Tag Archives: Materialism

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.

Science Versus Pop-Science

Multiverse_by_KaeltykIt surprises me how often science enters a debate, not as support of a particular scientific point, but to attack the idea that human perception is trustworthy. In defending his materialism, Alex Rosenberg makes frequent use of this technique:

The most startling evidence of how unreliable consciousness is comes from the phenomenon of “blindsight,” seeing things when you don’t have a conscious visual experience of them. (Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 149)

While there is definitely truth to the claim that science has found things which are surprising, it is very strange to think that science can contradict our basic perception of reality. After all, it is nothing more than a very careful, systematized set of conclusions drawn from our basic perceptions.

Rosenberg himself uses blind sight experiments in an attempt to argue that humans don’t know anything about what is going on in our consciousness. Not only is this conclusion very questionable at best (it far exceeds what is warranted by the data), but it undermines the experiment itself (not to mention the materialism that Rosenberg thinks he’s supporting). The study is good only insofar as one believes people are accurately reporting their inner lives. To take this as a reason to reject introspection altogether, as Rosenberg does, is to reject the data on which the study is based.

But I’ve already discussed the problems with rejecting belief in one’s own mind and consciousness. What interests me at the moment is the similarity between this argument and the emotional tone of nearly every science documentary I’ve ever seen.

We often forget that, while science is in the business of discovering facts about the physical universe, science documentaries are in the business of entertaining people. There’s nothing wrong with this in itself, but the standard approach has long since become: the more this documentary can offend our basic perceptions, the better.

That makes for great entertainment, but not great science.

And, while I’m as entertained as the next guy, I’m beginning to take issue with the glib way modern people often dismiss our basic perception of reality because “science has refuted it”. This is a wild overstatement in itself, and even more suspect when applied only to the perceptions one happens to dislike. Science has found some very strange things indeed, but the day it finds that we can’t trust our basic experience of reality is the day it has contradicted itself.

As I’m convinced that good science does not contradict itself, I’m inclined to take these kinds of claims with a grain of salt. Rosenberg, on the other hand, is quick to leap to the same sorts of wild extrapolations that sensationalist documentaries like to make. But none of this, if one understands the difference between science and the sort of armchair metaphysics which often composes pop-science, is a reason to take him seriously.

I think it is evident that science is being used as a football to support the materialist position Rosenberg happens to favor. But I doubt that, without the prevalence of video editors and journalists who like to make big claims about science contradicting common sense, anyone would think his argument worth a second thought.

Rational Irrationalism?

censorship-1After pointing out that moral nihilism follows logically from his materialism, Rosenberg is quick to add that even moral nihilists tend to follow the same basic moral code as the rest of us.

And when we are completely honest with ourselves and others, we really do sincerely endorse some moral rules we can’t fully state as being right, correct, true, or binding on everyone. (Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 106)

The most obvious problem here is the fact that this is, by Rosenberg’s own admission, no more rational an approach than he accuses theism of being. And, of course, it is much less rational than theism actually is.

Even proponents of materialism admit that they contradict their position almost constantly in daily life, as materialism makes it irrational for one to believe in moral truth–even as one behaves morally.

So long as one is willing to reject this area of rationality, it seems inexplicable why many such people show such moral indignation at the supposed irrationality of others. This seems a pick-and-choose approach to reason, which I find difficult to accept.

All of this is over and above the fact that a sense of moral truth is as basic to our perception of reality as a sense of the physical universe. Presumably, the reasons to accept materialism are so powerful that we should be willing to reject our basic grasp of moral truth for the sake of it.

However, I’ve not personally seen any good arguments for materialism. And, just as it would make no sense to abandon belief in the physical universe without very good reason, this doesn’t seem nearly good enough to throw out moral truth (let alone all the other things this view asks me to throw out).

So, if materialism contradicts moral truth, so much the worse for materialism, particularly when materialistic nihilists openly admit that they take a clearly irrational approach to daily life.

Before the Beginning


Regarding the Kalam Cosmological Argument, I’ve already argued for the idea that physical reality entails a timeless cause.

Given this, I don’t think much need be said to show that a timeless cause would, of necessity, be immaterial. Matter, if it is to be anything like what we think of as matter, requires constant motion at the atomic, sub-atomic, and molecular levels.

This is over and above the fact that matter wouldn’t cause anything without a medium of time through which it could move.

Nor do I think it is unreasonable to conclude that an immaterial object would transcend space. This is not quite as strong an argument, of course. If one believes that non-material things can exist in space, one could claim that an immaterial being could still be spacial.

Still, we have very good reason to think that the space of the universe began with the Big Bang, and no good reason to think that there is any space outside the universe (pop-science hype notwithstanding).

Even more obvious is the conclusion that such a cause is immensely powerful pose any problems. Obviously, the power to create a universe is beyond human comprehension.

As such, we seem to have a timeless, immaterial, unimaginably powerful cause of the universe that probably transcends space as well.

For the longest time, I wondered why the atheists I knew were so resistant to these conclusions. So far, none of this contradicts atheism (as this cause could still be impersonal). For some time, I assumed that the reaction was simply an emotional response to what the atheist knew what was coming.

Whether or not that is true, there is an intellectual reason for resistance here:

Though this hasn’t contradicted atheism, it has contradicted materialism.

The argument has already concluded that there is more to reality than the material. So, while we may not have (yet) shown atheism to be false, we have dealt a serious blow to the metaphysical basis for atheism in the modern world.

So, even if the materialist wants to maintain that the argument can’t get past this point, damage to materialism has already been done.

What Else You Got?

Man-Weighing-OptionsWhat is the evidence that relativism is true?

And, for that matter, what is the evidence that materialism is true?

What is the evidence that a materialist demanding evidence on the internet is a good and fair judge of what should be considered evidence?

It seems to me that there are basically three ways that the materialist who is used to asking for evidence for God can answer these questions:

First, we can look at the matter, applying the same standards of evidence that are routinely taken toward theism.

Under this method, materialism and moral relativism fail abysmally. They aren’t remotely supported y anything like the kinds of evidence regularly insisted upon by the same people defending materialism.

Second, we can revise the concept of evidence so that the reasons people give for believing materialism and relativism count as evidence.

This option comes the closest to my own approach. Of course, its drawback for the materialist is that theism has a great deal of evidentiary support under this system. Most  who defend atheism on the internet would lose their main (and, often as not) only argument if we take this approach.

This brings us to option number three. We could try to give some reason why the same standards of evidence don’t apply to the atheist’s philosophy of life as are being applied to religious philosophies of life.

In my experience, this is the  direction most atheists take. It is the home of the (very poor) “I simply lack belief”, and “we’re not talking about my view” arguments. For all that is said about religious views by this group, on would think they’d be eager to prove that their life-approaches and moral systems meet higher standards of evidence.

But I don’t find this to be the case. In fact, I find the opposite. Very few want to talk about specific options to theism at all. But simply refusing to discuss the issue does nothing to show why it shouldn’t meet the same standards of evidence as theism. It simply ignores the issue.

And this is where we always end up, I think: the insistence that there is some view out there which is better than theism, along with a complete refusal to hold that view up to any scrutiny at all.

Once we do start taking a serious look at materialist views, however, theism is clearly the more plausible option.

Making Sense of Things

thThere are quite a few things about our real-life experience that materialism cannot explain. In fact, there are many things which people tend to take for granted which flatly contradict materialism.

By drawing out the implications of materialism and theism together, it becomes more clear which makes better sense of the life we actually experience.

And that is how we should choose our position. It makes no sense start from a conclusion, constantly using the terms “illusion” and “brute fact” for what one can’t fit into our theory. Life should be considered the “data” that our position is meant to explain.

This being the case, I thought it might be good to put together a short list:

1. Free Will
Materialism entails determinism, and therefore denies that we act of our own free will.
Issues of free will have been raised under certain types of theism, of course, but most types live quite comfortably with it.

2. Moral Realism
Materialism is incompatible with moral realism. And therefore leads its adherents to claim that moral truth is illusory.
Theism, by contrast, is a good explanation of moral realism.

3. Purpose
Most claim to have a sense that there is a purpose to life. Materialism denies this.
And, of course, theism is an explanation of meaning in life.

4. Thought
Probably the most basic fact that each of us knows is “I have thoughts”. But materialism denies it. Thoughts, since they can’t be reduced to the physical–and certainly haven’t been supported by physical evidence–are seen as illusory.
Theism has no trouble with the idea that we have thoughts, and offers explanations of that fact.

5. Others’ Consciousness
Materialism offers no explanation of or reason to believe that others actually have consciousness (as opposed to simply behaving as if they do).
Under theism, however, consciousness is perfectly explicable.

6. Sensory Experience
Contrary to general impressions, materialism denies any part of sense experience that cannot be reduced to a mathematical model. It, therefore, denies the actual experience itself and believes only in mathematical abstractions.
Though it completely agrees that mathematical models can be very helpful in understanding the physical world, theism has no need to deny the reality of experience itself.

7. The Physical Universe
Again, this seems a thing that materialism would fervently support. But it cannot explain the existence of the physical universe (and simply calls it a brute fact). Nor, incidentally, does it explain why the other things it cannot explain are not equally “brute facts”.
Theism, on the other hand, offers explanation of the physical universe.

This actually seems to be everything. Really, I can’t seem to find anything at all about real-world experience that materialism explains. And certainly nothing that it explains better than theism. If one is of the position that theories should fit the data, then, the latter is clearly the more reasonable view.

Philosophical Hot Potato

dep_6413941-Hot-potatoYesterday, I wrote about Rosenberg’s commitment to genetic determinism. I think it is a fitting followup to write about his claim that, while people are “programmed” to have the same morals regardless of what we think, that people aren’t programmed to make the same mistakes.

At least, that is what he seems to be saying.

In trying to defend the idea that all humans are programmed to be good (and therefore don’t need to believe things about morals to be good), he addresses the rather obvious objection that we seem to commit so much evil:

Where most Nazis “went wrong” was in the idiotic beliefs about race and a lot of other things they combined with core morality, resulting in a catastrophe for their victims and for Germany. (“The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”, pp. 143-144).

That is, the Nazis shared our basic morals, they merely had bad science (in embracing racial eugenics).

This statement is far more controversial than its proponents insinuate. The fact that eugenics is making a comeback in academia is proof enough of that. But, if one needs more, a real look at the Nazis’ beliefs will show something very different from current moral convictions.

But the more obvious problem is the fact that Rosenberg gives no attention at all to what “idiotic beliefs” might be blinding the current generation–or future ones.

The racial darwinism of the Nazis was supported by respected scientists and philosophers of the time, but Rosenberg gives us no reason to think a similar thing couldn’t happen again. Is there any reason at all to think that we “programmed” humans aren’t going to fall victim to the same insanity if we accept some “bad science”.

As prime suspect number one in the case of bad science, I’d present Rosenberg’s own darwinistic nihilism. That seems as dangerous a pseudoscience as any.

But, in the event that his own bad science brought about something terrible, Rosenberg may well ask us to remember this about the Nazis:

But these decisions should not be misrepresented as scientific ones. Science is always neutral on what we should do. In these cases, as elsewhere, it’s core morality that does the deciding. (ibid, p. 290)

So, we can trust that we will behave well because we all have “core morality” programmed into us. Of course, it doesn’t work if we accept a piece of bad science. But, really, that is the core morality’s fault, nothing to do with science.

I’m genuinely confused as to why Rosenberg seems to think I should find this comforting.

At this point, it seems that Rosenberg needs either to bite the bullet and admit that his “nice nihilism” is simply “nihilism” or (as I would prefer) to consider that he might have been wrong to say that thoughts and morality are illusory. After all, these are as basic to human life as any other perception.

But that, of course, would lead him to reject his materialism.

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.

Aiming at the Wrong Target

cosGodI’ve never actually been given evidence that materialism is correct. But I like to think that, if I were, my reaction wouldn’t be to complain that the person offering the evidence didn’t simultaneously disprove every non-theistic life philosophy that I could name.

This may be, however, the most common response I get when offering support for my own position. Certainly, it is the New Atheists’ modus operandi. There seems to be a certain type that, upon hearing an argument for God’s existence, can’t resist naming off every god that comes to mind and proclaiming that there is “just as much” evidence for them.

I have to admit that I can’t understand this except in terms of rhetoric and slogan-style debating. The number of times that Quetzalcoatl’s name is mentioned (as if this were a serious point) stands as evidence that there are many out there who have no idea that the First Cause argument does absolutely nothing to support his existence.

Likewise, there isn’t the slightest thing that moral arguments for God’s existence does to support Zeus, Osiris, or Moloch. Nor have I seen anything about the fine-tuning argument which lends any credibility to the existence of Isis, Marduk, or Thor.

What’s going on here? To ask the question is to answer it. Those who delight in throwing out names of nearly forgotten deities as if that were somehow an argument against monotheism are almost always more interested in scoring rhetorical points than in getting at truth. There is a world of difference between the finite beings which were said to inhabit the physical cosmos by ancient temple religions and the transcendental, metaphysical God of modern book religion.

Really, only a near complete ignorance of what monotheism actually is, coupled with a hostility to learning, could lead one to think that asking about Poseidon has any bearing whatsoever on the debate between Christianity and materialists (except, I suppose, to explain the reasons why it isn’t relevant).

God, that is the God believed in by monotheists, simply isn’t an old man with a long beard flying around in space somewhere. If this seems tediously obvious to you, you may not realize that there is a large and growing body of evidence that many, many non-theists on the internet don’t realize this fact.

This is the reason why physical evidence is, at best, only marginally relevant. Christians have proposed a metaphysical concept outside the physical realm. One can consider that concept, debate it, believe or not believe it. But to respond by demanding that no one has ever seen God in a telescope is simply to misunderstand the most fundamental terms of the discussion.

And references to these other gods is no different than this, because they are exactly the sort of entity we should be able to spot with a telescope.

I am aware, of course, that there is a large and growing belief in materialism–of people who believe that there couldn’t possibly be anything that can’t be spotted with a telescope (or some other tool of science). Edward Feser has aptly titled this mentality “the last superstition”. It is as unsupported, both scientifically and philosophically, as Hades, Sep, or even Santa Claus.

Yet, somehow, this idea is proclaimed to be right on the grounds that, if we completely throw out all real understanding of what we are looking for, we haven’t found God. At the end of all the slogans and one-liners, it remains to be seen even the slightest reason why we should embrace the materialism that has so enchanted modern culture.

Moral Truth and Rationality

450px-the_thinker_closeWhy does one believe in anything?

Unless one is a cartesian skeptic, one accepts some things that haven’t been proven absolutely. Presumably, the basis of our core beliefs is perception of things. One accepts that the physical world is real, after all, because we perceive it. While it is true that one may be wrong to do so, it seems far more reasonable than to believe that reality is all simply a delusion.

Many who are deeply committed to the reality of the physical world, however, are hostile to this same reasoning process when applied to other areas.

In this case, I’m speaking of moral truth.

Many insist upon “evidence” for objective morality, by which they seem to mean something that can be shared via the senses. Apparently, we need no evidence that the senses are reporting (however imperfectly) a real world, but we need evidence that the moral sense is (again, imperfectly) a touchstone of the real.

This seems completely inconsistent, and the only response I’ve ever been given is descriptions of moral beliefs in terms of the physical (i.e. sociobiological evolution). Surely, one can do this. But one can equally explain the physical in terms of the mental (or even the moral). This disproves the reality of neither. Nor does it establish that one simply reduces to the other.

All this seems to show is that the truth is difficult for humans to understand. But this seems a reason to be more, not less, open to seriously considering multiple facets of reality. Walling one’s mind off from anything which doesn’t fit into a particular category which is easy for us to investigate is not seeking truth.

I suspect that, were it not for the current zeitgeist, it would be next to impossible to believe that having a physical explanation of a thing precludes the validity of any other kind of explanation. That is rather tidy, but isn’t any more defensible than a similar argument against the physical.

That being the case, I’m inclined to think that (while I may misperceive it, as I do the physical) moral truth is as real as the physical universe.