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I have been trying to poke a hole in the following apparently naive argument against materialism/physicalism:

The main justification for materialism is that a person doesn't believe in that which doesn't have observable or measurable properties. Hence a materialist doesn't believe in supernatural beings or separate mental substances. And yet for there to be observation in the first place, there has to be perception, and perception is by definition a mental process. The very starting point of the materialist position is a mental event, and the position that "I only believe in that which I can observe" can lead at best (from the materialist viewpoint) to a Kantian Phenomena/Noumena dualism, and at worst to a Berkeleyan "all is in the mind" idealism. Hence materialism refutes itself by the very fact that it requires an idealist starting point.

How can one refute this argument? And how do materialists deal with perception as an event? (Not perception as qualia, but perception as the transition event from an object being just a material substance to being mental sense data?)

  • This objection assumes that perception (you don't use the word, but it looks like qualia to me) is spiritual in nature, and therefore is circular reasoning. A materialist would simply refute it by asking for evidence that qualia is immaterial in nature. This is debatable, but not an instant kill for materialism. – armand May 7 at 6:49
  • An objection I find much more difficult to answer is about how materialism is self enclosing: if one accepts only perceivable, measurable things as evidence, then any measurable sign of spiritual activity you can show will be interpreted as material. Therefore, nothing spiritual can ever be demonstrated to exist, and materialism is kind of unfalsifiable. – armand May 7 at 6:50
  • What a stupid argument. Why should a "mental state" be any less physical, observable, and measurable than the state of, say, an engine? By saying it isn't, he is the one making unfounded assumptions here. – Lee Daniel Crocker May 7 at 18:56
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Materialism is a fighting term from 19th century. Moreover, the quote builds up a straw man for subsequent materialism bashing.

Nobody advocates to reduce every explanation to the matter concept used in the physics of the 19th century. The modern version of the term materialism is physicalism. It includes all concepts of contemporary physics, e.g., electromagnetism and the more general concepts of fields. Nevertheless, physicalism adopts the maxim: Measure what is measurable, make measurable what not yet can be measured.

But one characteristics of mental processes is information processing. Hence I would concede to the critique that physicalism has to be extended by the concept of information. The extended version, named science, also deals with mental processes. That’s the aim of neuroscience.

There is no obstruction in principle to consider perception a kind of information processing. Taking the input from the sensors of the sense organs, and processing - depending on the internal memory - an integrated result at the level of the cortex.

Notably, science is not a self-refuting position.

  • Here materialism and physicalism are used interchangeably. Modern science has provided us with a complete physical description of information ([Shannon Entropy](en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropy_(information_theory) , [Turing] and Landauer's principle. Where I find this argument hard to challenge is in the act (event) of perception itself, not the content of perception (which you have correctly pointed out is adequately described by information). Continued - – Alexander S King Dec 26 '15 at 18:08
  • Continued -- Think of the following: The information of color is already contained in the electromagnetic radiation the moment it is emitted, as a frequency and intensity. But when does this transition from being just a frequency to being perceived as the color red? Is it when the photons hit the retina? is it when the frequency travels along the optical nerve? At some point - perception - the purely physical variable of frequency becomes a qualitative variable of color. I can't see how this transition can be explained without some form of idealism? – Alexander S King Dec 26 '15 at 18:13
  • @Alexander I consider wavelength or frequency a property of electromagnetic radion. But is not colour. Colour depends on both the fequency of the input and the information processing system of the receiver. Humans have three different types of colour cells, which are the base for human colour vision. Your question asks to locate the point where the subjective and qualitative colour impression arises. This transformation from frequency to colour - or third person stance to first person stance - is the crucial point. It has not been explained until now. – Jo Wehler Dec 27 '15 at 0:26
  • @Alexander I do not consider present physics sufficient to incorporate also the essentials of informatics. Landauer principle seems a first step to link the two fundamental concepts energy and information. Also entropy is a link to information. But for me, informatics builds on characteristical concepts like model or algorithm. And I do not see how these could be reduced to physical terms. – Jo Wehler Dec 27 '15 at 1:45
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The fact that there must be a perception, thus there must be something more than material is only a fact if you assume a-priori that indeed perception is something that can never be described as supervening on matter.

If you are a materialist, the mental state associated with perception supervenes on your physical state of observable and measurable quantities, and there is no issue.

Most materialists recognize that structure, something we can perceive and often measure, is part of reality. No materialist believes a human being and 100kg of raw carbon, oxygen, sulpher, etc. are exactly the same in qualities. The concept of perception may be argued as an encoding of data in neurological structures. That's where they'd say the perception is occurring.

If I were a materialist and you were to continue driving on this line, I could also attack the question of whether the words "material" and "mental" have sufficiently complete definitions for purposes of an extended debate. Trying to discuss materialism vs. dualism vs. idealism too far down the line starts to expose the limits of our assumption that "material" and "mental" are well defined enough for our needs. I'd begin going down the line of demanding the dualist demonstrate that mind cannot possibly supervene on matter, which is an interesting demonstration to try to pin down, and demands a particularly carefully chosen definition of "mind."

  • "The concept of perception may be argued as an encoding of data in neurological structures. " This point I find obvious, except that your are talking about information, not perception itself. But the event of perception is the one that puzzles me. There seems to be a fixed event in time, when the physical information switches to being sense data. That is the point where I find the materialist challenged. How can we explain the transition? Even with my own background in AI and CS, I am struggling to find an adequate materialist description of the transition. – Alexander S King Dec 26 '15 at 18:26
  • @AlexanderSKing As far as the universe is concerned, does it have to be a transition at all? Consider a basic piece of robotics hardware, an optical encoder, encoding the position of an arm. Where does the transition occur? It often depends on your point of view. One person might say it transitions to data at the photo transistor, because after that, it's just an electronic representation. Another might argue that you're still talking about physical effects and analog, and its not until the gate transistors that clean up the signal that it transitions to data. Another may say... – Cort Ammon Dec 26 '15 at 18:32
  • ... that's still electrons. It doesn't become data until I have it in the computer's memory banks, where it ceases to be a hardware varying signal, and is now clearly embedded in the Turing complete part of the system. Still another may argue its not data until it is interpreted with respect to a model of the physical hardware. – Cort Ammon Dec 26 '15 at 18:33
  • One might argue that something becomes data at the point where you are no longer interested in paying attention to the nuances of how that data is being stored and transmitted. An example of where this matters is when we start talking about "erasing" data. When we erase data, typically the medium matters again, because we have to consider how to "remove" information from the physical medium, when really it was just a physical medium all along. (This issue is quite fascinating when you think about truly "erasing" harddrives or, worse, flash media) – Cort Ammon Dec 26 '15 at 18:36
  • The only case where a perception event is essential is if you presume dualism is true from the start. In that case, there needs to be a way to transition the data from matter to mind. Materialism sidesteps that entirely by suggesting it never leaves material. (And compatabalism argues that there is a way to explore the fine line between those two extremes to see that they aren't as hard to relate to each other as one might think) – Cort Ammon Dec 26 '15 at 18:40

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