Wednesday, April 18, 2012

what materialistic naturalism is not

  • Naturalism is the broad and simple stance that anything real is not supernatural and anything supernatural is not real. 
  • Since naturalism describes the borders of reality rather than its interior, I pair it with materialism, which is the presumptive stance that the fundamental contents of reality are material (i.e. physical, particulate, and either observable or deducible from observation). My relationship with materialism is more complicated than pure agreement. But stepping over those numerous semantic pitfalls for a moment1, the most salient point of materialism is that (real) humans are solely composed of the same stuff as anything (real). I see materialism constraining the broad and simple stance of naturalism, so I say "materialistic naturalism" and not "naturalistic materialism"2
  • Reductionism is the stance that a whole thing can be understood by understanding all of its parts. Furthermore, no knowledge is lost by examining all of its parts in isolation.
  • Relativism is the stance that all truth is relative to other truths. For instance, one human's statements about reality may be "true" relative to their own experiences yet "false" relative to some other human's experiences.
An all-too-common misconception is that all of the above stances are inseparable, or that the latter two are logical consequences of the former two. This misconception is so pernicious that it deserves direct debunking. 

I'll start with reductionism. I assume that the charge of philosophical reductionism stems from the frequent usefulness of reductionism as one methodology of many. "Information overload" receives more than its due share of press coverage, but it's quite accurate for many complex things approached as raw wholes. In many cases reducing the whole to a set of parts is an indispensable first step for facilitating comprehension. And over time, the success of this approach has in fact produced more and more reliable knowledge about the parts of complex materials, not to mention the surprisingly complex parts of homogeneous materials.

However, these discoveries could lead to the mistaken overall impression that reality can be fully known just by dividing it up through analysis. It's mistaken because it ignores the essential companion of analysis: synthesis, which is recombining the analyzed parts. Synthesis requires an understanding of how the parts interact in order to give form to the whole. Interactions among parts might be of equal or greater complexity than the parts, and of equal or greater importance. The lack of that knowledge often imposes a practical limit on the applicability and accuracy of idealized calculations, simulations, and predictions. That's why reductionism is most effective in the context of controlled and repeated experiments, which systematically minimize the amount and effect of interfering interactions3.

Hence, solitary reductionism is an incomplete stance. Full knowledge about reality cannot be obtained by first dividing it into separate independent subsets and then knowing the subsets. An investigator must uncover the various interconnections among the subsets to explain the whole.

But for the purpose of frivolous argument, I'll comment on the curious fictional story which is sometimes associated with the reductionist stance: the omniscient materialist (Laplace's demon), who by assumption knows all the material information in all reality. That information includes every bit about every particle as well as every applicable rule for how each one acts and how it interacts with its counterparts4. Does the hypothetical omniscient materialist have all information? Answering "yes" is said to indicate belief in philosophical reductionism, along with determinism.

Of course my answer is "yes"; I'm a professing materialist. I can agree to this peculiar all-encompassing "reductionism" because it's far different from the less grandiose specimens of actual reductionism, which I've already criticized. My belief that my decisions are natural physical phenomena doesn't force me to think that detailed knowledge of individual physical phenomena X/Y/Z is enough to predict my decisions with certainty. What if the measurements are significantly inexact? What if the effects of X/Y/Z are overwhelmed by a positive feedback loop in physical phenomena N/M/O? What if my brain is running low on nutrients? What if a set of mysterious neurons, which has no verbal expression, "tips" the decision in a strange creative direction that avoids the original dilemma altogether? "Reducing" something into mere matter might yield more questions than insights.

On to relativism. Its alleged connection to materialistic naturalism comes from the central inquiry of how to obtain truth: given the premise that humans are nothing but matter, how can any human claims to truth be trusted? If I'm a jumble of cells (or atoms or anything else diminutive), and so is everyone else, what makes their propositions, or even mine, objectively true5? And if we disagree, don't all those other jumbles of cells have as much "authority" as the jumble of cells called "me"? The most any of us can say is that our conflicting truths seem to be real relative to each of us individually.

The reasoning may seem stretched, but I encountered it multiple times prior to the culmination of my gradual intellectual anti-conversion. Clearly it's intended as a reductio ad absurdum, where to stop believing in absolutist supernatural souls or gods is to irrevocably destroy the justification for absolutist truth itself. Outsiders can easily spot the logical flaw, though. If the duty of sacred truths to underpin every other truth, then what underpins the sacred truths? Moreover, how can humans uncover new truths that have no connection whatsoever to the finite list of sacred truths? And on what basis shall they resolve quarrels about the sacred truths? Or select from among the many contradictory groups and subgroups of sacred truths? I imagine that devout thinkers have their own nuanced replies to these questions.

Laying aside the dubious solution of arbitrarily canonizing chosen beliefs into absolutist sainthood, I answer the change of relativism in my usual fashion. Relativism can't have a neat categorization into true or false (i.e. it's not compatible with "binary thinking"). Propositions have varying qualities due to varying content and varying techniques for verification. Humans, viewed through a microscope or not, cope with the demands of propositions as best they can. They may judge that some propositions are relative to the speaker. And relative propositions may work for some purposes. For instance, propositions about monetary value are relative to a buyer, yet every other market participant may find that proposition to be useful.

Nevertheless, relativism isn't thereby an automatic judgment for all propositions. Humans may judge that some propositions are not relative. It's pragmatic to do so. I've mentioned the two "meta-truths of objectivity": 1) it works for an individual human to think that some parts of reality exist independently of that individual, 2) it works for an individual human to think that some other individuals also interact with some identical parts of reality. For any isolated proposition, it's uncertain at the outset whether both meta-truths apply to it. That's for the human to evaluate/verify/judge. Objectivity per se is a conclusion, not an axiom. (Someone may choose to adopt the tactic of "objective until proven subjective" from time to time.)

I forgive skeptics who are unconvinced by the proposal that individual humans are responsible for judging the degree of relativism case by case. Am I not assuming what I wish to prove? At first hearing it sounds like I'm advocating verification by bluster. If the proposition "I'm telling the truth" isn't adequate proof that the speaker is telling the truth, then how is the proposition "I'm telling you something that isn't relative" adequate proof that the speaker is telling me something that isn't relative? The short response is that no, it isn't adequate proof on its own. Humans can err, and humans can be wrong about how much relativism is embedded in the truth of a proposition.

The longer convoluted response, appropriate for a convoluted reality, is that I can't present universal guidelines or procedures. When the proposition is about obvious objects, the proposition is less likely to be relative. When the proposition fits well with other propositions which I judge to be true, the proposition is less likely to be relative. When the proposition comes with a straightforward method for anyone to test it, the proposition is less likely to be relative. When the proposition is expressed by many, the proposition is less likely to be relative. When the proposition is expressed by a dispassionate expert, the proposition is less likely to be relative. And on and on.

It may feel uncomfortable that fallible humans play a central messy role in the dialogue about truth, but as long as propositions continue to be messages between humans it's unavoidable albeit manageable6. Unfortunately, sublime emotional comfort isn't a mark of truth. If anything a comforting proposition should invite suspicions about its level of convenience. Building and attacking an uncomfortably-itchy straw man out of simpleminded reductionism/relativism doesn't discredit materialistic naturalism with facts. It shows that the debater has chosen to urge the reality of ideas based on attractiveness, as opposed to urging the reality of ideas based on verified implications7. Desiring standalone/easy truth doesn't cause it to materialize (it's like ice cream in that aspect).

Within materialistic naturalism, truths are laborious and valuable. Humans try hard to purge the extreme elements of reductionism/relativism. They attempt to eliminate both oversimplification of internal structure or personal bias. To ask that truths never have the least inkling of reductionism/relativism is to ask the impossible8.

Much more proof should be demanded of those who posit an alternate reality which allows that possibility. In that alternate reality, materials have no parts and humans don't have any individual frames of reference. It's a realm with many approximate similarities to ours and a beautiful place to visit. But when we need to accomplish anything, we return home, confounding though it may be. 


1 "Semantic pitfalls" refers to the fraught complications which arise during long discussions about "Reality", the philosophical idea. To a pragmatist's eye, those complications appear to amount to nothing more than disagreements about ideological preferences. Which labels communicate the "best" emphasis? No matter how argumentative a pair of philosophers is, the specific question "Is  ____ 'real'?" may not yield the same disputes...until they go on to say "And by 'real' in general I mean..."
2 Materialistic naturalism is different from "supernatural materialism". Supernatural materialists blur the lines by proposing that supernatural stuff is also built solely from matter. Thus the supernatural stuff cannot violate physical laws and it isn't different in kind from natural stuff...in which case "supernatural" becomes a confusing term. It customarily stands for "phenomena beyond nature". But for the supernatural materialist it stands for "natural phenomena which happen to be beyond current human explanation or understanding". For example, they may refuse to believe in the traditional concepts of gods/spirits yet believe in "paranormal soul powers" (they may use the words "mind" and "soul" interchangeably).

Other examples of supernatural materialism veer closer to understated pantheism. Its most abstract forms don't need anything beyond materialism. Instead there's the worship of cosmic unknown knowledge: combining a belief in a "god of the gaps" with the observation that the inherent limitations of puny humans imply that everything in toto is mostly a knowledge "gap" to us upstart primates. I respond by admitting readily that a human's inability to grasp all reality is humbling, but that emotion isn't a sufficient reason to cultivate misunderstanding by applying the figurative name "god" to it. If it's only phrased as worship of the "order" displayed by materialistic reality, then I still question the merit for those warm feelings. The impersonal flow of natural laws will utterly demolish us into our constituent pieces eventually whether we respect it or not. On the other hand, if everyone agrees to completely restrict "god" to a colorful synonym for "awe-inspiring", then I'll join in on the harmless metaphorical fun: a well-done blend of lemonade and iced tea inspires me to call it the spittle of god. The experience of the drink doesn't qualify as "numinous" but the all-consuming enjoyment is somewhat like an altered state of consciousness...
3 The same problem of too many interactions arises in the abstract domains of theory and mathematics. Many variables, whose rates of change are mutually defined in interdependent functions, quickly become formidable obstacles to finding solutions analytically, i.e. proving that a related simpler equation is a solution. The present era of calculating machines has been a great aid in finding solutions numerically, i.e. swiftly calculating and retrying better and better estimates of a solution.
4 I realize the vast breadth and depth of this statement's absurdity. If it helps, imagine seeing it during a tour through Willy Wonka's factory. Wonka: "Next up, here's the Candy Know-It-All Machine. It detects everything which is detectable, and also many things that aren't." (Wonka demonstrates by dropping in a red Everlasting Gobstopper and grabbing the resulting printout of small text.) Guest: "But that's self-evidently preposterous!" Wonka: "No, it's cherry." (Wonka lifts up the printout. It contains lines of letters and punctuation in the rough shape of a cherry.)
5 In passing, note the argument's purposeful usage of "jumble" here. Although it's a caricature, it's one more excellent illustration of the problem with reductionism. Body cells are extremely fine-grained subsets of the whole reality of a human body. To ignore the interactions among these subsets is to ignore the vital structures formed by cells. By doing so the argument is casting the body as a "linear sum" of the effects of its cell parts, whereas the totality of the cell parts' inherent cooperation is more accurately characterized as an "exponential growth" of emergent/network effects. A page of randomly arranged letters is of far smaller total effect than a page with the same quantity of letters arranged into words and grammatical sentences. Unlike a jumble of cells like a colony of bacteria, it's more plausible that a highly-structured body and brain is an effective processor of highly-structured information.
6 It seems to me that nobody seriously wants to remove the human role anyhow. One of the surest ways to provoke a rebellious reaction is to perform all of someone's thinking. Preventing others from thinking the wrong thoughts generally gathers more support than preventing me from thinking the wrong thoughts.
7 In practice, the distinction could be subtle between a proposition's attractiveness and its verified implications, depending on the rationale for its attractiveness. Maybe its degree of intuitive attractiveness, verified by seeking the opinion of a wise mentor, is a "reasonable" implication to ponder...corroborated with more verified implications. Wise mentors who verify a proposition's attractiveness may be insufficient evidence (the proposition could be ugly but true!).
8 Regardless, I confess happily that the specters of reductionism and relativism are virtually nonexistent in a good number of the truths which I acknowledge. Here's a short non-exhaustive listing: the age of my automobile, the value of the Plank constant, the scar on my left thumb, the cash in my wallet, the formula for the area of a circle with radius measurement r. These truths' verifiable implications are quite free from interferences of reductionism and relativism.

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