Re: Defining Materialism 

(Clarification 2 on Materialism - Response to Ali Sina)

By Aparthib Zaman

E-mail: [email protected]  



Ali Sina is trying to pidgeon hole me into a vague definition of materialism and creating a false dichotomy between materialism and spiritualism, as if I have to subscribe to either or. First of all spiritualism itself is a vague concept, lacking a precise logical definition. So this dichotomy between materialism and spiritualism is flawed to be begin with. Secondly the definition of materialism itself is either vague or can be too broad to be able use such definition meaningfully in a debate where precise meaning of terms are crucial. By debating on semantics we have entered the realm of professional philosophical debate, so it is not proper to quote dictionary definition of terms to base the debate on. When trying to pidgeon hole anyone into any "ism", it must be ensured that the "ism" is defined precisely. For a rationalist, I contend that there is no need for any "ism". Science, logic and evidence is the only guiding principle for a rationalist. Anyway if we have to settle the issue of who is a materialist, first I must mention that most of the definitions of materialism are either vague, lacking a logically precise definition that can meet today's strict criterion for a rationalist, based on scientific insight. Let me now offer a precise definition of materialism and then try to convince Ali Sina that by that definition I am not a materialist, neither is Ali Sina, but Paul Edwards is. But there is still a fundamental difference between Ali Sina and myself even though we both are not materialist, according to my precise definition. The end is to precisely point out the difference between myself, Sina and Paul Edwards, and as a means to that end, a precise definition of materialism is in order. A vague dictionary definition of materialism cannot draw that fine distinction between the three of us. For this I have to rely on my other articles where I introduced the fundamental unknown of the universe, the "?". I am giving the links to two article again where I have introduced in a symbolic way the ultimate "?" :  (A SCIENTIFIC LOOK AT LIFE, DEATH & IMMORTALITY),

and,  (A guide to debating religious issues)

Basically the premise is that the entire OBSERVABLE universe is explainable (in principle, much is already explained, by OCCAM's razor and inductive arguments, the remaining unexplained links of the chain of explanation can be assumed to be explainable with further scientific insight) by the laws of Physics (Including Life, Consciousness, love, altruism, stars, galaxies..). The "?" is the unknown cause (If there is any, we don't know if there is) for the laws of Physics. This is a true mystery for there is no theory yet to explain the existence of the laws of physics by yet another law (Physics cannot explain itself, just like Euclid's theorem cannot be used to derive Euclid's theorem).

Having introduced the ultimate mystery "?", the three possible view one can take regarding the "?" is :

1. The view that "?" = NULL.

Implication: The laws of Physics are uncreated, the ultimate cause of the universe (i.e the buck for creating the universe stops at the laws of Physics, there is no higher level of causation above the laws of Physics)

Note: This is a BELIEF because we cannot justify this view by logic or evidence.

2. "?" = God/Spiritual force/Cosmic Force..

Note: This is also a belief, and moreover the belief also assumes a a particular nature (Or tries to ascribe a nature) of the "?" by giving special names to it ("God", "Spiritual Force etc"). Finally the words "God/Spiritual Force/Cosmic Force" are not amenable to a logically precise definition, which is also free of any circularity, logical fallacy etc. The use of such words at best reflect a certain instinctive sense or feeling.

3. The view that "?" = NOT NULL

This is also a belief, but the difference between this and the view in (2) above is that no words are being used to describe the "?", i.e the nature of "?" is left wide open, admitting a complete ignorance about it (Except to require that it cannot be NULL).

4. The view that it is not known whether "?" is NULL or NON-NULL. So the adherents of this view refuse to commit to any speculation at all regarding either the existence or nature of "?", unlike the adherents of views 1, 2, and 3 above where some commitment is made to venture a speculation as to the existence and/or nature of "?"

Now where does materialism fits into all these?. I define materialists as adherents of only view (1). So adherents of (2)-(4) are not materialists. Adherents of (2) can be called "spiritualists", although such view is logically imprecise because of the lack of a precise defintion of "God", "Spiritual Force".. etc. Adherents of view (3) are known as "Platonists" in philosophical jargon. ADHERENTS OF (4) ARE KNOWN AS NONCOGNTIVISTS. Rationalism forces one to take the view of a noncognitivist, since an apriori belief of any sort (All the views 1-3 resort to some belief) is not consistent with rationalism, this is the view that I take, consequently. I cannot overemphasize the significance of noncognitivism. As a general term this refer to the impossibility or meaninglessness of claiming knowledge about an issue/object. There are times when acknowledging complete ignorance is the most rational thing to do. Silence is golden truly applies in such situation. Remember that Rationalists are forced to utter the words "God", "spirituality", only because those terms were invented and foisted off to the general vocabulary, by those who hold views (2) and possibly (3), for whom "God" would be a metaphorical term to mean a first cause for the creation of laws of Physics. If theists never introduced those words, a strict rationalist would never have used/thought of those words to begin with. I must emphasize that the difference between (1) and (2) is non-trivial. View (3) leaves the ultimate cause of existence open, creating ample room for a sense of awe and mystery. View (1), that of a materialist, does not leave any room for such sense of awe and mystery. I certainly do not belong to that camp. To me the fact that there IS a universe, rather than not, IS a profound mystery. But I would not rush into a "just so" theory to explain that mystery as the adherents of views (1)-(3) purport to do. I have tried to adhere to the style of professional philosophers in defining and phrasing terms and expressions. Please see the following links for a professional philosopher's discussion on noncognitivism, impossibility of a logically consistent definition of God etc in conjunction with my discussion above to help understand the logic precisely.

I think Ali Sina takes the view of (2). Paul Edwards takes view (1). But I leave it up to them to tell us where they fit in into the above scheme.

Now to Ali Sina's response. Capitalized words indicate emphasis. Ali Sina engaged in straw man fallacy (putting words in my mouth) quite often. The following are examples of strawman because I didn't make those exact statements.

For Examples he said:

1. "You kept saying it is not observable and hence it is impossible"

(I never made the connection "not observable ---> impossible")

2. "So if you are certain that soul and God do not exist just because you can't define them that"

(I never phrased it that way anywhere, linking existence with nondefinability)

I would request Ali Sina to quote me exactly and offer a line by line refutation. Paraphrasing others' statements is dangerous when the debate becomes a hairsplitting one on precise meaning of terms and statements.

Now Ali Sina mentioned Martian figure as an example of something not "well-defined" yet not dismissed by science either. He grossly misunderstood what I meant "not well-defined". From the context it was foolproof to understand that I was referring to not well-defined LOGICALLY, i.e the concept itself being not definable logically. Martiam face was an appearance on the surface. Nothing logically ill-defined about it. We see marks, scratches, figures on clouds all the time.

SINA: "a person may have suicidal thoughts. It may not be clear why this individual has such thoughts. That does not mean science will disregard that because it has no explanation for it."

APARTHIB: A red herring. Suicidal thoughts are not logically ill-defined CONCEPT, because it is a sense perception, like feeling hot or cold etc. And I never stated that Science disregards that because it has no explanation for it.". Such misquoting, wrong paraphrasing, i.e strawman fallacy is seriously undermining your integrity in logical discourse. Science tries to explain things that has no explanation until there is one. It never gives up. Feelings, emotions are the subject of the New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. Please do yourself a great favor by reading the Book "Why We Feel: The Science of Emotions" by Victor Johnston.

SINA: Do you have any convincing evidence that soul does not exist? "No-one-has-been-able-to-prove-it-yet" is not an answer

APARTHIB: By now you should be familiar with some common logical fallacies to appreciate the fallacy you have committed above. It is a fallacy of loaded/complex question. I don't even acknowledge that there exists a consistent definition of soul to even TALK about "it's" existence or not. Besides if you have done some basic reading in logical fallacies then you would realize that "proving that something does not exists" is not a valid logical process. Proving a universal negative is logically impossible. Rather the burden is on those who claims that something exists to prove that it exists. Asking the reverse is also known as shifting the burden of proof fallacy. This may be first time you are hearing about this fallacy, but better late than never.

SINA: So if you are certain that soul and God do not exist just because you can't define them that belief is based on ignorance


Again a misquote/straw man fallacy. I never stated anywhere that Soul or God DOES NOT exist BECAUSE they cannot be defined. I said clearly that we cannot TALK about the existence or nonexistence of logically ill-defined notions like God, Soul. Are they same thing to you? Then I will be concerned as to your competence in tackling the sophistry of shrewd religious apologists.

SINA: Take the example of motherly instinct or other instincts that are also laws without which animals would be able to procreate or survive. In human kingdom all laws governing the physical world, the plant and the animal world apply but there are laws that are uniquely tailored for humans. Take the example of altruistic love. Only humans are capable of endangering their own lives to save someone else's, especially if that someone else is a stranger. Justice, compassion, love, etc. are natural laws that apply to humans only.

APARTHIB: Your view above is reflective of your unfamiliarity with the field of "Evolutionary Psychology", a branch of science (Biology). Altruism, love, agresion all emotions are now pretty well-understood in terms of evolutionary adaptation. The book by Victor Johnston or many other books on "Evolutionary Psychology" will give you that insight. Feelings and emotions are not outside of the known scientific laws. Also there is no abrupt transition in some emotions being only present in humans, and absent in other animals. Modern biological studies show a rather continuous transition, many lower animals show semblances of many humanlike emotion. The differences reflect the differences in their brains, which also goes through a continuous variation from lower to higher animals.

SINA: Dark matter has not been observed or detected by any means. But its presence is inferred because of its gravitational effect on visible matter such as stars and galaxies

APARTHIB: You do not understand the meaning of observation in science. Inference is a vital component of observation. Observation does not always mean DIRECT act of acquiring knowledge in science. It can be through indirect inference, like quarks, gluons, dark matter. Scientific inferences are based on precise measurements of other directly observable properties and applying established scientific laws. No guesswork anywhere. Blackholes, planets of distant stars are observed this way.

Ali Sina: Well, it is not clear to me what are you saying here. Is it possible that anything could exist beyond our observation or is it not?

Aparthib: Its amazing you find it unclear. Yes, it is possible that something could exist that is beyond our observation NOW. Dark matter is an example of something that existed even before we "observed" it. But it is not possible to REFER to it by specific name BEFORE it is observed, EXCEPT objects whose existence are theoretically predicted like Blackholes were predicted before they were observed(Cygnus-X1). God/Soul/Alien Abductio.. etc are not predicted by any law, and some of them well-defined like God and Soul.

I think I have clarified things as best as I possibly could. I may be wrong. Or maybe even the best explanations would not suffice for some. Lets move on.

- Aparthib

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