This article was last modified on May 7, 2007.

Abstract Entities in a Materialist World

In early May 2007, Robert Meyer (a prolific local writer and my continual antithesis) put a challenge before me: how can I, as a materialist, believe in abstract concepts like morality and mathematics? Meyer posited the idea that abstract concepts are something more “supernatural” because they are clearly not material.

The following rambling is my response to Meyer. As of now, it remains very impromptu and is not well structured. I will hopefully return to it in the near future and try to make some more sense of it. But until then, I offer this as a raw glimpse into my thoughts on morality, abstract concepts and materialism.

Materialism and Abstract Entities

I honestly cannot answer the question about the relationship between materialism and abstract entities. That’s a really good point. We do both agree that abstract entities exist… but I guess I’m unclear whether I would call them “supernatural”. Many physical things such as gravity or magnetism would once have been considered supernatural, so I’ll hold out on any conclusive decisions regarding abstractions.

Using the example of mathematics as our foundation (since in my opinion logic is founded on mathematics, and all else is founded on logic), I’m not convinced it exists abstractly in the sense of some abstract, supernatural world such as Plato’s Ideal universe or “The mind of God” or whatever you’d prefer. A computer, which has no mind at all, can do mathematical calculations and logical algorithms a human cannot do (at least not easily)… and with no mind, I find it hard to think a computer is appealing to some other world. But what, then, is an abstract? It’s a good question…

The analogy of a man breathing air while denying air exists is not something I see as similar to my denying immaterial things while accepting abstractions. Neither myself or you can define what makes up an abstract thing. Should someone find a way to determine the makeup of an abstract thing, I would be willing to reconsider my position.

On Self-Awareness

You ask how long it would take a pile of bricks to become self-aware, since materialists would say all matter initially comes from the same thing (assuming evolution to be true). Of course, the answer is never. I am not an expert on evolution and I personally do not agree with all of it, so I am not the one to defend it. However, science has shown that new elements can be created from lower elements and microevolution does exist even today.

How humans became self-aware I don’t know. This is a question for Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett. Personally, I think humans are only self-aware in the most basic of ways (since I deny that minds exist) so I would say humans became self-aware the same way that a television knows what programs it is projecting from its cathode-ray tubes. (By which I mean to say self-awareness is a hoax. For more on my denial of the mind, see my article “Where Is My Mind?”)

Does Morality Come From God?

I skimmed the article you sent on Euphytho’s Dilemma (“does God declare things good because they innately are or because He says so”). You say it’s a false dilemma because it offers only two choices. But it can really be only two choices:

  1. Morality comes from God. (A)
  2. Morality does not come from God. (~A)

No other option exists. It can be re-worded to a more complicated form, but the very basic question is whether God is or is not the creator of morality. As I’ve said in this dialog, and have written other places, I cannot see God being the source as long as I believe the world works in a logical way.

Furthermore, I am a utilitarian. As such, the concepts of “good” and “bad” (I deny “good” and “evil”) are measurable in physical ways and a “goodness” or “badness” can be found in the physical world. So, going back to the original point on abstractions, my
moral outlook relies very little — perhaps not at all — on abstract concepts.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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