What is physicalism?

One label that often gets applied to me is “materialist”, or sometimes “physicalist.”  It’s a label that, while it probably gives an accurate idea of my conception of reality, I’ve generally resisted.  Why?  Because if there were ever any evidence for anything non-physical, I would accept its existence.  Consequently, I’ve often felt that a better label for me was “evidentialist.”

I’ve given this reply in multiple conversations.  One person challenged me to clarify what I meant by “evidence.”  It’s a good question.  I generally mean empirical evidence that is reproducible or otherwise verifiable.  But, the challenger asked, am I not stacking the deck here?  Isn’t requiring physical evidence somewhat circular?  If the only thing I will accept for the non-physical is physical evidence, then haven’t I put myself in a closed loop?

Part of the problem here is that if we ever did encounter a physical event whose causes could not be accounted for by other physical events, it’s very unlikely that we’d assume that they’d been caused by a non-physical event, such as perhaps pure mental activity.  We’re much more likely to assume that we simply don’t yet understand all of the physics involved.

Look at our response to situations like our inability to account for the rotational speed of galaxies, or the expansion rate of the universe.  We don’t know what the physical causes of these phenomena are.  We hang labels on them: “dark matter” and “dark energy”, but those terms are really just placeholders for our ignorance, an epistemic hole that we can work around mathematically but can’t yet enter.

It’s often now forgotten that gravitation was once just such a placeholder.  When Isaac Newton first worked out his laws, he really had no idea what gravitation actually is.  It was really just a label applied to something whose effects on matter we could observe and model, but that we couldn’t directly understand.

Some scientists at the time were hesitant to accept his theory, mainly because it appeared to bring back something they had discarded with the onset of the mechanistic philosophy in the 16th century.  This philosophy, which was basically proto-materialism, posited that there were no actions at a distance.  Phenomena could only affect other phenomena that were local to it.  But gravitation seemed to be exactly that.  Eventually though, our conception of materialism was expanded to accept it.

Of course, much later, Albert Einstein came along and demonstrated that gravitation was the warping of spacetime, and that changes in that warping propagated at the speed of light, restoring locality.  (An understanding that just recently received additional confirmation with the discovery of gravitational waves.)  But for centuries, it was simply taken on faith that there would eventually be a mechanistic type of explanation for what was happening.

Or consider the epistemic issues involved with quantum physics.  It’s fair to say that there are things going on in wave particle duality that we simply don’t understand.  There are many interpretations of what is happening, but none have unique evidence to back them up, at least not  yet.  All of the interpretations have to give up some primal aspect of how the physical world is understood to work.  Some in particular sacrifice the locality that Newton’s contemporaries were loathe to surrender.

But this is aside from the fact that there is nothing that says that empirical evidence must by physical.  Empirical evidence is, when you get right down to it, simply conscious sensory perception.  This is why reproducibility or verifiability is so important before counting it as evidence.

I have a sensory perception of the desk in front of me.  I’m confident that there is a desk there because I’ve experienced it many times (and bumped my head against the underside of it once or twice) along with many other people.  That the desk exists is an ontological theory, but it’s one that I have extensive evidence for.

But then, what does it mean to say that the desk physically exists?  Fundamentally, what does the word “physical” mean?  It seems to mean that which exists objectively, that is,  that which is independent of our minds?  It appears to be there even when we’re not thinking about it or don’t expect it (as when I bumped my head against it).

A mathematical platonist might argue that mathematical realities also fit this category, but aren’t included in what we normally mean by the word “physical.”  But the ontology of mathematical objects remains a debated matter, and I’m not personally a Platonist, being more of a mathematical semi-empiricist, believing that mathematical structures are either a description of physical relationships, or are imagined models we hold, derived from those structures that are descriptions of reality, but with added non-real elements, or missing real ones.

Perhaps another way of looking at this is that what is physical is that which is  included in the physical causal framework, that can have some effect on other physical phenomena.  But this feels dangerously vulnerable to the circular criticism above.  And I’m not sure how some quantum interpretations might fit in it.

But is the circular criticism fair?  If there is a non-physical reality, but it can’t have any effect on the physical portions, does it exist for us in any meaningful sense?

Going to the heart of the real issue here, if there is a non-physical spirit or soul which can’t have any effect on the physical brain, does it really exist in any meaningful sense?  And if we did discover that there were phenomena going on in the brain whose causes we couldn’t account for, would we assume those causes were non-physical spirit?  (No doubt some would, but I’m talking about scientists here.)

Or would we do the same thing we do with dark energy, dark matter, and once did with gravitation?  Assume that we simply don’t have a full understanding yet, and keep investigating.

In other words, if there is a non-physical reality, how would we go about objectively ascertaining it?  Is that even a meaningful question?  Why or why not?

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74 Responses to What is physicalism?

  1. Steve Ruis says:

    If they don’t like physical evidence, let them produce non-physical evidence for their positions. (Obviously, any “feeling” or “thought” is physical as is well, anything they could possibly offer as “evidence.”

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  2. Ron Murphy says:

    I use the term matrialism for the general physicalism, and physicalism when talking about the brain – physicalism is anti-dualist materialism applied to the brain.

    But that’s just about convenient labels when engaged with someone that agrees on the definition.

    The main problem for non-materialists is, as already pointed out, how they give evidence for non-physical events. If there were the non-physical (indeed if there are in fact non-physical minds) then the only evidence we could use reliable, that we can test, is material evidence – so even if therer are minds, they look like material brain activity, especially when tampering with the physical brain alters the ‘mind’.

    Moving away from the brain to the general case, if there was some non-material phenomenon that could not be pinned down to existing known material phenemena, then would we identify that as non-material, or a new kind of material phenomenon?

    In the end, we are stuck with not being able to tell the material from the non-material, because new phenomena become subsumed into the phsyical ‘model’. And that’s the crucial point – it’s all about models. Models are our descriptions of the world. We can create ever more prceise models , even simulations, that come ever closer to some imagined reality; but the only ‘perfect’ simulation or model of a thing is the thing itself, or the phenomenon itself. The phenomenon itself is what we try to get at, but we only ever have models anyway.

    Rather than worrying about whether some phenomenon is material or non-material, simply test the models for what they are and whether they lead to predicatbility that we associate with our various material models.

    Astrology – no prediction and compares poorly with other causal explantions to what effects planets can and can’t have on our local material states.

    The Supernatural God – no evidence, even if there is such a thing. If there’s an entity, that has at least some characteristics and behaviours described by the most basic theism, then that entity hasn’t shown itself in any way that’s distinguishable from there being no such entity. specific religions have other problems: any sort of collection or hierarchy of such entities, good and bad, could be used to explain all that the monotheistic entity is supposed to explain, just as well (or poorly).

    This leads to the notion of “acting as if”. If it makes no difference to any measure whether an entity of phenomenon exists or not, you might as well act is if not, because otherwise you’re tempted to expand the explanatory power of this thing. AKA religion.

    I’m happy to explain to dualists why I’m a materialist monist: it’s a working conclusion, but one that’s pretty much inevitable as far as I can tell, given that any new phenomena would be subsumed into that model, or that model expanded to include it. What’s lacking for the dualist is any evidence of the phenomena they talk about, irrespective of whether its material or not.

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  3. rgbuzz says:

    Evidentialism sounds a lot like verificationism. The only statements that are meaningful are those statements that are logically verifiable. I agree that empirical evidence is conscious sensory perception. But this creates problems for verifiability, it is not a demand for it. The verificationist thesis has a lot of problems. Some examples: The assertion that “the only statements that are meaningful are those statements that are logically verifiable” is not itself a verifiable claim. Inductive inferences cannot be verified by empirical evidence. Objective (3rd person) science cannot be verified, because all scientific statements are based on 1-person observations and (as you point out) these are just the unique sense-perceptions of particular individuals.

    Talking about the rotational speed of galaxies or the expansion of the universe are clearly physical problems that are going to have physical solutions. There is no reason to ascribe a non-physical solution to every physical anomaly.

    Saying that things that are physical are those things that we take to be mind-independent betrays the idea behind your verificationism. You couldn’t verify whether a given object was mind-independent because, as you pointed out, empirical evidence is sensory perception. Every attempt to verify the mind-independence of an object requires that some mind interact with it, so it is self-defeating.

    Physicalist as physical causal framework doesn’t seem to be the right conception either. My mental states figure in the physical causal framework, for instance I choose to physically move the physical cup from the table.

    It is not a presupposition of the non-physicalist that mental properties have no effect on physical things. And clearly there is some meaningful sense in which we can talk about mental or phenomenal properties. For instance, when I say “I am in pain” I am referring to my private sensation of pain. You cannot empirically verify my sensation of pain.

    “In other words, if there is a non-physical reality, how would we go about objectively ascertaining it? Is that even a meaningful question? Why or why not?”

    If you start with the assumption that your perceptual experience is just of physical things, then then you can never verify a non-physical reality, for no item in your perceptual experience can indicate whether or not there is an external world. Consequently, it is not a meaningful question because the answer makes no difference in your perceptual experience.

    But consider the fact that we each (presumably) have private sensations. Consider the relationship between experience and physical properties. Or consider hallucinations and illusions. There is something distinctly non-physical in the consideration of each of these (even if physical stuff plays a role).

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    • Thanks for your detailed thoughts.

      On verificationism, I think you might be confusing the evaluation of evidence with the evaluation of theory. (Admittedly I didn’t make an explicit distinction in the post.)

      Trying to apply verification to theories, to the models we develop to explain the evidence, is subject to all the problems you discuss. For example, general relativity can never be verified, it can only remain unfalsified. There will always be the possibility that some future observation may falsify it. This is true of any scientific theory. As Einstein once said to a reporter, no observation could ever confirm his theory, but one observation could disprove it.

      But evidence itself? I think not only can observations be verified, verification is crucial if we’re to consider it to be actual evidence. For experimental science, it’s why there should always be efforts to independently reproduce published results. But in the realm of non-experimental observations, if we discover the writings of an astronomer in 800 BC who described observations that matched the description of a supernova, should we consider it evidence? It’s only data unless we find other astronomers in other parts of the world who had a similar observation. (Or find some other corroborating data, such as a nebula in the right spot.)

      “There is no reason to ascribe a non-physical solution to every physical anomaly.”
      What would you say would be reasons to ascribe a non-physical solution to something?

      “Every attempt to verify the mind-independence of an object requires that some mind interact with it, so it is self-defeating.”
      Ultimately, we can only have theories about what exists outside of our minds. But some theories we can be much more confident about than others. If objective knowledge weren’t possible, then science wouldn’t be possible. (Of course, maybe science is an illusion, but then from my perspective, you might be an illusion as well. Solipsism isn’t particularly productive though.)

      “My mental states figure in the physical causal framework, for instance I choose to physically move the physical cup from the table.”
      You seem to be assuming that mental states aren’t physical.

      “You cannot empirically verify my sensation of pain.”
      Not currently, but that may change in the future. At some point we may be able to study the electrochemical signal as it enters your brain, goes into your thalamus, then into the anterior cingulate cortex, watch it be interpreted there as pain, and observe the intensity of the signaling.

      “There is something distinctly non-physical in the consideration of each of these (even if physical stuff plays a role).”
      I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to convey here. Do you mean it feels non-physical? Or are you saying that there is something ontologically non-physical about it?

      Ultimately, like Ron above, I’m tending to think making a distinction between physical and non-physical might be artificial. The only thing that might matter is whether we can find evidence for a phenomenon’s causes and effects. If we can, our conception of the physical would likely expand to include it.

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      • rgbuzz says:

        Good response. had some thoughts.

        Verificationism doesn’t really take a stand on relativity – what they maintain is that the thesis of relativity is a meaningful proposition because its truth or falsity corresponds to something that we can measure in perceptual experience.

        It’s also important to realize that one observation doesn’t disprove a theory. When we “discovered” that neutrinos travel faster than the speed of light, it didn’t immediately disprove Einstein’s theories. The result was due to faulty equipment. A disproving observation doesn’t necessarily disprove a certain hypothesis, because all hypotheses are embedded within other theories, so every hypothesis comes with an array of auxiliary hypotheses – and if any one of those is wrong, that would account for the “disproving” result. (And so the hypothesis under question is not necessarily false.)

        “It’s only data unless we find other astronomers in other parts of the world who had a similar observation.” This doesn’t seem right at all. It is completely conceivable that only one astronomer in 800 BCE witnessed an event. And it’s even more conceivable that only one astronomer’s writings should make it to present day.

        But it is trivial that observations can be verified. With the exception of hallucination or illusion, it doesn’t really seem as though you can mistaken as to the contents of your perception. If you mean verified as in multiple people report observing the same thing in the same conditions, then sure it is important that results are reproducible. But this is fallible too. Scientists work within a paradigm, some sort of preconceived framework that they take to all their data. It’s easy to reproduce results in a paradigm, but it doesn’t mean those results are right. Before Einstein, we took the world to be governed by Newtonian mechanics, which was subjected to plenty of verification. But after Einstein, the new paradigm is relativity, and now the old Newtonian data become verifying instances of the theory of relativity, instead of Newtonian mechanics.

        “What would you say would be reasons to ascribe a non-physical solution to something?”

        Conscious perception, phenomenal properties, moral properties. Some might argue free will.

        “Ultimately, we can only have theories about what exists outside of our minds. But some theories we can be much more confident about than others.”

        This presupposes an “inner world” of the mind, and an “external world” of mind-independent objects right from the outset. If you wanted to stick to your hardline empiricism, then you would rather say that the question of mind-independent objects is meaningless, rather than take them for granted. This is because there is simply no empirical way of determining between perception of an inner world or an external world – what feature of your perceptual experience could tell you one way or the other?

        “You seem to be assuming that mental states aren’t physical.” Sort of. You’re claiming that all causal influences are physical. But that’s not obvious. Why? Because my mental states influence behavior. And that mental states reduce to physical states is highly controversial. There are no convincing arguments that explain how mental states are identical to physical states, or how perceptual experience is reducible to some physical state. Presupposing a physicalist solution to defend physicalism isn’t an adequate solution.

        “Not currently, but that may change in the future. At some point we may be able to study the electrochemical signal as it enters your brain, goes into your thalamus, then into the anterior cingulate cortex, watch it be interpreted there as pain, and observe the intensity of the signaling.”

        Same sorta presupposing the physicalist solution thing. Your observation isn’t of my sensation of pain, your observation is of chemical process in my brain. These are not identical. No matter what the electrochemical status of my brain is, if I am not experiencing the sensation of pain, then I am not in pain.

        “Or are you saying that there is something ontologically non-physical about it?”

        Ontologically non-physical. I have yet to read a physicalist account that successfully reduces perceptual experience to physical processes, and I have looked for them.

        “If we can, our conception of the physical would likely expand to include it.”

        This doesn’t strike me as the right move to make. There are a couple of things that are worth noting (from Popper). (1) Every good scientific theory prohibits certain things from happening. The more a theory forbids, the better it is. Be wary of touting how much your theory accepts. (2) A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is nonscientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think), but a vice. Touting the fact that you couldn’t even imagine what sort of evidence would count against physicalism makes it a weak theory. Eager expansion smells ad hoc.

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        • I actually don’t disagree with any of your epistemic points, except for the implication that they contradict anything I said above. I think both Popper and Kuhn were right. Popper’s falsifiability criterion was more normative, more aspirational about what should or shouldn’t be science. I see Kuhn as more describing the sociological and psychological reality of how science actually works. I think both views are valuable.

          On the physicality on non-physicality of minds, I do assume that the mind is wholly physical. I think that’s the best assumption I can make given the currently known facts. (For why, see this post: https://selfawarepatterns.com/2013/12/16/the-mind-is-the-brain-and-why-thats-good/ ) You assume it isn’t physical (or perhaps are more open to the possibility than I am), for which I’m sure you have your reasons. All we can do here is be aware of our respective assumptions.

          I don’t particularly see physicalism as a scientific theory. More like a working philosophy. As I said in the post, I’ve historically resisted the label because if I did encounter evidence where the most plausible explanation would be a non-physical one, I would accept it. I’m just not sure what that would look like.

          Or where the border is between the physical and non-physical. I’m wondering if the distinction is actually coherent.

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          • rgbuzz says:

            So there’s your assumption that the mind is physical and my “assumption” that it is not. The reason I scare-quoted my assumption is because I do not think that I am assuming anything. I am observing that perceptual experience (or things like sensations of pain) are not obviously physical, and it is logically impossible that I can verify that your perceptual experience is anything like mine (because this would require that one can “have” someone elses experiences, which is certainly not possible). The reason that I did not scare-quote your assumption is because you already assume that all evidence is physical and then conclude from that that physicalism is true. But the assumption that all evidence is physical isn’t true – perceptual experience and phenomenal properties are evidence of this, unless you already assume that such things are physical. And that requires a great deal of argument and is highly controversial in the literature.

            I do not mean to say that physicalism is strictly a scientific theory rather than a metaphysical one. But I want to point out that saying that physicalism can always win because we can always extend it ad hoc to include any phenomena we wish is not a virtue of the physicalist theory. (Indeed, you might even think that we could do the exact same with idealism.) Ad hoc extensibility is not a reason to prefer one theory over another.

            You can draw the border between physical and nonphysical in many different places. I may come across as a dualist, but I do not mean to. Intuitively, I’m attracted to Chalmers’ suggestion that there is one kind of thing which constitutes the universe, namely information, and that all information has (at least) a “physical” aspect and a “phenomenal” aspect and there exists an isomorphism between the two aspects.

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        • “you already assume that all evidence is physical and then conclude from that that physicalism is true.”
          Actually I wouldn’t say I do make that assumption. As I note in the post, empirical evidence is sensory perception that we can reproduce or corroborate. What I’m trying to ascertain is what that might look like for a non-physical thing.

          “perceptual experience and phenomenal properties are evidence of this, unless you already assume that such things are physical. And that requires a great deal of argument and is highly controversial in the literature.”
          I think it depends on which literature you’re reading. It might be controversial in philosophical literature, but the mind being a physical system is pretty much a given in neuroscience. I see it as reasonable given things like the split-brain patient experiments, mind altering drugs, data from brain damaged patients, and a wealth of data from other neuroscientific experiments.

          “Indeed, you might even think that we could do the exact same with idealism.”
          That’s true. It’s why you can’t prove an external world to a determined idealist (or solipsist). Maybe the real distinction here is, is monism or dualism true? If dualism is true, where is the dividing line between physical substance and non-physical substance?

          I didn’t know that about Chalmers’s views. I’m actually somewhat sympathetic to the idea that all is information. Certainly everything above elementary particles appears to be. Although I’m curious by what he means by “phenomenal aspect.”

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          • rgbuzz says:

            “I’m trying to ascertain is what that might look like for a non-physical thing.” What I’m trying to point out is that sensory perception is the non-physical thing. Or at least, something you that seems plausible to identify as nonphysical. If you are looking for a physically instantiated non-physical thing within your sensory perception, then that might be why it is hard for you to think of what a nonphysical thing should “look” like.

            “but the mind being a physical system is pretty much a given in neuroscience.” This is one of the resting assumptions of neuroscience. But if you look at what neuroscience does, it studies (1) the relation between brain and behavior, (2) the relation between brain and perception, (3) the causal impact of brain states on perceptual experience. None of this is to say that the mind is identical to the brain. Suppose all mind facts supervene on brain facts/states. A change to a relevant part of the brain should entail a change is some relevant aspect of the mind or mental experience. We might say the mind depends on some way on the brain. And this is fine, but this is not the same as identity. This in no way establishes that your sensation of pain is just the exact same thing as the firing of c-fibers in your brain.

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          • In today’s post, I largely concur that sensory perception could be non-physical, and lay out what I think the evidence might look like demonstrating that. Now, I don’t think the facts point to such perception actually being anything other than physical, but I’m willing to entertain the possibility.


  4. “But is the circular criticism fair?”

    I do sense circularity, but I think the fair thing to do would be to ask for clarification. For instance, “empirical” is difficult to grasp in this discussion, especially given all the history of thought and various notions of it: i.e. “empiricism vs. rationalism” and the “radical empiricism” of William James and the empiricism of phenomenology, which as you know is very different. Even the word “experience” needs to be clarified. What does “experience” include? And CAN it include the so-called “non-physical”?

    “If there is a non-physical reality, but it can’t have any effect on the physical portions, does it exist for us in any meaningful sense?”

    Yeah. If it’s a non-physical reality which we experience, it has meaning and existence.That sounds like it might open the doors to a lot of crazy things, sure, but as you said, “if there were ever any evidence for anything non-physical, I would accept its existence.”

    Math is a great example. I’m going here with your own criteria. It’s objectively verifiable and reproducible. And experienceable. It has existence, but not the sort of existence we’d call physical. Whether it has meaning or not could be up for grabs, but a great deal of the world turns on what we do with numbers. I’d say it has more meaning than, say, that William Carlos Williams poem about wheelbarrows. 🙂

    The insistence that mathematical entities are derived from non-mathematical entities, “made up” or imagined is possible, but there’s plenty of reason to open up the ontological landscape (and what exactly closes it off?) My main reason is that we experience a mathematical entity differently than the physical counterpart it’s meant to describe, if there is one, and this experience is close to universal. Perhaps more universal (if I’m allowed to say that) than a great number of so-called physical experiences. The color blue is a matter of great debate in this household, but simple arithmetic is not.

    rgbuzz mentions pain and other such sensations…when we refer to pain, we’re not talking about whatever is happening to our brains in that moment. That’s not what is meant when we scream “ow!” To reduce that experience to brain activity is ludicrous. That’s not to say that the brain activity is not the cause, or that there is no connection between the experience of pain and its physical counterpart, but only to say that the meaning of “ow!” is NOT [insert scientific explanation of the brain in pain here].

    Does that experience—so direct, so pervasive—fail to meet the qualifications of existence? I can see why some might say it doesn’t. I can’t go there. I see the denial of such experience as a colossal mixup, a need for an ontological discussion in an area in which people don’t seem equipped for that. Not you, obviously… 🙂

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    • I use empiricism to mean observation or testing. Experience is complicated because, as we’ve discussed before, all observation is theory laden. Experience, it seems to me, is both the act of observing or doing something, and how we interpret it within our pre-existing worldview. Of course, if we’re being open minded, our worldview can be effected by the experience.

      On mathematics, I can understand the strong intuition that they have an objective existence apart from the physical universe. If we conclude that they do exist in some platonic sense, then we have mathematical and logical truths as examples of the non-physical. I’m just not convinced they have that existence. I think some of mathematics reflects reality and some intellectual creation. I do agree that the intellectual creations are far more fundamental and universal than, say, a fictional story.

      “but only to say that the meaning of “ow!” is NOT [insert scientific explanation of the brain in pain here].”
      So, as someone who does think that all mental states, pain, joy, feeling, everything, is ultimately reducible to brain states, I’m curious why you think that would not be the case. I could see an epistemic case being made that it may never be practical to look at it that way, but ontologically it seems questionable to me. But maybe I’m missing something?

      On your last point, I think there’s a difference between reductionism (which I admit to believing in) and eliminative reductionism, the assertion that just because we can reduce an entity to its components, that the entity doesn’t exist or is an illusion. I totally agree that such a position is unproductive; taken to its ultimate conclusion, nothing exists except fermions and bosons (and perhaps not even them)..

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      • Understandable that you believe mathematics has no independent existence outside the physical universe. I’m not sure that it’s utterly independent either (as in, if there were no universe and no one to append mathematical truths, there would still be mathematical truths). That just doesn’t make much sense to say and doesn’t seem productive or necessary. It sort of reminds me of the tree falling in the forest question. I’ve always found that one annoying.

        On the other hand, it does make sense to say there are perfect circles, etc. These aren’t material or physical. And they aren’t dependent on the physical, except maybe on a broad scale. Does that make any sort of sense? In other words, you can’t “add up” all the imperfect circles in the world to arrive at the concept. Somehow the concept is a separate entity. No mystical spirits or anything involved here. Just a matter of classifying things we actually experience.

        On mental states, sure they’re reducible to brain states (meaning, they CAN be reduced). It seems like everything is reducible, but the question is whether these things ought to be reduced. I think it depends on what the context is. In certain modes, we do want to make that reduction…lightly. In others (and in most cases, as you point out) we don’t. But the fact that in the majority of cases we don’t want to make that reduction points to something more than a mass illusion, which you seem to agree with in that last paragraph. (?)

        Epistemologically we don’t want to say these mental states are useless, but what does that mean for their existence? I tend to think the epistemological and ontological are not so far apart. In other words, we have no basis for determining what exists outside our epistemic filters. What then do we make of something so pervasive in our experience as mental states? How do we make sense of the fact that mental states have to be assumed in order to understand various workings of the brain, at least at the outset? And why is it so difficult to admit that they exist and yet are to some degree dependent on the brain, on the environment, etc.? I don’t see a great problem in all this, but maybe I’m missing something.

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        • I have to admit that circles and other geometric shapes always do give me pause. My eventual conclusion is that they are idealized versions of patterns we observe in nature. There are no perfect circles in nature but there are lots of imperfect ones. Our conception of a circle may just be our mind’s way of categorizing those patterns. (Although you have to think that an alien from Andromeda would come up with the same idealizations, just as they’d come up with the same mathematical structures.)

          “But the fact that in the majority of cases we don’t want to make that reduction points to something more than a mass illusion, which you seem to agree with in that last paragraph. (?)”
          I do agree. I’ve noted before that I think the word “illusion” is thrown around a bit too much. Often it’s used as a label for something that isn’t at it appears, but people always hear “doesn’t exist.”

          On your last paragraph, I’m trying to make my way through Antonio Damasio’s ‘Self Comes to Mind’, and he makes the following point, that in trying to understand the mind, we have three sources of information:
          1. Introspection, our subjective experience
          2. Behavior
          3. Brain physiology
          When pondering 1, we look at it with an inward orientation. But when looking at 2 and especially 3, we are looking at it externally, as though it is something outside of us. Relating 1 to the others is extremely difficult, and may never be intuitive. No matter how much we look at 2 and 3, it will never add up to 1, at least not on 1’s terms.

          The answer many give, and I tend to agree with them, is that 1 is not to be trusted. It has evolutionary purposes but giving us accurate information about the mind’s architecture isn’t one of them. That doesn’t mean 1 isn’t valuable for knowing our own mind at a certain level. It’s just of limited value in understanding the underlying infrastructure.

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          • I love that title—Self Comes to Mind. I wish I could come up with great titles like that.

            On “illusion”…yeah. It’s one of those loaded words. I wonder if it’s sometimes used to provoke, precisely because it is ambiguous. Then, when pressed, the author of that catchy phrase can easily backtrack and say illusion is not non-being. I don’t hear that, but I can imagine it.

            Interesting scheme too. I see 2 and 3 subsumed under 1, however. So that would make 1 somewhat trustworthy, and we kind of have to trust it to some degree, but that’s my assumption of 1 as the inevitable foundation (though I’ll admit it’s often “subtracted” as something that seems to get in the way of access to the external, and this is often necessary in scientific contexts.)

            Liked by 2 people

          • The ‘Self Comes to Mind’ title actually reflects his view that the self exists, but that it is constructed by the mind. He uses the analogy of an orchestra. When it starts, the orchestra doesn’t have a conductor. The orchestra brings the conductor into existence, whereupon the conductor begins directing the orchestra.

            On the word “illusion”, I actually have heard people make exactly that move. If pressed, Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore will usually say that they’re not saying consciousness isn’t there, just that it isn’t what we intuit.

            Liked by 2 people

          • Interesting analogy. So it sounds like the self is the coordination of the mind? The direction it takes depends on the conductor, but the conductor only has certain elements to work with (the string section, etc.) and certain parameters to work within (the music itself), but there’s room for interpretation within those limits? Or maybe I’ve just stretched the analogy too far?

            On illusion…lame to make those moves! I can see why using that word makes for better headlines, but it’s also likely to be misguiding, especially in that context. If it were in the text itself, it might be excusable.

            Liked by 1 person

          • I’m still making my way through the book (slowly, he’s a somewhat tedious read), so I’ll have to get back with you on your interpretation of his analogy.

            Totally agreed on those moves being lame, although usually if you read them at length, they’re actual position is more clear.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Ron Murphy says:

            I think Damassio has it the wrong way round. The brain has great difficulty detecting itself. Other than a headache, when did you last feel any specific neurons doing anything? All we have are 2 & 3.

            All life forms have been empirical entities, responding to the world through physical/chemical interactions. Same for us. Neurons work through physical/chemical interaction – action potentials are chemistry in action: ions crossing boundaries, neurotransmitters leave and enter at junctions. As such, the brain, similar to the peripheral nervous system, is neurons sensing and responding.

            But the higher level model that forms, the mind, doesn’t access this. What ‘I’ experience is the higher level model that the brain forms of itself as it interacts with the world. Introspection is that model’s attempt to use the same inspection method it uses on the world, but by looking inwards, but all it can see is itself, its own model. The mind-model isn’t equipped to look internally particularly well.

            This is an analogy, so don’t take my meaning too anthropomorphically literal (the brain is computational, but that’s another argument, cause by the misunderstanding of computation). In computing an Excel spreadsheet knows nothing about disk drives or memory bits. Of course an Excel spreadsheet only ‘knows’ about rows, columns, values, operations on numbers. An application like Excel is a model of rows, columns, numbers – that’s its world view. It doesn’t know how the operating systems manages file input/output. The operating system calls on a device driver to actually control disk system – disks are generalise objects to the operating system’s world view, it doesn’t know about drive heads, disk platters, sectors – and even modern device drivers may not, if the disk drive has its own computer control unit.

            The brain’s mind model isn’t equipped to do introspection very well. Near death experiences of heaven, out of body experiences, astral planing, …, all are the mind model using its outer-world perspective to attempt to interpret internal noise when the windows to the world have been shuttered.

            Surgeons can open the head, poke a wire in there, and detect actual specific neurons firing when the mind model is musing on some stuff. And if they stimulate specific neurons they can cause music to appear to the mind model as if the ears were being stimulated by sound. Brains can become confused, so that when the brain is talking to itself it sometimes thinks there’s another entity communicating with it – Jesus is talking to them, if they are influenced by Christianity more than by some other religion; or maybe it’s aliens, or the government – tin-foil hat time.

            Illusion and delusion are exactly the right words to describe the errors brains make. But with the subtle point about the distinction between illusion/existence often missed.

            The term ‘optical illusion’ is a case in point.

            They are called optical illusions but many are really brain illusions, or mental illusions. The spinning Necker cube appears to change direction, but does not. That’s because the signals received by the brain through the eyes are sufficiently similar whichever way it rotates that the brain has no clear view to distinguish clockwise from anti-clockwise, so it flips. Walk up to the rotating Necker cube and take on a perspective that makes the direction clear, and the illusion of the wrong direction vanishes.

            On the other hand a pencil at an angle in a glass of water is a genuine optical illusion – the light reflected from the outer pen are direct, but from the part in water are refracted. The brain is interpreting what the light rays are telling it. Only additional inspection and the knowledge of refraction convinces you that the pencil is straight. I wonder (I suspect it’s so) if someone with brain damage that destroyed all knowledge of refraction, is then simply shown a pencil in water, they would think it is genuinely bent – their single experimental observation would be a fair one, and they would be right to conclude form that limited evidence that the pencil is bent. They would not be succumbing to a mental illusion but an optical one.

            The question of whether an illusion is mistakenly meant to mean ‘does not exist’ depends on the circumstance, and we have to be very precise in what we’re calling illusory.

            The Necker cube illusion of the wrong direction of rotation: that direction of rotation does not exist. However, the brain events that cause the brain to think it’s rotating in a direction it isn’t, they do exist. The illusory aspect is how the brain receives signals that are for one direction but sometimes sees them as representing the other direction. The brain confabulates on limited data. The correct direction is real; the light representing the correct direction is real; the brains illusion is that it is rotating in the opposite direction – and that behaviour of the Necker cube is not real.

            The reflection/refraction of light in the bent pencil exists and reports to the eyes an brain the reality of the light signals. But a bent pencil does not exist.

            A rainbow does not exist, in the sense of the mythical thing that humans have historically thought it might be, and it does not exist as a colour experience in the location I see it, for someone stood elsewhere. But the phenomenon of light reflections that cause the experience do exist. The optical experience exists, the brain events exist, but the brain invents an illusory model of it – the brain makes us feel as if there’s a coloured object across the sky. That mythical object does not exist.

            The mind is an illusion, if we’re thinking it’s some non-physical agent entity. But it is real in that there is a brain modelling itself.

            The Excel spreadsheet isn’t something you can touch – it does not exist. What exists are bits in a computer that the computer interprets and displays on a screen, according to lots of levels of complex processing. When you download Excel onto your computer, Excel does not exist. What exists are patterns of data that transform through various media, end up on your disk, transformed and interpreted by your computer, and numbers are displayed an appear to be processed. But these are fictional models. They are no more real than the characters in a computer game. The states of atoms in transistors in chips in computers are real – as real s physics convinces us they are. You can’t look at a pixel in a digit in a spreadsheet on screen and tell me precisely which bit of internal memory that pixel is representing. Of course computer engineers can use tools to tell you precisely that – but they have to be careful, because operating systems swap stuff in and out of memory and move bits about.

            Neuroscientists don’t have those tools. Neuroscientists are just starting to get at this level of detection, but it’s more complicated. The distribution of associations between experiences in the brain, the correspondence between brain mind-model experiences and neuron experiences (events and states) are difficult to pin down.

            Most if not all of what the brain’s mind-model experiences is illusory. We come to rely on its fidelity in representing the world according to how well it helps us navigate and predict the world.

            Delusions kick in when we know or should know that something is illusory but keep kidding ourselves its real.

            The delusion might be caused by brain malfunction. If you’ve seen an old person coming in and out of delusional states (delerium) as the acquire and recover from urine infections, particularly if they have symptoms of dementia, you’ll witness the delusions come and go.

            Or by the infection of ideas. Are Islamic suicide bombers delusional for thinking they’ll receive 72 virgins in paradise, or for thinking there’s a paradise?

            Free will and the notion of a non-physical mind are natural illusions caused by the fact that the limitation of introspection prevents us seeing the connection of the mind-model and the physical brain. It’s an efficient evolved mechanism, so it’s very convincing.

            Even those that say we have no real free will (dualist free will) still succumb to it.

            If could say, “Look, I’ve provided this argument for illusory free will. You should should see that this argument is correct and now freely choose to acknowledge it.”

            And then you might say, “Look, you say there is no free will, but you want me to freely choose to acknowledge it. You don’t actually believe it’s an illusion.”

            But my response is this. Neither you nor I have free will. My brain has been caused to be persuaded free will is an illusion. It has been cause to explain this to you. Your brain should on hearing this argument will also be caused to think free will is an illusion. I am caused, by the illusion of free will, to continue to use the free will metaphor as an efficient means of expression, but I don’t think it’s real.

            As I said, I disagree with Massimo Pigliucci. And other philosophers. Here’s where Dan Dennett gets it wrong, in particular about the confusion over illusion/existence: https://ronmurp.net/2014/01/31/free-will-dennetts-poor-sunset-analogy/

            Liked by 1 person

          • A pretty far ranging comment. I agree with most of it, but I think you’re misunderstanding Damasio. He would likely agree with most of it also.

            On free will, I’ve grown weary of debating about it. Too much of it comes down to exactly what we mean by the term “free will.” Free of what exactly?

            I see the mind as wholly existing in this universe and operating under the laws of physics, to whatever extent they’re deterministic or not, but I still see social responsibility as a coherent and useful concept. Even in a fully deterministic universe, knowledge of responsibility will be one of the causal factors in a mind’s operations. What we call the capacity of a person to act in a way where it is socially useful to hold them accountable can be debated, but until someone successfully coins a new phrase, I’m fine calling it “free will”, even if it is not the theological version.


          • Ron Murphy says:

            You’re probably right, I’m doing a disservice to Damasio. It’s been I while since I read the book.

            Fair enough on the free will debate, but I wanted to state its place in the wider debate about the misunderstandings over illusion/existence. The expression, “X doesn’t exist, it’s an illusion.” usually does not mean there’s the denial of the existence of some phnemenon, but rather that what it seems to be does not exist. Perhaps I should of stuck to rainbows and pencils to avoid inciting your weariness 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

          • Ron, my sincere apology for the weariness remark, particularly after I followed it with a paragraph arguing for a particular position. I had meant to strike the remark before posting (since I contradicted it in the same comment) but forgot. Totally my bad.


          • Ron Murphy says:

            No problem, honestly. Free will does get rehashed a lot with little progress.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Perhaps Damasio would have made it easier for us by calling his book Every Person is a Self that Comes to Mind via the Brain? Admittedly that is not euphonious, yet it is still incomplete.

            I have a very hard time maintaining these subtle distinctions. I am a self that assumes in my mind, probably incorrectly, that I am very much like all the other persons that populate the world. Nowadays we focus on the brain in our efforts to understand ourselves, tending to forget that there is so much more to what constitutes a person.

            Ron Murphy’s approach is very interesting, yet even he stumbles on these subtle distinctions when he writes “What ‘I’ experience is the higher level model that the brain forms of itself as it interacts with the world.” The brain, strictly speaking, does not interact with the world, our bodies do.

            The brain processes electrical signals from all over the body, including our external sensors. Our subjective experiences indeed seem to arise through a system in which the brain ‘monitors’ its own activities and reports to ‘me’ what is supposedly going on in the world and in my body. Given that all those ‘reports’ are made up partly of ‘fictions’ it is not incorrect to refer to much of the content of our minds as illusion and delusion.

            When I inspect a leaf I see that it appears green. Since I know that color is a product of my mind, I know that this is a benign illusion. If I had thought that the leaf was intrinsically green, that would have been a delusion.

            The structural aspects of what we know seem to be highly reliable, the emotional and subjective concomitants not so much. It is therefore to be expected that a naive view of the world will be extremely confused.

            Liked by 1 person

          • People debate about where to draw the line separating the self from its environment. Is any one sub-component of the brain the self? I doubt it. I think the self requires most of the brain. (Although if the cerebellum gets destroyed, the self persists, albeit a physically clumsy version.) Does the self include the brainstem? I think it does. What about the spinal cord? It’s technically part of the central nervous system. Or do we have to include the peripheral nervous system, or the muscles and rest of the body?

            Or is even that too narrow? Maybe we have to go into the culture that the person exists in to get a full accounting of the self. It’s arguable that the information in the brain is meaningless without those contexts.

            Ultimately, I fear that any border we draw between the self and its environment will be somewhat arbitrary, a philosophical decision, except perhaps in a pragmatic sense for certain purposes.


  5. ratamacue0 says:

    Would you say you’re a physicalist in the same way that you’re an atheist?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. keithnoback says:

    Also a reductionist, thank you, and there is a difference between reductionist physicalism and eliminativism. And, I don’t think that evidence or verification have anything to do at all with the validity of physicalism, for the same reason that there is a gulf between reductionist explanations and eliminative explanations. I won’t say eliminativism is a naïve realist project, but it is a bare bones realist project. It leans on pragmatism too hard, and finally demands a correspondence theory of truth for itself.
    But back to the crux of all that has passed in the post and comments above, the real issue is: what does it mean for something to be physical?
    Unless there is a clear understanding of the term, further discussion is useless.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Totally agreed on eliminativism.

      On what it means for something to be physical, well said. That’s the crux of the question in the post. What is the border between physical and non-physical? Is the idea of such a distinction meaningful?


      • keithnoback says:

        I think – wait for it- such a distinction is not meaningful! To be physical is to have locality, and by that, I don’t just mean that goggle earth can find a thing if it is physical, but that a physical thing is a thing with relative identity.
        That opens me up to all sorts of derisive objections.
        I can hear them now, “Alice, from Alice in Wonderland has a relative identity. Are you proposing that Alice is physical?”
        Indeed I am, if you grant that Alice is a thought of yours. I am proposing that your thoughts are physical – that’s just my point.
        Alice is a phenomenal amalgam, after all – of the real Alice, Carrol’s somewhat disconcerting feelings about the real Alice (also derived from his local experience the details of which we shall remain blissfully ignorant), your phenomenal correlates of the words which constitute Alice in Wonderland, etc.
        If one proposes a non-physical ‘thing’, then he is proposing something without relative identity. I think such an endeavor is doomed. You end up with the problem that Moore encountered when he went after an absolute and dimensionless Good. Where is it? How is it to be described? We can say a particular action or individual is good, but is it/are they Good? If it can’t be functionalized, and can’t be identified how can it be known, since it will defy experience?
        Descartes’ problem is no closer to a solution now, than it was when he proposed an unextended mental substance. Perhaps the brain and body are to the mind as an instrument is to a musician – separate entities. But that doesn’t give you substance dualism.
        The musician can’t become a musician without playing an instrument. He is part of a system, and thereby extended. Likewise, is there a mind with no contents, no referents?
        A mind that is not about anything? I think that’s what one is proposing in speaking of a non-physical mind. It makes no sense.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think I agree across the board. It seems like the issue we’re both having with substance dualism is, where does one substance end and the other begin? If they have causal effects on each other, then they seem to be part of the same overall system.

          Perhaps we could say that the dividing line is between the knowable and unknowable, but I can’t see scientists ever agreeing to such a demarcation since, historically, all such demarcations have eventually been pierced. Maybe if we encountered one and weren’t able to cross it after several centuries or millennia. But this is academic since we currently have no evidence of such a divide.


  7. Michael says:

    Hi Mike,

    For me the crux of this issue is as follows: the position you describe is circular in the sense that it asks how one is to prove the existence of something whose nature, more or less by definition, lies outside the bounds of what is accepted as provable. I think it is a perfectly valid logical position to occupy, but also, that it is simply a choice. The fact that the world as experienced and perceived once this choice has been made, then conforms to the conditions of the choice, does not in and of itself eliminate the validity of other choices, or the experiences that derive thereof.

    The question then becomes, why does any of this even matter? Why can’t people be left to enjoy the experiences that result from their perceptual choices? Well I think we would agree the rather obvious answer is the lesson of history: people who have difficulty thinking for themselves– people who conform to dogmatic systems of belief informed by beliefs in a supernatural and vindictive power or God, who carry beliefs rooted in guilt, sin, elitism, racism, sexism, militarism, and any other sort of bigoted or biased self-righteousness– have hurt each other, and the world, pretty terribly. The defense against this is quite rightly to show that the belief systems propelling these acts of violence are false. One way to do this is to insist upon what is knowable, and what is not. To insist on what constitutes evidence and what does not. This works.

    And all of this is well and good except for the fact that there may be a phase space of human experience inaccessible by the choices so made. These choices may limit what comes next, certainly individually, and I would argue collectively. There may even be people who wish to experience those points in the diagram. No one can tell you what it is like to experience the world as they do, based upon their own choices in this regard. You can only look upon it from your own vantage point and hypothesize. So long as they are not lobbying for war and violence, or taking your money to do things you would not wish done, which happens to most of us anyway on a daily basis, I say okay. There need be and perhaps can be no evidence or proof that the experiences human beings have as a result of the bounds they each draw upon what is knowable, are valid in other reference frames. They may not be. The questions you have posed are indeed circular, given the bounding conditions, but so what. Perhaps we all inhabit circles, the question is merely which one.

    The experiences a person has, having made the choices they have made, do not in any sense imply that other experiences are not available through other choices. The consistency of my world does not invalidate yours, and vice versa. And to say that one is real and the other is not is to say that one set of choices is correct, and I do not see how one decides what is so if all choices return experiences consistent with the choosing. I would caveat this by saying, as in your example of gravity, that all choices are also incomplete to some extent– as you say, we will come to know more later, regardless of our various starting points. We will know more later regardless of the choice made regarding the bounds of evidence and knowing. Life simply does bring us into contact with moments and information that cause us to ask questions.

    My opinion is that the initial choice doesn’t matter, so long as one is willing to keep an open mind and respond to the questions thrown one’s way, in whatever world it is that you occupy. In my opinion very few, if any, who question deeply their experience, are prone to the types of violent and divisive acts we would most wish to avoid in the future.


    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Michael,
      When it comes to matters of philosophy, I definitely agree. By its very nature, philosophy is often about pondering questions no one can authoritatively answer, so our answers to these questions, while arrived at with greater or lesser degrees of logic, is largely a personal choice.

      Nevertheless, I love talking about this kind of stuff, which is why I post on it. It’s not to hammer anyone for their views, just to put my own out there, hear the views of others, and perhaps discuss why we hold them. In particular, I’m often engaging in an experiment of sorts, to see if anyone can point out aspects of an issue I haven’t considered.

      Of course, there are people out there who can’t bear to have anyone believe other than they do. They’ve caused and continue to cause a great deal of grief in the world. I rarely get those types here on my little blog, although I know if I go comment on a major news outlet that they’ll be there.

      All that said, I do think whether the mind is physical or not is an important question, and affects our beliefs and attitudes in a range of critical areas, such as scientific funding, reproductive rights, medical ethics, or criminal justice. In general, I think the mind is increasingly becoming a scientific question and less and less the exclusive nature of philosophers.

      Of course, it’s the nature of scientific discovery that there will be surprises. I’m sure the mind will be no exception.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Liam Uber says:

    Well done as usual.

    I’m no sure whether you are saying that the content of our minds is material or immaterial? Is ‘pure mental activity’ non-physical?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Liam!

      Myself, I think all mental activity is physical. I may at times speak of it metaphorically as not being physical, but what I usually mean is that it only physically exists as encodings in someone’s brain.


  9. A nice, clear approach to a very difficult subject, at least to me.

    “Because if there were ever any evidence for anything non-physical, I would accept its existence.” Do you mean that there would be ‘physical’ evidence for something ‘non-physical”? I have a hard time conceiving of what this could possibly be. Any such evidence, clear and undeniable, must have a physical aspect to it. That is just how we are structured. If the evidence were non-physical us humans would not be able to detect it. Such evidence could presumably take the form of a recurring fantasy. However, all such fantasies so far, mostly religious ones, have been based on mistaken or imagined physical evidence.

    So, an evidentialist would still be a physicalist?

    I also think that all arguments ultimately end up being circular for the simple reason that all the evidence must be processed by one organism at a time, who must make sense of all the related data and come to a conclusion, in isolation. The evidence at this time seems unassailable to me: information processing is idiosyncratic. All argument is thus self-referential, in the final analysis. We are at the center of our ‘idioverse’ which suggests that mind/culture has a circular structure.

    Philosophers like to invoke the circularity fallacy on other’s arguments, but I suspect that their criticisms have circularities hidden in them. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks!

      “So, an evidentialist would still be a physicalist?”
      Excellent question. Is there actually any difference?

      One the one hand, I’d have to say that there is. If someone discovered, say, a ghost in a house, and the ghost could be made to appear on demand, or with high enough frequency for a variety of skeptical people to see it and agree on its attributes, then I would be obliged to accept its existence.

      On the other hand, I would want the ghost to be studied. How is everyone seeing it? Does it reflect or generate photons that strike the receptors on our retinas? If so, then it has some physical existence, or at least physical interaction.

      But if no recording equipment could capture sound from it or an image of it? Then I’d be interested in how it was altering our mental states to perceive it. Could those states be disrupted if we wore shielded helmets or had a magnetic pulse generator near our heads? What if we took mind altering drugs prior to entering the residence?

      If all of these efforts failed, then we might well have evidence, not only for a non-physical ghost, but that some aspect of ourselves were non-physical. Maybe any such evidence would cut both ways.


  10. s7hummel says:

    we got rid of god but somehow we cannot get rid of the illusion that our mind is a gift from heaven! so question is … how we are supposed to understand the universe when we don’t have the slightest idea what we want to understand?
    — it doesn’t matter how run the dark mechanisms. understanding the specific mechanisms of this universe will be a great honor and satisfaction to our mind. perhaps this knowledge even will allow us to escape from our solar system. but unlikely to know the nature of dark energy has allowed us to realize what is invisible to our reasoning. and this isn’t a trivial challenge when there is no God, and the wisdom of our mind … only illusions! so what we want to understand?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The intuition of dualism is a very powerful one, and it’s ancient, far more ancient than monotheism. Even hunter-gatherers, who tend to worship various nature and animal spirits, generally conceive of their ancestors hanging around as ghosts. If there is any evidence that neanderthals buried their dead (which is heavily disputed) then the intuition of dualism may be older than homo sapiens. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s right, only that it’s deeply ingrained in our psyche.

      Totally agreed that dark matter and dark energy showed us that we don’t understand nearly as much about the universe as we might have thought. We still have an enormous amount to learn.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. s7hummel says:

    i see my english is still incomprehensible. Michael. pity that you don’t have time to be in it deeply involved.
    – as for your statement: “totally agreed … that we don’t understand … still have an enormous amount to learn”
    – this reminds me of another statement: “thing that is needed to decide between dark energy possibilities … is more data, better data. nasa”
    = pity i cannot express such a simple statement more bluntly: vicious circle!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry if I misunderstood anything in your previous comment.

      But I do think I get your point here. I very much agree with the NASA quote. In science, when we don’t know what’s going on, the fallback strategy should always be, get more data.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. s7hummel says:

    Michael. and this fragment (aeon) how to speak to you?
    To get computer models to look similar to the Universe around us, cosmologists have assumed that around 96 per cent of matter and energy are in forms that we cannot directly detect.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stan, not sure what you’re asking about here, but I found that article somewhat amateurish. (The average quality of Aeon articles lately seems to have plummeted. They appear to be adopting the Huffington Post philosophy of attracting traffic with controversial nonsense.)

      Just to be sure, I think you’re referring to this article:

      “Dark matter” is just a label applied to something causing observable effects, but whose nature we don’t understand yet. I do sometimes wonder if it shouldn’t be called “mystery mass” instead, since that’s closer to the minimal empirical observation.

      Everyone who starts off learning about this wonders about gravity, that maybe the formulas are wrong. But MOND (modified newtonian dynamics) purportedly doesn’t explain all the observations, such as the gravitational lensing that takes place due to the mass of the unseen whatever. The only thing that seems to is something unseen, with an uneven distribution, that is generating mass. (Even if this weren’t the case, there would need to be a General Relativity version of MOND, since Newtonian mechanics was replaced by GR a century ago.)

      Cosmologists should definitely keep an eye out for alternate theories, but any candidate theories have to explain at least as much as the dark matter one. Maybe dark matter is actually in other universes, perhaps other branes, and gravity “bleeds” between them, but Occam’s razor argues for sticking with the simpler theory until we have evidence for the more exotic ones.

      Liked by 1 person

      • s7hummel says:

        “I found that article somewhat amateurish”
        Michael, do not be offended, please! but for example, Mr. Fracer Cain (universetoday.com) writing funny things!

        Liked by 1 person

      • s7hummel says:

        “average quality of Aeon articles lately seems to have plummeted”
        deteriorated also level: nautilius, nature, …. not to mention space.com – hopelessness.
        just what to write when science has nothing meaningful to say.
        Hawking, Penrose, Riess, …. already they have little to say. rather are silent. and this is beautiful!?

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think Hawking, Penrose, and Rees say very interesting things, when they’re talking about physics and astronomy. When they broaden out and opine on other things, I often find the results…uninformed. Penrose on consciousness I find cringeworthy. Hawking makes me facepalm when he talks about philosophy or AI. And Rees’s views on humanity’s future I just find overly pessimistic.

          True polymaths are rare, perhaps impossible today, at least in the classic sense.

          Liked by 1 person

  13. s7hummel says:

    so perhaps excerpt from another article.
    Physics is unique in the scientific world, in that its reliance on math means it can come to a broad consensus on matters with very little evidence available. In Earth science, a veritable mountain of evidence can’t fully bury the issue of global warming, and even with the vast majority of scientists now convinced, a vocal minority still dissent.
    Yet in the case of physics and dark matter, a substance defined as being virtually immune to observation, there are no meaningful dark matter deniers left standing. So what is dark matter, and how has physics come to such a powerful agreement on the idea that it makes up the vast majority of matter in the universe?
    + little difficulty makes me phrase (left standing) in this sentence (there are no meaningful dark matter deniers left standing).

    Liked by 1 person

  14. s7hummel says:

    aeon. but pay no attention to the whole article, maybe a little weak. let’s just specifically this piece of text:
    To get computer models to look similar to the Universe around us, cosmologists have assumed that around 96 per cent of matter and energy are in forms that we cannot directly detect. You might think that this would make cosmologists wary of relying on such hypothetical substances. Yet for the majority working today, dark matter and dark energy are every bit as real as the stars and galaxies that we can see.
    what reproach this text. [if] it is wrong, whether it contains any distortion or ambiguity, understatement …

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think my issue with the snippet is that it implies that the only reason cosmologists think dark matter is there is to make their computer models work. That isn’t true. Rather than me ramble on about it, check out this Wikipedia article section:

      Dark energy is more enigmatic, but even it is driven by observation. Something besides inertia from the initial big bang is driving expansion of the universe. That something must be a form of energy since anything that drives anything is energy. But that’s where knowledge effectively stops, hence the name “dark energy.”
      Again Wikipedia:

      Ultimately, of course, all theories are models that try to make sense out of observations. But implying that this is all about mathematical equation manipulations is misleading. From what I understand, that’s a charge that is much more applicable to string theory or similarly highly speculative notions. But the dark matter and dark energy concepts are much more closely driven by observation, and the “dark” part of their names honestly indicate how little is known about them. (There are highly speculative theories about what dark matter and dark energy actually are, but the basic concepts shouldn’t be judged based on those satellite theories.)

      Liked by 1 person

  15. s7hummel says:

    Michael. but let’s go back to the text itself. without any deeper scientific references. so do you see any flaws or inaccuracies in this piece of text? whether we agree with it that YOU and I … represent only 4-5% of the universe. hope that your words (most news articles about science are embarrassingly unreliable) do not refer to these three sentences.


    • Stan,
      The snippet implies that the only reason dark matter and dark energy are posited is to explain the observed structure formation of galaxies and galactic clusters. It seems to be ignoring the rotational speed of galaxies which are too fast for them to stay together; extra mass is required. If that were all the evidence, then MOND or other theories which simply tinker with our understanding of gravitation might be plausible.

      But there are also the effects of this mystery mass on electromagnetic radiation, called gravitational lensing for its effects on visible light. It also effects observations of the cosmic background and pretty much any measurement of electromagnetic radiation that has traveled cosmological distances. These effects are uneven and lumpy, which precludes simple adjustments to gravitation formulas.

      From what I understand, there is other evidence, but I’d have to either refer to Wikipedia, Ethan Siegel’s blog, or maybe one of the science news magazines to get the details.

      Hope this helps.

      Liked by 1 person

      • s7hummel says:

        Michael. very good, very beautifully, but it’s still not what i expected. You have great knowledge, wonderful reasoning, and most importantly – rational, logical, concise and beautiful English. which is always appreciated very much. but let us approach this issue rather in a way that isn’t strictly scientific, but rather philosophically.
        Whether you agree with this that is only 4% of the Universe, what we can touch, see it, we can eat … which is also our bodies! and the rest, 96%, is something like what we call the dark … so now there are no words: radiation, grav lensing, mond, dark energy, matter …

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well, if we limit knowledge only to what we can have first hand experience with, then most of modern astronomy, and modern science goes by the wayside. No one has ever seen an electron or a quark, or the actual curvature of space caused by massive objects. We have observations, but they inescapably involve a heavy dose of logic to arrive at what we think is there.

          The only thing we can say is that the long the explanations go without being falsified, or being upstage with a simpler theory that also fits observations, the more trust we can have in them.

          Liked by 1 person

  16. s7hummel says:

    that’s the point. at last we are on the road that can lead us to greater knowledge. although, of course, mainly i’ll gain, because just about the English I’m talking about. yet only a one small problem. Michael, please – answer to this innocent question.
    – whether you agree with what modern science says that 96% are invisible, undetectable directly and rather something very elusive. and only 4% is the so-called ordinary matter, that is, our bodies and our stars.
    — i agree that we cannot see quarks, although with electron you probably a bit exaggerated. but even quark is the basis of what we see and touch. also you yourself wrote that we see the effects of the curvature of space. and dark … – is mainly the result of our reasoning. because even your favorite example of the rotation of the galaxy + necessity of the existence of dark matter, perhaps just our lack of understanding of this phenomenon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • On the 96% thing, it’s not so much that I agree with it as that I accept it as what cosmologists have worked out. I don’t have personal access to the evidence, so I can only judge it based on what gets published. But based on the evidence discussed in publications, I’m satisfied that’s it on reasonable epistemic grounds.

      BTW, have you seen this post from Ethan Siegel? He discusses the evidence for dark matter.
      View story at Medium.com

      At the end, he notes the same thing as you. Maybe we’re misinterpreting things. Always possible until someone directly detects the particles. Only time will tell.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. s7hummel says:

    yes, i read almost everything what writes Ethan, especially if shortage of meaningful texts recently. omitting, of course “pretty” interesting facts about the detection of gravitational waves (1,2,…..).
    but now then again we will leave scientific data and statements and let us return to something more understandable … maybe even philosophy. and even eng!!!
    because i admit, my primary objective is English, and scientific truth is rather less important.
    i’m aware of the fact that i’m exploiting you mercilessly, but that my despicable nature. but if you still have a little patience, maybe we can return to this text?
    of course we have nothing more sensible than bb theory, so we have dark … that is, if we agree on the very essence of the matter, which is 4-96%. and if the rest of this
    text is just enough real …
    it would be very interesting to see how you would approach this issue – so how YOU would describe your own words, the problem contained in these three sentences.


    • It sounds like you’re asking for my evaluation of your English in this sentence:
      “of course we have nothing more sensible than bb theory, so we have dark … that is, if we agree on the very essence of the matter, which is 4-96%. and if the rest of this
      text is just enough real …”

      (Warning: I’m a terrible English teacher 🙂 )
      Usually the first letter of each sentence is capitalized.

      bb=big bang?

      “so we have dark…” is a bit too terse. “so we insert dark energy to keep it a plausible theory” might be better, if that’s what you meant.

      “that is, if we agree on the very essence of the matter, which is 4-96%”
      Not sure what you’re trying to say here. It seems like the fact that only ~4% of the energy in the universe is what we can directly observe is your chief concern, and the main issue you see with dark matter and dark energy.

      “and if the rest of this text is just enough real …”
      This also isn’t clear. It seems like you’re saying if we accept the rest of the text as given for the sake of argument.

      Hope this helps.

      Liked by 1 person

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