Tag Archives: 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.

The Argument From Willful Ignorance

Woman_BlindContinuing on about Nagel’s argument against the physicality of mind, we come to Philip Kitcher’s response to Nagel. Kitcher is a respected philosopher, which is why I was rather shocked to find such anti-intellectual sentiments in his article.

Rather than simply focus on how terrible his argument is, however, I want first to point out how common it is.

In fact, his basic approach can be seen in the comments section of this blog: the idea that, if an argument shows that there is something in our fundamental experience that can’t be explained by materialism, then what we need to do is quit thinking about it.

Personally, I find it hard to express how fundamentally close-minded I find this. Really, I doubt that I can improve on the words of Chesterton. “There is a kind of thought that stops thought, and that is the only kind of thought that ought to be stopped”.

But thought that stops thought is exactly what is being promoted by a professor in the New York times. He writes:

“Philosophy and science don’t always answer the questions they pose — sometimes they get over them.” And, in case anyone thinks he’s lamenting poor behavior on the part of philosophers and scientists, he adds this: “With luck, in a century or so, the issue of how mind fits into the physical world will seem as quaint as the corresponding concern about life.”

Part of me was shocked, but I had to admit that I’ve encountered the basic sentiment in many self-identified atheists. Until now, I’d assumed that it was the provence of the uneducated to claim that we stop thinking when thinking starts to contradict their view. But it seems that this isn’t the case.

In fact, it has often seemed that secularists’ real, lived answer to the issues of meaning of life, morality, and God are not so much denials of theists’ answers as a studious avoiding of the questions. Ignore a question long enough, and it will start to feel unimportant.

At least, this would explain why I continue to encounter such complete indifference to life’s biggest questions.

So, I’m forced to admit that it isn’t all that surprising when the materialist’s answer to the fact that mind cannot be purely physical is “just don’t think about it”.

But this doesn’t even rise to the level of an argument from ignorance. It isn’t the fallacious “we don’t know that I’m wrong, so I’m correct” it is the even more fallacious “we do know I’m wrong, but if we make ourselves willfully ignorant of that fact, we won’t know, so I’m correct”.

The second problem with this ‘argument’ is less severe, but largely by making the first one worse. That is, this tactic rather blatantly contradicts the original case for materialism.

Those that know something about the history of philosophy know that materialism became popular based on its promise that it could explain the world more simply than other views. The idea was that we should dispense with the non-material because we can explain everything without it. Ockham’s Razor, and all that.

But now that it’s being shown that materialism can’t explain the things it was supposed to explain, materialists are suddenly claiming that we just stop thinking that all reality can ever be given a unified explanation. Apparently, we should also stop thinking about the fact that there are more unified explanations on offer.

So, we accept materialism because it can explain everything that theism can, only more simply. Except that it can’t, it simply denies most of those other things. And, in the case of mind, we’ll just agree not to think about that.

And, when one asks why we’re materialists in the first place, we’ll be sure to dismiss that as a silly question.

This is all rather dogmatic, and it is not made less so by claiming that materialism is somehow “good enough” or “gets us pretty far”. These are simply false claims. Nothing shown to be false can be good enough for anyone committed to being rational, and, while science gets us very far, it doesn’t need materialism to do its job.

This is not to mention the very obvious fact that the greatness of science runs counter to the attitude that we refuse to ask questions when the answers threaten to destroy our pet theories.

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.

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.