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Materialism vs immaterialism and the role of physics


To: David Y.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Materialism vs immaterialism and the role of physics
Date: 15 May 2007 11:05

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 7 May, with your fourth essay for the Metaphysics program in response to the question, 'What is matter? Does the physicist's account of the nature of matter have a significant role to play in the philosophical dispute between the materialist and the immaterialist?', and your email of 15 May with your notes in response to unit 13.

I want to start with an interesting speculation that you make, of a 'parallel world... in which the predominant Realism of the time was based on the objective existence of an X', where the term X refers to something which is not 'matter'.

In response, I'm tempted to quip something along the lines of Mr Spock, 'It's matter Jim, but not as we know it.'

It's one thing to say that matter might be very different in its ultimate physical structure in some other possible world and quite another to say that there might be a possible world where there was no matter but something else, an X, instead.

Descartes defined the essence of the concept matter in terms of extension and in doing so he was partly right. 'Matter' is a concept which goes along with the concept of space. However, as Leibniz argued, the concept of an 'occupier of space' fails to capture what we really mean by 'occupy'. Descartes envisages three dimensional volumes where various qualities are exemplified. Leibniz's response is that so far no reason has been given why volumes cannot overlap. What is it for a given volume to be 'impenetrable' by another? The missing aspect is that of 'force'. It is a priori true that that which occupies space exerts a force preventing other space occupiers from occupying the same space.

Imagine a computer game where all the objects, including yourself, have the capacity to pass through other objects at will. There has to be some rules which explain why things move or do not move, or how any object can act on any other (do you have a gun? how do you hold it? how can the plasma bursts hit anything?).

In this sense, 'matter' may be defined in Leibnizian (later, Schopenhaurian) terms as 'space occupier that exerts a force'. This isn't a very informative definition. We don't want to rule out a priori that some things can 'overlap' (or maybe we do - as David Wiggins has argued on the basis of his concept of a 'criterion of identity' but that's another story).

Enough of that, you get the gist.

Berkeley was hostile to the notion of hypothetico-deductive explanation (and therefore to Newtonian 'corpuscles') in a way which is not explained by his immaterialism. Your argument brings this out. There is no reason, in principle, why the immaterialist should not avail himself of the (pragmatically) best available notion of 'best explanation' of the phenomena.

The real difference between the materialist and immaterialist comes down to this: for the metaphysical materialist, physics gives the ultimate account of what is (filtered, of course, through the dialectic). Whereas, for the immaterialist, the physical account is merely the 'best theory of the phenomena', which is ultimately true in virtue of the existence of something which cannot be described in physical terms - God's mind, or monads, or noumena, or the Absolute. For the immaterialist, there is necessarily more to say rather than (as one might first think) less.

Unit 13

First, I have to tell you that for most of my time as a graduate student, the term 'dialectic' was a magic word for me. It was the most important notion in my (admittedly limited) philosophical vocabulary. My exemplars were the later Wittgenstein (in Philosophical Investigations), Bradley's Appearance and Reality, and the second section of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (the Dialectic of Pure Reason). I struggled with Hegel but found the bits I understood inspiring, especially in the 'Science of Logic' which is mind-blowing by any standard.

As you have perceived, dialectic is the key to this program. I don't really have a lot to say about what you have written because you have 'got it'.

In the unit I didn't mention Leibniz's argument from the beginning of the Monadology, that whatever ultimately exists cannot have 'parts' divisible ad infinitum and therefore cannot be matter. This is an interesting argument in itself which seems altogether to bypass the issues that we have been considering. No need to start with egocentrism and its negation, or the nature of perception and the problem of the external world. Matter can't be real. The only other thing given in our experience is experience itself. Therefore 'perceptions' must constitute the ultimate reality.

Where is the flaw in Leibniz's argument? is there any?

Regarding mysticism, it should hardly be surprising that Hegel follows a route similar to the Gnostics. He was well aware of the connection and with the connection with Plotinus who holds a not altogether dissimilar doctrine - having written encyclopaedic 'Lectures on the History of Philosophy' (a great second-hand catch if you can find it, three volumes translated by Haldane and Simpson). Look up, 'Hegel Plotinus Gnostics' in Google and you will find a rich selection of references. Hegel was also aware of the connection with Indian philosophy.

But, of course, the fact that disparate thinkers have followed the same route is what you would expect - from the dialectic.

All the best,