The Perversity of Materialism

One astonishing feature of the debate about Materialism is that so many of the professional scholars who openly reject metaphysics as a source of truth, (as we must for Materialism), nevertheless promote this metaphysical conjecture in a language which suggests that only a fool could fail to see that it must be true.  These are the same scholars who would normally agree that it is precisely the fool who abandons intellectual analysis for conjecture. It is an odd situation. Alternative ideas to Materialism will often be labelled ‘unscientific’ as if scientists have an insider knowledge of metaphysics unavailable to those metaphysicians who often spend their entire lives studying the issues.

The truth is that the physical sciences can have nothing to say about whether Materialism, the idea that matter is fundamental, is any more plausible than subjective Idealism, the idea that mind is fundamental, and will never be able to falsify either. In physics Materialism and Idealism are untestable as are all fundamental theories. When a person says that they are a materialist or idealist they have left behind the natural sciences and are doing metaphysics and by claiming that Materialism would be the correct solution for Mind/Matter, one of the world’s most famous, ancient and venerable logical dilemmas, they are doing metaphysics very poorly.

In metaphysics Materialism fails. This can be demonstrated and is not a matter of opinion. The idea that it would be a rational metaphysical position to endorse is demonstrably irrational. We can reject metaphysics and rationalism if we like for the sake of a favourite theory but metaphysics is the application of logic and reason to philosophical problems and if we reject it as a means of testing and assessing theories  then we cannot expect anyone to take our philosophical views seriously or for them to make much sense.

Unfortunately, the plausibility of Materialism is not an obscure metaphysical disagreement with few consequences beyond the discipline. Materialism matters. When professional academics, with all their power to influence the minds of young people, argue for this useless and life-denying doctrine this could almost be viewed as a crime against humanity. Professionals are paid to think clearly and honestly about such issues on our behalf and to truthfully report back with their findings. This is not at all what many professional academics do. Nothing like it. Many professional academics publicly endorse Materialism even though for anyone capable of passing an undergraduate degree a little thought would show that it is logically indefensible and utterly useless. For such a person Materialism is not merely a mistake but is a failure to think through the issues. If such a person then chooses to use their professional eloquence to poison the minds of their students by confusing them into thinking that Materialism is a rational theory then this should be a matter for the ethics committee.

It is not difficult to understand why many unscholarly people are materialists these days. The strong views expressed here concern professional academics, not all materialists. I was a materialist on and off for many years because I was unable to think of a better idea, but the faults and weaknesses of Materialism are not hidden and I could see them as a teenager. There is not one philosopher, not one person among its advocates, who can make sense of it. This can be said with confidence as it is a theory that contradicts reason. Materialists should find this no more difficult to verify than their opponents.

Regardless of its blatant faults Materialism is endorsed by many scientists and sometimes vociferously. It seems that these days scientists are no longer expected to be capable philosophers. Indeed, many openly reject philosophy as useless and clearly feel no need to know much about it. Apparently, rather than think carefully through the issues it would be more rational to pick a view out of a hat and ignore the logic of the situation.

It is not as if Materialism makes useful predictions for the natural sciences. In this respect it may be even less useful than string theory. For the natural sciences Materialism is a convenient doctrine, a suspiciously consoling one, precisely because if it is true then this would make no difference at all to the natural sciences. Nobody would notice. These sciences usually assume that it is true anyway so nothing will be gained if this assumption turns out to be justified. If we cannot explain x by assuming the truth of Materialism then we cannot explain x if Materialism is true. So why would a scientist care about Materialism? It is an uninteresting philosophical theory which in addition to being irrational explains nothing. If a scientist endorses it then for what reason can this be other than that they happen to temperamentally suited to it? It cannot be because there is, or ever will be, a shred of scientific evidence for its truth.

Another problem for Materialism is that if it is true then it would be impossible to know it is true. This is an ineluctable implication of the theory. Materialism cannot be tested in physics because every experiment requires an observer and solipsism can never be falsified. It follows that when we say ‘I am a materialist’ we are claiming that we do not know whether Materialism is true. Nobody knows this and nobody ever will. It is a claim of perpetual ignorance.

For a different perspective on the same problem we could observe that Materialism is not a fundamental theory. It says nothing about the origin of matter. Matter would be a brute fact. Materialism is the claim that matter cannot be explained. When we try to extend Materialism as an explanation of the universe and make it fundamental we find that it points beyond itself to a prior non-material source and thus contradicts itself. The alternative to this contradiction is an infinite regress of fields on fields and it might as well be turtles on turtles for the sense that this idea makes. Accordingly, most scientist who endorse Materialism favour a theory of ex nihilo creation. This theory may make less sense than Creationism and it is even debatable whether it should be called Nihilism but at any rate it is not a fundamental theory or, if it is, it has a rather obvious gap in it where common sense would suggest there ought to be a phenomenon.

It is particularly ridiculous that Materialism leaves open the question of origins and in this way concedes the possibility of a creator God. It makes such a God almost a necessity. Materialism is, therefore, the claim that a creator God might exist. Accordingly, the more we argue for Materialism the easier it becomes to argue that matter is created by God. This leads to a lot of utterly pointless head-banging and no progress. It is as if there has to be a war between science and religion when in fact there is just an unnecessary disagreement between people who usually have a poor grasp of one or the other and often both.

It is not just that Materialism is useless. It is highly obstructive. It may be the most effective barrier to knowledge human beings have ever invented. If Materialism is true then we can never have a systematic fundamental theory. Materialism is logically indefensible and this cannot be a property of a systematic and fundamental theory that is comprehensible to us and thus might seem plausible. If, as some Materialists seem to believe, physics actually requires Materialism, such that physics is incapable of ever conceding the falsity of Materialism, then physics is non-reductive and must remain so forever. The popularity of this metaphysical conjecture in physics reflects not only the low regard in which metaphysics is held but also the limited optimism and confidence of theoretical physicists.

Since Materialism ignores the results of metaphysics it is the conjecture that there would be no point in doing metaphysics. It is the proposition that it would be more rational to pick a metaphysical theory by guesswork, if at all, than to follow a rational procedure for making such decisions.  On average materialists do very little metaphysics, do not take it seriously and may have little to say about it unless it is to dismiss it as nonsense. This approach protects their theory.  For the man on the Clapham omnibus this approach to metaphysics may seem justifiable given the widespread endorsement of Materialism in the scientific community. We tend to trustingly follow the professionals as we do not expect professional scholars to adopt the same inexpert and hands-off approach as us amateurs. Where they do we might reasonably consider this a betrayal of trust and not merely incompetence.

Let us examine the logic of the situation. In order for metaphysics, as a process of logical analysis, to begin, we must assume that universe does not contain true contradictions and that where a theory predicts one this would seal the fate of the theory. This is the way we refute theories in the dialectic logic of metaphysics, by showing that they would predict true contradictions. A true contradiction would be incomprehensible and indistinguishable from a Divine miracle. The metaphysical method, when the time comes to get down to making decisions, is simply the application of the rules of everyday dialectical reasoning as described by Aristotle to questions of first principles. Metaphysics rejects Materialism because it does not survive such an analysis but, rather, proposes that the existence of matter is a logically-contradictory paradox or miracle. But paradoxes and miracles have no place in dialectic logic and rational analysis. Despite its attractiveness in the sciences Materialism is a rejection of logic and reason for the claim that the universe is paradoxical or miraculous and this is not a view that can be taken seriously in philosophy.

None of this proves the falsity of Materialism, of course, only its perversity, but surely this is enough. In philosophy and the sciences it is usually sufficient for the defeat of a theory to show that it gives rise to contradictions. Why should Materialism be exempt from this rule?

It is unfortunate that materialists often assume that to abandon their belief would mean having to become an Evangelical Protestant or Jehovah’s Witness, or at any rate some kind of monotheist, for this leads to a lot of heel-digging resistance to alternative ideas. This assumption must be a consequence of little study of the issues. The failure of Materialism lends some plausibility to religion, even to monotheism, but an objective exoteric faith-reliant monotheism is not necessary to religion. Hence to abandon Materialism it would not be necessary to endorse Theism. In the case of a scholar, someone we would expect to study the issues surrounding their opinions before forming them, such a misunderstanding of religion will most likely be a result of being a materialist, for to adopt the materialist hypothesis requires that we do not study such issues but jump to conclusions. It would be perfectly possible to abandon Materialism and remain an atheist, but if we are a materialist why would we bother to study these issues? Do we see any honest and well-informed analysis of the relationship between metaphysics and religion in books by materialists? Or are such issues usually avoided like the plague?

Perhaps these observations would explain why Materialism, to the understandable annoyance of many of its adherents, is often dismissed by its critics with few words and not much patience. There is simply no point in arguing at length with someone who insists that it is rational to hold a view that is demonstrably absurd. One justification might be that it is difficult to find an alternative view that is not also demonstrably absurd, but if we have so far failed to find such an alternative then the rational response would be agnosticism, the admission that we cannot figure out which view is correct.

There appears to be widespread support for Materialism and this may make it seem a fairly safe bet but perhaps there is not as much support as it might seem at first glance, and what there is lacks substance. The problem begins with a rejection of metaphysics. Many scientists and not an insignificant number of philosophers conclude that metaphysics is a waste of time. Russell, for instance, is outspoken, saying that that no knowledge of the world can be gained in metaphysics. This leaves us free to endorse whatever theory suits us best.  If we take this approach, however, then we will be unable to produce a reasonable argument for any metaphysical position.  All materialists share this problem. They will be aware that their conjecture makes no sense in logic for this would be why they reject metaphysics, but this leaves them unable to make a reasoned case for it. While there may appear to be many eminent scholars who endorse Materialism it is, therefore, a rather lukewarm and insubstantial kind of endorsement, and it is never backed up by any evidence or decisive formal argument.

For reasons already mentioned debates about Materialism are often also debates about Theism. The result is a muddle since the theory that is the complementary opposite of Materialism is subjective Idealism. The Theism-Atheism question would be better approached as an entirely separate debate. Neither Materialism nor Idealism, where these are defined as the two polarities of the famous and ancient philosophical dilemma, make sense in logic. This is why they form an ancient philosophical dilemma. It is only in logic that can we compare the virtues of these two positions and when we do this we see that logic rejects them both. Accordingly, a sound logical argument for Atheism or Theism must begin with the assumption that both Materialism and Idealism are false for otherwise the argument will fail. It would be impossible, therefore, to construct a metaphysically-sound argument against God while endorsing Materialism.

Is it possible that Materialists are right to dismiss metaphysics as a guide to truth? Clearly in their own case they are for metaphysics has not led them to it. But is this a result that can be generalised to all metaphysicians? Hume’s Empiricism, the basis for logical positivism and other low views of metaphysics as well as the dismissal of the knowledge claims of mysticism, leaves us free to ignore the logical faults of Materialism and endorse it regardless. The two statements ‘Materialism is true’ and ‘Materialism is false’ would be empirically meaningless and thus, for the dedicated empiricist, entirely meaningless. And yet, if analysis did not reject Materialism and Idealism there would have been no motivation for Hume’s rejection of analysis in the first place. If metaphysics endorsed Materialism or Idealism then there would be no justification for logical positivism and other low views of metaphysics. Almost everybody agrees, and especially those who reject metaphysics, that Materialism does not make sense. It is certainly not plausible that so many scientists would reject Rationalism and metaphysical analysis if it endorsed Materialism and so the rejection of metaphysics for the sake of Materialism is an open admission that Materialism does not make sense and can only be true if the universe does not make sense.

Metaphysics can make one important concession to Materialism. If it is true, as was proposed by Empedocles, that ‘all things contain a portion of thought’, then it is possible that all thoughts contain a portion of thing. It is possible, in other words, both logically and empirically, that mental and corporeal phenomena are not distinct except as aspects and only ever appear in a co-dependent relationship such that mental phenomena would always have a material aspect. This would allow neuroscience to have some relevance to the problem of consciousness. But even if we make this concession to Materialism it would remain the case that neither Materialism nor subjective Idealism can explain the existence of mental and corporeal phenomenon. Both are non-reductive and clearly a third category of phenomenon would be required for a fundamental theory.

It is tempting to cite the problem of consciousness as an objection to Materialism. This is because philosophers find that once they have assumed the truth of Materialism consciousness becomes impossible to explain. The difficulty for this objection is that many people continue to believe that the ‘hard’ problem can be solved without abandoning Materialism and the only problem is that we are not yet clever enough to do this. They do not see that it is a problem of principles rooted in the ancient Mind-Matter dilemma because they have little respect for rationalist metaphysics. They struggle on with Materialism hoping to prove in consciousness studies an idea that is easily refuted in metaphysics and which makes no sense to anyone. This objection to Materialism cannot be conclusive, therefore, although it is clearly damaging. Perhaps in another thousand years, if the problem of consciousness remains unsolved, philosophers of mind may start wondering whether Materialism is not the solution after all but is, rather, the entire cause of the problem.

There are many different ideas as to what metaphysics is and how it should be practiced. Reading the academic literature is more likely to confuse us than clarify anything. In academia metaphysics is taught and discussed in a highly confusing manner and it takes years of study to even understand the terminology. In the end, however, it comes down to a few simple issues. Do we believe that the universe is reasonable? If we do then we believe that a correct description of the universe will seem reasonable to us and, accordingly, that formal metaphysical analysis will produce truth or at least never falsity. ‘Reasonable’ is a difficult term to define to everyone’s satisfaction but at a minimum it must mean the rejection of self-contradiction. Thus for a reasonable metaphysics we must reject Materialism.

Russell’s problem with the set-of-all-sets is an example of our instinctive rejection of contradictions. He may not have seen the value of metaphysical analysis but he did not reject its logical principles. If our reason could countenance the contradiction inherent in the concept of the set-of-all-sets then we would not see it as paradoxical. The set-of-all-sets could contain itself and not contain itself and this would make complete sense to us. But we cannot countenance this idea. Our reason tells us that the solution must be one or the other idea or, if not, a synthesis for which these two ideas would be seen as partial views reducing to a single non-paradoxical truth. Russell accepted this latter idea as a solution for his paradox when it was proposed by G. S. Brown in his Laws of Form  precisely because it avoided self-contradiction. Russell rejected metaphysics, or certainly meant to, but he did not reject the idea that a reasonable theory should not contain contradictions. Nor can we if we wish to stay sane.

It has been known for centuries that all extreme, positive or partial metaphysical theories give rise to contradictions and are thus logically indefensible. Russell, Ayer and Carnap saw this clearly just as did Kant and Hegel and most philosophers will be well aware of it. As Materialism is an extreme, positive and partial metaphysical theory it is simply one of Wittgenstein’s facts that it is logically indefensible and is not something worth arguing about. Of course, as we have conceded, we can endorse Materialism on the basis that the universe contains true contradictions, an idea promoted by Priest, Routley, Melhuish and others, but the price is that we must abandon the idea that the universe is reasonable and embrace instead the idea that we might as well believe any old thing. The assumption of an unreasonable universe reduces metaphysics to uselessness before it has even begun but there is nothing to prevent us from making it. What we cannot do is expect other people to see our approach as a rational one.

Metaphysics is entirely devoted to the creation of a general theory. Often it is the study of individual problems in isolation but this is a method and we do not need a different and distinct solution for each problem. In what sense, then, is Materialism a general theory? If it is not a general theory then in what sense is it a metaphysical theory? In what sense is it even a theory? What would it explain? What would it predict? How would we test it? How could we develop it? It is an isolated metaphysical conjecture offering no benefits at all to science or philosophy.

In opposing Materialism it would be important to oppose subjective Idealism at the same time since  both ideas fail for the same reason. It would be a mistake to give the impression that we are arguing against one for the sake of the other. For an idealist to oppose Materialism would be difficult since their own view will be undermined by arguments they would want to deploy against their opponents. This is a ‘Catch-22’ situation and it may explain why Materialist and Idealists are so poor at persuading each other to change sides. They are on the same side already.

Metaphysical problems may be expressed in the form of dualistic choices Kant calls ‘antinomies’. The term ‘antinomy’ comes from the Greek and literally means ‘the mutual incompatibility, real or apparent, of two laws’. (Wiki). Metaphysical antinomies present us with a choice between two directly opposed ‘laws’ or theoretical alternatives, where this might be Materialism-Idealism, Theism-Atheism, Freewill-Determinism, Internalism-Externalism, Something-Nothing and so on for all matched-pairs of partial or extreme metaphysical positions. Materialism-Idealism would be an antinomy for Kant because both ideas fail and, in addition, because in his view they form a legitimate dialectical contradiction for which there can be can be no third option. On this view metaphysics is inconclusive and not a guide to truth. There is, however, an important subtlety here, often missed even by philosophers.

According to Aristotle, who codified the rules of the dialectic game, to oppose Materialism and Idealism as a logical contradiction would be to make a category-error. In dialectic logic the true contradiction would be between Materialism and not-Materialism, Idealism and not-Idealism. A legitimate dialectical contradiction must be between A and not-A and not between A and B. It would therefore be an error to assume that we are forced by logic to choose between Materialism and Idealism. This ‘antinomy’ may not be a logical contradiction and may not be subject to the laws of non-contradiction and excluded middle. For a rigorous dialectic analysis the falsity of Materialism would not ineluctably imply the truth of Idealism and vice versa, and the same would be true for all of Kant’s antimonies.  We can refute both (objective) Materialism and (subjective) Idealism without causing ourselves any logical problems in metaphysics. If two laws oppose each other it would not inevitably follow that either of them is a sensible law or that no other law is possible. With his endorsement of a fundamental phenomenon that is beyond the categories of thought Kant seems to have reached this conclusion himself but his followers often assume that a Kantian antinomy is an Aristotelian true contradiction. The result is that many philosophers feel forced by logic to choose between Materialism or Idealism, seeing this as a rational choice, and see no need for Compatabilism or a ‘doctrine of the mean’ such as can be found in mysticism. yet if we confuse a Kantian antinomy with an Aristotelian true contradiction then Compatabilism becomes impossible and mysticism will seem not only redundant but logically incomprehensible. .

This subtlety of logic is often missed. For any positive, partial or extreme theory concerning the world-as-a-whole there will always be an anti-theory, a contradictory and complementary doppelganger. This is what we mean by calling a theory positive, partial or extreme in the first place, that it is one half of a contradictory and complementary pair of theories. Such theories are dualistic. This leads us to assume, fairly naturally, that one of the two opposed positions must be true and the other false. This assumption is simply wrong. For fundamental questions, those about the world-as-a-whole, we find it is impossible in any case to decide between these polarized positions. Whenever we place in direct opposition two contradictory and complementary metaphysical positions they are found to form an antinomy,  an impossible choices. Antinomies are undecidable. There are no exceptions because if one side of an antinomy survives logical analysis and the other does not then it is not an antinomy.  These antinomies are not true contradictions in the dialectic, however, and thus we are not forced to decide between them. We can follow logic and common sense and reject both as being partial and inadequate.

The problem for metaphysics, the problem that Materialists must ignore, the problem that can be solved only by carefully distinguishing between an antinomy and a true contradiction, is that the dialectic method produces stark choices between pairs of opposing theories neither of which survives logical analysis. We might prefer to believe that one of, say, Freewill or Determinism is true, but the application of reason shows that neither theory works. The same holds true for Materialism and Idealism. The situation can be summed up in a single statement: All positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible. Bradley puts this as ‘Metaphysics does not produce a positive result’. Kant puts it as, ‘All selective conclusions about the world as a whole are undecidable’. To argue against this fact would be useless. It is the reason why an endorsement of Materialism or most forms of Idealism requires the rejection of metaphysics. It is an unnecessary rejection, however, if we keep things straightforward. The undecidablity of Kant’s antinomies is a problem that makes metaphysics mind-bending but as long as we do not confuse antinomies with dialectical contradictions then there is no terminal problem for Aristotle’s logic or for human reason. We have no need to decide between Materialism and Idealism. Rather, we need to decide between Materialism and not-Materialism and in metaphysics this is not a difficult decision.

All in all it seems difficult to make any kind of case for Materialism. If we do not know the facts then for us it may seem true but if it is then the universe must be miraculous, paradoxical, unreasonable and incomprehensible. There is no possibility of making a persuasive case for this idea.


45 Responses to The Perversity of Materialism

  1. donsalmon says:

    Bravo Peter – i think this is the clearest thing I’ve ever seen you write. It flowed, it was easy to read, the logical sequence of ideas was easy to follow, and it was enjoyable.

    I have just one suggestion – it seems to me that it is so obvious to you that materialism is false (an idea which is also so obvious to me it often feels hard to explain it to people who don’t immediately see its perversity and inherent contradictions) that you stay in the realm of general ideas rather than giving specifics.

    So here’s what I think will help – don’t change a word of this essay. It’s really fine as it is….

    but – write an accompanying essay. Take a specific example of a materialistic idea. Connect it to this essay, paragraph by paragraph, and spell out as clearly as possible the SPECIFIC reasons why the materialistic idea is contradictory, perverse, etc.

    And I have a specific idea for you – the brain produces the mind and consciousness (or just, the brain produces consciousness – no brain, no consciousness). I suggest this rather than something to do with evolution or something in the realm of physics (or God help us, quantum physics) because it is the area, I think, where the most solid, scientific evidence thoroughly contradicts materialism (I know, that’s not quite right – the evidence doesn’t “directly” contradict it, but it is more obvious to most materialists that the evidence from psi and near death experiences, for example, is challenging – otherwise, they wouldn’t become so angry and vitriolic when discussing these topics).

    Take one very specific example – say, the idea that the fact that an anesthesiologist’s drug renders a person unconscious and incapable of remembering what happened during an operation, as proof of materialism (If you look up Gerald Woerlee, a Dutch anesthesiologist, you’ll find this is one of his primary arguments in favor of materialism; it is so much more superficial and explicitly absurd than some of the very slightly more complex arguments of folks like Dennett and the Churchlands, it might be easier to illustrate).

    Take this idea, link it to each paragraph of this essay, and show carefully, logically, step by step, why it is false, contradictory and ultimately, incoherent. As you prepare for this, you might look up some of Woerlee’s Amazon reviews, where he eagerly pursues this and other similar ridiculous arguments, so you can get an idea o the kinds of objections you will get. You might look at the debate between Chris Carter and Keith Augustine on the idea that the brain produces consciousness – Carter does a very good job of refuting Augustine, but unfortunately ends up defending a very naive form of dualism. This in particular would be a very good conversation to study in preparing your accompanying essay.

    I eagerly look forward to the result – your writing gets better with each essay.

  2. guymax says:

    Thanks Don. And thanks for leading me to throw away the previous poor effort.

    I think your idea is good. I don’t know that I have the patience or stamina to extend the argument, but I’ll check out Woerlee. If he makes me mad enough I might leap into action. He probably will, by the sound of it.

  3. donsalmon says:

    Sure, but you don’t really need to extend it – I suspect you could do it in a few sentences per paragraph (oh, i guess that’s an extension:>)

    In fact, you don’t really have to read anyone, try to come up with the best counter argument you can and then show how it is refuted. I’ve done a VERY bad job here, but you could do it along similar lines yourself without reading anyone (unless you WANT to go mad:>)!!

    The truth is, of course, that the physical sciences can have nothing to say about whether Materialism, the idea that matter is fundamental, is any more plausible than Idealism, the idea that mind is fundamental, and will never be able to falsify either of them.


    In physics, Materialism and Idealism are untestable, as are all fundamental theories.


    When a person says that they are a materialist or idealist, therefore, they have left behind the natural sciences and are doing metaphysics. By claiming that Materialism would be the correct solution for one of metaphysics’ most ancient and venerable logical dilemmas, one that remains a logical dilemma to this day, they are doing it very badly.


    In metaphysics, the discipline whose responsibility it is to decide these questions, Materialism and Idealism both fail. This can be demonstrated. It is not a matter of opinion. The idea that either would be a rational metaphysical position to endorse is demonstrably irrational. NO I JUST DEMONSTRATED IT’S RATIONAL – I GOT A CLEAR EMPIRICAL RESULT.
    We can reject metaphysics and rationalism if we like, for the sake of one of these two opposing theories, but metaphysics is the application of logic and reason to philosophical problems, and if we reject it as a useful activity then we cannot expect anyone to take our philosophical views seriously, or for them to make much sense even to ourselves. YOU DON’T NEED METAPHYSICS BECAUSE I JUST PERFORMED AN EMPIRCAL EXPERIMENT THAT PROVED CONCLUSIVELY THAT NON MATERIAL CONSCIOUSNESS IS DESTROYED BY A PHYSICAL DRUG.

    there, see I’ve disproven your metaphysics! (I added that to get you mad enough to respond:>)

  4. donsalmon says:

    by the way, don’t try and engage Woerlee. If you go to “Science and the Near Death Experience”, and look for his review, go to the comments and check “newest first’ then go back about 3 pages, you’ll see a very long comment from me explaining Woerlee’s tricks – he starts by doing philosophy, arguing for materialism against dualism (he calls all alternatives to materialism dualism – though after 3 years, he suddenly registered my objection and added “or whatever other nonsense you believe in”), then when you prove his philosophizing is nonsense, he’ll say, with absolutely no sense of irony, “Oh, I never engage in such silly mind games. I’m only interested in empirical evidence.” He’s impossible. If you need to get angry to do this, then since I’m eager to read your rejection of the “brain produces consciousness” theory, please read woerlee. If you want something intelligent that will take much less time, look at the Carter/Augustine dialog about the brain filter vs brain production theory, – even though Carter is a dualist, he i still quite brilliant and easy to read.

    let’s see now, what else can I do to get you angry enough? Quick, someone’s wrong on the internet……….!!!

  5. guymax says:

    Lol. This is the wonderful thing about the internet. One can have an argument about anything at any time of the day or night.

    I see what you mean about addressing specific objections. You’re probably right, unfortunately, to say I should do this. The worst thing about materialism is the amount of time it takes up.

  6. donsalmon says:

    ok, i hope you’ll forgive me for this, but I thought it might give you a sense of what you’re up against. (also to make you mad enough to go on:>)

    The following is from a comment on Dr. Gerry Woerlee’s Amazon review of Chris Carter’s “Science and the Near Death Experience. The comments began in June, 2011 after Woerlee posted his review. It’s been an amazing “ride”, which I’ve participated in then opted out several times. Here is my longest post, describing the tricks Woerlee uses to obscure the fact that his position is almost completely illogical.

    The first letter is from Rudolf Smit, who has written excellent articles on the science of the near death experience. He is clearly exasperated, as is almost anybody who attempts to engage Woerlee in a rational discussion.

    Last edited by the author on Feb 27, 2014 2:21:24 AM PST
    Smithy says:

    The big problem with you, Dr Woerlee, is that YOU DO NOT “discuss” anything.

    Rather, you DICTATE: it is so and so and nothing else. Implicit message: everybody not agreeing with me is a moron.

    As for empirical evidence, your total refusal to accept the expertise of a sound expert, i.e. me (trained by Philips Industries), who says that the highly irritating 100 decibel clicks in the ears of Pam Reynolds could impossibly have been “neurologically filtered out” by her (your contention) is a clear example that you won’t accept the hard evidence that you do not like.
    Besides, your claim that she was awake all the time, would have been corroborated by the EEG registering those clicks – they were NOT registered.

    And that is all I will be saying here – because I am done with you.


    And here’s my reply:



    Don Salmon says:

    Smithy, I see your post but I’m confused by it. Surely you know at this point Gerry is not going to discuss anything. If he even admitted one error (there’s hardly anything he’s ever written, either in his books or Amazon reviews, which is not chock full of errors and distortions) his whole edifice of thought (??) would fall apart.

    After a few weeks on this comments section – several years ago, back when I used to talk directly to Gerry – I realized he was never going to be willing to be straight with people.

    THe only reason I stayed on is to try to understand why Kris, you and others still try to talk to him. Kris I know has fun with it, but Smithy, why do you even bother?

    I’m going to sign out also – but look, for more evidence, Gerry doesn’t even understand what this #3 is referring to, if you need even more evidence that his powers of logic are far gone.

    Let’s review, one last time before I leave. #3 doesn’t refer refer specifically to distortions in empirical evidence – that’s #1.

    Do you remember how this latest series of exchanges started a number of weeks ago.

    1. Gerry presents a ridiculous caricature of dualism, then critiques it, then claims that because his caricature doesn’t hold up, he has PROVED that the physical brain produces the mind.

    Well, of course as I said before, I knew Gerry would never engage anyone with a logical argument about this, even though this ranks as one of the silliest things I’ve ever seen him write. But I thought surely this could be the final evidence that nobody need ever try to engage him.

    Now, notice, this argument had nothing to do with anything empirical. It was a purely logical argument (in other words, non-empirical philosophy, or what Gerry, when his logic is soundly refuted, calls ‘Silly mind games” (see the defensive technique at work there?)

    So I presented a counter argument (which, as I proved repeatedly, he was mischaracterizing as solipsistic, whereas my argument DIRECTLY contradicted the most fundamental definition of solipsism – it’s also interesting to note that for the most part, the people most likely to confuse nonduality and solipsism are profoundly narcissistic – this has been noted throughout the Middle and Far East for several thousand years, and in India is referred to as “indigestion of Vedanta” – or just, supreme egoism). Now remember again, before I point out the game that Gerry played, Gerry had already left the world of empirical evidence, and presented a purely logical argument against psi.

    Which by the way, is fine with me, as long as you’re willing to be honest (which obviously for anybody paying attention, Gerry never is in these discussions).

    So Gerry makes a purely non-empirical argument, something for which physical evidence is irrelevant. No problem. I made a counter argument, which he never explicitly addressed, though if you recall, he did make an implicit admission that I was right and he was wrong. And boy did he start grabbing for every avoidance technique in the book when he almost started to realize other people were seeing this.

    Finally, when he realized he couldn’t divert the discussion by accusing me of not giving any evidence when he had just used a philosophic argument for which evidence was irrelevant, and he couldn’t divert the discussion by accusing me of being solipsistic when I made it clear his understanding of solipsism was completely absent, he then used avoidance trick #3 – after several weeks of engaging in a purely philosophic, non empirical argument (however, illogical to the point of being incoherent his so-called non-empirical argument was), he then says, “Show me the evidence”!

    That’s avoidance technique #3 – Gerry presents a non empirical philosophic argument for which there is no evidence, someone refutes it, then he accuses them of engaging in silly mind games and tells the most astonishingly outright, boldfaced lie claiming that he NEVER ENGAGES IN PHILOSOPHIC ARGUMENTS!!

    I’m not the least bit surprised he does this. His book and reviews and comments are made up of almost nothing but either distortions and illogical arguments or avoidance techniques and attacks.

    But I’m still quite surprised that anybody else takes him seriously, when these lies and subterfuges (what he calls obfusticating – boy that was hard to write; Amazon’s spell checker keeps changing it to obfuscation!!) are so painfully and laughably obvious (yes, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry when someone fails to see Gerry’s obvious incoherence and willful distortions of logic and actually thinks he’s going to engage with them in a serious manner.


    Your post, in reply to an earlier post on Feb 27, 2014 4:59:53 AM PST
    Last edited by you on Feb 27, 2014 5:00:52 AM PST
    Don Salmon says:

    But I will add one thing in sympathy, Smithy. I do understand the enormous temptation of wanting to respond.

    For you, who are so intimately familiar with the evidence, it must be like this:

    Smithy: Gerry, I’m holding a red pen and a blue pen in my hand.

    Gerry: That’s not a red pen

    And you do a kind of double take, because virtually everyone involved in the discussion, in hospitals, research laboratories, in online discussions everywhere else, agrees about the red pen. There are other more interesting details that people disagree about, but this red pen was taken for granted.

    So you rub your eyes, not quite believing what you saw, and reassert the obvious. And once again, Gerry says there’s no red pen. And I know, it shocks at first, and you think, “Well, if I just persist, surely he’ll agree it’s a red pen.”

    But the problem is, he won’t. Because he’s NOT INTERESTED IN EVIDENCE OR LOGIC. Gerry has one and only one interest – supporting materialism. Once you realize that, there’s no point in having a discussion with him anymore because you’re only going to be frustrated if you expect him to be honest or to make any sense.

    I’ll leave you with one more parting thought.

    There’s a simple way to tell, when you start a discussion with someone you don’t know, if they’re going to be honest and sincere when discussing anything parapsychological (whether NDEs, OBEs, remote viewing, etc). I sometimes call it the Richard Wiseman challenge, but you could more broadly refer to it as the “anomalous cognition” test.

    Here’s what that means.

    I’ve been observing the skeptic/debunker mindset for decades. I suppose it fascinates me to some extent because I grew up in that belief system – all religions were nonsense, silly wish fulfillment, and objective, materialist science was the ultimate arbiter of truth. I spent enough years of my childhood believing that – and enjoying it, as I was very good in science and math as a kid – I still know what it feels like to be “inside” that mind set. It took me years of very careful, close logical analysis to see the flaws in it, and I perfectly understand a sincere person like Surrounded who is carefully exploring and trying to see what the most reasonable way of looking at things is.

    Back in those days, decades ago, critics talked about poor methodology, fraud, bad statistics, failure to replicate, etc. Everything was up for grabs in psi criticism.

    10 years ago, I was working on a section on psi research – about 3 or 4 pages – in our book and looked more carefully at the literature than i ever had before. What I found quite surprised me – for the most part (that is, for serious critics who could think, not religious fanatics like Gerry who are only out to prove their belief system), the criticism based on fraud and methodology was gone. The attacks on statistics were much more subtle, and actually, the best one – the accusation that even positive results in psi research only had a tiny effect size – were quite interesting and pointed to real problems with psi research.

    But notice the difference – suddenly long time skeptics who used to talk only about fraud and failure to replicate, would occasionally mention positive results, though this was still somewhat rare.

    So imagine my surprise when, after our book was published in 2007, I started looking at the psi literature again, and found that it was quite common to talk about “anomalous cognition” – in other words, positive results that GENUINE skeptics (not debunkers like Gerry who have absolutely no interest in talking about evidence in a reasonable fashion) accept as scientific evidence but do not accept as evidence of psi.

    Now when you find someone like that, they’re definitely worth talking to. I occasionally find such open-minded skeptics (I know a few wonderful people like that here in Asheville and have talked with many online) and every time we have a conversation, I learn something. I find where my thinking has been unclear, where I’ve made incorrect assumptions about them, and I discover many other logical and conceptual errors in my thinking and in my attempts to convey my own view. This for me is the purpose of such discussions – the primary purpose is to find my own limitations and improve my ability to express clearly what I’m thinking.

    Because I don’t like to waste time, I make an effort right at the beginning to determine if I’m talking with a skeptics like Surrounded or a debunker like Gerry. Once I realized Gerry was a debunker, as occurred several years ago, that was it. The other thing that interests me then, is to understand why it is difficult for people who accept the evidence for psi to continue trying to convince a debunker like Gerry.

    Again, I understand the temptation – you wonder, how is it possible when I’m holding a red pen in my hand, when hundreds of experts agree about the red pen, that Gerry continues to deny it? You just want to believe if you present him calmly with logic and reason, and show him the evidence, he’ll agree. But he won’t. He never will.

    On the other hand, in just a few exchanges with Surrounded, I’ve discovered a number of ways I hadn’t expressed myself clearly, and in challenging myself to try to communicate in a different way, I’ve already learned a number of things. That for me is the real value of these exchanges, when they’re honest and sincere.

    Good luck to all!

    and I was finally moved to write once more:

    Your post, in reply to an earlier post on Feb 27, 2014 5:04:49 AM PST
    Don Salmon says:

    Just in case that wasn’t clear, here it is as simply as possible – virtually every sincere skeptic agrees there are positive results in psi research. If you start a discussion and after pointing out the various places where the most prominent skeptics agree, and the other person completely ignores you, stop – you’re only going to be frustrated because they’re only interested in proving their point. They are either thoroughly biased or incapable of basic logic.

    On the other hand, if you find someone who profoundly disagrees with you but accepts the evidence for anomalous cognition – that is, accepts that there are positive results but does not accept that it proves “psi” – then you are up for a very interesting discussion.

    Note also, that another way of saying this, is that since the empirical issue has been conceded by all sincere skeptics – psi research gets positive results but parapsychologists and skeptics disagree about the interpretation – any discussion that remains in the world of “evidence” is beside the point. The evidence is clear and even sincere, honest skeptics agree – there are real positive results.

    The only place left to go is to what Gerry calls “Silly mind games”, or what intelligent people call “philosophy of science.”

    Keep that in mind the next time you start a discussion about NDEs or other psi phenomena, and it will save you a lot of headache and help you use your time more wisely.

    And it looks like Smithy is leaving as well:

    Smithy says:

    Thanks so much for these last three postings, Don! I keep in mind your sound advice.

    Good luck, and until we meet again.


  7. guymax says:

    Just checked out Woerlee. I think I’ll just ignore him as being inconsequential.

  8. donsalmon says:

    yes i agree. Stick with lane then look at the Carter/Augustine discussion. it’s all you’ll need to write the accompanying piece.

  9. SamL says:

    I have a thought about a point you make early on which is felt heavily in all the points that follow. This concerns the apparent inconsistency of rejecting metaphysics with holding a materialistic metaphysics. This accurately describes my position – I shall try to explain why I do not think it is inconsistent.

    Roughly speaking, to reject metaphysics is to reject the possibility of a priori synthetic knowledge – knowledge about the world acquired via pure reason. This is a meta-philosophical view about what sort justifications can be accepted for certain positions. In particular it regards deductive argument for metaphysical theses as suspect. This meta-philosophical view is perhaps best referred to as Quinean Naturalism (QN).

    Materialism (M) is a first-order philosophy concerning the ontology of the world. Holding to QN doesn’t preclude one from holding to M, it just places constraints on how one justifies M. There are many people who hold both QN and M, and it seems to me like these people are the targets of this piece.

    Someone who holds both these views will typically will justify M by way of an inference to the best explanation of current scientific theory (i.e. they will justify M abductively). A strategy for arguing against them would either be to challenge the abductive adequacy of M (questions of the form: how does M account for x? (I’d recommend abstract objects or moral values in place of x)), or to make deductive arguments (M implies contradiction C, hence is false, etc.).

    If the latter strategy – which seems to be what you’re mainly going for here – is going to avoid begging the question against its target, it seems to me like it will have to engage directly with the arguments for QN (whose concerns revolve around things like the reliability of modal intuitions and confirmational holism).


    • guymax says:

      Hi Sam. Thanks for an interesting comment.

      One small matter of terminology in case it matters. I would mean something else by ‘abduction’, namely ‘inference to the best explanation’, So the argument, ‘M implies contradiction C, hence is false’, would be an argument by abduction for not-M, as would also the first argument you give.

      It is clearly true that logic cannot prove what is true about Reality. Aristotle and Descartes knew this. Thus metaphysical conclusions can never be totally reliable knowledge of Truth or Reality. However, this hardly matters to us. We are after the best explanation, just as we are in physics, not a demonstrably ‘true’ theory.

      So, it hardly matters what we think about a priori synthetic knowledge. If ‘knowledge’ here means ‘certain knowledge’ then I am a Quinean naturalist.

      But I would argue that the inability of logic and reason alone to verify truths about Reality is irrelevant to anything. If, all else being equal, one theory gives rise to contradictions and the other one does not, then who would want to argue for the former?

      Besides, metaphysics is not pure logic. If we perceived no objects we would not need a metaphysical theory to explain then. Empiricism is the entire basis for metaphysics.

      If we hold on to M it is a preference, a temperamental choice, We can appeal to Quine and lots of complicated arguments, but we are endorsing a theory that gives rise to contradictions while rejecting a theory that does not. This is not what we usually do in physics, so why would we do it in metaphysics?

      Is this an answer? I’m not sure I’ve quite replied to your point.

  10. donsalmon says:

    I’m interested in hearing Sam’s reply. I can’t see anything in his post except a particular temperamental choice, and nothing indicating any kind of logical support for materialism.

    I would add one “empirical” thought. recent experiments show that, if physics were held to the same standards as parapsychology, most replication experiments in physics would fail. Given this, we have the following possibilities:

    Mainstream (wrongly considered materialist) science (on the basis of experimental standards exceeding that of physics) shows that telepathy, remote viewing, psychokinesis and precognition are a fact.

    Even the most vehement, biased materialists such as Jerry Coyne accept that epigenetic changes last at least 3 generations. In other words, conscious intention effects evolution for 3 generations, at least. However, the results of psi research – which are superior to that of anything in evolutionary biology (and according to the research cited above, superior in terms of replication to most physics experiments) – show that there is no scientific reason to assume the influence of consciousness stops at 3 generations.

    Therefore, there is nothing in the findings of mainstream science to prevent us from assuming that consciousness affects the entire course of evolution.

    I’ll be interested to hear Sam’s reply, taking these firm scientific findings into account.

    • SamL says:

      Hi there,

      Indeed I did not offer any arguments for either materialism or Quinean naturalism in my reply – that was not my intention. (I even offered a couple of what I think are good strategies against materialism!)

      What I was trying to do was to separate two quite different positions that often get conflated under the heading ‘materialism’, ‘naturalism’, or ‘scientism’. One concerns metaphysics (I think its best to reserve materialism for this), the other concerns justification and philosophical methodology.

      I believe these are worth separating because it is the latter which is the overriding one in modern academic culture, and any criticisms which aren’t directed specifically at it will likely fall on deaf ears.


      p.s. if it makes you feel any better, I’d rather chew my own arm off than read three sentences of Coyne!

  11. SamL says:

    Thanks for your reply, that certainly helps me to understand where you’re coming from.

    A clarification: by a priori synthetic knowledge I do not mean certain knowledge. It’s better to think of it in terms of justification – what’s being rejected is the idea that we can appeal to our a priori intuitions about what is impossible, absurd, or intrinsically plausible. An example would be a classical cosmological argument. At some point the argument appeals to the impossibility of an infinite regress of causes to infer that there must be an uncaused or self-caused being (this is a familiar pattern in scholastic arguments). The issue is that there is nothing inconsistent about infinite series (their mathematics is well studied). The argument presents itself as appealing to the absurdity, but this appeal is really just an appeal to intuition. Other people have different intuitions.

    It doesn’t matter whether you regard these arguments as aiming at certain truth or lending support to a general case – it’s the appeal to a priori intuitions that the QN rejects. The upshot is that on QN, we never try to pretend whether the difficulties encountered by a metaphysical theory are true contradictions (with the one exception being if we could prove it mathematically. This would amount to proving that no mathematical structure can act as a model of some set of statements equivalent to the theory – these sort of non-existence theorems are notoriously hard to prove. I’m sceptical of the possibility of applying this sort of methodology to philosophical problems.)

    So in the case of ‘M implies contradiction C’, the truth is we can never even get this far. Perhaps we can show that C is a major difficulty for M (I’ve suggested abstract objects), but there’s no precluding the possibility of a decent account of C on M. What we can say is that these problems make it less adequate as a best explanation of the physical facts and theory, and the question is then how it compares against alternatives (which need not be assumed to exhaust possibilities).


    • guymax says:

      Now I am a bit confused. You seem to have a point but I can’t quite grasp it. Are you saying that it’s okay to have contradictions in philosophy, because we can’t know whether the universe is free of contradictions?

      To confuse the issues further, I would argue that metaphysical dilemmas are not true contradictions, but that ideas like infinite regresses give rise to true contradictions. Thus, for instance, in the case of cosmology, we would have to reject an infinite regress and also a finite beginning, then no contradictions would arise and Aristotle’s rules would be preserved.

      It seems we have quite different but not entirely opposite views. It might be difficult for us to see each other’s pov on this, what with all the subtleties.

      Nice point about scientism and naturalism.

      • SamL says:

        Yes, I agree that our views are not in direct opposition (though as you say, they are quite different, which perhaps accounts for why they are in tension). Either way, I’m certainly glad that discussion has been a productive one (or feels so to me, anyway).

        I agree with you that if a position implies a contradiction then that position should be rejected, and so I take your point fully in that regard (looking back at my last reply I think my wording on this issue was a bit confusing). What I have doubts about is how we can adequately judge that a position really does imply a contradiction.

        In the case of infinite regress, for example, what I’m saying is that it’s not clear that there is anything contradictory about an infinite regress (i.e. an infinite regress need not be a vicious regress). The idea may be highly counter-intuitive to us, but counter-intuitiveness does not amount to logical incoherence. As I say, the mathematics of infinite series makes sense, so I can’t see the grounds on which we may call infinite causal chains contradictory.

        This is just an example of course, but I think it illustrates a broader point which can be stated like this: the standards for showing that a metaphysical position is logical coherent are prohibitively high. In practical terms, this mean reductio ad absurdum (which is the crowing jewel of classical metaphysics) is a bad way of arguing against metaphysical positions.

        This is why I don’t think people find arguments like ‘conscious awareness is not at all like matter, consciousness awareness exists, hence materialism is false’ compelling. We don’t yet know what this thing we refer to as consciousness is and this means we don’t know what the full implications of materialism are in relation to it – this is the points at issue in the first place.


  12. guymax says:

    I see your point about the difficulty of pinning down contradictions. The question arises, then, as to why we don’t all simply believe that the universe is eternal, and why we see so many people arguing against this idea. Is it not because they see a contradiction? More generally, why would so many people argue that metaphysics is unable to reach a result if contradictions are hard to establish? .It is only by establishing the contradictions that arise from extreme views that we can make this argument against metaphysics.

    I suppose the eternal existence of matter is not actually impossible to consider, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seem it advocated as a solution for anything. Even materialists usually avoid this idea and plump for ex nihilo creation. Turtles on turtles never works. It can be difficult to establish that it leads to a clear self-contradiction, but most philosophers and scientists seem to conclude that it would.

    Or consider the problem of consciousness. Why is it found to be ‘hard’? Is it not because the idea that mind or matter is fundamental gives rise to contradictions?

    I agree that to say, ‘conscious awareness is not at all like matter, consciousness awareness exists, hence materialism is false’, is to emit a lot of hot air. This would not be an argument, and the word ‘hence’ would be unjustified. .

    • SamL says:

      Well, many of the hot contenders for cosmological theories invoke an eternal multiverse. Ultimately I have no idea what the most plausible theory is or is likely to be, but the point is there’s nothing to be said a priori about whether eternal existence is going to be on the table as a physical theory or not. If people do veer away from infinite causal chains it is not because they imply contradictions, but just because they raise more questions than they answer. If something clicks into place and some of the questions raised by a theory suddenly seem less troubling, its plausibility as a whole may go up.

      This, I think, is the broad pattern of how people approach metaphysics these days, and is why issues like infinite regress are never solved with finality. (This is why I think people say metaphysics can’t reach conclusions, though I don’t personally see how that amounts to a criticism.) Imagine, for example, if some breakthrough theory in the philosophy of language gave fresh perspective on the semantics of infinity – this might radically change the way key topics in metaphysics are approached, and change our analysis of the positions significantly.

      For the record, I don’t think materialism hangs on the possibility of infinite causal chains. More likely is that our intuitions about when things or events need causes are wrong, and the question is ill-formed in the first place.

      Re the mind, well, I simply don’t think that there are contradictions implied by physicalism. I used to be heavily convinced that there were insurmountable difficulties facing physicalist theories of mind – things that exist which it could not account for in principle – I now think that my reasons for believing this were ill-thought out appeals to intuition, and that most arguments against physicalism are really very bad.


      • guymax says:

        We see things in very different ways, You do not see why consciousness is called a ‘hard’ problem, and I’ve never found a way to convince someone when they don’t just see it. But I think I’ve spotted one interesting reason why we disagree. I’ll do some thinking out loud.

        I agree that in some sense the universe must be eternal and infinite. But these are infinities. We may as well say that it must be timeless and unmanifest. You prefer the former view and I prefer the latter. But they are very close. I would say that my view is ultimate, while yours depends on space-time, thus takes space-time to be irreducible. .

        Materialism confuses the issues because it wouldn’t work to apply any of these four properties to matter. Materialism (I would hope to able to show) can be reduced to absurdity, So also, I would argue, (from its implications) can an infinite and eternal universe. What cannot be reduced to absurdity is a timeless and unmanifest universe.

        But this would be an ultimate view, a complete reduction. For any level of emergence it may be true, as far as logic can decide, that all phenomenon have a material aspect and are located in space-time.

        How does that sound?

  13. donsalmon says:

    Thanks Sam for attempting a clarification, but I’m still confused as well.

    Try this:

    The Churchlands, calling themselves “eliminative materialists”, base everything on the brain.

    So what is the brain?

    First and foremost, what we know directly through experience, is a percept.

    Now, that is only a left-hemisphere based abstraction, because in our experience, we never find a “percept” separate from perceiving (I’m deliberately avoiding the noun “perceiver” for reasons too complex to go into here).

    (I’m going to use the phrase “left mode” instead of left hemisphere to avoid certain neurological errors – I’m following Iain McGilchrist here)

    Now, what most people who call themselves materialists or physicalists do at this point, is to go to another level of abstraction (left mode thought again – by the way, this site is a great example, where the author tells us that what we are REALLY made up of is quarks and other subatomic particles – pure left mode abstractions – They leave the percept behind, and create out of thin air a bunch of abstractions, and call those abstractions “reality.”

    The first step – creating the abstractions as a useful method for doing physics, is not, I think, philosophically problematic. Where the problem comes in is that they forget they made up the abstractions and call it “reality.”

    I’m going to leave the philosophic implications to you guys, the philosophers. As a clinical psychologist, I would stick with my area of expertise, and diagnosis this as what it is, a psychotic disorder.

    So again, here are the steps:’

    1. We live in a world in which perceiving and percepts exist in inseparable relationship.
    2. Several centuries ago, a new method of understanding the world arose, in which percepts were artificially separated out from the process of perceiving.
    3. A second step was made, in which a further abstraction was made – the purely quantitative aspects of the percept were focused on. (again, at this point, there’s no psychiatric problem).
    4. About 2 centuries later, the first steps began to be ignored, and the quantitative abstractions began to be taken as “reality.” The measurable aspects of the abstracted percept were taken to exist entirely apart from the matrix of perceiving.

    To come back from technical language, this is nuts.

    I wonder, regarding Frank Jackson’s knowledge argument (I saw this on your site, Sam), if Patricia Churchland ever used this in place of the “not tonight, I’ve got a headache, dear” excuse.

    Paul moves toward her in bed, and she says, “Oh, Paul, you already have all the knowledge of me you need, it won’t add anything to your knowledge to actually make love.”

    I guess maybe they whisper to each other the names of various Brodmann areas associated with the pleasure centers of the brain!

    • guymax says:

      Ho ho. Very good. I wonder if eliminative materialists ever tell their partners they love them, and if so what they think they are saying.

      A psychotic disorder? That’s an idea. Have you ever read Colin Wilson’s ‘The Mind Parasites’? Excellent book for a psychologist. An alien species is camped on the far side of the moon, and for centuries has been beaming waves towards the earth that prevent human beings from thinking clearly. When I was younger it seemed an implausible plot-line, but these days I wonder if it isn’t actually a quite good theory.

      (Come to think of it, Don, you might also like his controversial first-person portrait of a serial killer, but this is not relevant here.)

  14. donsalmon says:

    I went nuts (there’s that word again:>) over Colin Wilson’s The Outsider when I was in my late teens (I think that was the title). I heard of the Mind Parasites but never got a chance to read it. yes, frightening isn’t it, how apt that theory is starting to sound!

    By the way, Sam, I didn’t mean to be insulting – just being playful. Sometimes one has to laugh, I think. (or, to put it another way, I think, therefore I am not)

    • SamL says:

      Hey don’t worry, I’m thick skinned. I agree that quarks and things are abstractions (I don’t think they’re any more real than feelings or trees), and that eliminativist materialists are wrong to say that ‘all there is is bosons on fermions’.

      I’m not sure I understand your point about the knowledge argument though. Why on earth would you think that physicalism would entail that we should treat theories of sensations as more valuable than sensations themselves? That wasn’t the point of the post at all.


      • SamL says:

        *and fermions – bloody hell I’m sorry about all the typos, don’t know what’s wrong with me at the mo!

  15. donsalmon says:

    Sam, do you have a definition of physicalism?

  16. donsalmon says:

    It wasn’t what physicalism “thinks” it should do but what it does, implicitly.

    But again, what do you mean by “physicalism”?

    • SamL says:

      You think that physicalism devalues experience in favour of theories of experience? That’s very weird, because it’s not a theory of value, it’s a theory of experience.

      Physicalism I take as synonymous with materialism (just used specifically in relation to the mind). So the short answer is, physicalism is the thesis that the mind is constituted by nothing more than physical things and their relations. Obviously that leaves open the question of how to characterise the ‘physical’, but I’m not sure how far into that you want to go.


  17. donsalmon says:

    yes, that’s exactly where I’m going. I can’t imagine what the word “physical” means.

    Make it specific. Here’s a brain (i’m referring to the lump I handled in neuropsychology seminar). I look at it, I feel it, it has a certain ‘weight” (I mean experientially).

    I’m talking about a percept. Right? I’ve isolated an aspect of an unbroken field of perceiving and given it a label – “brain” – that “label” is what makes some aspect of the perceiving/perceptual field a “percept.”

    Now, what does it mean to refer to that percept as “physical”? Does it refer to something that exists in the absence of perceiving? That’s what I assume most people mean by “physical” and that seems utterly nonsensical and anti scientific to me.

    That’s why I need to understand what you mean by “physical”. In what way does it help give me any understanding to say that that brain that I’m looking at is “physical”? And if you think that that particular percept exists apart from perceiving, or that “underlying” the percept is “something” that exists apart from perceiving, tell me how you arrive at that. I can’t conceive of what it might mean (I know that others claim to say such things in alogical manner, but I have never found their claims to have any logical basis).

    Note also that idealism as conventionally defined is, from this point of view, as utterly lacking in any logical basis whatsoever, as is dualism. Just in case you thought that’s where i was going. This holds for virtually all the contemporary philosophic views bandied about like experiential physicalism, panpsychism, etc (except for non dualism – which is often terribly misunderstood as some kind of monism, which brings us right back to the land of rene, paul and patricia)

    • SamL says:

      Ok, I see. Yes, to say that something is physical is to say that its reality is not exhausted by its appearance, i.e. it exists independently of your (or anyone else’s) experience of it. In this sense the ‘physicality’ of the brain is not given by experience, rather it is a posit which accounts for certain aspects of your experience, such as the fact that it consistently remains more or less the same before and after you blink.


  18. donsalmon says:

    Ok, that seems to be the prevailing assumption. It has so many “extras” in it that make it confusing to me.

    1. You say “your” or “anyone else’s” experience. Why add the “you” or “anyone”? All we know is perceiving and percept. There is no direct evidence of “perceiving’ as belonging to “you” or “anyone”. So the first non empirical (and to me, baseless or at least, useless) assumption is that perceiving “belongs’ to someone.

    2. What basis could there possibly be for assuming that there are some “things” or aspects of “reality” that exist independently of perceiving? How does it help to say that there is something independent of both percept and perceiving called “brain”, and then to support it by describing it in relationship to “my” blinking?

    It seems there are so many non empirical, virtually unprovable (unfalsifiable as well, but Popper is out of fashion these days) assumptions that make science complicated to the point of being utterly absurd, what could possibly be the purpose of introducing them?

    Why is assuming the existence of something independent of perceiving (I’m not talking about my or yours or Gods; just perceiving) any more sensible than saying’ the brain exists because the flying spaghetti monster keeps it in existence?”

    Why add such a fairy tale when empirical examination of Reality makes everything make perfect sense?

    • SamL says:

      Re 1, I don’t think this is a very good criticism. The distinction I was making does not hinge on whether ‘percepts’ are had by subjects, or only one subject, or just sort of float freely of their own accord (or whatever). The criterion is just that the difference between percepts and physical things is that the former’s appearance exhausts their reality – whether you feel that ‘appearance’ implies ‘appearance-to-a-subject’ or not is irrelevant.

      2 is a better criticism. To make a comment paying heed to the wider context of the thread, this is an example of the way metaphysical positions can and should be cogently disputed, in my view.

      So you’re asking – why adopt a physicalist view when on top of the things given in experience – percepts – it introduces all these other perception-independent entities which are supposed to cause the percepts? If it doesn’t bring anything to the table, why not just go with the more slim-line theory which only admits pure percepts?

      Answer: because the explanatory benefits of that baggage far outshine its weight. The relative stability, continuity, and law-like regularity of the empirical world (which we can think of just in terms of percepts if you like) are best explained by positing a world which exist independently of and is the cause of the perceived world.

      A metaphysics of pure percepts has no account of the regularity of the perceived world, while physicalism does. The reason the milk doesn’t disappear from fridge between you closing the door and opening it again is best explained by the posit that it persists in existence independently of your looking at it.


  19. donsalmon says:

    This may help. Just found this in one of Bernardo Kastrup’s books. It’s not by any means original to him (I think Peter has said this in countless ways) but still, it may be helpful – a distinction between “weak objectivity” and “strong objectivity”.

    Your definition of physical is strong objectivity. Something is objective if it exists independently of all perceiving whatsoever (even perceiving not associated with organisms with which we’re familiar – and remember, “organism” means nothing more nor less than a particular percept, in the language I’m using)

    Weak objectivity also fits what you said about the brain and “blinking” – it’s still “there” independent of my “individual” perceiving.

    Throughout your writing, you repeatedly conflate weak and strong objectivity. This is what all physicalists (all of the several hundred i’ve read over the decades, at least, starting with Bertrand Russell who I read when I was 14, and was dumbfounded to discover such a famous and allegedly intelligent person could be so clueless) do without realizing it, which is why, as Peter writes, materialism is perverse, or as Bernardo says somewhat more colorfully, why materialism is baloney:>))

  20. donsalmon says:

    But you’re positing exactly what I’m questioning – how in the world does a dead, unintelligent, meaningless, purposeless, unconscious universe produce regularities, stability? Even Steven Weinberg, at the end of his essay, “Does Science Explain Everything? Anything?” admitted, no, science has no explanation for such a thing (this “thing” that Weinberg referred to as “laws of nature”. He then, quite characteristically of self assured materialists, insisted simply that there was no other explanation for laws of nature, so of course, we all have to accept physicalism.

    Why introduce something behind the percepts that has no explanatory value? That’s exactly what I’m asking. By the way, I’m not making a positive statement about anything. I’m only questioning. I’m not saying there IS nothing behind the percepts. I’m only asking why posit something dead and unconscious. Is there any rational basis for it? You just made a perfect case against it. (at least, in league with Weinberg you did). Weinberg clearly concluded, at the end of a long New Yorker essay, that there is absolutely no rational basis for assuming a dead, purely physical world could “by chance’ come up with regularities, stability, etc.

    So what is the rational basis for making such a wild, baseless, non empirical assumption?

  21. donsalmon says:

    Maybe it’s my clinical psychology orientation, but I still fail to see that = in any way, shape or form – the whole discussion about physicalism has anything to do with logic. It is so transparently irrational, the only way that otherwise very intelligent people like Sam could possibly believe in it is if it served some emotional purpose. Sam’s latest comment brings that out a bit.

    Ok, Sam – you say, in order to explain the regularities of what you admit is the only world we can ever directly know – we have to posit a dead, unconscious, unintelligent, meaningless, purposeless “something” (I say “something” since nobody seems to agree any more on what “matter” is or what “physical” means – your definition of physical is simply the definition of “weak objective” that Bernardo gives, which essentially tells us nothing about what physical actually means). I assume you wouldn’t challenge one of the leading physicists, Weinberg, who says we have absolutely no rational basis within science for asserting that such a dead, unconscious universe can give rise to regularities.

    This in itself makes absolutely no sense. But if we take a leaf from Thomas Nagel, we have a clue as to the motive for believing in such a thing. There IS one alternative to such a perverse, “baloney filled” belief – but it involves either a theistic or Buddhist/Taoist nontheistic view of some kind of universal and/or transcendent consciousness. And to the extent one believes this is anti scientific, it is simply utterly, and totally inadmissible. Hence, the only alterantive is to embrace a perverse, irrational view to “explain” (which, as Weinberg reluctantly concludes, doesn’t really explain anything at all) the regularities in our experience.

  22. donsalmon says:

    you do realize, by the way, that nothing I said precludes the milk existing independently of “you” and “me” (in fact, “you” and “me” exist independently of you and me, but that’s another story:>). The question is not WHETHER it exists independently but HOW it exists. Your story is, as far as I can see, utterly irrational – some existent you make up out of whole cloth, subsisting in some way as a purely dead, unconscious thing – and without even the least pretense of having a basis, when in fact, there is no possible explanation as to the regularity or stability of its existence in a dead, unintelligent, unconscious world.

    That seems clearly and simply logical to me. What am I missing?

    • SamL says:

      There’s several things to be disentangled here.

      1. I’m not really that fussed about what Weinberg thinks. I thought we had agreed that materialism is a metaphysical position which must be defended on philosophical grounds, and can’t be read straight off the science? So I’m mystified as to why you keep trying to find allies for me in scientists like Coyne and Weinberg. (Your taste in materialists is terrible, btw).

      2. So we agree that there is some law-like structure to reality which is independent of that we attribute to it. I thought this was a point at issue, and my last reply reflects that. I’m glad we agree on this point.

      3. Given that, the question is why should we consider this independent law-like reality to be physical rather than something else. I’ll come to this point in moment, but first I want to be clear that positing that it is physical is not supposed help account for the law-likeness of the physical – that wouldn’t make any sense. Positing a law-like physical is supposed to account for the law-likeness of the perceptual that is caused by it. Certainly you can just posit that the perceptual is law-like in itself, but this doesn’t help account for the law-likeness of this mysterious perceptual which is somehow independent of particular perceptions (which can know can be mistaken about things). As such the law-like structure of fundamental reality remains a mystery for everyone, and isn’t where the fault-lines on this issue are drawn.

      4. Your characterisation of the physical as “dead, unconscious, unintelligent, meaningless, purposeless” rings hollow for me. I believe life exists, consciousness exists, intelligence exists, that we can exchange meaningful words and act towards purposes, and that all these things are at root physical things and processes, so I obviously don’t think the physical is ‘dead’ or anything else. However I do think there is some content to your characterisation, which I would put like this: physicalism implies a ‘bubble-up’ account of form and phenomena – small, simple processed give rise to more complex ones, organic matter arises from inorganic matter (not vice-versa), and consciousness developed from purely organic machinations.

      5. With that in mind, we can see why a physical account is better than a mental one (whether theistic or otherwise): the bubble-up account is completely consistent with what we know about the structure and history of reality. The was a time when all there was was burning hydrogen, then from this larger elements which condensed into planets, blah blah blah, complex polymers, blah blah, abiogenesis, replication, evolutionary game-theory, etc etc. I’m not saying that a mental account couldn’t tell a consistent story about this (temporal backward-projection or something), but it will always seem ad hoc compared the fairly obvious idea that the world looks the way it does because it is the way it looks. The question facing a non-physical account of reality is this then: why does reality exhibit a bubble-up structure?


  23. SamL says:

    @guymax (can’t reply directly – think you have comment nesting set at 3 max):

    As I said, I don’t think the infinite regress issue is matters much in relation to materialism – it was just an example to illustrate the wider point about a priori intuitions. When it comes to cosmology the ball is entirely in the physicists court; materialism is consistent with plenty of different positions on the origin of the universe and the physics and philosophy of time (including an emergent theory of spacetime).

    I wouldn’t say I’m unpersuadable on the hard problem – it’s a topic I’ve changed my mind on in the past (perhaps more times than on any other topic), so I’m quite open to arguments against physicalism. I’m fairly well acquainted with most of them – I found them very convincing at some point – ultimately it was the process of trying to articulate and deploy them against physicalists which lead me to see their flaws (most of them are just question-begging), and eventually to abandon them. Perhaps there are novel, better arguments that I don’t know of which will make me u-turn once more (or twice, or three times) before the curtains close. Without foresight I’m afraid all I can do is tell it like I see it.


    • guymax says:

      Oh. I didn’t know there was a setting. I’ll check to see if it’s changeable, It’s often a problem, but you can always reply to the notification email and it should come up correctly. It’s something I’ve only just figured out.

      I feel the issue of a priori intuitions is not relevant, and find the phrase very odd, An intuition is an intuition. Could an intuition ever be a posteriori?

      When it comes to cosmology the ball is firmly in the court of metaphysics. There is no chance of a cosmological theory emerging from physics, precisely because it is physics. One cannot explain the physical by reference to the physical. As Eddington remarks, there is no phenomenal way out of the phenomenal world. We see this if we look at materialism. What does it explain? What does it help us understand? It is more the absence of an idea than the presence of one. Or so it seems to me…

      I won’t keep banging on. When a physicist like Bernado Kastrup can get away with publishing a book titled ‘Why Materialism is Baloney’, it suggests to me that this theory is losing its grip as an orthodoxy and may be on its way out. We’ll see. We’ve both said our piece and can agree to differ.

      Good chat though.

  24. donsalmon says:


    I’m actually surprised, quite surprised – we actually seem to be getting somewhere.

    Let’s see: agreements first

    1. In our direct experience, we find percepts and perceiving inseparably interwoven. You don’t seem to have a problem with this.
    2. We need something other than “percepts associated with individualized perceiving” (sorry for the awkward language; if we are able to get past the initial roadblocks to communication, I think you’ll see there’s a value to this particular formulation) to account for the regularities and stability of experience, otherwise we end up with solipsism, which neither of us want. Again, agreement.

    Now you introduce a new idea. Materialism (a term I prefer to physicalism; since you included it, I’d prefer to use it from here on – it makes the irrationality of physicalism much clearer) is, you say, a better explanation for the “bottom up” character of the universe. You earlier complained about an appeal to “science” but you base your knowledge of this bottom up universe (hydrogen first, etc) on science, so I’m afraid I don’t see how to avoid bringing a bit more science into it.

    What does science say about this early universe? It is without life (dead) without consciousness (unconscious) and without intelligence (unintelligent). I don’t’ see why you have a problem with calling this early “bottom” “hydrogen” filled universe described by science “dead, unconscious and unintelligent”. Until you can find me a cosmologist who thinks the early universe was filled with life, consciousness and intelligence, I’ll continue to refer to it as dead, unconscious and unintelligent. I realize it has a certain unpleasant emotional quality to it, but there’s a value to that too, that will come out if we’re able to continue as we have been.

    So to sum up, we agree that the world as we experience it can be characterized as “percepts inseparably interwoven with perceiving.” Something more than this individualized experience is needed to account for the regularities in the world of experience.

    My question was, why do you assume that the most fundamental way to describe that world is as dead, unconscious and unintelligent? You’ve supported my assumption with your hypothesis (based on purely scientific findings) that the world billions of years ago was dead, unconscious and unintelligent.

    But this is begging the question. I don’t accept the scientific finding that the world billions of years ago was dead, unconscious and unintelligent. That’s exactly what I’m questioning. And I agree with your refusal to appeal to science on this matter, as science has nothing to say about it (as Alan Wallace so deliciously points out, strictly speaking – at least, as long as cognitive scientists refuse to accept introspection as a legitimate scientific method – there’s no scientific means of detecting consciousness anywhere in the universe (or “anywhen” in the universe either).

    So I come back to my original question (slightly altered – instead of asking about the alleged “non mental” universe which most – though you claim you’re not one of them, though ti’s not quite clear, since it seems more an evasion – materialists say the vast universe around us is mostly dead, unconscious and unintelligent and existing entirely outside the realm of perceiving– on what basis do you assert that at one time in the history of the universe, it was completely dead, unconscious and unintelligent? And if there is no scientific basis for it, why accept it when it makes the regularities and stability in our world of experience utterly inexplicable?

    • SamL says:

      I fear my last comments have caused some confusion.

      My point about materialism not being ‘read off the science’ just means that materialism is not the only metaphysical image that is consistent with the science. As such it will need philosophical backing in addition. This is not to say that science is irrelevant to the debate – clearly any metaphysics worth taking seriously will have to put a consistent reading on what it is that science is telling us. Making sense of the scientific image is a necessary requirement of any metaphysics, but the scientific image underdetermines metaphysics. The question of metaphysics is a dispute about which account of reality is best, given the findings of science as a boundary condition.

      On the ‘dead’ thing, the point here was only that physical stuff can be alive or dead (hydrogen is non-living, cats are living). Matter can transition from non-living to living, or vice-versa. It doesn’t make any sense to characterise matter as ‘dead’ anymore than it makes sense to characterise matter as ‘living’. The only asymmetry is that in the distant past the universe was non-living, and some bits of it have gradually transitioned to living and some bits of that to conscious. Maybe this is not an asymmetry at all, given that in the future the universe will probably be in high entropy and the reverse transition will gradually occur.

      There are certain propositions that any metaphysics will have to make sense of, things like “in the past the earth was essentially a rock with no life on it” (call these ‘ancestral statements’). Perhaps you want to say that rocks are in some sense living. If so then I no longer know what you’re talking about, and either way you’re still confronted with the bubble-up problem of why rock-like life appears to have transitioned into life-like-life.

      Obviously on a materialist picture there was no-one around at the time referenced by ancestral statements to witness them (this is the whole point of bringing them up), so these states and eras must be posited (in much the same way neutrinos are posited without anyone ever having laid eyes on them). If you think that begs the question then you haven’t understood the argument form – it’s an inference to the best explanation (of ancestral statements). It does not take the existence times without consciousness as a brute fact, it posits them to account for the bubble-up pattern we witness everywhere.


      • guymax says:

        Sam – I agree with you about metaphysics and science. But I would want to point out that you cannot be sure that biological life is necessary for consciousness, and this means you will never be able to make the argument that consciousness is not as old as the universe. Not that Don can finally make his case either, so in metaphysics we have to explore both possibilities, and make sure we don’t get caught up in scientific dogmatism instead.

        Nor would I agree that materialism is consistent with science. I would say it makes a mockery of science. Not arguing, just saying we can look at this in various ways.

        It is telling, I think, that all the people who claim to understand the world reject materialism, and all materialists claim not to be able to understand the world. Not a proof of anything, I know, but an interesting statistic.

  25. donsalmon says:

    another way of putting this, much more simply – you’ve simply avoided the original question by extracting the present dead, unconscious unintelligent universe that (most, if not you) materialists believe in and going back billions of years. Whether now or then, the question is exactly the same – why assume it’s (ultimately ) dead, unconscious and unintelligent when it makes all of science, and in fact, all of the universe, completely unintelligible and inexplicable? Or to go back to your original objection, it makes the regularities of our experience completely inexplicable.

    It might help to bring in Alan Wallace’s theory of ontological relativity here and remember that whatever image you have of the early universe is either (a) based on a web of perceiving and percepts which couldn’t’ have existed according to the science you believe in, or (b) based on purely quantitative, left hemisphere abstractions which tell us nothing essential about the nature of the early universe (or present universe).

    It’s as though I looked at a tree that is 12 feet tall and said, “It’s made of 144 inches.” And you asked, “inches of what?” And I answered, “why what? It’s just inches.”

    Materialism, after a point, gets to be nothing but an Abbott and Costello routine.

    Who’s on first?




    But who’s on second?

    No, who’s on first.

    That’s what I’m asking you.


    I’m not sure Ramana Maharshi could have done it any better.

  26. donsalmon says:

    Hey Sam, thanks for persisting.

    Ok, so much for being nice:>))) (just kidding)

    you’re missing most of what I’m saying, if you’re confused about “rocks being conscious” (sheesh, everyone of the physicalists gets confused about that, and no matter how much people say , No, that’s not what i’m talking about, that’s still the only way they can conceive of it. I know you guys are trying to make it purely rational and pure philosophy, but i can guarantee you, the problem you’re having understanding this has almost nothing to do with rationality.

    So let’s change tacks for a moment.

    Can you give me some sense of what your view of parapsychology is. I assume you may be familiar with Richard Wiseman’s declaration that the evidence for the “big 4” (telepathy, remote viewing, precognition and psychokinesis) is as good as the major widely accepted findings in any other area of science. I would add that a 1994 study shows that in general, the level of accuracy for replication in most areas of science, including physics, is quite poor, generally under 50%, whereas the replication standards for psi is much higher. So actually, the evidence for the big 4 is better than that of most mainstream findings.

    So having said that, can you say a bit about what your view of parapsychology is? If we can get clear about some of that, it might be easier to convey some of the other things I’ve been trying to get across. If not, it may not be possible to communicate.. but i’ll try to keep an open mind.

    i will hazard a guess that you feel at most very tentative and lean toward the skeptical regarding most psi results, and are not willing to go nearly as far as Wiseman.

    But I may be surprised. That would be very interesting.

  27. donsalmon says:

    that should have been “change tack” but change tacks sounds nice too. Shades of Abbott and Costello!

  28. guymax says:

    It worries me Don that parapsychology is being used here to undermine Materialism. Not that the argument is faulty in any way, but it may suggest to a materialist that to abandon Materialism would mean having to believe in parapsychological phenomena, and this is not the case. It seems enough to me that we can never rule them out, since we can never prove that Materialism is true.

    Also, I’m not convinced that the scientific method is capable of proving parapsychological effects. It cannot even prove everyday psychological effects to the satisfaction of eliminative materialists. You can waive your arms around all day in a most unzombie-like way, but even this is not considered sufficient evidence.

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