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Is that my materialism you are collapsing?

At Big Quetions Online—a Templeton Foundation enterprise, I must note—the physicist Stephen M. Barr has an article entitled Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God?

I shall not opine on Barr’s conclusions as I’m not a physicist. I shall say only a few minor things. Firstly, I’m not sure I’m the sort of materialist Barr is trying to refute. Here’s how Barr defines materialism…

Materialism is an atheistic philosophy that says that all of reality is reducible to matter and its interactions. It has gained ground because many people think that it’s supported by science. They think that physics has shown the material world to be a closed system of cause and effect, sealed off from the influence of any non-physical realities — if any there be. Since our minds and thoughts obviously do affect the physical world, it would follow that they are themselves merely physical phenomena. No room for a spiritual soul or free will: for materialists we are just “machines made of meat.”

I’d certainly say that’s an interesting physics-derived type of materialism. I’d stick a bit more tentativeness in there. Certainly, to speak personally, the sort of materialism I embrace doesn’t follow deductively from physics. I’d say instead that the materialism I endorse is a very rough and unrefined epistemic materialism. I’m a materialist because non-material explanation doesn’t really do any useful work. The “non-material” doesn’t do anything useful for me in understanding biology or psychology. Élan vital doesn’t help me understand biology; spirit doesn’t help me understand human behaviour.

I wouldn’t say that physics has shown the world to be a “closed system of cause and effect, sealed off from the influence of any non-physical realities”. It’s very difficult to know how exactly we could know whether there is any influence of “non-physical realities”. It’s certainly possible for the non-materialist to simply say “well, there exist non-physical forces that supervene on the physical”. In fact, we do this all the time when we attribute intention to chance. You meet your future husband randomly in a bar. As you believe that “God makes everything happen for a reason”, the facts that led to the meeting become fate. As with the Rorschach test, you see what you want to see. If non-material forces cannot pay their way in terms of explanatory power, I think we have good reason to ignore them.

The other thing I’ll say in response to Barr is this: he describes how collapses of wavefunction cannot be attributed to machines but require a mind. Basically, the Geiger counter cannot be said to collapse the wavefunction because another wavefunction exists that describes both the release of the radiation and the measurement done by the Geiger counter, and thus a mind is required.

Well, why limit it just to the Geiger counter? If the regression applies to the Geiger counter, what is so special about minds that we cannot include our cognitive functions in the regressed wavefunction? I mean, I’ll channel Alvin Plantinga for a second and object thusly. We’ve got our radiation, and a Geiger counter that measures whether the radioactive decay is occurring. We also have a person looking at the Geiger counter and consciously contemplating the answer. Unfortunately, she has some kind of Plantinga-esque cognitive malfunction that causes her to err in her perception in some unfortunate way. How do we cope with this? If minds are essential, what sort of minds? If the wavefunction can include the Geiger counter, why can it not include whether or not the brain of the observer is going to malfunction?