Non Fiction

Materialism and Ignorance

Materialists conclude that nothing exists except for matter, hence, they assert that consciousness is wholly due to material functions within the brain, and they object to the “duality” of body and mind propounded by Descartes and theologians before him as completely fictitious.  This is the very purpose of eliminative materialism as philosopher Paul Churchland’s answer to reductive materialism, because the latter, according to Churchland, relies on human “folk psychology”.  Folk psychology is just another way of saying that human knowledge of how our mind works has been based upon misconceptions and limitations in human experience (just as humans used to mistake natural phenomenon for the wrath of God) which Churchland explains by listing mistaken scientific discoveries in the Enlightenment that have been debunked in the modern age.  Thomas Nagel on the other hand, points to the subjectiveness of consciousness as the point in which materialists are missing; Nagel does not attack materialism nor defend duality in any way.
Although eliminative materialism takes into account human ignorance in regards to how the mind works in terms of past and present knowledge, it does not take into account the future.  There are theoretical physicists who have proposed and scientists who have been pushing the boundaries in discovering new forms of non-matter (such as dark matter, anti-matter, and dark energy) that can completely revolutionize what we know about ourselves and the universe (or universes) around us.  Materialism, when seen in this new light, will certainly become (in a few hundred years, or sooner perhaps) as ignorant as folk psychology seems to materialists now.
Eliminative materialism has a sole purpose in reinventing human conceptions of thought process from mistaken but widely accepted terms, such as, behavior, and applying abstract thoughts in the mind to physical experiences in the brain.  Reductive materialism did not go far enough in explanation for Churchland because it applied the same concepts in psychology to physical processes. As a neuroscientist, Churchland knew that there were inconsistencies with reducing thought to physical processing in human brains through accepted concepts about the mind, so he proposes that people throw away all pre-conceived notions about the mind in order to explain it as a direct result of matter and its movements.
Churchland’s first argument in his dissertation on eliminative materialism involves applying the logic in reductive materialism to situations like witchcraft. If reductive materialism was used, then one would simply place another cause behind witchcraft instead of satanic possession; his point being that a completely new framework is needed to explain the phenomenon (which would be psychoses).  His second argument in support of eliminative materialism is seemingly wise, but ultimately contradictory because he questions our past understandings about the self but does not sufficiently apply it to his own theory or the present.  This leads him to discuss probabilities, in which he is right when whittling down the possibility of reductive materialism but still does not apply the concept of probabilities thoroughly to his own.  The probability of the existence of anything other than matter affecting the human mind is completely left out of the question. This is because Churchland assumes that any argument for the non-material would involve the mind or soul, products of folk psychology, which he already thought he disproved using inductive reasoning.  Yet Churchland’s arguments are lacking anyway because he focuses on the philosophy behind neuroscience while excluding other factors from human consciousness, which is the main concern regarding human perception of the self.
Thomas Nagel agrees that physicalists have misconceptions when it comes to human consciousness because they focus on the brain and overlook subjective experience in itself.  Nagel uses the bat to explain a being with processes completely different from ours, in that the animal senses the world around it through sonar, a sense unknowable to human beings. This is meant to demonstrate the subjectivity of experience, which in turn points to the unique individuality of consciousness.  Perhaps one day technology will break the boundaries of this limitation. Nagel acknowledges that materialists could be right in physicalism, but he asserts that the physical does not explain consciousness in and of itself.  Nagel essentially argues that materialism is not wrong because it correlates behavior and consciousness in one sense, but that it does not get the whole picture surrounding consciousness, and completely ignores subjectivity altogether.  However, he does not claim that there is something else affecting the mind or how one perceives the world around them other than the physical processes that materialists espouse.
In reality, the probability that materialists are right is not as strong as Churchland and his supporters would lead one to believe.  Churchland attempts to leave open his eliminative materialist theory to human discoveries about the physical world in the future, but this completely leaves out the probability that there will be scientifically explainable phenomenon discovered in the mind that have nothing to do with matter. The existence of the non-material is not mere conjecture, nor is it theoretical nonsense that could not be applied to our material world in actuality.  The probability question deserves the weight of ongoing experiments such as the large hadron collider, which put theoretical physics into action on a sub-atomic level here on Earth. Yet when the idea that something like dark energy can directly affect the universe is brought up, one usually does not delve into the aspects of the human mind.  Since non-matter does not take up space and does not abide by the limitations of matter, it is possible that dark energy, or other forces, can affect the mind and how one perceives the world around them.  Dualism is not what is in question here, but rather, the idea that forces materialist would assume were spiritual in nature and in fact, non-existent, could be explained through non-material things.  Churchland has fault in both his limitations and expectations.  Three hundred years from now, his theories and their basis will be as antiquated as Enlightenment ideas are in philosophy now.  The argument here is that since non-material forces are already being applied theoretically to the universe, why shouldn’t they be applied to consciousness, behavior, and perception?  The probability that humans know even less than what they think about the world around them is definitely higher than what physicalists embrace so assuredly.

32 replies on “Materialism and Ignorance”

Sorry I only saw this comment just now. I’m flattered, and I’m glad that you could relate to my writing enough to consider me a long lost brother. Cheers friend, hope you read more.

This is perhaps the most positive comment I’ve gotten. Your review would definitely be on the back if I ever publish a book.

You’ve got interesting content as well and you can be sure to see me commenting on your site in the future.

Cheers, and thanks for the kind words good sir.


For some reason, I seem to have missed acknowledging your attention to my blog recently, and I wanted you to know how glad I was that thought to follow along with me as I explore these important subjects. I hope you have found a few of my postings that have given you more food for thought, because many of yours are definitely provocative for me.

I was particularly intrigued by this posting of yours, as it strikes at the very heart of my own emphasis, and these lines stood out for me especially:

“The argument here is that since non-material forces are already being applied theoretically to the universe, why shouldn’t they be applied to consciousness, behavior, and perception? The probability that humans know even less than what they think about the world around them is definitely higher than what physicalists embrace so assuredly.”

You deftly prepare the reader throughout your posting for these final thoughts, and you argue persuasively that we are forced to confront the limitations of the materialists in addressing subjective experience. It’s rare in my experience to encounter young people who even have an INTEREST in discussing these ideas, let alone having such a sophisticated understanding of such complex issues. I am encouraged by your blog and wanted you to know that I will be following also.

Hope you feel compelled to revisit these ideas as time permits, and to continue to inspire and elaborate where angels fear to tread.

Regards……..John H.

I agree whole heartedly. I’m sure to have much more musings such as this one in the fall when I will have a shit ton of writing assignments due anyway.

I ❤ this blog
I agree, you must never stop writing

I ❤ your readers
They are kind, thoughtful people

I ❤ the comments
They feed my mind

Thank you, I have a mouse living somewhere in my girlfriend’s wall and I haven’t told her because he seems like a pretty decent guy and I don’t want to have to kill him.

Thanks for following my blog, mouse interrupted — I hope you’ll continue to enjoy it. Although I’ve only had a moment to take a cursory look at your blog I can’t wait to take more time and read thoroughly. Nice work.

Excellent essay. Had to research Churchland and Nagel to familiarize myself with concepts. The neural network philosophy and it’s relation to feelings and emotions is inspirational.

Thank you. I actually read your most recent post on walking. Ever since I played a 19th century character, I’ve been trying to keep up my posture, but I have failed to remember that often. I also found the picture humorous yet informative.

I cannot express to you how interested I am in this subject. It is regrettable that the People’s Liberation Army desecrated and destroyed countless mummified Tibetan monks who had the ability to control their body temperature in the freezing Himalayas during the 1950’s. Some of them had been there for hundreds of years.

It’s tantalizing, the thought that somehow electricity and physical movement could form into one if a person were to have, as you said such refined physical control. Thank you for sharing this information with me, perhaps one day there will be Taoist monks who can control dark energy and in turn distort matter. Or maybe not, but it makes for good fiction.

Beautiful blog, Sean. So glad to find out about you. Thanks for following me; now I’m following YOU. Which post of mine did you happen onto, by the way? That would be good for me to know. And I look forward to reading more of you!

Provocative! One key aspect of subjective experience, it seems to me, is movement. (Take it with a grain of salt. It’s a dancer writing this.) When a person is motionless, there is still movement in his body: His heart beats, his lungs move, electric impulses travel through his brain and spine. Through the study and practice of basic breath techniques from both Tao and Qi Gong, I have learned that a person’s spiritual development, in some Eastern practices, is connected to preparation for daily life through the use of tools (or techniques) which allow control of heart rate, breathing, and, especially in Tao, nervous system function. The nervous system, of course, has everything to do with electricity. Electricity could be called matter, I suppose, but it seems to be better described as current, or movement.
A few years ago I read about an MRI experiment conducted on lifelong Buddhist monks. The monks were asked to do a control, in which they did no meditation inside the machine. The results were standard. Then the monks were asked to meditate for the duration of the MRI. Every monk’s entire brain lit up blue in the digital imaging. Ostensibly this is some form of refined physical control. I would venture that spirituality is not the control itself, but the experience it allows… It is what HAPPENS to the monk while he is doing that, and it is what HAPPENS to a person who is near him. Is this a question of matter? Holy Fuck I have no idea.

I think you’d enjoy Dr. Amit Goswami’s “The Self Aware Universe”. He takes it further; consciousness is not a product of matter, matter is a product of consciousness “Opto ergo sum: I choose therefore I am.”. Consciousness from a physicist’s pov.

Awesome read you’ve got here.

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