Ignorance: the surprising thing materialism has going for it

There is a strange feeling I get every now and then, which is difficult to explain: sometimes, when I get objective confirmation of some conclusion I had already drawn, I get the feeling that I, in fact, hadn't really drawn the conclusion properly before; at least not as assuredly as when the confirmation comes. At that moment, the conclusion suddenly feels so much more vivid and truer that whatever reasons I had to believe it before seem hazy in comparison. I think to myself, "I thought I knew this, but only now do I really know it!" Can you sense what I mean?

Anyway, this has happened to me a couple of times over the past couple of weeks, as I found myself doing an exposé of eliminativism and illusionism—the ridiculous notions that consciousness doesn't exist. More specifically, I sought to refute the incoherent arguments of neuroscientist Michael Graziano and philosopher Keith Frankish. It was when Graziano attempted to reply to my criticisms that I got the strange feeling I tried to describe above: I thought to myself, "this guy really, really does not know what consciousness is! He just doesn't have the capacity to introspect and self-reflect enough to recognize his own raw awareness."

I am not going to repeat my rejoinder to Graziano here; it's available online. What I want to share now is how I personally experienced what he said. A part of me fully expected the kind of reaction I got from him: conceptual obfuscation, hand-waving, liberal ad hominem to replace the lack of actual argument, complete failure to address the points in contention, etc. I mean, what could one expect from someone who claims his consciousness "doesn't happen," right?

But another part of me was very sincerely baffled, surprised by the living confirmation of what had been for me, up until that point, more like an abstract conclusion from reasoning than direct experience. I mean, it's one thing to know rationally that the emperor must have no clothes; but it's another thing entirely to see the emperor standing naked right in front of you. It's one thing to know the man must be confused; but it's another thing altogether to watch him babble incoherently in front of you and think, "this is actually happening."

Graziano is a Princeton neuroscientist, mind you; a Princeton neuroscientist who made the cover of New Scientist magazine only a few months ago. And he doesn't seem able to meta-cognize his own awareness; doesn't seem to understand what the 'hard problem of consciousness' is all about and why it is unavoidable under materialist premises. Not only that, he is a Princeton neuroscientist who couldn't even weave a conceptually consistent counter-argument in his 'reply' of little more than 800 words. To me this is... well, scary. Our emperors are parading proudly in front of us, but they really have no clothes. Watch carefully, ignore the posturing cacophony around you, and you shall see it in horror.

The whole thing made me think of two old friends of mine, with whom I now have—unfortunately—little contact. Both are hardcore computer scientists: they were my colleagues many years ago. Both are very competent and knowledgeable in what they do. One is also very erudite when it comes to the arts and the classics. In summary, two highly intelligent and educated human beings. Yet, both are self-declared hardcore materialists. Both—just like Graziano—consider any non-materialist metaphysical position mystical woo.

This has always puzzled me. Only over the years did I slowly begin to realize how two otherwise intelligent people can be so biased against much more reasonable metaphysics: the problem is not that they don't understand these other metaphysics; the problem is that they don't understand materialism.

Once I made a passing comment to one of my friends, about the eliminativist idea that the brain deceives itself into thinking it is conscious. My friend looked at me with wide-open eyes, as if he had just had an 'Aha' moment, and said: "Yes! Of course! This must be it!" Here was an idea he deeply wanted to believe. "Don't you see the elegance of this explanation?" he continued. He had finally found a way to circumvent what he couldn't make sense of: the origin of consciousness.

I just stared at my friend in utter disbelief, and then had a sudden insight: "he doesn't know what consciousness is..." I thought. But then, immediately,  a deeper insight: "No, it's more than that: what he doesn't know is what matter is! He thinks it's consciousness!" It became clear to me that, when I said 'consciousness,' my friend associated the word not with his experience of hearing me say it, but instead with some private conceptual abstraction of his own mind. For him, the abstraction was so self-evident that it went completely unexamined; he couldn't even recognize it as an abstraction. And so it was impossible to continue the conversation.

Not that long ago, I was talking to my other friend while having a beer with him in my backyard. The conversation had drifted to metaphysics and I asked him: "Isn't it strange to think that, according to materialism, all this [I pointed to the flowers, bees and trees around us] is created inside our skull?" The reference, of course, was to the qualities of experience—such as colors and smells—which materialism says are created by our brains and don't exist in the world beyond our skull. He paused and looked at me as if I had just said something unholy and totally incomprehensible. Finally, with obvious exasperation, he asked: "What the hell can you possibly mean? All this stuff [pointing to my backyard] is out there; obviously it's not just inside our heads." I tried to explain what I meant, but to no avail.

It was clear that, according to my friend's private, implicit 'materialism,' colors, melodies, flavors, textures, etc., are all really out there; there is nothing else the objective world can be. I suspect that he implicitly believes the brain creates only thoughts and emotions, not the qualities of perception. This, of course, not only deviates from any coherent formulation of materialism, it is a metaphysical contradiction in and of itself (for a more elaborate explanation of this claim, see this post).

And so I finally come to my point: I think the strongest thing materialism has going for it is that most materialists do not actually understand or recognize what materialism entails and implies. Materialism is so blatantly absurd that most materialists—I strongly suspect—replace it with one or another private, implicit misapprehension of it in their own minds, which circumvents some of the absurdities at the price of internal contradictions conveniently overlooked. In other words, it is the naked implausibility of materialism that—ironically—makes it seem credible, for the implausibility forces us to unwittingly misinterpret materialism in whatever way seems to make sense to us.

Compounding the problem, many people—even otherwise intelligent ones—don't appear able to recognize the nature of their own raw awareness through self-reflective introspection. For this reason, they conflate matter with the qualities of experience, just as my friend thought of the colors, sounds and smells of my garden as the thing in itself, instead of mere phenomena produced by the brain. It is precisely this unexamined error that renders materialism plausible to them: they think the material world is the contents of perception (which is actually correct, in my view); never mind the fact that materialism states unequivocally that it isn't.

I can forgive my friends: they are computer scientists, not philosophers or neuroscientists. They are also not picking up a megaphone and shouting to the world that consciousness doesn't exist; their views are their own, they aren't interested in preaching. But when it comes to Graziano and Frankish, things are different. They truly are emperors with no clothes. Their nonsense is toxic, corrosive and pernicious, not only because it is nonsensical, but because—if believed—it could undermine the very foundations of our secular ethics and moral codes. I, for one, will persist in pointing at them and shouting as loud as I can: "Look! They have no clothes!"


  1. You are right. Materialists do not understand materialism but it is all they know. I made a comment to a friend once that people are inclined to uphold personal beliefs that have no foundation in science and that even the notion that light can be both a wave and a particle is incomprehensible to them and has been for over a hundred years. The answer science has for this is in itself mystical, and is more about forcing reality to conform to their materialistic theories. The point here is that rationality in and of itself has failed to produce enduring solutions to some of the most persistent questions about the nature of reality... and yet scientists are still enclined to cling to those nations as though they are life rafts in an ocean. What is mass? What is time? What is spin? What is Charge? These underlie science but yet remain mystical and many hardcore rationalists Ponce around espousing ideas based upon these, like you say... emperors without any clothes. I had a conversation with a Cambridge physics PhD scholar once and his reaction to my questions about some of these ideas was....if you think about these questions and actually discuss them in public, then you'll lose all credibility as a scientist. One must simply, as Feinman said, just shut up and calculate. This Cambridge Scholar was dismissive and ridiculed those who did pose these questions as crazy. Scientists not only don't understand materialism but their lack of understanding is what is keeping it alive. They can't understand that Physics is just a subset of a larger understanding. This is the last hurdle to freedom of information about the nature of reality and it has more to do with their fear of being irrelevant than anything else.

  2. Many years ago I read the book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". In it the author speaks of two people climbing to the top of a mountain. They leave from the exact same place at the exact same time and arrive at the top at the exact same place and time. However their reported experiences are totally different because one was climbing the mountain to prove that he could do it the other wanted to see the view from the top. Bernardo I realize you associate with tremendously sophisticated intellects that have the capacity and the desire to weave extremely complex narratives about life, religion, consciousness etc. I too at one time had those people in my life. For the last 10 years I have lived up on top of a mountain in Ecuador with people that for example when discussing my time working in Hong Kong wanted to know if the people in Hong Kong spoke English or Spanish since my poor Spanish is a source of constant amusement for my friends. Their narratives about life are extremely simple. They all consider themselves Catholic while having little or no idea what that means from a theological perspective. They see a priest maybe twice a year. However they too have people that I consider similar to the people you are referring to. So for me the issue is not their ability to conceptualize the picture you paint but the desire to see it is lacking. It's like they got to the top of the mountain and put a bag over their heads and refuse to see the view and try as you might it is hell to get them to take that bag off. One of the things that you said rings so true to me. When I was watching you give a talk somewhere and you had opened the discussion for questions and answers from the audience someone asked you if you were trying to "convert" people. And your response was basically along the lines of, "No my desire is not to convert people. The people I am trying to reach already know what I am saying is true. I had one of those moments you were talking about in the first paragraph of this discussion. It provided me a moment of tremendous clarity. I have for a very long time adopted a "If you have to ask the question you won't understand the answer." Not in the attitude of being dismissive but from the recognition that until someone wants to take that bag off and see the incredible view from the top it is a fool's errand to try and make them. However there are many, many people that see the view but don't understand what it is they are seeing and are sort of stuck in their personal growth because the picture is so confusing or maybe even frightening that you have a tremendous capacity to help. For someone that seems to have little desire to have a teacher you have become one. When I taught high school for 4 years some of my students saw me as a wonderful teacher partly because I brought so much life experience to the party. They had only known professional teachers that had basically been in school all of their lives either as students or teachers. I would always clarify to them that I was not a teacher but I am a person that teaches. To me that is what you do.

  3. I find this 'naked emperor' phenomenon to be very dispiriting. I have not attained a high level of academic qualification, and for that reason my friends tend to raise their eyebrows when I bring up the case for idealism. Yet they would no doubt regard Graziano as an intellectual authority. The sad conclusion that I draw from this is that our society is still hopelessly dependent on establishment orthodoxy to validate its worldview. On the other hand, I also sense there is a strange vacuum in our contemporary zeitgeist, something akin to bewilderment and apathy about what is really going on. People seem reluctant to even discuss these matters anymore, at least in the UK. Perhaps we have reached peak nihilism, and the ground is now fertile for the consideration of a new perspective. How long can we really lumber on in this empty materialist paradigm?

  4. I learn so much from all your articles and writings, Bernardo. Many thanks.
    I wonder how surprising it really is, this incapacity to see materialism for the sham that it is. After all, as soon as one begins to open up the metaphysical closet door to see what's behind, one finds nothing material at all there behind it but just pure thought. How comforting can that be to someone who believes he lives and breathes in a material world? Not very. I wonder if this incapacity to consider opening the door is not an unconscious reaction to the even deeper knowledge, owned by all, that there is indeed nothing there, no matter, no solid, independant universe and hence "no body" to identify with and consider one's personal home. In my work, presenting the idealist world to beginners on the philosophical path, there's a moment when I see a block appearing in the mind of the listener. At that moment, I know I've hit his fear barrier. It's a primal level of fear, beyond his conscious awareness. I believe that staunch materialists cling desperately to their undefendable precepts simply in order to survive psychologically. It's a question of life and death: life in a materialist universe (where he has a chance of existing comfortably as an independent body) or death by drowning and disappearing in some idealist soup. The fear of not living in an independent, physical world is so great that the fear remains inaccessible, altering the perceptions and rational processes of the person in such a way that the person is not even slightly conscious of it occurring. It's almost like the more we push, the more fear this generates, the harder they will push back. But push we must. Bon courage.

    1. Your detailed portrait of the true believer looks an awful like ANY true believer, and here I'm thinking of politics. Fear is the thing behind any strident voice, often unacknowledged, sometimes not.

  5. Your target, those who claim consciousness does not exist, is an easy one to demolish. Except that those who espouse these views have had considerable success in somehow gaining authority.

    Be that as it may, I note with great approval that you recognize that, "if believed—it could undermine the very foundations of our secular ethics and moral codes.". Yes, it would reduce us to the status of robots. I have a similar reaction to the related denial by these uber-materialists that we have free will. A belief that we do not would make it easy to do nothing in the face of violations of ethical and moral codes, thereby exacerbating and prolonging these violations.

  6. I was a hardcore materialist and atheist until, sometime in my late teens, I woke up one morning and everything just seemed different. Much brighter, but without making me have to squint. Much sharper, but without being able to actually see more detail (somehow). And just...bigger, like the way a basketball hoop seems bigger when you're "in the zone".

    It was truly amazing, and there are many more details that I don't need to get into here. But over the next few years, whenever I thought of that day, I thought of it as "The Best Day of My Life". Still, my staunch materialism wasn't challenged in the least.

    so that was all cool and everything, but a few years later in my early twenties while remembering that day, it suddenly hit me: How am I actually experiencing this? What the f**k is an "experience"? How could ANY physical process be causing this...thing that is having this experience? This...Experiencer? This...thing called "Me"!

    Something about that "Best Day of My Life" was more real than reality! And it was something about that "real-ness" that made it click for me--five years later (for some reason)!

    My point is that I was NEVER close-minded when I was a staunch materialist. I was, in fact, very open-minded. I just couldn't "see" my own consciousness for some reason, like how you can go months without ever noticing that your nose is in your visual field pretty much every time you open your eyes.

    And because of this, I'm somewhat sympathetic to the "consciousness deniers". I mean, they're not *necessarily* close-minded or dogmatic, they just need someone to figure out how to draw their attention to the ever-present "nose" on their "face". There's got to be a way to do that...DMT, maybe? 🤔

    I'm still an atheist, although I think some kind of "Cosmic Mind" is much more likely to exist than not. So my friends would probably consider me to not be a "real" atheist, but so what?