Raving materialists and their nonsense
(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)
|Francisco de Goya's The Madhouse. Source: Wikipedia.|
Today I did something mildly exciting: I went to a militant materialist website and rattled the cage a bit. I felt the need to expose the scandalously flawed logic of a prominent materialist – a renowned neurologist – who argued that there were survival advantages for the brain to have evolved consciousness. These were his original points:
- The brain needs to pay attention and subjective experience is required for attention.
- The brain needs a way to distinguish a memory from an active experience. Therefore, memories and active experiences must 'feel' different subjectively.
- Behavior conducive to survival requires motivation and, therefore, emotion.
So I went to their site and expressed the above. What followed was an assault by materialists. I reproduce the exchange below, in an edited and re-written form, for your entertainment. The questions were the attempts by materialists to defeat my argument. The answers are my counterarguments. The exchange was useful in that it illustrates very well the situation we face in our culture today: although materialists like to think of themselves as taking the rational high-ground, many suffer from an acute breakdown in simple clear thinking.
Q: There is strong evolutionary adaptive value for attention, for we can only do one thing at a time with our bodies.
A: Attention, as per the definition implied in your question, is simply the ability of an organism to optimize the utilization of its limited cognitive resources. That can be accomplished entirely without subjective experience, for it is merely a computational task. Subjective experience is not required for focusing an organisms resources on priority tasks.
Q: You are assuming a divide between objective/subjective things that does not exist.
A: The neurologist's argument is that there are survival advantages for consciousness to have evolved. If consciousness had to evolve – presumably from something unconscious – then initially consciousness wasn’t there. Clearly, thus, the original argument assumes the divide you talk about: initially everything was objective, and then subjectivity evolved later. Therefore, it's not me who is assuming the divide, but the neurologist who articulated the initial argument.
Q: I also don’t understand this divide between objective and subjective. To me, it’s just a change in perspective: 'objective' is essentially watching a computer’s processes from a second-person perspective. Subjective experience is the first-person perspective of those processes.
A: I don’t think there is a divide at all. I also think it’s all a matter of perspective: observation from within and from without. But now notice: if perspective entails subjective experience, and there is no divide, than idealism follows logically. That said, and to repeat myself, it's the neurologist's original argument that requires the objective/subjective divide. You guys can’t have it both ways. The moment one argues that it was useful for consciousness to have 'evolved' (presumably out of something initially unconscious), you are implying a divide. Otherwise, consciousness was there from the beginning. So you either agree with the neurologist's argument and accept the divide, or you reject the divide and reject this nonsense talk of consciousness having 'evolved.' What evolved were mechanisms of attention and classification, not consciousness. Consciousness was there from the start.
Q: Well, clearly consciousness evolved out of something unconscious: even if you classify all life as conscious, it evolved from non-life, which is clearly unconscious.
A: That’s where you guys contradict yourselves. First, there are all these righteous claims that the divide between consciousness and matter is artificial, dualist nonsense, woo, and what not. Then you turn around and say 'but hey, of course consciousness arose out of something unconscious, since life evolved out of non-life.' I find it all very amusing. You guys can’t have it both ways. Which one is it? Did consciousness evolve out of unconscious matter, or is the divide between consciousness and unconscious computers fallacious woo? The problem here is this: you keep on thinking that consciousness is in the brain, as opposed to the brain in consciousness. And since the brain obviously evolved out of not-brain, then you guys get all mixed up.
Q: Conscious animals evolved from non-conscious ones, though I would speculate this was gradual and there is no woo-divide between consciousness and computers. They are in no way incompatible.
A: A 'very gradual' logical contradiction is still a logical contradiction. If consciousness arose out of unconsciousness, there is a divide in the sense that something new has emerged out of something else, very slowly as the case may be. Otherwise, either consciousness was there all along or it still doesn’t exist today. The latter, of course, is absurd.
Q: What makes idealism meaningfully different from materialism?
A: According to idealism, your body/brain system is in your consciousness. According to materialism, your consciousness is in your body/brain system.
Q: It sounds like a recipe for solipsism.
A: It may sound like it, but it isn’t it. I spend a lot of space in my new book rejecting solipsism.
Q: A subjective viewpoint that can differentiate between memory and reality, illusion and reality, by way of feeling (which is really another way of evaluating) has an evolutionary advantage over one that can’t.
A: If you accept that there is a divide between consciousness and unconsciousness, then differentiation between memory and reality can be done by an unconscious computer. It can be computationally accomplished through tagging, which is done routinely in artificial intelligence systems. This differentiation is no basis whatever for claiming that consciousness provides a survival advantage. Now, if you don’t accept the divide and consider that everything is conscious to some degree, then you are contradicting the neurologist's original argument.
Q: What about the correlations between consciousness and brain states? What does idealism say about that?
A: The brain/body system is an image in consciousness of a process of localization of consciousness. This is analogous to how a whirlpool is an image in water of a process of localization of water. For the same reason that a whirlpool doesn’t generate water, the brain doesn’t generate consciousness. Now, the image of a process, obviously, correlates very well with the inner-workings of the process. You can infer a lot about combustion by watching flames safely from a distance. If the brain is the image of a process of consciousness localization, the first-person view of consciousness should correlate very well with what can be seen in that image from the outside, for the same reason that a lot about combustion can be inferred by watching flames.
Q: Why does my consciousness get drowsy when I take a medication that causes drowsiness?
A: Do you have any problem making sense of the fact that your thoughts (processes in consciousness) influence your emotions (other processes in consciousness)? Probably not. After all, what problem is there that a process in consciousness influences another process in consciousness, right? Now, you take a drug and feel drowsy. Under idealism, the drug is a process in consciousness (what else could it be?). It affects another process in consciousness (your alertness). The situation is entirely analogous to thoughts influencing emotions. What’s the problem there? If you see one, you are letting dualism creep in unnoticed.
Q: I’m confused by your terminology. The brain is an 'image'? It’s clearly a physical thing, currently in my skull…
A: Why is the physical thing in your skull not an image? Can you know a physical thing through anything but its images? (Here, I use the word 'image' in the broad sense of any percept.) A whirlpool is a very recognizable thing too. It’s right there in the water. You can point at it and say 'there it is!' You can even delineate its boundaries. It’s a very physical thing. Yet, it’s an image. In that sense, so is the brain.
Q: On what basis do you conclude that everything is conscious?
A: I don’t. I strongly reject that everything is conscious. It is materialists that often believe that. I think panpsychism is animism in disguise; a bad fairytale. There is precisely zero empirical evidence that any inanimate thing is conscious to any degree whatever. I see no reason to believe in that. But I do think that everything is in consciousness, which is a very different thing to say. Why do I believe that? Because it’s the primary datum of knowledge. Anything you knew, know, or will ever know is in your consciousness. Things outside consciousness are abstractions beyond knowledge. I prefer to stick to the most parsimonious explanation of reality that still can make sense of all the data available, and that is that all is in consciousness (not that all is conscious!).
Q: Most inanimate things would be at an extremely low level of consciousness compared to humans, but they do process information.
A: If you say that consciousness is information processing, you’re rendering the word 'consciousness' useless. That’s a rhetorical fallacy. Even Christoph Koch, who endorses Tononi’s Information Integration Theory of consciousness, rejects that consciousness is information processing, although he accepts that it is strongly correlated with information processing.
Q: Living things use their consciousness for survival and reproduction purposes. Computers use their consciousness for other purposes. There is a range of variation in levels of consciousness, from very simple ones up to complex ones like human consciousness. What’s so bad about that?
A: It implies panpsychism. That is, it implies that there is something it is like to be a chair, or a vacuum cleaner. In fact, it implies that there is something it is like to be parts of the vacuum cleaner, and combinations and permutations thereof, and… you get my point. The problem I see with it is that there is precisely zero empirical evidence that vacuum cleaners (or atoms) are conscious. To me, this is an attempt to make nature conform to theory, as opposed to theory conform to nature.
Q: Your idealism doesn’t sound very parsimonious because you’re effectively positing a new, more complex entity seemingly for the purpose of simulating a materialist universe.
A: Do you accept that there is such thing as consciousness? If you do, that’s all I postulate. This consciousness isn’t 'simulating' anything; it's simply doing what it does, and what it does happens to be the universe. This requires postulating no more complexity than materialism, for materialism also requires that irreducible laws of nature create the universe. It's we who invented the metaphysics of materialism as an interpretation of the patterns and regularities of nature. Nature simply does what it does. And clearly, as far as we can ever know for sure, it is in consciousness.
Q: If it's all a simulation playing itself out in mind, why can't we go through walls?
A: You’re projecting your prejudices and misinterpretations onto what I am saying. There is nothing in what I am saying that denies that nature unfolds according to the stable patterns and regularities that we’ve come to call the laws of physics. There is nothing in idealism that denies that, if you jump out of a window, you will fall. Idealism states that everything is in consciousness, not that everything is under the control of your egoic volition. Even large segments of your own psyche clearly aren't under the control of your egoic volition, otherwise nobody would ever have nightmares, or psychoses, or neuroses of any kind.
Q: I find your worldview unnecessarily 'meta.'
A: Materialism is the 'meta' worldview here, in the sense that it postulates an entire, completely abstract universe fundamentally outside the primary datum of knowledge, which is subjective experience. If anything, idealism is a rejection of the 'meta;' that is, a rejection of metaphysical abstractions.
Q: Your theory predicts the same things materialism does. I don’t see any additional explanatory or predictive power from asserting that the universe is mental.
A: Under idealism, when you die the story you call your ego or personal identity will die too, but not your fundamental subjectivity. Under materialism, on the other hand, all consciousness should cease upon physical death. That’s but one difference in the predictions of idealism and materialism. In my latest book, I elaborate extensively on how they differ in their implications, and offer empirical evidence for the predictions of idealism.
Q: Let me see if I’ve got this straight: there’s some complex collective mind-thing that is simulating a world in order to provide us with experiences which are exactly consistent with what they would be if materialism were true, to the point that our consciousnesses are also affected in a manner consistent with materialism.
A: There is no 'simulation' of materialism going on nor any attempt at deception. These are your own complex prejudices that you are projecting onto the very simple things I am saying. My claim is that reality is exactly what it seems to be: a process in consciousness. Colors, tastes, flavors, are all the real thing, and the world we see is not inside our heads. Materialism, on the other hand, states that color, sound, flavor, and all the qualities of experience exist only inside your head. The real world ‘outside’ is supposedly an amorphous, colorless, tasteless arena of dancing fields, akin to a mathematical equation, lacking all qualities of experience. It’s materialism that states that the real world is very different from what it seems. Idealism states the opposite.
All in all, it is useful to engage militant materialists from time to time. It gives striking insight into how a worldview that is so wrong manages to keep such a hold on the intellects of so many: it blinds you, immerses you in an unfathomable but insidious network of abstractions, hidden assumptions, and prejudices that infects every aspect of your thinking and judgement. It literally makes you unable to see simple and self-evident things right under your nose. It makes you project your own preconceptions, expectations, and misunderstandings onto everything others are saying, so you also become unable to listen. Deaf and blind, one can't escape the cage. It's surreal.