Why I Think Materialism is Wrong
Math, Computers, and Consciousness require materialism to perform intellectual contortions
I think materialism, as a philosophical stance that says “ultimate reality is physical stuff,” is wrong. I think that ultimate reality is actually truth, and physical reality arises from truth. I think materialism works well as a filter on the truth, rather than the entirety of it. This essay is an argument as to why I think this way.
Most materialists believe that truth is a property of statements that point at material reality. As such, materialists believe that truth is caused by and dependent on material reality, which obviously exists but it’s impossible to answer why or how it came to be that way.
I believe that truth arises inevitably, and that material reality is a consequence of a particular subset of mathematical truth.
I believe that Truth is the ultimate reality because materialism requires me to perform elaborate mental contortions in three domains where I spend lots of my time: math, computers, and consciousness. It’s very easy to illustrate the problems with materialism if you spend enough time thinking about the claim
”there is no highest number”
enough to make materialism choke on increasingly wild explanations for why it’s true, because this obvious truth doesn’t map to any aspect of material reality
Materialism is Unsatisfactory when Describing Math
There is no highest number. This is a pretty easy thing to see as being true: you can always add one more to get an even higher number.
But does materialism allow us to say this kind of thing? What property of material reality are we getting at when we say there is no highest number?
If we insist that numbers are only descriptions of material reality, we end up at a place where the claim ‘there is no highest number’ is either meaningless or false, because there’s only so much matter and energy to go around, and that matter and energy won’t just sit still as you keep piling more and more of it up.
For example, can you really always add one more paperclip to the pile?
What if we’ve used up all the matter in the physical universe, and now it’s paperclips all the way down? Or, more realistically, what if adding another element to the pile causes it to collapse under its own weight and turn into a star or a black hole?
If true statements are merely “pointers to some feature or property of material reality”, what property of material reality are we pointing to when we say “there is no highest number?”
Obviously, when someone says ‘there is always a higher number’, any child can see that you can always add one to make a bigger number. How this happens, materially, is only a problem if you insist that ‘true statements must map onto material reality.’ Materialists have to play this game to keep their worldview consistent. Anyone who rejects materialism can simply say, “the material world is not all there is and things can be true even if they don’t have a literal meaning in material terms.”
Materialists can’t do that. It’s against the rules of materialism!
A materialist might argue:
“the thing in reality that “there is no highest number” points to is something to do with computers and what computers will do. Sure, you might not be able to add another paperclip to a pile, but you can add arbitrary large number inside a computer.”
My first response is the famous claim:
Computer Science is the study of computers in the same way that astronomy is the study of telescopes.
My second response is as follows:
Materialism is Unsatisfactory when Describing Computers
First, the ‘a sufficiently large pile of paperclips turns into a blackhole’ problem is still a thing, even if you move to using digital computers to represent arbitrarily large numbers. A sufficiently large pile of matter used to represent numbers will eventually collapse of its own weight once the numbers get big enough. All you’ve done, by claiming that “‘there is no highest number’ describes what computers will do”, instead of what piles of paperclips (or hydrogen atoms or up quarks) can do, is increase the number you can represent before your worldview collapses under its own weight.
Moving from a unary encoding (counting stuff) to a binary encoding still doesn’t solve the problem: there is only so much material to be used in the encoding. Hence, if numbers are merely descriptions of things in the material universe, then there’s got to be some highest possible number.
A sufficiently large computer becomes a black hole. There’s just no way around it! Every physical architecture has some limit to the number it can represent.
But wait, it gets worse!
Even if we totally forget the objection that computers can only be so big, and pretend that that’s not an issue, there’s another problem.
People have believed ‘there is no highest number’ for thousands of years. Many of them weren’t concerned with whether or not this claim somehow mapped onto a property of material reality; it was obviously true and that’s all that mattered to them.
Which one is easier to believe:
Ancient people who believed there was no highest number, and that certain infinite series converged to specific values, were describing properties of digital computers. Ancient philosophers were therefore describing the exact behavior machines which they could not conceive of, let alone build, thousands of years before their existence, and yet they were able to accurately describe these futuristic machines despite being fundamentally misguided about how most of reality works
Ancient people who believed truth existed outside the material realm were correct
Materialism requires me to totally ignore that there’s only so much matter you can put together before it gets into a hot squiggly gooey mess, or worse, a singularity where our reasoning has to stop. Sure, I can do that, I’m willing to play along, but even upon ignoring that problem, I end up in a place where I have to claim that ancient philosophers somehow predicted the behavior of computers.
This seems unnecessarily complicated when I could just say ‘truth is reality and it’s beyond physics, which, by its mathematical structure points at the broader context of truth’
Especially when that answer solves another problem materialism has yet to crack: consciousness.
Materialism is Unsatisfactory when Describing Consciousness
You are conscious. So am I.
Why do you believe that you are conscious? It’s obvious, right? You feel it every second that you are awake. But what precisely is consciousness? Can we measure it? And, more importantly, can we map it onto material reality?
The best we can do with mapping consciousness onto materialism, is say that fiddling with some bits of material reality changes some aspects of what it feels like to be conscious. We still don’t have a good explanation for how physics causes consciousness to occur. The materialist explanation for how consciousness comes into existence and what causes it is “something something something brains.”
If I am to accept materialism, not only do I have to ignore the problem of obvious truths like “there is no highest number” being either false or meaningless, not only do I have to pretend that ancient mathematicians who proved various complex number theoretic properties involving infinite series were really talking about what computers will do, I have to accept something else that just doesn’t make sense.
I have to accept that the one thing I have the most evidence of, my consciousness, is as yet inexplicable in terms of evidence. I have to do this while saying that everything else, of which I have less evidence, should put to a strict test where we only believe in what we have evidence of.
Why not simply believe that truth and consciousnessexist outside the material world, that all mathematical truths are intrinsically true, not merely properties of physical reality, and that physics pops out of mathematical truth because it’s a fun game to play, and consciousness moves towards truths that feel good, and away from things that feel bad?
That seems a lot simpler to me. It solves the problem of needing to represent mathematical and computational truths as being properties of machines that will never exist, and as an added bonus, it integrates a bunch of different religions together, by positing that there is something outside of our minds, outside of material reality, which necessarily exists, is the source of all that does exist, contains all knowledge, all judgement, and all wisdom, and if we do our best to understand and reflect it, things go better for us over unboundedly large time frames.
But wait! That’s not all! Here’s one final trick: Consider the following question:
Is Materialism True?
What can a materialist say here?
What aspect of material reality does “materialism is true” point to? It’s effectively an arrow pointing outside of itself, saying, “I am the only thing that is true, there is nothing outside of me.” But this is a paradox! If materialism is true, then the sentence “materialism is true” is a claim about the nonexistence of things outside of materialism.
Materialism says, in effect, “nothing out there!” but it cannot answer the inevitable follow-up: out where? because that question points at a space of ideas, not reality itself, and venturing there is a violation of materialist philosophy.
How can anything be outside of materialism if materialism is true? What is the material meaning of “materialism is correct?” There is none! Materialism insists that evidence and measurement are the basis of all knowledge, but materialism can’t provide evidence for itself or measure its own accuracy: we must take it on faith. That seems… strange, if you ask me. It seems unnecessarily complicated.
But if truth were the ultimate reality, and we ask the question, “Is truth the ultimate reality,” the answer is simply “yes” and there’s no paradox. This worldview supports itself just fine.
So my question is: Why materialism? Why is that the dominant worldview? Why are people so dismissive of other perspectives which may end up being simpler?
I think we’ve mistaken a filter for the source.
Materialism is a filter on truths that we can reliably demonstrate to other people. This is why I think materialism has taken off over the last few hundred years: materialism comes with a built in consensus mechanism, and most people are afraid to think for themselves. Materialism gives us the appeal to the stone.
And let’s give it’s due: materialism has helped to focus human attention on things we can measure and test, which has had the result of helping us learn a tremendous amount. That’s awesome! All we have to do, to keep the gains and not incur the losses, is see materialism as part of the truth, not all of it. Materialism, as a filter, is great! But as a source of all truth, it doesn’t work because it can’t carry its own weight.
Seeing materialism as a constraint on what can be true, rather than a filter that exposes only some truths also has other problems.
Implications of Seeing Materialism as Limiting Truth
Materialism asks only that you trust your senses, but not your ability to reason independently. By insisting that all ideas must be tested against empirical evidence, materialism implicitly tells us: “don’t trust your ability to reason unless you can appeal to the physical world to vet your conclusions.”
Materialism gives us beliefs that are really difficult to ridicule as being incorrect, and once technology gets to a certain state, materialism justifies the existence of a priestly class whose beliefs we must take on trust. After all, you can’t build a particle accelerator in your backyard, nor can you independently administer a large scale randomized controlled trial and analyze its results. You must trust other people do to these things for you. You do trust the authorities, don’t you? That’s what all healthy people do.
If your goal isn’t so much to find what’s true as it is to avoid being ridiculed, materialism works. It works great! Its only flaw is that it might prevent you from utilizing certain truths that aren’t demonstrably true to a skeptical observer. When materialism becomes the consensus philosophy of the global elite, we might expect it to lead us to a place where social consensus is mistaken for truth, and independent thinking becomes a social hazard.
After all, nobody ever got fired for choosing Java.
This view might be called ‘Platonism’ but Plato didn’t have a background in computer science and tried to argue really complicated messy stuff like ‘justice’ as existing in the abstract. I think it’s easier to state my view as thinking that the ultimate reality, Truth is equivalent to the “Tegmark Level 4” multiverse which includes all mathematical structures. Math is just a precise language,
Every so slightly more realistically :)
The internet informs me that it’s unclear who first said this though it’s often repeated.
I am beginning to suspect that consciousness is an intrinsic property of truth itself, but i’ve got more work to do here.
There’s a neat objection: but which sets of axioms are you considering when you talk about mathematical truths? A great question! And there’s a great answer: all of them. All you have to do, to solve this objection, is contextualize axiomatic systems as being something like seed-tree relationships. A set of axioms and production rules is a seed that gives rise to an arbitrarily large tree; all possible tree comprise the forest of mathematical truth. Physics is then a game springing from one such seed, or, egg, if you will.
Great article! You nailed the two major areas where a purely materialist view breaks down: math and consciousness.
Penrose has a really sophisticated understanding of how these things interweave. I highly recommend the first few chapters of Road to Reality (but the book as a whole is really dense, I had to fight my way through it). Here’s a good summary: https://www.futilitycloset.com/2019/11/12/an-eternal-triangle/
Excellent post! I broadly agree, but have a suspicion that mathematical ‘truths’ are really just tautologies that are true by definition, they just seem profound because our minds are so limited.
I also think materi￼alism is just a shared conscious inference — I think you made this point really well.
In the end, the only thing that we’re really sure of is that consciousness exists, though. This makes me lean towards idealism