Problem of Universals and Materialistic Atheism

For some time I have been having a discussion with someone about the problem of universals, and I have a hard time understanding why it is so far fetched or impossible, according to some, to conceive of mathematics, or circles, etc., as concepts without resort to a non-material realm.  Below is a link to a refutation of Materialistic Atheism.  Perhaps others will understand it better than I do.  In any case, I am seeking a better understanding of this issue and whether it is really a threat to the materialistic worldview:

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"Consciousness is physical in the same way vision is physical. I think calling these systems physical is not useful. Vision is a perception. The image of what we see is a result of the process our body goes through."

How is any of that non-physical? One of the first applications of physics was in optics, when Newton unweaved the rainbow from white light. If vision is non-physical, how do eye-glasses work? How can we control perceptions of movement by showing a rapid succession of images on a movie theatre screen? Or by inducing perceptions of motion in the visual cortex with an optical illusion? Why is colour associated with physical wavelength of light? How can physical chemicals interfere with optic nerves to prevent vision? How can we study physical patterns in the brain to understand how we perceive objects (and the dysfunctions thereof)? How can we use fMRI to predict what mental images a person is visualizing, based on physical scanning of their brain?

Vision is entirely physical, as far as we know. We have no evidence, and no good reasons, to believe otherwise.

"The "image" of the apple in our mind IS NOT PHYSICAL."

Then how can it be detected with fMRI? Indeed, how can you even type about it with your physical fingers and keyboard? There must be some interaction between non-physical vision and physical keyboard. If you can explain how such interaction can occur *without* vision being a physical phenomenon, then you might have something. But you probably can't. No one has ever done so.

"It is the perception of our consciousness."

Why should we assume that such perceptions are necessarily non-physical?

"Our consciousness (or vision) does not turn the thought (or sight) itself into a physical thing."

What makes you think it was ever non-physical in the first place? At what stage does a photon entering your eye trigger a non-physical event? How does it do this, except through physical interaction? If there's physical interaction, why call it non-physical?

"I suppose that this form of "physicalism" may have some philosophical use."

It's the only philosophy of mind that has any practical use at all. How can we 'use' something that's non-physical without interacting with it physically? If we can interact with it physically, then in what way does it make sense to say it's non-physical?

Screw these clumsy physical technologies like fMRI, CT scans, EEGs, brain surgery, psychiatric and psychedelic drugs, chemical anesthetics, and brain-to-computer interfaces. Where's my soul meter? Where's my spirit detector? Where's my aura scanner? Where's my voodoo doll virtual reality? Where's my astral projection machine? Where's my ghost-in-the-machine computer? Why can't I have a conversation with my friend via telepathy, or clairaudience? Why can't I watch a full-sensory movie with a qualia projector? Or undergo telekinetic surgery with out-of-body anesthesia? Let's put these wonderful non-physical technologies to use! We'll make billions! Let's write a business plan and go to the bank right now for a business loan. It's a sure thing. They called Einstein a kook, too, and we all know how that turned out! Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, watch out! Here we come.
"We are arguing over a very subtle item here... not voodoo."

I appreciate the apparent subtlety, but I do consider qualia to be akin to voodoo. It is no more than a presumption of non-physicality, based on a flawed intuition. There is no truth there.

I forgot to post another example of brain scanning: Reconstructing visual images from fMRI.

"As I recall Wonderist, you claim that an idea and/or "thought" is physical. This is one of the ideas that separates physicalism from materialism. Do I have this right?"

From naive interpretations of materialism, yes. Specifically, the incorrect idea that materialism means, "Only matter exists."

"But... the thought itself is a manifestation of our conscious perception."

My question remains: Why assume that any of that -- thought, consciousness, perception -- is non-physical? Why can't they also be "mechanisms of our body that process information from our senses"?

The more we study consciousness, the more it becomes clear that it is a physical, mechanical, information process. That includes thoughts, perceptions, feelings, everything -- including things like beliefs. We don't have all the answers yet, but we certainly do not have any good reasons to presume that anything there is somehow magically non-physical and yet able to interact with the physical.

"sorry you felt you had to write this long explanation"

It's not just for you, it's for anyone else reading it, who might also be tempted to presume that consciousness must necessarily be non-physical. It's a common enough perspective to be worthy of lengthy refutation.
"PPS - I am NOT a dualist."

Maybe not consciously, but you do seem to be insisting on the existence of non-physical things. Usually, that means dualism, though admittedly not always. Unfortunately, for those non-dualist non-physicalists, their reasoning tends to be very convoluted and IMO ad hoc rationalizations for pre-conceived ideas about the mind/consciousness. Occam's Razor is the principle I stand by in these kinds of discussions.
"Our consciousness (or vision) does not turn the thought (or sight) itself into a physical thing."

"A thought, independent of our physical body is not a real thing... any more than the apple image in our mind is a real thing."

It strikes me that these two quotes are examples of a deeper error than qualia. Correct me if I'm misinterpreting you, but it seems to me that what you're saying is something to the effect of, "Just because we have perceptions of an apple in our brain, doesn't mean there's actually an apple in our brain." It that the gist of what you're saying? If so, I recommend this video:

"It is like a finger pointing away to the Moon. Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory." -- Bruce Lee

The finger is not the moon, but the finger still exists. The perception of an apple is not an apple, but the perception still exists. We must be clear on the distinction between 'the thing' and 'the pointer to the thing', or conversely, 'the pointer' and 'the thing being pointed at'. The 'pointer' and the 'thing' both exist, although they are not one and the same.

Perceptions exist in our brains, but they still exist. They are indeed physical. They don't even need an actual 'thing' to point at. We can visualize a unicorn, and while the unicorn doesn't actually exist, the visual perceptions of an imagined unicorn do exist as physical patterns/processes in our brains.

Induce a seizure in the visual cortex and you'll no longer be able to visualize a unicorn. Let the seizure dissipate, and you'll regain the ability. Eventually we'll have good enough brain scanning technology to reconstruct your visualization of a unicorn as a 2D or 3D picture or animation, just like the reconstruction experiment I linked to, only with far more detail, and based on your visualizations rather than direct sensory experiences.

Maybe one day far in the future, kids will be able to project their visualizations into a computer game, and be able to fight their favourite imaginary creatures against their friends' creatures. Unicorns vs. dragons vs. jabberwockies! Sign me up!
"On my very low level of abstract thoughts I don't trust words like "exist" and "real" and many more that philosophers use."

I agree. I try to use them the way physicists and other scientists use them, meaning that 'they are observable and make useful predictions such that they cannot be excluded by Occam's Razor (null hypothesis)'. I only use 'exist' as a short-hand for that idea. Consider it 'pragmatically exist'.
(Posted here to avoid comment nesting issues)

I guess I just keep coming back to the core question: Why assume any of it is non-physical? What good reasons do we have to do that?

"Everything I have read and seen is such an incomplete picture that I feel perplexed and unsatisfied."

Sure. We don't completely understand it yet. But that's no reason to presume it's non-physical. That's an argument from ignorance, like creationists presuming that abiogenesis can't physically happen and must require a supernatural explanation. We have no good reason to make that presumption.

"I wish I knew what was missing.... :^)"

From past experience on this topic, what is usually missing is an intuitive understanding of the existence of 'information' as a *real* entity that physically exists, independent of mind or understanding.

Think about these questions and play with them: Do emails really exist? If all humans vanished tomorrow, leaving behind all their artifacts, would aliens be able to visit Earth and find 'emails' on our abandoned hard-drives (even if they did not use the word 'email' to refer to them)? Or would the emails have suddenly vanished along with the humans? When I send you an email, do you receive the same email, or a different one? Is there any connection at all between the sent and the received? If so, what is the connection?

The first TV signals are over 50 light-years distant now. If humans vanished tomorrow, would those signals suddenly stop carrying "I Love Lucy"? Or would aliens be able to reconstruct the images and sound, and watch the show (assuming for the sake of argument that they have similar visual and auditory senses), even if they didn't quite get the jokes? What is an episode of the "I Love Lucy" show 'made' out of? Is it still the same show if it's encoded as an MPEG? What about a Quicktime movie? If you watched an episode on a video monitor, and were asked whether it came from an MPEG or a Quicktime, would you be able to tell the difference (assuming exact same resolution, colour, audio, and playback quality)? Would you be watching the 'same' episode, or a 'different' episode, if it was MPEG vs. Quicktime? If 'different', what's the difference from where you sit watching it, since you receive exactly the same sensory experience? If the 'same', then what *is* it that the episode is 'made' of, considering the MPEG is qualitatively different than the Quicktime?

What is your computer's operating system 'made' out of? How about your web browser, which you're interacting with right now. What is it 'made' of? Does it even really exist? If it doesn't exist, how are you interacting with it? If it does, is it the same web browser as Bill Gates uses, or Steve Jobs uses? Let's say you've got a particular download of Firefox, and I've downloaded the same version. Comparing the binary code, they are bit-for-bit identical. You put on a blind fold, and I install your download and my download on your computer, under the directories "Firefox1" and "Firefox2", but I don't tell you which install came from which download. If you compare the data in Firefox1 vs. Firefox2, they are bit-for-bit identical. Can you possibly tell which install came from which download? Are the installs the 'same' program or a 'different' program?

A friend shouts to you from outside your closed window. You go outside to meet him. No 'matter' has passed between you, since the window is closed, so how did you know to go outside to meet him? You might say that some energy has been transferred, but there are ways to get around this idea. Let's say that instead of shouting to you, your friend turns off a loudspeaker that was emitting a loud tone. Now it is the *absence* of sound energy that made you go outside to check. Alternatively, he could press one of two buttons. Button 1 causes the loudspeaker to emit two tones in a dot-dash Morse code sequence. This means, "Come out." Button 2 causes a dash-dot sequence to be emitted. This means, "Sorry, have to go now, don't bother coming out." Whether he presses Button 1 or Button 2, the exact same amount of sound energy reaches your ears, just in a different sequence. Yet when you hear dot-dash you come out, but when you hear dash-dot, you don't come out. It's not matter or energy that's making the difference. What is it? It's not the particular sequence in time either, because you could just as easily have arranged to have dot-dash mean "Don't bother" and dash-dot mean "Come out".

In all of these cases, the solution to the problem is 'information' and/or 'processes'. There is no way to tell the difference between MPEG vs. Quicktime, because you lack the relevant information to know which one is being played. From this perspective, the episode of "I Love Lucy" is independent of the medium on which it's encoded. The same episode is encoded in the two different video files. The episode is 'made' of information/process.

Your web browser is clearly a process. Aside from the folder names, there's no difference between the two installs. They are effectively identical. It doesn't matter which download the install came from. The information is identical.

The thing being transferred from your friend to you in each circumstance is not matter or energy specifically, but information. The nature of the information determines whether you come outside or don't bother. You are interacting with information. Information exists. It is real. It is physical.

Emails exist. Aliens could easily detect them, even if they didn't understand them or call them 'emails' or conceive of them as text-based electronic messages. They are not dependent on a mind to understand them. The exist as information. Regardless of medium or encoding, information exists.

Now, our minds and consciousness, including experience, thought, perception, feeling, belief, concept, knowledge, etc. all exist as information and processes in our brains/bodies. When you read these words right now, you are receiving information from my brain to your brain, indirectly, through the internet. This is all completely physical. The thoughts you experience as you read these words are also physical.

If, while reading these words, you visualize a pink elephant or a unicorn, that was triggered by the physical process of reading, and the visualization itself is a physical process in your brain, which could in principle be detected and reconstructed by a sophisticated brain scanner using only physical interactions.

There are no pink elephants in your brain, but nevertheless, the perceptions of the shape of an elephant and the colour pink are represented as patterns in your neurons, such that the brain scanner could in principle detect whether you saw fuchsia pink, bubblegum pink, or dayglo pink. There are no hidden or private or non-physical qualia; or at least, we have no good reason to think that there are.

Due to the highly inter-connected nature of our neurons, still not fully understood, we are capable of being aware of our perceptions, and aware of our awareness of our perceptions. This meta-awareness builds up layer after layer, looping back on itself repeatedly, until we are capable of complex human consciousness. This is all physical, and involves information processes shared between vast networks of neurons, much like I'm aware of you, and you're aware of me, and together we make up part of a network of mutually-aware atheists called Atheist Nexus. Atheist Nexus is made entirely of information and processes.

Our consciousness is the same. Mutually aware neurons/neo-cortical columns, all interconnected to produce a complex human consciousness made entirely of information and processes.

Of course, there's a lot of speculation there near the end, but the point remains: There's no good reason to think any of it is non-physical. It's entirely understandable in terms of physical interaction of physical information and physical processes embodied in the medium of the biological/physical brain.
So, do emails exist? If so, what are they made of? If not, how do you read them? Try actually attempting to answer the questions I posed. It is not really possible to answer them when you restrict yourself to matter/energy and spacetime. You will inevitably need to resort to talking about structure, arrangement, form, state, system, relationship, identity, etc. As soon as you do that, you're talking about physical information.

Now ask, if all humans vanished tomorrow, would this structure, arrangement, form, state, etc. suddenly vanish also, or would it remain?
"It would include a whole raft of description, all of it material."

Let's keep this quote in mind, and I'll show you the parts of your description that are not 'material'.

"The light projected from the screen..."

Projection is a process. The screen is a particular structure, not merely 'matter'.

"the bits on computer chips"

Bits are information. A computer chip is a particular structure, not merely 'matter'.

"The only reason the email conveys information is that it is sent between two humans."

This is equivocation on the word 'information'. Here, you're using it as 'meaning'. I'm using it in the physical sense of structure/form/state/pattern (see physical information and information theory). If humans vanish, the meaning of the emails may vanish with them, but the structure and form of the emails remains behind; this latter is physical information, independent of minds. The 'meaning' of the email is also physical information, but it is dependent on our brains, and when our brains die, so does this information. But the email itself still remains, as a particular physical pattern or structure, i.e. physical information.

"The "information" in the email is not material."

This directly contradicts the first thing you said, "all of it material".

"The information is a construct in our minds."

The *meaning* is a construct in our minds. The email is still composed of physical information (i.e. it still retains its form). That information interacts with your senses, allowing you to interpret the meaning.

If there were no physical information in an email itself, then each email would be completely indistinguishable from another. You wouldn't be able to tell which email was which, nor be able to read them to interpret their meaning.

It is only the fact that emails *are* different, due to their different pattern/form/structure, that you're able to discern any meaning. This pattern/form/structure is physical information.

Imagine for a moment that every email you received had exactly the same structure. How could you tell one from the other? Suppose a friend tries to send you an email saying to meet at 5 o'clock, and another friend tries to send an email to meet at 6 o'clock. But when you receive them, they have exactly the same structure. For the case of digital emails, this means exactly the same bits, and hence the same text characters. Not only would you not be able to tell which email means to meet at 5 vs. 6, but you wouldn't even be able to tell who sent which email. They would be identical. Same physical information.

Now if the two emails *do* contain differences, such as one uses the character '5', and the other uses the character '6', then you are able to tell the different times. But notice that your act of interpreting the meaning is *dependent* on there being actual differences in the structures of the emails. Those differences in structure *are* what physical information is. That physical information remains even if every human in existence vanishes. An alien would be able to scan your hard-drive and spot two different emails. One containing a character '5', and the other a '6'. Even if the alien doesn't know what those characters 'mean', he can still spot that they are different pieces of physical information.

The alien itself doesn't even have to be a conscious mind. It could be a robotic probe, mindlessly scanning any artifacts it finds, and tracking all the different things it finds. In such a case, it would still be able to tell that the two emails are different, and it would store them separately as two distinct artifacts, since one has a symbol '5', and the other '6'.

Mind-dependent meaning is only one kind of information. Physical information is much lower-level than that. It is simple things like form, structure, and pattern. You cannot talk about most things without mentioning their structure or form. Out of simple structure/form, through the process of evolution, human brains developed the ability to build and interpret meaning. But without sophisticated mind-dependent meaning, there is still basic and simple form/structure. And, in fact, this basic kind of information is crucial to the function of mind-dependent meaning. Meaning is a kind of information, not the sole definition of it. Ultimately, meaning itself is composed of different structures/patterns in the brain.
"I am just not getting anything from this line of reasoning. Sorry guys. It is okay to stop now."

It would be helpful if you explained why. But if you want to stop, fine.

My final point would be that information is physical and important to physicalism for the simple reason that physicists need to speak about and account for 'information' in order for them to have sufficient scientific theories of the physical universe.


In physics, information is closely tied to (if not synonymous with) the concept of entropy, and hence central to thermodynamics. For example, the paradox of Maxwell's demon is resolved by considering that to work properly, the demon must compute information, hence increasing entropy itself. Information is also central to concepts of 'probability', and as such is central to QM and quantum computing.

Information can be measured physically, and has many physical units associated with it, the most commonly known is the 'bit'. Facts can be described about such measurements, and theorems, hypotheses, and theories developed about the information in various systems, a common example being bio-informatics (e.g. the information content of DNA, mutation as the introduction of new information, evolution as operating on information), but really it permeates many fields of science.

Central to physical information is the mathematical information theory, started by Claude Shannon with his article A Mathematical Theory of Communication. All modern computing is founded on Shannon's work, as well as the work of more famous people like Turing, von Neumann, and Boole.

The speed of light, c, is actually not only the speed of *light*, it's also the speed of gravity and the nuclear forces as well. More accurately, the speed of light is actually the speed limit of information propagation, and physicists will often state things to the effect of 'information cannot travel faster than the speed of light'. This applies even if the information is sent indirectly, such as when two quantum particles are quantum-entangled and then separated: Although the state of one is entangled with the state of the other, there is no way to use this fact to transmit information faster than the speed of light, c, even though no light or other force-carrying particle needs to travel between the two particles. The speed limit properly applies to any and all information, not strictly light.

Black holes are considered to cause a 'loss' of information as they absorb matter, and this is so troubling to physicists that they even have a paradox named for it, the black hole information paradox. No matter or energy is destroyed; the issue of concern is the destruction of information.

Increasingly, there are proponents (such as many string theorists and quantum gravity theorists) of a holographic principle of the universe, which relates information to space, such that there is a maximum 'information density'. This relates directly to black holes, which are the most dense structures in the universe: The maximal information in a black hole scales with the radius squared (surface area), and not cubed (volume) as might be expected. Unlike a balloon, where if you add a litre of water, the volume of the balloon will increase by a litre, for a black hole, the *volume* is not the important measurement to look at. Instead, if you add an object to a black hole, the black hole's *surface area* will increase by an amount in proportion to the information/entropy that it captures. This means that the entire description of a black hole (or any quantum gravitational entity, including the entire universe) is fully determined by the fluctuations of its event horizon's surface (like a hologram) not by the contents of its sphere (like a classical 'object'). Watch this fascinating video explaining this idea.

Finally, there are increasingly many physicists proposing the idea of digital physics, in which *everything* in the universe is considered as information. I don't hold to this idea, nor defend it. I only point it out because it just goes to show how central the concept of information is to physics if you have serious physicists actually proposing that it is *the* central concept.

Personally, I hold to the consensus view of physics, where information is fundamental, but so are matter/energy, spacetime, forces, and a handful of other things. Still, it is remarkable to what extent people use the idea of physical information regularly in their daily lives when they speak of structure, relationship, state, etc., without appreciating that it is actually *real*, and not 'just a construct of the human mind'. I guess it's an extension of naive materialism, where many people initially take that to mean 'only matter exists', while ignoring well-known entities such as energy, space, time, and forces.
Um - I would have to say there is a vast difference between philosophy and what this guy is doing.

Thought experiments and philosophical speculation are an intrinsic part of the the scientific method. The are the basis of the development of a hypothesis. It's a damn good thing that Einstein only imagined what it would feel like to achieve terminal velocity rather than jumping to his death.

It is the follow up on math and art and philosophical speculation that makes empiricism so powerful. We can falsify or demonstrate the validity, predictability, reliability, repeatability, or woo-woo-ness of these ideas. And we can revisit them.

But there is a giant 'so what?' involved with talking about the immaterial because, by definition, it cannot interact with the material or it isn't immaterial. If it interacts - it can be materially detected. This guy seems to be trying to suggest that, if it can be imagined, it exists - even if its existence is untestable. What? or better yet - so what? If it 'exists' but doesn't interact - so what? And if it exists AND interacts - it can be tested for.
Well put. Also philosophy is valuable for examining and questioning the underlying assumptions and methodologies of any area of human research, including science. Important questions like "do empirically-based inductive techniques offer purely predictive rather than definitive conclusions?" and "how do the scientists' own perspectives affect research results?" often considered.

Here's an example of a combined effort between a philosopher and a practicing scientist arguing that the hypothesis should be replaced (and often is) by modelling or questioning depending on the changeability of knowledge of the research area. Article in Cell magazine

Alex's Heresies
Philosophy or science?

“So instead of philosophical materialism could we atheist not have natural science physics as a model to use until a better such model comes up?”

The confusion on display here is so beautiful that it almost brings tears into my eyes!
Science is a rather new word in our vocabulary. Newton used the phrase natural philosophy. Need I say more?

If so, here is an advice from a materialistic philosopher:
“Natural scientists believe that they free themselves from philosophy by ignoring it or abusing it. They cannot, however, make any headway without thought, and for thought they need thought determinations. But they take these categories unreflectingly from the common consciousness of so-called educated persons, which is dominated by the relics of long obsolete philosophies or from the little bit of philosophy compulsorily listened to at the University (which is not only fragmentary, but also a medley of views of people belonging to the most varied. and usually the worst schools), or from uncritical and unsystematic reading of philosophical writings of all kinds. Hence they are no less in bondage philosophy but unfortunately in most cases to the worst philosophy, and those who abuse philosophy most are slaves to precisely the worst vulgarized relics of the worst philosophies.”

The guy who wrote this was Friedrich Engels, and he did so more than a 100 years ago. Just before both philosophy and/or science really went astray!



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