June 14, 2010
B. Alan Wallace and His Criticism of Materialists
Well, I'm glad to see that my first post about B. Alan Wallace was pretty well received as far as I tell. I wasn't sure how interesting it would be, but I was sure that something had to be said about his criticisms and it also responds to the argument that skeptics aren't being skeptical. That last post was really just covered a defense of how I perceive skepticism at the current time, but B. Alan Wallace also attacks a view I hold with a charge that it is 'eurocenteric'. That view being materialism, or that all phenomena can be broken down and shown to have material causes.
While the claim that materialism is 'eurocenteric' does nothing to combat the truth of the idea, nor does his appeal to the popularity of the existence of the non-physical, Wallace does make some real arguments. To support his contention he goes on to attack materialism through some pretty interesting facets. These arguments were taken, once again, from his appearances on both Skeptiko and The Skeptics Guide to the Universe and I will summarize and break them up here.
1.Materialists are making a leap of faith that everything must be physical.
This is a major contention Wallace makes and I think this is more of an "Oh yeah!" argument that really is as shallow as a kiddie pool. It probably stems from non-materialists being accused of making a leap of faith, and he wants to be able to make the same accusation. The only problem with that assertion is that anyone who looks at the evidence finds only materialist explanations and really no overwhelming evidence for anything else. To say that materialists are making a leap of faith is to miss-characterize what is going on, they are not assuming that everything is physical, but rather inferring from everything we've found out so far. It may turn out that there is a non-physical realm, and materialists will have to adjust for that, but there is no unreasonable 'faith' behind materialism.Wallace's first point is more a contention in place of evidence and does nothing to further his cause. Which brings up an argument that actually has some meat to it.
2. The definition of what is 'material' has changed greatly over time, and the description really doesn't encompass what is known anymore. (Dark Energy, Dark Matter, Electrons)
In this argument Wallace talks about how what we know about what constitutes the physical has changed so much in the last hundred years that the term material doesn't really apply anymore. He goes further to say the materialist are constantly shifting the goal posts with any new information that is found out, the electron is discovered and it's a material, light is discovered to be a wave and a particle and it's still a material, dark energy is theorized about and it too seems to be a material.
There is a grain of truth to what Wallace is describing in his argument, the conception of the physical has undergone a lot of change in the recent past. Quantum Mechanics has some really weird and counter-intuitive findings, that have been incorporated into the description of the world. The description of the physical cannot stay constant, because people keep finding out more about it than was known before, the description must adapt or be useless. This is fine along as long as what is described as material and physical still accurately describes what is going on. For this to really be shifting the goal posts it would have to be shown that the definition of the physical is not just expanding, but fundamentally changing and I don't think that's the case. Wallace himself even goes as far to say that he wouldn't deny an electron a physical existence. I also don't think he would argue that light has a non-material existence and because he doesn't he keeps his scientific dignity, but fails to make his true point.
The point he tries to make through one last ditch effort. Wallace points out that nothing is known about dark matter, except that something like it must exist. It must exist because the weights of galaxies need it to hold them together as Zwicky discovered. Yet, other than their necessary existence, not a whole lot else is known about it. Wallace argues that even thought nothing is really known about it, it is still described as matter and that is an assumption that is wrong to make. I would argue that it would be wrong if there were some non-physical explanation for other things. If prayer or meditation was proven to affect machines, if the mind could be proven to be able to float outside the body, if ghosts were shown to be real and still act as they reportedly do, there would be a reason to doubt that dark matter is in fact matter. Until then it is a safe assumption to make and there is still no reason to not be a materialist.
Thanks for reading,
-the moral skeptic