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Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Meaninglessness of Matter

Sometimes people are so wed to their beliefs that they cannot even read what others say to the contrary.  Consider this comment made by someone called Jeffrey Shallit (Recursivity) on a snippet by Ed Feser.  Shallit bills himself as a "professor," but does not say what he professes.  However, his blog is headlined "Recurrent thoughts about mathematics, science, politics, music, religion, and..."  Few enough are those posting on mathematics who are not themselves mathematicians, so we will suppose that to be the case here.

Now the Feser passage on which he preaches is:
"Thoughts and the like possess inherent meaning or intentionality; brain processes, like ink marks, sound waves, and the like, are utterly devoid of any inherent meaning or intentionality; so thoughts and the like cannot possibly be identified with brain processes."
which he found quoted on an Intelligent Design website.  His incisive critique ran as follows:
Only a creationist could be so utterly moronic. While Feser and his friends are declaring it impossible, real neuroscientists and neurophilosophers are busy figuring it out. 

That is, a bit of name calling and an appeal to the imminent parousia of the neuroexperts, but no actual reasoning.  It did not seem to occur to him that Feser might be, like many Aristo-Thomists, a critic of the Intelligent Design theory.  Nor that the point that Feser was making in that passage was the same point made by staunch atheists like Searle and Nagel.  Nor does he evidence having read Feser's post from which the ID site was quoting out of context. 

His three commentators were no more perceptive:
Havok said...
I have serious problems with people like Feser, who declare something "impossible" like that - no hint of humility there :-)

I also find it funny that computers process and store things which seem to have the same or similar "inherent meaning or intentionality" solely in silicon. Surely modern computer and the sophisticated programs they run warrant a little less certainty in the likes of Feser?
Even ordinary people understand that the impossibility of a married bachelor is not simply due to lack of empirical evidence.  Havok evidently has no clue what is meant by inherent meaning or he would not confuse it with merely "processing" and "storing" things.  
Paul said...
I await the day when someone explains to me what "meaning" is, over and above a complex network of interrelationships. Apparently there is some deep, perhaps Platonic, meaning database somewhere to which we have access. Computers, apparently, don't have the same privilege.

No matter how often I ask, I never get a coherent description of this deep meaning.
One suspects that Paul has not asked the right people.  The difference is that between syntax and semantics.  But John concurs:
John said...
That's because there isn't one. It's just one of those deepities that you're supposed to unquestioningly accept with reverence and awe. But like the pope recently discovered on twitter, respect for that sort of nonsense is on the decline.
What the Pope has to do with any of this is unknown.  One suspects the mention is simply a reflex spasm, like a knee struck with a rubber mallet.  Deepities is also undoubtedly a technical term known only to the gnosis.  There is nothing "deep" about "meanings," and one shudders at the barbarous understanding of one who does regard it as a deepity! 

Let's take an example:

Suppose wind and rain have eroded a rock, scoring it with two parallel line and a third at right angles so that it looks like this:
There is no meaning to this chance occurrence, despite a passing resemblance to an alphabetic character, because the meaning does not reside in the physical configuration of matter.  Now, a human being might assign it a meaning -- the sound "en" because of course it is a Cyrillic letter; but again, the meaning is not inherent in the physical marks.  (This, Paul, is what is meant by "inherent.")  The same is true whether the marks are made in ink or on-off switches or neurons.  These are themselves without inherent meaning.  Someone else might assign those marks the sound "aitch" or the sound "mi."  Still others, the cross section of an I-beam.  Still others, the location of a hospital on a map.

It ratchets up.  What is there in the sequence c - a - t that gives it meaning?   It's not the curve of the first symbol, not the cross-bar of the third. 

Or take a sequence like: "The cat sat on the mat."  It might mean that a beatnik (a "cat") held for someone ("sat on") an offset printing plate (a "mat"). 

It becomes more and more obvious that meaning does not reside in the matter.  The association of a material symbol with a meaning is one that is assigned to the symbol, not one inherent in it.  Hence, since thoughts do have meanings, the thoughts cannot be simply the neural patterns or the marks on the paper or the symbols on the computer screen.

For that matter, a computer, as Searle pointed out, is not a computer unless we choose to regard it as one.  Materialistically, it is simply an arrangement of plastic, metal, etc.  But certain states of the equipment have been assigned meanings, so that this arrangement of switches is the numeral 3 and that arrangement is the operation + and so on.

Hope that was coherent.  


  1. My experience is that, if you actually bother to explain these points to a determined materialist and keep pressing them, they eventually fall back to a really nebulous position. Something like, 'Science will figure it out - but I have no idea how right now. But it WILL be a materialist answer - though we'll probably drastically change our understanding of matter. To what? I have no idea.'

  2. My experience is that many of them will resort to losing their temper. Which is a bad idea with me anyway, because I can think of five really cutting insults in the time it takes them to come up with one lame one.

  3. > Deepities is also undoubtedly a technical term known
    > only to the gnosis.

    Not at all. 'Deepities' is the plural of 'deepity'. And a 'deepity' is a disquition on the multiplicity of meanings which may be assigned to a single term or phrase. (See, e.g., Forget About It.)

  4. We can distinguish between two doctrines:

    (1.) It is material processes (in tandem with some law of nature) that give rise to the perception of meaning.

    (2.) Meanings literally are material processes.

    It seems to me that a lot of confusion arises from conflating these two positions. There is no jumping from (1) to (2).

    1. I've found that when you confront materialists with the insurmountable problems facing their materialism, they can and will switch between those two positions as often as they find it necessary, as they struggle to avoid having to admit the incoherence of their materialism to themselves.

  5. This is a coherent explanation of why "to have meaning" makes no sense as an intransitive verb - so any sentence of the form "X has meaning" should end "to Y", and "X doesn't have inherent meaning" would be a tautology.

    Continue, then, to explain under what circumstances we *would* find inherent meaning? Otherwise "X has no inherent meaning, therefore X cannot be Z" would seem to imply that Z doesn't exist.

    (I find it amusing that I have to pass an automated Turing test to post this)

    1. The confusion arises because semantics is expressed syntactically, and so some people conclude that the syntax is semantics. If the signs and symbols have no meaning in themselves, they must get their meaning from somewhere else. Hence, "dog" means "to fasten down, as a hatch" not because the shapes of the markings d, o, and g are meaning-bearers, but because they have been handed that meaning by human thought. And that is why human thought cannot consist solely of markers, like neural patterns or spoken words.

  6. My favorite was a materialist who, when cornered on his statement that 2+2=4 was material, because everything was material, was asked whether you could alter its properties so that 2+2 did not equal 4, and responded that you could but it would cause the universe to explode.

  7. Cry 'Havoc!', and let slip the dogs of war.

  8. Seeking to pitch the post and not th blog, see Barr Kort: "By the way, this is not a new idea. Saul Kripke wrote a book about it, concluding with rigorous logic that no one understood a word he was saying.

    "Well yeah. That's what people were telling him all along."

    1. You sent me down the rabbit hole with this one, Pawyigh. Still, very interesting.

  9. Shallit's remarks are an iconic and archetypal example of the atheist materialist worshipping but not using the intellect.