Sunday, March 2, 2014

More on Materialism and "Aboutness"

Commenter BeingItself asks: "If I was to draw a picture of my girlfriend, would that drawing be about my girlfriend? Surely a drawing is material. What is it about brains such that their patterns cannot be about anything?"

Good question! I've examined the James Ross article on this blog a few times, but it's always good to revisit this basic idea from different angles. This problem is an interesting one that materialists ought to grapple with, but too often they misunderstand it or just wave it aside.

Think of the Big Dipper. In the West, it looks like, or represents, a soup ladle.

But does the Big Dipper itself, apart from our interpretations, have anything whatsoever to do with soup ladles? Is it really about soup ladles, outside of our interpretations that we apply to it? Of course not. Soup is a salty liquid food, and a ladle is a metal spoon for scooping it up. The stars that make up the Big Dipper are enormous balls of hydrogen gas. Nothing relating to soup or ladles at all. Hell, in other cultures the Big Dipper is supposed to look like a big bear, hence it's official name: Ursa Major.

But what if we had the technology to create and move stars around? And what if we filled in the details of the Big Dipper, complete with pouring soup, so that it looks even MORE like a soup ladle than it does now?

Is it really about soup now? No, still not. It's still just a bunch of balls of hydrogen gas arranged into a patter that we interpret as a soup ladle, but apart from us is not about soup ladles.

Now let's say that the technology is not there yet to move stars around, so instead we use some small clumps of glowing electrons on a glass screen. We arrange the glowing electrons the same as before, first like the Big Dipper, then fill in more details. Again, are the glowing electrons about a soup ladle? Again, apart from our ability to apply a pattern onto something, the electrons are not about soup ladles. They are just electrons that are glowing, that have certain charges, and that's it. We've just arranged them into a patter that we call "soup ladle."

Of course, what I'm talking about here is a computer screen. Materialists often think that an easy counter to dualist claims is to point to the existence of computers, saying that computers are about things and there's no problem there, so why should there be a problem with explaining the aboutness of our thoughts? But computer output is no different from the Big Dipper above: just arrangements of glowing electrons that we apply meaning to. Without us around to give meaning to the symbols, the output on a computer screen has no more aboutness than the Big Dipper does.

And the same goes for graphite marks on a piece of paper, as BeingItself's original question pertained to. The objective physical situation involves some carbon molecules sticking to wood molecules (which are also carbon), and that's it. The physical situation, apart from BeingItself's interpretation, has nothing whatsoever to do with "girlfriends", anymore than the Big Dipper has to do with soup ladles.

The problem could be phrased like this: for a symbol to have meaning, there must be two ingredients: the physical shape/structure of the symbol + something else.

In the case of BeingItself's drawing, the "something else" is his intentions applied to the otherwise meaningless bits of carbon. In the case of the Big Dipper, the "something else" is our interpretations of an otherwise meaningless grouping of stars.

But in the case of our thoughts, what is the "something else?"


  1. Thanks Martin. I have not read yet but will later when I have time.

  2. The 'something else' is the causal story that led to the drawing or led to rearranging the stars.

    I don't think we even disagree about anything here. Or do we?

  3. It's interesting that you bring up semantic externalism, which is what hylemorphism is. It does strike me as plausible, and this is why I give Aristotle a second look.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Is hylomorphism compatible with quantum field theory?

    I have never understood the point of these elaborate and exotic metaphysical notions.

  6. I'm not sure why it would not be. What is the proposed conflict?

  7. Because in my understanding of hylomorphism, for something to exist it has to be matter in the shape of something, but at a fundamental level there are things without structure or shape (or "form" as I understand it.)

    So a hylomorphist would be forced to deny that quantum fields exist.

    But I'm confident that such squishy notions can be contorted to fit any physical reality whatsoever, and therefore the concept is of no value.

  8. Physicalists would not reject shape, as they accept the existence of matter and matter clearly has dimensions and therefore shape.

    What is meant by "form" is more along the lines of "essence": particular properties of something that make it what it is rather than something else. The essence of an elephant would include being a mammal, having four legs, a trunk, and so forth. Not just shape, as any clump of matter could in principle be in the shape of an elephant without actually being an elephant.

  9. That's interesting. For the most part I reject the concept of 'essence' as commonly applied to macro-level things like people and chairs.

    There just cannot be an essence to the human species, unless you reject evolution.

    But the concept does seem to make since when applied to quarks or neutrinos or even a molecule. But a molecule's essence is not something that could exist apart from the molecule.

  10. You don't need to reject evolution to accept macro essentialism; see David Oderberg's Real Essentialism; he has a whole chapter on just that.

    But this is besides the point of the blog post. The point is that computers and drawings are not good examples that show how aboutness can be a physical property.

  11. "The point is that computers and drawings are not good examples that show how aboutness can be a physical property."

    Who said aboutness is a physical property?

    My thoughts are about something because of the causal history. The drawing is about something because of the causal history.

    So far you have made no attempt to counter that claim.

  12. David Brightly made the same sort of argument in your pie symbol post as well.

  13. I outlined the four main materialist solutions to aboutness, and their problems, <a href=">here</a>.

  14. I answered those objections over on VR's blog.

  15. 'But in the case of our thoughts, what is the "something else?"

    Hello, I am a first-time visitor with an interest in this topic.

    My view is that such questions as the nature of meaning and rational inference are very hard questions indeed. They are not the kinds of things that science can explain, because science has to assume that such things as mathematical reasoning and logical inferences are valid, in order to proceed with explanations of any kind. So if it tries to turn back on such faculties and explain them, it is dealing with questions that are categorically different to the kinds of questions that it does deal with. It is making a kind of categorical error by confusing 'the nature of order' with 'the order of nature'. This invariably shows up as the belief that 'the nature of meaning' can be understood in terms of (for example) neurophysiology, whereas the entire discipline of neurophysiology actually rests on the ability to make inferences. So it always ends up in circular arguments and question begging, that is, assuming what it sets out to prove.

  16. BI,

    >The thought is caused by an object that looks like a bear in the context of being in a place where bears might be and by my previous experience of bears.

    Right, so then the thought should be about bears-or-stumps-that-look-like-bears, not about bears specifically. This is called the disjunction problem. I talk about this in the article I linked you above.

  17. "Right, so then the thought should be about bears-or-stumps-that-look-like-bears, not about bears specifically."


    If I saw someone with a lifelike mask of my sister, I would think about my sister. My thoughts would be about my sister, triggered by something not my sister.

    I still don't see how this is a problem for materialism, and even if it is a problem, how a non-material account would fare any better.