Thursday, February 25, 2021

Anderson versus Materialism

In a recent post on his blog, Christian apologist James Anderson takes NT scholar Bart Ehrman to task for his (the latter’s) overt confession of materialism. Really, Erhman’s post announcing his materialist views serves as a good opportunity for Anderson to articulate challenges against materialism; tarnishing Erhman’s worldview as an indirect way of undermining his views regarding a historical Jesus may be a meager but happy bonus. For the present purposes, Erhman is just a bystander. The main event here is Anderson’s critique of materialism. 

The springboard for Anderson’s attack on materialism is Erhman’s statement that “This materialist view creates enormous conceptual problems that I wrestle with all the time.” Admissions of internal troubles is like baiting sharks with the smell of blood. Curiously, however, this notion of “enormous conceptual problems” shows up in several places in Anderson’s blog entry, which makes me wonder on behalf of both Anderson and Erhman: If either party is wrestling with problems of a conceptual nature, what exactly is their respective worldview’s theory of concepts? 

I have no idea what Erhman’s views on the nature of concepts might be. He is not a philosopher, but rather a specialist in New Testament studies. This is not to say that Erhman as a thinker is exempt from the responsibility of exploring and understanding the nature of concepts and how they are formed, but rather to acknowledge that mastery of a theory of concepts does not fall under the purview of his chosen profession. Then again, if I were telling the world that my general philosophical viewpoint is saddled with “enormous conceptual problems,” I just might get the wild idea that the nature of concepts as a topic unto itself might be worth some informed investigation. Yes, I must be crazy! 

On the other hand, James Anderson has even less excuse not to have a good understanding of concepts. Not only does he specialize in theology and philosophy, he is the Carl W. McMurray Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. So I would think that any attempt on Anderson’s part to take another thinker to task for acknowledged “enormous conceptual problems” affecting his viewpoint, would involve a conceptual analysis of those problems. This would entail tracing those problems down to their conceptual roots. 

But this is not what Anderson dishes up. On the contrary, what he does serve in his treatment of Erhman’s materialism is, ironically, rather concrete-bound and oblivious of conceptual hierarchy. 

Anderson says that there are “many… daunting philosophical problems for materialists,” which I do not doubt is the case. I’m an Objectivist, not a materialist, so my purpose here is not to vindicate Erhman’s materialist commitments. In his post, Anderson outlines nine challenges in particular and indicates that more can be supplied. I would think that it goes without saying that uncovering problems in one type of philosophy does not justify adopting a worldview based on imaginary notions, but should rather inspire one to probe those issues further to see if they’re really problems at all, and if they are, discover what the objective solutions to those problems might be. But then again, I am a minority of one. 

Let’s take a look at the first of Anderson’s “daunting philosophical problems for materialists,” and if there’s interest, perhaps we can explore others in his list in future entries here on IP. Anderson’s first item is as follows:
The problem of the unity of consciousness. How could a material object like the brain, extended across space and composed of billions of discrete physical parts, serve as the basis for the unity of our conscious experience?
Notice that what Anderson provides here is an open-ended question. A question is not an argument, but rather a prompt which points thinkers in an intended direction of inquiry. Moreover, it’s hard to suppose that a mere question is sufficient to prove that the issue under discussion is a “daunting philosophical problem,” for the question itself may simply be arising from a vantage of ignorance. The thought occurs to me, where does the Christian bible address this question? But in the interest of paralipsis, I won’t ask that! (Ed Babinski explores a related question here.) 

That said, I’m not seeing a problem as such here. Conscious experience is a type of activity, and if activity takes place, it must take place somewhere. The question Anderson presents here seems as odd as asking “how could a material location like a city, extended across space and composed of billions of discrete physical parts, serve as the basis for the unity of our communal experience?” Well, if there is such a thing as communal experience, wouldn’t the activity which makes up that experience have to take place somewhere? Of course it would. That is right in line with the axiom of causality, a fundamental concept: action is the action of some thing which does the acting. We should not be surprised if the answer to Anderson’s question is that the only thing that could “serve as the basis for the unity of our conscious experience” would in fact have to have “a material object like the brain”! It would also need sense receptors which provide sensory contact with its environment, a nervous system which delivers sensory impulses to a centralized organ which can integrate them, as well as other systems which nourish, sustain and protect the system. And we have just that – they’re called bodies. Indeed, we aren’t just brains walking around. 

There may be more context to his question that Anderson leaves implicit, but that only allows the question to remain less focused and more approximate. Perhaps he thinks by itself it’s a stumper of sorts. But then, what role does he think the brain has in conscious experience? Is the brain merely a hapless bystander to conscious experience, present at all times but of no fundamental significance to conscious experience? He does not say, and I don’t think we’ll find the answer in the Sermon on the Mount. 

I have already argued elsewhere (see here) that consciousness is biological in nature. And while questions like Anderson’s typically have human brains and human conscious experience specifically in mind, it is only wise, in my estimation, to open the scope of such general questions to include other relevant facts we discover in nature. My cat has conscious experience, for instance, just as my neighbor’s two rambunctious dogs (they move like bullets!). The pair of raccoons who occasionally visit my yard at night looking for anything to scavenge (they’re enormous!), also have conscious experience. I could go on, but the point is that human beings, and thus human brains, do not have a monopoly on conscious experience. This tells us that conscious experience is not quite as unique as some thinkers might have it; there is a wide variety of species which possess the faculty of consciousness. 

I point this out as a needed reminder since it is not at all uncommon for thinkers to overlook the fact that human consciousness shares key essentials with that of other organisms and to treat human consciousness as something otherworldly or at any rate inherently incongruent with the universe in which we exist. I firmly reject the view that consciousness is alien to reality and that we must explain consciousness by looking to some alternative realm which is only accessible to the human mind by means of imagining. Imagination did not create the faculty of consciousness – such a notion commits the fallacy of the stolen concept. 

Like other animals, human beings have sense organs and perceive objects with which they come into contact. Sensation and perception are forms of conscious experience, and this experience is a response to physical stimuli. And like human beings, other animals which are capable of conscious experience are biological organisms: we have physical bodies, physical sensory organs, physical nervous systems, and yes physical brains. The use of “physical” here is admittedly redundant – there’s no such thing as a non-physical brain – but a necessary one to drive home the point. There may be dozens of questions about how the organs involved in conscious experience function, but those would be scientific questions – questions which would require specialized knowledge; they would not fall under the purview of philosophy. Philosophically there is no quandary here; if one’s philosophy finds these facts at all problematic, that philosophy may well be overdue for a fundamental overhaul. 

Since all examples of conscious experience that we can objectively detect in reality are examples of biological organisms which possess nervous systems, including brains, we might ask: how could an alleged being which has no physical parts, indeed no brain, be capable of having any conscious experience? Perhaps here we’re supposed to just accept the claim that such is possible and let the matter rest in “mystery.” But that’s not knowledge – that’s just an open invitation to treat the imaginary as though it were real over and against the facts which we do in fact discover and validate in nature. There is no rational justification for this. 

I think part of the problem for those confessing materialism is a problem which religionists also have, which is the tendency to make pronouncements about things beyond the reach of their knowledge and then to treat those pronouncements as though they were fundamental truths to which all other viewpoints must be anchored. For example, some might say that the universe cannot be eternal because there must have been a time before everything in the universe existed. They might not put it in these terms, but what they do say essentially entails this. But I don’t know that this is the case; in fact, given what I understand about time, time presupposes existence, so it makes no sense to me to suppose there was a time when nothing existed. Likewise, the materialist might say (as Ehrman himself puts it) “There’s the material realm, and that’s it, all the way down.” What exactly does this mean, and how does he know this? Or is it simply that he believes this, and he’s treating what he believes as some kind of incontestable knowledge? (Reading through Ehrman’s blog, I get the impression that he’s open to correction; good for him!) 

There’s another tendency, somewhat more insidious, to treat explanations (“accounts”) not merely as intellectually fundamental, but as metaphysical primaries – as though all reality hinged on them. Presuppositionalists would do themselves a service by asking, instead of “what’s your account for [X]?” they would ask: What’s my starting point?

Many outsiders to Objectivism assume that Objectivism is simply materialism by another name, or at any rate a category of materialism. This is not true. For example, I have yet to find one materialist who has proposed a theory of concepts anything like what Ayn Rand presents in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Some have assumed that the axiom “existence exists” is euphemistic for “only the material world exists.” But I have yet to find a single informed argument for this which takes into account what Rand does say about her axiom. Rand does not equate the axiom “existence exists” with “the physical world exists” – not because she wants to leave room for the hope of some alleged immaterial realm, but because she’s acutely aware of the limits to our knowledge imposed by the hierarchical nature of concepts. She’s only being consistent with the normative constraints of rational epistemology here owing to the hierarchical relationships inherent in conceptual integration. She explains this in some detail in the workshop titled “The Physical World” included in the expanded second edition of her book Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, beginning on page 245 (of my copy anyway). Here’s a relevant section of her statement on the topic:
But now what’s the difference between saying “existence exists” and “the physical world exists”? “Existence exists” does not specify what exists. It is a formula which would cover the first sensation of an infant or the most complex knowledge of a scientist. It applies equally to both. It is only the fact of recognizing: there is something. This comes before you grasp that you are performing an act of consciousness. It’s only the recognition that something exists. By the time you say that it’s a world, and it’s a physical world, you need to know much more. Because you can’t say “physical world” before you have grasped, self-consciously, the process of awareness and have said, “Well, there are such existents as mental events, like thinking or memories or emotions, which are not physical; they are existents, but of a different kind: they are certain states or processes of my consciousness, my faculty of grasping the existence of that outside world.” And the next step is: “What is that outside world made of?” 
The concept “matter,” which we all take for granted, is an enormously complex scientific concept. And I think it was probably one of the greatest achievements of thinkers ever to arrive at the concept “matter,” and to recognize that that is what the physical world outside is composed of, and that’s what we mean by the term “physical.” (Ibid., p. 247)
Now this is not to say that some of Anderson’s points are not in fact problematic for the materialist. I’m happy to let mystics of spirit and mystics of muscle duke it out – I have plenty of popcorn! But they are not problems for Objectivism. 

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...

Great! Thanks once again, Dawson!


Robert Kidd said...

No matter how many times I explain that I'm not a materialist, that I don't think only matter exists, that I don't think the universe popped into being out of nothing, that I don't believe the universe had a beggining, and that life did not come about by "random chance", that the notion of "random chance" violates the law of identity and of causality....they continue on as if I said nothing. They have a script and darn it, they're going to follow it no matter what. Reality be damned.

Robert Kidd said...

Hi Dawson,

I love your blog. I was wondering if you've heard of this guy who's all over the internet now who calls himself Darth Dawkins? Sometimes he goes by Dunkin atheists. I was just wondering what you think of him? He's Sye Ten on steroids.