Truth, Reality and Illusion within Philosophical Materialism

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Materialist ThinkerTrue atheists have an undying unbridled commitment to philosophical naturalism, and usually also to its fraternal twin, philosophical materialism. Though there is a distinction between the two, the commitment to one typically (not always) implies the commitment to the other. Despite any lip service paid to understanding truth and erecting the pretense of vying for the proper understanding of reality, the one overarching modus operandi of the true atheist is to first adopt and cherish philosophical materialism – the position that physical objects are the only things that truly exist. Materialism is the golden child that can do no wrong. It is loved despite its wanton ignorance, temper tantrums, and outright rebellion against the human condition. It is the first option, and only option, for fervent evangelists of atheism; yes, atheists have evangelists too. What these people try to convince others of, is that material reality is the only reality, and therefore, at its core all of material reality is eternal, self-existent, self-sufficient, meaningless, purposeless blunt brute trauma.

Now, some arguments for atheism are much stronger than others, and in some cases, such as God’s hiddenness, sometimes fairly compelling on at least some level. On occasion, however, one gets a glimpse of the dire situation of atheism when its learned proponents are adopting and espousing self-refuting positions. Such is the case with Dr. Alex Rosenberg as was apparent in his debate with Christian philosopher, Dr. William Lane Craig, on February 1, 2013.

Rosenberg began his opening statement of the debate by saying, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I hope you didn’t pay money to come to tonight’s debate” (38:31), an obvious jab at Dr. William Lane Craig, a disparaging ad hominem meant to undermine his credibility right off the bat. After a few moments of similar disparaging sentiments having little to do with the substance of the debate, Rosenberg continued,

“Is Dr. Craig infallible or does he just not listen? Probably the latter. He probably doesn’t listen to what his interlocutors have suggested. And I don’t think he listens because he’s really not interested in getting at the truth. He’s interested in scoring debate points.” (39:13-39:33) (emphasis added)

and again,

“Philosophy and theology don’t proceed in a courtroom style debate. We’re engaged in a cooperative search for the truth, both theists and atheists, not an adversarial contest for victory.” (40:05) (emphasis added)

This was a qualm Rosenberg had about the format of the debate; he suggested that he’d much prefer the format to be one in which there was a back-and-forth discussion. The preference of the format noted, our primary concern at the moment however, is pointing out Rosenberg’s usage of the word “truth” as the propositional correspondence to reality. During the debate Rosenberg pointed out that he had clarified his many positions, mainly those of his scientism, in his recent book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality. But it took until the end of the debate for the implications of his positions, especially those on intentionality (or aboutness) and truth to be fully realized. The final question during the Q & A came from a young man who had an interesting observation:

“Dr. Rosenberg, I wonder if you might help me to understand how your view is not incoherent. Do you really claim in your book that sentences have no meaning or truth value, even the sentences in your own book? How is that not incoherent and self-refuting? At least the sentences you’ve made tonight surely you think are true. But if even you don’t think that your position is true, why should we?” (2:40:42-2:41:19)

A very interesting question, but Rosenberg’s answer was even more so as he read from his book citing a section titled “The Brain Does Everything Without Thinking at All.”

“Introspectionists screaming that thought has to be about stuff, and philosophers [and you] are muttering, denying it as ‘crazy, worse than self-contradictory, it’s incoherent!’ According to you. Rosenberg. neither spoken sentences, nor silent ones in thought express statements. They aren’t about anything. That goes for every sentence in this book. It’s not about anything. Why are we bothering to read it?…

Look, if I am going to get scientism into your skull I’m going to have to use the only tools we’ve got for moving information from one head to another, noises, inkmarks, pixels, treat the illusions that go with them like the optical illusions of the previous chapter, a chapter in which I said, ‘don’t trust consciousness because it’s mainly mistaken.’

This book isn’t conveying statements. It’s rearranging neural circuits. It’s removing inaccurate disinformation, and replacing it with accurate information. Treat it as correcting maps as opposed to erasing sentences. ” (2:41:19…)

And after taking off his glasses and lowering the book a bit, Rosenberg continued to defend his position,

“Now, there’s a big business in philosophy about the nature of semantics and about how intentionality is realized, and I ain’t so stupid as to contradict myself in the puerile way that you’re suggesting. What you gotta do is read the book to figure out the answer…Neuroscience shows us that intentionality is just an overlay like so much of the rest of our common sense views about reality, including the belief that the earth is standing still because things just fall directly to the ground.”

Rosenberg’s argument is not only that thoughts, actions, and lives have no ultimate point or purpose, but something far more fundamentally crippling, namely that intentionality (or “aboutness”) is an illusion. Intentionality is the way in which we have mental concepts about certain objects, materials places, events etc. The difficulty for materialism is that in a world of mere materials, the brain is nothing more than materials, and one material object cannot possibly have aboutness of other material objects of any kind. Materialists may offer various explanations for this ranging from ‘we do not know yet’ to what Rosenberg opts for, namely that intentionality is an illusion, and that the brain simply does these mental processes in a very physical way through nothing more than natural processes that we all mistake for conscious determinations. This means that our thoughts about beings, objects and ideas, as well as the sequences of shapes that make up the words that refer to them are all utterly meaningless. To those who hold this view, the sentences you are reading now are also nothing but meaningless symbols. Those who can see even a single byte of semantic significance in such “markings” as the ones you see on this page, must be under an illusion… or perhaps it is more probable that Rosenberg has just opened his escape hatch of materialism too wide… and fallen out.

Now, it seems to me that if Rosenberg is right, then persuasion by means of logical reasoning is impossible. If our minds are merely consuming and computing meaningless information, or as Rosenberg puts it, “rearranging neural circuits,” then there can be no such thing as reason and logic. If all we are capable of doing is, as Rosenberg puts it, “moving pixels from one head into another” or “there literally is no such thing as linguistic meaning,” then how/why be so doggedly selective about which set of pixels to transfer? If the brain is a deterministic mechanism for simply moving information, what then is the point of argument? And if sending a few pixels to another brain is so void of semantics, how then can we be sure that the brains we’re sending the information to will compute the non-meaningful set of symbols into what our own brain was holding to? Why trust in the uniformity of such information exchange systems? And if there is no purposeful semantic translation being done on the other end in other brains, why even debate? It’s clear why Rosenberg is so enchanted with and committed to his scientism – it is one of the logically consistent implication of materialism.

Ironically however, in order to even come to the conclusion that neuroscience destroys intentionality, one needs intentionality. How else would we as the subject examine our very brains as the object, understand things about our brain using sentences full of what we believe to have truth values and conclude to ourself that we are nothing but the object itself, and that our subjective awareness of the semantically rich self is an illusion? An illusion? Really? News flash – illusions presuppose intentionality since they offer the position that the subject has mistaken things about reality! There is after all a set of truth claims about reality, namely the truth about intentionality, which are supposedly giving us an inaccurate picture of reality. Thus, to claim intentionality to be an illusion appears to require the use of intentionality. And this is one way to commit “cognitive suicide”1 – propose a view that requires you to smuggle in notions that you are trying to eliminate.

If Rosenberg’s contention is that there are no such thing as truths about objective reality, what exactly was he referring to during his debate when he stated, “I don’t think he listens because he’s really not interested in getting at the truth” and also when he stated, “We’re engaged in a cooperative search for the truth”? Was he complaining that Dr. Craig’s mental processes were simply not cooperating with those of his own? Certainly not! He was complaining (unfairly and without warrant) that Dr. Craig’s arguments about specific concepts, about Dr. Craig’s manner of debate, etc. And however good he is, or anyone else for that matter, at linguistic gymnastics to avoid usage of certain words that would refute his position, there is really no way out of the self-refuting nature of these specific arguments.

Despite Rosenberg’s ferocious and arrogant contentions to the contrary, the claim that there is no truth, no semantic significance in anything, and that intentionality is an illusion are all self-destructive and incoherent since their very conclusions require to be true those very things that those arguments deny. As for Rosenberg’s book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, those purchasing the book may do so for various reasons, including his claims about reality. I’d venture to say that no one is going to purchase the book because the book has, as Rosenberg himself regards, nothing more than meaningless ink blots.

Additional Resources

  1. Baker, Lynne Rudder; Saving Belief

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Cold and Lonel Truth book details You may also be interested in my book, Cold and Lonely Truth, in which I offer various arguments from science, history, archaeology, psychology, etc. in favor of theism, and Christianity in specific.