Either Materialism Goes, or You Do


But if the physical facts fix all the facts, there can’t be a me or you inside our bodies with a special point of view. (Alex Rosenberg, The Athiest’s Guide to Reality, p. 220)

This is one of the few points on which Rosenberg and I agree. In fact, I respect his willingness to follow the logic of materialism to its strange (I would say “incoherent”) conclusions. As I’ve said previously, this is a powerful reason to reject the materialistic dogma that “the physical facts fix all the facts”.

Professor Rosenberg’s argument is deceptively simple: physical configurations of matter cannot, in virtue just of its physical structure, composition, location, or causal relation, be “about” another configuration of matter in the way that thoughts are about things outside of the brain. As such, if there is nothing more than the physical, your thoughts aren’t about things and your mind doesn’t exist.

While the objections to this are legion, they all seem to fall into two broad categories:

First are simple rejections of the conclusion. The fact that we all experience a self, and thoughts about things, leads the overwhelming majority of us to assume his conclusion is wrong.

The trouble with this is that it doesn’t show his reasoning invalid. It follows logically, so long as one presumes materialism. To reject the conclusion, and be rational, one would have to reject materialism. This is, of course, my personal position.

Second, however, are attempts to show how the neural circuitry could be used to create thoughts about things outside of the brain.

But the vast majority of these are based on an analogy to computer systems–and the trouble with that is computer processes aren’t actually about anything without a human to interpret them. We personify computers by saying that they “think”, but they do no such thing. They are simply a machine for generating patterns that we humans find meaningful–in the same way that the gears of a clock turn at a rate that humans find meaningful.

I enjoy science fiction stories about androids as much as the next guy, but this is no reason to think that computers are an explanation of the mind. In fact, the comparison is helpful in that it is precisely the difference between the human mind and the workings of an adding machine that needs to be explained.

The only real reason to argue with Rosenberg’s logic, I think, is a prior conviction that there is nothing in reality other than the physical. But, that being the case, one would need to offer a reason to think that this is true.

And, thus far, I’ve encountered none.

18 responses to “Either Materialism Goes, or You Do

  • Atomic Mutant

    Computer processes aren’t? So a computer that can drive a car is nothing, just because no human is there to appreciate it? Yes, it was built by humans, but the software inside it that store information ABOUT the terrain, the car, etc. is nothing more than physical.

    • Debilis

      Yes, computer processes exist. Yes, they do many amazing and interesting things.

      No, they aren’t conscious. No they aren’t about other things.

      Humans are very clever about setting up patterns in things, and making computers that perform very complex actions. This does not mean that those actions are about anything aside from how humans interpret them.

      To use your example: computers don’t store information that is inherently about the surrounding terrain. They have a pattern of electrons that, when read in a certain way, produces a model that resembles the terrain.

      But this doesn’t mean that it is about the terrain any more than a soccer ball is about the moon because they are both roughly spherical.

      All this is to say that a computer isn’t remotely conscious. It is simply a very complex series of electrons pushing one another around according to predictable patterns.

    • Debilis

      If you are siding with Rosenberg to say that humans aren’t any more conscious than a computer, then you have quite a few problems. I’ll name two:

      1. An illusion requires consciousness – a computer doesn’t have illusions because a computer doesn’t think in the first place. So, no one can have an illusion of consciousness without first having consciousness.

      Hence, unless you’re claiming that computers are conscious, there is a real difference.

      2. This entails that you have no rational reason why any of your statements are valid. If they are simply the products of electron activity, not remotely based on rational or conscious reflection, then there is no reason to expect that anything you say is true. Rather it is simply what you’ve been programmed to say.

      That being the case, there is no reason to listen to it.

      Since I, on the other hand, think it is fairly obvious that you do have consciousness, and your words are the result of actual thinking, rather than simple programmed-response, I conclude that materialism is inconsistent with reality.

  • Logan Rees

    I’ve always liked the computer analogy, because a computer necessitates a ‘user,’ i.e. something outside the system itself which drives it and interprets the data analysis, which could be likened to the ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness.’

    • Debilis

      This is a good way of phrasing it.
      I was amazed the first time it was explained to me that it isn’t, technically, a computer at all: that it is actually a tool to help humans compute.

  • Anonymous

    Man is not made to be an automaton. He was made to think and act. As far as I know, we are the only creatures on earth that contemplate God. We are so far advanced in consciousness, and imagination and free will. Animals are God directed. This means that a monkey cannot evolve into a human. If it were true, we wouldn’t have monkeys today. All living entities are living souls. I base this on observation, and that Genesis states that all creatures are living souls. We don’t HAVE souls, we ARE souls.
    If we can put aside debate for a moment here; could we consider the problems we have living? It would seem to me that our moral conduct as humans, should be the topic of conversation, with the purpose of finding a solution to our bedevilments.
    Why is it that we soooo love to please our intellect? Not that we aren’t out for pleasures anywhere else our bodies can find them. This, of course, is ONLY according to our various and sundry ideas about what is acceptable conduct and what is not, individually.
    It is amazing that, Instead of regarding themselves as intelligent agents, spearheads of God’s ever advancing Creation, the agnostics and atheists chose to believe that human intelligence is the last word, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end of all. Rather vain of them it seems.
    It is being constantly revealed, as mankind studies the material world, that outward appearances are not inward reality at all. To illustrate: The prosaic steel girder is a mass of electrons whirling around each other at incredible speed. These tiny bodies are governed by precise laws, and these laws hold true throughout the material world, Science tells us so. We have no reason to doubt it. When, however, the perfectly logical assumption is suggested that underneath the material world and life as we see it, there is an All Powerful, Guiding, Creative Intelligence, right there a perverse streak comes to the surface and the atheist laboriously sets out to convince themselves it isn’t so. They read wordy books and indulge in windy arguments, believing this universe needs no God to explain it. Were their contentions true, it would follow that life originated out of nothing, means nothing, and proceeds nowhere.
    It seems to me that the electrons are more intelligent than that.
    I do NOT believe that EVERYONE can believe in God. I believe because God’s Word says that MOST people will NOT accept faith in God as a means of living.
    Since I do not know who MOST people include, and my responsibility to YOU(plural); I believe the problem centers with the thinking mind. It is, or can be an asset. It can also be a liability. Anyone of maturity knows this.
    The believe in the finite mind that it KNOWS what perfection should look like in an infinite God is actually not really thoughtful.
    For one to believe that they can believe whatever they want, is obviously perfectly fine. The idea of an all powerful creator doesn’t have to be accepted; and shouldn’t be argued. Faith in God isn’t for those that seem to need it; it is for those that want. I would try not to force what I’ve learned on anyone. I hope that an unbeliever would read, consider, and wonder, in the hope that God can proof that he IS. If the faithful’s motives are not along these lines in correspondence, what ELSE is there to discuss or share I ask ? This, of course, only applies to those that believe the Good News of eternal life in a paradise earth is possible, as ridiculous as it intellectually seems to the intellectually self-sufficient man or woman. After all, if one believes the bible is God’s Word, and that one has chosen to serve God, than the question is perfectly reasonable.

  • The Intellectual Poverty of Modern Atheism | Fide Dubitandum

    […] The first view is properly called “metaphysical naturalism”, “physicalism”, or (more casually) “materialism”. To believe this, one has to believe that nihilism is true, that thoughts are never about anything, that there is no reason at all why science works, that you can’t trust your own logic, and that you (in terms of your own inner life and personality) don’t actually exist. […]

  • violetwisp

    I have a question about this that I hope you can answer it. Where do animals fit into all this? I don’t believe my thinking processes are massively removed from those of a dog or monkey. Through speech, we have developed the ability to express more complex thoughts, and over time we have built on these, as wisdom has been handed down over generations. If my body was to be born in a language and human interaction void (assuming I could source shelter and sustenance), I doubt over the course of my lifespan I would have particularly complex thoughts beyond seeking food, comfort and generally staying alive. This argument that we can only be specially created by a deity because are thoughts are so lofty is rather embarrassing. We are clearly animals.

    • Debilis

      This is a great question!
      I should go through this a little more carefully

      Let’s see…

      I’m personally inclined to agree with you that we are animals. In fact, this is part of every definition of humanity I’ve ever encountered.

      Really, I don’t think that minds are special in the sense that they are the only reasons to propose more than the physical. What they are, in my view is the only example of intentionality (of being “about” something) that a materialist is willing to accept.

      If one could get inside a baboon’s mind, or a dog’s, I think one would have undeniable evidence that there is more to baboons and dogs than the physical. In fact, Harvard philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a famous paper called “What’s it Like to Be a Bat” which reached just this conclusion.

      I’m personally tempted to go even farther, and say that this property of “aboutness” needs to be accepted to fully explain even inanimate objects. Based on the arguments I’ve seen so far, that seems plausible. I’ve been reading on it quite a bit for the last year or so.

      I referenced the mind, not because I thought it requires any special creation, but simply because it may well be the only non-physical thing that the materialists who typically comment here won’t simply deny. I don’t think it requires any more special creation than anything else.

      Okay, I hope that addressed your issue (but let me know if I got off track there).
      Best to you.

      • violetwisp

        I’m not sure if I follow you on this, as I assumed you were using the idea of the complexity of the human mind to support a deity theory.

        However, I do wonder about this:
        “[the mind] may well be the only non-physical thing that the materialists who typically comment here won’t simply deny.”

        What’s to deny? And how does the existence of what we label the ‘mind’ contradict a materialist view?

    • Debilis

      Apologies for the lack of clarity, then.

      No, I wasn’t using the complexity of the mind to argue for anything. I was referring to the ability of thoughts to be about things (this “aboutness” is properly called intentionality).

      It contradicts materialism in that there is nothing about matter, as matter is defined by the materialist, that allows for the possibility of intentionality. Simply arranging atoms into a configuration, no matter how complex, won’t achieve this.

      This doesn’t support the existence of a deity directly. Rather, it supports the idea that there is more to reality than the physical–which is a key point in supporting theism.

      I hope that is less ambiguous. I do struggle with that in my writing.

      • violetwisp

        Thanks for taking the time to explain your point of view. I don’t understand why there is any feeling that at this point in time we should be able to explain what ‘aboutness’ is with reference to the physical world, and certainly no need to assume that because we are currently unable to, we should assume there is more to reality than the physical. Philosophical arguments seem to be quite closed and standardised sometimes. There’s no need to jump to supernatural because we don’t understand everything.

    • Debilis

      I can definitely see your point, and I hasten to add that this isn’t anything like a wholesale proof of God.

      I don’t claim to know what most people mean by “supernatural”, so I’ll not comment there.

      As to my case, please let me apologize in advance for the length of this:

      I do think it is a reason to think that there is more than the physical–even if we’ve not yet concluded much about what that “more” might be.

      The point (most emphatically) is not that we are currently unable to explain the mind in terms of the physical. I agree, that would be a very poor argument. Rather, the idea is that explaining the mind contradicts the definition modern science has of the physical.

      In this way, this is more like a mathematical proof that there is more to the mind that the physical than like a theory meant to explain the data. Modern science, by definition, simply cannot describe anything in terms other than efficient and material causes. Intentionality (“aboutness”) is neither of these, but a teleological cause.

      This is simply a matter of the definition of what science is and does. But, that being the case, there is some things about the mind that science simply does not and cannot study. So, as long as one is using a scientific definition of “matter” (as nearly all of us do), then there is more to the mind than the material.

      Really, this is an argument for the idea that there are things in reality that are outside the purview of science (a conclusion the materialist denies).

      None of this is to deny, then, that science will discover great things about the functioning of the brain, and be of invaluable help in understanding the mind. It is not even to say that there aren’t physical components to the mind.

      Rather, it is to say that there are at least some parts of the mind that science can never study without contradicting the definition of science.

      Okay, I think that is quite long enough.
      But I’ll add one last line to say that I hope all is well with you out there.

      • violetwisp

        “there are at least some parts of the mind that science can never study without contradicting the definition of science.” Really? That’s interesting, I’ve not heard that before and I’ll certainly look into it more. However, I guess this is one of those areas that the individual’s perspective is determined by their underlying belief system. I have no problem believing that a rational/material explanation is there to be understood. If and when human beings have the ability to find those reasons is my only lingering thought, I have no sense that it weakens the evidence that deities don’t exist. Thanks for the discussion.

    • Debilis

      Same to you!

      If we run across one another again, I suppose we can discuss something else about theism. But, as to the mind, I really think it is a fascinating subject.

      If you’d like something about it from a non-theistic perspective, I recommend Thomas Nagel. He’s both intelligent and quick to admit when he doesn’t know something (both very praiseworthy, in my view).

      Either way, I hope all is well out there.

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    […] course, I think Nagel’s argument is obviously true, but I’ve argued that point elsewhere. For now, I’m interested in a different aspect of the mind: […]

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