Defending the Courtiers at Intellectual Conservative

Alan Roebuck, at intellectualconservative.com, has what he hopes is a stinging comeback for PZ Myers’ argument commonly known as “The Courtier’s Reply.”

Atheists have a new tactic to avoid confronting the voluminous evidence for God: When your debate opponent catches you dismissing valid scholarship, cry “Courtier’ Reply!”

Predictably, he does not link to Myers’ original article, but rather presents his own hand-crafted version.

Let’s define our terminology. “The Courtier’s Reply” (abbreviated CR) is the accusation that your opponent doesn’t understand the arguments about the point being disputed, and therefore his position is unproved. “The Courtier’s Reply Ploy” (abbreviated CRP) is the accusation that your opponent is using the CR, and that the CR is invalid. When deployed in a debate about God’s existence, the CRP is fundamentally the ploy of claiming that a superficial understanding of the arguments for God is enough to show that they’re all sophistry, and that God obviously doesn’t exist or, at the very least, is totally unproved.

Roebuck has completely missed the point of the Courtier’s Reply. Atheists are not cringing and cowering and crying, “Oh god no, not more evidence, please don’t show me any evidence!” Nor are atheists at all reluctant to address the arguments for God, as anyone who has actually ready The God Delusion can tell you. The problem with the Courtier’s Reply is not that atheists are declaring that they know God does not exist and are therefore uninterested in the evidence and arguments for God. Indeed, the New Atheists have become famous chiefly because they are interested in these things, and are exposing them.

No, the problem with the Courtier’s Reply is that some people are trying to argue that belief in God should be given credibility simply because of the quantity of scholarship that exists, based on the assumption of God’s existence. These books and papers and philosophies and theologies that are being levied against atheists are not scientific investigations into whether God objectively exists; they begin with the assumption that God does exist, and then proceed to explore all the implications and ramifications and possibilities that proceed (in their eyes at least) from that premise. It is, in short, a vast mountain of fallible human speculation about God, not objective evidence of God (which is why so much of it contradicts itself).

Now granted, there is, in this body of literature and scholarship, some smallish percentage of apologetics writing, but this is the exception rather than the rule, and there’s no need to devote your entire lifetime to reading the works of men just to acquaint yourself with the rather small handful of arguments in favor of the existence of God. If there were, somewhere in that vast time sink called theology, a truly objective and undeniable proof for the existence of God, then the Courtier himself ought to know it, and ought to cut straight to the part where he shares that important knowledge with his lost brother.

Unfortunately, he can’t, because the Courtier himself doesn’t know the literature either. You’d have to spend almost your whole life locked away in an ivory tower somewhere, and even then you wouldn’t have time to make it through all the accumulated conjectures and rationalizations and denials that have accumulated over the course of the past twenty centuries. Nor is there any consistent pattern to it, since the theologians have no way to objectively observe God in real life, and are therefore left to follow whatever speculations seem right in their own eyes. The result is a long, dreary history of trends and fads and politics and people trying to prove to each other how brilliant they are.

The Courtier’s Reply is simply a smoke screen, an attempt to hide behind an overwhelming and impenetrable wall of irrelevant speculation and superstition. Atheists quite rightly point out that this is an inexcusable attempt to avoid addressing the real issue, and an ad hominem that attempts to discredit the atheist by accusing him of having failed to live up to some humanly impossible standard. If the Courtier has any real evidence, let him present it openly instead of dodging behind the detritus of fossil philosophies that he himself does not understand.

34 Responses to “Defending the Courtiers at Intellectual Conservative”

  1. Brian Utterback Says:

    After having read Alan Roebuck’s article and comments, I have to admit he has a point. If one does not adopt as axioms the meaning of evidence as empirical, and one gives equal weight to a priori and a posteriori evidence, then the Courtier’s Reply is valid. Think of all the money we can save if society adopts this idea. Juries will no longer have to listen to endless testimony, then will be able to render a verdict on the same say as the trial opens! We won’t need a space program, we will be able to reason what the rest of the universe is like. The list goes on and on.

    Of course, what the adherents of this type of reasoning fail to mention is that for all that they eschew empirical evidence in their search for God, they still require it in their day to day lives. They say that the evidence of their senses is meaningless, but virtually everything most of them think they know about God was conveyed to them by their senses in one way or another. The ancient Greeks advanced knowledge and civilization by leaps and bounds right up until the point that they decided that reality must match their thinking instead of the other way around. Then it all ground to a halt.

  2. pboyfloyd Says:

    Here’s the crux of Alan Roebuck’s argument against atheists requiring real evidence for God.

    “The proposition “The only valid evidence is empirical” cannot be validated via empirical evidence. Therefore it must, according to its own criteria, be regarded as false.”

    He hangs his dismissal of atheism on another little word game like:-

    Since the proposition, “We absolutely must not tolerate intolerance.”, must be regarded as false, by it’s own criteria, we must therefore tolerate intolerance in all it’s forms!

  3. Arthur Says:

    And of course we’ll wind up confirming the existence of an awful lot of gods. Then, if they want to establish that only one of them is real, folks will have to tighten up their definition of “evidence.” Then–wait, this sounds awfully familiar.

  4. Alan Roebuck Says:

    RationalWiki was the only online dictionaries I consulted that contained the term “Courtier’s Reply,” from which I infer that it is not considered by scholars to be a legitimate term. And P.Z. Meyer’s blog post is ambiguous in defining the term. Several commenters have said “Courtier’s Reply” actually means “assuming God exists, and arguing from there.” But since assuming the point under dispute has another name (“begging the question,”) and since it is legitimate to infer meaning by use, I went with the way I had seen it used, which is in the sense defined in my essay.

    But the precise meaning of “Courtier’s Reply” is not the main issue. The main point would be the accusation that I leveled in the essay, namely that most public, “evangelical” atheists claim there is no evidence for God. Since the question of God’s existence has been debated since the beginning of time and has been discussed at length by all the great philosophers (as well as the not-so-great), and since entire libraries have been written to argue for God’s existence, we must ask “What do they mean by ‘No evidence’?”

    They might just be ignorant of the arguments, or too obtuse to understand them. But if we give them the benefit of the doubt, they must be saying that all of the evidence (or all the evidence they’ve seen) is invalid.

    And how can they invalidate all of the evidence? My claim is that they are (possibly implicitly, perhaps without even being aware of it) judging the evidence by a standard that denies that certain lines of evidence can ever be valid. I observe that this invalid standard is basically naturalism: the belief that only the physical really exists (i.e., is a “substance”), that science is the highest form of knowledge, and that anything that cannot be validated by science can safely be assumed not to exist.

    I observe, for example, that your post says “These books and papers and philosophies and theologies that are being levied against atheists are not scientific investigations into whether God objectively exists;…” You are assuming that only science can properly investigate the question, but you are mistaken. Other forms of evidence can be valid.

    I also observe that you characterize the extant arguments for God as, among other things, “The result is a long, dreary history of trends and fads and politics and people trying to prove to each other how brilliant they are.” This shows me that you have little knowledge of the actual arguments for God.

    Note that naturalism (a view you implicitly endorse) is a negative doctrine: it says that we must reject certain conclusions or possibilities that we would accept if we were not naturalists. Naturalism does not add new knowledge or possibilities, it takes them away. Thinkers who attempt to be rational (including myself) acknowledge that empirical and scientific evidence can be valid. What makes us different from you is that we do not falsely reject other forms of evidence a priori.

    In fact, naturalism is just the sort of “universal negative” that many atheists are fond of saying that one cannot prove. And yet unless this universal negative is proved (or at least supported—“proved” may be a stronger word than is needed), the atheist is being irrational when he says “There’s no evidence for God.”

    My basic point is this: it is absurd and dangerous (not to mention invalid) to reject theistic evidence unless you have very good evidence for naturalism being true. Evidence should only be ignored if there is a good reason to ignore it. Atheists have the burden of proving that this rejection is valid, and they have not so far succeeded.

  5. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Hello Alan, welcome to Evangelical Realism. I notice that your reply does not seem to reflect any extended and in-depth study of everything skeptical scholars have written about the nature of evidence and what distinguishes reliable evidence from bogus evidence. Nor does your discussion of naturalism seem to reflect any similar study of the topic in general (let alone my personal beliefs). Under the terms of the Courtier’s Reply, therefore, I should now be entitled to declare your objections unfounded and invalid.

  6. Tom M Says:

    Atheists must prove the negative, says Alan. And not only that, he won’t be bothered to PROVIDE the negative, surely they can go find the one he’s talking about in the vast literature. Everyone knows the burden of disproof is on the skeptic. Or something like that, innit? Prove that she’s NOT a witch, she floated after all, and Mr. Scruffypants asserted that she’s turned him into a newt, and you can’t disprove it!

  7. Tony Hoffman Says:

    “I notice that your reply does not seem to reflect any extended and in-depth study of everything skeptical scholars have written about the nature of evidence and what distinguishes reliable evidence from bogus evidence. Nor does your discussion of naturalism seem to reflect any similar study of the topic in general (let alone my personal beliefs). Under the terms of the Courtier’s Reply, therefore, I should now be entitled to declare your objections unfounded and invalid.”

    Awesome. I will use this in the future.

    Part of me wonders if the whole post wasn’t built with the opportunity for this reply in mind. If so, further kudos.

  8. Tony Hoffman Says:

    Alan: “You are assuming that only science can properly investigate the question, but you are mistaken. Other forms of evidence can be valid.”

    Other forms of evidence like…?

    So busy…. time running out…. don’t have time… to mention…. the evidence.

    The problem is that if whenever theists get around to describing their God and his attributes it can then be demonstrated that this God either does not exist or that his existence is meaningless. It appears that you are strongly in the meaningless camp.

  9. Amos Says:

    Alan Roebuck’s comments here and at IC have been… strange. A couple selected problems:

    1) It looks like he still doesn’t understand what the “Courtier’s Reply” is, now confusing it with begging the question. The idea that it might amount to something like a pattern of using irrelevant demands to disregard someone’s argument is still lost on him.

    2) Despite saying that the question “we must ask “What do they mean by ‘No evidence’?”” is at the center of the problem, he makes no attempt to actually ask anyone what they mean. He does try his hand at just guessing. When people answer the question of their own volition, he then has his hand at guessing what’s *really* behind their answers. It’s clear he’d rather be a psychic than a communication partner.

  10. pboyfloyd Says:

    “…it is absurd and dangerous (not to mention invalid) to reject theistic evidence unless you have very good evidence for naturalism being true.”

    Not only shifting the burden of proof, sneeringly shifting the burden of proof!

    Are we going to hear a couple of ‘nuggets’ which compose this ‘mountain’ of theistic evidence?

    I doubt it.

  11. Alan Roebuck Says:

    Your responses so far have been underwhelming. Perhaps this is just a site where atheists meet to kibbitz and I have committed a faux pas by intruding on a private conversation and asking that you justify your atheism. But you criticized my essay, so I defended myself. I wonder if you can defend yourselves.

    My language is harsh, but fair and not insulting. Since I have to interact with you (I have to defend my essay), I might as well try to knock some sense into you.

    There is no symmetry between our positions. Your position is defined by the “No!” you say to a vast sum of evidence and arguments. My position is that some of this sum is valid, and you need to justify your rejection of obviously good evidence. If you cannot justify it, you are probably wrong.

    Are you even aware of your own reasons for rejecting all the evidence? How much of the evidence do you even know? Are you capable of doing more than sneering?

    Do you know how one might investigate something that is not physical? There is at least one non-physical thing that you know exists: Your consciousness. Don’t say “Consciousness is caused only by the functioning of brain cells.” Even if that were true, consciousness itself, the thing you experience, is obviously not brain cells, nor is it functioning of brain cells. Your consciousness does not have weight or a chemical makeup, so consciousness does not equal brain cells. And your consciousness cannot be measured in volts and amps, so consciousness does not equal brain cell activity. Your consciousness is an irreducible thing, and non-material.

    So at least one non-material thing exists. (Technically, I’m claiming it’s a “substance,” that is, something that exists in and of itself, and not as a property of something else.) Therefore other non-material things may exist.

    We don’t have a direct experience of God, as we do of our minds. So how, in general, does one discern whether a non-material thing exists? Not by empirical evidence, because we cannot detect a non-material thing with our senses. Some other line of reasoning must be used.

    The basic evidence for God is that the various aspects of reality cannot generate themselves, and therefore need a cause. Here are brief summaries of two lines of argumentation.

    The universe (including space and time) did not always exist. Therefore something outside of matter, space and time caused it. Sure, this analysis does not show that the cause is God. But it does shows that the cause is not the matter that you tacitly assume causes everything.

    Darwinists only believe that Evolution can account for the origin and development of all life because they assume God did not do it, and therefore matter is all that could have done it. But they are assuming their answer, not proving it. It is more plausible (unless you have an irrational presupposition of naturalism) that an intelligent Being caused life.

    Question: If one does not beg the question by assuming that God is impossible, why specifically is a naturalistic explanation of the origins of the cosmos and of life more plausible than a theistic one?

    Saying “science has proved Evolution” is an invalid answer. Science assumes the materialism that I am asking you to justify.

    Saying “The Bible is full of mistakes” is in invalid answer. Mistakes do not justify naturalism.

    Saying “Religious believer say and do many evil and foolish things” is an invalid answer. Mistakes and evil do not justify naturalism.

    Can you justify your rejection of all the evidence?

  12. Alan Roebuck Says:

    Another thing: To criticize me for not providing evidence for God (meaning the various theistic proofs that have been offered) in my essay or comments is foolish: Either you are familiar with the evidence or you are not. If you are not familiar with it, you cannot claim there is no evidence for God; you need to study the arguments and then come back to the conversation. And if you are familiar with it, why are you asking me for it? This discussion is about whether it is correct to say that there is no evidence, not about the evidence itself. This discussion presupposes that the interlocutors are familiar, at least in a general way, with the evidence.

  13. Paul Says:

    There is at least one non-physical thing that you know exists: Your consciousness. Don’t say “Consciousness is caused only by the functioning of brain cells.” Even if that were true, consciousness itself, the thing you experience, is obviously not brain cells, nor is it functioning of brain cells. Your consciousness does not have weight or a chemical makeup, so consciousness does not equal brain cells. And your consciousness cannot be measured in volts and amps, so consciousness does not equal brain cell activity. Your consciousness is an irreducible thing, and non-material.

    What? Special pleading?

  14. Amos Says:

    “Your responses so far have been underwhelming.”

    We’ve matched wits!

    “I have committed a faux pas by intruding on a private conversation and asking that you justify your atheism.”

    There’s nothing atheists like more than doing just that. But the atheists you’ve been arguing with have been the products of your imagination. The real ones felt ignored.

    “Are you even aware of your own reasons for rejecting all the evidence? How much of the evidence do you even know?”

    Without a clear definition of “evidence” this will be hard to answer, but I’ll go out on a limb and say we’re aware. Am I right to assume you’re using the word “evidence” to describe even things that have been debunked, found to be false, disproved, etc.? I assume you’re calling everything that’s ever been put forward “evidence”. I don’t think everyone agrees on terms.

    “Your consciousness is an irreducible thing, and non-material.”

    Or we could go with nonreductive physicalism via supervenience (or even eliminative materialism if we were in such a mood). Still, we know what you’re getting at. Moving on.

    “The universe (including space and time) did not always exist. Therefore something outside of matter, space and time caused it.”

    We already talk of a singularity that’s outside of matter, space and time. Are we going to have one thing outside of matter, space and time (God) creating a second thing outside of matter, space and time (the singularity) which then created matter, space and time? I’m sure I can fit a horse in as well. (And then there’s the unjustified assumption that causation must be used to explain the network of causation we find ourselves in.)

    “Darwinists only believe that Evolution can account for the origin and development of all life because they assume God did not do it”

    Evolution is about the change in life over time, not its origin. And it’s not an inherently atheistic theory. Last I heard, more believers in the world accept evolution than atheists do.

    “It is more plausible (unless you have an irrational presupposition of naturalism) that an intelligent Being caused life.”

    Possible and plausible are not the same thing. There is no physical barrier in principle to life coming about naturally, and several lines of investigation appear promising in the search to discover exactly what happened in fact on earth. Why assume the unnecessary and unusual?

    “Saying “science has proved Evolution” is an invalid answer. Science assumes the materialism that I am asking you to justify.”

    Parsimony. That’s all the justification you should need.

  15. pboyfloyd Says:

    Mr. Roebuck says, “There is at least one non-physical thing that you know exists: Your consciousness.”

    Consciousness is a process or a word, the first word in this sentence. Now we both know we’re not talking about the word ‘consciousness’ here,so an analogy to consciousness would be ‘the flowingness’ of a river. The ‘flowingness’ is not the water itself, much like the consciousness is not the chemical reactions themselves.

    Hey, you came here to teach us something, perhaps you might learn something instead, Mr.Roebuck?

    I am underwhelmed(to use your word) that you can point out ‘things’ which don’t materially exist. I think you’re just mixing and matching your categories here.

    (Please come to my blog and defend yourself there too! )

  16. pboyfloyd Says:

    “..evidence for God (meaning the various theistic proofs that have been offered) ”

    That’s all I needed to hear, thanks. Phew! For a while there I thought you had some serious evidence that had previously been kept hidden from me.

  17. Alan Roebuck and the nature of evidence « Evangelical Realism Says:

    [...] of evidence June 29, 2011 — Deacon Duncan I am pleased to see that Alan Roebuck has returned to defend his position in the comments on my post of a few days ago, and seems quite eager to [...]

  18. Anonymous Says:

    ayouren:

    Unlike most of the atheists in this conversation, you at least attempt to give a rational argument.

    You said,

    “Am I right to assume you’re using the word “evidence” to describe even things that have been debunked, found to be false, disproved, etc.?”

    No. The opposite of “only naturalistic/empirical/scientific evidence is valid” is not “everything is valid.”

    To repeat a comment I posted at IC: It is a mistake to think that one can give a single, sharply-defined definition of the concept “evidence.” Obviously the basic meaning is “something that validly points to something else,” but only an omniscient being can give an exact definition of “evidence.” This is because any definition you give will exclude certain categories, but you cannot know that the category must be excluded until you examine it, which requires that you treat it as potentially being valid.

    When the typical atheistic apologist tries to debunk the various arguments and lines of evidence give for God, he implicitly assumes that only empirical evidence counts. Sure, not all atheists argue this way, but the vast majority I’ve encountered do.

    Regarding my claim that consciousness is a non-material substance, you said

    “Or we could go with nonreductive physicalism via supervenience (or even eliminative materialism if we were in such a mood).”

    Supervenience, although it can be a legitimate concept, is here being used to evade an obvious reality: your consciousness really exists, and is not a property of, or supervenient on, something else. Whatever its origin, it is a real substnce. Therefore materialism is false.

    Your response to my reference to the Big Bang is also an evasion: Things don’t happen for no reason.

    Ordinary people understand this. Eggheads such as you and I often miss the obvious because we sometimes traffic in theories designed, in part, to evade uncomfortable truths.

    Evolution can be a slippery subject, especially because people use differing definitions. My definition conforms to the way scientists speak about it publicly; although they may occasionally claim that evolution is theistically neutral they never act that way in their professional dealings. Evolution as officially practiced most certainly assumes no God.

    You said evolution is more plausible than creation based, in part, on parsimony. But parsimony is only valid if the offered explanation has a chance of being valid. Evolution is only plausible as an explanation of ALL changes on the assumption of atheism.

    pboyfloyd,

    You said,

    “I am underwhelmed(to use your word) that you can point out ‘things’ which don’t materially exist.”

    You are assuming materialism. Given the evidence against it (consciousness for one), you need to give some justification for your position. Since this is just a blog combox, an outline of the justification is all that is called for.

    To restate my position: I have never seen valid evidence or proof that materialism is true. Show me your argument.

    In case any undecided persons are reading this exchange, let me point out that most of the atheists here (ayouren excepted) have not even attempted to give any argument for their case. They simply assume their skepticism is fully rational. Obviously this is not the place to present a lengthy case, but at least some form of rational discourse is called for. After all, if they are so confident that their position is strong, they ought to offer some wise counsel to the misguided theists.

  19. Alan Roebuck Says:

    Sorry, I think I mistakenly posted as Anonymous. Here goes again:

    ayouren:

    Unlike most of the atheists in this conversation, you at least attempt to give a rational argument.

    You said,

    “Am I right to assume you’re using the word “evidence” to describe even things that have been debunked, found to be false, disproved, etc.?”

    No. The opposite of “only naturalistic/empirical/scientific evidence is valid” is not “everything is valid.”

    To repeat a comment I posted at IC: It is a mistake to think that one can give a single, sharply-defined definition of the concept “evidence.” Obviously the basic meaning is “something that validly points to something else,” but only an omniscient being can give an exact definition of “evidence.” This is because any definition you give will exclude certain categories, but you cannot know that the category must be excluded until you examine it, which requires that you treat it as potentially being valid.

    When the typical atheistic apologist tries to debunk the various arguments and lines of evidence give for God, he implicitly assumes that only empirical evidence counts. Sure, not all atheists argue this way, but the vast majority I’ve encountered do.

    Regarding my claim that consciousness is a non-material substance, you said

    “Or we could go with nonreductive physicalism via supervenience (or even eliminative materialism if we were in such a mood).”

    Supervenience, although it can be a legitimate concept, is here being used to evade an obvious reality: your consciousness really exists, and is not a property of, or supervenient on, something else. Whatever its origin, it is a real substance. Therefore materialism is false.

    Your response to my reference to the Big Bang is also an evasion: Things don’t happen for no reason.

    Ordinary people understand this. Eggheads such as you and I often miss the obvious because we sometimes traffic in theories designed, in part, to evade uncomfortable truths.

    Evolution can be a slippery subject, especially because people use differing definitions. My definition conforms to the way scientists speak about it publicly; although they may occasionally claim that evolution is theistically neutral they never act that way in their professional dealings. Evolution as officially practiced most certainly assumes no God.

    You said evolution is more plausible than creation based, in part, on parsimony. But parsimony is only valid if the offered explanation has a chance of being valid. Evolution is only plausible as an explanation of ALL changes on the assumption of atheism.

    pboyfloyd,

    You said,

    “I am underwhelmed(to use your word) that you can point out ‘things’ which don’t materially exist.”

    You are assuming materialism. Given the evidence against it (consciousness for one), you need to give some justification for your position. Since this is just a blog combox, an outline of the justification is all that is called for.

    To restate my position: I have never seen valid evidence or proof that materialism is true. Show me your argument.

    In case any undecided persons are reading this exchange, let me point out that most of the atheists here (ayouren excepted) have not even attempted to give any argument for their case. They simply assume their skepticism is fully rational. Obviously this is not the place to present a lengthy case, but at least some form of rational discourse is called for. After all, if they are so confident that their position is strong, they ought to offer some wise counsel to the misguided theists.

  20. pboyfloyd Says:

    “You are assuming materialism.”

    We were, I thought, discussing whether our consciousnesses were processes or substances. Sure you can call your consciousness ‘a thing’ if you like but calling consciousness a thing and/or a substance smacks of word-magic to me, so it seems to be boiling down to a definition game.

    Judging by your answer to another commenter on the definition of the word ‘evidence’, I’m starting to imagine you repeating the, “..but only an omniscient being can give an exact definition of..”, line enough times then declaring that as good evidence of The Omniscient Being.

    Okay, maybe not, maybe not.

    But my main point was that a conscious being’s consciousness is a process and not a substance, unless by ‘substance’ you mean ‘process’.(in which case you’re just juggling words)

    I define a process to be a series of events. An event would be a thing which itself has no substance.

    Example:- The rock fell down. (we cannot put the fallingness of the rock in our pocket)
    Consciousness Example:- “I tot I taw a puddy tat!” Oneth again, we cannot put the ‘tinking’ or the ‘teeing’ in our pocketh.

    IOW, an ‘immaterial substance’ is an oxymoron.

    Yes?

    Let’s at least clear that up before we go assuming what it is that I’m assuming, since you brought up this consciousness thing, in the first place, for a reason, didn’t you?

    • Alan Roebuck Says:

      If you cannot acknowledge that your own consciousness is real, that it is a substance, that it is not just an epiphenomenon, then there is no point in our continuing any conversation. Since your consciousness basically IS you, to deny the reality of your consciousness is to deny the reality of yourself.

      If consciousness is a process, then it is the process by which we are made aware of ourselves. When we are unconscious, we may be unaware of ourselves, but our selves must still exist, because otherwise we would not exist. Either way, our selves, which obviously exist as substances and not as epiphenomena, are not material.

      If your position requires that you deny that you exist, then your position must be wrong.

  21. Janney Says:

    Mr. Roebuck,

    …most of the atheists here (ayouren excepted) have not even attempted to give any argument for their case. They simply assume their skepticism is fully rational.

    For the record, Deacon Duncan has responded with a new post. Please don’t give up on us yet.

  22. Pliny the in Between Says:

    Consciousness is just a word. It is a word that was created to describe something long before there was even a hint at an underlying physical (electro and biochemical) process. Therefore consciousness in reality is just a label we insist on clinging to when describing a complex set of neurosensory perceptions created by well studied anatomic and physiologic processes that are accessible to anyone with an interest in neuroanatomy and physiology. Most (if not all) of the emotions, perceptions, mental states (including deeply religious ones) can be reliably duplicated by stimulation of brain regions or the application of either neurotransmitters or their analogs. As a corollary, damage to certain areas of the brain results in predicable alterations in emotion, cognition, perception, or even spiritualism. No evidence for any conscious activity absent the underlying neuroanatomy has ever been demonstrated in any test. Claims to such are based upon biased anecdotal reports by individuals that have never been able to be repeated with controlled observation, other than through well described stimulation or suppression experiments that prove the physiology of thought, rather than lend support to non-material explanations. So while there is enormous data in support of a material explanation for human thought, there is none outside of philosophy debates, for any other explanations.

  23. Amos Says:

    I’m seeing a few bare assertions.

    For example, the assertion that consciousness is not only nonphysical but obviously so. Subsequently offered physical ideas of consciousness, supervenience and mind as process, are merely waved aside as “evasion” and “assuming materialism”. Essentially, “Materialism doesn’t cover this phenomenon. I will now ignore how materialism might cover this phenomenon.”

    For example, the bizarre claim that for evolution to plausibly explain all biological changes we must assume atheism. We’re given no indication that evolution is insufficient to account for what we find in nature. We’re given no reason to believe that theism necessitates biological fiddling by a deity beyond an initial act of creation, one which sets evolution into motion. It’s asserted regardless.

  24. Tony Hoffman Says:

    Roebuck: “Another thing: To criticize me for not providing evidence for God (meaning the various theistic proofs that have been offered) in my essay or comments is foolish: Either you are familiar with the evidence or you are not.”

    Yes, I’ll bet we are all familiar with what you refer to. By evidence I am now gathering that you mean what are most often called (logical) proofs or arguments for God’s existence. Why not use those terms, as in my experience that is how they are most often described?

    Here’s how I see it: If I emerge from my home and exclaim, “I have evidence for Dragons, just come inside my house!” and once the crowd has gathered I bring everybody inside my house I go:

    Me: “Look at how large the entryway is. You can see plainly how any dragon would find this inviting.”
    Crowd: “Okay, but where’s the evidence?”
    Me: “Right this way. Come into the main Foyer. Here we see it is painted in bright blue, a well known favorite color of dragons.”
    Crowd: “No doubt. Yes, all good. But please show us the evidence.”
    Me: “Butler’s pantry. You’ll notice here food can be staged and brought out in the spritely manner to which dragons are accustomed to being served.”
    Crowd (now starting to dimish): “Yes, but the evidence you called us for is…”
    Me: “The basement! It’s darkness is vast, where a dragon could lurk in any corner, our torches unable to uncover him. One can almost hear him breathing!”
    Crowd (fanning out to every corner): “There’s no dragon down here, either. There never was a dragon, was there?”
    Me: “Idiots. I’ve done nothing but show you evidence for dragons!”

    You see, we’ve all gathered and gone through the house before. And when you come out and shout the same call, we’re a wee tad skeptical now. Which is why we’re asking for the evidence, rather than a tour of the same rooms that we saw last time.

    Sooo, you got anything new? Because it seems like the only thing that’s new is the notion that a set of interesting but inconclusive arguments are now being called “evidence.”

  25. Pliny the in Between Says:

    Consciousness is not a substance, it is a word. It’s a word that was created to describe something long before humans had any knowledge of the underlying physical processes. It’s just a label we insist on clinging towhen describing a complex set of neurosensory perceptions created by well studied anatomic and physiologic structures and processes. These processes are accessible to anyone with an interest in neuroanatomy and physiology. These disciplines form the strong basis for taking a material view of issue of the mind. Most (if not all) of the emotions, perceptions, mental states (including deeply religious ones) can be reliably duplicated by stimulation of specific regions of the brain or the application of either neurotransmitters or their analogs. As a corollary, damage to these regions results in predictable alterations in emotion, cognition, perception, notion of self, or even spirituality. These constitute very strong evidence of a material explanation of thought processes. No evidence of any consciousness outside of the constraints of neuroanatomy has ever been demonstrated in any valid test. Claims to such have always been anecdotal, biased or poorly tested. Such claims have not been repeatable nor have they demonstrated any findings that cannot be explained by the neurosciences. Neuroscience experimentation has resulted in enormous support for a material explanation of the mind while other explanations fail to provide any support outside of philosophy debates.

    Another problem of course is the claim that because consciousness is just a process, that one’s identity is not real, isn’t a compelling argument. The fact that I am a series of neurochemical processes doesn’t make me unreal. It just means I have to be more careful and not fall for biased arguments absent any repeatable evidence. We are free to make up what we wish inside our heads, except the underlying limits of the material processes that govern even our most insistent wishful thinking.

  26. pboyfloyd Says:

    “If your position requires that you deny that you exist, then your position must be wrong.”

    Sure, this must contain the same kind of reasoning where you go from:-

    1)Consciousness is a thing
    2)Things are made of substances
    3)We cannot detect consciousness substance
    therefore

    4) Consciousness must be an immaterial substance!

    But, once again, ‘immaterial substance’ is an oxymoron.

    I’m not getting into Philosophy of Mind and shades of epiphomenalism with you, it’s funny to me how you are calling on this now after basically admitting that the meaning of words such as evidence are hard(if not impossible) to explain.

    I want to suggest that of course materialists ‘assume materialism’, and you can put forward any reason you like why I shouldn’t do that, but, The Courtier’s Reply, is when a supernaturalist(such as yourself) is arguing points made my materialists by assuming God.

    It is not for me to tell you to believe in the supernatural or not, Mr. Roebuck, but if a materialist makes some points which you feel the need to rebut, you can’t do it by calling on evidence which assumes God.(and they all assume at least the possibility of God).

    Your entire premise that materialists are assuming materialism when materialists coined the term Courtier’s Reply to explain that assuming God is not valid(to a materialist) amounts to ‘tu quoque’.

    I am an atheist, therefore there are no gods, not even one. You can run that through your worldview and read it, “I hate your god.”, if you like, but it’s not the same thing.

  27. pboyfloyd Says:

    “If consciousness is a process, then it is the process by which we are made aware of ourselves.”
    I think that this is a very poor description of the process that is consciousness. You’re boxing it in.

    ” When we are unconscious, we may be unaware of ourselves, but our selves must still exist, because otherwise we would not exist.”
    The process that is consciousness is not so easily hand-waved away, surely.

    “Either way, our selves, which obviously exist as substances and not as epiphenomena, are not material. ”

    Your first two sentences didn’t warrant your conclusion because your ‘self’ doesn’t ‘obviously exist as a substance’ and reintroducing the idea that there can be ‘immaterial substances’ in a slightly different way doesn’t make the notion any less oxymoronic.

    Going to sleep doesn’t even begin to hint that consciousness isn’t a process, and I think you know this. You’re just playing games with the words, consciousness, self, existence, unconsciousness, awareness, epiphenomena and obviously.

    Obviously.

  28. Alan Roebuck Says:

    pboyfloyd,

    You are making things too complicated. Your position is that there is no evidence for the supernatural, and I am pointing you to something real (your consciousness) and telling you that matter cannot account for consciousness. If consciousness really cannot be accounted for under materialism, then materialism is necessarily false.

    I call consciousness a substance to emphasize that it is real, that it is not just a property of something else.

    As a materialist, you have to believe that consciousness is either not real or else only a property of something material. But is it reasonable to believe either of these things? I say no. The failure of materialism to produce a generally agreed upon mechanism or description of consciousness should point you to a reality that is difficult to impress upon those who don’t want to acknowledge it: matter cannot account for all of reality, therefore materialism is false.

    There is no reason (other than an assumption of materialism) to believe that consciousness is material. It is influenced by and correlated with material brain states, but it is not the same thing as material. We do not experience our conscious selves as being material. We cannot measure consciousness, and measurement is the sine qua non of a material property. [What would be the unit of consciousness, and how would you compare your consciousness with it to see how many units your consciousness contains?] And consciousness is not just a material process, because material processes also have physically measurable characteristics and consciousness cannot be measured.

    Therefore it is unreasonable to insist that consciousness is ultimately nothing but material.

    • Tacroy Says:

      Though I kinda doubt anyone will see this since it’s been nearly a month now, the guy who writes Ebon Musings has (imo, of course) thoroughly debunked the idea that matter does not account for consciousness over here. Of course, he’s specifically talking about souls in that article, but I see little difference between your conception of “consciousness” and the formulation of “soul” that he disproves.

      Fundamentally, your hypothesis states that consciousness is not material. If that were true, we would find that physical effects on the brain would have little to no effect on consciousness. This is not the case, and entire industries are based around that fact; for instance, if consciousness were not largely a material process, alcohol would not get you drunk, peyote would not make you hallucinate, Alzheimer’s would not make you forget and having a large iron rod driven through your skull would not drastically change your personality.

  29. Tom M Says:

    Except that there’s all sort of neurological work being done around measuring consciousness. If you weren’t so busy hand-waving you could use that marvelous dexterity to google that and learn the truth in about ten seconds. And even if there weren’t, you seem to be implying that therefore, any immaterial thing which you feel like positing (in this case a deity), must exist, QED. Which is a giant quacking non sequitur.

  30. pboyfloyd Says:

    “As a materialist, you have to believe that consciousness is either not real or else only a property of something material. ”

    I believe that life is a process too, would you give me the same options there?

    Try not to step all over your own religious doctrine as you explain how the life of a fungus isn’t ‘only a property of something material’.

    Consciousness(as I understand it) is a property of certain organic beings, and of course there is a ‘gradient’, and of course we could devise tests to grade the consciousness of everything from a rock to a god.

    Hint:- gods don’t do well.(they don’t seem to live up to their omnipresence to answer, while rocks, although ‘there’, don’t display any observable consciousness of their environment.)

    But I put it to you that your response is simply a tu quoque and you skipped it. In fact you’ve skipped several things I’ve brought up. You’ve even hinted that if I’m not willing to ‘go along’ with your definition of consciousness there’s no point in continuing.

    From your ‘end’, what do you think happens to consciousness when you sleep? Where does this substantive ‘thing’ go?

  31. jaredcormier Says:

    Why, oh why, must I read these things…. Sorry if this is too long, I figured I would have to leave everything in context for full effect.

    “You are making things too complicated.”

    Things are complicated; deal with it.

    “Your position is that there is no evidence for the supernatural, and I am pointing you to something real (your consciousness) and telling you that matter cannot account for consciousness.”

    It does quite well, actually, perhaps you should explore a bit of neurology. For starters, what you call consciousness isn’t a single process, part of the brain, or chemical reaction; it can be impacted and changed by alterations to the chemical or physical construction of the brain, the location of these alterations influences the manifested changes in quite predictable patterns. Changes in certain genes influence how memories are formed, changes in certain structures alter moods or behaviors, changes in relative hormone levels, neurotransmitter levels, and many other things impact what you are calling “consciousness.” Additionally, we need not perceive something “consciously” for it to affect our behavior; consciousness in an illusion of our brains. If you wish to learn about this, I can recommend a few neurobiology textbooks if you would like.

    While we’re on the subject of words, “consciousness” is a word we use to describe the phenomenon of “self” and does not necessarily have any basis in reality. The very word “conscious” comes from Latin (conscius) which literally means “knowing with” requiring a dative noun behind it. They had it right in ascribing a specific method of perception.

    If consciousness really cannot be accounted for under materialism, then materialism is necessarily false.

    You’re assuming it cannot be… Nice assumption, wrong though it may be.

    As a materialist, you have to believe that consciousness is either not real or else only a property of something material.

    False dichotomy much? It could be a very real subjective experience which does not reflect what is actually going on inside the brain (we actually have some evidence that it is). Some things affect our behavior more when we are unaware of them. If the “consciousness” model you propose were correct, this shouldn’t be possible. I’ll instead refer to “consciousness” as “perception,” for sake of clarity, since this is how you seem to be using the term. I will refer to “consciousness” as the illusion of top-down behavior control.

    But is it reasonable to believe either of these things?

    We have evidence that “consciousness” isn’t some top-down regulation of the brain; quit thinking like an old school computer programmer and start thinking of the brain as a collection of modules all acting independently with varying levels of influence on behaviors and what we perceive is only a part of that, ever played around with VMs? Yea, perception is just one of these that the brain hosts.

    I say no. The failure of materialism to produce a generally agreed upon mechanism or description of consciousness should point you to a reality that is difficult to impress upon those who don’t want to acknowledge it: matter cannot account for all of reality, therefore materialism is false.

    Just because you say so? Even if perception and behavior weren’t much more investigated and understood than you think, you are still only pointing to a gap in our knowledge. This doesn’t mean materialism is wrong, it just means we haven’t gotten there yet. You still aren’t disproving materialism by pointing out it isn’t fully understood, only pointing out a well known gap in our understanding, thank you, we know, back to your village, they miss you there.

    There is no reason (other than an assumption of materialism) to believe that consciousness is material.

    Antidepressants? No? Effects of stroke? No? Impact of trauma? No? Do you want an engineering diagram? It doesn’t exist, the brain is messy and complicated, sorry if you don’t understand.

    It is influenced by and correlated with material brain states, but it is not the same thing as material.

    What are “brain states,” I’m not familiar with them…oh, you mean those other fake things that psychologists like to talk about? Yea, sorry, not interested.

    We do not experience our conscious selves as being material.

    And we experience everything precisely as it exists in reality? Have you never seen an optical illusion or magic trick in your life?

    We cannot measure consciousness, and measurement is the sine qua non of a material property.

    That’s news to me, what are Vorberg et. al studying? I was under the impression they were looking into perception and its role it relates to behaviors, but what do I know? As far as the idea of measuring something is concerned, we need not measure a house in one single type of unit, we measure features of the house in various units: area of each room, dimensions, number of rooms, floorplan, etc. Similarly, we can map which parts of the brain respond to stimuli we perceive while others respond without perception, how those parts interact, exploring masked stimuli is just one tool for this, others include fMRI studies (higher resolution on these machines will be required before we can get accurate enough images to really make inroads, but we can get the general idea) and chemical manipulation.

    [What would be the unit of consciousness, and how would you compare your consciousness with it to see how many units your consciousness contains?]

    Do you really think this is a good question?

    And consciousness is not just a material process, because material processes also have physically measurable characteristics and consciousness cannot be measured.

    What you call “consciousness” doesn’t exist, perception and behavior, on the other hand, all manifest in specific ways within the brain.

    Therefore it is unreasonable to insist that consciousness is ultimately nothing but material.

    I’m sorry, but did you just use a straw man to argue that the perception of consciousness makes it real and that consciousness is not material, thus materialism is wrong? Do you think this somehow proves God exists? Just because you wave your hands and play word games does not make it true, nor does it make you intellectual.

    FYI, most philosophy on this subject currently lags behind the science by several decades trying to reconcile the notion that consciousness is a single thing with the evidence that it is not. Dennett has made some inroads, but it’s mostly just beginning. As Huxley once said, “The great tragedy of Science – the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” Your beautiful hypothesis was slain long ago, you just never found the body.

  32. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Hi, Alan, I’m glad you’re still participating in the discussion and I apologize for being out of the loop for a while during my hospitalization. You may be interested in a couple of posts I’ve made regarding some of your points here in the comments, and you’re certainly welcome to add your comments there as well.

    http://realevang.wordpress.com/2011/06/29/alan-roebuck-and-the-nature-of-evidence/
    http://realevang.wordpress.com/2011/07/09/alan-roebuck-and-the-material-nature-of-consciousness/

    And while I’m at it, you may be interested in this post from a while back, entitled “No evidence? Hardly!”

    http://blog.evangelicalrealism.com/2008/06/02/no-evidence-hardly/

    Thanks.


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