Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Evidentialism and Why Ghosts Can’t Testify

           Evidentialism and Why Ghosts Can’t Testify

           I think there is a basic misunderstanding as to the philosophical intent of materialism. It is usually understood to mean that reality is made of stuff called “matter”, which is made of quantum particle fields, governed by general relativity and quantum mechanics. The equations are difficult and counterintuitive; quarks, leptons and bosons solve them in real time; yet they are regarded as somehow stupid. “Dumb” matter, “mindless” matter, though we are made of matter, and we say that we have minds.

           In addition to anthropocentric arrogance, I also see a grammatical error at work here. I think a proper understanding of materialism treats the word “matter” as a verb, not a noun. “To” matter, not “the” matter; materialism is about what matters; that is, what makes a significant difference.

           This shift, from objects (“the” matter) to thoughts (“to” matter), turns a question about existence into a question about universality. This is a sound move, philosophically, because existence is relative, transient and local, whereas universality is absolute, eternal and global.

           What does matter? Anything significant; whatever has firm evidence in its favor. Hence materialism ought to be renamed ‘evidentialism’, which accepts as real only that for which there is evidence. Materialism = evidentialism = the call for proof of one’s statements.

           The only reason why we talk about quarks, leptons, bosons, etc., is that particle accelerators give evidence of their existence. Matter as understood by 21st-century physics is radically different from matter as understood by the 19th century; but the philosophical demand for evidence remains the same.

           Evidentialism is simply the demand to not bullshit. It’s the philosopher’s usual unreasonable challenge: “prove it!”

           Ask any religion about any other religion. It will say that the other religion’s gods are immaterial in that they are false and absurd, and hence do not really matter.

           So riddle me this: why can’t ghosts testify in court? Answer; because they are not material witnesses. By which the lawyers don’t mean that the spook is made of ectoplasm rather than quantum particle fields; they mean that the spook’s wailings and gibberings make no sense and therefore are of no use to judge or jury. The ghost’s testimony is immaterial because it doesn’t matter.

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