Materialism and Physicalism

The heyday of materialism was the 19th century, when it seemed to be clear that in time the universe and everything in it would be explained by one thing, the material. Materialism was the world view that the only truly existing entity was matter. All other things (particularly thinking) could be explained by recourse to material explanation. Matter thought to be tiny hard balls of solidity or extension in three dimensions. The ontology of the world, i.e.: what exists? was answered by using just one word matter.

This was the culmination of a couple of centuries of wrangling over the Cartesian mind/body problem. It was agreed that logically, only one thing can actually exist, matter won the argument over mind and philosophical materialism reigned supreme until the advent of quantum mechanics. Then materialism failed.

Quantum mechanics and subsequent physics cannot be explained with such a simplistic account of the world. A new ontology evolved which is now used as the fundamental basis for all that exists. The new ontology includes such ephemeral entities as fields, quantum particles and spacetime points. These are the new entities that physicists see as being the fundamentals of existence. For the casual observer there was no major paradigm shift. Matter could not explain everything but the new physical entities being described could. Overnight the average materialist became a physicalist and basically assumed that it was more or less the same. But a close attention to the detail and we can see that it is not.

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A Definition of Monism

Metaphysical monism is an ancient problem which still continues to this day, at least for some. A definition of monism can be framed quite succinctly; monism states that there is just one kind of thing that exists in the universe, everything is thus reducible to this one thing.

The earliest form of this problem was in ancient Greece. The Greeks had a scientific belief that the world was made up of earth, fire, air and water. What they attempted to understand was whether these four constituents of the universe were ultimate, or was there something more fundamental that underpinned or gave rise to them. They were asking, “Is the world made up of earth, fire, air and water or is the world made up of just one thing that can appear as earth, fire, air and water.”

From our modern post scientific perspective such a view can seem rather primitive. We know for example that the four primitive substances of the ancient Greeks are all reducible to molecules and atoms. We can continue the reduction to protons and neutrons and still further to quarks, or at least to quarks and electrons. The problem has been solved then, or at least the problem as the Greeks saw it has been solved. The debate concerning monism is still alive for some, though in a different format.

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Understanding Spinoza

If you are ever going to get more than a brief understanding of pantheism then it is vital to get to grips with understanding Spinoza. Spinoza was not the first pantheist, but he is probably the most influential pantheist since the time of the enlightenment. The decline of theism and the rise of alternative beliefs can be traced back directly and indirectly to Spinoza. He was not only a chief architect in the rise and success of science; he was also a fundamental force behind the gradual decline of theological authority. Understanding Spinoza is not easy, but the difficulties involved in grasping his ideas are no less worthy of making the effort.

If you were to take a random page and quote form Spinoza’s main work, the ethics, you will no doubt find a sentence in which you understand all of the individual words. Yet I am reasonably sure that you would also find a sentence which is seemingly incomprehensible too. For example: The first axiom that Spinoza presents is “Everything which exists, exists either in itself or in something else.”

An axiom is something that is assumed to be self evidently true, so Spinoza must have presented this axiom as something which he believed to be one of nature’s ultimate and self evident truths. The whole of Spinoza’s philosophy is set out in this way. He begins with a set of definitions, which he then uses to write his axioms. He then moves to working out how the universe must be given his definitions and on the assumption that his axioms are in fact true. To that extent his work is a work in logic, similar to a Euclidean system. It is probably the case that if you were to agree and accept just one of his axioms then you are logically committed to accepting his other axioms which follow rationally and necessarily from each other. In doing this Spinoza creates a set of principles and consequently a metaphysical system which he considers to be how the universe must be.

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Define Theism and atheism

The definitions of theism and atheism should both be very clear. Yet at times because of the heat of debate in which theism and atheism are discussed the real meaning of each becomes blurred. Dictionaries are often considered the arbiters of definition, though reaching for a dictionary should be a last resort. Dictionaries are not definers of words. Dictionaries list words and how they are used in common speech. As a philosopher it is quite legitimate to define ones own terms provided one is clear that is what you are doing. If a philosopher defines a term to have a specific meaning then the dictionaries definition is irrelevant. Should a philosophers use of a term become standard then it will be the dictionary that adapts to the new usage. It is not the public who adapt to a dictionary definition, rather the dictionary changes to how words are used.

Theism can be a difficult word to define because theists themselves have so many different ideas of what their theism entails. Not only are there three primary theist religions, there are a number of sub groups within each religion further diluting any notion of there being a clear and distinct definition.

Atheism is easy to define. Atheism is the belief that theism is false. But as that definition rests on our understanding of what theism entails we are back to the problem of seeking a clear definition of theism. So for the purpose of this blog I shall make clear precisely how I define the concept of theism and by default how atheism then becomes defined.

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Verification and Falsification

The process of science is undertaken through two similar but distinct paths; verification and falsification. The two, though different, have more similarities than they have differences. Verification and falsification are based on two strands of knowing something; these are empirical data and rationality.

Empirical knowledge is basically that knowledge which is presented to our senses. Direct empirical knowledge is generally considered reliable and so is a route to knowledge. If I can report that there is a white thing in front of me that appears to have the characteristics of a wall, then it is reasonable to assume that I am standing in front of a wall.
Taking a step away from this direct knowledge does lead us away from certainty. For example, if I was to claim that yesterday I had a wall experience then I am adding another category of explanation to my wall experience, that of memory. A remembered experience is not as reliable as a current experience. But a current sensory experience is one of the best and most reliable chunks of knowledge that we can have.

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I have been working on two posts over the last couple of days. The first to be posted I have decided to place on The Rational God website as a more permanent fixture of what the book discusses. It is an analogical discussion which is fairly tight and should give you a better idea of the books content. The title is “The Structure of Nature: The Nature of Structure.”

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Physics and God

It is often claimed that physics and God are attempts at explaining the same thing. That thing is the universe. The four big questions of existence are: “Why are the laws of nature what they are? Why does the universe consist of the things it does? How did those things arise? How did the universe achieve its organization?” Physics and God are both used as methods to answer these four questions.

In my previous post I touched on the issue of pre-Christian beliefs and made the point that Pagans were very disposed to truth seeking. The Ancient Greeks left behind a massive volume of literature which is still relevant today. The two most notable writers of the period Aristotle and Plato are essential reading for anybody who seeks to probe the ultimate questions. Yet with the coming of Christianity they were cast aside and ignored. Though modern science sprouted out of Christian Europe, we could mount an argument that it was due to the legacy of the Greeks and despite Christian philosophy that enlightenment came. Christianity waged war against the Paganism it replaced, and it dragged its feet (and still does) against the scientific thinking that has all but replaced Christianity. Pagan philosophy and science both seek to discover the truth in a way that Christianity does not.

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