Category Archives: Argument from Mind

Materialism vs the Mind

maxresdefaultHow do you know that you are conscious?

It may seem silly to ask that question. That one is conscious is so obvious, there seems to be no reason to bother asking about how one knows it. Personally, I might have agreed, were it not for the number of times I’ve heard others insist that humans only know things through scientific investigation.

In fact, materialism is rooted in the idea that there is nothing other than the physical. It takes as its starting point that the sciences are the only legitimate form of investigation–because there is nothing other than that which science studies.

But there simply is no scientific test for whether or not one is conscious.

Most of us have never had a brain scan. And anyone who pauses to reflect on the situation will realize that it won’t tell you that you are conscious unless you already know it. Neurology reveals correlations between brain activity and behavior; it does not reveal consciousness to anyone who doesn’t already know that it exists.

In fact, there is no scientific test for whether or not consciousness really exists–or is simply a delusion.

Of course, one could insist that, while there is currently no scientific test for consciousness, there will be someday. While I’m sure that neurology will do amazing things, there are reasons why this won’t be one of them.

But that is a side-point. More pertinently, I don’t know anyone who claims to be unsure about whether or not consciousness exists–and is waiting for neurologists to get back to us on that.

And that, it seems to me, is the long and short of it. Those who know that they are conscious believe in something without scientific evidence for it.

And this leaves the blunt materialist (such as the New Atheists) in a rather difficult situation. Either admit that there are ways of knowing outside of science, or recant all belief that one is sometimes conscious.

Some, believe it or not, have chosen the latter view, which leads me to suspect that there are motivations for believing in materialism that have nothing to do with a desire to be rational.

Materialism vs Reason

NO THANKS!Let’s assume for a moment that the imagination is physical. That is, let’s assume that Thomas Nagel is completely wrong in his famous argument that qualia (sensory experience as it feels to the person doing the sensing) cannot possibly be reduced to brain-functions without seriously altering the definition of brain-function (and even science).

Of 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: intellect.

People who haven’t thought about the subject, and even too many modern philosophers, conflate the imagination and the intellect. It is easy for people to simply assume that rational thought and picturing things in one’s mind is the same thing. But a little rational thought shows this to be false.

Take, for instance, the classic example of geometry. It is perfectly obvious, even to a child, that the concept of triangularity is different from any particular triangle one can imagine. An imagined triangle, after all, will be either isosceles, scalene, or equilateral. It will be of a particular color. It will be either hollow or filled in. And so on it goes.

But the rational concept of a triangle is not like that. It is not particular, but universal. It applies equally to any triangle one can picture.

In addition to this difference, there is a precision in rational thought that isn’t present in the imagination. It probably isn’t possible to produce a mental image of a crowd of 10,000 people that is different than a mental image of a crowd of 10,001. But the rational mind has no trouble understanding the difference.

What this shows isn’t that there is no connection between the imagination and the intellect. Of course there is. Rather, it shows that they are different things.

And this is problematic, because it is even harder to show that the intellect is material than to show that the qualia of the imagination are material.

Before I get to the reasons, I do want to interject with something that can’t be said often enough. This is not because science hasn’t been able to do this yet. It is because it would contradict science to ever do this. To argue that future science will answer the problem of intellect is no more rational than arguing that science will one day overcome the need to do math. This argument, as in other places, is borne out of a misunderstanding of science.

As to the intellect, there are at least two problems for the materialist:

First, all materialist takes on thought, matter, brain-function, etc. have failed to account for the universality of rational concepts. Even given the dubious claim that they can account for this or that imagined object, they can only account for a particular instance of a thing. Actual universal abstraction is a completely different kind of thing from qualia.

To grab a quick illustration, what counts as a valid response from a computer program depends entirely on what the programmers and users of the computers want it to do. (Some eccentric person, after all, could build a computer that is meant to melt its wiring, and to respond to every input with “5”.)

There is simply no fact of the matter about what counts as proper computer functioning apart from the human minds that design, build, and use computers. And this is because physical systems (like computers) don’t reference abstract, universal concepts. They merely operate in patterns that humans interpret as representing universals.

And this has, it seems, drifted into the second reason why the intellect is not material: there is absolutely nothing about the physical facts of a system that make it about anything in the way that thoughts are about things.

We may say that the aforementioned computer is adding, but that is only because we take certain symbols and patterns of electron movement to represent adding. The idea that what it is doing counts as adding is an arbitrary decision made by computer engineers and accepted by computer users.

A useful fiction, indeed. But it is a fiction all the same to say that the computer is adding simply by virtue of its physical properties.

Real thought has intrinsically what computers have only by convention. And this, as above, is not because our current technology isn’t yet sophisticated enough. This is a difference of kind–rather than degree.

But the real point here isn’t about computers. It is about rational thought: it is something altogether different from what we find in the material world (as science defines the material).

And then, of course, there’s this irony:

Demanding that rational thought is nothing more than physical processes is, for the reasons mentioned above, demanding that there is no good reason to trust one’s thoughts. After all, saying that thought is nothing but chemical reactions in the brain is to say that there’s no place for rationality to be involved in the process.

Atheism vs Consciousness

faceIn discussing J.L. Mackie’s defense of materialist atheism, we’ve come to his criticisms of the argument from consciousness. In particular, the topic is Swineburne’s argument, which denies that matter can give rise to mind–and ultimately concludes that mind is a better explanation for the material world than the other way around.

It is important to note that Swineburne doesn’t deny evolution. Rather, his argument has nothing to do with evolution one way or the other. He simply points out the many reasons it has been shown that mind is something altogether different than matter–and that greater complexity of material systems won’t yield mind.

Mackie concedes this point. He agrees that the materialist has no answer to this challenge. Rather, his entire argument hangs on attacking theism as an alternative to his materialist atheism.

And this sounds rather familiar–as this is the approach of nearly all atheists on the popular level today. It is flawed for essentially the same reasons as the popular versions of this argument are flawed.

First, because it fails to demonstrate that the materialist account of reality is a better fit to what we know than any other system–it’s simply a “so’s your mother” approach. At best, this results in a stalemate.

Second, and more importantly, it achieves the stalemate only by distorting theism and, intentionally or not, attacking straw men.

Mackie does so by insisting that God is no explanation for the laws of nature because we would then have to show how the intentions of a mind produce results in the reality. Human minds do this through mediators, but we don’t know how God might do this.

This is a valid question, but it is simply demanding an explanation of the explanation. Yes, there will always be more to learn. Yes, we’ll need to have that conversation eventually. No, that doesn’t mean that the explanation isn’t a valid one, as Mackie seems to think. He claims that any lack of an explanation of the explanation makes the idea antecedently improbable. But I doubt that he’d use this reasoning on any other topic.

No one, for instance, dismisses a new scientific theory because we haven’t explored the explanation of why this law is so–and that, given a lack of that further explanation, the theory must be antecedently improbable. No scientific progress whatsoever could be accomplished if we took this approach.

But Mackie also insists that the intentions of mind cannot be something other than matter because they “are a sub-class of causal explanations, not a rival mode of explanation to the causal one”.

Here, I think he’s simply confused. Mental explanations are not rival to the entire idea of causation. They are a rival to the idea that deterministic, efficient causation is the whole of causation.

And this is one more case of switching positions as the momentary need arises. Mackie (like many materialists) emphasizes the singular importance of classical, deterministic causation in this case, but is willing to deny all causation (a la references to Hume and Quantum Mechanics) when discussing arguments such as the Kalam.

But, rather than vacillate between extremes, we should see the middle-road truth that there is such a thing as causation, but that it is not exhausted by the classic newtonian picture. That is precisely what Swineburne’s argument is suggesting–and Mackie’s case against him rests on taking the newtonian account as the whole truth.

So, causation indeed. But to simply equate causation with the vision of causation held by the materialistic atheist is to beg the question. Mackie can’t assume this in order to “prove” Swineburne’s argument a failure.

He also points out, rightly in my view, that the theist can’t simply claim that God made matter to be able to create mind. This is, in effect, no different or better an explanation than the materialist’s claim that matter simply creates mind. The trouble is that I don’t know of any theologian or theistic philosopher who simply claims this. Rather, what they claim is that there is more to human beings (and, for many, the everyday objects we encounter constantly) than simply those traits that science studies.

It is those traits of the human which are not physical which are, according to theists, most directly responsible for consciousness. But it is obvious why this does not fall prey to the same problems facing the materialist position–as the materialist denies the existence of these traits.

In concluding his discussion of the argument, Mackie admits that materialism rests on claims of brute fact. He also admits that some form of dualism must be true. He then claims that materialism has better answers to bridging the mind-body gap than does theism. Not only is this false, but it is an utter contradiction of the concession just a sentence prior. For the materialist, there is no gap: dualism is simply false.

If he admits that dualism is true, Mackie has conceded his materialism, and, thereby, the basis of his atheism.

Mind Over Matter

mind_over_matter_by_sarbzIn discussing Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”, we’ve covered quite a bit about morality, and are now moving into an argument from consciousness.

This was put forward by Locke, and is essentially the idea that mind only comes from mind. If one accepts that, it appears that there must have been some first mind that is the original source of mind.

Leibnitz (of the famous cosmological argument for God’s existence) rejected this argument for what, in my opinion, are more valid reasons than why Mackie does so. That is, Leibnitz pointed out that the argument, if you follow the details, reaches the conclusion that there was always a mind, but not that there is a single, eternal mind.

This option isn’t open to Mackie who, as a materialist, can’t accept the idea that there has always been at least one mind. Instead, he asserts that mind can come from matter alone.

He does so in a fairly standard way: appealing to computer science to question the idea that all material particles can do is “knock, impel, and resist one another”. At the time of writing, it was widely believed that minds aren’t fundamentally different from computers.

But, if that makes Mackie’s (mis)use of the idea understandable, it does not excuse those who are still using it. A computer isn’t anything like a conscious mind, as it is pure supposition to think this explains consciousness.

However, Mackie also makes a much better, and much more interesting objection. He points out that anyone who believes that material substances could be conscious (that is, someone who believes that brains can think) already agrees with the basic idea that matter can give rise to consciousness.

The trouble is that it is only the materialist who believes this.

Brains don’t think; minds think. And it is only by demanding that there is nothing more to the mind that the physical processes going on in the brain that one can make this argument.

But I’ve argued (perhaps ad nauseum) that, unless we’re willing to take a broader definition of “matter” and “physical” than is allowed by science, there is more going on in the mind than just the physical. It has been demonstrated, in many ways, that the actual experiences of everyday life aren’t physical. It isn’t that they aren’t explained by science “yet”; it is that the definition of science forbids it from ever explaining those things.

Mackie knows this, and approvingly quotes this passage from Swineburne:

“Any world-view which denies the existence of experienced sensations of blueness or loudness or pain does not describe how things are–that this is so stares us in the face. Consequently ‘Some kind of dualism of entities or properties or states is inevitable.”

This seems rather obvious. So, what is Mackie’s response? He makes the fairly reasonable point that this only supports property dualism, and otherwise points out that substance dualists haven’t solved “the interaction problem”.

These are both true, but neither of them help Mackie’s case.

First is because theism doesn’t require substance dualism. Modern, atheist philosophers seem to think that this view of the mind is somehow umbilically linked to belief in God in general or Christianity in particular. In fact, Christianity got on for more than a dozen centuries without it. And, yes, it had a well-developed concept of the mind.

To the first point, property dualism isn’t a way out of this bind for the materialist. This is for the very simple reason that property dualism isn’t materialism, but a denial of it. It is the explicit statement that there is more to objects than the physical. If one is willing to concede that much, one has conceded that the entire support for modern atheism is false.

Of course, property dualism has its own problems, and the more it sorts them out, the more it starts to look like either the substance dualism that so many equate with theism or the hylemorphic dualism that Christianity embraced prior to modern philosophy.

Of course, it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that this, by itself, hasn’t proved God’s existence. I find myself in agreement with Leibnitz–that this particular argument does not do so. What is has shown, and what so many devout atheists have been banging their heads against, is that materialism is false.

And that is a point of no small concern.

Saving Atheism from Atheist Philosophers

life-preserver1Thomas Nagel has written some formidable challenges of the currently fashionable materialism. This is the theme of his most recent book “Mind and Cosmos”. (And, personally, may I voice my disappointment with the title? Given that his previous book was called “The Last Word”, I was hoping this one would be titled “P.S.”)

I’m not sure that I’d recommend the book to everyone, but I would recommend his summary of it. It gives one a good overview without delving into the technical. It even includes a much more straightforward version of a point that (as far as I remember) is not directly stated in the book.

That is this: as he’s laying out the options, he’s fairly open about the fact that philosophers of mind seem to have chosen their favorite position largely to avoid theism.

An atheist himself, Nagel is honest enough to admit to a certain amount of personal bias. (He says of theism “I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”) Thus, he’s offering other atheists what he sees as an escape from a physicalist belief system that (as he’s shown) is looking less and less defensible, without returning to the dreaded theism. He was actually caught off guard by the the fact that many theists see him as something of an ally.

But he is an ally to theists, whether he wanted to be or no. He’s far too committed to the truth to take back what he’s said unless someone can actually deal with his arguments. And what he’s said is devastating for the materialism that functions as the greatest bastion of atheist thought.

I hope to get to his atheism at some point, but perhaps it’s worthwhile to point out another reason why the standard (but fading) materialist view of consciousness is wrong.

For most of the twentieth century, experts held that consciousness is simply a part of the material world (i.e. brain functions). The first and most devastating problem with it was outlined in a previous post, but there is another I’d like to mention. It’s been called the “China-head” objection. This is the analogy:

There are about as many people living in China as there are neurons in a human brain. So, if consciousness is simply the pattern of neurons firing in the brain, what would happen if the Chinese people were to send each other text-messages in a brain-like pattern? Would that series of messages be conscious?

Most of us would find an answer of “yes” a little hard to swallow.

But this follows logically from the idea that consciousness is simply a pattern of activity. Anyone who wants to reject it, or reject the idea that a very complex collection of rocks tied to springs whacking one another is conscious, needs to admit that there is more to consciousness than a pattern of activity.

Now that this idea of consciousness is being revealed as false (for this and other reasons), there’s a great deal of scrambling to find a better view. And at least part of this is motivated by a desire that allows us a view that can still avoid theism, as Nagel admits.

Right now, a trendy phrase is “non-reductive” materialist (or, really, “non-reductive physicalist”). That is, a materialist who doesn’t believe that the mind can be fully “reduced” to material parts–that it is somehow emergent. But I think it’s fairly clear why the days are numbered for this approach. Materialism is, by its nature, a reductive philosophy. That was the idea, after all. Materialists rose to stature by promising to explain just as much without having to propose anything other than matter. To take back that claim now is to abandon the core, and key attraction, of materialism.

This is why “non-reductive materialists” have had such a hard time offering a view that isn’t either (a) simply a denial of mind written in very complex language or (b) something that isn’t materialism or physicalism at all, masquerading as physicalism.

Nagel, seeing (rightly, in my view) that this isn’t going to work, has opted for (c), throw out materialism altogether. Which, whether he likes it or not, means throwing out nearly all the main reasons why atheism was embraced by academia in the first place. It shields atheism from criticism, but only by cutting it off from its support.

Cracks in the Materialist’s Armor

Iron-Man-3-2013-Broken-Armor-HD-Wallpaper-1024x741Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued that “the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”. The thing to be aware of here is that the emphasis is on “materialist”. If you don’t know about Nagel, you should. He is a very well respected philosopher, and is one of the small (but growing) group of academians to reject the dominant view of materialism.

His challenge, therefore, may well be a sign of much bigger changes on the horizons.

Getting to that challenge, Nagel has pointed out that science cannot inquire into certain things (such as consciousness and value), not because it hasn’t had enough time to do so, but because the scientific method has been defined in such a way as to exclude them.

How does that work? It’s rather simple, actually. The early proponents of modern science insisted that anything which cannot be mathematically modeled should be considered “out of bounds” for science. Things like, say, the color red as it looks to a person were defined as non-scientific topics.

Specifically, they were classified as “subjective”. Science could describe the reflective properties of surfaces, or the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, in mathematical terms, of course. But anything like one’s everyday experience of red simply isn’t (according to this view) a property of the outside world.

This is all to say that the actual first person experience we each have is simply not something science studies–or can ever study.

But many (philosophically uneducated) people assume that neuroscience will resolve this issue. “After all” this line of thinking goes “science has described everything else in mathematical terms, so it will only be a matter of time before brain-science describes our experiences in the same way”.

The problem is that this is based on a very sophomoric understanding the philosophical foundation on which neuroscience rests.

In simplest terms, the scientific method cannot be the solution to this problem, because it was exclusive adherence to this method that created the problem in the first place. Essentially, science has been using the mind as a sort of dumping bin for everything that cannot be mathematically modeled.

It goes something like this:

-“The color red as common sense understands it? Can’t be described mathematically. List that under ‘subjective’.”

-“Value judgment? Same problem. Call that ‘subjective’ as well.”

And so on it goes. One can argue that these things actually are subjective, but that is not the point. The point is that science can’t study them. The subjective contents of the mind aren’t going to succumb to the scientific method in the same way the physical world has for the very simple reason that modern people tend to call a thing subjective (or “all in the mind”) if science can’t study it.

And, if we’re going to do that, we can’t turn around and say “everything else but the mind has been explained by science, so it will be, too”.

But what about neuroscience? It undertakes the (very necessary) task of correlating behavior with brain-states. It can tell us, for instance, what particular patterns of neuron activity are associated with a subject claiming to see the color red. What it doesn’t do is tell us any more about the subject’s mental life than that verbal behavior. It simply doesn’t inquire into the subjective.

Proponents of materialism tend to rail at this. They often say that the whole, vast universe is being explained by science, and that it’s silly to think that our minds (this tiny little part of the whole) should be the one exception to its methods.

But, if one understands Nagel, the answer is obvious. Our minds are “the exception” because that is how we’ve chosen to draw our (mostly arbitrary) lines of demarkation. To borrow an analogy from Edward Feser, to say that the mind will be described by science because everything else has been is like a man sweeping all the dirt in the house under the kitchen rug. Then, when someone points to the bump in the rug and says:

“You didn’t get rid of the dirt, you’ve just moved it. What are you going to do about that bump?”

“Simple,” he replies. “I’ll just get rid of it the same way I got rid of all the other dirt in the house. Are you suggesting that this tiny little part of the house is some magical exception to a method that worked everywhere else?”

In this case, it’s obvious that the kitchen rug is the one place that this method will not work, even in principle. The sweep-it-under-the-kitchen-rug trick, even carried out for all eternity, will not solve the problem of the dirt under the kitchen rug. And it isn’t mysterious in the slightest; it’s just a simple fact that follows from the the cleaning method being used.

But the same is true for materialism. The sweep-it-into-the-mind trick isn’t going to explain the mind. This has nothing to do with our current lack of understanding in neuroscience. Nor is it remotely “magical” (a word critics of this argument like to throw around). Neuroscience continued for all eternity couldn’t solve this problem because it is, like all sciences, dedicated to the method of “sweeping” anything that cannot be mathematically modeled into the “subjective pile” (aka the “mind pile”). Therefore, it can’t possibly explain the things in the “mind pile”.

For these and other reasons, Nagel concludes that science (at least as we currently define it) cannot possibly investigate all things that we experience on a daily basis, and that materialism is, therefore, false.

One can attempt to argue with his logic (good luck), but the important thing to note is that none of this has to do with the current limitations of our knowledge. It is about what is possible, even in principle, for science to discover.

And this would mean that materialism, which is the basis of modern atheism, is simply false.

Having shown that there is more to reality than the physical, Nagel sets out to wonder what that “more” might be, while most philosophers set out to try to refute him. I’ll discuss one attempt at refutation soon.

Philosophy or Calvinball?

calvinballIt’s the job of the neurosciences to explain how the brain works without purposes.

– Alex Rosenburg (Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 206

As a passionate materialist-atheist, who lovingly quotes Christopher Hitchens, Rosenberg seems to think that the above sentence is a point in his favor. He is completely right to say, as he does, that neuroscience (like all the sciences) simply set aside purposes from the get-go. What he fails to see, however, is that this undermines his reasons for embracing atheism.

That is, he cites science as the source of his atheism. He argues that it has shown theism to be false, but directly states (in both the quoted line and other places) that science’s job isn’t addressing the question of God–or anything else that involves purposes. Rather, it simply ignores the question in order to focus on material and immediate causation.

That makes science the best tool ever conceived for understanding the patterns of the physical world. What it doesn’t make it is an answer to the question of purposes.

And it isn’t only God; it is any purpose. The reason Rosenberg brings up the point here is to argue that there is no such thing as purpose in the human mind. According to him, we don’t plan for things, we don’t think about things, and we don’t want things. This is because science doesn’t study purpose in the mind or anywhere else and (as far as Rosenberg is concerned) there is nothing other than what science studies.

Rosenberg insists that these are unavoidable conclusions which follow from science. But, for those of us who think it nonsense to say that people don’t actually think, the response is perfectly obvious. This doesn’t follow from science; it follows from the completely arbitrary demand that there is nothing more to reality than that which science studies.

So long as one is open-minded on the subject, it is obvious that neuroscience’s project of describing the brain without purpose, however amazing and useful, does not remotely show that there is no such thing as purpose or intentions in the human mind. In fact, the overwhelming majority of neuroscientific studies depend on trusting test subjects to be accurately reporting on the intentions, purposes, experiences, and desires they feel. If one thinks that neuroscience has (or will) do away with purposes in the mind, then one thinks that it is a self-destructive field of study.

And this is the final problem with all the appeals to science made in support of materialism. Not only do they simply assume that science covers all of reality (which is exactly what the materialist should be trying to prove), but they ultimately contradict science itself.

Simply put, science only functions if there are parts of reality other than the scientific. Claiming that non-scientific forms of inquiry should be rejected is simply a case of cutting off the branch science is sitting on.

And this is the basis of modern atheism.

Who You Gonna Believe? Materialism, or Your Lying Thoughts?

thinkerIf introspection is right about the self, then it’s easy to show that it must be immortal and can outlive our body. (Alex Rosenburg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 223)

Rosenberg makes no secret of the fact that this is the motivation for his attacks on introspection. He sees clearly that any trust that our basic experience of our inner lives, even so much as belief that our thoughts and consciousness really exist, will show belief in materialism to be false.

I’ve discussed the reasons for this elsewhere, but the thing to note here is that there is no good reason to doubt our introspection. If all that we know about anything is based on experience, then it would take a powerful argument indeed to contradict something so basic as the idea that we actually have thoughts.

Rosenberg thinks he has this, of course, in pointing out that we are sometimes wrong about our inner lives. This, of course, is no more reason to conclude that thought doesn’t exist than the fact that our senses are sometimes wrong is a reason to conclude that the physical universe doesn’t exist. 

But the only alternative, accepting that we do indeed have thoughts about things, leads us inevitably to the conclusion that thought is something more than physical processes in the brain. And this would mean the rejection of a materialist view.

And, for all I disagree with Rosenberg, he’s right about this. If our own thought life is even remotely reliable in telling us what a mind is like, then materialism is false.

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.

Why Should You Believe in Thought?

Molecular ThoughtsAlex Rosenberg, as has been pointed out, rejects the idea that people can think about things.

The basic neural processes going on in conscious thought have to be just the same as the basic neural processes going on when the brain nonconsciously thinks. These processes are the only things neurons and sets of neurons do. Consciousness is just another physical process. So, it has as much trouble producing aboutness as any other physical process. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, pp. 192-193)

Of course, this does boil down to a belief that people don’t have beliefs. But what is interesting here is not Rosenberg’s personal eccentricities. Rather, it is the fact that he’s simply following the logic of what is claimed by a great many people.

It is not uncommon for people, in defense of materialism, to insist that tangible evidence is the only factor to be considered in the discussion. To use the now infamous sound byte “that which is presented without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”. I don’t accept this approach myself, but it is not insignificant that those who do should reject the idea that thoughts are about things. Certainly, no one has been able to present physical evidence for the “aboutness” of thoughts.

Of course, I’d say that there is evidence that thoughts are about things–quite a bit, actually. But this would require taking a broader definition of evidence than the typical materialist would allow.

And that would, of course, open the door for all kinds of evidence that runs counter to materialism. This doesn’t show it to be false outright, but it would immediately cost its proponents their central argument (that there is “no evidence” for theism).

So materialists find themselves in a precarious place, wanting to insist that evidence is always physical on the one hand, but not wanting to deny thought on the other. Rosenberg’s sentiments aside, it seems obviously true that there is far more reason to believe in thought than to believe that all evidence is physical.

It is also important to remember that this argument holds even for those who take thought to be a physical process in the brain. For, we are not discussing whether or not the mind is physical (though it is not), but whether there is physical evidence for the idea that we think about things.

And there is not. No amount of physical data about the brain gives us evidence that thoughts are about things. For that, we’ll simply have to take the test subject’s word for it (or, better still, our own experience of thinking).

But, if we’re willing to accept inner experience and/or testimony as evidence, materialism has a number of very difficult challenges facing it. And, personally, I don’t think it can hope to answer these challenges.