Truth, Propositions, and Materialism

10 thoughts on “Truth, Propositions, and Materialism”

  1. Regarding the nature of propositions, materialism also cannot verify the semantic law of bivalence, which establishes the truth value of a proposition. The very proposition materialism assumes, namely its particular view of metaphysics, is not verifiable by its own method, therefore rendering it self-referentially incoherent. This is the same problem with scientific positivism, but good like finding a materialist intellectually honest enough to admit it.

  2. You seem to be referring more to a folk materialism than the position actual elites hold. It’s my understanding that the way Spinoza collapsed the non-material into the set of all material things is now called physicalism to distinguish it from the straw-man materialist position. Perhaps there are elites that have not thought much about such things and display folk materialist tendencies, but I suspect they would fall into something like Spinoza’s position upon scrutiny rather than melt away like the Wicked Witch of the North.

    It’s not then clear you’ve really established your central premise (number three) which states: “Propositions, as immaterial or abstract objects, have no philosophical place in the worldview of materialism.” This bold premise does not seem to follow from merely pointing out that we don’t have a formal understanding of how material processes refer to propositions. A lack of knowledge about how brains process propositions does not necessarily imply that ideas cannot be material in origin.

    It’s also not clear that belief in supernatural things allows one to formally account for propositions either. If we were to assert that it’s the soul that does our thinking and not our brains, then how do you formally account for the soul’s ability create and process propositions?

  3. Yes, as another comment suggests, this is a strawman of most real materialism, although it does work against the eliminative form. But normal materialists do not say that only material objects exist in contrast with things like propositions and truth: they are saying that in contrast with immaterial substances.

  4. A proposition is always a statement of some kind, and a statement is always expressed in some physical form. The statement relates concepts in a way that may be ‘true’ or ‘not true’ depending on how well that relationship corresponds to reality. So you may have a cluster of neurons in the brain that encode the concepts of ‘cat’, ‘mat’, and ‘on’, and there are neural connections that physically establish this relationship – ‘cat’ ‘on’ ‘mat’. This relationship can be communicated to other brains through the use of language.

    The so-called “reaching out”, sometimes called ‘aboutness’, or intentionality, is nothing more than physical connections inside the brain between concepts encoded in neurons.

    There is nothing in this that is anything but physical.

    1. Unless you can establish a physical property by which some bit of unthinking matter becomes “about” another bit of unthinking matter, you haven’t actually solved the problem, you’ve just committed a homunculus fallacy.

      1. “Aboutness” in nothing more than physical connections in the brain. One piece of the brain contains a concept of some thing, and another piece contains a concept of some other thing, and neural connections in the brain establish associations between these concepts. The brain itself is extremely complex. An individual neuron doesn’t think. But billions of neurons interacting together function in a way the individual pieces can’t. This is the emergent functionality that we call thinking.

        Theists love to tell themselves that thinking must be something non-material in nature, because they don’t understand the complex dynamics of physical things. To be sure, none of us has a complete grasp of it, but science has given us a very good start. There’s nothing spooky going on, and there’s no homunculus. Your concept of an immaterial soul is nothing but a homunculus in disguise. There is ample evidence that it’s all physical, and all natural. The cognitive sciences do a much better job of explaining what’s going on than a vague, hand-waving “my soul does the thinking for me”.

    2. A proposition is always a statement of some kind, and a statement is always expressed in some physical form.

      What is your understanding of the syntax–semantics distinction? Do you think translation of the same proposition between languages is at least in some cases possible?

  5. I find this rather convincing, not quite a straw man argument. It would be hard enough to argue that materialism justifies abstraction, let alone that any such abstraction deserve to be called “true”.

    I looked up this website having just read “When Islands of Meaning Sink Beneath Us” in CT Magazine. Thank you for that! Incredibly insightful look at Ecclesiastes, life, hope, meaning, and this time on earth with its suffering. What a blessing to have this in writing! Very well put, meaningful, and loving! I agree with your students! I feel loved and am motivated to love having read this piece!

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