Friday, April 22, 2011

Materialists aren't materialists.

We don't live in a "materialist" society.  The prevailing views about what's real in the world are not based on a materialist philosophy, but on an inverted kind of transcendence, the decaying legacy of an ancient metaphorical, conceptual separation of heaven and earth. (This separation has evolved over history, but I'm starting with its most recent incarnation.)

So, what is inverted transcendence? Think of it this way. Since ancient times, we have believed that the most knowable is the most real. The most profound way we have of knowing our world comes through the use of concepts and mathematics. Concepts and mathematical relationships describing nature are idealizations of patterns of regularity that we find in nature. 

To get objective about nature, we have to arrange it so it fits our conceptual and mathematical tools, our idealizations of it. This has proven very successful in areas where researchers can control and eliminate local contingencies to get to the universally constant laws (such as laws of motion.) This is what allows people to build reliable machines. However, not all of nature is amenable to this approach to research (unless you think that nature is "nothing but" particles in motion; i.e., unless you privilege that one scale of things and stamp it with the label, Reality, and talk of building blocks, putting the methodological cart firmly before the ontological horse as is the wont of reductionists...) 

Nature is not just particles in motion, it exists on many scales - it is ecosystems, tectonic plates smashing together, the act of breathing, rustling leaves, strange creatures swimming by vents in the ocean floor, reproducing, etc.  These things have power to make changes in the world. Not all causality occurs at the level of sub atomic particles. 

One cannot locate and eliminate local contingencies and make rigorously controlled experiments when studying human behaviour and other phenomena. All natural phenomena are complex.  Human beings reduce natural phenomena to idealized mathematical objects, quantities and relations - particles in motion governed by natural laws. 

So, from a scientific perspective, the matter we call objective reality is a conceptually reduced scale of existence - a useful idealization. Note the absence of any value ideal in those mathematical idealizations, though. Nature, as seen through the reductionist lens, has no purpose. So what are we transcending with our idealizations of matter? Our vitality? Our lived experiences? Our woes and joys? Certainly there is joy in the act of genuine discovery, but that's peripheral to the reductionistic project. More and more people talk of the next stage of evolution as a cyborg society, to my mind a symptom of the nihilism in the project. Even basic drive is purpose. Even this nihilism is purpose.

So what is inverted transcendence, as distinguished from materialism? Painted in an extreme kind of way, I'd say an inverted transcendence is one which focuses on reduced idealized matter, not on nature, and has as its point the reduction and idealization of nature, and the subjection of our human interests and cares to that model.  Or perhaps I could put it this way: Heaven and earth became separated and nature was reduced to an idealized inert matter. It was virginalized. Next, heaven was eliminated from the picture of how the world is,  leaving us with laws of nature or what Sheldrake calls "the ghost of the god of the world machine." (Have a listen to Minute 13:30 to 15:30 of his CBC podcast. I'm deeply skeptical of many of Sheldrake's explanations, but like his questions.)

Having shied from understanding material nature in its richness, we're not really asking or learning about ourselves in a way that situates us in nature, where we might gather the learning we need to adjust and make the right decisions. There is a loss of meaning. Meanwhile, we're inundated with products. We're all dressed up with nowhere to go, except to an ecological tipping point.

I don't think the solution to this strange nihilism is to reinstate some kind of theological or platonic heaven but to heal the split and come back to earth. To do that, we need to find a new way of looking at matter, while questioning what it is we wish to transcend.

Matter is not inert.


  1. You've raised several questions, and you've also, it seems to me, weighed in on a terminological dispute; let me address the latter first, in order to make clearer what I will say about the former.

    Your claim that "materialists aren't materialists" reminds me of the claim by phenomenologists that they are "the real empiricists". Taking up the founding assumptions of Empiricism, they then accused Empiricism of having betrayed them. Are you doing a similar thing in denying materialism to Materialists? If so, then this is a terminological dispute, meaning that its upshot can only be a change of terminology. I.e., if the people calling themselves Materialists were called instead Naive Idealists, or some other phrase, their claims would still have to be addressed separetely; or their claims would stand as they are, called collectively by this other name. If their claims are wrong, this dispute will not set things to rights.

    Now it should be said that "materialism" as a system of ideas has served philosophy well, in that it has drawn out a bond fide dispute over content: the corrupted idea of earth or matter of which you are critical is at stake, along with other claims of which I am particularly critical--the reduction of subjectivity to an activity or a process, first of all.

    What confuses me at this point is why you'd want to challenge BOTH the label "materialist" AND the content of what a reformed materialism would mean. I'd understand if you considered yourself a True Materialist and wanted these usurpers cast out; but it seems that, having cast them out, you would then abandon those who remained, in order to take up your own position, which seems to be a kind of Monism.

    There's another wrinkle in the terminology I must address: Living in a materialist society doesn't mean living according to "materialism" the philosophy; it means living in a grasping, rapacious society obsessed with possessions. The latter doesn't follow from the former, and I would argue forcefully against any suggestion that it did (should the need arise).

    Another terminological issue relates to "transcendence". In one sense, a transcendnet object is just one that isn't part of the subject. In another, there is the suggestion of rising higher, to some better, finer plane of existence. In any case, I'm confused by your use of the term.

    Sorry I have to cut this off now, I'll try to return later today or tomorrow. Interesting post--I haven't even really gotten to the substance of it yet, but I promise I will....

  2. Hi Patrick, thanks for taking the time to respond. You raise some good questions. This helps me to clarify things.

    Q1: If the people calling themselves Materialists were called instead Naive Idealists, or some other phrase, their claims would still have to be addressed separately.

    I don’t think I was so much reframing and clarifying the positions explicit in reductionist materialism but those implicit assumptions that belie it as something down to earth. It’s not down to earth.

    My objective is not so much cataloguing substances or coming up with an ontological model, but looking at our catalogues as maps of our world view, performing an archaeology of thought. There is an instinctive divide between heavenly and earthly. Materialists are thought to be on the earthly side of things, but my position is that our models have tended to divest matter of itself.

    Q2. Why would you want to challenge BOTH the label "materialist" AND the content of what a reformed materialism would mean?

    In the last paragraph above, I said I wasn’t trying to come up with an ontological model, but that’s not entirely true. Part of what I’m aiming at here is to try to understand, eventually, what a non-reductive materialism would look like. Even the words “emergence” and “complexity” only make sense as rising out of a particle-building-block model, for instance. But the real answer to your question here is that I’d hope that people come to better understand ourselves as living in nature.

    Q3 Living in a materialist society doesn't mean living according to "materialism" the philosophy; it means living in a grasping, rapacious society obsessed with possessions. The latter doesn't follow from the former, and I would argue forcefully against any suggestion that it did.

    Of course you’re right. It was more of a rhetorical hook and perhaps it came off as a red herring. No, it doesn’t follow directly, but I think that our grasping society and our reductive materialism both come from a long history of the disparagement of matter. As one theorist said (I’ll see if I can find the reference), what we repress comes back to haunt us in its dark aspect. So there’s the North Pacific garbage patch and other horrific signs of our imbalance with nature - actually, these are not just signs.

    Q4 Re: "transcendence". There is the suggestion of rising higher, to some better, finer plane of existence. In any case, I'm confused by your use of the term.

    It’s an allusion to the instinctive divide between heavenly and earthly. (In cryptic short form, I’m not talking about ontic categories, but diagramming our ontic bee-dance that informs/misinforms us about nature, how we are in relation to nature, how we are supposed to relate ourselves and our institutions in the world to get what we need from it, distribute it, and renew it (or cast it away.) I intend to write a lot on this later.)

  3. Amanda. Is all reductionism bad? Aren't we being reductionists when we say that the morning-star and evening-star are one? Or that lightning is, after all, electricity?

    In my view reductionism is only bad if it slights the phenomenon in question. Consciousness isn't reducible to functions because there's something it's like to be an experiencing subject, and no synthesis of functions can add up to something it's like--only "what is", "what happens".

    Insofar as there are patterns, regularities, why don't those indicate unities? There are many kinds of flowers but they are all organs of reproduction; there are many species of animal but they all metabolize food; and so on. Isn't this reduction of many appearances to a common evolutionary history and common types?

    Are there really not laws of nature? Isn't there a problem with this, to wit: If nature is spontaneous and not subject to laws, then why is there regularity and patterns?

  4. Reductionism means mistaking your mental categories for the dynamic phenomena of the world. You can apply categories as heuristics, note patterns, and come up with some awesome predictions. This becomes odious when people feel the ancient need to posit some uniquely corresponding eternal unchanging being or essence that the concept is supposed to represent - because from there, they start getting very insistent about there being one true methodology-conflated-with-ontology (i.e., the model of the "building block") and close off a lot of avenues of inquiry. Consider that everything is symbiotic and nothing is "in itself" for all things rely on a web of interactions to be itself (including us.) These webs aren't necessarily law-governed (after Kauffman), but they are ordered. Everything has many layers of implications.

  5. So you don't consider it reductionism to explain a complex process in terms of simple interactions? Or do you deny that such a thing exists at all?

    I'm also not clear on whether you think there are natural laws or not. When we "do physics" and generalize about phenomena and use these generalizations to make predictions, why don't you consider those generalizations natural laws? Or do you? Why would you expect science to do anything more?

    You mentioned eternal, unchanging essences, but I don't see the connection between that and reductionism. When people say biology reduces to chemistry, or chemistry reduces to physics, what is eternal and unchanging?

    And how can something be ordered but not law-governed? Doesn't order MEAN regularity? And aren't the laws of nature the structure of those regularities?

    I'm also not sure whether you're criticizing science, philosophy, culture, or all three. I don't know what's wrong with using science to make predictions, or what we could expect besides predictions.

  6. To explain a complex process in terms of simple interactions AND to conclude from the success of certain mechanical experiments that this is the only way to explain things properly is what I call reductionism. This approach relies on very selective classifications of objects to the point that their individual identity is irrelevant since any one can stand in for any other (e.g., carbon atom). These classes or essences are a result of the project of trying to explain nature in terms of universal laws, because that requires finding things whose identities rely on the fewest and most easily manipulable conditions. So we say those are the most real (because we think the real = the intelligible.) Their membership in the classes we have defined is the least affected by contingencies beyond our control.

    Before I address whether there are natural laws, what in your view is the ontological status of a law of nature?

  7. In light of your description of reductionism I will have to use scare-quotes around it, since this isn't at all what I have in mind when I defend reductionism. It isn't, in my view, a general philosophy or approach to nature or problems. I can understand, for instance, your insistence (though I disagree with it) that phenomena observed at different scales are not translatable into one another; biology is not fully reducible to chemistry, for instance, you will say. But if NOTHING can reduce to anything else, then I don't see how we can ever make general statements about anything.

    I must object, again, to your saying that "we think the real = the intelligible". *I* certainly don't think that, and I don't think there's a consensus that that's true. Plato may have said it (do you remember where?) but if it's true, it needs an explicit defense. On the other hand, you sometimes seem to be mocking or satirizing this view, which suggests you think reductionists believe the real is the intelligible, but in that case I'm not sure why you don't attack it.

    Regarding natural laws, I consider them descriptions of the regularity of what appears. The variety of experience, I think, comes from the complexity of these regularities, not from deviations from regularity or from randomness or spontaneity. In fact, I hope to demonstrate in the course of this that these ideas are really confusions. The nature of a thing IS how it appears, what it appears along with, what it does when it appears, etc. The synthesis of all these natures is Nature. (Sorry, having to cut this rather short, but will continue over the weekend.)

  8. Critiquing the real = the intelligible is not a one-shot exercise. It requires a reframing of the narrative, not something I can accomplish alone, but something I hope to contribute to. The real = the intelligible is very much in evidence in responses such as Dawkins' to Sheldrake's when he rejects Sheldrake's research questions based on his belief that if we were to admit such things as premonition into our descriptions of nature, "we would have to rewrite the laws of nature." The project of creating some great architecture of unassailable definitions which philosophers tend to engage in is further evidence of this equation. The world is not some great categorical architecture, as we are wont to believe.

  9. A language is unintelligible if I can't understand it, though I hear it.

    Isn't the unintelligible that whose meaning I don't grasp? If I observe people or animals doing things and I don't yet see what they hope to achieve by it, I'm observing the unintelligible, whose reality I grant by the act of asking what it means. I see people making strange gestures and I later discover they are doing tai-chi; I see a dog running back and forth across a field and later I discover that he's retrieving ducks; or, I never discover the reason, and it remains unintelligible. I discover a molecule that controls reproduction in living things, but only later do I learn that each codon selects an amino acid from the cell to attach to others, forming a protein. When it was just a molecule somehow involved in reproduction, its actions were unintelligible but real.

    Some of your critiques are not specific enough for me to say much about. "The world is not some great categorical architecture" doesn't really take a position on anything. Anyone would readily admit that, so no critique is possible. Of course you mean much more than this, but the question is what, specifically.

    I'm not familiar with Sheldrake's research, but on the surface, Dawkins' statement is not wrong. IF we discovered premonition that was extra-sensory (i.e., not just picking up on subtle cues from the environment), then we WOULD have to go back and rewrite a lot of things we think we have discovered to be true. But isn't this very unlikely? Wasn't there a time when premonition was taken very seriously, and didn't this idea "fail" to be borne out in experience when it was tried in a controlled way?

    If you're saying that we SHOULDN'T rewrite the laws of nature when we encounter something that contradicts what we've seen before, why not? Or, if you're saying we should never have written anything in the first place, such that it should ever demand to be rewritten, then aren't you saying we shouldn't do science anymore, since that's how it works: we generalize the findings of induction, and use these to predict new outcomes, by which these generalizations are either reinforced or contradicted, and so on. I think it's good that premonition is rejected as quackery; it saves a lot of people money (though some are still suckered into it at circuses and whatnot) and it frees up energy to be used to solve problems in a productive way.

    Likewise, with your point about what philosophers tend to do: of COURSE creating some great architecture of unassailable definitions would be undesirable, but whoever said it was unassailable? Philosophers routinely assail one another's definitions (as I have several of yours).

    One point I'm not clear on is whether your reforms would apply to philosophy, science, culture, or all three. I can't really conceive of how science could be done differently from how it is done, except by going backwards, to the time when reason was elevated far above observation, which I don't think is what you have in mind. When you say science makes excellent predictions or helps us build impressive machines, shouldn't we be satisfied with that, and leave the philosophizing to ourselves?

  10. In response,

    The real is the intelligible is the western ontic stance, which I have caricatured in the phrase, "the world is some great categorical architecture." It is not the state of our understanding.

    I am a great fan of science but I think its sphere of explanation is actually limited, because our ontology is unnecessarily limited. I would like to see a science that is able to explain more, rather than writing off anything it can't currently explain as mystical.

    What's the investment in the talk of of what something is ad nauseum, if we didn't think the world to be some great categorical architecture (i.e., have an ontology that equated the most real with the most intelligible)? The hope is that our definitions would be unassailable, which is why we keep trying.

    Your last question - I am not interested in playing nice with the narrative habits of the historical canon so you'll have to step back from that if you want to see where I'm going. But it's definitely not backwards.

  11. I'm not sure the question of what's "most real" is even meaningful. Are you? In my view, we learn "reality vs. illusion" in experience; these labels refer to types of experiences, misleading ones (ones that cause you to falsely anticipate subsequent ones) and indicative ones that allow you to anticipate what is coming next. I don't think "What is most real?" is a question with a determined answer.

    It's certainly not the case that anyone who does ontology thinks the real is the intelligible. I'm very much interested in what exists, and what it means to exist, and I'm not preoccupied with what's real. Every experience is real as an experience; interpretations can be right or wrong. Where in that scheme can there ever be anything "more real" or "less real"?

    Now, concerning science, of COURSE it's sphere of explanation is limited, by design. Is that a bad thing, in your view? What I was trying to get at in my last paragraph is I don't know what your overall "reform" is aimed at. It's one thing to have views on philosophy, and to offer them; but you seem to be calling into question whether we should be doing philosophy. At least, as I would recognize it.

  12. We may not talk about what's most real the way that Plato, the progenitor of the idea that the real=the intelligible did, but we certainly like to reduce things to their "fundamentals" and assume that explanation comes in terms of the more fundamental.

    I'm not doing philosophy as an academic discipline. I don't want to restrict myself to addressing the problems emerging out of that venerable canon since they've become rather ill-framed and misleading or overly narrow and simply irrelevant.