Monday, October 17, 2016

Does It Matter?

Does It Matter?

Which part of speech is the ‘matter’ of materialism; a noun or a verb? Is it ‘the’ matter, made of quarks and gluons and photons and leptons? Or is it what ‘does’ matter; that is, does it reliably make a verifiable difference?

People usually think of the matter of materialism in the first sense; a kind of sublime yet gross stuff, obedient to complex mathematical laws yet somehow thoughtless; basis of all existence yet somehow lowly; plain fact yet somehow unreal. These cultural contradictions aside, matter in this sense is hardly stable. A century ago it was atoms; then electrons orbiting nuclei; then those nuclei turned out to be protons and neutrons bound together by virtual pions; then those all turned out to be made of quarks and leptons; and lately physicists are speculating that those in turn are vibrating strings. Every feature of the model has changed.

What has remained the same is physicist’s demand for evidence. Accurate predictions for repeatable experiments. They postulated quarks to explain what they saw in the particle-collision experiments.  The quarks made a difference; they implied falsifiable results, confirmed by actual evidence. Quarks ‘matter’ in that sense. Physicists may like string theory; the math is pretty; but the theory has yet to predict experimental results. There is no evidence for strings, so in that sense strings do not ‘matter’.

I propose that the matter of materialism is a verb; it’s about what matters. Materialism, in this sense, is evidentialism; it accepts as real only what you can prove makes a difference. Take for instance the luminiferous aether, postulated in 19th-century physics as the carrier of the electromagnetic wave. Einstein proved that the aether has no explanatory value; hence it does not matter, and can be ignored as immaterial.

Conversely, if it turns out that, say, love and compassion make a verifiable difference, then love and compassion definitely do matter, and in that sense are material concerns fit for any materialist. But that love, and that compassion, has to leave evidence of the difference that it makes; otherwise it doesn’t matter.

And as for spooky stuff, riddle me this; why can’t ghosts testify in court? Answer; because they are not material witnesses. By which I do not mean that they aren’t bound systems of quantum fields, but instead that their gibberings and wailings make no sense to judge or jury, and hence their testimony is invalid.

I leave it to the reader to come up with other spooky and/or theological notions that are immaterial, in the sense of not mattering, i.e. not making a detectable difference in people’s lives.

If materialism is evidentialism, concerned just with what can be proven to make a difference, then it is the only philosophy that can be lived; all others are alternatives to living your life.

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