Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Materialism



It's spring here at Thistlemoor where I live. Last Friday was sunny and warm but thunderstorms arrived in the evening, so Saturday was rainy, cold and very windy. The wind took down a Horse Chestnut tree Aesculus hippocastanum. This species is native to Europe but there are several species native to this region and we tend to call them Buckeye trees. The tree has suffered from some sort of canker disease killing one half of it's split trunk. I knew the tree was unstable, but resisted cutting it down because I love the candlestick blossoms so. The tree in full bloom on the ground was quite a finale! The canker disease has become widespread in Europe. It's quite worrisome that so many of our fine tree suffer so many diseases.

Sunday night we had a hard frost. The date of the late frosts isn't unusual, but it does seem that plants are further along than the used to be when the frosts come. Last year frost killed the Mulberry leave for the first time I remember, and Sunday's frost did it again. I notice dark leaves of frost damage all around, but as it always is spring is an explosion of growth.

My niece is planning a wedding here in June. I'm trying to do my spring planting, but there are always so many things to do in between the rains. The grass grows so fast and keeping it mown takes time away from the planting. There always seems such urgency this time of year.

In my last post I thought to write a post about how artist and creative types can make a living in these times of the Internet. It's a pregnant subject, but despite thinking about it quite a lot and collecting a list of links, I don't have much to offer on the subject.

The frequent complaint about my writing is that I'm too prolix. This blog has so little traffic that hardly matters here, except for the realization that it gets some traffic. Recently at a social network site I frequent a fellow from Kenya complained about the length of my post saying that it costs a lot of money to access the Internet there. The thread in question was a highly speculative topic on the nature of causes and lost causes. My post at slightly over 600 words didn't seem that damn long. But as this social network has few participants the stinging realization was that nobody was interested in what I had to say--lol.

A somewhat new arrival on the Ugandan blog scene is Freethought Kampala. I love the blog, it's thoughtful and very well done. Soon after Freethought Kampala was inaugurated the 27th Comrade arrived in the comments to contest mindless atheism. I have an enormous affection for the 27th Comrade, high among the reasons is he reads my posts. The emergence of Ugandan blogs is something I've watched with interest. From the beginning the 27th Comrade has been a frequent commenter and linker to the blogs. He's been a consistent booster but he's not afraid of being contentious. I'm not sure what got him banned from Freethought Kampala, whether it was the contentiousness of his comments or simply the length of them.

Anyhow, back around the beginning of May James Onen had a post at Freethinker Kampala, My Article In The Daily Monitor Newspaper which I wanted to comment on. But having been recently chastised about the length of my posts, I thought it better to make my comments on a post here. I then set about avoiding doing that post. Meanwhile the 27th Comrade and I have been arguing back and forth at his blog over posts that are essentially extensions of the debate begun at Freethinker Kampala.

The 27th Comrade's posts are very much worth reading, but it takes some time to do so, not just because of their length but the dept of thought in them. I certainly am not sufficiently educated in philosophy to really do his ideas justice in my comments, but when has my ignorance ever prevented me from talking? Nevertheless, in our back and forth, especially on this post it seemed only fair for me to try to develop some of my thoughts here instead of in his comments. And that prospect reminded me of the comments I wanted to make in re James Onen's post.

Onen had an op-ed published in The Daily Monitor on the subject of witchcraft. Included in his article was a challenge:
Anyone who thinks witchcraft works should contact me and collect two million shillings upon a successful demonstration of this so called black-magic.
The danger I see in the challenge is just what qualifies as witchcraft "working"? What came to mind was an observation the anthropologist Gregory Bateson--surely a freethinker--made about the matter:
I believe that all spells, meditations, incantations, suggestions, procedures of sympathetic and contagious magic, and the like, do indeed work--but they work upon the practitioner (as does "psychic energy"). But I presume that none of these procedures has any effect at all upon any other person unless that other participates in the spell or suggestion or at least has information or expectation that such spell or procedure has been performed.

But where these conditions are met and the other person is partly aware of what is being done and aware of its purposes aimed at himself or herself, I am sure that magical procedures can be very effective either to kill or cure, to harm or bless.
It's probably too simplistic a way of making the point, but a challenge like James Onen's taking Bateson's view into account, ought to be careful to make sure that ringers are excluded from the demonstration.

The 27th Comrade uses fairly formal reasoning. This has advantages and disadvantage. One of the advantages is that there is a structure to follow. A disadvantage for me about it is that I'm not well-versed in formal logic and I'm not so sure formal logic really applies to some of the rhetorical uses he put it too. Anyhow this post from Feburary, It's The Axioms, Friend provides a good introduction to his approach. Meanwhile 70 or so posts later I'm think in the weeds. The 27th Comrade has referenced Goedel's Incompleteness Theorems, here, and in a more recent post insists on completeness, here. In the first case it seems to me that he's using Godel's theorems as a sort of analogy. In the second case my sense is that completeness is more narrowly defined than to the circumstances it's being applied. In any case there's a technical level of the posts which I'm really not competent to address except in a clumsy way.

In looking up the post on Axioms, I noticed that I commented about Bateson on that post. Something that's become evident in our discussions is we both find hard materialism, a mechanistic view that reduces everything to physical bodies subject to impacts and displacements results in some horrible thinking. The 27th Comrade goes after this line of thinking in his formal way. I wanted to say a bit how I come at it, and the thinking of Gregory Bateson is a touchstone to me.

Bateson was opposed to mechanistic thinking about life, but he also opposed supernatural explanations. A central topic in my conversations with The 27th Comrade has been the intersection of Darwinian theory and the new atheism.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck is primarily known these days for a fallacy concerning inhertiance of acquired characteristics. But he was an important proponent pre-Darwin of evolution. Prior to Lamarck for most naturalists a hierarchy was assumed with God at the top. Mind emanated from the top down so to speak. Lamarck retained the order of life, but as Bateson observed in his book Mind and Nature:
A Necessary Unity:" The unity of epistemology was retained in spite of a shift in emphasis from transcendent Logos to immanent mind.
As I understand the 27th Comrade this idea of immanent mind makes not sense to him. Nevertheless, Bateson provides a critique of materialism from this perspective.

Bateson proposed six criteria of mental process in his book "Mind and Nature." He goes into some depth, but I'll just list the criteria here:

1. A mind is an aggregate of interacting parts or components.
2. The interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference, and difference is a nonsubstantial phenomenon not located in space or time; difference is related to negentropy and entropy rather than to energy.
3. Mental process requires collateral energy.
4. Mental process requires circular (or more complex) chains of determination.
5. In mental process, the effects of difference are to be regarded as transforms (i.e., coded versions) of events which preceded them. The rules of such transformation must be comparatively stable (i.e., more stable than the content) but are themselves subject to transformation.
6. The description and classification of these processes of transformation disclose a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena.
Bateson wasn't so sure of the actual content of his criteria, but felt sure that the idea that some structuring of "epistemology, evolution, and epigenesis is possible." My sense, and it's not terribly informed, is that these criteria have been met by some scholars favorably, but perhaps most contentious being the recruitment of logical types into the final criteria. That is a matter I suspect the 27th Comrade has some very useful things to say.

At this point it's clear that I've written long and haven't gotten very far, the very complaint I so often hear about my writing. I'll get around to saying more about Bateson's alternative critique of maerialism if the 27th Comrade thinks it at all interesting. But to close out this session I wanted to briefly go back to the subject of witchcraft "working."

Frequently when I think of prayer I think of some purpose like "Oh Lord, Won't You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz." Heathen that I am, generally the prayers I endure politely in silence are ones spoken by fundamentalist Christians. I may not be quite fair but the words that stand out to me are with hands up "Lord,just, just just . . ." and my mind tends to fill in the gap with "titillate me!" But this is not the only sort of prayer. The prayers in my prayer book of youth are remarkable to the extent that they are designed to "work upon the practitioner." The sort of work to be effected is a change in perspective to a wider and less selfish view; for example, "Lord make me an instrument of thy peace ..." What I notice about prayer of this sort is that it's not necessary really to believe in transcendent Logos to feel relevant to a person. Even a dyed in the wool atheist can find the change in perspective such prayers offer valuable. Even atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens talk about feeling a sense of the noumenous. Such a sense it seems is an apprehension of relationship.

Bateson points out that prayer works so well for oneself we are easily tempted to apply prayer to what we want out there. He thought when we do this we move from religion to magic. What I think is often lost on unbelievers like me is the nuance and essential validity of much religion and prayers which help us to see ourselves as part of it, that is in relation to a universe of relations, are a fine example of what we miss. Separating real religion from magic is not just for the religious, but something more of us would do well to take seriously.

5 comments:

The 27th Comrade said...

I think it is the length of the comments that got me banned. The problem is, as Noam Chomsky noted, when you need to speak some kinds of truths that are not widely-held, you can't do shorter than a sermon. I hated that I had to do those disrespectfully-long comments, but I had no alternative.

I find that your posts are no necessarily too long; and the preambles about things that are simple and easy-going, like the spring weather, tend to make your blog posts something of a retreat from the noisy Internet. But that's me, you see. :o) If I like it, chances are good that it is a bad thing. :o)

Now, I no longer read at James' blog (as a way to prevent myself from breaking the agreement of abstinence-from-commenting), but I think the problem with the challenge is this: do placebos and sops works as magic? They pass as magic, by the current accepted definitions. Does a movie's capacity to evoke tears pass for magic? As always, a poor attention to what is known versus what can be known is a huge problem with this new generation of "sceptics".

Regarding Bateson, it is something I believe to be true, ostensibly in agreement with him (and certainly in agreement with von Bertalanffy, with whom he dealt in similar things at similar times) that information is distinct from matter and energy, and it is real. This is sufficient to kill materialism. The matter that makes up your hard disk has no information apart from a mind; otherwise it is the same hard disk, a bunch of atoms, but no information. A mind, via many arguments (of which quantum mechanics is just but one, but many of which are identical to the arguments for the reality of the Platonic forms), is certainly a reality. The features of said mind are also a firm blow against materialism. There is a certain essay (I forget by whom) wherein it is argued that mathematics is not possible in a purely materialistic universe. Of course, for the kid who grasps the infinity of infinity, yet sees how central it is to mathematics, this is very obvious.

Anyway, Bateson's ideas seem to basically euphemise (unintentionally, I think) the word "Information", which is all that tells apart a Rube Goldberg machine from what he lists as "interaction between parts ... determination ... coded versions ... hierarchy".
By the way, even the gratuitous and promiscuous over-use of Darwinian evolution cannot get rid of the need for mind, because the randomness in random mutation is only recognisable as random by mind. (That is, randomness is irreducibly subjective! This is why the golfers call basketball random, while the basketballers think the golfers choose their clothes randomly.)

Now, in closinng, I wish I could concur with the neat little picture of prayer working on the practitioner. The problem is that, if we accept (or just grant) that there is mind outside our own, prayer is little more than talking. And talking is one of the enduring miracles: how can one mind influence another mass of matter? How does the balladeer make the audience cry? This kind of thing, you see. What kills works-on-practitioner is that I have seen prayer - as in, the courtroom prayer, grant this, I so pray, lord judge - result in one mind (a non-physical entity) causing physical motion outside of itself (the judge struck the hammer-thingy). And we only have as much proof of the existence of other minds as we do of the existence of God (see Prof. Alvin Plantinga's God and Other Minds). Now, if I believe that I can stir a man to action, by use of mind-to-mind, then I can stir God to action (and, of course, God can stir me to action - it's just that I am obstinately refusing Him to, thus far, by refusing to do what He wants, even if I would have otherwise wanted to do it; just to be stubborn).
For what it is worth, atheism implies solipsism. :o) Now you can predict one of my future posts.

John Powers said...

"Now you can predict one of my future posts."

No, you always surprise me.

I didn't really make any points clearly in my post. Part of the reason for putting something here rather than on your blog is that I'm so slow. I know all sorts of sensible people believe in God, but it's not a belief that comes easily to me. Perhaps it is me being stubborn, but being as lazy as I am I'm not sure that I'm really up to the effort stubbornness requires. So it's probably something else.

Still I'm happy that I did manage to copy Bateson's criteria of mental processes here. What I'm curious is whether you would be willing to offer a similar set of criteria for God?

I'm genuinely puzzled about what the God phenomena is.

Take for example your using first cause as a way to deduce that God is. I'm too simpleminded, but the notion that before there was anything there was God is very hard for me to wrap my head around. It's hard for me to imagine nothing rather than something much less to get to there was God in nothing.

Anyhow you clearly reason well and your sense is that reason leads to God. That seems so obvious and necessary to you, but not so for me. That's why I would like some description of how you imagine God, so that I can try to relate to your premises.

Clearly there's no hurry for you to do so, or you might not want to at all. But it matters little to me where you do it, although it seems something which would fit well on your blog.


"[A]theism implies solipsism."

If you consider Bateson's criteria for mental processes it seems that mental processes are not limited to human beings. I am a living being whose life depends on mental processes which occur largely outside myself. Solipsism pays the most attention to thinking and a certainty about our own thinking. But he forest, the garden, the lives closest to me all display the results of mental processes even if I'm not thinking about them.

It's spring and I'm outside. Near the edge of the property are formerly cleared fields that are now growing back to woods. I was noticing the forest succession, more specifically a young oak sapling in an area that is still mown infrequently. It's a bit of a marvel because the first 20 years it was rare to find an oak sapling anywhere in these woods. but in recent years I see the young generation of oaks that will perhaps one day dominate the forest. There are mental processes of the forest clearly not human design.

Bateson's criteria of mental processes do not exclude the physical, but rather for Bateson the physical and mental process are in necessary unity.

The 27th Comrade said...

Hello, JP.

"Still I'm happy that I did manage to copy Bateson's criteria of mental processes here. What I'm curious is whether you would be willing to offer a similar set of criteria for God?"
I worry that if I did that, I'd have to write my own version - a poor version, at that - of something like the Summa Theologica. :o)
What I decided to dwell on (if not exclusively) is the attempt to show that the godless criteria do not add up to a position that both the sceptic and I hold to be true; that is, I try to show that if the sceptic is consistent, then he ends up undercutting his most-cherished premises.
I am a bit frustrated by modern man's tendency to think that only a certain kind of verified belief is valid. Where the fuck is the faith? I like to show that a life that doesn't have a faith equivalent to faith in God (though necessarily an inferior faith, for being faith in something inferior to God) is an impossible life.

"Take for example your using first cause as a way to deduce that God is. I'm too simpleminded, but the notion that before there was anything there was God is very hard for me to wrap my head around. It's hard for me to imagine nothing rather than something much less to get to there was God in nothing."
No, there was never nothing. After all, since nothing comes from nothing, and we have something, then it implies that we always had something (otherwise we would still have nothing). This something that always existed, that from which all else came, that which caused all else but was itself uncaused, this Uncaused Cause, we understand to be God.

"Anyhow you clearly reason well and your sense is that reason leads to God. That seems so obvious and necessary to you, but not so for me. That's why I would like some description of how you imagine God, so that I can try to relate to your premises."
We could start by seeing what things would be like without a God. :o) We would see that they are not that way, and conclude that therefore there is a God. As in, if there was no God, there would be nothing (because there is none that is primal, to bring forth the rest). But there is something; therefore there is God.
Or we could see that there are laws; if there was no law-giver, we would have absolute chaos, but that is not what we have. We have order, we have laws. Therefore we have a law-giver: this we understand to be God.
It goes on and on. :o)

"Solipsism pays the most attention to thinking and a certainty about our own thinking."
This is true of atheism, too. Why do you think atheists reject the authority of revelation, for example? Not because they don't do revelation (as I explained on my blog, every atheist knows his/her birthday, but this is unchangeably due to revelation alone). It is because they have a certain certainty in themselves (in themselves as themselves, in humans as humans), and they don't extend faith beyond themselves. There is a reason the same guy who said "God is dead" also wrote about the ├╝bermensch. :o)

"Bateson's criteria of mental processes do not exclude the physical, but rather for Bateson the physical and mental process are in necessary unity."
He is wrong, if he maintains that there is that strong a similarity between mental processes as available in humans and any other process under the sun. Thought is quite determinate in ways that nothing else can be. We can access what happens before the universe exists, in the sentence "Before the universe existed, there was ..." while nothing else in the universe can do this.
We can also reason about all physical elements of the universe (in the sense of "all physical things have their origins in ..."), showing that we are, at least in part, meta to all physical things. We are above them, before them, greater than them, at least in the mind.

John Powers said...

Among the emails to write tonight was one to a P7 student in Uganda about biogas plans he has. The email was really just to become acquainted. You would think I could proofread something like that before I sent it, but no I see there are errors. ;-)

I realized after posting my reply how hard a task writing out some criteria for God or even a basic description would be. I see you have a new post up, so I don't not pressing the issue; suffice it to say that statements which seem quite obvious to you, for example that God is a prerequisite for proof, are not obvious to one for whom the meaning of God is unclear.

In your previous reply you remarked: "Bateson's ideas seem to basically euphemise (unintentionally, I think) the word 'Information . . ." You may think Bateson wrong, as you do, but he's careful with his language. Bateson defines information as "Any difference that makes a difference." So his criteria of mental processes are not merely euphemisms for information.

"He is wrong, if he maintains that there is that strong a similarity between mental processes as available in humans and any other process under the sun."

I get that you are making a case for human beings'distinct capacities of mental processes. But I feel that the attempt to say what mental processes fundamentally are is useful.

Bateson was an anthropologist who became very interested in pattern and communication. He was also an ethologist, worked with people suffering mental disease and conducted primary research in each of these fields. I know you like animals, so surely you've thought about the mental processes of animals.

As I write I've got the house cat, Alex, on my lap. I sleep in a different house. Before my aunt died, when she was ailing, we brought her cat, Barney to live here. Alex and Barney don't get along, so Barney lives in the place where I sleep. I like cats and over the years have known quite a few cats. I don't know how they think!

Bateson has written several fascinating articles on animal communication.

The short version of all this is that Bateson's writing is too interesting to dismiss by virtue of my mangled attempts to relate his thinking or short excerpts.

I asked about books. One reason is that Bateson's works are not available online. Who knows how long they'll remain in print? I like Bateson and want to share him with you.

That said, you've placed him in a milieu, and are more well-read in that area than am I.

The 27th Comrade said...

"statements which seem quite obvious to you, for example that God is a prerequisite for proof, are not obvious to one for whom the meaning of God is unclear."
Well, perhaps you can think of it from the other direction: what enables proofs to hold? That is God. :o)
The immutability of truth, the reliability of the laws of logic, the existence of these laws, and so on. When you find what enables these, what anchors these, when you find the anchor of proofs, you will have found God. As I put it in some other post on my blog, when you find the anchor of truth, you have found Truth. When you find Truth, you have found God.

"Bateson defines information as 'Any difference that makes a difference.' So his criteria of mental processes are not merely euphemisms for information."
If that is not tautological, then it is likely supposed to mean "Any difference that makes sense." But making sense presumes a mind that can "sense", in the sense (no pun intended) of "common sense".
The reason I think that he is euphemising information is because there is provably no correct definition of mental processes that doesn't include allusions to information. Now, if his definitions of mental processes are correct, as I think they are, then there is a mention of information therein, albeit euphemised.

"I get that you are making a case for human beings'distinct capacities of mental processes."
Not necessarily human beings' thought, but rather thought in general, wherever it may, as available in humans. If there is a similar thing happening in one of my cats' heads, that is included, too.

"But I feel that the attempt to say what mental processes fundamentally are is useful."
Over this ground real wars can be waged, so I choose generally to approach by defining things that cannot be true (falsifying) about thought. One such thing is that thought is entirely physical. It can't be, because its primary characteristic is to transcend physics and be meta to it.

I can't believe you never mentioned the cats until now. And you can't say I missed it, because I've read since around 2006! :o) I used to think I'd end up an ethologist!
Bateson is cool, and you obviously like him. I have liked what you have put here thus far. :o)