Years of exposure to the toxic effects of mathematics have rendered me unfit for human society and civil discourse. I used to happily acquiesce in whatever I was told was true, whether it was that fiber is good for you or that the Moon is made of roquefort. Now however, grown cynical and suspicious, I find myself doubting the most innocent statements and wondering, “How do they justify that?” Consider the following:
By physicalism, I mean the idea, roughly speaking, that everything can be explained by physics and that the scriptures thereof can written down in mathematics. This sort of conception used to be labelled materialism; it was, at that time, envisioned that reality amounted to point masses or particles flying around and colliding like billiard balls or influencing one another by gravity or magnetism or electric charge. As present-day physics is filled with more ghostly entities—probability amplitudes, warped space-time, vibrating branes, and so forth—the term materialism has given way to the broader physicalism.
Now so far as I can tell, what we would call a well-educated person in the Western tradition has a very strong tendency to assume automatically, without question, almost without awareness, the validity of physicalism. The “truth” of their position is evident to them. The idea that it might be an assumption is as invisible to them as water is to fish.
Notice that I refer to the “well-educated” person. I have in mind the sort of person who is considered knowledgeable, who follows world affairs, who has a college degree, who is perhaps an academic or intellectual, who tends to be a leader in the community and who, even if only unconsciously, helps shape the views of those in his or her orbit.
It is quite possible—perhaps likely—that the majority of people do not subscribe to such a doctrine. There are, after all, still many religious believers and many who avidly follow their horoscopes.
And of those who do subscribe to physicalism, we may find some who at the same instant unconsciously believe or even loudly proclaim their belief in some basically contradictory idea or -ism. (Think, for example, of the inwardly skeptical politician who is sharply aware that a strong affirmation of religious faith is crucial to his survival.)
Yet despite all this, I have the impression that physicalism is the foundation of the way our educated class views the world.
This is understandable in the case of scientists and engineers. After all, they spend their working lives looking at the world from from the standpoint of physicalism. And of course they may contaminate administrators, financial planners, and others who have to come to them for advice. But I think this influence of physicalism is felt even in the humanities, a place where one might hope to seek refuge from it. Though it is proclaimed there that the heart and spirit of the enterprise is Man—his thoughts, songs, arts, accomplishments—yet in the literature of, say, the last century and a half, the feeling comes through that Man is simply an accident, thrown up by the blind and random forces of nature, who is now faced with the impossible task of justifying his own significance. This seems the sort of mindset that would be a very natural consequence of underlying physicalism.
A thing that seems to me quite strange is that although it is the well-educated who are likely to believe in physicalism, they are unlikely to feel any need or to have any ability to justify their belief. (There are, of course exceptions; quite possibly the present reader is one.) Indeed, the fact that they subscribe to such a belief is a principal reason to describe them as “well-educated.” To do otherwise is to invite the adjectives “superstitious,” “naive,” or “ignorant.”
Of course given this situation, one of the first questions that occurs to me is this: How does one justify physicalism? And hard on the heels of that, a second question suggests itself: “What are the alternatives?” Surely if we are going to believe in physicalism, it must be because it is the best of the choices before us. But what choices?
Two possibilities are idealism or religion of some flavor or other.
I have little feel for idealism or how one might contrast it to physicalism. I suspect the same is true for the average well-educated person.
As for religion, it looks to me as though matters have reached such a state that we cannot compare them; it is automatically assumed that people cannot discuss religious matters and physics at the same time; they are said to operate in different domains. (This is not at all the same sort of discussion the atheist may have in mind when he says he certainly can discuss them at the same time; physics rules, and religion is a delusion produced by neuropathology or less honorable means.)
Are there other alternatives?
Very likely. And yet—again—strange to say, no one seems conscious of them. Or at least conscious of them as alternatives. That is, not as systems of thought that can be brought into the same arena with physicalism and compared by noting contrasting assumptions, consequences, or how well they comport with physical or psychological reality.
So let me leave you with these questions:
What—if any—are the alternatives to physicalism? And why is it preferable to all of them?