Adam Frank, founder of NPR’s science and culture blog 13.7, recently published an essay on Aeon about materialism. It’s a bit confusing to get at what he’s trying to say because of the different focus its two titles have, as well as his own arguments. First, the titles. The title I saw first, which is what is displayed when shared on Facebook, is “Materialism alone cannot explain the riddle of consciousness”. But on Aeon, the title is “Minding matter”, with the sub-title or blurb of “The closer your look, the more the materialist position in physics appears to rest on shaky metaphysical ground.” The question of theories of mind is very different than philosophical interpretations of quantum mechanics.
This shows up in the article, where I found it confusing because Franks ties together several different arguments and confuses them with various ideas of “realism” and “materialism”. First, his conception of theories of mind is confusing. I’d say the average modern neuroscientist or other scholar of cognition is a materialist, but I’d be hesitant to say the average one is a reductionist who thinks thought depends very hard on the atoms in your brain. Computational theories of mind tend to be some of the most popular ones, and it’s hard to consider those reductionist. I would concede there may be too much of an experimental focus on reductionism (and that’s what has diffused into pop culture), but the debate over how to move from those experimental techniques to theoretical understanding is occurring: see the recent attempt at using neuroscience statistical techniques to understand Donkey Kong.
I also think he’s making a bit of an odd claim on reductionism in the other sciences in this passage:
A century of agnosticism about the true nature of matter hasn’t found its way deeply enough into other fields, where materialism still appears to be the most sensible way of dealing with the world and, most of all, with the mind. Some neuroscientists think that they’re being precise and grounded by holding tightly to materialist credentials. Molecular biologists, geneticists, and many other types of researchers – as well as the nonscientist public – have been similarly drawn to materialism’s seeming finality.
Yes, he technically calls it materialism, but he seems to basically equate it to reductionism by assuming the other sciences seem fine with being reducible to physics. But, first, Frank should know better from his own colleagues. The solid-state folks in his department work a lot with “emergentism” and point out that the supposedly more reductionist particle people now borrow concepts from them. And he should definitely know from his collaborators at 13.7 that the concept of reducibility is controversial across the sciences. Heck, even physical chemists take issue with being reducible to physics and will point out that QM models can’t fully reproduce aspects of the periodic table. Per the above, it’s worth pointing out that Jerry Fodor, a philosopher of mind and cognitive scientist, who does believe in a computational theory of mind disputes the idea of reductionism.
Frank’s view on the nature of matter is also confusing. Here he seems to be suggesting “materialism” can really only refer to particulate theories of matter, e.g. something an instrument could definitely touch (in theory). But modern fundamental physics does accept fields and waves as real entities. “Shut up and calculate” isn’t useful for ontology or epistemology, but his professor’s pithy response actually isn’t that. Quantum field theories would agree that “an electron is that we attribute the properties of the electron” since electrons (and any particles) can actually take on any value of mass, charge, spin, etc. as virtual particles (which actually do exist, but only temporarily). The conventional values are what one gets in the process of renormalization in the theory. (I might be misstating that here, since I never actually got to doing QFT myself.) I would say this doesn’t mean electrons aren’t “real” or understood, but it would suggest that quantum fields are ontologically more fundamental than the particles are. If it makes more physical sense for an electron to be a probability wave, that’s bully for probability waves, not a lack of understanding. (Also, aside from experiments showing wave-particle duality, we’re now learning that even biochemistry is dependent on the wave nature of matter.)
I’m also not sure the discussion of wave function collapse does much work here. I don’t get why it would inherently undermine materialism, unless a consciousness interpretation were to win out, and as Frank admits, there’s still not much to support one interpretation over the other. (And even then, again, this could still be solved by a materialist view of consciousness.) He’s also ignoring the development of theories of quantum decoherence to explain wavefunction collapse as quantum systems interact with classical environments, and to my understanding, those are relatively agnostic to interpretation. (Although I think there’s an issue with timescales in quantitative descriptions.)
From there, Frank says we should be open to things beyond “materialism” in describing mind. But like my complaint with the title differences, those arguments don’t really follow from the bulk of the article focusing on philosophical issues in quantum mechanics. Also, he seems open to emergentism in the second to last paragraph. Actually, here I think Frank missed out on a great discussion. I think there are some great philosophy of science questions to be had at the level of QFT, especially with regards to epistemology, and especially directed to popular audiences. Even as a physics major, my main understanding of specific aspects of the framework like renormalization are accepted because “the math works”, which is different than other observables we measure. For instance, the anomalous magnetic moment is a very high precision test of quantum electrodynamics, the quantum field theory of electromagnetism, and our calculation is based on renormalization. But the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” can sometimes be wrong and we might lucky in converging to something close. (Though at this point I might be pulling dangerously close to the Duhem-Quine thesis without knowing much of the technical details.) Instead, we got a mediocre crossover between the question of consciousness and interpretations of quantum mechanics, even though Frank tried hard to avoid turning into “woo”.