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Aristotle and Materialism - Impressions and Expressions of Ijon
May 29th, 2002
12:23 am

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Aristotle and Materialism
disclaimer: I am not academically trained. My approach may very well be naïve.

In Metaphysics (and probably elsewhere), Aristotle raises several powerful arguments against materialism. They are based on the problems of sameness, boundaries, and change. How do we know that Eric the Half-a-bee is a bee? And is Eric the same bee he used to be? (ahem. sorry!) You get the idea.

I am reading that Martha Nussbaum of Brown University, credited as an acclaimed authority on Aristotelian philosophy, responds to the question: "Have materialists ever come up with a good answer to Aristotle's arguments against materialism?" saying "No, I do not think they have." As a materialist-until-better-proof-comes-up, I examined this statement and I wonder:

Isn't the problem of materialism Aristotle so skillfully targets really only a problem of human perception? That is, the claim "Everything is matter" may be objectively (grant me an objective reality for the purpose of this argument, eh?) true, without any humans, nay any perceivers around at all. It may just be so. The problems of sameness and change, I think, disappear when you do not insist on understanding what a teapot is, or what sets it apart from the table it's on or from a different teapot, or another, identical teapot. If you consign the problem of the object to the realm of perception and epistemology (a field requiring minds capable of episteme), you are left with at least a potentially viable ontology, no? Granted, you may not be able to connect it to episteme at all, because we humans seem to have a hard time perceiving reality without using objects, i.e. without exercising our episteme. But I could theoretically use a machine or some other artificial means to gain knowledge of reality (as digits, measurements) while avoiding the perception of objects.

After writing this, I realize that Aristotle is attacking the materialist notion of object, which is distinct from a purely materialistic metaphysical position. So my suggestion is just my awkward verbiage sneaking around an obstacle that wasn't there. As long as I refrain from claiming objects are real, my materialism is unaffected by Aristotle's arguments. Ooh. I am enlightened.

You, however, must be bored. I apologize.

Current Mood: Self-Socratized
Current Music: Wagner -- Tannhäuser (Solti and the VPO)

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From:avva
Date:May 28th, 2002 10:47 am (UTC)
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After writing this, I realize that Aristotle is attacking the materialist notion of object, which is distinct from a purely materialistic metaphysical position.

How is it so distinct? I'm not sure I understand this.

So my suggestion is just my awkward verbiage sneaking around an obstacle that wasn't there. As long as I refrain from claiming objects are real, my materialism is unaffected by Aristotle's arguments.

Well, if you are to have a materialistic ontology, that ontology has got to consist of something, has it not? I'm not entirely sure how you propose to get around existence of objects.
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From:ijon
Date:May 29th, 2002 05:15 am (UTC)

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A purely materialistic position would insist on viewing everything as essentially indivisible bits of matter (and energy, but that's essentially equivalent). And particles do withstand Aristotle's attack -- unlike chairs and humans, they do not change their constituent parts, and they are completely identical, so that all attributes of an instance of a particular particle type are the answer to the question "What IS this particle?", and nothing is incidental.

To be precise, the pure materialistic ontology does have objects, but the only objects admitted are indivisible particles. The rest (chairs, moose) are perceptions constructed over matter, using other matter (photons, brain matter, etc.).

disclaimer: I'm not a physicist. What do I know about particles, anyway?
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From:ling_tso
Date:May 29th, 2002 05:20 am (UTC)

Possible solutions (indebted to Ted Sider's book <i>Four-Dimensionalism</i>)

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The world is composed, I assume, of either things (particles) or stuff (waves, some funky gunk substance, whatever homogenous mess you like). This solution will work regardless of which disjunct comes out true.

Objects already exist in the world. Any arbitrary combination of particles or region of stuff is an object. (Depending on how big and how subdivisible the world is, this could buy you non-denumerably many objects. Some people find this prospect ridiculous; I don't and you might not either.) Most of these objects are irrelevant, like the one consisting of a certain carbon atom in my left toe, the shift key of the keyboard I'm typing on, and and half Stalin's skull. Some of them, however, are useful to talk about, like Eric the Half-a-Bee. (Useful? We'll let it slide.) The problem of which objects are useful can easily be an epistemic/pragmatic one, given this rather large ontology.

Now you can explain objects. How to explain change over time? I have found only one solution that makes sense to me. Perhaps I like it only because of my spatiotemporocultural location. We can leave the psychology in the realm of continental philosophy where it belongs, and discuss the metaphysics for the moment. (Belongs? We'll let that one slide too. On to the doctrine of temporal parts.)

Objects have spatial parts, I think you'll agree. (If you accept everything I've said thus far, you'll think those spatial parts are themselves objects.) Could they have temporal parts as well? Events certainly have temporal parts. The Civil War haz a beginning, a middle, and an end. [Henceforth I shall use -z as a timeless tense suffix to avoid excessive confusion.] There could be a part of me that existz between one PM and three PM last saturday, a part of me that existz January to March of next year, and a part of me that existz as I type the period at the end of this sentence. How does this help us explain change? Consider the case of Eric, who used to be an entire bee, and is now half a bee. Eric has a temporal part that iz an entire bee. That part iz located before Eric's accident. Another temporal part of Eric, located after the accident, iz half a bee.

That's an outline. I recommend you read the book.
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From:ijon
Date:May 29th, 2002 06:16 am (UTC)

Re: Possible solutions (indebted to Ted Sider's book <i>Four-Dimensionalism</i>)

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Oh, that strikes me as a nice idea, yes. Admit only four-dimensional objects, and then you don't have change at all, you're just experiencing the world through a limited 3D prism, with the T coordinate a constant at any given instant. Neat!
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