Five ways materialists beg the question
(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)
|Hidden but still visible.|
Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the public domain.
To 'beg the question' is a logical fallacy in which one takes the conclusion of an argument as a premise of the argument. For instance, if one says: 'God exists because the bible says so, and the bible is true because it was written by God,' one is begging the question of God's existence. As such, to beg the question is a kind of circular reasoning. Although the circularity of the reasoning is obvious in the simplistic example I just gave, one often begs the question in an indirect and somewhat hidden manner. In this essay, I want to summarize some of the common ways in which materialists beg the question: that is, the ways in which they argue for the validity of materialism by assuming materialism in the argument. The circularity of their reasoning becomes clear once it's pointed out, but it is astonishing how often educated, intelligent materialists fall for it. The list below is in no particular order of importance or ranking.
1 - 'Our sense perceptions provide direct evidence for a world outside consciousness.' Whatever else they may or may not be, our sense perceptions are certainly a particular modality of conscious experience. Other modalities are thoughts, emotions, and imagination. The difference is that we often identify with our thoughts, emotions, and imagination – that is, we think that our thoughts, emotions, and imagination are part of us – and seldom identify with our sense perceptions – that is, we do not think that the world we see around us is part of us. Moreover, we often have some degree of direct volitional control of our thoughts and emotions, while we do not have any direct volitional control of the world we perceive around us: we cannot change the world merely by wishing it to be different. Therefore, all we can really say about sense perception is that it is a modality of conscious experience that we do not identify with or have direct volitional control of. That's all. When materialists assert that sense perception is direct evidence for a world outside mind, they are assuming that things we do not identify with or have direct volitional control of can only be grounded in a world outside consciousness. This, of course, begs the question.
2 - 'We cannot say that reality is in consciousness because that would require postulating an unfathomably complex entity to be imagining reality.' The hidden assumption here is that consciousness can only exist if it is generated by something else; by an entity outside consciousness, whose complexity must be proportional to the level of consciousness being generated. This is a hardly-disguised way to assume materialism in the first place: to assume that mind must be reducible to complex arrangements of something outside mind. Naturally, when one claims that reality is in consciousness, one is claiming precisely that consciousness is irreducible, primary, fundamental. Consciousness, as such, is not generated by complex entities or, for that matter, by anything outside consciousness: it is simply what is. To say that irreducible consciousness generates reality requires no more complexity and poses no more problems than to say that irreducible laws of physics generate reality. In fact, it poses less problems, since it avoids the hard problem of consciousness altogether.
3 - 'The stability and consistency of the laws of physics show that reality is outside consciousness.' The hidden premise here is that all conscious processes are necessarily somewhat unstable and unpredictable. This would be true only if all conscious processes were tied to neuronal activity, for neuronal activity is often unstable and unpredictable. But that is an implication only of materialism. There is nothing in the statement that all reality is in consciousness requiring that all conscious processes be tied to neuronal activity. There is nothing in it that precludes the possibility that certain processes in the broader, non-personal levels of consciousness unfold according to very stable, strict patterns and regularities that we've come to call the 'laws of nature.' If all reality is in consciousness, then it is brains that are in consciousness, not consciousness in brains. As such, consciousness is not limited or circumscribed by brain activity. To assume so is to beg the question of materialism.
4 - 'Since our minds are separate and we all experience the same external reality, this reality must be outside consciousness.' The idea here is to suggest that, if reality is fundamentally in consciousness, as a kind of collective dream, how come we can all be sharing the same dreamworld, given that our minds are not connected? How can the dream be shared? Naturally, this begs the question entirely: it is only under the notion that our minds are generated by our bodies that we can say that our minds are separate; after all, our bodies are indeed separate. But if reality is in consciousness, then it is our bodies that are in consciousness, not consciousness in our bodies. The fact that our bodies are separate in the canvas of consciousness simply does not imply that our minds are fundamentally separate at the deeper, subconscious levels. To say so is analogous to stating that, because one has two applications open in a computer screen, one must be using two separate computers! It is the application that is in the computer, not the computer in the application. Separate applications do not imply separate computers.
5 - 'We know that subconscious brain activity can determine later conscious experience. For instance, by measuring brain activity neuroscientists can predict a subject's choice before the subject is conscious of making the choice. Therefore, brain activity generates consciousness.' Here, materialists beg the question by equating neuronal processes outside self-reflective awareness with processes outside consciousness. As I elaborate upon in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney (see this freely-available excerpt), our self-reflective awareness amplifies certain contents of consciousness and, thereby, obfuscates others. This is analogous to how the stars become obfuscated in the noon sky by the much stronger glare of the sun. The stars are all still there at noon, their photons still hitting your retina. Strictly speaking, you are still 'seeing' the stars, but you don't know that you are seeing them because they become obfuscated. Similarly, the contents of consciousness that become obfuscated by the 'glare' of egoic self-reflection are all still in consciousness, but you are not conscious that you are conscious of them; that is, you are not self-reflectively aware of them. There is a strong sense in which not knowing that you know something is equivalent to really not knowing it, this being the reason why we think that we are not conscious of certain things when everything is, in fact, in consciousness. The brain activity that neuroscientists can measure to predict a subject's later conscious choices are simply the image of these contents of consciousness that become obfuscated; not their cause. I have elaborated on this notion that the brain is the image – not the cause – of self-localization processes of consciousness in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney. The argument is briefly summarized here.
I personally believe that most materialists beg the question sincerely. They truly are confused: they can't see the circularity of the ways in which the interpret, and then think to confirm their interpretations of, reality. This happens because we live in a culture that has completely lost objectivity: we can't see past the assumptions and beliefs we are immersed in, and indoctrinated into, since childhood. This is all understandable, even though it remains one's personal responsibility – if one is actually interested in truth – to overcome it at some point.
However, when it comes to militant materialists – often scientists – who make it their mission in life to promote the materialist metaphysics, the stakes are much higher. When these people come to the mainstream media and beg the question of materialism so vocally, arrogantly, and blatantly, they are going much beyond doing harm to themselves: they are doing harm to countless others. It is your children, especially those still going through the educational system, who are listening to them with the openness characteristic of those who trust authority and aren't yet ready to evaluate more critically what's being said. Whether these militant materialists are genuinely confused in their question-begging or not is irrelevant: by making the choice to militantly promote the materialist metaphysics, they take on the responsibility of knowing better. After all, ignorance of the law does not entitle anyone to commit the crime. Their actions are damaging and irresponsible. It would be hilarious to watch these people promote idiocy with the hubris of an emperor with no clothes. However, the reality of it is tragic, and something must be done about it.