While I am aware of Wilson using the “fizzing” stratagem only in his debate with Theodore Drange, it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s been deployed elsewhere. For those who are bent on vindicating theistic belief, I suspect that the “fizzing” motif holds substantial persuasive traction, sort of like calling Obamacare “the Affordable Care Act.” (A former colleague of mine went from paying $150.00/month to over $1600.00/month for his medical premium, with considerable increase in deductible as well… And he’s been fizzing about that ever since!) Putting lipstick on a pig won’t fool everyone, but apparently there are some who are susceptible of falling in love with swine so decorated.
Since it’s always good policy to let apologists speak for themselves and present their own case, I will quote at length from Wilson’s own opening statement in his debate with Drange. After listing a number of defects allegedly inherent to atheism, Wilson there writes:
Despite all these problems, the atheist still wants to argue for his position. He wants to say there is a correspondence between what he is saying and what is actually going on out there in the universe. He wants to claim that atheism is more than random neuron firings in the brains of atheists; he wants to say that atheism is in fact the case. He wants to say that a debate between an atheist and a Christian is really possible. He says that the arguments he presents correspond to the way the world actually is. But on what basis does he assume such a correspondence? How can he show that a certain tiny subset of matter in motion has suddenly decided to give an incisive and cogent account of itself? If someone spilled milk on the kitchen floor, and we wanted to know what had happened, we wouldn't, as a general rule, ask the milk. It does not know about such things; it is the accident. So when we come to contemplate our own existence, and we debate fiercely among ourselves, why do we assume that these debates are more than milk bubbles popping?
Let's change the metaphor slightly, and picture our debate in this way. If I were a bottle of Pepsi which someone had violently agitated, and Dr. Drange were a bottle of Coke, equally shaken up, and we were placed on a table side by side, it would not occur to any accidental spectator to ask which bottle of soda was winning the debate. The spectators would not even describe the proceedings as a debate, however entertaining it might happen to be. The bottles would not be debating; they would be fizzing. All we have on the table are certain chemical reactions, neither true nor false. They just are. Anyone who tried to assert a correspondence between their fizzings and the external world (say, a correspondence between amount of pop overflow and stock market fluctuations) would probably be dismissed as a crank.
Throughout his statement, Wilson allows that there’s a lot of assuming going on, especially on the part of the atheist. (He does this primarily for apologetic purposes, specifically in order to portray the hypothetical atheist – that is, any and all atheists – as guilty of some sort of persistent intellectual infraction they’re coming perhaps without being aware of it.) But if Wilson allows that assuming is going on, then he must grant that consciousness is real, for assuming is a type of conscious activity. To affirm assuming while denying consciousness is like affirming driving to the bank while denying the invention of the wheel; the former would not be possible without the latter. So Wilson assumes the existence of consciousness an insofar as his framing of his point makes use of the concept of assuming, he does not question the existence of consciousness or its metaphysical validity.
Fair and good, the apologist will say; after all, the apologist is not announcing that consciousness does not exist – he’s saying that consciousness is incompatible with atheism. More to the point, Wilson is essentially trying to say that atheism denies consciousness outright, and that atheism must do this because of certain assumptions which atheism supposedly entails, and therefore his fizzing gambit not only exposes this fatal flaw, it also seals the debate in his favor against the atheist.
There are two fundamental problems here which Wilson neither addresses nor, from what I can tell, is able to overcome:
(1) Wilson assumes without argument that materialism is the only category of metaphysics available to the atheist given his atheism. Of course, this is not true, and it’s no surprise that Wilson simply assumes this and doesn’t bother presenting an argument for this premise, in spite of how vital it is to his overall case.
(2) While essentially accusing the atheist of committing the fallacy of the stolen concept, Wilson demonstrates no awareness whatsoever of the fact that his own theism commits this very fallacy in asserting the existence of a universe-creating, reality-ruling consciousness. Theism affirms on the basis of faith (i.e., on the hope that what one imagines is true) that:
(a) Existence finds its source in conscious activity (cf. the doctrine of creation, which asserts that the Christian god essentially wished the universe into existence);
(b) The identity of existents is assigned by conscious fiat;
(c) The identity of existents can be revised by conscious activity at will;
(d) Some faculty other than reason furnishes the human mind with “knowledge” of such phenomena.
But even worse, while Wilson accuses the materialist of denying the very basis of consciousness (and rightly so, I would add), the theist distorts beyond all recognition what consciousness really is. In fact, it is on the basis of his distortions of the nature of consciousness that the theist assumes that atheism necessarily entails materialism’s reductionism and therefore the abolition of consciousness as such. That’s because on the theist’s distortions, consciousness is assumed necessarily to be a supernatural faculty, ultimately alien to this world in which we live and move and have our being, and therefore incompatible with non-belief in theism.
Unfortunately for Wilson, consciousness is in fact a biological faculty. All evidence of consciousness which we find in nature confirms this, whether it is found in insects, fish, reptiles, rodents or primates. The only alternative to the evidence of consciousness we find in nature is what we find in storybooks and what we imagine – i.e., creations of human conscious activity. There is certainly no evidence that conscious activity can summon matter into existence or conform the nature of existents to preferences and desires by commands or wishing, and any epistemology which ignores the fundamental distinction between what is real and what is merely imaginary can only lead to philosophical ruin. Wilson nowhere acknowledges any of these fundamental concerns let alone provides any basis for confidence that his worldview can overcome them.
Now, with the questions that he asks in his opening statement, are we to suppose that Wilson is expecting the atheist to present a detailed scientific analysis of the relationship between consciousness and the brain? If so, I’d say that’s quite an unreasonable expectation. Not only is this something that Wilson’s own worldview fails to deliver (on theism, possession of a brain is not a precondition for consciousness anyway – we have a brainless Christian god as a case in point), it’s not unlikely that Wilson lacks the specialized knowledge necessary to understand and appreciate such an analysis. In fact, given his devotion to theism (and its concurrent distortions of consciousness as ultimately a supernatural phenomenon), Wilson would likely be predisposed to finding fault with and rejecting such an analysis, for it would only serve to provide a stronger basis to reject theism anyway.
But all that would be unnecessary distraction. Wilson’s purpose in posing questions about the nature of thinking and conscious activity in general is not to further everyone’s understanding, but to put the atheist on the defensive while protecting theism from any critical scrutiny. Regardless of what such an analysis might uncover, there are certain key facts fundamental to the debate and available to us without the specialized knowledge required by science, facts which cannot be reasonably denied and which put theism out of the running before it gets to the gate, such as:
i. Existence exists and human beings are conscious organisms;
ii. Existence exists independent of conscious activity;
iii. Human beings possess the conceptual level of consciousness;
iv. Consciousness is biological, not supernatural, in nature;
v. There’s a fundamental distinction between what is real and what is imaginary;
vi. Theism depends inherently on confusing what one imagines with what is real.
Now let’s probe some of the statements Wilson makes in the two paragraphs I excerpted from his opening statement above. If there’s interest, I may examine other sections of Wilson’s case in future entries – let me know in the comments.
Wilson states that the atheist “wants to say there is a correspondence between what he is saying and what is actually going on out there in the universe.”
If human beings are capable of identifying the objects they perceive by means of conceptual integration (they are) and further integrating those conceptualized identifications into ever-higher abstractions (they are), then the claim to some “correspondence between what [one] is saying and what is actually going on out there in the universe” is not at all controversial. In fact, one would need to be able to do just this in order to characterize such a claim as controversial. Making hay over such a claim would be about as fruitful as saying “I see a problem in your claim that human beings have eyesight.”
Wilson says that the atheist “wants to claim that atheism is more than random neuron firings in the brains of atheists.”
I don’t know what “random neuron firings” even are. I’d love for Wilson to explain what correspondence this notion has to anything that is “actually going on out there in the universe.” I suspect he uses this expression for its connotative impact, not for any denotative value it might have. I suspect it has no such value, and that this is yet another instance of Wilson relying on characterization to achieve ends that he cannot achieve given lack of argument. If Wilson did have a worthy argument for his position, why stoop to these tactics?
Wilson says that the atheist “he wants to say that atheism is in fact the case.”
Speaking for myself, I identify myself as an atheist in the very sense that I don’t believe any claims that a god exist. In that case I don’t think there’s any significant semantic difference between calling myself an atheist, a non-theist, or a non-believer. I’m not a theist – I don’t pretend that the supernatural things I’m capable of imagining, as other people are capable of imagining, are real. If the believer thins that I’m wrong in not believing such claims, he is welcome to interact with me and present a case for his theism. Unfortunately, I’ve found that in the case of every apologetic argument I’ve examined, I have no alternative but to imagine the god whose existence said argument is supposed to prove by the time I get to its conclusion. If a believer thinks he’s got a case for his theism that does not suffer from this defect, he’s welcome to present it in the comments.
Wilson says that the atheist “wants to say that a debate between an atheist and a Christian is really possible.”
Only if certain conditions are met, of course. Both parties have to be willing to participate, but I’ve found that most theists want to keep the focus trained anywhere but on their theism. Wilson gives us examples of tactics used to do just this.
The atheist, Wilson goes on, “says that the arguments he presents correspond to the way the world actually is. But on what basis does he assume such a correspondence?”
Again, speaking for myself, I do this on the basis of the axioms, the primacy of existence, and the objective theory of concepts. On what basis does Wilson assume this? His worldview rejects the axioms, the primacy of existence and the objective theory of concepts. It seems that he’s the one who has a lot of explaining to do.
Wilson then asks:
How can he show that a certain tiny subset of matter in motion has suddenly decided to give an incisive and cogent account of itself? If someone spilled milk on the kitchen floor, and we wanted to know what had happened, we wouldn't, as a general rule, ask the milk. It does not know about such things; it is the accident. So when we come to contemplate our own existence, and we debate fiercely among ourselves, why do we assume that these debates are more than milk bubbles popping?
Now again, notice how Wilson relies on characterization to inform his apologetic. He wants the atheist to assume that he is “a certain tiny subset of matter in motion” (is that what Wilson really thinks a human being is, or is this what he insists the atheist think of himself?) and then explain why as such he “has suddenly decided to give an incisive and cogent account of [himself].” This is all characterization; he’s not presenting an argument here. And more than this, Wilson is insisting that the atheist accept his characterization and answer his questions on that basis. Apparently he’s not willing to engage the atheist’s position as the atheist himself informs it; rather, he wants to shove views into his opponent’s mouth and force him to swallow them whole.
Then Wilson presents us with his fizzing caricature:
If I were a bottle of Pepsi which someone had violently agitated, and Dr. Drange were a bottle of Coke, equally shaken up, and we were placed on a table side by side, it would not occur to any accidental spectator to ask which bottle of soda was winning the debate.
Wilson continues with his spectacle:
The spectators would not even describe the proceedings as a debate, however entertaining it might happen to be. The bottles would not be debating; they would be fizzing. All we have on the table are certain chemical reactions, neither true nor false. They just are. Anyone who tried to assert a correspondence between their fizzings and the external world (say, a correspondence between amount of pop overflow and stock market fluctuations) would probably be dismissed as a crank.
Moreover, truth is not chemical in nature, but conceptual, and an accounting of what truth is and how a statement or assumption can be true or untrue, cannot be complete without a theory of concepts. The bible provides no theory of concepts, so this point is likely lost on those who are out to defend a worldview based on and informed by the contents of the bible. The primitives who wrote the bible were clearly under the impression that truth is governed by supernatural wishing, having accepted the premise that wishing makes it so (cf. The Metaphysics of Wishing).
I grant that it’s possible to say more on this specific topic, but when your enemy’s horse is dead, you save your ammunition for another day.
by Dawson Bethrick