Failure of Lovecraft's Project: 2 of 3

  1. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    Lovecraft was a materialist. This means that he wanted to believe and, insofar as his Romantic project was materialist, for others to believe, that reality is, in principle, explicable entirely in naturalistic rather than supernatural terms, and that, in principle, the sciences, which investigate the properties of matter, are capable of giving a complete account of all phenomena.

    I say "in principle" because, of course, our sciences are not yet fully developed.

    The corollary of this materialism is that all human phenomena, like any other phenomena, are attributable to physics, chemistry, etc. What we call love is really the effect of material causes. Indeed, everything is the effect of material causes. If we allow any exceptions, materialism is invalidated.

    Therefore, what we call human reasoning cannot be independent of material causes. What we call our thoughts are really the effect of electrochemical changes in the brain. These changes are not caused by some entity we call Reason that exists "above" or "outside" the material brain. Thought is an epiphenomenon of brain activity.

    But this line of thought is self-refuting. If all thought is the excresence of material factors, then the thought that all thought is the excresence of material factors is also nothing but an epiphenomenon. As far as I know Lovecraft didn't recognize the logical fallacy built into a purely material "explanation" of thought.

    If any thought is valid, then there must be something that is not reducible to being an effect of irrational causes. We can make no exemptions. But since it is impossible not to believe in the validity of reason -- for even the belief that reason is invalid would be something we hold to be reasonable and true -- then materialism, with its inevitable reductionism, is untenable.

    Discuss?
     
    Aug 26, 2010
    #1
  2. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    I should have added: I've been reading a book that has pertinence to the brain-mind thing, Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves, by James Le Fanu. (I don't know if he is related to the Victorian horror writer!) He is identified, on the dust jacket of the Pantheon hardcover (2009) as a GP who contributes a weekly column to the British Daily Telegraph and who's written for the New Statesman, the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, etc.
     
    Aug 26, 2010
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  3. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    Extollager: As I understand it, there remains absolutely no evidence of anything other than a material explanation for thought of any kind. As I mention elsewhere, the more recent explorations of the neurological aspects of thought seem to be coming closer and closer to relegating the entire concept of anything extraphysical concerned into pure myth.

    However, the brain (mind being simply a process/product of a functioning brain beyond a certain level of complexity) is an extremely complex organ, with multiple areas producing vastly different modes of thought, as well as working in cooperation to produce amalgams of various of these. Hence, for instance, "love" can be quite readily said to be nothing more than the result of bioelectricochemical processes within the human body, but the contributing processes which produce this overall process which we experience and which we have labeled as "love" (an intensely vague concept seeming to have almost as many actual definitions as the individuals who experience it) are so immensely complex that we are only now just beginning to understand the interconnections between the different portions of the brain involved, let alone the particular subprocesses which go into making up the whole.

    Reason (again, as I understand it), as with all other mental states, is the product of highly specialized areas of the brain being activated by a number of external stimuli, some of which we, by the necessity of our evolutionary development, have "internalized" as an "economic" measure to enable us to respond more quickly to a "stressful" situation by applying these specialized areas and the processes which they produce. (I use "stressful" in a very broad sense, to indicate a multitude of possible types of situations which place some type of "stress" on an organism which, through either inherited or acquired reactions, press it to apply the specific organ or process which is most likely to ensure a beneficial result. Those with reactions which favor such an outcome are more likely of course, to survive and pass along the inherited mechanisms favoring such traits or reactions, while those who acquire more quickly and efficiently the traits which are not inherited are, generally speaking, more likely to survive these stressors with a more pleasant -- or at least less unpleasant -- memory, and therefore learned response, to such stimuli.)

    And, of course, different parts of the brain developed at different portions of our evolution -- at least, that is the general impression based on the evidence we have acquired. Add to that the fact that not all portions of the brain are fully developed until well into life (certain portions of the prefrontal cortex, for example, only reaching full development somewhere in the mid-twenties or thereabout, I believe), making the brain (and its product the mind) very much a "work in progress" for much of a person's life, until the point where growth and development cease and various functions (the most delicate and latest developed often being the first) begin to degrade and decay.

    Then again, there are the enormous alterations in even basic personality which can come about from either disease or injury to the brain, or even other bodily functions which have an impact on how that brain functions.

    As for the stimuli which elicits the reaction of reason (or any other for the matter of that) once again, from my understanding there is always a detectable physical aspect to these, whether it be a physical impact such as touch, sight, taste, etc., or an alteration (due to any number of possible causes) which causes a difference in the exact chemical, electrical, or organic composition of the brain at that particular moment from any other.

    In any event, to the best of my understanding there simply is no evidence to suggest that any method of thought, manner of emotion, nor any other function of that construct we have come to call "mind", is anything other than just that: a process of the natural functions of the brain itself under varying conditions. Reason may be an extremely complex one the exact components of which are not known as yet, but the indications seem to be that this may not remain the case for very much longer.

    As with the poetic concept of the "soul", this is an area which Lovecraft dealt with in some of his writings (albeit, given the state of knowledge at his time, in much less developed form, tending toward much more general outlines of these principles), and about which he saw nothing to cause him to question his analogy of the light bulb. As long as it is complete and in working order, it produces light, heat, and various other forms of radiation; when broken (whether actually shattered or simply by some alteration in structure which prevents its intended function), all the elements are there, but they no longer function to produce anything other than the natural dispersal of the gases and eventual decay of the more solid components of their construction. Nothing is lost, but everything is changed.
     
    Sep 20, 2010
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  4. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    Centuries from now, combing the ruins, the sentient plasma fields of Teloktek will study these exchanges. I leave for them consideration of this well-written piece from the excellent Front Porch Republic:

    What is it Like to be a Man? | Front Porch Republic
     
    Nov 24, 2010
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  5. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    Lovecraft said that he was a strict materialist. The chief thing that matters about this declaration is that he was asserting that the universe is purposeless, meaningless, and "blind." The ultimate cause of things is "mechanical," the result not of reason or purpose (as in any form of Intelligent Design). Lovecraft believed in causal closure.*

    Lovecraft's thought was "naturalist," in that he absolutely refused the idea that there exist any supernatural entities. By "supernatural entities" I mean, not vampires and werewolves, but supernatural entities in the philosophical sense. I would contend that reason is a supernatural entity.

    By reason, I mean that thing according to which we may have valid thoughts about the universe (and more, but that will suffice for now).

    If all that is is merely "nature," and nature is irrational, then all that is, is irrational. This means that my thoughts are irrational, and so I can't, consistently, believe that they are true. If the "substratum" of all things is irrational nature, then this must be true of my thoughts about nature, self, etc.

    Lovecraft's materialism, then, is self-refuting. He cannot claim an exemption for his thoughts about nature -- he cannot really claim that his materialism/naturalism is true.

    *In his stories, he proposed that the realization of the meaninglessness or absurdity of the universe would drive people mad, but in his letters etc. he argued for this view as tenaciously as he could, and obviously did not think that, if successful, he would drive, say, August Derleth insane.
     
    Feb 13, 2013
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  6. j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator

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    Um, no, it really doesn't work that way. The term "irrational" in reference to nature (or the processes of nature) has a rather different meaning than when applied to human thought. The first is simply a blind process without a mind behind it; the second, on the other hand, is relative to a coherent, repeatable method of thinking which has had demonstrably accurate results. That this latter is the product of a mindless process in no way prevents this product itself from being rational in any accepted sense, any more than the fact that life itself is the result of blind, impersonal, and mindless forces prevents it from being incredibly complex and capable (at least in some instances) of following rational thought (or its conclusions).

    "Rational" is itself simply a term to describe a certain type of thinking which, as noted above, has a certain set of relations to the observed universe. But there remains absolutely no good evidence that it is itself the result of any greater mind, rather than the much more likely (given all the evidence) almost inevitable result of the billions upon billions of mindless experiments run by Nature (so to speak) over the course of that universe's existence. Rationality, too, is a hard-earned way of thinking, and extremely tenuous when pitted against the much more prevalent irrational methods of thought which are generally governed by our emotions and predispositions, our biases and desires... and which therefore have a much greater attraction to us. We are constantly seeing, now that we have the tools to measure much more accurately, that an enormous amount of reality is, frankly, simply counterintuitive; that it, in fact, flies in the face of anything which could be called "common sense". This is largely because we evolved on a larger scale of existence, and therefore almost never encountered the effects of the bulk of what is really going on. As Newtonian physics still quite amply describes reality on the level we generally encounter, it is no wonder that we tend to balk at so much of what, for example, quantum physics indicates to be the genuine nature of reality. (Lovecraft himself never could quite adjust to the implications of quantum theory; it grated on him even worse than Einstein; yet he did begin to have some glimmerings of what it meant.)

    Again, we continue to have absolutely no worthwhile evidence to support the idea of anything "supernatural"; the very concept is a meaningless one, as if it exists in nature, it necessarily obeys the "laws" which define nature itself. Anything which might be supernatural we simply cannot recognize, because it would necessarily be beyond nature; once it enters into the realm of nature (i.e., by influencing it in any way), it by necessity becomes itself natural. The only reason many of us still persist in a belief in the supernatural is that this concept has, by dint of being developed extremely early on in our evolutionary history, become as ingrained in us as any other well-developed survival mechanism which has, to date, aided us in continuing to exist. It has become, if not instinctual, then "second nature" to us (though research shows that very young children, for instance, would simply not recognize any such concepts as, for instance, "god", "the devil", "angels", "hell", etc., until these have been consistently inculcated in them over a prolonged period; as has been said elsewhere, all of us are born "atheists"; "theism", or any belief in the supernatural for that matter, is a gradually acquired tendency; it does not naturally occur in any individual).
     
    Feb 14, 2013
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  7. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    c
    Perhaps we need to focus on "product." JD, you allude to a narrative regarding the evolution of organisms with brains capable of valid inference, etc. These organisms and their brains are understood by you to be the products of irrational forces. The organisms' acquisition of such brains has conferred on them a survival advantage.

    I'm not, here, taking issue with a narrative about the evolution of physical organisms. Though I'm a Christian, as you know from our private correspondence, I'm not contending for a Christian or even necessarily theistic explanation of the origins of organisms. I hope that what I've said so far would be acceptable to, say, Buddhists, who, if I understand correctly, hold that all that is, is Mind -- as well as being acceptable to Platonists, etc.

    I'm contending that there is a logical fallacy in Lovecraft's materialism. The essence of that philosophy is, as you say, the absolute meaninglessness of all things, which are held by him not to derive from intelligence and purpose, but from physical causes that cannot be other than they are. Causal closure. Freedom of the will must be an illusion, for him; indeed I'm not sure he would be able to find a place for "will" at all. What we think of as "our thoughts" must be the involuntary products of physical stimuli acted upon by forces based on purposeless recurrences in nature. How can anything but a sleight of hand perpetrated on oneself allow for the existence of meaningful thoughts, such as inferences, when they are the inevitable outcomes of chains of blind causality?

    That's a key issue. Where I think this discussion will end is with a gentlemanly agreement to stay in our respective entrenched positions. I sympathize with Peter Geach (The Virtues, Cambridge University Press, 1977): "When we hear of some new attempt to explain reasoning or language or choice naturalistically, we ought to react as if we were told that someone had squared the circle or proved the square root of 2 to be rational. Only the mildest curiosity is in order -- how well has the fallacy been concealed?"* But perhaps this remark is, if more polite, something of a counterpart to the zinger somebody (Dennett?) made, but which I'm having trouble recalling exactly, to the effect that anyone who doubts the Darwinian explanation is incorrigibly ignorant, or a fool, or a criminal -- something like that. JD, I expect you to give us the correct quotation when you have time!

    ....A distinct but related issue, which I'll mention but not pursue further now, relates to brains and minds. For the materialist, brain generates "mind" (i.e. mental activity of all kinds) as brain is acted upon by external stimuli and as physical events occur within it, whether routine electrochemical activity or deterioration due to aging and disease, etc. As a "supernaturalist" in the philosophical sense that I attempted to indicate earlier, I understand that "mind" is prior to brain -- whether the mind here be God's mind, or mind is all that is, etc. Interior is anterior. But this is a topic distinct enough from the argument at hand that it may be noted for future discussion, perhaps, but otherwise probably left here for now. About brains and minds, I need to read Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary (Yale UP, 2009) -- or as much as I can manage thereof -- and to review some Owen Barfield.
     
    Feb 14, 2013
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  8. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    As a supplement to the above, not a substitute for what I attempt to say there:

    Lovecraft's materialism, like other philosophical approaches, is a belief. Lovecraft believed this belief to be true.

    His materialism held that all causes at work in the universe must be material -- correct? Thus mind cannot be an immaterial entity, but rather it must be a simply a mistake (i.e. a non-entity) or a physical entity or a name for phenomena with exclusively physical origins. Furthermore, all material processes are, for Lovecraft, blind and purposeless; there may be no exceptions. But material processes are all there are.

    Is that a fair statement of his belief?

    If I have understood him, then I'm saying that I don't see how he can, as a thoroughgoing materialist, believe that his belief is true. How can a merely physical organism, responding to physical stimuli and the laws of nature (themselves purposeless and blind), arrive at true beliefs, when beliefs themselves are products of processes determined by non-rational, physical causes?

    That's a philosophical question that I have tried to press, perhaps too repetitively. I'm not making any appeals to supernatural entities in the sense of God, gods, etc.
     
    Feb 14, 2013
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  9. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    JD wrote, "Again, we continue to have absolutely no worthwhile evidence to support the idea of anything "supernatural"; the very concept is a meaningless one, as if it exists in nature, it necessarily obeys the "laws" which define nature itself. Anything which might be supernatural we simply cannot recognize, because it would necessarily be beyond nature."

    No, not if we ourselves partake of the "supernatural." I'm contending that, as creatures that partake of Mind or reason, we are supernatural as well as natural. As physical organisms, our bodies are subject to the laws of nature. As creatures, possessing reason and free will,* we are supernatural; there is that in us which stands apart from, or is capable of standing apart from, and "above," those material processes to which our bodies are subject. (Hence, among other things, our sense of the tragic, as we behold our inevitable decline and conquest by death.)

    *Hence the importance of education. JD writes of an infant's tabula rasa as regards belief in supernatural entities in the conventional sense. Perhaps he would contend that parents and teachers really "ought not" to teach such things. Why not? How can they help it, if that is what a cause-effect series in a purposeless universe determines they shall do? And what does "ought" mean here? Parents and teachers "ought not" to do it because it doesn't enhance survival? But why should survival be enhanced? An appeal is being made to some entity apart from nature (i.e. to right and wrong), but that has been ruled out by the materialist thesis.
     
    Feb 14, 2013
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  10. Extollager

    Extollager Well-Known Member

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    John Gray, "an atheist and materialist of some sort or another," says in his latest book:

    --Nothing carries so much authority today as science, but there is actually no such thing as "the scientific world-view." Science is a method of inquiry, not a view of the world. Knowledge is gorwing at accelerating speed; but no advance in science will tell us whether materialism is true or false, or whether humans possess free will.--

    The only book by Gray that, so far, I have read straight through, is The Immortality Commission; but I've read portions of one or two other books by him, and quite a few of his articles. Incidentally he has written on HPL.

    As I've said: he is this Christian's favorite living atheist writer; I imagine that, if Gray and C. S. Lewis had met and conversed (a chronological impossibility), the discussion would have been fascinating.

    Review of Gray's latest:

    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/who-pulls-john-grays-strings/

    Gray on Lovecraft:

    http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/10/weird-realism-john-gray-moral-universe-h-p-lovecraft
     
    Sep 16, 2015
    #10
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