Thursday, December 15, 2016

Materialism Is Quaint And So Ignorant Of Its Own Nature - Reposted

The death of my nephew has put me off of writing for now.  Perhaps if I felt inclined I could come up with an entertaining response to the atheist dolts who snarked stupidly at what I said the other day about how reading had led me out of the pose of agnosticism.  And a pose agnosticism is.  If agnostics and the atheists which most of them really are applied their demanded standards of "objectivity", "knowledge", that intentionally never to be found "evidence" atheists are always demanding, only to reject as it is provided and, most absurdly of all "proof" to anything else, including the science they set up as an idol instead of an academic discipline, they couldn't get through an hour, never mind a day.

Well, there are more days to be gotten through, this is one of them.  Luckily, I said a lot of it before.

Revised and updated below 

Listening to the "Moving Naturalism Forward" discussions, one of the most striking things is how entirely old fashioned it is.   For a group that includes physicists and philosophers, it's as if the last century of revelation in the limits of knowledge never happened.    It doesn't take into consideration the fact that even the most allegedly objective "view of nature" that scientists could possibly obtain is anything but objective.  It is inescapable that all of human perception, all of human thought, all of human culture, including science, is inescapably governed by and controlled by the peculiar limits of   the human beings producing it.   There is no such a thing as an objective, direct observation or analysis of nature.  This has been known to be an inescapable limit on what science can tell us for most of a century.

An early encounter of ideological materialism with this fact can be found in Bertrand Russell's review of Arthur Stanley Eddingon's The Nature of the Physical World, the text of Eddington's  Gifford Lectures given in 1926-27.   Russell's review, titled The Twilight Of Science:  Is The Universe Running Down, is a remarkably bitter document.   It begins:

It is a curious fact that just when the man in the street has begun to believe thoroughly in science, the man in the laboratory has begun to lose his faith. When I was young, no physicist entertained the slightest doubt that the laws of physics give us real information about the motions of bodies, and that the physical world does really consist of the sort of entities that appear in the physicist's equations. The philosophers, it is true, throw doubt upon this view, and have done so ever since the time of Berkeley; but since their criticism never attached itself to any point in the detailed procedure of science, it could be ignored by scientists and was in fact ignored. Nowadays matters are quite different; the revolutionary ideas of the philosophy of physics have come from the physicists themselves and are the outcome of careful experiments. The new philosophy of physics is humble and stammering where the old philosophy was proud and dictatorial. It is, I suppose, natural to every man to fill the vacuum left by the disappearance of belief in physical laws as best he may, and to use for this purpose any odds and ends of unfounded belief which had previously no room to expand. When the robustness of the Catholic faith decayed at the time of the Renaissance, it tended to be replaced by astrology and necromancy, and in like manner we must expect the decay of the scientific faith to lead to a recrudescence of pre-scientific superstitions.

I read the review before I read Eddington's lectures and the contrast in tone couldn't be more obvious.   Eddington, the foremost English astro-physicist of his day, who certainly had more of a professional investment in the reputation of physics as providing an absolute view of nature, took the fact that it can't with remarkable tranquility,  But is was Russell, the professional mathematician and logician, who was left sourly announcing the possible "twilight" of humanities's scientific project.  The obvious reason for that is Russell's thorough materialism as compared to Eddington's Quakerism.   Russell was left with nothing once his faith in science and his faith in the asolutely objective view it provides of the material universe, was obliterated by science.  If the view of the universe provided by science isn't absolutely and objectively representative, then it is just another peculiarly human conception of uneven accuracy, not possibly attaining a status as absolute knowledge.  It is clear that was what Russell's shattered faith in science was,  in the wake of his reading of Eddington's lectures, by his comparison of its status with that of Catholicism in the wake of the reformation.

I was brought up to have great regard for Bertrand Russell, he was one of the heroes of my early adulthood for his anti-nuclear and political activities, both of which Eddington, as a Quaker, would have likely approved.  I read many of Russell's books, relying on his "A History of Western Philosophy" as a sort of jumping off point to read various philosophers, probably avoiding some of those who he clearly disdained*.   I was entertained by his anti-religious invective, his delightful recounting of the sins of popes and prelates, an apostate Catholic as entertained  by them as any atheist would be.  But, as time went on,  I came to see that what Russell said was often not dependable.  It was cultural lore told from his ideological interests and his thoroughly conventional British academic atheism.   He was a subtle ideologue as old line British academic atheists often were, but an ideologue, nonetheless. As I've grown older and have read more of what he wrote, I've become quite disillusioned with Russell who I've come to see as undergoing a crisis from the time of his reading of Eddington and the subsequent disappointments from the damage done by Godel and others to  his mathematical and logical work.  As many know, Godel destroyed the possibility of an informed person believing that mathematics or logic could have a self-consistent absolute foundation, which was what Russell and his teacher Alfred North Whitehead had tried to achieve in their enormous intellectual effort, the Principia Mathematica.  Noting in passing that Godel was also a Christian seems to me to be of possible relevance to Russell's subsequent writing.

Moving Naturalism Forward's website, which I assume was written by Sean Carroll, who convened the workshop, or, at least, under his oversight, contains this opening declaration:

Over four centuries of scientific progress have convinced most professional philosophers and scientists of the validity of naturalism: the view that there is only one realm of existence, the natural world, whose behavior can be studied through reason and empirical investigation. The basic operating principles of the natural world appear to be impersonal and inviolable; microscopic constituents of inanimate matter obeying the laws of physics fit together in complex structures to form intelligent, emotive, conscious human beings.

The idea that there is "only one realm of existence" is certainly not peculiar to scientistic atheism, it is certainly older than the declaration in the first sentence of Genesis.  From the beginning of recorded human thought a far more expansive view of that "one realm" was asserted than the view  contemporary atheism does.  In one of the many, many ironies of addressing this situation, it is the religious view of the universe that is definitely not anthropocentric, as is so often accused, in that it assigns the superior knowledge of the universe to God who is not human.  It is atheism in many of its forms which assumes that human beings have the most nearly godlike view of the universe.

The "naturalists'" declaration continues,  ".... one realm of existence, the natural world, whose behavior can be studied through reason and empirical investigation".   Something has been left out of this assertion, but more of that in a second.  What is peculiar about this declaration is that it defines the "one realm of existence" as being what is "studied through reason and empirical investigation"**.   What is left out is the fact that it is a group of human beings, using human perceptions and tools of human culture who are doing the reasoning and the empirical investigation.   That particular human beings are the one and only source of that, they are the source of it.  "Empirical investigation" isn't an exact, accurate and comprehensive view of "existence", it is, exactly, done through human observation, that fact means that it is limited by the abilities the humans making the observation, and the limits of the analysis of that experience they apply to it at the time the investigation is reported.  To ignore those facts in order to declare some kind of absolute status of reality for that report is to impose a level of unreliability on it.   It is defined by and limited by its source. That is an inescapable fact.

What we can know, absolutely, is extremely limited.   Worse than that what we can know absolutely is entirely personal and, so, would almost certainly be demoted by these same people to the disrepute of "subjectivity".  Again, Eddington knew this.

It is difficult for the matter-of-fact physicist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of mental character. But no one can deny that mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience, and all else is remote inference — inference either intuitive or deliberate. Probably it would never have occurred to us (as a serious hypothesis) that the world could be based on anything else, had we not been under the impression that there was a rival stuff with a more comfortable kind of "concrete" reality — something too inert and stupid to be capable of forging an illusion. The rival turns out to be a schedule of pointer readings; and though a world of symbolic character can well be constructed from it, this is a mere shelving of the inquiry into the nature of the world of experience. 

It is as close to an absolute fact as we can possibly have that our experience of our individual mind is the first and most direct reality available to us.   From that fact all other perceptions, observations, analyses, ideas and socially agreed to "laws" are secondary inferences.

This passage, as usually quoted usually ends with the words "all else is remote inference".  But that leaves out that it is part of a passage that must have sent Bertrand Russell into a state of despair, a long discussion of the inescapable remoteness of physics from the object of its study, the physical universe.   In rather exhaustively pointing out problems with the idea that physics can provide a direct view of the material universe that is not fundamentally and inevitably influenced by the minds of the people who are looking at it and writing about it.

In the next decades Eddington went much farther and pointed out that what could be said of the human view of the universe was also true of the physical laws that people invent to try to generalize  the conditions of the physical universe.

Eighteen years ago I was responsible for a remark which has often been quoted:

"It is one thing for the human mind to extract from the phenomena of nature the laws which it has itself put into them; it may be a far harder thing to extract laws over which it has had no control It is even possible that laws which have not their origin in the mind may be irrational and we can never succeed in formulating them."

This seems to be coming true, though not in the way that then suggested itself. I had in mind the phenomena of quanta and atomic physics, which at that time completely baffled our efforts to formulate a rational system of law. It was already apparent that the principle laws of molar physics were mind-made — the result of the sensory and intellectual equipment through which we derive our observational knowledge — and were not laws of governance of the objective universe. The suggestion was that in quantum theory we for the first time came up against the true laws of governance of the objective universe. If so, the task was presumably much more difficult than merely rediscovering our own frame of thought”.

Since then microscopic physics has made great progress, and its laws have turned out to be comprehensible to the mind; but, as I have endeavored to show, it also turns out that they have been imposed by the mind — by our forms of thought — in the same way that the molar laws are imposed…

A. S. Eddington The Physical Universe: The Philosophy of Physical Science

If the "empirical investigation" is mitigated by it being the product of human minds, the laws derived from those investigations can't, then, be detached from the conditions limiting those investigations.   It is a fact that laws, believed before the early 20th century to be a direct and absolute part of the physical universe, were, in fact, not the last word.  The habits of science that were built up before that revolution in scientists understanding the nature of science in the one and only context in which it exists, would seem to still govern the "naturalistic" ideologues thinking.  Naturalistic thinking which, inescapbly imposes its peculiar limits and conditions on their thinking.   This means that the very laws of physics exist within the limits of human minds.   Ignoring this fact that has been known since the 1930s,  materialism, naturalism, scientism, and most of atheism is left to attacking the very basis from which their great oracle of revelation speaks.  One of the discussions of the great minds of naturalism gathered together by Carroll is premised on what is, inescapably a circular discussion

Free will. If people are collections of atoms obeying the laws of physics, is it sensible to say that they make choices?

As always with ideologues of materialism, they assume that they are exempt from the very conditions imposed by their ideology.  The very source of the "laws of physics" are human minds.  Those "laws" must, inevitably, be restricted by the source that it is derived from.    But, it is clear, they insist on making those minds inferior to their products, "laws",  which depend, in their entirety, on the minds creating them.  Though, clearly, not the minds of these collected, "naturalistic" thinkers engaged in this weird circling spiral down some reductionist drain.  At least that's what they seem to believe.

Note:  You will have to forgive me for pointing out, again, that I once got Sean Carroll to answer a question during a long argument about whether or not physics was on the verge of having a "theory of everything".   It is something I'm rather proud of having gotten after many, many days of trying to get it.

I'll make a deal,if Sean will answer the question I put to him, I won't post another comment here. Is there a single object that physics knows comprehensively and exhaustively?

Sean Carroll said, Anthony @ 21: "No."  Thanks for commenting.

Considering the context of the two brawls on his blog in which the question was posed, I'm not convinced his thanks were sincere.   I believe at least two rather involved posts he wrote were in response to my question, including the one in which he gave me his one and only response.

If physics doesn't have a complete theory of even one object in the physical universe the idea that it has even a remote prospect of having a "theory of everything" is absurd on its face.  The earlier of the blog brawls linked to above was entitled "Stephen Hawking Settles the God Question Once and For All".   So, having to admit that physics, the science that Carroll's naturalism seems to see as the foundation of everything, including human experience, doesn't fully understand even the most pedestrian object in the universe believes that it can settle questions about God who is not a part of the physical universe.

I can see how a physicist, whose sense of personal worth and whatever fame and regard he has obtained depends on the status of physics, would insist on everyone believing that physics is the ultimate attainment of human culture.  I don't see how they can be allowed to ignore the past century of discoveries in obtaining a clearer picture of physics' place in reality.  The hangers on in philosophy and mathematics at that gathering should certainly know better.   Eddington, in his Swathmore Lecture,  Science and the Unseen World said:

Although I am rather in sympathy with this criticism of theology, I am not ready to press it to an extreme. In this lecture I have for the most part identified science with the physical science. This is not solely because it is the only side for which I can properly speak. But because it is generally agreed that physical science comes nearest to that complete system of exact knowledge which all sciences have before them as an ideal. Some fall far short of it. The physicist who inveighs against the lack of coherence and the indefiniteness of theological theories, will probably speak not much less harshly of the theories of biology and psychology. They also fail to come up to his standard of methodology. On the other side of him stands an even superior being – the pure mathematician – who has no high opinion of the methods of deduction used in physics, and does not hide his disapproval of the laxity of what is accepted as proof in physical science. And yet somehow knowledge grows in all of these branches. Wherever a way opens we are impelled to seek by the only methods that can be devised for that particular opening, not over-rating the security of our finding, but conscious that in this activity of mind we are obeying the light that is in our nature.

Perhaps it is understandable that his Quaker modesty isn't popular with many of our academics today.  They're only human, after all.

* Henri Bergson was one who I've come to be more interested in.  I would like to know more about what Russell said about Alfred North Whitehead's developed philosophical ideas, other than the Principia but am probably too old to go through the thorny books.  I'm rather resentful for Russell's ideological misrepresentations that dissuaded me from looking earlier.

**  UPDATE:  Beginning by declaring that all reality is contained in what is susceptible to  what "can be studied through reason and empirical investigation" is the central intellectual dishonesty of many species of scientistic atheism.  It isn't an identification of what is real, it's a boundary line of what it is permitted, a restriction on what is allowed to be real.   As with the attitude of logical positivism, it is a scholastic effort made to outlaw ideas through definition.   It is a demonstration of the amazing hubris which has long infected the culture of science and other academic areas as science has gained in repute, to often irrationally overtake other areas of the study of human experience.  Eventually, as that attitude becomes ingrained, it has a real effect in what is regarded as science and it becomes as much a pollutant in the products of academic culture as any of the now discontinued dogmas of science such as the aether or the now discredited theories of light or human behavior.
There is no reason, outside of the most basic and unfounded belief in the potency of human abilities, to believe that all of reality is susceptible to human "reason and empirical investigation".  Scientists and their fans often leave out the word "human" from that kind of construction, pretending that science, reason, and empirical investigation have some kind of disembodied, Platonic existence when they are absolutely human activities, science being nothing other than a human invention.  Pointing out that science is a human invention has provoked many, many objections from atheists.  It's as if they believe it is the gift of gods that they don't believe in.


  1. Wherever a way opens we are impelled to seek by the only methods that can be devised for that particular opening, not over-rating the security of our finding, but conscious that in this activity of mind we are obeying the light that is in our nature.

    Why did the drunk look for his lost keys under the lamp? Because the light was so much better there.

    I don't think Russell ever got over the failure of his logical positivism. It is the only school of philosophical thought to be considered at first sound and new, and then to be so utterly destroyed. What Godel didn't bury, Wittgenstein did. And it's interesting how many of Eddington's remarks echo Wittgenstein's remarks about the physical world and even mathematics.

    And whenever I ask a materialist to explain love, the best I get is a reductio argument that ends with the conclusion I am suffering from an illusion, some sort of internal error. Of course, the very idea I have an "internal" is a cultural assumption that really started with Augustine's Confessions; and yet we have built a "science" on it; in fact, we've built all of science on it (How else can we fail to accept the "evidence" of our senses? What else justifies the rigorousness of scientific analysis?).

    One does not say these things are wrong to say these things are human; and it's entirely as mystical to say one can know the presence of God as to say, with Carl Sagan, that we are "star stuff" which has "evolved" enough to be aware of the universe.

    That's line of reasoning is just substituting terms.

  2. "To which the short answer is, I don't know, I wasn't there, I can't help feel it's none of my business."

    The 'none of my business' part is the unintentionally funniest thing I have read this year.

  3. I read or heard somewhere about Patrica and Paul Churchland the really hair-brained Canadian philosophy couple famous for their "neurophilosphy" talking about their relationship in terms of their mechanistic, mind-denying atheist-materialist philosophical babble, maybe I should look it up, I'll bet it is truly stupid. I've heard her before and she is barely coherent, prone to lying about stuff and, really, gave me the impression of being in some state of dementia, I've never heard him or read much from him. And that's the kind of stuff that gains currency in atheist-academic circles.

    The longer I look at it, the more I think atheism is a symptom of decadence because the materialism it springs from can't but tear down any intellectual or academic standards or even distinctions. I think it's all a form of vulgar nihilism that would have horrified Nietzsche, though he certainly realized it was inevitable if you took materialism seriously.

    1. Daniel Dennett was taken seriously for a while, but he was a complete putz who boldly claimed he'd solved the conundrum of consciousness.

      None but the ignorant paid him any mind, and so he hitched his wagon to Hitchens and Dawkins star; which didn't even make him one of the horsemen of the Apocalypse.

      Hitchens is dead, nobody even on-line quotes his atheism anymore, Dawkins may be on Twitter but nobody reports on him since his male chauvinism and racism were widely examined, and Dennett apparently has gone silent.

      Some of it is materialism; some of it is just sheer foolishness.