Category Archives: Argument from Mind

Babies aren’t Bathwater

baby-bathwater-755135Once again, Alex Rosenberg almost perfectly enshrines modern prejudices about science and the search for knowledge:

Cognitive neuroscience has already established that many of the most obvious things introspection tells you about your mind are illusions. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 148)

That science has found surprising things is not in dispute; I love reading on these as much as anyone (as my wife can attest). Rosenberg’s mistake, in my view, is to leap from this conclusion to the idea that we should reject introspection completely. He boldly declares:

The notion that thought is about stuff doesn’t even approximate what is going on in the brain. (ibid, p. 208)

This is, of course, both unwarranted and self-contradictory in at least two ways. I’ve already discussed the idea that the thought about the idea that thoughts can’t be about things is incoherent. But it is no more so than the idea that neuroscience can invalidate introspection as a source of knowledge about our minds.

That is to say that neuroscience relies on introspection. It maps brain-states, and correlates them with what test subjects tell the scientists about what they are experiencing internally. In short, introspection is a foundational tool of neuroscience.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that introspection is perfect any more than our sensory perceptions are perfect. But, as with the physical senses, science is a tool to correct our mistakes and sharpen those perceptions, not simply reject them.

This unwarranted jump from “introspection isn’t perfect” to “introspection is completely worthless as a source of knowledge” seems fairly common, and I think we need to be careful about it. Rosenberg himself criticizes others for trying to take an overly simple approach to philosophy, and I think his warning applies here.

It would, after all, be very easy if everything that existed were observable through science. It would give us the comfort of certainty about what life is like, and clear-cut answers to its biggest questions. Part of me suspects that this is the reason why materialism is so appealing to many.

But, whether or not I’m right about that last, it is too simple–too easy to say that we can simply wave off our basic experience of life. We can’t simply reject introspection, as Rosenberg suggests.

Of course, I would argue that refusing to reject introspection means rejecting materialist accounts of the mind. And this is precisely why Rosenberg is so interested in discrediting introspection; he knows it is inconsistent with his materialism.

As much has been said, I’ve still not touched on all the ways in which Rosenberg shows how materialism breaks down into self-contradiction. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that his book has done more to convince me of the falsehood of materialism than anything I’ve read from a theist.

Is a Neuron’s Firing About Paris?

091009092351-largeIn examining consciousness from a materialist perspective, Rosenberg concludes that there is no such thing. This is because neurons simply by firing can’t really be about anything outside of themselves, in the way we think of our thoughts as being about things.

In using the example of thinking about Paris, he writes:

The Paris neurons aren’t about Paris in the same way, for example, that a picture postcard or a diorama or pop-up book’s three-dimensional layout is about Paris. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, pp. 174-175)

He goes on to consider the idea that some other neurons might interpret those neurons as being about Paris (the way we interpret language). But this leads him to the problem that the neurons doing the interpreting would first have to know what Paris is. That is, they would have to have a thought about Paris. Thus, he adds:

What we need to get off the regress is some set of neurons that is about some stuff outside the brain without being interpreted— by anyone or anything else (including any other part of the brain)— as being about that stuff outside the brain. (ibid, pp. 178-179)

There is simply no way of doing this while adhering to materialism.

Rosenberg is so convinced of materialism that he concludes that humans don’t actually have thoughts about anything. Now, if you find that a long list of objections to this conclusion forming in your mind, you are not alone. Many issues have been raised here, but space only permits me to address the most basic two:

First, the existence of one’s own thoughts is undeniable. It is not simply that it is better evidence than materialism, but that it is something we cannot even doubt without assuming it to be true. What is doubt, after all, if it doesn’t involve thinking about an idea outside of one’s neurons?

Second, because we cannot doubt our thought without assuming it, Rosenberg’s argument is actually logically incoherent. Though it follows from his materialism, this argument undermines itself. If neither Rosenberg nor the reader can think about, say, the idea that our thoughts might be illusions, there is no reason at all to believe it is true.

So, if materialism contradicts the idea that we have thoughts, then, so much the worse for materialism.

Invasion of the Zombies

thHow do you know you aren’t surrounded by zombies?

The question is harder to answer than you might think. Of course, it helps to know that, in philosophy, a zombie is something quite a bit different from the brain-eating monster we find in movies.

In this context “zombie” refers to someone who has all the physical traits of a person, including behavior patterns, but no consciousness. If you tell a zombie that she isn’t a thinking person, her face might flush, and she might scream at you, but it would all just be a mechanical reaction, there is actually no consciousness driving that behavior.

Consciousness is not something we can test for physically. We simply infer it from behavior patterns. But, if materialism is true, there is no reason to think that consciousness is really needed in order to control behavior. The complex patterns of electrons, as they bounce around the brain, is enough.

If that is the case, there’s no logical reason (again, if one is a materialist) to assume that other people have consciousness. Of course, (most) materialists do believe that other people are conscious. In general, they tend to say that consciousness just is the pattern of electrons–or that it arises naturally from those patterns.

But, unless one is willing to posit some kind of psychic property to electrons specifically, then this is the position that anything which had such a pattern would be conscious: rocks tied to springs, a system of gears and levers, or the nation of China sending each other text messages.

It seems absurd to say that such things would be conscious in the way that a human is, but that is precisely what one means if one is going to say that consciousness is nothing more than a pattern of electrons.

And there remains the fact that, unless we are willing to propose something outside the purview of science, there is no more reason to think that the people we see every day are conscious than a very complex system of rocks whacking one another.

One assumes that others are conscious because one experiences consciousness personally. We all know such a thing exists; we don’t need science to tell us that. As such, we find it very plausible to believe that creatures like us are conscious. This is particularly true given that the alternative is demanding scientific evidence for something that science can’t find in one’s self.

But, if one is willing to accept that other people have consciousness, then one has accepted that there are ways of knowing other than our physical senses. That being the case, it becomes very hard to understand why “show me physical evidence” is a reason to reject any of our non-physical perceptions (such as our moral sense) as valid paths to knowledge.

And this, of course, opens the door to several arguments for theism.

Getting Angry at the Toaster

baby shouting at a laptopIt strikes me as odd that a determinist would ever blame anyone for anything.

I mentioned this yesterday, but (as I try to keep my posts short) didn’t point out one of the more obvious problems facing the materialist in opposition to religious belief: determinism removes the force of its proponents’ attempts to persuade.

Materialism entails determinism (the idea that we aren’t actually in control of our actions, but are simply moved by chemical reactions in our brains). It’s already been said that this undermines rationality (thus undermining any argument the materialist can give), but it also gives the theist another response to anything the materialist might say.

That is, that she was determined to believe in God.

In fact, Rosenberg (a kind of evolutionary determinist himself) seems to make this same observation.

We won’t shake any [Religion]. There are so many, they are so long-lasting, that false religious beliefs must have conferred lots of adaptive advantages on believers. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 111)

Here, Rosenberg seems to be pointing out the rather obvious fact that, if determinism is true, it is unlikely that religious belief will ever disappear from humanity.

Still, I think he should have gone further. As he’s already pointed out that materialism undermines belief in moral truth, he’s been reduced to arguing that he and his fellow atheists will behave morally without any rational reason to do so.

I don’t doubt that, of course, the atheists I know tend to be very moral people. But Rosenberg seems to have missed the obvious conclusion: that theistic belief could be defended on the exact same grounds. Really, the only difference between the two, on his own perspective, is that the pattern of his brain states led him to embrace the one and reject the other.

And this seems to describe the overwhelming majority of materialists I’ve encountered. For all the moral outrage we’ve seen directed at “religion” in recent years, the loudest voices are themselves claiming that their outrage is no more rational, nor otherwise defensible, than the beliefs they decry.

That being the case, it is hard to see why so many materialists have insinuated that theists are morally and rationally obligated to abandon theism. If the theist is determined to believe in theism, this seems an unreasonable demand.

All this is to say that telling people that they should reject the idea of God’s existence, among other things, presumes that human beings are capable of rational thought.

In my view, if materialism contradicts trust of our rational faculties, so much the worse for materialism. What strikes me as strange are those who think “so much the worse for rational thought”. Stranger still are those who think this, then act scandalized by the idea that theists aren’t being rational.

But, of course, this assumes that materialists are right to say that theism is irrational, or that determinism is true (or that any of its more strange claims are accurate). I don’t see any reason to think materialism is true, and several reasons to think otherwise.

But that is another topic.

Complete Lack of Will

how-boost-willpowerI’ve now written several things about the contradictions between materialism and the existence of one’s own thoughts. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on that in the future, but I don’t want to overlook the obvious for the novel.

That is to say, one of the best disproofs of materialism is the fact that it contradicts free will.

There are at least two reasons for this. The first is the fact that materialists, in claiming that our thoughts and decisions are simply electro-chemical reactions in our brains, are forced to the conclusion that every last thought is simply determined by the laws of chemistry.

This has become such a commonplace statement that many have lost sight of the reasons why it is obviously false. It is simply and deeply ad hoc to claim that our sense of free will is an illusion.

Free will is not something materialism can simply shrug off. It is one of our most basic experiences, and rejecting it is on par with claiming that our sense of the physical universe is an illusion. We’d need incredibly strong reasons to believe materialism in light of such an obvious reason to reject it.

As such, this is a major problem for materialist positions, and the apathy I’ve encountered about the issue seems completely odd.

It has also been frequently pointed out that determinism can’t be rationally affirmed. In saying “there is no free will”, one is saying “I believe in determinism because the electro-chemical reactions in my brain told me to, not because it is true”.

This clearly undermines rational thought, which, in turn, undermines science. We shouldn’t trust our ability to learn anything about the world if our thoughts really are driven by chemicals, rather than genuine reflection.

“But”, the materialist might object, “science clearly works”. But this is all the more reason to reject materialism. It is good evidence that our reason is far more trustworthy than determinism predicts. Every reason to believe in rationality is a reason to reject determinism, and the materialism that leads to it.

If there were some great proof of materialism, some very strong reason to think that failing to believe in it would result in incoherencies, then there would be reason to seriously consider that our most basic perceptions of reality could be wrong.

But, on the contrary, I’ve never encountered an argument for materialism that doesn’t beg the question. Which means that the only real question is not whether there is more than the physical, but what such a thing is.

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.

Atheism and the Inability to Think

brainless_brainDo you ever have thoughts about anything–or simply “think” that you do?

If this strikes you as a strange question to ask in context of the debate over God’s existence, it’s likely that you haven’t read anything by prominent atheist Alex Rosenberg. He’s firmly of the opinion that our thoughts aren’t about anything at all:

Ultimately, science and scientism are going to make us give up as illusory the very thing conscious experience screams out at us loudest and longest: the notion that when we think, our thoughts are about anything at all, (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 162)

This may sound like utter nonsense (and it is). But, if you are a materialist, Rosenberg has a point. The “aboutness” of thoughts isn’t something that can be reduced to brain states alone. There is simply no way that any interaction of neurons, by itself, can objectively be about anything but itself–and nothing can be subjectively about anything without an interpreter already present. This would mean that we have to assume a mind in order to explain the mind.

As such, it might “feel” as if you have thoughts about things, or thoughts at all, but (so the argument goes) this is all illusion.

If you’re thinking that Rosenberg is a bit off his rocker, you’re not alone. What is an illusion after all, if it isn’t a thought? Rosenberg doesn’t actually tell us, but he compares it to trickery, sleight of hand, and several other things that make no sense whatsoever unless they involve (false) thoughts about things.

But he isn’t claiming that our thoughts are false; he’s claiming that they are literally about nothing at all.

Most might think that Rosenberg has given us a beautiful reductio ad absurdum of his materialist-atheist view. If the materialism which is the core of nearly all defense of atheism breaks down into denying that thought even exists (as Rosenberg shows later in his book), well, it might seem hard to imagine anything the theist could say to make this philosophy appear more inane than it already seems.

There is, however, one more thing.

Rosenberg never mentions the fact that science (so beloved by him and other materialists) is founded on trust of the human capacity to think about things. If materialism leads us to reject thought altogether, it leads us to completely reject science–which depends on thought. Hence, Rosenberg’s materialism is more deeply anti-science than anything the most fundamentalist preacher ever dreamed of saying.

The utter incoherence of this is striking, but there is nothing Rosenberg claims which doesn’t follow from his materialism. In this way, he’s simply being more consistent and clear-headed than most materialists. The act of rejecting the existence of anything that can’t be backed by experimental data has come around to reject itself, and science along with it.

So, if one isn’t willing to follow Rosenberg down this trail, one needs to reject the idea that there is nothing more to the mind than brain states.

But do to this is to reject materialism.

When Exploring New Territory, Stick to the Places You Know

thThe entire concept of non-empirical evidence seems to be off the intellectual maps of many. If there is an argument that this kind of evidence isn’t valid, or doesn’t exist, I haven’t heard it.

What I have heard is that this idea (that all beliefs should be based on empirical evidence) has been completely abandoned by philosophers. The concept was called Logical Positivism, and it was pushed by A.J. Ayer about a century ago before being rejected (even, eventually, by Ayer himself) due to a very simple question:

“Regarding this concept that we should only believe things based on empirical evidence–what is the empirical evidence for that?”

Everyone willing to think open-mindedly on that question realized that there was no empirical evidence for it at all, and that it consequently fails its own test.

But this idea is no less self-contradictory now than it was when Ayer was pushing it. Demanding empirical evidence simply assumes that Positivism is true. It neither deals with the contradiction at its core nor gives us any other reason to accept it.

And this last brings us to the arbitrariness of the position. Insistence upon empirical evidence is simply demanding a preference for the senses over thoughts. But there is no more reason to reject the reality of mental life (consciousness, free will, qualia, moral sense) than to reject the physical.

The modern materialist would scoff at the cartesian skeptic who demanded mental evidence that the physical world exists, who claimed that no evidence which assumes the physical can be considered evidence, and who explained away everything that seems so obviously physical as “really” a mental phenomenon (presumably, an illusion of some sort).

But that position is no less defensible, if far less popular, than the materialist’s own position that we should only acknowledge the physical and explain away the mental as if it were “really” physical.

A more reasonable approach would be to reject both of these positions as arbitrary and self-contradictory demands. But this would mean accepting our mental, as well as our physical, experience as a valid source of information.

To insist that we simply reject the non-empirical until it is empirically established is to replace vast swaths of our intellectual maps with nothing more profound, or less demonstrably false, than the hollow threat: “here there be dragons”.

“I’m Programmed to Think I’m Right” isn’t an Argument

Programming_RobotThe overwhelming majority of those who don’t believe in God believe at least two other things:

1. That there is nothing in reality other than the physical objects studied by science

2. That the movement of these physical objects are governed by fixed mathematical laws.

Putting these two things together, we get determinism. This is the idea that humans don’t actually have free will, but simply do the things that the ongoing electro-chemical reactions in our brains direct us to do. Of course, there is one very big problem with believing determinism is true.

It can’t be rationally believed.

To say that one’s thoughts and actions are being directed, not by one’s will, but by physical processes in the brain is to undercut any reason one has for believing anything one thinks. It is the declaration that one believes in determinism, not because it is true but simply because one was determined to believe it. In fact, it is claiming that everything one believes has this problem.

So, to say that determinism is true is to claim that one’s beliefs are based in chemical reactions, not rational consideration.

They may line up with reality, of course. People may be “wired” to get our bodies where they need to be in the physical world, in the same sense that a calculator is wired to spit back the correct answer to an equation, but this doesn’t mean that we can ever chose to be rational people. Rather we simply believe what we are “programmed” to believe.

Strange, then, that so many believers in determinism complain that others aren’t more open-minded, or don’t think critically. By their own admission, they themselves can’t be open-minded to anything except what certain physical laws have determined them to believe.

There is a list of objections to determinism, of course. But I mostly find myself wondering why, if the philosophy leads us to the point that we’re rejecting our own ability to think rationally, we don’t want to reconsider the assumptions that got us here.

But that leaves us rejecting one or the other of the two ideas stated above. Any who are convinced of the second would need to reject the first of them–which is precisely what the theist does.

The Mindless Defender of Reason?

cartoon-zombie-scientist copyThere is a reason that the philosopher Rosenberg asserts that he has no mind: He knows that claiming to have one would contradict his atheism.

I find it more than a little ironic that, in the wake of so much insistence that there is no evidence for anything other than the physical, the things making the demands are themselves such evidence.

That is to say, minds.

Science has been unable to explain the mind. Meaning, purpose, subjective impressions, and the like are simply impossible to nail down with the tools of science. Of course, many insist that these are all simply brain states. And, while these things may all be correlated with brain states, there is a very simple reason why neurology (or any other science) isn’t going to explain them fully:

Because science forbids it from doing so.

Many keep making the argument that everything else has been made to submit to the investigation techniques of science, so it is only a matter of time before the mind is quantified and analyzed in the same way. Now, I’m not convinced that the first half of this statement is true. It would be more accurate to say everything else that the naturalist is willing to admit exists has submitted to this technique (or will in the future). But the real problem lies elsewhere.

One of the most useful tricks of science is to ignore anything it can’t quantify. It simply dismisses these things as “subjective”. That is well and good when one is doing science, but to call something subjective is, in part, to call it mental. Science has, in effect, been using the mind as the dumping bin for everything it can’t investigate. And it has been doing this for the last four centuries. It would be too much, I think, to say that the mind is defined in science as “everything science can’t investigate”, but it isn’t so far off the mark, either.

So, to say that the mind will eventually submit to scientific investigation because “everything else” has done so is like saying that, since we got rid of all the dirt in the house by sweeping it under the kitchen rug, we can get rid of the dirt under the kitchen rug in the same way.

This means that science cannot, even in principle, fully explain the mind. It can explain brain states. And test subjects can report to us which mental events are correlated with those brain states. As amazing as that is, it isn’t a scientific explanation of the mind.

But, unless one is willing to agree with Alex Rosenberg that the mind doesn’t exist, and thoughts aren’t about things, this means concluding that naturalism is false.