking, of atomic spacetime (aST) warped another segment (i.e., your lap) and then at "5PM"––which, on EGR, is just shorthand for a totally different portion of spacetime––a different patch of aST warped a different patch. So it's not obviously true that either statement is true according to EGR, nor that either is true in the same way, since their disparate positions in spacetime require that they be different objects. Again, EGR says that object O at time t1 is materially different from object "O" at time t2. Their difference in time is just the flipside of their separation in space. Therefore, only if your mug could be wholly at two points in spacetime could it be true of one and the same mug that "it" fell at 3PM and at 5PM.

Unless all the atoms in your lap and your mug were preserved, it seems we are implicitly smuggling in substantial forms (Mike Liccione, coffee cups, etc.) in order to fix our referents in your thought experiments. But that kind of smuggling just seems to give the game away, once more, in favor of at least some kind of immaterialism.

Now, if, in an attempt to obviate the need for substantial forms, "you" and "your coffee cup" are construed as just convenient (Saussurean-arbitrary) lexical 'terms' for otherwise ungainly patches of aST, then that seems to drag ESR-EGR once more into the quagmire of constructivism.

Again, though, your point is well taken, and is just the sort of feedback I am looking for.


Agellius said...

I get ... MOST of it!

One thing I don't get is, what do you mean by "deflate"?

The Cogitator said...


By 'deflate' I just mean that ESR-EGR burst our everyday bubble about what our immedaite perceptions tell us about spacetime. ESR-EGR "deflates" ordinary phenomenology (redundant?) by saying, "Well, to the untrained eye, it looks like the sun sets, but actually, etc. etc." Theory thus deflates perception.


Agellius said...

In that case I now get it completely! Not really. But I do believe I get your point, and don't see any way of refuting it -- not that my being unable to refute it is saying much.

One sentence still puzzles me. I think you might have an extra word and/or a word missing here:

"(2) that our grasp of ESR as a cosmic truth defies the limitations of 4DST by virtue of the fact that we simultaneously 'deflate' naïve phenomenological observations in light of the reality of cosmic behind 'behind the phenomena' in a different frame of reference"

Your response to Mike's comment is also an eye-opener for me. I didn't realize that according to EGR, a coffee mug (or whatever) does not even remain the same object from one time to another in space-time. Am I understanding right, that this is because atoms are constantly departing from one object and latching onto another? Therefore it's not the same "group of atoms" at a later time? If so then it seems you must be right, that the only way we can truthfully call it the same object is by invoking (immaterial) substantial forms. Cool!

The Cogitator said...


Yes, I left out the word "events" or "phenomena" after "cosmic" in the sentence you quoted.

The problem of objects in EGR is partially atomic, since it is an empirical fact that "atoms come and go." But another facet of the problem is just that an object, even if not considered atomically--but, say, as a complex of an energy pattern and coordinates in spacetime--simply never has objective permanence in time and space, and thus in its material reality, by virtue of the fact that time and space are constantly "shifting" out from under it. Only if we imagine natural entities as "realized software" (a la James Ross) can we imagine the same *formal* entity wholly existing under different material conditions.