Sunday, December 09, 2007

No -- Agnostic Materialism Is Every Position

I realized a mistake I made in the last entry and I have come up with a better position. I dismissed Strawson's "agnostic materialism" and with full confidence in the progress of physics I said that science would be capable of "sealing the causal closure debate." But I now see a different sense in which Strawson's agnosticism makes better sense. Agnostic materialism is in fact entirely indicative of our present age. I felt that his position was redundant, since, of course, it seemed so obvious since we are inundated by it everywhere. We do not know what in the future science will say matter turns out to be. But we are materialists in our forthright posture, for no reason other than to have a forthright posture: "to make a hypothesis" as the textbooks say. So why hyphenate our position with the doxastically vague term "agnostic"? It would make sense, moreover, that we should hyphenate all of our positions with agnostic. Do we really advance with such finality? If not, then we are agnostics about every finalism.

The very achievements of modern physics have made us skeptical (toward what?) Skeptical towards skepticism. Just as previous generations had become comfortable with the orderly and mathematically framed world bequeathed by Newton and his contemporaries, well, along came the new physics and turned the old physics on its head. What more stable principle of logic than the impossibility of something not being itself? What more stable intuition than the belief that the future will be like the past? And then physicists give us the pairing of little matter/anti-matter items whose states are simply indeterminable to boot. The net-effect of these revolutionary and unsettling discoveries has been to all but eliminate the expression "but surely you are kidding!"

We are far less confident in our skepticism than were our ancestors of the previous several centuries. Nostalgists yearn for that "healthy skepticism" once again, but that is a failed idea. There is nothing healthy about clinging to centrisms, the foundations of which are left unquestioned (for, that is the so-called "healthy" part, that we should salvage at least some of the Enlightenment project.) We are as healthy as ever when we realize there are no indubitable reference points. As Lyotard wrote in The Postmodern Condition, even the story we tell ourselves about the progress of science to deliver mankind from veils of ignorance has failed to foster the confidence that we really know what we're talking about when we try to explain what matter is made out of.

1 comment:

Muser said...

Well put. I enjoyed this one.