Alan Roebuck and the “obvious” delusion

It seems as though we may have exhausted Prof. Roebuck’s arguments against atheism, and he himself seems to have reached the same conclusion.

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.)

I’m a bit sad to see him go. Despite the rather limited range of his rhetorical resources, he has been a fruitful source of blogging material, not so much for his own contributions, but for the topics he has provided us with an opportunity to discuss. One of the more interesting of these is the way he uses the word “obvious,” because he clearly does not use it the same way I do.

When I say that, for example, consciousness is “obviously” a material phenomenon, what I mean is that it is trivial to cite real-world examples that demonstrate the material nature of consciousness, and virtually impossible to cite any real-world examples that contradict it. When I cite a number of these readily-verifiable examples, however, Prof. Roebuck simply dismisses them, on the grounds that it is “obvious” that consciousness is not material. Yet, since he has no counter-examples to back up his claim, it’s clear that he is using the term “obvious” in a very different way than I do.

There are a number of things he might mean. For example, he may be saying “it’s obvious” in much the same way as a young parent might say, “Because I said so!” just to get a child to stop asking questions. It may be that he has no justification for his beliefs, and knows he cannot defend them, and is just using the term “obviously” in order to forestall any attempt to examine his claims and see if they hold up.

Or perhaps he means, “This is the conclusion that best suits the way I personally feel things ought to be, therefore it obviously must be true.” In this sense, “obvious” means basically, “whatever matches my preconceived ideas, regardless of the evidence.” Certainly, this would fit with the way he uses the term: give him some real-world examples of the material nature of consciousness, and his rebuttal consists of little more than the bare assertion that consciousness is “obviously” not material.

Or again, he might mean that the idea of immaterial consciousness appeals to his innate sense of superstition—his natural, naive desire to attribute material phenomena to unseen, magical, supernatural forces. In this sense, it might be “obvious” to him that consciousness is not material just because he doesn’t understand the material processes involved, and therefore he instinctively (and irrationally) leaps to the conclusion of supernatural agency. “Obvious,” in this context, means “that which satisfies a basic human tendency towards superstition.”

Of course, when we try to understand why and how Prof. Roebuck is using the term “obvious,” it’s entirely possible that the answer is “all of the above.” If there’s one thing that stands out about his testimony, it’s that he’s deep in denial and is living in a fantasy world (aka worldview) designed to insulate him from the truth. We see this in his one attempt to try and rationalize away the easily-verifiable connection between material brain function and the allegedly immaterial soul.

This is a major mistake. That the mind is affected by matter does not prove that it is nothing but matter. As an analogy, the condition of a car affects the way a driver drives, but the car is not the driver.

Just for the record, I did say that mind is affected by matter. It is profoundly connected to matter. But it is not the same thing as matter or a material property or process.

So he does acknowledge—however reluctantly—that the mind is affected by matter. But he has no explanation for why this would be so. Plant growth on earth is not affected by weather conditions on Mars, and that’s just a physical separation of realms. How much more when the separation is between different metaphysical realms entirely! The best he can do is to offer an analogy comparing brain and soul with car and driver—a rationalization that attempts to reconcile the premise of an immaterial soul with the undeniable facts that tie consciousness to brain function. Rather than providing evidence that would distinguish between material consciousness and an immaterial soul, he tries to come up with a narrative that makes it impossible to distinguish between the two.

Nor is the analogy itself any real use in defending his position. If we look at a car and a driver, and we want to discern the difference between the functions of the car and those of the driver, we need merely observe which functions correspond to the operation of the car, and which correspond to the actions of the driver. When we do that for brain vs. soul, we note that the “car-like” functions of the brain include consciousness, memory, will, emotion, personality, talents, biases—in short, virtually everything that believers identify as being the “soul”.

The soul, in this analogy, corresponds to the car, not the driver. There is no real-world mental/psychological function corresponding to a driver who can step out of the car, walk around, pop open the hood, replace the battery, change the oil, and so on. By Prof. Roebuck’s own analogy, the soul is a material phenomenon, and there’s nothing left over that would suggest any kind of external agency as the “driver.” His preference for an immaterial soul merely reflects a reluctance to seriously consider any contrary alternative. He is in denial.

We see this denial clearly in his farewell declamation.

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.)

This is the fantasy world he has erected as a wall between himself and the facts he does not want to face. He has imagined a flawed version of materialism that willfully ignores the evidence, and he imagines that all non-Christians are committed to his straw-man version, and are refusing to confront the truth. That way, you see, he is justified in simply dismissing everything unbelievers say. He does not need to understand their arguments, let alone evaluate them in the light of real-world evidence. Labeling them as “materialists” (according to his definition of materialism) means they are automatically wrong, leaving Christianity free to win by default.

This is why, for example, skeptics can directly address the claims and arguments of Christianity, and Prof. Roebuck can simply ignore their critiques. Hey, they’re materialists, and therefore they are not looking at his claims and arguments, even when they are. We’ve seen that time and again in Prof. Roebuck’s responses on this blog: I and some of the other commenters would directly address the points he raised (when we could get him to raise any at all), and he would simply retreat behind the assertion that all atheists are materialists, and materialists are refusing to look at the evidence—even when they are looking directly at the evidence he says they’re ignoring!

This is the dark side of “worldview.” This is preconceptions and superstition and gullibility displacing an honest and accurate understanding of what’s really true in the world outside your own head. Early on, Prof. Roebuck boasted, “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 other words, what makes him a superior thinker is that he believes more things than skeptical people do.

But in fact this is a false claim. When I pointed out that the key property of evidence is that it permits you to objectively and verifiable discern the difference between truth and falsehood, he immediately branded this as “materialistic,” and rejected it. He does not supplement his understanding of empirical evidence with other forms of “evidence,” he dismisses the “materialistic” evidence in favor of the fantasies, intuitions, superstitions and hearsay that tell him what he wants to hear. He must, because the conclusions you get from the “materialistic” evidence, by his own admission, contradict the conclusions you reach based on the anti-materialistic evidence. And it’s foolishness, because, by Prof. Roebuck’s own declaration, the evidence that actually tells you the difference between “true” and “false” is the evidence he’s rejecting in favor of evidence that makes no distinction between truth and untruth.

This is the “obvious” delusion in Prof. Roebuck’s quasi-intellectual denial of material reality. He insulates himself from the facts and hides behind a preconceived, superstitious, idiosyncratic concept of “obviousness” with which he fends off all evidence to the contrary. And, sadly, it’s not Prof. Roebuck alone. Millions of believers do the same sort of thing. Atheists are routinely accused of ignoring the evidence, even when directly addressing it (as, for example, The God Delusion did). The point of the accusation is not that there is good evidence that would persuade an atheist, the point is to create a pretext for simply dismissing atheistic objections without an honest response.

You don’t have to be crazy, or stupid, to fall into this kind of delusion. It’s a social phenomenon that reinforces itself every time Christians get together. But it’s a delusion nonetheless—a willful substitution of a fantasy world in place of a reality in which their God does not show up, and no “soul” manifests itself apart from the ordinary, material functions of the body and brain. And that’s a handicap. It makes Christians more prone to other forms of gullibility and self-deception (Rapture 2011, anyone?), sometimes with serious, lasting consequences.

Ah, well, it’s a common human condition. You can’t reason someone out of a position they never reasoned themselves into. As Prof. Roebuck said in his farewell post, “You can lead a horse to water, but he has to drink for himself.” But that won’t happen until they develop a greater thirst for the truth than they have for their own preconceived superstitions.

10 Responses to “Alan Roebuck and the “obvious” delusion”

  1. kurmujjin Says:

    I think Professor Roebuck is right in one aspect of his argument. I do believe that persons in both camps make a decision about which choice they like better; and it becomes the basis for all their arguments henceforth. And it may color their perceptions. And not much is said about that bias.

    I really am a fence-sitter. I am largley a theist-leaning agnostic. There is a part of me that absolutely, steadfastly refuses to give up entertaining the idea that somehow, consciousness might possibly survive death, and that all of reality might be contained within some great consciousness. It’s not logical from an atheist perspective or a theist perspective, but is is persistent and unwavering. I don’t consider myself superstitious. I’m more curious and hopeful. I don’t expect supernatural interventions.

    I am a computer programmer, former engineer and biologist and know and accept the science we have worked so hard to define. Yet, this idea persists.

    From my perspective, it’s a miracle that ANYthing exists at all. To me that would be true for theists or atheists. Even atheists, at some point, have to agree that some source of the universe as we know it either appeared from nowhere, or always existed. That, alone, boggles my mind if I think about it too long or deeply.

    Nonetheless, we all seem to have made some decision about how things work, and work very hard at defending our position. AND most of us are heavily invested in being right.

  2. Hunt Says:

    I get the impression that Prof. Roebuck has spent a little too much time preaching to the converted — and has gotten to like it.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I do believe that persons in both camps make a decision about which choice they like better; and it becomes the basis for all their arguments henceforth.

    Absolutely! So it is vitally important to discern one’s priorities. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing the part of you that “refuses to give up” on the idea of life after death, so long as you also recognize that (at least to date) there is no evidence that there really is life after death, and rather a lot of evidence that the idea is an artifact of our inability to imagine being dead.

  4. Deacon Duncan Says:

    @kurmujjin –

    I think it’s pretty clear that the material universe has existed for all time (since time itself only extends back as far as the Big Bang), which means that it has no cause. Kind of mind boggling, but not too much so if you think about it.

    I think the biggest problem with the idea of an immortal, immaterial soul is that it reflects a fundamental alienation between ourselves and the stuff we are made of. One of the deeper aspects of my Alethian faith is an awareness of how we ourselves are part of a larger whole—the separation we make between “self” and “other” is largely artificial, a side-effect of our mental limitations and our inability to perceive all the myriad interconnections that exist between the parts and the whole. The nature of truth, and of reality, is that it is consistent with itself, which means that all things cohere, and nothing truly exists in isolation.

    I am not an island, a self that is fundamentally cut off from its surroundings. I am an aspect of God (as is everyone and everything). It is God Who endures, and the peculiar, individual manifestation of God that shows up as “me” is a part of that eternal existence. This is as much of immortality as is available to men, but I kind of like it, because it is a deeper and more fundamental union with God than even Christians can hope for. It is also, incidentally, a more literally self-less religion, because I acknowledge that my self-hood is not real in and of itself, but is merely an instantiation of a deeper and greater Self that will someday receive me back to Itself.

    I don’t expect many people to share my religious beliefs, but I think you’ll see at least why I consider Christianity a rather shallow and self-centered alternative.

    • kurmujjin Says:


      I’m with you here. From my perspective, you said that really well.

      If I leave the comment without argument (easily done), I think it could provide a place in which both theists and atheists could cohabitate.

      And, what if Christians practiced a religion from this perspective? I personally think it’s possible. But no dogma-oriented christian would recognize it. It is NOT the one in the news. It is not fundamentalist. It doesn’t even include a “god-man” or an inspired scripture.

  5. Janney Says:

    If one is willing to accept immortality on Deacon’s terms, in what meaningful sense can one be called a Christian?

    • kurmujjin Says:

      First of all, we need to define meaningful; or from whose perspective we are granting meaning. I said earlier that I know that fundamental Christians would neither recognize nor accept my observations. I am speaking of meaning from my perspective, so there is license. I am not bound to accepting the meaning of others.

      To me, the fundamental teachings of Jesus were integrity, detachment and love. I believe that those values are essential to a meaningful, productive life.

      I also don’t believe that the New Testament is an inspired work in the sense of divine revelation. It was written, edited and translated by human authors. In another sense it IS inspired, but only because it is about God and Jesus so, in that sense, the story is inspred by the early authors’ fascination with the subject in the same way that we might be inspired by a great teacher. So I have to use discernment when using the book as a guide to living. Having said that, when I find the core teachings of integrity, detachment and love, I pay attention. In my estimation and experience, those values work.

      The message of Jesus is one of forgiveness, living in the moment, freedom. I try to make that a way of life. In that way I am a christian. It is not about dogma.

      The point of power is in the present moment. And, as Anonymous said above, “there is no evidence that there really is life after death, and rather a lot of evidence that the idea is an artifact of our inability to imagine being dead.” I accept that, though I am attached to the idea that there might also be more than we know beyond this life. But no matter; integrity, detachment (including forgiveness) and love make for a better life, now, so who cares?

  6. Deacon Duncan Says:

    @kurmujjin –

    I sometimes think of Jesus as a kind of conceptual community bulletin board: because the myth presents Jesus as being the ultimate Good Teacher, people tend to attach to him the ideas they regard as being Good Teaching. Jesus appealed to a number of popular moral ideas in order to promote himself as a religious authority, and some of his ideas were good and some were really terrible. Think about it: the core message of the Gospel is that God endorses the practice of punishing the innocent so that the wicked can escape being punished for their evil deeds. And the justification is that we should just turn a blind eye to this awful injustice because, hey, at least it gets US out of a jam. Now we’ve got selfish amorality on top of the injustice. Yikes!

    But regardless, people use Jesus as a symbol for Good Teaching, and what happens (especially among liberal Christians) is that they de-emphasize or ignore the inferior stuff, and emphasize (or interject) the ideals that fit their concept of Good Teaching. So you’ll meet people who think Jesus taught reincarnation, and/or gay rights, and/or socialism, and so on. In other words, it becomes less a question of what Jesus really intended to teach, and more a question of what’s really Good Teaching.

    Frankly, I don’t see that as a bad thing. Some of my New Atheist friends might disagree with me, but I think taking Jesus’ actual teachings and revising them to be more moral—that’s a good thing. Some people might benefit from that as kind of an intermediate step along the road to understanding that Jesus is merely an imperfect reflection of true morality, rather than its source.

  7. Janney Says:

    To me, the fundamental teaching of Jesus is that real life starts after death. I mean, who cares what happens in a thousand or so months on Earth? The next life lasts forever. And, oh by the way, you’ll spend it in unalterable bliss or unalterable agony.

    (Now I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t read the Bible myself. I just hear stories about it. Still, if the term “Christianity” can be used in the absence of the afterlife and the Resurrection and etc, I think it’s outlived its usefulness.)

  8. Hunt Says:

    The Christian appeal is a human appeal. It’s no surprise to me at all why Christianity has become a dominant religion. It encompasses a number of human needs, some of which Kurmujjin has outlined. It aspires to the greatest of human values; there is a hero (Jesus), and it is a complete code for conducting one’s life, wherein all of us, all our deeds, all of our actions, are accounted. What more could you really need out of life? Not a hell of a lot, actually, by the standards so far established for human existence.
    The myopia enters by thinking that this is all there is to human existence. So far this has been sustained, but really, it only survives by the novelty of our historical existence. We have now come 2000 years since Jesus, and say, 5000 years since the origin of human culture. But let’s be conservative and think that humans will exist for a mere one million years. By contrast, the dinosaurs roamed Earth for tens of millions. But even on that meager scale, only a scant 0.2% of our time has elapse, yet we believe we have already found the ultimate meaning of our existence.

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