Me, Or Your Lying Eyes


How do you describe the way the rainbow looks so that a bat could understand?

And, for that matter, how do you describe the way echolocation feels in a way that a human could understand? Whatever the answers to these questions may be, we know what they won’t be:


This is not to say that science hasn’t done amazing things. I think we all can agree that it has. And neuroscience certainly can tell us a lot about what brain-states correlate with particular thoughts and feelings. And there is an almost limitless number of things that can be done with that.

But, what it can’t do is describe those thoughts and feelings themselves.

At least, it can’t do this while remaining science. Such feelings cannot be mathematically modeled and, therefore, cannot be addressed by the tools of science. The first person perspective is simply not a scientific topic.

The significance of this is not that it is the only such thing. Rather, it is simply one of the very few non-scientific entities that the materialist is loathe to deny. In nearly all other cases (spirituality, morality, metaphysics, etc.) the suggestion that our basic human experience contradicts materialism is met with an almost immediate rejection of that experience.

I’ve heard it said that we should adjust our theory to fit the evidence, not the other way around. But I don’t see this occurring in the case of materialism. Anything which can’t be described by it is thrown out as illusory, the same way a flat-earth advocate might throw out photographs of the planet as optical illusions.

Even then, the first person perspective (what it feels like to see a rainbow or echolocate) is simply too hard to deny. But agreeing that there is more going on in the mind than the strictly physical is to abandon the core doctrine of materialism.

But the only real alternative to rejecting materialism is denying that one’s first person perspective exists, a claim so basic that, as Descartes and others have pointed out, it can’t even be denied without assuming that it is true.

This is what runs through my mind when people ask me why materialism needs any defense at all (well, that and the fact that such people would never accept that question as an argument for any other position).

Personally, I think there is reason to reject the maxim that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, but it strikes me as odd that many who have quoted it at me also claim a position that requires something as extraordinary as denying that one’s own thoughts exist, while asking (in all seriousness) why they need to offer any reason at all to believe it.

8 responses to “Me, Or Your Lying Eyes

  • danielwalldammit

    Odd, do you really think the first person perspective is an entity? or that the feelings you described at the outset are things?

    • Debilis

      No, I’m not saying that they are entities in the sense that they are a “stuff”. Some might call them phenomenon, but I’m not addressing the question of how to categorize them just now.

      Rather, I am saying that they are things that we have good reason to believe exist, and are outside of the range of things accepted by materialism.

      I don’t think expressing personal doubt toward a particular version of dualism (which I don’t happen to endorse, in any case) gives us any reason to dismiss my argument.

      • danielwalldammit

        I haven’t dismissed your argument because you doubt dualism. I have questioned the specific way your argument unfolds.

        You may not care to categorize the non-material things about which you are speaking, but as presently stated there is a definite shift in your treatment of the subject. You start with qualities of perception and experience, but then you talk of these perceptions and experiences as things that exist rather than as aspects of an encounter with other things. That shift is a problem.

    • Debilis

      Yes, I am treating the first person perspective as a real, non-material thing. That is to say that they exist.

      But the entire argument was based on the idea that, from a materialist perspective, they cannot be strictly aspects of an encounter with other things–or anything else that is purely physical. While they may be that, they also require a mind that is not merely physical.

      This is traditionally referred to as “the qualia problem”. But one could, just as easily, substitute thought, feelings, or imagination for sensory impressions. I only chose the examples I did in order to make explanation easier.

      • danielwalldammit

        Okay, so what does it mean to you to say that something is a real and non-material thing? And do I understand correctly that you are not endorsing dualism here, or is it specifically Chalmers naturalistic dualism that you do not endorse?

    • Debilis

      Okay, greetings!

      Let’s see…
      It means that it is real, but not material. I know that isn’t much help, but I’m not sure I can say much more than that. Is there a reason to think that everything that is real is material?

      Perhaps it would help more if I said I lean toward hylomorphism. That is considered to be a form of dualism (though a minority position).

      As for Chalmers, my general reaction to him is that panpsychism is less defensible than monotheism, but I won’t get into that unless you are specifically supporting that position.

      I hope that is helpful. But I do want to stress that none of this affects my argument that materialism can’t account for certain elements of mind. That is all I’d meant to defend on this point.

  • Logan Rees

    These phenomena are called qualia, and are a hot topic in the philosophy of mind. Don’t know if you’ve heard of David Chalmers, but he spells out this argument pretty perfectly.

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