Materialism, thought, infinity

Raheem asked:

If the universe and everything in it is consisted of matter, are my thoughts consisted of matter also? And if so, is anything and everything really possible? Does everything have a certain equation to make into reality? And if not, what are my thoughts, and why are Numbers infinite?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Materialism is a theory as old as philosophy itself — or at least Western philosophy. The Presocratic philosophers Leucippus and Democritus first proposed a picture of the universe as consisting entirely of ‘atoms and the void’. Human thought and perception are nothing but movements of atoms. (Aristotle in his critique of atomism remarks that thought atoms were held to be quick moving and slippery, like the mercury that Daedalus was fabled to have used to make his statues self-moving. Aristotle thought that was a hoot.)

The true diehard materialist takes the nominalist side in the nominalism-realism debate. In Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953), nominalism transmogrified into the ‘meaning is use’ theory, giving nominalism a whole new lease of life. Words are no longer just labels we pin on material things — always a rather implausible theory — but rather counters in the ‘language game’, and there are many games besides the ‘label-pinning’ game. Contemporary truth conditional semantics is the heir to Wittgenstein, dovetailing neatly into a worldview where all that exists is ultimately the objects of physics.

‘And if so, is anything and everything really possible?’ If you mean, can materialism account for everything we talk about — not just thought, but meaning, truth, possibility and necessity, numbers and abstract objects — the materialists would say, yes. They would say that, wouldn’t they?

‘And, if not… why are numbers infinite?’ It was the mathematical Intuitionist Brouwer whose 1928 Vienna lecture first provoked Wittgenstein to return to philosophy. Specifically, the problem of grasping propositions about the infinite led the Intuitionists — under the influence of Kant — to deny the validity of the Classical laws of double negation elimination and excluded middle. Numbers and numerical formulae are ‘free creations’ of the finite human mind rather than timeless Platonic entities to which mathematical propositions correspond.

I would have thought that a diehard materialist, on the other hand, ought to have no truck with infinities of any sort. If the material universe is infinite, then you could fit an infinite number of guests into an hotel with an infinite number of rooms, all occupied, just by getting each guest to move from room number x to room number 2x. (The thought experiment is known as Hilbert’s Paradox.)

Then again, if you think of a universal formula as a ‘rule’ which mathematical language users ‘follow’, then it seems you can have your cake and eat it. You can say that a universal formula is ‘true’ for all numbers (i.e. proved, justified) while at the same time denying that the rules we follow are ‘rails stretching to infinity’ as the Platonist believes.

‘And if not, what are my thoughts…?’ You don’t have be able to say what something IS, in order to be pretty sure what it is NOT. So, frankly, I don’t know. However, my present view inclines towards the notion that thought is mental action, and action is prior to everything else in the universe. The ultimate reality. What ultimately IS life, your life, my life, but the things one does, and the things the world does in response? The rest is just things ‘we’ say in our common discourse (as Heraclitus would have remarked). On this view, materialism is as unthinkable as solipsism.

— Raheem, I don’t know if this answers your question or not. (I wasn’t altogether sure what you were getting at.) I hope it helps, at any rate.

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