A Short Piece
Meaning and Distinction
On telosbound and “This Argument Refutes Materialism/Physicalism”
Trey over at telosbound, one of the best YouTube Channels around, recently posted a video exploring the strangeness of the human capacity to find distinction in the world, a video titled, “This Argument Refutes Materialism/Physicalism.” The argument is eloquent in its simplicity and profundity, and it can be stated as follows:
The argument is eloquent in its simplicity and its profundity, and can be stated as follows:
1. Distinct objects exist in the world.
2. Following Hegel, “pure being” would be nothing.
3. If objects weren’t distinct in the world, there would be nothing.
4. Distinction itself is not a material object.
5. Distinction exists, or otherwise there would be nothing.
6. Not everything can be material, because distinction exists and isn’t material.
7. Materialism is false.
Trey himself provides a fuller exploration of his argument in his video, but I hope to have at least caught the spirit of it. I myself have always been fascinated by the topic of “distinction,” as explored in the paper “Ironically,” which can be found in (Re)constructing “A Is A,” and I think Trey is absolutely right that it opens us up to the mystery of “the human subject,” a mystery I think we need to take seriously if we are to rise to the occasion of “The Meaning Crisis.”
We cannot meaningfully discuss materialism without breaking material entities up, which requires distinction, which means materialism cannot be “meaningfully” true. I’ve been writing on Anselm recently, and Anselm makes a strong argument that if we’re not thinking of a God who is real, we are not thinking about God. This is explored in “Why Does Anselm’s Ontological Argument Haunt Us?” by O.G. Rose, and the point is that we aren’t really thinking about God in any meaningful sense until we are thinking of God as real. If we think of God as “perhaps” being real, then it is not God we are thinking about, for God either is or isn’t. There is no “possibly” in the concept of God at all, while all other concepts entail plenty of contingency and possibility: for example, a squirrel “may or may not be gray”; a car “may or may not” have a working engine; an apple “may or may not” be eaten”; and so on. “God” as a concept entails no “may or may not,” even though God may will to do this or that, which is to say the “concept” of God itself entails no contingency, even though God might will to do different things. Regarding God, this has a few implications.
First, if we think about God “as real,” then we should be falling to our knees in awe and reverence, which would suggest that we can only think about God “from our knees.” Second, it would mean that only a believer can be Atheist. This is a strange point, but it is the situation Anselm leaves us with if we take his “Ontological Argument” seriously. Now, critically, just because we cannot think of God as “not existing,” it doesn’t follow that “the necessarily existing concept of God” corresponds with a reality, but it does mean that if God doesn’t exist, we cannot think it. Atheism is unthinkable even if it is true.
I realize that my points there need elaboration, and hopefully this is accomplished in “The Project of Anselm’s Proslogion.” For now, I merely want to frame Trey’s argument as accomplishing something similar, for it articulates why a “Meaningfully Reductionist Materialism” is impossible. As Anselm shows that Atheism is unthinkable, so Trey shows us that Materialism cannot be meaningful even if true.
As described in “On Thinking and Perceiving” by O.G. Rose, thought requires distinction: if my mind couldn’t “break apart” the world around me, I couldn’t comprehend the world. Meaning requires division, and even if “the wholistic and undivided world” entails a kind of “Ultimate Meaning” (perhaps encountered through psychedelics or mystical experiences), this “Ultimate Meaning” cannot be thought (or at least not by thought as we normally use it). Thus, distinction and divisions are prerequisites for meaning, which is paradoxical, because we often associate meaning with “seeing the big picture” and “putting our world together.” “Meaning” is considered a kind of opposite of “fragmentation,” but strangely meaning actually requires division to be possible. Yes, through division, we can then work our way to “a sense of the whole,” but we cannot escape the division, as Dante cannot make his way to God except by walking through hell. We must fail to succeed.
But from where does division emerge? The material world? Perhaps, but I believe that the moment we “reference” materialism in a manner we can comprehend, we are engaged in an act which cannot be reduced to materiality. To allude to the Vector Theory of Alexander Elung, “meaningful distinction” requires an interaction of the Vectors of Mind and Physics, and Mind cannot be reducible to Physics now that it has “emerged.” However, we cannot necessarily establish here that Mind “couldn’t” have emerged from Physics — that would require a different argument, say one that proved that the very composition of Physics and Mind couldn’t have related, interacted and undergone emergence. All the same, the argument Trey outlines certainly points to the irreducibility of Mind, which is a notable and critical move.
We can thoughtlessly observe the division in space between two cups, but if we decide that this spatial division is grounds to define the objects as distinct, we have made a judgment which cannot be located in materiality even if the judgment is possible because of an “emergence” of Mind from materiality. If we say, “The cups are distinct because they do not share atoms,” we have decided that not sharing atoms makes things distinct, and though that sounds crazy, it’s important to realize that we are giving authority to our belief that “separate atoms constitute separate things,” but how can we be so sure? Do we “know the things themselves?” Perhaps we’re right that “objects are separate which don’t share atoms,” but this cannot be established with certainty, and because this is the case we must “fill the gap” with a judgment. And that judgment is inspired and made possible thanks to atoms, but the judgment cannot be reduced to atoms. Even if distinction itself is somehow material, our judgment on what constitutes distinction is not (which, funny enough, would be a judgment which “made a distinction between a ‘distinction’ and a ‘non-distinction’ ”).
Distinction itself can be framed as both a negative and a positive ontologically, so it could be argued that we don’t “add” distinction to materiality, but rather just perceive and acknowledge it, suggesting distinction doesn’t disprove hard materialism. A fair point, but in my view the act of choosing to understand distinction (“meaningfully”) as a negative, positive, or negative/positive is itself an act of reference which cannot be located in materiality. Thus, Trey’s argument can be applied to the act of reference and interpreting distinction itself, which I believe establishes the irreducibility of Mind even if not the impossibility of Mind “emerging” from Physics. Why exactly is explored throughout The True Isn’t the Rational, particularly (Re)constructing “A Is A,” but the idea is that the moment “Physics references Physics,” Physics is engaged in an act which cannot be reduced to Physical processes. Again, Alexander Bard and Alexander Elung are excellent on this topic, and for those more theologically inclined, I think this point can be aligned with a “sacramental and incarnational ontology” — but that too is another topic for another time, as taken up in “ ‘The Protestant Work Ethic’ Is Only Half the Story” by O.G. Rose.
As discussed in “On Typography,” I think the key to grasping Aristotelian Metaphysics compared to Plato is that the foundation for Metaphysics is the initial act of apprehension versus say an entity and its form, and for me this initial act of apprehension is the birth of distinction. All thinking requires distinction, and since distinction is not located in materiality, thought cannot be reduced to materialism even if material is necessary for thought (the conflation of “reducible” and “necessity” has been consequential). For me, this leads to understanding that “the true isn’t the rational,” for there is no distinction in raw experience “of what is,” and yet we require distinction to understand what is as “what is.” This paradoxical tension indeed suggests that materialism cannot be a full description of reality (“for us”), even if materiality is somehow necessary for the possibility of thinking. Thinking and reference in general may require materiality, but the moment I reference materiality, say in the context of discussing Materialism, I have done what transcends materiality.
We can understand Metaphysics as “Physics referencing Physics,” and that act of “reference” requires distinction which cannot be located in Physics. It’s like a piece of paper folding into itself, and if the paper can fold, that means there is “space” external to the paper in which the paper can move and fold on itself. If the paper represents materiality, then that means the “space” that allows materiality to reference itself is not material. Aristotelian Metaphysics is primarily focused on that “act of folding,” whereas many other Metaphysical systems want to establish what makes the paper “paper” (how say form, essence, and substance align). Even if Derrida is correct and we cannot succeed in the later form of Metaphysics, this would not deconstruct the ability of the paper to fold on itself. Aristotelian Metaphysics survive, and for me it overturns all “Reductionist Materialism,” though not necessarily “Nonreductionist Materialism,” which argues everything “emerged from materiality” even though not “reducible to materiality.” Still, any argument that helps establish irreducibility is very valuable, for, after all, “irreducibility” is enough to reinvigorate Metaphysics, and once that door is unlocked again, there are many places we can visit. For providing that “opening” and possibility, Trey has performed a great service.
It’s another topic, but for me this all suggests why ontology and epistemology are indivisible, for ultimately we cannot escape judgment if we are going to establish a “meaningful” ontology. If everything is one, there is an ontology insomuch as we can say, “Everything is one,” but that will be the extent of it: ontology entails complexity and definitions only thanks to thought which causes distinctions. Sure, perhaps there are “things in themselves” which are themselves regardless our judgment, but we cannot “meaningfully” know such is the case without thought and distinctions. We’re stuck making judgments about ontology, which means we are stuck in epistemology, and yet the epistemological methods we are capable of and can exercise are relative to our ontology. This brings us to Hegel and Absolute Knowing, as seemingly everything does…
For more by Trey at telosbound, please visit here.