Terms of Ontological Endearment

Mosaic of Reality

Material Witness
In chapter twelve of his On Physics and Philosophy Bernard d’Espagnat tackles three kinds of materialism: dialectical materialism (briefly), “scientific” materialism, and what he calls “neomaterialism.”

Ultimately… ultimate reality isn’t the same as “empirical” or “epistemological” reality, something materialists just don’t get.

At least that’s what he says, and I largely agree.

Here’s my summary of the chapter.

Dialectical Materialism vs Bohr
D’Espagnat says he’s not going to do a detailed analysis of dialectical materialism. He says it’s been sufficiently dismantled elsewhere. However, he warns against seeing too many parallels between Neils Bohr’s approach and this form of materialism.

Bohr’s thought and dialectics may share some general features, but that’s different from dialectical materialism. Bohr had a “human-centred” approach, which could be called materialism only if you radically changed the meaning of the word.

Scientific Materialism vs Atomism
D’Espagnat says “materialism” or “mechanism” doesn’t automatically refer to atomism. Descartes didn’t believe in atoms, and even in the 19th century ether and fields lay outside the realm of the atom.

Macroman on the Street vs the Microworld
The man on the street and even many scientists (particularly in the softer sciences such as biology) think of nature as composed of smaller and smaller grains or specks, eventually leading to atoms. This microworld has (roughly) the same nature as the macroscopic world we experience.

The problem with that idea is that standard quantum theory and the experimental results used to test it show conclusively that atoms, particles, and the forces emanating from them just aren’t like the world at large (as we experience it). This material reductionism doesn’t work.

Standard vs Non-standard Interpretations
Penrose (calling himself a physicalist) adds gravitational effects to the Schrödinger equation. Sokal and Bricmont rely on Broglie–Bohm. However, the first choice is more a research program than a fully fledged theory, and the second choice runs into some trouble with relativity.

The Sokal and Bricmont approach combines corpuscles with nonlocal entities or forces that have the same strength whatever the distance. This isn’t your grandmother’s materialism.

Empirical Reality vs Materialist Reality
Standard quantum mechanics rejects both approaches. At best these materialist approaches describe some “empirical” or “epistemological” reality, a product of how our “mind structure” divides and categorizes reality.

Positivism vs Materialism
Some materialist apologists say quantum mechanics is a product of its times: the 1920s, when positivism (and its emphasis on observation rather than underlying reality) reigned.

D’Espagnat rejects that objection. He says that whatever the origins of quantum theory, rival interpretations still need to be bolstered by evidence.

Research vs Traditions of Research
Michel Bibol and Larry Laudan offer subtler challenges by examining the higher-level assumptions that scientists use. Laudan calls them “traditions of research,” which Bitbol calls “values.” They’re what imparts meaning to a scientific quest.

Observations vs “Ampliative” Arguments
D’Espagnat acknowledges that when mainstream physicists reject Broglie–Bohm because its concepts are unnecessarily complicated or because “action at a distance” messes with relativity they are using “ampliative” arguments.

These are arguments that go beyond what the observations are telling us. After all, physicists could reject the relativity principle as long as they come up with some theory that uses other principles, but acts as if the relativity principle still works.

Bohm vs Materialism
However, even David Bohm rejected materialism. He first spoke of a wave function then later a quantum potential. Neither is localized, hardly what a conventional materialist would call real.

Although Bohm found a way to explain physics without specifying consciousness, he also noted that quantum physics suggests a “mental pole” exists.

Sophistication vs Atomic Materialism
Adding sophistication to atomic materialism doesn’t rescue it. Rather, its “atomism” disappears and its materialism looks increasingly doubtful.

Neomaterialism vs Matter
A third approach to materialism comes from André Comte-Sponville.

He acknowledges nonseparability, a concept that other materialists ignore. D’Espagnat calls this approach “neomaterialism.”

Comte-Sponville gets himself into definitional circles trying to define “matter.” It’s supposed to be everything (but a vacuum), yet also produces the mind. However, if thoughts are real then they’d already be part of “matter.”

Neutral vs Suggestive Terms
D’Espagnat also criticizes Comte-Sponville for using “image-carrying words” such as “matter.” D’Espagnat notes that he himself doesn’t use “matter,” “God,” or “spirit.” Rather he tries to use neutral terms such as “mind-independent reality.”

Nonseparability vs Neomaterialism
Comte-Sponville says the primary question is whether matter is idealist or spiritualist on the one side, or of a physical nature similar to what we experience on the macroscopic level. He’s not an idealist or spiritualist, so he clearly believes in a physical reality.

But as with scientific materialism the idea that reality bears any resemblance to our macroscopic experiences is blown out of the water by quantum physics.

Nonseparability—which Comte-Sponville says is a “mystery”—is an issue whatever theory you choose. It ensures that “ultimate reality” is nothing like our everyday experiences.

Utility vs Evidence
Comte-Sponville eventually acknowledges that if matter includes thought then matter can’t be defined as everything except thought.

However, he says that ultimately what the “natural sciences” say is less important than neomaterialism’s purpose: to explain mind from concepts other than mind, and to do all this to “defeat religion, superstition and illusion.”

D’Espagnat says this argument about the usefulness of neomaterialism just ends up being a circular argument. Deeply held convictions are not themselves an argument.

Empirical vs Ultimate Reality
Ontologically interpretable theories are not consistent with experiment. D’Espagnat says particles and their attributes have a well-defined existence only in relation to knowledge, hence the mind.

Our knowledge of particles and other micro-objects are just that: a kind of knowledge, hence pointing to elements of an empirical, not ultimate, reality.

D’Espagnat says that he and Comte-Sponville both agree that “existence” comes before “knowledge.” But d’Espagnat says mind comes from an “independent reality” not “empirical reality.”

This a materialism does not make.

Convenient Ontologies vs Creeds
Back to materialism in general, d’Espagnat agrees it’s a “tradition of research” as Laudan might put it.

These traditions use values that neither explain nor predict. They are not testable.

These research traditions may include contradictory theories under their umbrella. But some scientists attach a lot of meaning to this identity, and aren’t likely to give up on the term “materialism.”

On a day-to-day basis physicists are using and abusing terms from classical physics such as “particles.” Since physicists would find it hard to move ahead just pondering observations and equations, these concepts are convenient components of a “fabricated ontology.”

D’Espagnat warns these scientists that relying on this ontology to support their rationality may be useful from a practical point of view. Just don’t convert that choice into “an illegitimate doctrinal creed.”


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