Tag Archives: philosophy

Do You Believe in Magic?


Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

-Arthur C. Clarke

A good way to show off one’s ignorance of theology is to throw the word “magic” around.

At least, it is if one is implying that belief in God constitutes belief in a kind of magic. This assertion, can only be made if one either doesn’t know what theism is or doesn’t know what magic is. Or (and I’m worried that this is far more common than it ought to be) is only interested in the rhetorical value of the word and doesn’t actually care that the assertion is a false one.

That is, if magic is to be objectionable, it can’t simply be something that one, personally, doesn’t understand. If that’s all we mean by magic (as in the quotation above), then I completely agree that almost the whole of theology would be “magic” to the New Atheists–as they understand little to none of it. But this is hardly a point in favor of atheism.

Of course, the word “magic” is often used to reference something that isn’t really an explanation. A word that is used as a kind of filler for a real explanation. But this, too, fails to help the atheist.

First is the simple fact that, in order to make this work, the New Atheist is reduced to arguing against the “god-of-the-gaps”. Which immediately means that we’re no longer discussing the God of any of the great monotheist religions. Again, this is either ignorance or a sloppy appeal to rhetoric, not a point against a religion than anyone actually believes in.

God is an explanation for many things in reality we experience–not an efficient cause under the model of science, but a perfectly reasonable explanation in other contexts. One can try to argue that there is a problem with these explanations. What one can’t rationally do is say that God is not an explanation–which is what appeals to the word “magic” do.

The technical term for “magic”, in this sense, is “brute fact”–something that is true without any explanation whatsoever. And it is no small point that it is typically atheists, not theists, that appeal to brute facts in discussing the explanation for the universe.

That is what atheists have traditionally said, of course: that the universe has no explanation for its existence. And this is, logically, no different from saying “the universe is magic”.

And it isn’t enough to say “well, maybe there really is no explanation” or “I’m okay with not knowing”. Both of these things contradict inquiry–and even show a misunderstanding of the science many atheists claim to cherish. The fact is that theists have offered an explanation (meaning that suggesting that there isn’t one is simply false). No theory is ever overturned by appeals to the idea that some things just aren’t explicable. Nor are they stopped by self-righteously declaring that it is morally preferable to live in ignorance rather than accept the best explanation on offer.

“Planetary orbits are a brute fact” and “I’m okay with not knowing why biodiversity exists” aren’t legitimate responses to Newton and Darwin. These kinds of statements aren’t legitimate responses to any explanation whatsoever. They are appeals to magic in all but name.

As such, it is those who make these and similar statements toward theists who are confessing a belief in a kind of magic.


Secular Dogma

sj-sallyMoving on from individual religious experience, Mackie discuses religious histories. In particular, he discusses secular religious histories, and I find myself largely in agreement with his conclusions.

That is, Mackie rightly sees that all the most famous theories on the origins and social function of religion are far too reductionistic to be considered valid. They all seem to assume that, because they can point to a particular effect or use of religion, they have thereby explained all religion.

In pointing out these problems, Mackie makes a rather penetrating observation of Marxism:

“What is more, the characteristic Marxist over-optimism of expecting social conflict and alienation themselves to disappear after a proletarian revolution is itself best understood as a kind of secularized salvationism, the expression of a consoling illusion different, indeed, in specific content but not in general character from the vision of a supernatural ideal realm.”

This caught my attention, not because Marxism is terribly relevant to our current social context, but because similar observations can be made, in any time, of those who are most passionately anti-religious.

The current wave of anti-theists (the New Atheists) can be almost entirely understood as enlightenment-revivalists. Setting aside their lack of concern for what killed the enlightenment in the first place, the logical problems with its propaganda, and the horrific acts it spawned, it is worth noting that the same sort of secular salvationism does seem to have taken hold in this group.

There is a near-constant implication, after all, that the problems of humanity–threats of terrorism, oppression of the poor, lack of education–will be removed or greatly diminished so long as one can rid the world of religion. There is even, if one looks for it, an unspoken assumption that one can count one’s self one of the “brights”, one of the intelligensia, if only one can thoroughly embrace an atheistic way of thinking.

In both cases, we have a secularized salvationism–the first being social, and the second a matter of personal value and identity. This is not unlike the religious claim that devotion to God is beneficial to society and empowering to the individual.

Essentially, the emotional issues traditionally addressed by the world’s great religions are fundamental questions of the human condition. These needs cannot be removed from one’s nature simply by rejecting particular answers to them, or eschewing the trappings of religion.

A thoughtful approach, therefore, will not simply replace one consoling illusion for another–say, dogmatic religion for dogmatic atheism–but by taking an altogether more nuanced view of both these questions and the answers presented by the world’s great religions.

And that is where one must start (and where far too many refuse to start): asking these basic questions and examining the options available.

When one does this, the foibles, and sheer uselessness, of blunt materialism become much more obvious.

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.

If I’m Guilty, it’s Your Fault

Passing blame for guiltIn making a case against theism, Mackie offers a side comment that I think is worth attention–if only because so many keep making it.

That is, Mackie suggests that religions themselves create the very sense of guilt they claim to cure–and that the relief and elation they offer do not adequately compensate for this pain.

As in nearly every case, Mackie merely suggests this, making it unclear whether he’s actually claiming it (without defending the idea) or simply mentioning it in passing. It isn’t until the end of each section, when he often declares that a line of argument is completely defeated, that it becomes clear that he was actually making claims.

But others have been quite a bit more bold in making this accusation of religious traditions, if no more able to make a legitimate case for it.

Of course there are particular religious groups, sects, and leaders that have done this very thing. I don’t know of anyone who denies that guilt has been abused.

But to say that this is somehow universal strikes me as completely strange–and I’ve never seen a legitimate psychological study which supports the idea that religion in general increases feelings of guilt.

In fact, it’s pretty obvious that all thoughtful people realize that we can and should be much better than we are. It only makes sense that our belief systems will reflect this fact.

I suspect that part of the problem here is simple appeal to novelty. The common-sense idea that people aren’t as good as we should be just isn’t as exciting as conspiracy theories about evil Popes wringing their hands in glee over causing pain. But there is, I think, at least one more factor.

We happen to be living in a time where guilt is often scorned as one of the great evils. Like all eras, we make a point to remember those times and places which best illustrate our beliefs. We know all about excesses and abuses of guilt. We seem to almost studiously ignore the fact that a lack of guilt is also very dangerous.

Though it would be healthier to seek a balance here, it is much more in line with the popular narrative to demand that guilt is some unnatural thing foisted upon us by religion. But those who demand evidence before believing a thing should reject that view out of hand.


Materialists Don’t Believe in Matter


“We only know the intrinsic character of events elsewhere. They may be just like the events that happen to us, or they may be totally different in strictly unimaginable ways. All that physics gives us is certain equations giving abstract properties of their changes. But as to what it is that changes, and what it changes from and to – as to this, physics is silent.”

-Bertrand Russel

To say that color, sound, taste, etc, as common sense understands these things, is not a property of material objects (but only exist in our minds), and that all there really is to matter is what physics tells us about it, is to (implicitly) reject materialism.

The reason is fairly simple: To say that matter doesn’t actually have these other properties (that scientists set aside when doing experiments) is just another way of saying that these properties are immaterial. Once one has done that, one is committed to some kind of cartesian dualism (whether one likes it or not).

This is for the very simple fact that science doesn’t operate without the sensations of the mind that materialists dismiss as not being part of matter. Theories, or any kind of explanation, cannot exist without reference to these properties. If one is going to say that these aren’t part of matter, then say that nothing more than matter exists, one dismisses science.

The only way to dismiss the cartesianism that materialists passionately mock is to find a way of saying that these extra traits, which are ignored by physics, are actually properties of matter after all.

Of course, many materialists think they have this answer in neuroscience. They seem to think that science will one day explain how these ideas arise from the brain. Personally, I’m convinced that neuroscience will one day explain much about the causal processes in the brain. But it simply cannot explain things that, as a science, it is forbidden to take into account.

Which is exactly where this started. And we can’t solve a problem using the same method that created the problem in the first place. Science (neuroscience as much as any other) ignores qualia (sensations as common sense understands them). It can record what brain-processes tend to be associated with people claiming (verbal behavior) to experience particular qualia. It cannot describe them. It leaves that to writers and other artists.

But there is always the option that Russell suggests: putting these extra things back into our concept of matter, and to quit demanding that the picture of reality given to us by physics is exhaustive.

After all, that demand is philosophical, not scientific. No scientific test on it has ever been (or could ever be) done on it. Those who demand that scientific evidence should be required before forming a belief should definitely reject this claim that there are no properties of matter other than what physics studies.

The trouble with this is that it means the abandonment of materialism. Once one is willing to accept that the properties of matter revealed by experience offer us information about the physical not offered by science (and, indeed, which science depends on), one is moving back toward a premodern view of the world–and all the arguments for theism that go with it. But that is the only way to believe in matter without believing in a cartesian view of the soul.

In general, passionate materialists respond to this argument as they do to many others: by appealing to the unknown. Who knows what the answer is, but they are “okay with not knowing”, and apparently are confident that the answer will be a better fit with materialism than the alternatives.

Personally, I don’t see a logical difference between being okay with not knowing, in this sense, and appealing to magic. But, on a more personal level, this makes a certain amount of sense. All roads before us, if one follows the path of logic, lead to theism.

The only way to maintain one’s atheism, in this case, is to stand at the intellectual crossroads and be “okay with not knowing”.

Materialsm or Your Lying Eyes

groucjoAfter defending the argument from evil, Mackie turns to the theistic argument from religious experience. This is probably the argument that comes the closest to the average theist’s reasons for believing: some personal experience of the divine presence. Though it is not an often used argument in academic discussions, it warrants attention for this reason.

I entered the chapter expecting to largely agree with Mackie. I expected that he’d focus on the entirely reasonable point that one person’s experience is not necessarily evidence to another (though even this isn’t really right). But he didn’t seem interested in doing so. Rather, he precedes to argue that having a religious experience is not a good reason to become a theist.

He does so first by posing the question as to whether or not such experiences are real. Of course, all people agree that it is possible to have artificial experiences (hallucinations or the like), but this is not much of an argument on its own.

That is, anyone who eats and moves in the real world implicitly agrees that one should take experience for valid unless there is a reason to suspect it.

As such, Mackie has the burden of proof on this particular point, but it is not clear whether he understands this.

As is often the case with Mackie, goalposts seem to shift around as he writes. He points out that people have experiences of different, contradictory beliefs (referencing the different religions of the world). Of course, this is a genuine issue for any particular religion. What it is not is a reason to be an atheist. After all, people disagree on matters of fact all the time; saying that people disagree doesn’t prove that all of them are wrong.

Evidence for one religion is indeed evidence against another. What it is not is evidence for atheism, and the “many religions” argument really adds up to no more than variations on this logical fallacy.

Mackie, however, moves on to better points. He claims that there are other explanations for religious experience–namely, the subconscious. This definitely shows the trends of his time; today we’d speak in terms of evolutionary psychology (though I’m not convinced that’s an improvement).

The trouble with this is that it proves too much. One can use the same argument to “disprove” any experience whatsoever. This is the classic case for solipsism. We can explain all experience in terms of subconscious motivations, or evolutionary spin-off, or useless epiphenominon, or mad scientists stimulating your disembodied brain, or whatever fanciful idea one prefers. That doesn’t remotely mean that the universe is all an illusion.

But, if it doesn’t, then the same sort of explanations don’t mean than any particular experience is invalid. We don’t know that hallucinations are invalid not because we can explain them in terms of the unconscious (that’s quite a bit harder than it sounds, anyway), but because they are inconsistent with our other experiences.

But Mackie can’t seem to point to anything about religious experiences as such that are inconsistent with our other experience. Assuming one has a religious experience, one is perfectly rational to accept it as valid.

This is why many religious people feel a little like Holocaust survivors listening to denials of the event. Claiming that we can explain why a group of oppressed people would have an emotional desire to invent such stories–or even come to believe in them does not remotely give a survivor good reason to deny the Holocaust. It is blatantly ad hoc.

And it definitely doesn’t appreciate that the deniers, too, have emotional motivations for their position.

But if this doesn’t answer the question of validity, what does? Even if it isn’t a case for atheism, religious experiences do often contradict one another. What of that?

This is where I agree with Mackie. He points out that all such experiences happen in a context, and are interpreted in terms of the individual’s prior knowledge. I think there is great cause to be careful about what such experiences actually say in terms of particular doctrines and beliefs.

It is far too easy to presume that a particular doctrine is true because one’s religious experience that has been interpreted in a particular way. All of the most spiritual people I know have advised caution in reaching too many conclusions on these grounds.

And that is the answer, I think. No one is making the argument that such experience, considered in isolation, is a rock-solid proof of any highly-specific theology. Rather it is taken as evidence for the spiritual in the same way that any experience is evidence.

It is those who want to overstep the bounds of that experience, and extrapolate wildly (like some theists do with their experiences, and some atheists do when watching science documentaries) who are making the mistake. Those who simply report an experience of the spiritual.

As hard as it is to imagine anyone who takes a careful approach taking this as proof of minor doctrinal points, it is much harder to imagine a fair-minded person concluding that her spiritual experience is to be completely dismissed as evidence of anything.

And that is precisely what Mackie is asking those who have had such experiences to do–and without offering any clear reason why.

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.