Love, Chemistry, and Atheism

Love, Chemistry, and Atheism February 19, 2014

Someone in the atheist subreddit shared the above image, which they proudly proclaimed that they had fixed to reflect their lack of religious sentiment. A number of commenters there expressed the view that the recipient of the card, even if an atheist, would likely not be impressed with the change.

Some think that the only way to appreciate love or a sunset properly is to mention God and ignore or even deny scientific accounts of the processes involved. And some think that the only way to avoid religious superstition is to embrace reductionism.

Thankfully there are options in between those two extremes. One can accept the scientific account as perfectly appropriate and accurate on one level, and accept poetry and metaphor on another.

UPDATE: I wrote this post yesterday, and this morning Fred Clark shared this Zen Pencils cartoon focusing on the same point, albeit aporoaching from the other end of the spectrum, drawing on words of Richard Feynman.

I reject the voices on both sides which say that adding another perspective on the same reality automatically detracts rather than having the potential to co-exist and enhance our appreciation.


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  • If someone wants to get all metaphorical, let them. Most people’s concept of love is really infatuation and/or obsession anyway. (It fades with time. Look at the divorce rate.)
    For a knowledgeable person using the statement “our love is a miracle” is tantamount to engaging in sophistry. It also doesn’t say much about the relationship. I love you despite the fact on paper I should really despise you?
    I love you despite the fact you are pug ugly? It’s a miracle!!!

    • arcseconds

      Why does the fact that something isn’t permanent show that it was really infatuation?

      • Because poetically, love is forever. If it doesn’t last it wasn’t really love then was it? (Unless it’s a Stones song.)

        • arcseconds

          I think you need to let go of this literalist interpretation of poetry you have 🙂

        • Nym1899

          Well nothing lasts forever, and we both know hearts could change.

          Also, it’s hard to hold a candle in the cold November rain.

          • “Well I used to love her
            But it’s all over now…”

  • $41348855

    Our love is a series of chemical reactions. Our hate is also a series of chemical reactions. So the fact that each is a series of chemical reactions isn’t very informative. It would be interesting to know how a series of chemical reactions can give rise to a particular kind of subjective experience.

  • Christopher R Weiss

    Modern humans are still infected by many myths that make it hard for people to see reality. This goes back to the Victorian definition of man as the only “rational animal.” We have people who insist that the mind is more than the brain, which originated from the idea of a “soul.” Regardless of the evidence to the contrary, some people insist concepts like love cannot be contained within a physical brain. This dualistic perspective is what drives people to reject the idea that any complex emotion is still just a chemical process in the brain.

    • $41348855

      Yes, I wasn’t advocating dualism. I wasn’t wondering how brain events can give rise to *any* kind of subjective experience. I was wondering how a particular kind of brain event gives rise to one kind of experience rather than another.

      • Christopher R Weiss

        I wasn’t specifically responding to you.

        The central problem is a conflict of language. “Love” cannot be defined algorithmically. The philosopher Wittgenstein discussed this at length with his notions of language games and family resemblance concepts. Even less charged words such as “game” cannot be defined algorithmically. This lack of precision in language gives a very unsatisfactory response when people make statements like “love is just a bunch of chemistry,” This statement oversimplifies things.

        Biologically, the difference between brains makes it hard to define love as well. The neural pathways for the same concept are not the same between people. Consequently, this is why “mind” reading doesn’t work and may never work because the process of reading one person’s mind would have to be unique to that person when identifying specific thoughts.

        I believe because of language and differences between individual brains, scientists will never be able to give a precise chemical/physical definition of love that would allow them to answer the question definitively “where is love in the brain?” At best they might be able to identify where it is in a specific brain.

        • $41348855

          My apologies. I think you have raised a very interesting question. If each brain uses different patterns of neural activity to generate the same (?) experience, of love for example, then there is no necessary connection between a brain state and an emotion. It seems that there is a similar “choice” in matching brain states to experiences to the choice in matching language to objects. I shall have to give the matter further consideration.

          • Christopher R Weiss

            It is a conundrum. The dualism issue is whether all mental activity occurs exclusively in the brain. Obviously, I am a materialist. However, even if it is given that the brain and mind are one, giving anything but a vague general definition of emotions like “love” seems like a very hard problem.

          • arcseconds

            That’s not a very good statement of the dualism issue. A better statement is whether mental activity occurs in the same substance as the brain (substance dualism), or whether mental activity is a property (or collections of properties) genuinely distinct from any of the physical properties of the brain.

            Either of these could be true and it still be fair to say that mental activity occurs in the brain, although in the case of substance dualism what this means probably isn’t quite what you have in mind.

            Then there’s the issue of to what extent mental states can properly be said to have location at all

          • Christopher R Weiss

            Sorry… this is just splitting hairs. Either of these classifications boils down to the question “is the mind identified as being exclusively an activity of the brain?” Our best evidence is yes. Others claim no, which is just another “gaps” argument because our knowledge of the brain is incomplete.

            This is a very old problem that persists and causes all kinds of silly issues and contradictions.

          • arcseconds

            Well, I suppose it is splitting hairs for someone who seems to have made his mind up and doesn’t seem that interested in the question. But dismissing the question doesn’t mean there isn’t a question.

            Most philosophers working in this are would agree that mental states supervene in some manner on brain states. So if you destroy the brain you destroy the mind, and by altering the brain you may alter the mind. They would grant that our best evidence is that there’s such a supervenience relationship.

            But supervenience is not all that strong a relationship, and it certainly isn’t an identity relationship. So there’s still a question of whether the mind is identical to the brain. A property dualist might agree that the mind is indeed an activity of the brain in a straightforward sense, but this activity is to be described in terms of mental properties which cannot be identified with or described by purely physical properties.

            I’m not sure what neurological studies you could possibly do to establish anything more than a tight correspondence between brain states and mental states. And even that is doubtful for the sorts of reasons you yourself have raised. And a tight correspondence settles nothing.

            Me, I think it’s obvious that computer programs, money, and arguments are not physical objects, and if they’re not, the mind’s not either.

          • Christopher R Weiss

            Computer programs are physical things… you are wrong. The program is a list of bits and bytes that represent instructions to be executed on a chip. When they are stored on an optical disk, these are physical marks. When they are stored on a disk, they are series of magnetic states. When the are stored in RAM they represent a serious of voltage states. Disrupt these physical attributes, and you disrupt the program. Similarly, money stored electronically represents actual physical states of physical objects.

            Rather than being obvious that these things are not material, you are obviously wrong.

            The problem is one of access not existence. When the mind is looked at internally it lacks a location compared to other sensations or experiences. When I am hungry, I can isolate this to pangs in my stomach, a lightheaded feelings, etc. When I am injured I can tell you where it hurts. However, ask me where happiness resides when I experience it and other than some things like flushing of the face or other obvious physiological responses, I can’t tell you. This gives the mind an “other worldly” perspective. However, when the brain is monitored the activity is very clearly localized. What is lacking is the 1 for 1 identification of thoughts to brain states. Given the number of connections and states, this represents an as of yet unsolvable measurement and monitoring problem. Right now, detailed monitoring of the brain is fairly invasive. However, to say that the mind is more than brain is a misrepresentation. Incomplete identification does not imply non-material existence.

            You are stuck in a broken metaphor. You are assigning a state of being non-material to things that are clearly material. Don’t confuse electrical states with being non-material. Quantum mechanics shows that electricity and radiation are at a minimum the exchange of quanta, which are physical.

          • Keith Ward has a good treatment of this in what he calls “idealism” but I would prefer to characterize in terms of non-reductive physicalism. On the one hand, there is no reason to doubt that thoughts and experiences are intrinsically linked to brain activity. On the other hand, the former is not reducible to the latter. The qualia of seeing the color red is not exhausted or done justice to by pointing out the brain activity in which that subjective experience is rooted.

          • Christopher R Weiss

            The problem is “decoding” the states of the brain. This is a problem that has not been solved. Part of it is that each brain develops differently, influenced by experience, nutrition, injuries, etc. This is why “mind reading” is computationally impossible. Using computational complexity to say that the mind is non-material is a broken argument.

          • But even if we decode them, and then describe them, the description of the brain states is not the same thing as the experience. A video game is just binary code, but describing or explaining that code is not the same thing as playing the video game. The fact that the entire process can be described appropriately at one level – the physical or chemical – does not mean that other levels of description are not necessary to do justice to the entirety of what is going on.

          • Christopher R Weiss

            I agree that a “thought” is not a fixed state. It is best seen as a flow of neural activations and connections. However, things like a memory not in active use are quiesced process that remains dormant until recalled (a set of connections and neural configurations). When recalled, the “process” portion of the brain kicks up and things get complex again.

            Again, this complexity does not support dualism. It only says that overly simplistic reductionism isn’t informative.

          • Yes, substance dualism is still problematic and not supported by the evidence. The key is to avoid reductionism and find a way to embrace that qualia are still genuinely a different sort of “thing” from mapping chemical processes, even if they are not a separate substance.

          • arcseconds

            It’s not entirely clear that substance dualism is unsupported by the evidence, either.

            ‘Substance’ is a term of art in metaphysics, and means something like ‘bearer of properties’.

            It’s easy to slide into thinking in terms of the everyday meaning of substance, which covers things like wax, water, hydrogen, etc. Depending on one’s metaphysical views, a particular body of water may be a substance, but it also may not be (Spinoza was famous for arguing that there is actually only one substance, which we call alternately ‘God’, and ‘the Universe’). I’d have to admit that I struggled putting aside the everyday definition and taking up the metaphysical definition, and I still sometimes find the everyday notions seeping in to my metaphysical thinking.

            Anyway, the evidence does seem to strongly suggest that the mind is not a substance in the everyday sense of another kind of stuff, which can exist independently of the brain.

            But some philosophers (e.g. Lowe) have defended a form of substance dualism where they argue that a human is both a body and a person, and the person is a different substance from the body, because it has different identity criteria. The person is the substance that bears the mental properties.

            On this view the person is a distinct substance which may supervene on the body (but doesn’t do so necessarily) yet isn’t identical to it.

          • Christopher R Weiss

            Please tell us how we identify the non-material.

            When I poke the brain, it affects the mind. When the brain ceases to function, so does the mind. When the chemical state of the brain is altered, the mind is altered in its function. Subtance dualism implies some disconnect between the brain and the mind. What is this and what does it mean?

            You are starting with the assumption that they are different without providing any evidence that they even could be.

            You are playing a very silly game by claiming words that cannot be reduced to physical states are indications of the non-physical. This is an ontological type fallacy.

          • plectrophenax

            Yes, and I think the issue of third person and first person comes up here – and also the issue of appropriateness. We can describe the brain in the third person, but I don’t live in the third person – hence qualia, which are experienced in the first person.

            This leads to the appropriateness of various utterances in different contexts – thus, in a neuroscience lab, we might speak of electro-chemical activity in the brain; however, if I do that on a date, it might get short shrift! Quite rightly, as I am shifting from first to third person, which is quite alienating actually and depersonalizing.

            But I see some of these problems as reflecting confusion between science and philosophy – thus a person is a philosophical category, not a scientific one.

          • arcseconds

            Methinks thou dost protest too much!

            I always know I’m making progress when people say “you’re wrong, wrong, obviously wrong” and repeating obvious truths instead of making an argument.

            Computer programs are clearly not material things because none of the things you list are sufficient for being a computer program, and none of them are logically necessary for being a computer program. Moreover, the same pattern of bits may or may not be a computer program it depends on how it’s interpreted.

            You’re familiar with the property of a valid argument, yes? One where the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises?

            Is this a physical property? If so, please explain it in purely physical terms, or at least show how it might be done. If not, there are non-physical properties.

          • Christopher R Weiss

            Again, you are playing a linguistic definition game.

            I work in software for a living. I type on keyboards. The characters are stored in a file or files. Each file is compiled, and some are linked to build a bigger file. The compiled output is loaded and runs until terminated.

            You are confusing the program with the running of the program. The compiled file is a runnable version of the program. The execution depends on a series of hardware components and other programs. At the chip level you have hardwired controllers and other instructions. The complexity of this chip level programming varies based on whether the chip is RISC or CISC. This also determines the binary format of any executable (the instruction set). Stepping out one level, you have the bios which establishes the BASIC INPUT OUTPUT SYSTEM. The operating system is loaded next on top of the BIOS, and then software runs on top of the OS. Programs can be nested on programs depending on its purpose and “level” of functioning.

            At all levels: BIOS, OS, software, a physical file is loaded from physical media onto physical hardware.

            When a program runs, it is a set of processes on physical hardware.


            Your definition of what is physical vs. non-physical is so far off I suggest you audit a junior level computer architecture class. See if your definitions fly when talking to a professor.

            You mentioned Wittgenstein previously. Please see the linguistic network and family resemblance concepts as defined by ol’ Ludwig. This will tell you how language and an “argument” fit together. There is no single instantiation or template of “argument.” It does not exist as some platonic form. You are stepping into a muddle by suggesting it is something else.

          • arcseconds

            You seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that there’s something I’m ignorant of, and that you can somehow prove I’m wrong by listing facts about how computers work and appealing to software engineers.

            I already know all of this. Most of it is irrelevant. Why are you going into such detail? Do you really think that the distinction between RISC and CISC?

            Or are you just trying to establish yourself as some kind of authority by trying to prove you know more than me about software? That would also explain your naked appeal to authority by telling me to go argue with a computer architecture professor.

            This isn’t just an appeal to authority, but an appeal to an irrelevant authority. Dualism versus monism is a question in metaphysics, so a computer architecture professor is not really qualified to comment.

            It’s as though I were to deny that walls are mostly empty space, and you told me to go seek out a builder to set me straight. A builder might know a lot more about building walls than a physicist, but it’s a physicist I should be talking to about the empty space in walls, not a builder.

          • Christopher R Weiss

            You missed the point again. A computer and all of its states are physical.

          • arcseconds

            Does ‘missed the point’ just mean ‘I don’t agree with you’?

            You do know that re-stating your position doesn’t do anything to establish it, right?

            Let me know when you want to engage in a discussion about this, rather than just repeat yourself.

          • Christopher R Weiss

            Please state why a computer program is not physical. Let’s start there and see if we can further reveal the flaws in your argument.

            You must admit a program starts as a file. It is then loaded onto hardware in which to run. While running it is on physical hardware and probably nested within other programs such as the OS or BIOS. Where does the physical existence of a computer program break down in this analysis?

          • Can I ask for clarification from arcseconds first? I am not sure that he thinks that a computer program is “non-physical” in the sense that it can be present in the absence of underlying hardware and software, any more than that the mind is present if a brain is vaporized by a phaser beam. The question is whether a computer program is adequately or exhausively described at the level of description of its underlying physical components. Can something thus rooted in physical components be “more than the sum of its parts”?

          • arcseconds

            There is no one definition of ‘argument’ in everyday language, but there is a very precise definition of validity in logic. If you’re not clear about this, I would strongly recommend you pick up a book on logic, because it’s an important concept.

            (And it’s important for your profession! Logic is pretty essential to most aspects of computing.)

            I could try to teach you, but you don’t seem prepared to learn from me.

            The definition of validity does not make any mention of physical properties. If you think there are only physical properties, you need to show how validity could be cached out solely in terms of physical properties.

          • Christopher R Weiss

            You claim to be familiar with Wittgenstein. However, you are not demonstrating this familiarity. Language is a network of connected concepts where many terms lack enumerative or algorithmic definitions. You can’t talk about arguments in isolation.

            In the brain language is also based on connections with some particular processing areas such as Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas (see aphasia for a full discussion of these speech and language centers).

            Simple reductionism doesn’t do language justice. You then make the absurd leap that this justifies some sort of nonmaterialism.

          • arcseconds

            Logic textbooks talk about arguments in isolation. Are you saying that logic textbooks are mistaken?

            Not every term in natural language has a precise definition. That doesn’t mean that a specialist area can’t give words a precise definition for their own purposes. Validity has such a definition in logic.

            Why are you telling me about Broca’s area? I was asking for a definition of validity in physical terms. Do you think validity is located in Broca’s area?

          • Christopher R Weiss

            You cannot talk about the concept of an “argument” in isolation or a single physical state. You are misparsing my response, which you have done multiple times.

            Let me make this simple for you:

            A simple physical reduction for each concept in language is impossible. Language is a process and a network of related concepts. Just because we don’t have a reductive definition of one word does not mean that we then leap to immaterialism. Going back to the original silly reduction, saying love is just a chemical reaction tells you nothing about love since it is a process and not a state.

            You have a begging the question fallacy in your argument and a false definition.

            You claim that unless a physical state definition can be given for each element of language, some things are “immaterial.” This is bogus because these concepts exist in physical beings or as words in a book or as electronic data, all of which are physical. There is not some abstract non-physical existence of the word “argument.”

            Only things that exist as a simple physical states can be “defined” in relatively simple reductionist terms. For example the spectral color blue has wavelength definitions. However, the perceptual colors brown and purple which are non-spectral fall out of this definition and require a much more complex explanation having to do with human visual perceptions of color and the process of visual perception.

            You fallacy is assuming that no simple reduction implies some non-material existence.

    • R Vogel

      Likely the idea of the ‘soul’ came about because human beings are intuitive mind/body dualists. Here is an interesting paper I was recently directed to by some folks over on the Science on Religion blog:

  • Cuttlefish

    A scientific perspective on love need not be a reductionist perspective. For each “love is a chemical reaction” reduction, there are other researchers who prefer looking at whole people interacting with one another. Social Psychologists (some of them, anyway) have made careers out of studying love without reducing it to some neural pathway.

    Besides, such reductionism only answers a small part of the scientific questions about love–the “how” questions (and only some of those!). If, for instance, we identify dopaminergic pathways of pleasure, serotoninergic pathways of comfort, a dollop of oxytocin-modulated trust, etc., this tells us nothing about why these reactions are occurring in the presence of one person and not another. The behaviors of love occur at the level of whole people, so that is where the answers will be found.

    You want non-reductionist scientific poetry about love? (In other words, evidence that your two “extremes” are actually quite comfortable with one another?) This post links to several:

  • TED Talks
    Helen Fisher: The brain in love

    Why do we crave love so much, even to the point that we would die for it? To learn more about our very real, very physical need for romantic love, Helen Fisher and her research team took MRIs of people in love — and people who had just been dumped.

    Anthropologist Helen Fisher studies gender differences and the evolution of human emotions. She’s best known as an expert on romantic love, and her beautifully penned books — including Anatomy of Love and Why We Love — lay bare the mysteries of our most treasured emotion.

  • arcseconds

    this is really a reply to a few comments to this post, but I’ve not yet seen a blog comment system that allows a many-to-one relationship between a reply and what it is a reply to (wherefore art thou, usenet?), anyway disqus certainly doesn’t allow this, and I can’t decide which to reply to.

    It bugs me that dualism is commonly assumed to be an intellectually inferior position, held by people principally because of emotive thingies or religious commitments. There are well-respected atheist philosophers currently working who are dualists! Moreover, my impression is that even amongst the physicalists (which is admittedly a more common position), not many any more would assert a reductive identity between mental states and physical states. The idea that pain is identical to c-fibre excitation is no longer a fashionable view to hold.

    So I would resist the ‘is’ here.

    But before I resit the ‘is’, I want to resist the ‘just’!

    Even if we accept the identity, it’s not that love is just any old chemical reaction. Not only is hate also a chemical reaction, but so is the combustion of hydrogen to water, and obviously love is very different from such a reaction, even though it may feel like a huge explosion which results in everyone getting wet in the fallout sometimes.

    And it’s a chemical reaction that we often value very highly.

    By thinking the most important thing on a valentine’s card is to express the love=chemical reactions identity, this person is suggesting they don’t value love any more than any other chemical reaction, and can’t think of anything else interesting to say about it.

    (Of course, maybe this is more about cynicism than it is about materialism, in which case I have more sympathy, especially if the originator is, say, 16 years old. Unfortunately it’s also quite possible they’re a 45-year old smartarse killjoy…)

    • $41348855

      I think that the quest for a non-materialist explanation is far less unreasonable in the case of the mind than it is in other cases. There does seem to be something genuinely mysterious about the mind. Simply declaring that love is a chemical reaction is pointless because the thing that interests us about love is not what it has in common with other chemical reactions, but what makes it different. Sugar dissolving in water is a chemical reaction, but once you have described the chemistry there is nothing left to say about it. You don’t ask what dissolving sugar feels like. In the case of love there is something left to say after the chemistry has been described.

      The opinion that love is a chemical reaction is itself a chemical state of the brain. The question is what makes this particular chemical state count as an “opinion”. If the answer is that this chemical state has the capacity to influence other physical things like computer screens and the chemical states of the brains of others this just raises the problem to a higher level. What is it about all of those physical entities taken together that makes them count as a system in which opinions are expressed?

    • Christopher R Weiss

      Love = chemical reactions, while technically true, is a gross oversimplification of how the brain works. The brain is connection oriented. Sensitivity is logarithmic in terms of stimuli, and information is analog with thresholds and reactions and dampening effects. Some computing models such as artificial neural networks (ANN) attempt to simulate this, but they do this usually in very particular contexts. ANN are used in things like thermostats, cruise control systems, anti-lock and reactive braking systems, etc. These systems are trained in advance and then deployed. You cannot hard code an ANN, it must learn or be trained with stimuli and feedback. This is where an ANN is like a brain. The human brain is hardwired to learn some things like language, but without stimuli it does not develop. The chemical reactions are not fixed from birth.

      Yes, information in the brain is exchanged through chemical reactions, but this ignores the complexity of the exchanges. A simple thought can result in the activation of millions of neurons, all of which are chemical reactions. It is the activation of neurons and all of the connections and pathways that are interesting. Individual chemical reactions are not interesting.

      Many reductionary comments are true but they are not informative. Similarly, Love = chemical reactions is similarly uninformative.

      • $41348855

        I agree with you, but I’ll play devil’s advocate for a minute. A neural network can be trained to see. If it sees a table it can print the word “table” on a screen. The fact that it gives the right outputs when presented with certain inputs shows that it is doing something similar to what happens in our own brains. However, the neural network can print the word “table” without knowing what the word “table” means.

        The fact that the neural network has got the right answer is something that we can appreciate but it can’t. So being able to receive certain inputs, carry out a computation on them, and produce certain outputs doesn’t necessarily show any understanding. Of course, it may just be a question of complexity. Once the system reaches a certain level of complexity true understanding emerges in some way that we don’t understand.

        • Christopher R Weiss

          I understand your point. If you want to see a similar discussion, look up Searle’s Chinese Room Argument.

          What you are really getting at is strong vs. weak AI. Weak AI means we can produce task oriented systems. Strong AI means we can duplicate a “mind” in a computing system. This is still an open question.

          My graduate work was in AI, using commercial technologies. Everything I did was weak AI. However, there are systems such as SOAR which are working toward strong AI.

          A dualist would say strong AI is impossible. Since no one has produced a strong AI system, and no one has come across a technical reason why one is impossible, it remains unresolved.

          • Dan

            Very interesting conversation here.

          • arcseconds

            Well, a dualist might say it’s impossible, but they don’t have to.

            The could also say it is possible, and the resulting physical artifact would have the same relationship to non-physical properties or substances that brains have to minds.

            Even someone who believes in souls could assert that the artifact has a soul.

            And these aren’t theoretical positions that people could conceivably hold. They are positions that are actually held by some people.

          • Christopher R Weiss

            Please explain how the leap from the material to non-material could occur if a “mind” originated in silicon.

  • arcseconds

    OK, so the ‘is’.

    how materialistic do we want to be about money?

    I mean, we could say that a dollar is just a piece of metal. But that would be wrong: if you know I have $20, you don’t know anything much about matter as a result of that. I might have 20 pieces of metal, or I might have some other number, or I might have some pieces of paper, or there might be some domains of magnetic polarization on a disc platter somewhere that are interpreted as saying I have $20 (or more!) in my bank account.

    So already we can see that a dollar has a pretty tenuous relationship with matter.

    Now, let’s pretend we live in a thoroughly dualistic world with spirit-beings abounding. What if we could conjure and abjure spirits to remember bank account details completely accurately, and more reliably than computers as they don’t suffer from hardware failure? There would be nothing from stopping us using these to record amounts of money. In such a world, dollars would sometimes be instantiated as bits of matter, but in other instances they would be instantiated as some kind of non-material spirit-state.

    So we can see that, while it may be the case that in our world every amount of money (although not really every dollar! can you find me the final dollar of the 20$ you deposited in my bank account somewhere?) is in fact instantiated physically, this is not a necessary condition of money. Rather, it’s an accidental feature of it occurring in a physical world. We don’t learn anything more about it than noting that paper book-keeping is always performed using arabic numerals: there’s no necessity to this.

    Also, if the imperial mint could cause instances of dollarness to float around somehow without any instantiation in another medium, this might do equally well for money. (This may seem pretty bizarre, but there are physical theories whereby properties of particles turn up in different locations from the particles that bear those properties…)

    Another way of making the same point is asking whether purely spirit beings could have a medium of exchange? And could we do economic and financial analysis on this medium? the answer would seem to be ‘yes, we could. economics and finance are not at all tied by necessity to the physical world’.

    So what is important about money, if it’s physicality is unimportant? well, firstly and primarily, the stability of conventions by which it is exchanged for goods and services. So long as everyone’s pretty much prepared to treat an interpretation of some magnetic domains the same thing as holding some bits of metal, and allow the same kinds of exchanges for goods and services whether I give you some bits of metal or cause the right sort of manipulation of magnetic domains, I have $20.

    Secondly, dollars have to have the right sort of history, otherwise they’re not dollars, they’re counterfeit.

    extension to mental states is left as an excercise for the reader. Keep your science fiction in mind. I would also recommend reading more Wittgenstein 🙂

    • Christopher R Weiss

      Your metaphor of money breaks as soon as money is exchanged. When you make a payment or a deposit a physical exchange occurs even if it is just bits and bytes, represented as voltage states in computers, physical marks on storage media, or magnetic states on disks. These things are still physical. Money can be physical currency, a commodity, or an electronic entry in a system. All of these things are physical. The ambiguity in identification and location does not make “money” non-material.

      You are using metaphors to show dualism. This doesn’t work.

      Dualism as you are presenting it is an argument from ambiguity. Consequently, describing mental states and saying ambiguity of identification implies non-physical existence is equally broken.

      Ironically, I studied Wittgenstein extensively. He would say your argument to support dualism would be a muddle, and not a proof. His use of language games and family resemblance concepts does not support materialism or dualism directly. Instead, when he refers to linguistic networks it ties very well to the connection oriented computing model of the brain. Wittgenstein was spiritual, but he also lacked exposure to modern neuroscience.

      • arcseconds

        If you think a dollar is a physical thing, please explain how to identify the last dollar deposited in your bank account. What has actually gone on is a bit has either changed from a one to a zero, or from a zero to a one (we can’t tell unless we know at least the parity and sign of the number in your bank account), or rather the physical changes associated with this bit-changing.

        That physical process may be exactly the same physical process as taking a dollar off your bank account!

        If adding a dollar and removing a dollar are the same physical process sometimes, and adding a dollar and adding a dollar different processes on other occasions, we can’t identify a physical process as ‘adding a dollar’, so adding a dollar is not identical to a physical process. And this is true even in the same computer system! Once we try to generalize it to all possible ways of adding dollars, we see the true hopelessness of the situation.

        Oh, yeah, I forgot about my initial question. Is the dollar to be identified with the last bit changed?

        • Christopher R Weiss

          Again, you are playing with linguistic ambiguity. I have already given you an answer on why your metaphor is broken.

          The last dollar in my account is represented as a bits and bytes summary of my account. When I exhaust my last dollar, this goes to zero and my account is empty. These bits and bytes are physical in the sense of voltage states or other storage. The transaction that transfers the dollar is a bits and bytes request.

          • arcseconds

            I don’t think you have shown anything of the kind. I can see assertions that my metaphor is broken and I’m relying on linguistic ambiguity, but no actual argument to this effect.

            There’s (usually) nothing ambiguous in how much money you have.

            I’m not arguing that it doesn’t happen to supervene on to physical states, so please stop giving endless details about physical states and repeating that must be a physical realisation. I accept that.

            What I’m arguing is that having a dollar is an unambiguous, objective condition that does not have a robust relationship with physical states. Identity a robust relationship, therefore having a dollar is not identical with a physical state.

            In this context, it’s probably worth pointing out that the ownership relationship is not a physical relationship. It’s also not a mental relationship – it can’t be cached out in terms of people thinking you own things, either. It’s possible for you to own something and no-one be aware of it.

          • $41348855

            Isn’t the “problem” of money just an extension of the problem of mind? The problem is the arbitrariness of representation. There seems to be no necessary connection between a particular brain state and a thought, and there is no necessary connection between a dollar and its physical representation. The same applies to other creations of the mind. There is no necessary connection between the word “dog” and what it represents.

          • Yes, I think that is exactly right. You can analyse the physical composition and chemical make-up of a dollar bill, but such analysis will never indicate its value as a dollar. That is a different level of description which has to do with its symbolic value within a particular human society’s monetary system.

          • arcseconds

            I don’t think they’re exactly the same problem, although there are many similarities.

            The reason why it’s worth considering examples such as money is that we understand money and how it is instantiated physically quite well, much better than we understand thought and brains, and we’re less likely to be tempted by various kinds of ‘magical’ thinking.

            I also would stress that the physical instantiation is kind of accidental. It’s not an essential part of the definition of money that it be physical, even though every instance of it may be.

            Let’s say in 1940 every car had an internal combustion engine. Clearly even in such circumstances it would be still false to say “cars are essentially things with internal combustion engines”.

          • $41348855

            I think that money is a good example to use to get people thinking about the problem. The way that money is instantiated is arbitrary. It could a coin or a note or a mark on a ledger or a magnetic trace on a computer. What makes these things money is that they are regarded as money by us. So money can only exist within people’s minds. If we were all zombies then all the physical facts would remain the same: there would still be notes and coins handed over etc. but what happens can only be regarded as a financial transaction from the point of view of a sentient observer.

            The same applies to a computer programme. Imagine a programme that enables a computer to take an input from a camera and then print the word “table” on a screen. Clearly, there has been a series of highly ordered physical events occurring. But in the absence of a sentient observer the end result – the word “table” appearing on a screen – is meaningless. So what has happened can only be regarded *as* the execution of a computer programme from the point of view of a sentient observer.

          • Christopher R Weiss

            You are implying that “having a dollar” implies something exists beyond the bits and bytes or the commodity or the dollar bill/coin. This is where I see your position falls apart. What is this non-physical attribute? This is the Wittgenstein style muddle I see you pushing.

    • Christopher R Weiss

      Very funny!

      Simplistic reductionism that ignores complexity is very uninformative.

  • Gary

    All the comments, I find amusing. Case of over-thinking. Give the card to your wife or partner. They will re-educate you.

    • Christopher R Weiss

      What an ironic over-simplification given that we have been discussing overly reductionist statements.

  • Joe

    I reject the voices on both sides which say that adding another perspective on the same reality automatically detracts rather than having the potential to co-exist and enhance our appreciation.

    Due to the inherent ambiguity of some of the progressive Christian bloggers it’s hard to know if “adding another perspective” means adding “poetry and metaphor” or if it means adding God or if it means God is poetry and metaphor or if it means adding just any ol’ perspective at all. One wonders what all the ambiguity is about, or if I’m too nitpicky or what. Probably the latter.

    • $41348855

      I think there are genuine issues at stake here. For materialists, reality consists of nothing but atoms in motion. Therefore, a materialist must explain everthing in terms of atoms in motion. This seems to work well in most areas of science, but what about the mind? Consider a poem for example. A poem can be written on a sheet of paper, recorded as a narration on a vinyl record, stored on a computer, or remembered in our brains. Each of these things can be described in purely physical terms, but the question is: can we give a physical description of what they have in common? Presumably, what these things have in common is that they can all give rise to the experience of a poem by a sentient observer.

      Explaining this in purely physical terms seems to be quite a challenge. In fact, it is such a challenge that one group of philosophers, the eliminative materialists, have responded to it by declaring that there are no such things as mental states at all. This view is endorsed by Alex Rosenberg in his book “An Atheist’s Guide to Reality”. This is a minority view amongst materialists, but it’s one that deserves to be challenged.

      • Joe

        Is there some point to being a Christian other than being part of a cool club? Does he talk to invisible people or something? His entire life is invested in it so he might as well keep on a keepin on? I don’t get it. Is Jesus a magic god-of-the-universe-man-god or not lol.

        • $41348855

          I’m not actually a member of the club myself, but I do have sympathies with it. I am inclined to see materialism – especially reductive materialism – as a potential threat to human dignity. Of course, if materialism is the truth then we just have to live with it, but I don’t think the matter is yet settled.

          I see Jerry Coyne as a bit of crusader for materialism. He often declares his belief that there is no such thing as free will. Again, if he’s right there is no point in trying to hide it, but I also think that this hasn’t been settled yet.

    • Well, not everyone has the same viewpoint. But what I mean is thinking about things in another way – much as appreciating listening to a symphony is different from, but not incompatible with or in competition with, an explanation of the physics behind the sounds.