Reclaiming a living cosmos from the dead-end tradition of Western scientism

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sciborg2

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« on: June 18, 2019, 01:06:39 pm »
Reclaiming a living cosmos from the dead-end tradition of Western scientism

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Scientistic thought is usually accompanied by a reductionist habit of mind, which ruthlessly pares down complex events to a single mechanistic causal explanation. (Two playful dogs are merely establishing dominance and subordination; human institutions from politics to marriage and childrearing are but fig leaves covering the eternal battle for access to scarce economic resources, etc.)

Scientism reached its prior apogee at the end of the nineteenth century, before its positivist certainties fell victim to challenges posed by thinkers in disciplines ranging from psychoanalysis to physics. But now scientism is back, coexisting comfortably—at times interdependently—with neoliberal capitalism and its promoters, whose only standard of value is quantifiable utility. The positivist impulse is most dominant in areas of inquiry that purport to illuminate the mysterious workings of the human mind. In this popular discourse, which infiltrates our public life at every pore, the most influential idioms are pop-Darwinism (known to its adherents as “evolutionary psychology”) and cognitive science. Despite their differences in conception and approach, these idioms have sunk in concert into the morass of half-baked ideas and stale buzzwords that constitutes science journalism.

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But the greater dangers of scientism are subtler. It is an impoverished way of knowing, and the particular form the impoverishment takes depends on the idiom that its practitioners deploy. At this mass-market level, evolutionary psychologists reduce human actions to their supposedly adaptive purposes by imagining what life was like on the savannah thousands of years ago, while cognitive scientists equate the brain with a computer and the mind with its software, reducing thought to computation and intelligence to problem-solving. To be clear: these phrasings are the pet locutions of popularizers and propagandists and constitute the language that makes it into the background noise of conventional wisdom. This is not the discourse of serious scientists. These methods seek the simplest, most easily quantified answers to fundamental questions about human conduct; they produce sweeping generalizations devoid of idiosyncrasy or history.

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Whether they favor a biological or a computational theory of thought, scientistic thinkers all depend on a behaviorist vision of consciousness, which cannot account for the visceral longings, anxieties, and aspirations that we call subjectivity. Behaviorists, in the positivist tradition, reject any attempt to understand the mind through introspection; inner life is simply off the table. Indeed, for Auguste Comte, who founded the philosophy he called Positivism in the 1830s, introspection was “merely a way to get lost,” as George Makari writes. The formulation is revealing. Positivists—whether they embraced Comte’s philosophy or simply shared his intellectual style—have always feared getting lost, feared ambiguity. This visceral fear is a prescription for reductionist explanations.

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Thanks to books like Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick (University of Chicago Press, 2015), we are beginning to discover that the propaganda peddled by Pinker, Kurzweil & Co. is not “science” per se but a singular, historically contingent version of it—a version that depends on the notion that nature is a passive mechanism, the operations of which are observable, predictable, and subject to the law-like rules that govern inert matter. This is the de-animated, disenchanted universe Max Weber associated with the Protestant Reformation and the rise of scientific rationality. It is also the universe inhabited in our own time by pop-Darwinian evolutionists, whose strict adaptationist program underwrites faith in automatic progress through natural selection—a process that operates independently of any individual organism’s desire but always evolves toward greater “fitness.” (The parallels this outlook shares with the Christian ideas of Providence and the humanist ideal of progress are striking.) Passive-mechanistic accounts of reality and experience did not mandate reductionist scientism, but they did make it the only alternative to transcendental religiosity—i.e., the belief in an immaterial soul or mind. This either-or assumption has characterized theories of mind down to the present. The passive-mechanist worldview, by eliminating purpose and agency from the nonhuman world, allowed Christians to cling to their belief in the uniqueness of the human soul and humanists to cling to their belief in the uniqueness of the human mind. Those beliefs die hard, even among behaviorists.

But as Riskin shows, the tradition of passive mechanism was never the only game in town, even after its triumph in the seventeenth century. For her, the key conflict is not the familiar one between transcendentalist and mechanist points of view but rather the tension between passive-mechanist and active-mechanist perspectives. Recuperating the tradition of active mechanism—the vision of an animated yet material universe—Riskin demonstrates what a powerful challenge it poses to contemporary modes of thought that claim the authority of science. Ultimately, The Restless Clock offers nothing less than an alternative way of seeing the natural world, and being in it.

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Passive-mechanist assumptions underwrote the British clergyman William Paley’s argument from design, which he made in Natural Theology (1802), a book that remains a centerpiece of “intelligent design” creationism today. Paley imagined a Watchmaker God, whose existence could be inferred from the organized, clocklike operation of the universe he had created. But, Riskin asks, what if one had a more animated notion of clocks and of machines in general? What if one believed, as the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz had argued a century before Paley, that to be clocklike was “to be responsive, agitated, and restless”? Riskin shows that, for centuries, many scientists and philosophers shared Leibniz’s view. The restless clock becomes her key metaphor for understanding the tradition of active mechanism.

From the active-mechanist view, machines were not mere inert matter; they could be self-changing and self-correcting; indeed, humans and animals could be characterized as “thinking machines.” Champions of passive mechanism viewed the eye as a lens; their activist counterparts saw it as a receiving, perceiving mechanism. The issue was not materialism per se but the endowment of matter with agency. Active mechanism was an animist alternative to dualities of body and mind or body and soul—as well as an alternative to traditional, supernatural animism. Yet this complex and influential intellectual tradition has been rendered nearly invisible, as if in confirmation of the complaint that history is written by the winners—in this case, the passive mechanists. Riskin’s great achievement is to revive the active-mechanist tradition and demonstrate its relevance to the present, deploying an extraordinary range of evidence, from philosophical treatises and scientific papers to chess-playing automata and robotic tortoises.

According to Riskin, the triumph of dualist ontology began with the Protestant Reformation. Medieval Catholics used hovering angels, howling devils, and other automata in churches as forms of religious theater. These figures infused matter with spirit. In the medieval imagination, they became “holy machines” and signs of human closeness to the spiritual world, sources of amusement as well as awe. Protestant reformers, intent on separating the divine and material realms, emptied the machines of spirit and made them targets of iconoclasm. By the 1600s, machines were associated with dead matter, devoid of spirituality.

René Descartes stepped in to save spirit from flesh, but not by denying flesh agency. His notion of the body as an animal-machine, Riskin writes, left it “warm, fluid, responsive, mobile, sentient, and full of agency”—and yet wholly distinct from the soul. Aristotle had postulated three souls: the vegetative, the sensitive, and the rational, with only the last immortal and divine. Writing in the mid-1600s, Descartes dismissed the first two souls and made the rational soul peculiar to humans. This conceptual move created a modern, autonomous self with an objective, God’s-eye view of the physical world. The severing of soul from body marked a departure from the traditional Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, but the unintended consequence of Cartesian dualism was even more significant: by stressing the uniqueness of the human soul, Descartes’s followers drained the vitality from the rest of creation.

Despite the rising prestige of passive mechanism, not everyone was persuaded. Leibniz was one of the skeptics. To him, nothing lacked a soul; what he called vis viva, or living force, was a metaphysical principle, without which (he believed) nature was unintelligible. Leibniz wanted a fully mechanical account of nature that included this active force, anticipating a tradition in physics that culminated in Hermann von Helmholtz’s concept of energy in the nineteenth century. Leibniz traced the source of matter to perceiving spirits he called monads, which were “brimming with life and sentience in every part.” As Riskin writes, for Leibniz “the tiniest particle of matter contained whole worlds of living beings.” Everything in the cosmos was in a state of flux, flowing like a river. Amid the flow “certain souls rose ‘to the degree of reason and to the prerogative of minds.’” Leibniz’s active mechanism included “the generation, over time, of a thinking mind.” Consciousness arose from animated matter.

To Voltaire and other dogmatic rationalists, this was all romantic nonsense, but in fact, Leibniz’s thinking was compatible with some of the leading ideas in natural philosophy during the middle and later eighteenth century. Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, observed an “active power” at work in nature—the tendency of living organic matter to organize itself. Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s grandfather, advanced the notion of a vibrant, growing cosmos where living organisms, including humans, could be the result of a gradual process; nature could be a kind of self-renewing machine; and humans had sentient self-development in common with the rest of brute creation. “Go, proud reasoner, and call the worm thy sister!” Darwin wrote in Zoonomia (1794). Neither he nor Buffon nor their other proto-evolutionary contemporaries viewed humans as the unique culmination of a linear, progressive process. About progress, they were agnostic.

Life, Sciences

Perhaps the most famous—or notorious—proto-evolutionist was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who in 1802 adopted the word biologie to describe the study of living beings and postulated an intrinsic pouvoir de la vie that animated them. Enacting this life force, plants and animals composed themselves, elaborating and complicating their organization across generations. This process unfolded over an “incalculable series of centuries,” Lamarck wrote, beginning with an “animated point” that he, following Leibniz, called a monade. All plants and animals developed and transformed as a result of the movements of fluids within them, Lamarck theorized. The more complex animals added will to the mix, forming “habits” and “ways of life” in response to circumstance...

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Yet some scientists still tried to restore agency to nature. The biologist T. H. Morgan theorized a “power of self-adjustment” in organisms, a capacity that paralleled the work done by a thermostat or a flywheel governor. The notion of internal feedback appealed to cyberneticists like Norbert Wiener, who were merging the new computing technology with robotics, exploring the manufacture of artificial intelligence. What is surprising is how many of them thought they had actually accomplished their goal.

As Riskin observes, “cybernetics did not so much explain the agency of a living creature as explain it away.” Wiener, Alan Turing, and their colleagues set about “reducing agency to behavior” that was “both observable and fully mechanistic.” When they embarked on the quest for “how learning might be directed from the outside in,” they described the initiative of the purportedly intelligent machine in the passive voice; it was, Riskin writes, not “actual initiative . . . but rather the appearance of initiative.” Turing’s inability to conceive of inner life was symptomatic of the shared cognitive style in the AI community. He described thinking as “a sort of buzzing that went on inside my head.” No wonder he was as lost in introspection as Comte had been; no wonder he felt more comfortable with the view of the mind from outside in, from the behaviorist vantage.

This is where the continuity between then and now kicks in. Most contemporary theorists of mind, whether they view thought as information processing or as physical engagement with the world (or both), share a common passive-mechanist view of mental life. According to Dennett and his philosophical compatriots, “agency can only be apparent.” This is also true of intelligence, in the sense that it can only be expressed in observable action. “One had to equate appearance with reality,” Riskin writes, to accept the behaviorist model—to believe that the problem-solving, chess-playing computer is more intelligent than a human being, even a smart one.

The reductionist model of mind requires its devotees to reject any vestiges of vitalism they can sniff in the cultural atmosphere. As Pinker says, “intelligence has often been attributed to some kind of energy flow or force field”—a point of view he derides as little more than “spiritualism, pseudoscience, and science-fiction kitsch.” Pinker is here playing the classic custodian of conventional wisdom, policing the boundaries of responsible opinion with any ideological weapons available, including the rhetoric of scientific expertise. But the reason for Pinker’s disdain, as Riskin observes, is simply that the view he is dismissing “violates the classical mechanist ban on agency in nature.” Pinker is a faithful servant of intellectual fashion.

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It would be easier for the reductionist worldview if its defenders faced opposition from a handful of New Age airheads, clinging to their ridiculous ideas with sentimental tenacity. But in fact the notion of agency in nature has gained extraordinary ground among scientists themselves in recent decades. The Viennese physicist Erwin Schrödinger pointed the way in 1944 by asking What Is Life? He proposed a quantum theory of evolution, and speculated that mutations were “quantum jumps in the gene molecule,” rather than the millions of tiny accidents imagined by neo-Darwinians. In this version of evolution, natural selection worked in collaboration with the behavior of individual organisms, which would reinforce and enhance the usefulness of the mutation, leading to further physical change. Natural selection was “aided all along by the organism’s making appropriate use” of the mutation, Schrödinger insisted. Selection and use “go quite parallel and are . . . fixed genetically as one thing: a used organ—as if Lamarck were right.” The complicating force at the heart of evolution was the organism’s inner tendency to use what it had—its agency.

Schrödinger’s “as if Lamarck were right” has acquired more palpable meaning in recent decades with the rise of epigenetics. This field emphasizes the whole context in which genetic material functions, from the cell outside its nucleus to the organism and its environment. Several decades ago, the biologist Barbara McClintock discovered what she called “transposons”: mobile elements in a cell’s genome that respond to stress such as starvation or sudden temperature changes by rearranging the cell’s DNA. McClintock first found transposition in maize, but it has turned out to be important in other organisms as well. Current research suggests, according to Riskin, that bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics “not through a purely random process of mutation followed by natural selection, but in important part by moving their DNA around.” James Shapiro, a bacterial geneticist at the University of Chicago, has extended McClintock’s work by showing that nearly all cells possess the biochemical tools for changing their DNA, and they use them “responsively, not purely randomly.” Epigeneticists are moving toward the ideas of adaptive or directed mutation, but cautiously because such notions breach the Weismann barrier between somatic and genetic change—a breach that in Dawkins’s view would open the floodgates of “fanaticism” and “zealotry” (by which he means Lamarckism). Somewhere, Lamarck is smiling.

In recent years, epigeneticists have begun addressing larger ontological questions. Eva Jablonka has emphasized “the restlessness of matter,” while Gerd Müller and Stuart Newman have gone further, arguing that random variation and natural selection alone do not account for the presence of organic forms in nature. Instead, they invoke an “inherent plasticity” in living matter, an active responsiveness to the physical environment. Plasticity and responsiveness combined to create the capacity for generating new organic forms, though in more complex organisms these “inherent material properties” may have ceded importance to genetic factors, which have obscured the importance of earlier, more primitive epigenetic mechanisms. Given this possibility of change over time, the effort to locate the sources of organic form requires an archeological, historical dimension. As Riskin concludes, Müller’s and Newman’s “approach to the history of life assumes inherent natural agencies whose action over time has produced a history that is neither designed nor random, but contingent.”

The implications of this conclusion are fundamentally transformative. Emphasizing what human beings have in common with the rest of the natural world does not reduce humans to passive mechanisms—not if the rest of the natural world is an animated, active mechanism. And a clearer understanding of our relationship to that world requires more than masses of Big Data; it also demands a sensitivity to the ways that organisms engage with the contingent circumstances of their environment in historical time. That environment includes religions and ideologies and economic systems as well as air and soil and water. Who knows? Maybe scientists will have something to learn from historians, as well as the other way around.

The consequences of a fresh perspective might be political and moral as well as intellectual. A full recognition of an animated material world could well trigger a deeper mode of environmental reform, a more sane and equitable model of economic growth, and even religious precepts that challenge the ethos of possessive individualism and mastery over nature. Schrödinger’s question—what is life?—leads us to reconsider what it means to be in the world with other beings like but also unlike ourselves. The task could not be more timely, or more urgent.
« Last Edit: June 18, 2019, 01:13:36 pm by sciborg2 »
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« Reply #1 on: June 18, 2019, 05:49:17 pm »
I can't help but sort of fall back to a sort of view of the world as fundamentally ambiguous, in the way of de Beauvoir.  The trouble, maybe, of "science-ism" is that empiricism is not the sort of "be-all, end-all" for various reasons.  But I do think we are sort of culturally conditioned in that way, despite the fact that almost none of us act that way.  So, almost no one votes for who they vote for due to some careful empirical valuation of policy, probable adherence to promises, or really anything besides what "sounds good."

But "mind" sure is a tricky thing.  It's hard for me to "buy" materialism, but also hard for me to "sell" it too.  However, I do think that it could be likely that what we experience as "mind" is not exactly what "mind" is.  So, our subjective experience is likely real, but also likely to some degree an illusion.  But everyone (to return to de Beauvoir, in a way) wants things to be simple.  It is either one or the other.  A Zero or a One.  But even light tells us that maybe what separates the idea of a wave and a particle is not a point of fact, but a point of conceptual frame of understanding.

But we have, culturally, sort of rejected anything non-empirical these days I think, perhaps with a hand-wave to "use" or to "practicality" or to the idea of "objectivity."  Perhaps thought there is a price to be paid in any case.
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sciborg2

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« Reply #2 on: June 20, 2019, 12:54:33 pm »
But we have, culturally, sort of rejected anything non-empirical these days I think, perhaps with a hand-wave to "use" or to "practicality" or to the idea of "objectivity."  Perhaps thought there is a price to be paid in any case.

What is the empirical evidence showing the authority of logic & mathematics?

'Thus the thought [e.g.] which we expressed in the Pythagorean theorem is timelessly true, true independently of whether anyone takes it to be true. It needs no bearer. It is not true for the first time when it is discovered, but is like a [newly discovered] planet.'

– Gottlob Frege
« Last Edit: June 20, 2019, 01:01:54 pm by sciborg2 »
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« Reply #3 on: June 20, 2019, 01:59:00 pm »
What is the empirical evidence showing the authority of logic & mathematics?

Well, I think for "most people" the answer is sort of something like, "practical use."

So, physics is based off math and a certain sort of logical reason, people accept it, because airplanes do actually fly, radios and TVs function, and so on.  Is that actually authority though?  That I am not sure how to qualify, or perhaps quantize.

I do think, perhaps, as I think I heard someone say somewhere, at least in my mind, that perhaps math is so effective because we don't allow it to not be.  Perhaps, relatedly, I head Brian Greene talking about Sting Theory, where it seems to really be a legitimate question of if any of it is "real" or if it is more the case that we are just really clever with math and can make math "work" for nearly anything, if need be.
“I am a warrior of ages, Anasûrimbor . . . ages. I have dipped my nimil in a thousand hearts. I have ridden both against and for the No-God in the great wars that authored this wilderness. I have scaled the ramparts of great Golgotterath, watched the hearts of High Kings break for fury.” -Cet’ingira

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« Reply #4 on: June 20, 2019, 05:32:05 pm »
What is the empirical evidence showing the authority of logic & mathematics?

Well, I think for "most people" the answer is sort of something like, "practical use."

So, physics is based off math and a certain sort of logical reason, people accept it, because airplanes do actually fly, radios and TVs function, and so on.  Is that actually authority though?  That I am not sure how to qualify, or perhaps quantize.

I do think, perhaps, as I think I heard someone say somewhere, at least in my mind, that perhaps math is so effective because we don't allow it to not be.  Perhaps, relatedly, I head Brian Greene talking about Sting Theory, where it seems to really be a legitimate question of if any of it is "real" or if it is more the case that we are just really clever with math and can make math "work" for nearly anything, if need be.

But the applicability comes, at least often enough, following the proof of truth. And to even debate the question coherently requires accepting the Truth of logic.

I say all this to point out the underlying foundation of science doesn't have empirical validity and in fact cannot...I think it's at least a starting step to get out of Scientism/Materialist mindset...

"There's got to be some kind of way out of here, said the Joker to the Thief..."
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« Reply #5 on: June 20, 2019, 08:30:47 pm »
But the applicability comes, at least often enough, following the proof of truth. And to even debate the question coherently requires accepting the Truth of logic.

I say all this to point out the underlying foundation of science doesn't have empirical validity and in fact cannot...I think it's at least a starting step to get out of Scientism/Materialist mindset...

"There's got to be some kind of way out of here, said the Joker to the Thief..."

I think this is actually a way more complicated thing in practice.  The philosophy of science isn't anywhere near a settled thing.  Let alone the "truth of logic" let alone asking abut the "logic of truth."

It's hard enough to try to get scientist to agree on what science is, let alone is trying to do, not even going so far as to ask what science should be doing.  To ask the "common man" that is to likely confound them even more so.

It gets even worse if you really dive into a sort of epistemology and it doesn't get better from there, generally only worse.  Then, God help us if Hegel is sort of right and Logic just isn't quite as true as we think it is, with respect to A cannot equal Not A, because Time and Space.

The Universe is a mess, we just sort of maybe imagine it isn't because that is the only way we can imagine it.
“I am a warrior of ages, Anasûrimbor . . . ages. I have dipped my nimil in a thousand hearts. I have ridden both against and for the No-God in the great wars that authored this wilderness. I have scaled the ramparts of great Golgotterath, watched the hearts of High Kings break for fury.” -Cet’ingira

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« Reply #6 on: June 22, 2019, 02:42:06 pm »
But the applicability comes, at least often enough, following the proof of truth. And to even debate the question coherently requires accepting the Truth of logic.

I say all this to point out the underlying foundation of science doesn't have empirical validity and in fact cannot...I think it's at least a starting step to get out of Scientism/Materialist mindset...

"There's got to be some kind of way out of here, said the Joker to the Thief..."

I think this is actually a way more complicated thing in practice.  The philosophy of science isn't anywhere near a settled thing.  Let alone the "truth of logic" let alone asking abut the "logic of truth."

It's hard enough to try to get scientist to agree on what science is, let alone is trying to do, not even going so far as to ask what science should be doing.  To ask the "common man" that is to likely confound them even more so.

It gets even worse if you really dive into a sort of epistemology and it doesn't get better from there, generally only worse.  Then, God help us if Hegel is sort of right and Logic just isn't quite as true as we think it is, with respect to A cannot equal Not A, because Time and Space.

The Universe is a mess, we just sort of maybe imagine it isn't because that is the only way we can imagine it.

I agree the universe is a mess if by "mess" we refer to a functional morass of pluralities [which arguably resolves to Unus Mundus in some way], but I don't think it matters if there are different systems of logic or if logic outruns/differs from our understanding because to even suss that out requires Rationality. This is enough to challenge any materialist attempt to account for the Real.

To quote Why I am not a Physicalist: Four Reasons for Rejecting the Faith

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If one accepts, as even Papineau suggests, that there exists what the logician Frege called “the third realm”[16] (beyond physicality and mentality) of objective truths—such as the truth of modus ponens, the properties of Pi, the Pythagorean theorem, or the Form of Beauty—truths that exist whether or not they are discovered, meaning that they are in essence neither mental nor physical (as there can be no neural correlates of non-existent mental events), then it implies that their existence has an effect upon the physical through their discovery. For example, the discovery of the golden ratio had an effect upon the bodies of its discoverers in terms of their expression of it, and subsequently upon mathematics, aesthetics, architecture, and upon me in writing this essay. Thus the existence of such universal truths implies the falsity of one of physicalism’s key tenets: the causal closure of the physical. Universals crack open the causal closure principle of physicalism, which is to say they crack open physicalism itself.

Of course, a physicalist could deny the existence of such universals, such objective truths. But in doing so, he would destroy the underlying assumptions of his position and thus succumb to inconsistency regardless. If physicalism considers itself to be a logical position, it must maintain the underlying truths of the laws of logic, such as the law of non-contradiction, formal fallacies, and so on. But these laws are not the laws of physics, which as such can be established through empirical observation or through modelling. Thus emerges another predicament for physicalism: the dilemma of logical objectivity. On the one side, if the laws of logic are to be considered objective—that is, they are true for all—then they must exist in a non-temporal, non-physical third realm that has causal influence upon the physical, thereby annulling the causal closure principle and, in turn, physicalism. On the other side, if the laws of logic are considered to be not objective, then physicalism cannot claim to be objectively logical. Either way, physicalism falters.
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