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More than Math

What I call materialism is the belief that the material world is all that exists, that everything else is somehow derivative of a base level reality that is somehow “material.” The most common sort of materialism, scientific materialism, adds to this the belief that science is the most suitable technique for coming to know the truth about this baseline reality. Some people associate this view with rational thinking itself, with a sort of wise willingness to look beyond mere appearances and see things as they really are.

Against this view, I ask that the reader would try to join me in a sort of shift of perspective. We are all aware of the distinction between perception and reality, between the familiar world (clouds, trees, etc) and the world that we imagine is somehow beneath that, the world that is somehow objective and concrete, and is considered as the more fundamental cause of our perceptions itself. Nowadays we tend to think that science is what is best able to study that “baseline reality”: we tend to identify that baseline reality with something like atoms, particles, waves, quantum states, or whatever. Now, whether such a world–a baseline reality that is the cause of all of our subjective experience–exists in general, I am not quite sure, nor even am I sure exactly if this is a meaningful question to ask. But what I want you to try to do now is try to imagine that the world described by science in particular, whatever it is, is not actually as the world “as it really is,” or even a “best approximation” of that world. Instead, I’d like you to try to imagine that the content of science is even more deeply psychological than the familiar world, that it is even further removed than the familiar world is from whatever baseline reality might actually exist. That is, try to think of science itself as the end result of a very psychological process indeed: one of applying a deeply abstract and mentally generated structure (namely, mathematics) to the world that we find ourselves experiencing.

Now, this point of view is actually quite natural, once a person gets used to it. In some sense at least, this has to be what science really is, though I don’t think this is all that it is.  Now, from this new point of view, it is actually quite a remarkable fact that science works at all. That is, it is remarkable that all of these particular abstract mental structures, things we came up with in our mind, do seem to find a correspondence to the reality that we perceive. Some would say that this fact alone refutes the perspective shift that I have endorsed, and is evidence for the truth of something more like scientific materialism. And I actually think this is somewhat correct; science is obviously much more than just a mental construct. But I think it also indicates that we, at least today, do not think deeply enough about the very question of why science works. I believe that our popular ways of thinking about the world do not actually have a satisfactory answer to that question. Further, I believe that it is mainly in answering this question that materialism has gone horribly awry. Or, from another point of view, materialism is caused by a gravely mistaken answer to this question. What I believe is the mistake, and the whole hubris of materialism, is to suppose that a sufficient explanation for the effectiveness of science is simply that some sort of mathematically describable structure is itself a final explanation for what is really there, is a sufficient explanation for reality itself.

Why does mathematics hold such an extraordinary ontological status? I see no good reason that it should. Thus, I wish to make the following proposition: what if we were to give to “natural language” (a terminology that actually already belies a materialist bias) the same ontological weight as we currently give to mathematics? To put it in less philosophical language, what if popcorn and lakes were as fundamentally real as pi and the integers? After all, undoubtedly they are, to most people.

This would, I believe, mean that a great many things would become real to us again! Suppose–imagine–that we simply took it for granted that thought and language are somehow fundamental, that their very existence and association with the world is basic, axiomatic. I think, then, that we would think of the appearances as being predictable when we describe them in the manner that science does precisely because the “thought patterns” being put to use–the ideas and language of mathematics–have a rigid, precise, and predictable structure. Rather than idolizing it, lifting it up as the proper foundation of all other truth, we could simply say that mathematics is the language that we can use to talk in a very unique and useful and beautiful way about the world. And we could say that art, for example, is another such way. Or poetry. The representations of the poet are no good for making the sorts of predictions that science makes, but that is not the point. It is not their nature to do so. The point is that they are just as real; it is only a philosophical bias to say otherwise. From our new perspective, we can then truly say, with philosophical rigor rather than simply mystical vagueness, that an artist knows something about a cat, or a tree, or a mountain range, that a scientist does not (and vice versa). Even if we were to exhaust what mathematics can say about reality, there would still be something very definite left–indeed a great deal left.

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