Bits and Pieces – ‘Physical’; ‘Material’; ‘Exists’; ‘Real’

by Daniel A. Kaufman


Lately, I’ve been doing some work on Physicalism and social reality (1), suggesting that taking the latter seriously means that the former has to be false, and it seems to me that much of the reluctance people have expressed – and which pushes so many philosophers to insist on Physicalism – owes to certain uses of the words ‘real’ and ‘exists’ and ‘physical’/ ‘material’.

‘Physical’/ ‘Material’

It is worth remembering that J.L. Austin was quite dubious about philosophers’ uses of the expressions ‘physical object’ and ‘material thing’.  These doubts are expressed in Sense and Sensibilia, Austin’s takedown of epistemic representationalism, as expressed by people like A.J. Ayer, and much farther back in history, John Locke, according to which what we directly perceive are not “material things” themselves, but rather, our mental representations of them. (2) With regard to ‘material thing’ and ‘physical object’, Austin said the following:

The expression ‘material thing’ is put forward, not as what the ordinary man would say, but as designating in a general way the class of things of which the ordinary man both believes and from time to time says that he perceives particular instances.  But then we have to ask, of course, what this class comprises.  We are given, as examples, ‘familiar objects’ – chairs, tables, pictures, books, flowers, pens, cigarettes… But does the ordinary man believe that what he perceives is (always) something like furniture, or like these other ‘familiar objects’ – moderate-sized specimens of dry goods?  We may think, for instance, of people, peoples’ voices, rivers, mountains, flames, rainbows, shadows, pictures on the screen at the cinema, pictures in books or hung on walls, vapours, gases – all of which people say the see or hear or smell…  Are these all ‘material things’?  If not, exactly which are not, and exactly why?  No answer is vouchsafed.  The trouble is that the expression ‘material thing’ is functioning already, from the very beginning, simply as a foil for ‘sense-datum’.  It would surely never have occurred to anybody to try to represent as some single kind of things the things which the ordinary man says that he ‘perceives’.  (3)

A man goes to a title company office, where he meets with several other people, uses a pen to sign a check, as well as a contract, and receives the title to the house he has just bought and to which, subsequently, he drives in order to move in.  Upon arriving, the house is only illuminated by the sun outside, as the power has yet to be turned on, so all of the things inside – the furniture, appliances, etc. – cast their shadows on the walls, ceilings, and floors.  The new owner opens the faucets in the kitchen and bathrooms in order to allow the water to run, so that he may see if there is rust in the pipes.  And so on and so forth.

Clearly, this man has encountered and interacted with a number of things over the course of this day.  What purpose is served by classifying some of them as “physical” or “material,” while denying this characterization to (or otherwise problematizing it for) the others?  Is the pen a physical object, while the contract isn’t one?  If so, what sense can we make of the fact that the man signed the latter with the former?  Is the stove a “material thing,” but not its shadow?  Presumably, the office consists of a physical room that includes within it physical things like tables and chairs, but what about the title company whose office it is? Is it not a physical thing, and if not, what kind of thing is it, and how can it do things like own offices?

Austin’s point is that ‘physical’ and ‘material thing’ are used by philosophers as entirely theoretical terms, with little to no connection to their ordinary uses.  But while Austin deploys his analysis against the Indirect Realism of the logical empiricists and their Enlightenment predecessors, I want to turn it against contemporary materialism.  Just as Austin points out that ‘physical thing’ is simply being used as a foil for ‘sense datum’ – it is being assigned a theoretical meaning in order to contrast it with representations – so I am suggesting that ‘physical’ and ‘material’ are being used by materialists to set up an ontological dichotomy between those things that are “quantified over” by (hard) scientific theories and those that are not.  In short, ‘physical’ and ‘material’, as used by such folks, are little more than expressions of a scientistic ontology, for which no prior argument has been given.

Once we see this, we also see how one easily can get pushed into weird places, like Platonism, where my late, great teacher Jerrold J. Katz found himself, in the latter parts of his career.  The title company just discussed clearly exists, and yet, it seems equally clearly not to be a “material object,” which then leads us to ask what kind of object it is, which then leads us to say it’s an “abstract” object, which then raises questions like “What sorts of funny objects are those and how can they interact with material objects?” whereupon we find ourselves engaged in a largely fruitless and unnecessary line of inquiry, all because we allowed ourselves to be saddled with ‘physical object’ and ‘material thing’ to begin with.  For the real estate buying and selling public, title companies, offices, contracts, checks, and pens are all part of the world they inhabit and in which they operate, in a way that is entirely unproblematic and raises no serious philosophical questions … at least so long as one talks normally and without theoretical contrivances.  But once you start parsing these parts of our shared world in the ways philosophers have been wont to do, its ubiquitously recognized and understood character begins to disintegrate, and our understanding suffers rather than benefits.


‘Exists’ is a word that some people get quite excited about, and a number of them are intent on eschewing its use, in order to avoid unnecessary metaphysical entanglement.  (I’ll leave it to the reader to decide who is more metaphysically entangled, the person who uses the term ‘exists’ in ordinary discourse or the person who scrupulously endeavors to avoid its use.)

To say that something exists is merely to say that there is such a thing, a view notably advanced by Quine in his paper, On What There Is. Where Quine goes wrong is in his account of the conditions under which such sayings are supposed to be acceptable.  For him, statements of the form “there is a …” are only legitimate when the thing in question plays a causal/explanatory role in a true (or our best) scientific theory, but as John Greenwood notes in his essay, “Reasons to Believe,” this can’t be correct, insofar as there are any number of things whose existence we speak of perfectly legitimately, despite our having little to no conception of their causal/explanatory role in a theory:

We recognize the existence of Golgi bodies and myelin sheaths, although we presently do not have much understanding of their biological and neurophysiological function.  Ironically, the most obvious examples come from biology and neurophysiology, where we recognize many structures and processes whose causal or functional role we are trying desperately hard to understand.  When we abandon tentative hypotheses about  the causal-explanatory role of such phenomena, we never for a moment consider their ontological elimination… This is just as well for biology.  One of the earliest documented forms of folk-psychology is biological in nature.  According to the folk psychology of Plato’s Timeus, our emotional life is to be explained in terms of the swelling of the heart, and the function of the liver is to reflect the contents of our thoughts.  This has long been demonstrated to be false, et few have rushed to conclude that there are no such things as hearts or livers. (4)

Beyond such examples from science – and there are many more – the Quinean account also is going to be unable to make sense of our common use of existential quantifiers across the personal and social universe in which we all live.  The contract, title company, and title of our earlier example are not required for the statements of any theory to be true, and this even extends to the so-called “material objects” in the story – the pen, the office, the house – which don’t play any “causal-explanatory role” in a theory either.  What does determine the conditions for ontological commitment in the case of these sorts of things?  As Greenwood points out, it may simply be a matter of perception and performance – we see the pen, feel it when we pick it up, and sign the check and contract with it – but this is by no means required or even always successful as grounds for ontological commitment.  Sometimes the existence of something will be based on casual observation, sometimes on theoretical postulation, sometimes on the perception of efficacy, and so on.  Put another way, ontological commitment strikes me as being an entirely “local” affair.  As is so often the case in philosophy, the search for generally applicable conditions is itself the problem, rather than the solution.  There aren’t any, aren’t going to be any, and don’t need to be any.


Physicalists rarely reject, outright, the existence of the sorts of things I have been talking about.  They don’t say, flat out, that there are no countries or laws or people. Instead, they acknowledge the existence of these sorts of things, but then purport to tell us that they really are physical.  If it is then pointed out that the thing in question is not credibly identified with any discrete physical substance or event, they will then explain that whatever is not so identifiable is an “illusion” or “fiction.”  Daniel Dennett has said this about selves and persons in his most recent book – according to him, we are “user illusions,” like the file folders in Windows (5) – and it has been said to me in many a conversation here at the Agora, by the more ontologically nervous commenters, who have said things like “contracts or laws really are just agreements that people make.”  Of course, agreements and people themselves are not “material objects,” belonging as they do to the social universe, which, when pointed out, will then lead to the physicalist talking about the “physical realities” that “lie underneath” them or on which they “supervene” – usually neurological – and dismiss the rest as illusory in one way or another, much in the manner of Dennett’s user illusion, just mentioned.

The ‘really’ is, of course, doing a lot of work, and Austin has observed that this term has been just as philosophically abused as ‘physical’ and ‘material thing’.  We may ask whether something really is gold, where what we are wondering is whether it might not be fool’s gold instead, in which case we won’t buy it.  We may ask whether the elephant our mutual friend says is in his living room is really there, in which case we are wondering whether he is hallucinating.  We may say of something that it is the real deal, where what we mean is that it’s a particularly fine instance of whatever it is.  We may say of a person that he is unwilling to confront reality, which indicates that he has been lying to himself.  ‘Real’, ‘really’, and ‘reality’, then, are used in a number of different and often only loosely related ways.

So what are we to  do with “pens are really just collections of atoms” or “contracts are really just sets of neurological events”?  What sorts of statements are these?  Clearly ‘really’ is not being used in the sense described in the fool’s gold case, because what is at issue there is whether or not something is fraudulent, despite its resemblance to something that is not.  Equally clearly, it’s not being used in the penultimate case either, as indicating a particularly fine specimen of something.  It also is not being used in the last sense, insofar as there is no serious suggestion that the person who thinks there are pens and contracts is engaged in a kind of self-deception.

Rather, it is intended to be understood in the second sense of an illusion or hallucination – Dennett explicitly says as much – but I’m afraid this won’t do either.  For one thing, it forces us into precisely the sort of representationalism that Austin – and Wittgenstein – devoted so much of their work to dismantling (I think successfully), and for another, the analogy just seems so obviously inapt.  In the case of the hallucinated elephant or the well-worn “bent-looking stick in a glass half filled with water” example, what we have are simple cases of misrepresentation: in the first case of there being something in the room, which isn’t, and in the second something having a certain characteristic which it doesn’t have.  But what exactly is the misrepresentation supposed to be in the case of the pen or the contract?  If we are to take Dennett’s “user-illusion” metaphor seriously, then we are to believe that the pen is a misrepresentation of a lattice of atoms, but this seems a very odd way of thinking about pens.  One doesn’t sign documents with lattices of atoms; one doesn’t have “favorite lattices of atoms given to me by my aunt”; and simply saying, “You think you don’t, but that’s really what pens are, so you really do” is just doubling down on the use of ‘really’ which is what is under dispute.  And what of the contract?  What is it supposed to be misrepresentation of?  Agreements which themselves are misrepresentations of neurological states?  One can speak this way if one wants, I guess, but I don’t see what understanding is generated thereby and I can see a number of significant ways in which it invites confusion.



(2)  J.L. Austin, Sense and Sensibilia (1962).

(3)  Sense and Sensibilia, pp. 7-8.

(4)  John Greenwood, “Reasons to Believe,” in Greenwood, ed., The Future of Folk Psychology: Intentionality and Cognitive Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 77.

(5)  Daniel Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2017).


35 responses to “Bits and Pieces – ‘Physical’; ‘Material’; ‘Exists’; ‘Real’”

  1. Phil Tanny

    If you were wearing tinted sunglasses reality would appear tinted everywhere you looked. But the tint wouldn’t be a property of reality, but rather of the tool you were using to observe reality.

    It’s like that with thought. Thought operates by dividing the single unified reality in to conceptual parts. So we see division everywhere we look, we see “things”. But as with the sunglasses, the “things” aren’t a property of reality, but rather a property of the tool we are using to observe reality.

    Drink a glass of water. When does the water become you? In your mouth? Your throat? Your stomach? Your blood? Your cells? We can reasonably draw this boundary any number of places, which reveals the boundaries between one “thing” and another “thing” are arbitrary, inventions of the human mind.

    Maybe Western philosophers work a tad too hard on such investigations? If we want to see “things” we can put the thought sunglasses on. If we want to escape the illusion of things, we can take the thought sunglasses off.

  2. For context, I consider myself to be on the science side of the house.

    I find terms such as “materialism”, “physicalism” and “naturalism” to be quite confusing, particularly as they are used by philosophers and theologians. From a scientific point of view, I don’t know what material or matter actually is. And the more it is studied, the less we seem to know about what it is.

    The use of “material” and “physical” in ordinary language (when one is not engaged in philosophy or theology) does not seem to be problematic. The problem is in the use of these terms to compartmentalize (and then dismiss) your opponent’s position, instead of trying to engage in honest discussion.

    I look at a philosopher such as Alex Rosenberg, who says that he is a materialist. My understanding is that his professional work involves studying abstract propositions, which I would consider to be immaterial objects. These propositions purport to be about material objects. However, Rosenberg readily admits that he cannot solve the intentionality problem, so he cannot explain how these propositions connect to the material objects that they purport to be about.

    For contrast, consider a horticulturist. He digs in soil. So he is directly dealing with material.

    Maybe the horticulturist is more properly a materialist, while the philosopher is more properly an immaterialist.

    Wouldn’t philosophy be better off if we avoided the “ism” words?

  3. A separate comment on “exists”.

    If we go by Wittgenstein’s “meaning is use” (and I do), then it is hard to see that X exists could mean anything other than “people find it useful to say that X exists.” Or I can put it differently. To say that X exists is just to license particular ways of talking about X.

    I often see use of “exists” in ways that seems to require that existence of X is a property of X. But I see it as more a property of how we talk about X.

    I sometimes wonder whether ontology is a mistake.

  4. Phil Tanny

    Neil, yes, the concept of “exist” and “thing” seem to reference a compelling illusion that we all share. The illusion is compelling because not only are we observing reality through thought, we ourselves are thought. To reference the analogy above, we aren’t just wearing the sunglasses, we are sunglasses. Thus, whatever distortion sunglasses (ie. thought) introduce is going to be beyond profound.

  5. Phil – I think you are setting up the same type of confusion that Dan is trying to lead us away from, just from a different universal framework. The physicalists want to define everything based on a material foundation, you seem to want to say everything is thought (idealism?). Both approaches then result making a mockery of our ordinary language by using the term ‘illusion’ for those things that are: most directly present to our awareness, most basic to the way we communicate with each other, and most basic to the way we navigate the world.

    The house I am sitting in is not purely in my thoughts as it provides supports for the two other people who live in it in a similar fashion that it supports me. I can theorize about it being a collection of atoms or fantasize of it only being a thought in my mind, but I can only live in it as a house. The rent we all pay under a common lease exists and is also best understood with ordinary language. Philosophy should help bring clarity and understanding to the lives we actually live, and the lives we live should largely or ideally cohere with the stories we tell ourselves.

  6. Phil Tanny

    Hi Seth,

    First, I don’t mean that everything is thought. Sorry for any confusion I introduced there. I will now probably introduce some more, sorry for that too… 🙁

    I do mean that we don’t just use thought, we actually are thought, psychologically. Thought is an element of nature, and as such it has properties. Whatever those properties might be, they will have a profound influence upon how we experience reality.

    I’m proposing that a key property of thought is that it operates by a process of division. As example, consider the noun.

    First, let’s observe that the noun is a fundamental building block of language, which is in turn a prominent expression of thought. If we wish to understand thought we can try to do so by examining the products of thought, and the noun seems to be a quite important product.

    Next, the function of a noun is to conceptually divide one part of reality from another part. The noun creates a conceptual boundary between “this” and “that”. What I tried to illustrate in the water drinking example above is that while these conceptual boundaries are indeed practically useful, they are arbitrary human inventions.

    What confuses the situation more than a bit is that every human ever born is made of thought, and thus the arbitrary boundaries thought generates become a compelling and universally shared experience. It’s this universally shared experience which language is built upon. Thus, it’s practically useful to reference “things” in our language because we are all experiencing “things”, even though “things” are technically an illusion, because the boundaries that divide one thing from another are inventions of our minds.

    I do get that all of the above can sound quite esoteric, and I do apologize for not being able to put it more clearly and simply. My ability to articulate any of this is very much a work in progress.

    But the fact that we are thought is not just a fancy philosophical concept that nerds like to toss around, but is instead a fundamental foundation of the human experience, and understanding the nature of that foundation can have very practical use in our every day lives.

    Luckily, one doesn’t need to understand any of the theory above to harvest that value. So while I’m going all analytical here on a philosophy blog, I do have strong sympathy for your preference for a more down to earth practical approach.

  7. Actually the original form of Physicalism as coined by Neurath was quite consistent with the idea of social reality as it didn’t require any unity of science at the level of theory.

    So you can have a theory that says that money exists and that obligations and debts exist and it would be perfectly OK in the original Physicalism just as long as it did not actually contradict an observation predicted by any of the other sciences.

  8. That’s not the physicalism the essay is about.

  9. For years I have been quoting Einstein, saying to Schlick that to call something ‘real’ was as meaningful as calling it ‘cock-a-doodle-do’. And yet his point was that he was a realist.

  10. In many ways the current usage of Physicalism is the diametric opposite of the way Neurath intended it. The logical positivists rejected that any talk of an external reality had any meaning so to say that a pen was ‘really’ a lattice of atoms would have been an empty metaphysical statement.

    Mach began this way of thinking by saying that when people say that a rod half way in water ‘looks bent but is really straight’ had no meaning. Rather he would say the rod was optically bent, but straight in a tactile sense.

  11. Dan

    That’s not the physicalism the essay is about.

    Yes, but it becomes confusing. When Quine is talking about the ‘physicalist’ stance, which one does he mean? From the context it often seems that he means something closer to Neurath’s usage.

  12. Hi Phil Tanny, You said, “— the function of a noun is to conceptually divide one part of reality from another part.”

    But this dividing comes even before thought. It is even a feature of perception. When you open your eyes and look, the scene you see is already divided in to objects. So even if a human could stop thinking, this division of empirical reality in to separate objects will not stop for him.

    I hope that you are aware that we are here talking about merely empirical reality and not what actually exists.

  13. The physicalism I am referring to includes the reductive and eliminative materialisms that have dominated analytic philosophy since the 1960’s.

  14. Dan,
    the kind of physicalism/materialism of which you right is amusing in one way. The intention seems in part to cut off traditional metaphysics; but it only delivers us over to a ‘science-informed’ metaphysic, that reminds one of the pre-Socratics. They held ‘it’s all atoms’ or ‘it’s all flux’ or ‘it’s all one.’ Now we’re supposed to buy ‘it’s all quanta,’ or ‘it’s all strings.’ Soon we’ll be wondering whether arrows can ever reach their targets again. And wondering what the hell we’re supposed to do with that.

  15. It seems to me that if Dennett says that a pen is not really a pen, but really a lattice of atoms, he has to also say that the atom is not really an atom but a collection of subatomic particles and that the subatomic particles are not really subatomic particles but are fluctuations in a field (or whatever).

    But how do we know that the field is not an artifact of something deeper? So we are not entitled, on Dennett’s view to say that anything exists at all – we have to say that everything is, as far as we can tell, illusion.

    But if he can say that an atom exists and is not an illusion then why can’t we say a pen exists and is not an illusion?

  16. Dan

    … we find ourselves engaged in a largely fruitless and unnecessary line of inquiry, all because we allowed ourselves to be saddled with ‘physical object’ and ‘material thing’ to begin with.

    No doubt we could identify many instances where philosophers have been led astray in the way you suggest, but my impression is that the vast majority of philosophically-aware scientists and scientifically-oriented philosophers today would not be making the sorts of claims about physicality or materiality which you are criticizing.

    I haven’t looked closely enough into the criticisms of Quine to comment on that.

    In the last section on Dennett (and what things “really” are) you make some valid points but (as you would know from previous exchanges) I think you are inclined to push them too far.

  17. my impression is that the vast majority of philosophically-aware scientists and scientifically-oriented philosophers today would not be making the sorts of claims about physicality or materiality which you are criticizing.

    = = =

    As it happens, reductive and eliminative materialism are widespread among philosophers of mind and philosophers of science — Alex Rosenberg being one prominent example; Patricia Churchland being another.

    I’m afraid your “impression” doesn’t reflect the actual reality on the ground.

  18. Phil Tanny

    Hi ontologicalrealist, nice to meet you. You wrote…

    “But this dividing comes even before thought. It is even a feature of perception. When you open your eyes and look, the scene you see is already divided in to objects. So even if a human could stop thinking, this division of empirical reality in to separate objects will not stop for him. ”

    This theory can be tested by learning how to slow or stop thinking. An example might help to illustrate that experience, however imperfectly. If we were to meet in the flesh you wouldn’t see a collection of body parts, you would instead perceive me as a single unified person. Observing reality without the filter of thought is much like that, we see the single unified reality which actually exists, instead of the illusion of a collection of parts.

    Imho, this is a very important area for philosophers to explore as it tends to reveal the limitations of thought, and thus all philosophy.

    We naturally tend to assume that thought is a clear pane of glass through which we can observe reality, and that it is only our interpretation of what we see which requires examination. But as the tinted sunglasses example attempts to illustrate, thought itself introduces distortion. And because all philosophy is made of thought, and the philosopher too, the impact of this distortion is profound.

    And it’s very difficult if not impossible to step outside of that distortion within the realm of philosophy, given that all philosophy is made of thought, which is the source of the distortion. The more intently we do philosophy, the more thought we pile on the inquiry, the more distortion we are introducing.

  19. m hampton

    I enjoyed reading this. One factor that occurred to me, and that I am very curious as to your ideas about, is what accounts for the popularity of the position of Churchlands or Dennett? We all know that wrong or ill conceived ideas can gain popularity and even among or by intelligent and respectable people. But why this particular move and why now? Is it connected to the rise or success of science or is it more?

  20. M hampton:

    = = =

    Yes, I think it has a lot to do with the tremendous prestige of science today, as well as with a steady decline in liberal and humanistic learning over the last several decades. We are creating generations of people who only know how to see and think and experience in one way.

  21. Phil Tanny

    Well, then the good news is that the tremendous prestige of science today is poised for a fall. It’s already fallen here.

    I do respect the scientist’s ability to develop new knowledge which is proven beyond doubt, but don’t respect their blind religious-like allegiance to the “more is better” relationship with knowledge which is the foundation of their enterprise. That allegiance is understandable in human terms, but not fundamentally rational or supported by the evidence.

    What’s coming will be similar to what happened to the clergy during the Enlightenment. A once unchallenged position of cultural authority will be increasingly undermined.

  22. Dan

    As it happens, reductive and eliminative materialism are widespread among philosophers of mind and philosophers of science — Alex Rosenberg being one prominent example; Patricia Churchland being another.

    I’m afraid your “impression” doesn’t reflect the actual reality on the ground.

    As it happens, my claim was more specific than your reply suggests, and I think it is very defensible.

    But, leaving that aside, let me respond to your counter-claim. You say that the “actual reality on the ground” is that reductive and eliminative materialism are widespread amongst philosophers of mind and philosophers of science.

    According to the Wikipedia entry, Rosenberg (some of whose work I have looked at in the past) is among the few biologists and fewer philosophers of science who reject the

    consensus view that combines physicalism with anti-reductionism


    This fits with my sense that anti-reductionism is common amongst philosophers of science.

    On Patricia Churchland. As you know, I have a high regard for her (and for her husband). This is not to say I endorse everything she has said (I recall hearing her making what I judged to be some pretty naive remarks about solving political problems) but overall I think she has done valuable work. I would also point out that the Churchlands’ views – certainly Paul Churchland’s, and I think Patricia’s also – have developed and become more nuanced over the years.

    You claimed in the OP that ” ‘physical’ and ‘material’, as used by such folks [“materialists”], are little more than *expressions* of a scientistic ontology, for which no prior argument has been given.” This is a subtle point, and one I could almost agree with. We are dealing here (on all sides, I would say) with general outlooks which are not always – and maybe cannot always be – explicitly laid out.

    One of the problems I have with your characterization of the point of view you are criticizing is that you are calling it “materialism”. I know the term is still used but many on the “reductionist” or “eliminativist” side are uncomfortable with it. Even the term “physicalism” is recognized as having problems. (Arguably the term “physical” is semantically empty if it is defined as relating to the stuff physics – even a future physics – might deal with.)

  23. davidlduffy

    Ney [2016]

    sees two main types of physicalism:

    A, that the world is the way physics says it is [or will say, but this is not essential to Ney’s thinking]
    B. the world is fundamentally the way physics says it is

    Under B,

    Properly understood, we may now see that physicalists are not forced to be skeptics about spaghetti or morality or in general what is not mentioned in our physical theories. So long as these phenomena may be seen as constituted out of or explained by
    the more fundamental physical theory, they may be accepted, even embraced by the physicalist, even if they are never mentioned by physics…
    The task of connecting the nonfundamental to the fundamental through constitutive or grounding explanations falls some of the time to the physicist (for example in quantum mechanical explanations of atomic and molecular states and chemical reactions or electrochemical explanations of biological processes). But just as often such inter-level explanations fall to scientists in other disciplines or even philosophers (as in the sort of explanations of morality mentioned earlier). And so to know all of the facts, one must move beyond physics. Physics doesn’t have the resources to discover everything or all of the facts (only those that are fundamental).

    Once you have some kind of levels, so that systems of objects have properties (level N+1) that none of the components have (1..N), then a physicalist should be happy to say that fundamental understanding (up to N) may or may not assist in a correct description of high level properties. Looking at papers citing Shalizi and Moore’s 2003 paper What Is a Macrostate?
    Subjective Observations and Objective Dynamics
    is one useful window into this. If you coarsen your representation of a complex physical system, eg the sound waves being emitted from the front of an art critic – is this representation strongly or weakly lumpable? Is there informational closure, where knowing the microlevel structure tells you nothing about the coarsened (ie high level) events? etc.

  24. Hi Dan,

    As a self-educated ‘materialist’ or ‘representationalist’, I will continue to revel in my ignorance and confusion – as long as there are no penalties associated with such foolhardiness. The reason for this incalcitrance is that I find that all of the phenomena that appear to me are loosely compatible with my unique view of my universe. I have not been impressed that alternative approaches are more complete or more useful. I am open to being convinced of my errors.

    The fundamental reality that explains all of this confusion is that at this stage of our cultural development, we are still profoundly ignorant about just about everything. E.g. nobody on this earth knows how the simplest of creatures, bacteria, do what they do. What they do is far more sophisticated and complicated than what the vast majority of us realize. When it comes to ‘mind’, we have not even begun to scratch the surface. But, in the daily game of survival these considerations are of virtually no consequence.

    Materialism, in essence, is the belief that all processes and phenomena are of this world, including our ineffable minds. It seems pretty obvious, however, that materialism will never explain the specific contents of our minds. The reason for this is not that complicated – but our organization and structure are completely up to the task . However materialism has a lot that it can still offer in terms of explaining how all this works. For instance, we can expect explanations to be forthcoming about how the human brain developed the ability to create such a highly complex culture.

    “According to the folk psychology of Plato’s Timeus, our emotional life is to be explained in terms of the swelling of the heart, and the function of the liver is to reflect the contents of our thoughts. This has long been demonstrated to be false, et few have rushed to conclude that there are no such things as hearts or livers.”

    Not so fast! I used to enjoy feasting on double espressos and dark chocolate. Unfortunately this precipitated an episode of atrial fibrillation. The first clue to this event was that I felt nervous. Since then I have had the occasional extra systoles that also seem to be associated with a momentary sense of anxiety. Some of the latest research in emotions suggest that the body reacts first (tachycardia and palpitations) and then the mind represents this condition as a state of emotional feeling. Was Plato a genius or what? (Hacker & co. thus do have a point.)

    ‘Thinking with the liver’ is a little more off the mark, but only a little. Liver failure due to cirrhosis causes severe mental malfunction. (Hepatic encephalopathy.) Cirrhosis is an easily identifiable abnormality. Hence the early correlation of the liver with thinking. However, we do think with our livers in the sense that we can not think without them.

    So, all of this back-and-forth between experts of all stripes is very interesting but, as the instance of Plato demonstrates, no matter how smart you are or how much you know, ignorance is still the prevailing condition.

  25. Phil Tanny

    Yes Liam, ignorance is still the prevailing condition, and is likely to remain so throughout the rest of human history. And so the rational question becomes, to what constructive purpose can we put this most abundant resource?

    A core assumption of science, and perhaps it’s parent philosophy too, is that ignorance is the enemy who must be defeated. Sometimes this is true, for example in meeting the non-negotiable needs of the body.

    But very often it’s more true that ignorance is instead our friend. At the least, given that ignorance is likely to always be with us and perhaps always the dominant property of the human condition, it seems rational to discover and embrace it’s value.

  26. Aron Rothstein

    I’ve found the pluralism advanced in Popper’s idea of Three Worlds (e.g. here: to be useful in thinking about what we take to exist, and say is real.

    I am not really philosophically sophisticated, so it may be that this is too simple an outlook. I’d be interested in what you all think of it. He seems to be addressing some of the issues in the OP.


    sees two main types of physicalism:

    A, that the world is the way physics says it is [or will say, but this is not essential to Ney’s thinking]
    B. the world is fundamentally the way physics says it is

    That is hardly going to be useful or relevant to me in my lifetime, or for my kids in their lifetime as the way physics says the world is seems to be becoming less clear as time goes on.

    I have just been reading up about Everettian QM, which appears to be gaining ground and their great boast is that they can get back to an ontological description of how reality is, rather than mathematical formalisms which are useful for predictions.

    And yet they demonstrate this by saying things like “the wave function is real”, or “there is only one wave function, the wave function of the universe”.

    But I know what a “function” is, it *is* a mathematical formalism. It is a rule for mapping one collection of abstract objects onto another collection of abstract objects, there is nothing real about it (unless you are a Platonist, which I assume the EQM boosters are not).

    You think I am being difficult? No, I really don’t get that – if by “the wave function” they mean “that which is described by the wave function” then they have to be explicit.

    In fact they are rather coy about this. I was reading from a time they were less coy, Podolsky asked Everett if he was right to assume that there would be an uncountable infinity of worlds and Everett answers “Yes”. These days they hum and haw about that question and say it is like asking how many clouds there are in the sky and won’t even commit to the “finite or infinite” question.

    If this is going to become the mainstream view of scientists, then they should be clear about this. Does “wave function of the universe” mean (as I take it) that there is a four (at least) dimensional static superposition of every possible way that matter can be arranged in time? That does appear to have interesting implications (which is probably why modern EQM supporters want to be coy).

    And of course I may be wrong and EQM may not keep on gaining ground (EQM supporters say that soon anyone arguing any other position will be regarded among the science community as creationists are regarded today). Some other ontology might turn out to be the case. Who can tell what it is?

    If there are no answers to these or if the different answers that might occur are irrelevant then Physicalism is just an empty position, it only says “reality is fundamentally the way reality fundamentally is”.

  28. davidlduffy

    “no answers to these… `reality is fundamentally the way reality fundamentally is’”: no, it is more like, “no matter what model we settle on, it will be consistent with the regime you and I experience, incluiding superfluidity, BECs, hydrogen tunneling, and double slit single photon interference patterns.. It is the latter that makes one think the wave function is real. Rather than MWI, I’m slowly reading t’Hooft’s The Cellular Automaton Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.

  29. As I said, a function is a mathematical rule for mapping a collection of abstract objects onto a collection of abstract objects. A function isn’t real.

  30. David Duffy,

    The t’Hooft quote tells me, using common language, that we are unable to directly confront reality as it is. This is for the fundamental reason that we do not know what fundamental is. Physics is not fundamental to our daily existential problems. It probably is very basic to understanding our technologies. Understanding society and community (A Theory of Culture) is probably fundamental for the vast majority of human beings.

  31. davidlduffy

    Hi Robin, Just as there is a difference between abstract geometry and concrete geometry, I think we can understand that the wave function can be both the physicist’s mathematical model and the whatever it is that underlies the efficiency of photosynthesis.

  32. Dan, Thanks for that clear and concise explanation. Does this leave us with the out-there of the Lacanian Real, an indivisible, indescribable Chaos? I think this is the whirlwind that so terrified Descartes in his first dream. The question remains, how did it come to gel, at least temporarily, into the appearance we share. My own theory suggests, very gradually.

  33. Mark: No. I find very persuasive Davidson’s arguments in “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” that an unconceptualized “reality” is incoherent. Davidson refers to the scheme/content distinction as the “third dogma of Empiricism” (after the first two that Quine identifies in his famous paper, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism.”)

    I did a brief piece on Davidson here:

  34. I did a brief piece on Davidson …

    Thanks for the link.

    Your essay manages to highlight many of the places where Davidson goes wrong, though I’m sure that was not your intention. I’ll have to write up something on my blog, when I have had enough time to think it through.