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Arguments against materialism - how to refute?

  1. Oct 20, 2006 #1
    Our philosophy prof is an idealist (panpsychist). His main argument against materialism goes something like this: materialism states that everything can be reduced to physical concepts, such as mass and energy, and intercations between elementary particles. But pain is not a physical concept and can not be reduced to physical concepts. Granted, pain corresponds to physical processes, but the the feeling, the sensation of pain itself is not physical, a concept such as pain would never be found in a physics book. Therefore, either I do not really feel pain, or materialism is false.

    He argues that an amoeba is also conscious (sentient) at some lower level, but an amoeba's consciousness is not the lowest level of consciousness. Atoms have a mind and are sentient too at some very low level, as are elementary particles. The simplest form of consciousness (sentience, mind) is a state of constant well being, which is experienced by indestructible elementary particles.

    Here are some exerts form his online book:

    What are your thoughts on this? I myself lean towards materialism. I don't see much logic behind assigning minds to electrons just because humans have minds. True, electrons do share some properties with humans, they both have mass for example. But then there are some properties which humans have, but electrons don't, such as color and size. As he himself admits, "Panpsychism cannot be empirically refuted by direct observation of the inner nature of inanimate matter," and I don't think things which can't be refuted have a place in any kind of theory. Even if there is something else besides presently known physical concepts such as energy, couldn't this "something else" be described by mathematics and intergrated into physics? He also states that mystery is simply what hasn't been explained by science yet. So it seems to me that he doesn't ascribe anything particularly mysterious to his panpsychism. From what I can tell, he merely claims that concepts such as energy and mass aren't enough to explain everything. But how does this refute materialism? He claims that the whole is not merely a sum of its parts, but is this contrary to materialism? Seems like another play on words to me. You can arrange a bunch of circles in the shape of a triangle. Is this triangle greater than the sum of its parts? Well, I don't know, I don't think the question makes much sense anyway. I need to argue either for dualism, materialism, or idealism (this isn't directly for a grade, we're supposed to submit synopses by eMail, and later use these synopses and the prof's comments on them to write a term paper, this synopsis should have been submitted a while ago, but I'm a procrastinator, so...). But I find it pretty hard to do when many arguments for idealism seem like a play on words and our concepts of things to me. As far as the argument about having emotions and feeling pain goes, I realize that physics can't explain this, but I don't really see how it supports panpsychism. It just seem pretty ridiculous to me to attribute human qualities such as sentience to other objects. Even if electrons have some properties foregin to modern physics, calling these properties "mind" and "sentience" seems like a huge oversimplification bordering on plain nonsense. All we're doing at that point is calling something completely different from actual sentience, which we know, by the same name. So, to say that an electron is sentient at some lower level is like saying that a ribosome is just a low-level-human being. It doesn't make a lot of sense. After all, the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we canimagine. I'd like to hear your thoughts on whether materialism is correct and how I can defend it. Or maybe I should subscribe to panpsychism? (Both the prof and I reject dualism on the basis of Occam's razor.)
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 20, 2006 #2
    Panpsychism actually does make sense, even though it may seem ridiculous at first, and can result in misunderstandings (such as thinking that electrons think like humans). The basic idea is that human brains are composed of the same matter and forces as the rest of the universe is. So the rest of the universe can have an experiental aspect to it just like the slab of matter that is our brain. But it may be impossible for us to imagine what an electron or something else experiences (just like we cant imagine what a bat 'sees' with his sonar). It may be as 'simple' as experiencing the difference between light and darkness, or as complex as experiencing the entire universe, or something else altogether. (btw perhaps im confusing panpsychism and panexperientalism here)

    Id rather say that it is like saying a human (including its mind) is the product of its single celled ancestors, and the single celled ancestors also have their lifeless ancestors. This does make sense. Moreso even than thinking our minds suddenly arose out of no-mind somewhere in the course of evolution, dont u think? Also, individual electrons may not have individual minds. They could form some kind of unity, just like our human mind encompasses multiple electrons in the brain.

    But why would that be so? Do u really think the experience of pain can be described by an equation, or that it has mass (how much does the number 9 weigh)? If so, what caused that belief and is it justified?

    The apparent differences between matter and consciousness do not in any way make it obvious that consciousness is physical or can ever be explained by a physical theory. Even though physics is very popular in this day and age, there is no reason to believe it is omni-explanatory.

    Also, suppose the "something else" is integrated into physics, wouldnt this in fact quickly result in a panpsychical model of reality?

    It doesnt, its just an alternative to materialism.
    Last edited: Oct 20, 2006
  4. Oct 25, 2006 #3
    The "physics" of pain is well studied as action potential within neurons (true in biology textbooks not physics), and as seen here, the sensation of pain can be controlled by a gene, and since genes do not regulate non-physical attributes, "pain itself" is a physical entity:http://www.brightsurf.com/news/headlines/22766/Master_genetic_switch_found_for_chronic_pain.html. The argument of your professor is falsified.
  5. Oct 25, 2006 #4
    A popular way to accommodate pain within a materialist framework is to say that pain is a mental property: even if mental properties are not reducible to physical/materialistic properties, mental properties can be had by material objects. So materialism is unthreatened, so long as one understands materialism about a thesis about what kinds of objects (as opposed to properties of objects) there are.
  6. Oct 26, 2006 #5
    Rade I hope you are joking..

    "the sensation of pain can be controlled by a gene, and since genes do not regulate non-physical attributes, "pain itself" is a physical entity"

    Of course this gene only controls the physical attributes, but not the phenomenal sensation the organism feels.
    If you think you can falsify this by merely pointing out the existence of a gene I suggest you think some more about this problem.
  7. Oct 26, 2006 #6


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    can'tthinkofone, if elementary particles are in a constant state of well being, surely your professor would not object to being reduced to them? Suggest the ultimate state of happiness would then be stepping into a particle accelerator and being obliterated.
  8. Oct 26, 2006 #7


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    All of us here have thought about this problem a lot more, in my opinion, than it deserves. It appears to me that this insistance that feeling is a "thing" whose existence must be accounted for, and that the failure to do so is a challenge to the materialist world view, is just whistling in the dark by people who, for whatever reason, cannot bring themselves to accept that they are machines.

    "Feeling" is what happens when your brain systems operate. We are animals who are conscious of most of these feelings, but that doesn't make them any more than what they are. Consciousness itself is of the same nature as these feelings, a product of brain operation. There is not one scrap of objective evidence otherwise.
  9. Oct 26, 2006 #8
    I agree. Pain is the alarm bell that says something in the body is being compromised by physical damage. We are aware of pain because pain is the result of certain physical actions (neurological) causing other neurological reactions to take place in our brain (painful ones). All neurological sequences are physical. Therefore pain is physical.

    Then there is "mind over matter" which is another psychicist thing altogether. Although the mind is physical or "matter" too, it can be used to modify our response to stimulus which is also another physical chain of events.
  10. Oct 26, 2006 #9

    And what are they?
  11. Oct 26, 2006 #10
    Once again, this is not logical.
    Just because all neurological sequences are physical, does not make the pain itself physical. There's a step there you are jumping over.
    That step has torn billions of people up for centuries also.
  12. Oct 26, 2006 #11


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    You mean feelings? Qualia? Consciousness? Here's a a possibility. They are processes by which our short term and long term memories are maintained. "Red" is a cloud of references to our previous encounters with red things.

    Maybe that's wrong in detail, but something of that general character is likely to be what is going on. Psychologists and neurologists with their fMRIs can light up our brains in real time as we experience and see how the activity moves and changes. Trying to make my experience of red into a chunk of reality - especially a chunk of reality "out there" is just misguided.
  13. Oct 26, 2006 #12
    The problem I have with materialism is that in theory, matter can be divided up infinitely.
    The idea that the universe gets smaller and smaller in one direction and bigger and bigger in the other, smells foul to me. I believe in wholeness in the universe and if the universe is conscious in part, it must be conscious as a whole. In that respect, your professor and I agree.
    There is also the issue of matter being a different manifestation of energy. There really is no “substance” to energy and one might think the same about matter.
  14. Oct 27, 2006 #13


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    First, your preferred belief system is nice for you but why on earth should it constrain anybody else?

    Second, your understanding of what science says is seriously defective. You need to spec up on quantum mechanics a little. There is a finite probability (but truly, truly eeny-weeny) that an electron at the far end of the universe has a correlation with some electron in your brain.
  15. Oct 27, 2006 #14
    I agree. The pain example only demonstrates interaction between something which we call physical, and something else which bears no resemblance to what we call physical.

    Even IF so (which is not the case, since ur example only demonstrates interaction between pain and genes), i dont think it would falsify panpsychism. Why? Because it doesnt explain how physical genes are different from the rest of physical reality, and why that difference would cause physical genes to produce pain, and not cause the rest of physical reality to produce some other experience.
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2006
  16. Oct 27, 2006 #15


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    Neither one of you has given anything but a bald assertion that there is "another step" or that how our brain interacts with pain "bears no resemblance to what we call physical". Many complex things are going on in our brains in this interaction, and our consciousness of the pain is only a subset of those processes. At least that is what the increasingly accurate and fine grained fMRI studies clearly imply. To deny them just because of some traditional belief is not rational. And philosophy, in distinction to religion, does seek to be rational.

    I can't make head or tail out of this argument. Genes are specific agents; a gene from my body might be inserted into some other organism - a mouse or even a yeast for example - to get more detailed information about how it functions. Obviously in the yeast, a gene that supports my bodiy's pain response wouldn't be expected to have the same action, but in a mouse a reaction closely analogous to my own would be expected and measurable. What has that got to do with panpsychism? My only gripe against panspsychism is that it's either an unsupposrted folk belief or else a conclusion from a false premise.
  17. Oct 28, 2006 #16
    Feelings like pain, hunger, lust etc. are stimulus that the body uses in order to get things it needs (hunger) to survive (pain) and reproduce (lust). Effectively, feelings are "Tricks" that the body plays on your consciousness in order so that you can 'work' for it.
  18. Oct 28, 2006 #17

    Yet we still don't have the faintest idea what consciousness is.


    When you pinch your arm, you feel a sensation right?
    If we could calculate and predict everything that happens in your head, brain and body when you pinch your arm, we still wouldn't be able to capture the sensation itself.
    The sensation itself seems to be an abstracted sensation, one that emerges when a bunch of physical things happen, but you need YOUR consciousness to even comprehend that it is a sensation.

    In theory, the sensation doesn't even exist, it's the brain that 'makes it happen' somehow.
    And here's another kicker.. Even if we didn't feel pain if we had no memory of it, then the sensation would STILL be 'phenomenal'.
    This is because regardless of how something achieves consciousness, once it does, and it may all be physical, the subjective world it creates, especially in regards to external stimuli, does not exist in nature.

    That's why we can't read minds, or download our brain data to our computers.
    Like I've said before, who could deny that there is a piece missing, and who can say that he can explain all of conscious experience with the knowledge and technology we have now?
    Obviously there is a piece missing.
  19. Oct 28, 2006 #18
    Our minds are the product of our brains. With that said, our emotions, beliefs, memory, ect. are all results of the physical. If our brain was wired differently we wouldn't be ourselves.

    Science cannot however explain what causes conscious self awareness. What causes distinctions between the minds of organisms? We all know our own brains and our consciousness, but do we really know for sure whether other beings or lifeforms have the same conscious self awareness you have? We often never question the assumption that all beings with brains can think. Yes, they can think in the physical sense but all your consciousness is concentrated in your brain making it seem like you are the only one that is conscious.

    We often assume that other forms of life are more conscious than lifeless matter. But is this really true? Think about it; is there really any evidence that other people have a conscious self awareness with subjective experiences the way you do? If they are how come you don't share consciousness in this monistic universe? Or perhaps there is some illusion that you are some separate consciousness or that you are the only consciousness. The Hindu Advaita Vedanta called this Maya (illusion) arguing that all individual atman's are equivalent to jivatman or the universal soul. But there isn't any proof for this as this can only be proved consciously.

    From my subjective experience I have noticed that only my brain seems conscious because reality is derived centrally from my mind. So in reality the mind of a fellow man is no different than the mind of an inanimate form of matter. They exist but only physically. This may mean that you yourself are the only one that is conscious in the universe, and thus panpsychism doesn't hold a whole lot of evidence from the point of view of subjective experience. Is there really more proof that a fellow human mind is any more conscious than an electron or a rock? The only way to prove the consciousness of others is to directly experience other assumed forms of consciousness. Knowing I don't share consciousness with other people, it must mean that maybe I am the only one that is conscious thus disproving panpsychism altogether.

    Please note I am not necessarily saying none of you aren't conscious. In fact if you really think about from your point of view you are the only one that is consciously self existence thus disproving my subjective experience. Meaning you are the only true mind in non-physical sense that experiances the various "emotions" of the mind.
  20. Oct 28, 2006 #19
    Sorry if that last post seemed a bit complicated and confusing. It is hard to explain what I am trying to say because the concept I am refering to can only be experienced. Everyone that is truly conscious has the experience I am talking about ;).
  21. Oct 28, 2006 #20
    Silver, great post.

    I've been thinking about it, and I don't want to drag in extra 'material' for discussion, but really, this ties in with determinism.
    If everything is playing itself out since the beginning(big bang), then how can consciousness exist as we see it, and free will and that yada.

    In a deterministic universe there's really no reason for anything to be aware of itself, seeing as it doesn't make a difference in what happens.
    That doesn't sit quite well with me.
    Being aware of oneself and seeing choices that one can make, and thus acting upon them, as opposed to being some sort of organic machine, that's just acting out whatever the physical objects do, aka atoms and particles.

    Then again, nothing in the universe can escape the physical restraints that are in place.
    Your brain and body are both physical, so your brain and body will only be capable of doing what it is designed to do, or at least, what the physical restraints allow them to do.

    My point is that, you are right, we cannot prove that anyone else are self aware.
    All actions and little details done by humans, can might as well just be physical objects playing themselves out in a logical and deterministic manner.

    That theory doesn't sit quite well with me though..

    Also, I'd like to give an example to selfAdjoint of qualia that is very much present, but cannot be directly studied.

    Namely, vision.
    To compress the problem I'm having with everything we're discussing, I will show an example of what I mean.

    A human can perceive the world around him, and what he sees is in effect, an image(or many many images in order). This image doesn't really exist anywhere except in the conscious mind.
    Photons hit the retina from all over the place, it goes up the nerve and into the brain, and the brain then assembles the image from all the information, which then the consciousness sees.

    In physical reality, all we see are the photons, the electrical impulses, the brain matter, the eyes, the world, but the composed image, even though very much a real thing as we all know, is nowhere to be found.
    We can compose such an image ourselves by using a photo camera, but then the image is at least physical when shot.

    So I ask all of you who say everything is physical, where is this image that we all see?
    Maybe there are some ubersmall 'consciousness' particle clouds in the brain though. That'd at least explain it.
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