Noumena and Materialism

Part of researching stuff for my Chalmers / Deutsch synthesis paper, I was browsing a number of Diploma and BA essays on the Sheffield University “Pathways to Philosophy” site. (I’m often contemplating the need for me to have some more formal philosophy education before having enough credibility to write myself, but I fear I may struggle with the time-serving element of arguing for and against Kant, Hume, Locke, Descartes and the like. It’s the “for and against” that always gets me – I prefer to synthesise, move on from where we already are.) The problem is where to start, and the words of that Irish bystander always ring in the answer “If I wanted to get there I wouldn’t start from here.”

This one, Tony Bellotti “Does Kant’s Theory of Knowledge Lead to Solipsism” and this one, Oliver Leech on the “Mind Body Problem” are typical examples. The following views say more about where I’m coming from than the quality or significance of either essay.

Both suffer from the “for and against” binary argument problem in expounding old views and old arguments for or against, but at least the first is easy to answer “Only if you let it ie by insisting on accepting only one or the other of the views propounded.” Fortunately Belotti’s conclusion is a sythetic restatement of Kant (like the large majority of Western philosophy since) – In my own words – Everything we can ever know about any world “out there” is via pre-conceptual experiences and conceptual models “in here”. Fortunately we can therefore be sceptical about any idea of reality of the noumenal world “out there”, and simply accept that it almost certainly does exist and bear some relation to the model in here, but gimme one reason why I should care further, given the fact we can NEVER know anything about it directly.

The second is clearly addressing what for me is the same subject more generally. I’ve said many times, whether I approach this from ontology of what might exist, epistemology of what might be known, or some otherwise fundamental natural science, all roads lead to the so-called mind-body problem, via evolutionary psychology and linguistics. Good news is that this second paper does invoke Chalmers. It also has a good summary of the following …

[For the Materialist] the mental states do not really exist separately from the body. If we continue to study them, according to the materialist, it will be found that they are not a special category made of some distinct non-material stuff but essentially physical substances described from a different point of view and about which some confusion of language has arisen. A thought, to the materialist, for example, is ultimately to be defined as some form of brain activity.

[For the Dualist] physical things and mental states are both real but totally distinct and separate entities. The dualist (at least the strong dualist) rejects the idea that mental states can be, or in principle could ever be, reduced to or explained away in terms of physical things. To him mental states are completely separate in nature and origin: the universe is made not of one type of stuff (as the materialist believes) but of two: mind (the collective name for mental states) and matter.

[For the Idealist] the direct opposite of the materialist, it is mental states, the mind, which are ultimate reality. Thoughts, ideas, feelings are real, matter is no more real than the phantom physical things we seem to touch and see in dreams. Material objects are projections of the mind, clusters of sense data which give the false appearance of being separate hard reality.

For me these three views are the artificial extremes of thought experiments, and actually hang together quite consistently in practical terms, if you drop all the actual and implied “only”s and “merely”s, and in doing so, broaden materialism to it’s widest sense in [a conception of] modern physics – physicalism I call it. The only problem with idealism is simply the denial of the “out there”; its existence doesn’t need to be denied, merely treated as irrelevant to the problem as I indicated earlier. The dualist and the neo-materialist simply need to agree that there is a significant difference between thought things and material things and that their relationship(s) is/are up for explanation.

At this point the explanatory relationship is clearly going to include something like causality. Anyone betting on the idea that no such relationship can exist or that causality itself is “merely” illusory / circumstantial / coincidental is surely backing a non-starter. Not just in epi-phenomenology is causality mysterious, but is everywhere something that remains hard to pin down. (The whole inference / induction line in making generalisations and future predictions based on past correlations is tied up in the same causal explanatory issue. Metaphor or not, causality is clearly a metaphor for something rather than nothing.)

The idea that the physical can explain the causal existence of consciousness, is by most scientific researchers already considered to be the easy (Chalmers) or trivial (Josephson) aspect of “thought stuff”. The difficulty of explaining causality is doubly significant, but it’s the same difficulty none-the-less, a meta-problem to the problem at hand. The hard problem really is to explain the subjective aspect or “quality” of experiencing through consciousness. This conjunction of explanation and the hard problem of consciousness, is the thought behind a synthesis of Deutsch and Chalmers.

An aside which re-inforces the impression of the distinction between the easy and hard parts of the explanation of consciousness is a quote from Jacob Bronowski’s “Ascent of Man”, himself quoting a remark by Max Born (in Gottingen with Bohr, Heisenberg, Schroedinger et al)

“I am now convinced that theoretical physics is actual philosophy.”

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