Massimo Pigliucci was insistent that I answer a question on Twitter. I didn’t answer on Twitter for two reasons: the answer is nuanced, requiring more than the limited number of characters permitted, and I think the response points to a major flaw in the question-asker, as a philosopher. His question is one about metaphysics and its relation to how we view the world:
Anyone interested in my answer can jump to the bottom, where I have “Answer” in bold. I’ll explain the discussion and context that preceded the above question.
This post is going to be a sort of a review of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, but also partially a review of John Dupré’s review of the book and some of my commentary/thoughts. I’ll be using Dupré’s review as a segue in explaining Nagel’s position, for reasons that will soon be obvious (https://ndpr.nd.edu/news/mind-and-cosmos-why-the-materialist-neo-darwinian-conception-of-nature-is-almost-certainly-false/). Since I have so many thoughts of my own on the topic Nagel covers, I can’t say that this is properly a review, as I won’t be sticking so closely to the text, in analysis.
I mentor a few young philosophers; which basically means young readers of philosophy pester me for answers, and I annoy them with corrective questions. Occasionally, I do give them something like an answer, but it is mostly for the purposes of spiking their silly ideas into the sand, causing their thought process to begin again fresh, humbled. Socrates’ modus operandi may have been likewise inspired. The question I’m going to address has been posed to me in a variety of different ways, and I’m not quite sure how to best reformulate the question. I think it would be approximately accurate to recast the question as follows: Isn’t there an issue with the fact that “matter” seems to be a metaphysical concept, yet it is referred to as a physical entity? Another way of asking the question might be: Why would a scientist hold a materialistic worldview in conjunction with their scientific perspective, if materialism is a philosophical presupposition that is grounded metaphysics? The concern I’m faced with, in these young students, is that, in their philosophical reading from ancient times onward and their penchant for popular scientific literature, they are detecting that there is no necessary connection between scientific theories and practices, on the one hand, and a materialistic worldview, on the other. I’m torn on the matter of expressing my thoughts when they are struggling with ideas, because they are vulnerable, perhaps even liable, to commit an argumentum ad verecundiam, as if I know what I’m talking about.
A short response is satisfactory for now, I think, and for good reason. The reason is this: having discussed the concept of what “matter” is with philosophers and scientists over hundreds of hours, it is clear to me that none of them know what they mean by word. Actually, I know what they want to mean, rather, but the problem is that, once brought to light that what they wish the concept to be can’t actually be reified in any meaningful way, there is endless ad hoc substitutions, vague ersatz definition supplements, and sometimes accusations that, “oh! You are just philosophizing [and annoying me by revealing my definitive cognitive dissonance and egregious lack of clarity of thought]!” Scientists, especially physicists, like to give water-tube toy definitions of matter, once they struggle after just a couple of seconds. (You know, those rubber, gel-filled toys in which you squeeze one side, and the gel squirts to the other end.) The water-tube toy “definition” is that matter is a different form of energy. There is a bit of irony in that, as I’ll end with some closing remarks on the Logical Positivists/Logical Empiricists and W.v.O. Quine –the latter being a product of the former in ways. The upshot from those remarks will be clear.
The big problem with materialism, aside from the fact that nobody seems to know what they mean by “matter,” is that there was a commonsense usage which did little to transform from ancient times. The beginnings of the concept of matter in Greek philosophy begins with “hyle,” which can be swapped with “stuff,” or even as non-descript stuff (e.g., excrement, again, as used today in vulgar social contexts). The non-descript and inert nature of this hyle is what defined it, entirely, as a phenomenal entity. There was nothing metaphysical about, and it was present in givenness, plain and simple. It seems to be that, as separation of materials (e.g., separation of clays from soil and ores, etc.) from one another came to conscious inquiry and foundationalist hierarchies of ontology came about, philosophers wanted to explore a newer concept, hypokeimenon. It’s a bizarre, hard-to-explain shift in thinking that occurred: the Greeks wanted to know what gave rise to phenomena. As you can read throughout Plato, especially in texts like the Theaetetus, Plato’s (and Socrates’) philosophy had at its heart the distinction of reality and appearance –hence, Bertrand Russell’s later title. Obviously, the Greek philosophers became interested in the hyle under the hyle, and the underlying hyle was called the hypokeimenon: that’s the metaphysical stuff that underlies and gives rise to the stuff that is merely apparent, and not necessarily real in the fullest sense, known as hyle or matter. The interest, from then on, was what gave rise to the appearance of matter. On and off throughout history, philosophers had some rather forgetful bouts with the history of philosophy, wherein they proposed “matter” to be somehow fundamental, disregarding the plenitude of questions posed by philosophers before them.
Filling in the details of this history and the nature of philosophical inquiry might be a little blogging project I take up at some later point, but there are two major developments in the history of philosophy that are most relevant here. The first is the coming of idealism, which was effectively the realization that the physical world is comprised of characteristics (e.g., extension, penetrability/impenetrability, etc.), rather than requiring a strange ancient folk-philosophical concept, namely, “matter,” which represented a time when metaphysics and ontology were naively compressed into a single, unconsidered existence, when the stuff of appearance was also what was underlying. (As strange as that sounds, it will be relevant in a second, when the Logical Positivists come on the scene.) Leibniz was perfectly capable of developing is theories of natural philosophy (now called “physics”), despite rejecting these strange ancient ideas about matter, and occupying an intellectual space of idealism. Leibniz, being deeply metaphysical, discarded with the ancient folk-philosophical concept. There was no need for it. (And what the heck does anybody mean by “matter,” anyway?) A great deal of the development of natural philosophy into later “hard science” was the pursuit for more metaphysical understanding of the stuff of givenness, such as in the work of Newton, Lemonosov, and Lavoisier; but no deeper metaphysical underlying cause of the world of appearance was understood.
At the turn of the twentieth century, a group of physicists, mathematicians, and a few philosophers, called the Vienna Circle, sounded the death knell of matter. What was matter, anyways? The Vienna Circle completely revamped the philosophy of science by putting everything into terms of phenomena and logical rules of behavior. (An oversimplification, but fine for this discussion.) Maybe no greater representative of the group of intellectuals was Rudolf Carnap, who sought at every turn to destroy and eliminate all traces of metaphysics from the sciences. It often goes unnoticed, but all traces of any notion like matter was eliminated, save for the respect in which matter was meant to refer to a kind of phenomena. Its existence was purely linguistic and referential to phenomena of types. Were I an historian in 1930, I probably would have been writing about how the Vienna Circle had put an end to the vague antiquated folk-philosophical concept of matter. Where is the need for it? What conceptual work does the word do? As I mentioned, nobody can really even say what they mean, especially when words from the ancient version, like “indefinite” and “inert,” are stripped away. After the Vienna Circle, W.v.O. Quine would present a philosophy of science that was both influenced by the Vienna Circle, but one that also rejected it in a linguistic turn: his proposal was that science is a sort of network of linguistic statements that are revised, interconnected, and necessarily interdependent. It’s for this reason that the definition of matter given by scientists today is ironic.
In large part, it is my opinion that the absurd philosophy and dogmatic views of Bertrand Russell have done a great deal to revive the folk-philosophical concept. I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader, especially those who have read Appearance and Reality, to consider why Bertrand was so worried about matter. What could he socially and politically gain? I’ll give you two hints: 1) in history, what positions did people historically hold who made authoritative statements about metaphysics? and 2) what was Russell’s annoyance with George Berkeley in Appearance and Reality? Understand these things, and you understand a great many things about the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
To close, for those interested in shifting the definition of matter to be mass-bearing objects of spatial extension, then you have a big problem, which is quite sophisticated. The nature of the problem is that mass is not a definite idea, in itself. Not only does the meaning of the term change between times and contexts, but there are also some procedural experimental difficulties in distinguishing mass from other concepts. The work highlighting all of these issues is Max Jammer’s work, Concepts of Mass in Classical and Modern Physics, which contains a discussion of experimental and theoretical physics related to the notion of mass, the concept’s historical transformations, and a philosophical examination of the concept throughout history.
I’ve decided to provide chess coaching services (services found on my “Schedule David” page, found by clicking here) for many reasons. The most-in-my-face reason is that I constantly field questions by tournament players, as well as some online players, the most ever-present being: How in the world did you improve your chess so quickly? When I played tournament chess between 2008 and 2010, I got the question regularly, especially toward the end of that period, when I began scoring against Experts –I am better than 20% against Experts in the 2000-2099 range. After not looking at a chess board in about four years –I left play due to migraines experienced as a result of diabetes, and other diabetic-related issues–, I have been able to return to study and competitive play, and I am getting questions much more now. What has compounded the interest of many players is that I’m an adult making this kind of progress, and adults typically a horrifically difficult time improving. Many adult players will sit in a 100-200 point rating band for 20 years, despite playing regularly and studying the game. I can name many examples. This all sort of a secondary reason for availing myself for formal coaching and advising –in “advising,” I mean to say that I will also be offering the programs that I used for my improvement. Answering the number of questions put to me would otherwise be impossible without a practical means of making room in my busy schedule. I have always felt rude for holding my routines, etc. as closely guarded secrets; but not only does it take time to convey to a group of individuals, but it also took a tremendous amount of time in research to develop my training methods and routines. Continue reading →
Spending a year teaching philosophy has brought forth a number of experiences and realizations, many of which are negative, unfortunately. A portion of these are negative because of the structure of the institution and ways in which things are set up; and another moiety is negative because of the relaxation of standards at institutions of higher learning –and I expect it is the case that I’ve seen the worst of the worst at a community college, but, in discussing with fellow grad students, I fear that isn’t necessarily true. There certainly were positive takeaways, as well. In this reflection, I’d like to express my concern for the subject matter of ethics, mostly in terms of instruction, but also, in passing, in terms of the disrepair of the branch of philosophy. Continue reading →
Despite not having a Beatrice to guide me on my way, I have made it through the seven circles of hell. Not Dante’s, de la Maza’s. (Click here for details.) On March 5th I completed my first run through de la Maza’s Seven Circles of Hell program. I noted the variations I would make in the program in the previous blog post on this topic (found by clicking here). The big question is, did it work? I have to let the numbers do the talking. While I don’t have chess.com (blitz rating) data points that I can use to find what kind of linear regression is at work, the charts the site offers can make for a good estimate of what happened. Here are the charts of the progress.
The paper I presented at Kent State University’s Graduate Philosophy Conference can be found by clicking here. The paper is a reworking of a paper I wrote during Jordi Cat’s philosophy of time seminar in the fall of 2013. By “reworking,” I mean that the paper was truncated from its current monographic length of 68 pages, and then reorganized, many of the citations and resources extracted, and, finally, given an ad hoc introduction and conclusion. I chose to eliminate many of the references to the literature because, like so many of the works a philosopher of science that are too technical and specialized for the general philosophical audience, I felt it would be too much for the randomly chosen philosopher —especially a graduate student— to get without extensive reading (or without more space to discuss the ideas). Therefore, McTaggart, Sider, Craig Bourne, Earman, and other authors were not referenced in the presented version of the work. Continue reading →
Among all of the conferences that I have attended or presented at, Kent State’s Graduate Philosophy Conference was the most professionally done of the bunch. I think the reputation of this conference is growing, based on the quality of the papers presented (and from the number I heard that were submitted) and representatives present from top school; this year there were two Harvard students and one Oxford student presenting, along with some of the most creative philosophers-in-training from the American West to East Coast, California to New York, as it were. For anyone looking a good and productive venue to make intellectual progress, I strongly suggest submitting to this conference in the future. Continue reading →
I whole-heartedly believe a number of their “interpretations” in the paper are correct. However, I also find some of their thoughts extremely puzzling, in light of drawing certain interpretations to their logical conclusion, as one philosopher, Kant, has hundreds of years ago. I will give a little technical breakdown of the paper —just bear with me through the math/math-speak, which I only include for the sake of the clarity that my colleagues in the sciences would prefer—, and then discuss issues I see. Given that I have been, for a long time, working with another philosopher of physics on a scientifically-technical philosophical paper that forcefully argues some of the same points, I will not comment on those items I agree with, so as not to give anything away from unpublished work.
An immediate response to the title is: Do we need yet another history of philosophy? Anyone vaguely familiar with their local library’s selections and new arrivals will have seen half a dozen such histories, ostensibly, at least. For example, Anthony Kenny has recently put out a set of volumes, and there has even been the instantiation of a very ambitious attempt at a “History of Philosophy without Any Gaps” by Adamson. Go beyond that, and there are more or less scholarly compilations by Bertrand Russell (much less), Frederick Copleston (more), and Will Durant (less). Smaller chunks of history have been, in some respects, very competently done. I stress the qualifier “in some respects,” a great example being A History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages by Etienne Gilson, which beautifully ties together a number of the ideas with theirs sources (and the relation of the ideas) and philosophers to their intellectual forbearers and inspirations. However, that work fails as a history qua history. Continue reading →