In an essay on Thomas Nagel’s recent Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Edward Feser (at firstthings.com) describes what he calls the “eliminative materialism” that is strongly implied in post-Cartesian philosophy.
Feser writes, “On the new view of nature inaugurated by Galileo and Descartes, the material world is comprised of nothing more than colorless, odorless, soundless, meaningless, purposeless particles in motion, describable in purely mathematical terms. The differences between dirt, water, rocks, trees, dogs, cats, and human bodies are on this view superficial. Indeed, at bottom these are all just the same kinds of thing—arrangements within the one vast ocean of physical particles, the differences between the arrangements ultimately no deeper than the differences between waves on the same sea. . . .
“Color, sound, odor, heat, and cold—understood in the qualitative way common sense understands them—are relegated to the mind, existing only in our conscious representation of the natural world, not in the world itself. Color, sound, and the rest as objective features would be redefined in quantitative terms—reflectance properties of physical surfaces, compression waves, and the like.”
What this means is that the qualities that we experience in things are not really properties of the material world that we encounter: “To deny that there is anything immaterial that has these features is therefore to imply that there is nothing at all that has them—and thus, in turn, to deny that our conscious experiences or the meanings of our very thoughts and words are real. This ‘eliminative materialist’ position is ultimately incoherent, and few philosophical naturalists are willing to embrace it—though Alex Rosenberg’s recent The Atheist’s Guide to Reality promotes a version of eliminativism—but the conclusion that a consistent materialism leads to it is difficult to avoid.”
Descartes’ project began as an effort to shore up knowledge against skepticism. It ends by reinforcing skepticism with a nihilism as chilling as that of Melville’s meditation on whiteness: “every stately or lovely emblazoning–the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colourless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge–pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear coloured and colouring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him.”
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Thursday, October 18, 2012 at 4:30 am
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