Make-believe matter

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Make-believe matter

Edward Feser


Quote:Materialism can at first blush seem to have a more commonsensical and empirical character than Cartesian dualism.  The latter asks you to believe in a res cogitans that is unobservable in principle.  The former – so it might appear – merely asks you to confine your belief to what you already know from everyday experience.  You pick up an apple and bite into it.  Its vibrant color, sweet taste and odor, feel of solidity, and the crunch it makes all make it seem as real as anything could be.  Anyone who says that all that exists are things like that might, whether or not you agree with him, at least seem to have the evidence of the senses in his corner. 

The trouble is that that is not what the materialist is saying.  The matter to which he would reduce everything is not the matter of common sense, not the hard earth of daily experience.  It is instead a highly abstract theoretical construct which – just like Descartes’ res cogitans – is not and indeed cannot be known directly via perception (nor, unlike the res cogitans, by introspection either).  Moreover, it is a conception the materialist has inherited from Cartesian dualism itself.  And it is that conception of matter, rather than the Cartesian’s commitment to a non-empirical res cogitans, that has made it so difficult for Cartesians and materialists alike to account for how conscious awareness relates to the physical world.

Longtime readers of this blog will recognize these themes.  They are also among the themes of philosopher William Barrett’s interesting 1986 book Death of the Soul: From Descartes to the Computer....
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell


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