I’m grateful to Alan Roebuck’s continued contributions to our comments area, because he is providing us with such a wealth of material to work with.
For instance, consider this quote.
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.
This is something we can work with. This is a claim that can be examined in the light of the real world and tested for consistency with objective fact. This is good stuff.
There are a couple of things about this that strike me as just a bit ironic. Notice first of all that Prof. Roebuck’s point seems to make some naive assumptions about what materialism ought to be. He seems to think that a materialist has to be dogmatically committed to the idea that only physical things, only things made out of matter, can be real. “Aha!” he thinks, “I’ll just cite an example of something real that is not made out of matter, and their whole house of cards will come tumbling down.”
And in fairness, I have actually met a few people who do indeed insist that only the things which are made of matter are real. But this is not materialism. Materialism is belief in material reality, which consists not only of matter itself, but also of the properties and processes of matter. Matter has real properties, like mass, location, color, and so on, but these properties are not themselves made of matter. Space and time are not made of matter either, yet they are properties of the material universe, and as such are material properties.
Likewise matter undergoes certain processes which change its characteristics, and these processes are real processes. The actual process is not made of matter itself, but is a change in state over time. (In fact if you look at time as being merely one more dimension in which things exist, “process” is merely a type of property, a pattern that manifests itself along the time axis instead of along some other axis.)
The properties and processes of matter are what secular scientists study. There is no scientific bias against studying things that are not themselves made out of matter, and in fact one of the chief goals of science is to understand the properties and processes. Such things are the domain of materialistic science, because the properties and processes of matter are necessarily material properties and processes. “Material” does not mean “only what is made out of matter.”
The second ironic thing about his claim is that, of all the examples he could have picked, consciousness is one of the worst, as far as his argument is concerned. Consciousness is very obviously a material process, otherwise physical substances like ethanol would not be able to interfere with it. If it were a supernatural, immaterial “substance,” as in “something that exists in and of itself,” mere physical chemistry would not harm it. Yet we lose consciousness every time we fall asleep, or have too much to drink, or are anesthetized for surgery (as I can vouch from recent experience). Consciousness is something that very clearly comes and goes, depending on our level of physical brain function.
This, of course, is 100% what we would expect to find in a phenomenon that was a material property/process of brain matter, and it stands in stark contrast to what we ought to expect from an immaterial consciousness that existed in and of itself. Prof. Roebuck has a followup in a later comment, though.
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.
However he himself immediately refutes his own claim in the very next paragraph.
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.
Consciousness does not exist when we are unconscious. That’s what “unconscious” means: no consciousness. So either he ought to say that we cease to exist when we are unconscious, or else he ought to admit that “self” and “consciousness” are not the same thing at all. Consciousness is an aspect of our material self, as is our material body. We continue to exist even when unconscious because of the physical continuity of our bodies and our biological brain processes, which maintain memories and personality and such even across episodes of unconsciousness.
Prof. Roebuck may wish to believe that the self exists as an immaterial substance in and of itself. The patterns we see in the real world evidence, however, are far more consistent with the conclusion that “self” is a perceptual artifact of material and biological processes occurring in the brain. Self, and consciousness, are real, but they are real precisely because they are material–not in the sense that they are made out of matter, but because they are the processes and properties of matter.
He continues in another comment.
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.
It’s true that neither materialism nor anti-materialism have produced a generally agreed upon mechanism for consciousness, but in all fairness it should be conceded that materialistic science has made orders of magnitude more progress on that front than any of the anti-materialistists have. Anti-materialistic attempts at describing consciousness end up merely attributing consciousness to ineffable supernatural agencies, without being able to show any connection to those agencies or even to explain what those connections could be if we could observe them. This, of course, is mere superstition, not explanation.
Meanwhile, on the materialistic side, there is a huge body of scientific evidence for the material nature of consciousness–evidence that Prof. Roebuck appears to dismiss without reading. (Let’s see, what was his original complaint again?) He waves his hands and tries to cloud the issue, but fails. (The square brackets in the quote below are his.)
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.
So he realizes and admits that there is a direct and measurable correlation between physical brain states and consciousness, yet he arbitrarily dismisses this as “not the same thing as material.” Yet this is exactly what we should be seeing if consciousness were a material process! And it stands in stark contrast to what we should be seeing if consciousness existed as something independent of physical brain states: if it’s truly independent, then our measurements ought to show this independence. And they don’t. But Prof. Roebuck dismisses it anyway.
From there, he seems to turn to an almost New Age-y woo about how “we do not experience our conscious selves as being material.” Say what? Speaking as someone who currently has umpteen stitches in his belly, I can assure you I’m very much experiencing my conscious self as being material! Them suckers is real, they’re in me, and I’m all too conscious of them. A rather important part of my conscious experience of self is an awareness of the full extent of myself throughout my whole body.
Then he turns to the rather bizarre idea that we cannot measure consciousness, which is sure to befuddle any geriatric nurse who may be reading, since they routinely assess level of consciousness on their patients. Granted, consciousness is a more complicated process than some, and does not lend itself to some kind of unit-based numbering system, but then again the flame of a candle is a material process, and we don’t use units of “flaminess” to measure the process either. We can measure the heat, and the brightness, but not the flame itself. Yet, notice, we do not conclude that “flame” must be an immaterial entity that exists in and of itself and therefore persists after the candle is blown out.
Likewise, and contrary to Prof. Roebuck, we routinely measure consciousness on a relative scale that ranges from “unconscious” through “confused” to “fully conscious and aware of self and surroundings.” Like I said, nurses do this sort of measurement all the time, using a standardized set of assessment tools. Even being able to tell the difference between “conscious” and “unconscious” is a form of measurement, albeit a binary one. And if you feigned unconsciousness, a EEG would betray your actual brain-wave activity, in measurable units.
I think Prof. Roebuck is just telling us how biased he is in favor of the idea that the conscious self must have independent existence, in order to survive physical death. He dismisses any evidence to the contrary, and declares that consciousness is “obviously” independent–despite lacking any verifiable, objective evidence of this–because this is what he wants to be true. He can try and put the shoe on the other foot, and make it sound like unbelievers are making assumptions and denying the evidence, but the shoe’s a much better fit for his own foot.