Materialism and meaning

Let me first say that I am a die hard materialist in that I do believe that there is nothing beyond the physical world. I also believe that physics and hence the physical world is computable in that it can be simulated on a computer. However, helped along by Stuart Kauffman’s new book Reinventing the Sacred, I have been gradually edging towards accepting that even in a purely materialistic world there is some amount of arbitrariness in our perception of reality. Kauffman argues that this arbitrariness is not “mathematizable”. I will argue here that the question can be formulated mathematically and can be shown to be undecidable or at best intractable. Kauffman’s thesis is that we should take advantage of this arbitrariness and make it the foundation of a new concept of the sacred.

The problem arises from how we assign meaning to things in the world. Philosophers like Wittgenstein and Saul Kripke have thought very deeply on this topic and I’ll just barely scratch the surface here. The simple question to me is what do we consider to be real. I look outside my window and I see some people walking. To me the people are certainly real but is “walking” real as well? What exactly is walking? If you write a simple program that makes dots move around on a computer screen and show it to someone then depending on what the dots are doing, they will say the dots are walking, running, crawling and so forth. These verbs correspond to relationships between things rather than things themselves. Are verbs and relationships real then? They are certainly necessary for our lives. It would be hard to communicate with someone if you didn’t use any verbs. I think they are necessary for an animal to survive in the world as well. A rabbit needs to classify if a wolf is running or walking to respond appropriately.

Now, once we accept that we can ascribe some reality or at least utility to relationships then this can lead to an embarrassment of riches. Suppose we live in a world with N objects that you care about. This can be at any level you want. The number of ways to relate objects in a set is the number of subsets you can form out of those objects. This is called the power set and has cardinality (size) 2^N. But it can get bigger than that. We can also build arbitrarily complex arrangements of things by using the objects more than once. For example, even if you only saw a single bird, you could still invent the term flock to describe a collection of birds. Another way of saying this is that given a finite set of things, there are an infinite number of ways to combine them. This then gives us a countable infinity of items. Now you can take the power set of that set and end up with an uncountable number of items and you can keep on going if you choose. (Cantor’s great achievement was to show that the power set of a countable set is uncountable and the power set of an uncountable set is even bigger and so forth). However, we can probably only deal with a finite number of items or at most a countable list (if we are computable ). This finite or countable list encapsulates your perception of reality and if you believe this argument then the probability of obtaining our particular list is basically zero. In fact, given that the set of all possible lists is uncountable, this implies that not all lists can even be computed. Our perception of reality could be undecidable. To me this implies an arbitrariness in how we interact with the physical world which I call our prior. Kauffman calls this the sacred.

Now you could argue that the laws of the material world will lead us to a natural choice of items on our list. However, if we could rerun the universe with a slightly different initial condition would the items on the list be invariant? I think arbitrarily small perturbations will lead to different lists. An argument supporting this idea is that even among different world cultures we have slightly different lists. There are concepts in some languages that are not easily expressible in others. Hence, even if you think the list is imposed by the underlying laws of the physical world, in order to derive the list you would need to do a complete simulation of the universe making this task intractable.

This also makes me have to back track on my criticism of Montague’s assertion that psychology can affect how we do physics. While I still believe that we have the capability to compute anything the universe can throw at us, our interpretation of what we see and do can depend on our priors.


2 thoughts on “Materialism and meaning

  1. Well, I am glad to read your blog. The perceptions are ‘right’ dues to the actions we performed on the perceived targets.However I can’t quite agree you on the idea that ‘we would get another list if we run the world again with a little variant’. I must say that if the statistic logic beyond the world is not changed, the result would be the same after a long run.


  2. Hi,Thanks for your comment. I think that it is not even clear that life would have evolved on earth if the universe was slightly perturbed. Certainly, our current slate of species would be different if evolution was allowed to run again. Humans may or may not have arisen. Would the concept of irony exist in all worlds? How about humour, which doesn’t even translate across cultures universally? Every time you look at a painting by Jan Vermeer, don’t you see something different? I think there are strong arguments to suggest that our list is not,Carson


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