One of the many philosophy pages I follow on Facebook linked to Eric Holloway’s “Blinded By A Defunct Theory” in which the Senior Fellow of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence lays out the claim that ‘Materialism is defunct’.
Holloway does a pretty good job of laying out the history of Materialism, including problems for each version that ultimately caused them to be refined further. Despite having a grasp on the history of science, Holloway seems to believe that if a theory encounters a problem, the whole theory should be tossed out.
This indicates a major misconception with how theories (in the scientific sense) operate. A scientific theory isn’t simply a single, simple idea operating in isolation, but typically a collection of hypotheses that interact with one another. Some of those are going to be more central than others.
Except in cases where a central/critical hypothesis has been shown to be false (the exemplar case being the background radiation of the universe refuting the ‘steady state’ theory of the universe), a fully functioning theory will need to amend a supporting hypothesis in the face of contradicting evidence in order to remain functional.
Consider Holloway’s paragraph:
The same thing happened with field effects. Not only do two mega-distant particles attract each other, but particles also don’t even have the good manners to collide anymore. Another interaction problem. Particles instead hover in their own safe spaces far away from any other particles. If any particles try to get near, their force fields push them apart again. So, most of what we see around us is a bunch of empty air. Rocks don’t even collide these days.
Prior to the discovery of the structure of the atom, it was believed that atoms were solid, indivisible objects, and that when a plate was placed on a table, the atoms of the plate were in direct contact with the atoms of the table. The discovery of the structure of the atom directly refuted the idea that atoms were solid. However, contrary to what Holloway seems to think, it had no impact on the idea that “the atoms of the plate were in direct contact with the atoms of the table”. It refuted the idea that “the solid atoms of the plate were in direct contact with the solid atoms of the table”, but the only problem here was the notion of atoms as solid, rather than being primarily comprised of electromagnetic fields.
With a more modern understanding, we can say that
“the atomic fields of the plate were in direct contact with the atomic fields of the table”. Note what has changed here isn’t any fundamental hypothesis of materialism (ie “matter is all there is to existence”), but merely our understanding of what constitutes matter. To think that the existence of ‘forces’ (that are exerted by matter) contradicts the idea that “matter is all there is” is to fundamentally misunderstand the statement: as forces have their origin in matter, matter remains the fundamental explanatory ‘thing’ in the universe.
Historically, Materialism is in opposition to Dualism, where Dualism posits the idea of a secondary explanatory ‘thing’ in the universe that is entirely independent of matter. Forces like gravity or electromagnetism aren’t independent of matter, so they don’t support any historical version of Dualism.
Going back to the above quote from Holloway, a particular sentence leaps out at me:
Another interaction problem.
This kind of statement came up when he talked about gravity too, and again when talking about quantum mechanics. It’s weird, because Holloway doesn’t explain these assertions: he just claims that there’s an interaction problem. Given that “the interaction problem” that he’s referencing is the historical problem of Dualism, where two entirely independent ‘things’ can’t interact with one another, yet must if humans are to exert their will to do things like move around, it seems extremely odd to claim this applies to gravity, which is not at all independent of matter.
Without any further explanation from Holloway, I can only conclude that he must not know the history of Materialism, or else he doesn’t understand its claims. Seems weird as he’s a “Senior Fellow”, but I guess the bar for promotion there is pretty low.