Over at Algorithm and Contingency, Robert Jackson has an interesting post up discussing Harman’s object-oriented philosophical critique of materialism. If there is one fundamental point where I’ve disagreed with Harman it’s on his rejection of materialism or physicalism. Where Harman seems to hold that it is possible for non-physical beings to exist (for example souls), I hold that whatever else beings are, they must be material or physical. In the context of Jackson’s post, I was surprised to read the following:
But it doesn’t matter what sort of ‘matter’ is deployed in materialism, its deployment is always against form. For Graham, philosophy has historically managed ‘matter’ into two areas; it is either some ultimate ‘stuff’ or physical ‘structure’ upon which all derivative forms can be broken down, or else, matter lies in the absolute formlessness of primordial emergence, which spits out derivative forms within its endless differentiating movement. Graham calls this second one, the “amorphous reservoir”, of matter, focusing on Bennett’s indeterminate wholeness or a throbbing, pulsating movement of matter-energy. I prefer to call it an invisible framework.
Here Jackson presents two versions of materialism: atomistic materialism such as we find in Democritus and a sort of “hyletic materialism” positing a pure formless stuff out of which individuated or formed entities somehow emerge. If I’ve understood him correctly, both of these materialisms suffer, according to Harman, from undermining objects. For example, under Harman’s reading, atomistic materialism denies the dignity of emergent objects, instead reducing them to their atomistic parts which are then treated as what is “really real”. While the materialism of Inwagen fits this bill, it’s difficult to see how this criticism hits the mark with the atomistic materialism of thinkers such as Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. Lucretius, for example, is quite clear that relations between atoms are every bit as important as the atoms themselves. In example after example he discusses emergent entities that manifest powers (capacities) and properties only when atoms are arranged in these particular ways. In this regard, far from “undermining” objects, he shows how certain objects are only possible through certain relations. Materialism by and large has never been the thesis that beings just are their parts. Rather, even among the atomists, those parts must be arranged or organized in a particular way. So much for that criticism.