KARL JASPERS FORUM
TA 106 (Müller)
Response 14 (to C 37, Chumakin)
MATERIALISM AND SCIENCE
by Herbert FJ Müller
12 May 2009, posted 15 August 2009
Michael Chumakin defends the traditional metaphysical (ontological, materialist) point of view in science, mainly against constructivism. This is a stimulating comment, because it speaks, I think, for many traditional scientists (although some of these same scientists are offended when it is pointed out that they are using metaphysics).
He writes <7> that ‘true science’ has no observers, although people make observations. Then he says that there are no ‘spiritual’ influences on matter, presumably meaning that matter exists without being looked at. The difficulty with traditional materialism is that it does not work for some important scientific questions. That was a surprise to some physicists who had been materialists to start with.
The problems became evident in science mainly since 1900, with the development in physics of quantum theory and relativity. They have caused many conceptual problems, which were shown in questions like the uncertainty relation (Heisenberg), the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of quantum theory, Schrödinger’s equation (and cat thought experiment), the double slit experiment, entangled particles at a distance, the ‘block universe’, etc. In some of these experiments, it appears that it matters whether matter is being looked at (for instance concerning the ‘collapse of the wave function’). It is reported that Schrödinger himself became so frustrated with the conceptual difficulties that he finally concluded that he was sorry to ever have had anything to do with quantum physics. - This is in addition to the mind-brain relation question which has so far resisted any attempt to deal with it, for instance by materialist thinking and experiments. - I am not aware of a successful subject-exclusive materialist understanding of these and related points.
There have been two main reactions to these difficulties. One has been an intensification of subject-exclusive theories (‘ontology-metaphysics’). This was expressed in the work of Frege, Russell, Whitehead, who wanted a subject-exclusive formalism to deal with truth. Gödel eventually showed this to be impossible. In a similar way, many philosophers wanted to exclude subjects from reality. Recently this has included Th Nagel and L Wittgenstein, among others. And as we have discussed in the KJF, there has been a strong development of neo-metaphysics, for instance due to PF Strawson, D Lewis, CB Martin and quite a few others. Q Messailloux (who characterized Kant’s critique of reason as a catastrophe) has even proposed that he can ‘know absolutes’ directly with the help of mathematics; he is probably the closest to Chumakin’s view about an indifferent nature (or matter).
A question which is not addressed in these efforts is : if reality is in fact mind-independent, how can anyone think and write about it ? Either you know about it, and then it is not mind-independent; or you don’t know about it, and then you cannot think about it.
The other reaction has been to re-introduce the subject into knowledge. This started with Kant, and was pursued by the phenomenologists, but in an incomplete way; it is now further promoted in constructivism. In my own 0-D structuring view, ‘ontology-metaphysics’ can be transformed into reality-design (working structures) which are produced within subject(s)’ minds, and communicated, as needed and possible. If you accept that the subject(s) are always a part of reality, you can still treat much (though not all) of reality as-if it were mind independent (even while knowing that it is not), in case you think that makes things more scientific. - It seems that Chumakin is also proposing a communication of world views. But I would think that it is preferable in principle to have one working-ontology (or reality design) rather than several.
Herbert FJ Müller
e-mail <herbert.muller (at) mcgill.ca>