Alan Roebuck and the Covert Materialism

Alan Roebuck replies to my post about the nature of evidence, but unfortunately, he begins by misreading what I wrote about naturalism.

You question my assertion that most public atheists are materialists, and my use of the word “naturalism” as a synonym for materialism. Most atheists argue as if they are materialists even if they have not formally decided that that’s what they are, and for most people naturalism is more or less equivalent to materialism. Naturalism is generally a more fully worked out system based on materialism. There may be a sophisticated difference, but it’s not germane to my basic point. My basic point is about what most atheists say publicly, which is to apply materialistic standards to all arguments and evidence.

If you go back and re-read the post, you will see that at no point did I question Prof. Roebuck’s assertion that most public atheists are materialists (or naturalists, or some variation thereon). What I said was that he is using an incorrect, straw-man definition of materialism which fails to recognize that the properties and processes of material reality are also part of the material domain, despite not being physically made of matter. That’s why consciousness fails to refute materialism: it is an emergent property arising from the biochemical processes taking place in the brain, and is therefore solidly within the material realm, rather than being something materialism cannot explain. To say that materialism cannot explain consciousness is a bit like saying basketball cannot explain free throws. Consciousness is a material phenomenon, entirely dependent on material mechanisms and processes, as can be trivially observed in real life.

Next, Prof. Roebuck disputes my claim to be a theist.

You call yourself a theist, but your definition of the god in which you believe does not make any meaningful contact with the generally accepted notions of deity. I would describe you as an unorthodox, colorful, atheist.

So then, my God exists in all times (eternal) and in all places (omnipresent), comprehends all wisdom and knowledge (omniscient), and has all power over our lives (omnipotent)—and yet Prof. Roebuck sees no meaningful contact with “generally accepted notions of deity” (as though the nature of God were something determined by majority vote instead of arising from the deity itself). I do in fact pray to my God, and She does, in fact, give me exactly the same answers as Jesus ever did when I was a Christian. Sometimes it is “yes” (thank you, God!) and sometimes it is “no” (God’s ways are not our ways), but the same sort of answers in the same proportions as before. Plus my God doesn’t need to hide behind excuses like “Thou shalt not put God to the test”—my God is real enough and wise enough and strong enough to show up in real life, all the time, and she loves being tested. After all, She can pass the test!

Interestingly, my God also fulfills Anselm’s ontological proof of God better than Jehovah does. Anselm defines God as “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Alethea, being Reality itself, is this being, because Reality, by definition, consists of all things that are real. If God is real, therefore, then God must be at least part of Reality. Any part of God that lies outside of Reality is a myth, a lie, a falsehood, by definition, because it lies outside of Reality. This leaves us with two possibilities: either God is Reality (Alethea), or else God is only a part of Reality. In the second case, however, Reality comprises everything that God is, plus some number of things above and beyond what God is. Since Reality consists of more than just God, God is the lesser, and Reality is the greater. By Anselm’s ontological proof, therefore, no being less than Alethea Herself can be God.

Granted, there’s considerable debate about whether Anselm proved anything at all. It’s worth pointing out, however, that Alethea is the only God who could possibly be proved by Anselm’s proof.

Meanwhile, back to Prof. Roebuck’s comments.

Your position of skepticism appears to be basically materialistic even if you formally reject that doctrine. You say that evidence must be objective, reliable and verifiable. But what do you mean by these?

For example, when Christians refer to the eyewitness testimony of the Apostles and others that Jesus of Nazareth was executed, dead and buried on one day but then alive three days later, you would presumably say that this evidence is not valid. But why not? I presume you accept the evidence of many other ancient eyewitnesses when they speak of other matters. Most likely, you regard the testimonies of the Resurrection as invalid evidence because you regard that sort of miracle as impossible (or at least unknowable) a priori. That is, you reject the evidence on the basis of a presupposition of materialism.

Notice that Prof. Roebuck has pre-written my script for me, in terms that favor his own conclusions. He does not ask me how I approach this subject. I daresay he scarcely cares what I think. His argument is purely ad hominem: “You are a materialist, therefore you are wrong.” He does not trouble himself to acquire an accurate understanding of what materialism is, and simply dismisses any evidence that it differs in any way from his straw-man caricature. His arguments are targeted at providing a pretext for dismissing skeptical arguments without addressing them.

That’s a bit ironic, coming from someone whose original post accused atheists of dismissing the evidence, eh?

But to answer his question anyway, I would refer to the fundamental principle of knowledge, which is that truth is consistent with itself. This is something of a self-proving axiom, since if truth is not consistent with itself, then there is no way to know anything–whatever you think of as true, its exact contradiction could be true as well, so there is no difference between being false and being true. All knowledge, and all reason, rest on the fundamental principle that truth is consistent with itself.

Consequently, I do not reject the testimony of the Apostles based on a presupposition of materialism. In fact, I was a born-again, Bible-believing, conservative orthodox Christian at the time I reached my conclusions about the resurrection, so if I had any presuppositions, it was that God was real and was able to raise Jesus from the dead. Yet even given those presuppositions, it is still possible to consider the evidence, and explore the alternatives, and reach a reasonable conclusion that Jesus did not actually, literally rise from the dead.

Just for grins, I wrote a book (advertised above right) about one possible scenario that would give rise to a Gospel myth without any supernatural intervention, and without anything more than the feelings and reasonings we see Christians commonly using today. For instance, Christians routinely declare that “God is here with us today” in churches where you can look around and see that ordinary mortal humans are the only persons actually showing up. To Christians, God’s presence is still “true.” So why couldn’t Jesus have “showed up” for the apostles the same way God shows up today?

Remember, the definition of “gullible” is when you believe whatever men tell you, even when it’s not consistent with what we see in the real world, or with itself. When someone comes to us with stories about amazing things they want us to believe, the only sure guideline we have to go by is the principle that truth is consistent with itself. This leaves us with a choice: we can be gullible, and just believe whatever men tell us, or we can be skeptical, and measure the words of men against the infallible standard of truth. If what men say is consistent with what we observe in the real world and with itself, then it’s fair to conclude that they are being truthful, and if not, well, it would be gullible to just take their word for it.

When we look at the real world, we commonly see Christians believing that they are having some kind of “encounter” with a risen Jesus, even though Jesus does not literally show up in real life to interact with them in the presence of third-party witnesses. If we read the Gospels, and conclude that the Apostles had similar subjective experiences, then we are arriving at a conclusion that is consistent with what we see in the real world. Conversely, if someone tells us that Jesus loves us enough to die for us so that we could be together with him for all eternity, and yet we see no sign in the real world that Jesus even cares enough to show up in person to say “Hi” now and then, that’s a story that’s blatantly inconsistent with what we find in the real world, and it would be gullible, not faithful, to believe it.

I do not reject the testimony of the Apostles, I merely examine it, in the context of how real-world Christians interpret and report their subjective experiences. Then I draw the conclusion which happens to best satisfy the principle that truth is consistent with itself. In this case, that’s the conclusion that the so-called “resurrection” was not a literal, materialistic re-animation of a physical corpse, but was merely the kind of intuitive, emotional, unverifiable mental experience that we see Christians (and Mormons and Muslims and so on) having to this very day.

This method of drawing conclusions is engaging the evidence, not merely dismissing it. We have to consider what the claims are, the circumstances under which the claims are made, the different consequences we ought to see if the claims were literally true versus those that would come from merely subjective experiences, and so on. We cannot ignore the evidence, even if it’s less-reliable evidence like hearsay or superstition, but rather we must work through the evidence to be able to determine what real-world consequences would be produced if this evidence were true, so that we can then compare the different alternatives to see which predicted consequences are closest to the actual consequences. On that basis, I find the skeptical account of the resurrection more consistent with what we see in real life than the Christian account is.

Prof. Roebuck continues.

The fact that a lot of bad evidence and arguments are given for God does not prove that none exists, unless you are covertly insisting on evaluating all evidence and arguments according to materialistic or skeptical standards. If you insist on a standard that will make proving God impossible then of course, God will be impossible to prove.

Here he has completely missed my point regarding the quantity of good evidence vs. bad. I never said anything about the existence of bad evidence proving there is no good evidence. What I said was: if there is some evidence that is better than the rest, believers could and would bring that evidence to the forefront. This fact invalidates the Courtier’s Reply because if there were good evidence, then the dialog between believers and unbelievers ought to focus on that. If good evidence does exist, then there’s no point in complaining that skeptics have failed to study the bad stuff. Bring out the good stuff, and let’s see how they deal with that. And conversely, if it’s all equally bad, then an exhaustive study of all the bad evidence would be merely a waste of time.

As for insisting on a standard that makes proving God impossible, I’ve insisted on only the most reasonable of standards: that truth is consistent with itself. That’s the same standard I use for everything, and it’s not a hard standard for true things to meet because it is the nature of truth to be consistent with itself. By that standard, my God Alethea is true, so it’s not an inherently anti-deity standard. If Prof. Roebuck’s God has a hard time not contradicting Himself, then that’s His problem.

So my main question returns: Have you any argument or evidence that materialism (or whatever your worldview is) is correct? And do you know how to evaluate worldviews? Do you know how to examine a lens to see if it is distorted, or must you accept whatever it appears to show?

Yes, as I’ve already mentioned. The bedrock foundation of truth is that truth is consistent with itself; any contrary definition of truth must necessarily be a self-contradiction, and therefore false. Truth exists as an objective reality outside of and independently of the worldview (lens) with which we view it. This in turn provides us with a means of evaluating the different worldviews, because when you combine the different, possibly-distorted views you get through various lenses, and when you test each worldview against the infallible standard of real-world truth, you can recover much of the original, undistorted pattern. It’s not easy or foolproof, but we have found a set of tools that allows us to do this reliably and with increasingly high accuracy. Together, these tools are called “science.” Science is not itself a worldview, it’s a set of techniques that have proven reliable, over the centuries, as a way to compensate for inaccuracies introduced by worldviews.

You said

“And the only thing needed for evidence to be scientific is that it must be objectively verifiable as being either true or false.”

Unless you are redefining the meaning of the word “science,” this statement is a covert acceptance of materialism. Contemporary science is at least functionally materialistic.

So now we know what materialism is: if you can reliably distinguish the difference between what’s true and what isn’t, then you’re a materialist. Rather amazing, therefore, that Prof. Roebuck would think that there was anything wrong with that.

11 Responses to “Alan Roebuck and the Covert Materialism”

  1. Hunt Says:

    I can imagine one possible defense of the Courtier, that being that God is something like an advanced study, like quantum mechanics, requiring all manner of perambulations to approach. This isn’t really how God was ever advertised though, especially to Protestants. There would be no forthright, unambiguous ways to know God exists; He would always have to be a PhD study, and for some reason it would just be in the nature of God that He doesn’t show his face to any old Joe 6-pack.

  2. Len Says:

    This leaves us with two possibilities: either God is Reality (Alethea), or else God is only a part of Reality.

    There is a third possibility: that God is greater than reality. Which would mean that God is all of reality (ie, Alethea) plus some or all of the imaginary things that have ever been dreamed up or that ever will be dreamed up (and maybe even more than that). But since we all live in the real world, the non-real part of God can be ignored as a fairy tale. And we’re back to the two possibilities you mentioned. The problem comes when people who live in a fantasy world start seeing their god (who lives there as well) as something real.

  3. Alan Roebuck Says:

    Mr. Duncan,

    It is now my opinion that you are more of a provocateur than a representative of typical atheistic thought. It may be that your beliefs are just unusual, or that you wish to irritate theistic apologists. Whatever the reason, I don’t find our dialog to be fruitful. I have accordingly decided not to continue making any more posts here (other than this one.)

    Just for the record, this is my bottom line on the issues we have been discussing:

    The errors made by my opponents here are not caused by technical incompetence. They are caused by a general defect in thinking: the assumption of materialism. (Yes, materialism includes the properties and processes of matter.) The atheists (or whatever they call themselves; for purposes of simplicity and convention I will call my opponents here atheists) may not be aware that they are making this assumption, and they may even deny it, but their words show that they do.

    If a person assumes materialism then he interprets all evidence materialistically. It is therefore pointless only to give such a person additional evidence for God. Viewing reality through atheism-colored glasses, he naturally sees only atheism. (Or whatever he wants to call his faulty worldview.)

    The only hope for such a person is for the theist to show him examples of phenomena that cannot be accounted for materialistically (such as himself, that is “soul”), and state why materialism cannot account for them. In this situation, there is a slight chance that the atheist’s intuition will begin to reveal to him the inadequacy of his atheism. You can lead a horse to water, but he has to drink for himself.

    Mr. Duncan, you are obviously not a purely material phenomenon. Your primitive experience of yourself is not as a piece of matter (or its properties or processes.) You believe what you do about your mind because of a preference for materialism (or whatever you call your basic beliefs), not because of good reason.

    • Hunt Says:

      With all due respect Prof. Roebuck, I simply can’t see the obvious inadequacy of materialism that you seem so convinced of. Since we have not yet plumbed the scientific details of what consciousness actually is, the most anyone can possibly assert at this point is that mind/body dualism may be true, but it’s certainly not a slam dunk. DD is not a purely material phenomenon — obviously? How do you know this? Even some of the most famous philosophers of mind, e.g. John Searle, while remaining staunchly pessimistic about our current understanding of consciousness, claim to favor purely material explanations. You’re not being fair with the “leading a horse” maxim. There are no obvious, evident answers here.

    • Len Says:

      If a person assumes materialism then he interprets all evidence materialistically. It is therefore pointless only to give such a person additional evidence for God. Viewing reality through atheism-colored glasses, he naturally sees only atheism. (Or whatever he wants to call his faulty worldview.)

      Or:
      If a person assumes God then he interprets all evidence theistically. It is therefore pointless only to tell such a person that there is no evidence that any god interacts with the real world. Viewing reality through God-colored glasses, he naturally sees only God. (Or whatever he wants to call his faulty worldview.)

      I would like to see the additional evidence for God – although that implies (incorrectly) that there has already been actual evidence presented for him.

    • Naked Ape Says:

      Let us call a spade a pointy shovel here.

      [quote]”If a person assumes materialism then he interprets all evidence materialistically.”[/quote]
      The obvious corollary here would seem to be: [i]If a person assumes magic then he interprets all evidence magically.[/i] This seems to be the case for Prof. Roebuck.

      Anyone with a passing familiarity with performance magic and illusion knows that what is perceived by the audience is not representative of what is actually happening on the stage. No matter how convinced the rubes may be, no one has actually been sawed in half on stage and then been restored to wholeness.

      [quote]”The only hope for such a person is for the theist to show him examples of phenomena that cannot be accounted for materialistically (such as himself, that is “soul”), and state why materialism cannot account for them.”[/quote]

      Really? Meat ghosts (or souls if you prefer) are your best example of something that cannot be accounted for without resorting to magical explanations? Here is a nickel’s worth of free advice: you need to do more than just state your claim, you also need to prove it. You have not done so.

      It really all comes down how you choose to answer the question: [i]Can consciousness exist without mass?[/i]

      Neuroscience has revealed quite a bit about how changes in brain structure can result in alterations of the consciousness that the brain supports, and at a more accessible level ingestion of material substances like alcohol can be observed to have a marked affect on consciousness. How does your proposed ‘meat ghost’ or soul fit with these observations?

      Do people with traumatic brain injuries have damaged consciousnesses and damaged souls, or is your imaginary meat ghost immune to the things that have been observed to effect consciousness?

      Rest assured that the incredible irony of your closing paragraph was not lost on anyone here.

  4. jaredcormier Says:

    More fisking!

    The errors made by my opponents here are not caused by technical incompetence.

    So, what you’re saying is that your opponents know what they are talking about and may be well very well versed in the subject at hand, but are still wrong?

    They are caused by a general defect in thinking: the assumption of materialism. (Yes, materialism includes the properties and processes of matter.)

    How is this an assumption, materialism is the conclusion since much evidence supports it and no evidence contradicts it.

    The atheists (or whatever they call themselves; for purposes of simplicity and convention I will call my opponents here atheists) may not be aware that they are making this assumption, and they may even deny it, but their words show that they do.

    Fascinating, so, your anecdotal and intuitive opinions about the nature of an observed phenomenon with material observations rebutting your non-material claims don’t count as evidence, yet we’re the one’s making assumptions?

    If a person assumes materialism then he interprets all evidence materialistically. It is therefore pointless only to give such a person additional evidence for God.

    And yet you’ve pointed to nothing which has not been quite well studied or at least has a not insubstantial body of scientific research validating the properties of the “mind” or “consciousness”.

    Viewing reality through atheism-colored glasses, he naturally sees only atheism. (Or whatever he wants to call his faulty worldview.)

    Please, show me I’m wrong, show me the error of my ways. I’ve been wrong about many things: the nature of heat-strike behavior in cottonmouths, the role of pits in predation of insects by copperheads, the role of long term depression (as opposed to long term potentiation) in memory maintenance and not just behavioral learning (it actually is pretty important). I’ve been wrong about many things, but you seem to be trying to make the claim that your best evidence is anecdotal at best and wrong at worst, so you are giving up. Now really, would Jesus do that?

    The only hope for such a person is for the theist to show him examples of phenomena that cannot be accounted for materialistically (such as himself, that is “soul”),

    That’s the best you can do? Restating a claim which has already been quite thoroughly refuted?

    and state why materialism cannot account for them.

    This still doesn’t mean “god did it,” it means we don’t know yet. For that matter, neither do you.

    In this situation, there is a slight chance that the atheist’s intuition

    Intuition? That thing that’s often wrong?

    will begin to reveal to him the inadequacy of his atheism. You can lead a horse to water, but he has to drink for himself.

    Ever heard of an IV saline drip? Oh, that’s right, you’re stuck so far in the past in terms of scientific understanding, that hasn’t been invented yet.

    Mr. Duncan, you are obviously not a purely material phenomenon.

    Proof?

    Your primitive experience of yourself is not as a piece of matter (or its properties or processes.)

    And experiences always reflect reality…

    You believe what you do about your mind because of a preference for materialism

    The tons of evidence supporting it? The fact that it works?

    (or whatever you call your basic beliefs), not because of good reason.

    Vaccines, lab-grown tissue transplants, blood transfusions, organ transplants, pharmaceuticals for Alzheimer’s disease, antiretrovirals for the treatment of HIV, exploitation of neuroplasticity to recover lost functionality. Materialism gets results, what verifiable results do any other worldviews have as a claim to accuracy?

  5. Tony Hoffman Says:

    Reversing the burden of proof, check. Argument by assertion, check. God of the Gaps, check. Misrepresenting the opposing argument, check. Ignoring valid criticism, check. And psychological projection throughout, check.

    Man, this whole exchange was orchestrated with a beautiful efficiency. In a skirmish of the culture wars, the discussion that ended here is a beautiful microcosm of why theists like Mr. Roebuck are doomed to irrelevance. Just as Waterloo was said to be won on the playing fields of Eton, the culture wars are being won, comment after comment, in little discussions like this one.

    My greatest hope for you, Mr. Roebuck, is that you come to recognize the abandonment of reason that your comments here have portrayed. If not, enjoy Elba, knowing that your life of intellectual remoteness and irrelevance is a self-inflcted exile.

  6. pboyfloyd Says:

    I think I covered Mr. Roebuck’s reaction in the title of my related post at AbsenceOfGood, “Alan Roebuck said it. That must settle it?”, as if it were some kind of prophecy!

    (takes off atheism-coloured glasses)

    “Hey, I’m a prophet, I CAN predict future events! Wait, wait, I see fires in California, hurricanes in the South-east, people saying ‘aboot’ in Canada, governments and corporations conniving to disenfranchise their citizens! LORD, forgive me for not believing on the metaphor of the witnessing of the testimonial and so on.”

  7. Janney Says:

    It’s Nick all over again. High hopes dashed, that Deacon’s points might be addressed by an intelligible disagreementer.


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