Materialism and consciousness and all that

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Gareth McCaughan

Nov 18, 2006, 11:27:56 PM11/18/06
[This is a composite reply to, I hope, all seven of Dianelos's
currently-unanswered articles in the "Deconversion" thread. I'm
hoping that by taking them together we can avoid needless repetition.
I shan't be going point-by-point through every paragraph, and
indeed there's rather little direct quotation here; Dianelos,
if I've missed anything of importance then please say so.

Once this has made it to uk.r.c, I'll post followups to the
articles it's responding to giving its Message-ID. Here, for
reference, are the Message-IDs of those articles, in case
anyone wants to look them up with Google or whatever. I've
listed them in the order in which they appear in my newsreader,
which isn't exactly chronological.

2006-07-17 <>
2006-07-22 <>
2006-07-25 <>
2006-07-27 <>
2006-07-27 <>
2006-07-21 <>
2006-07-30 <>

I'm afraid this article is nearly 1300 lines long. -- gjm]


Since this is long and discursive, here's a brief table of contents.

1 What do you mean by consciousness?
2 Methodological implications of materialism?
3 Varieties of existence and varieties of materialism.
4 Alleged incapacities of materialism.
4a Beauty.
4b Ethics.
4c Consciousness.
4d "Fundamental differences".
5 Your idealist theory.
5a Completeness.
5a1 Consciousness.
5a2 Beauty.
5a3 Ethics.
5b Coherence.
5c Patterns.
6 Learning virtue.
6a The problem of evil.
6b. Does the world maximize the learning of virtue?
7 An external world?

And an executive summary: When you say that your idealist
theory is better than materialism because it gives a complete
and coherent account of everything, including things like
consciousness and ethics that are problematic for materialism,
I think you rely heavily on an unexplained and problematic
notion of phenomenal consciousness (which I suspect isn't
capable of bearing the load you place on it), make claims
for your own theory that you haven't come anywhere near
to justifying, and make claims about the implications of
materialism that you also haven't come anywhere near to


1. What do you mean by consciousness?

Consciousness is fundamental to a lot of your arguments:
in particular, you say that materialists can't give a good
account of it whereas you can, and you conclude from this
that you're right where materialists are wrong.

It would seem important, therefore, to establish exactly
what you mean when you refer to "consciousness". I have
several times tried to find out, but you have consistently
responded in two ways: with unhelpful attempts at ostensive
definition (it's all *this* that I experience all the time)
and with bluster (every normal 10-year-old child knows what
consciousness is).

Now, perhaps you think that my level of understanding is below
that of a normal 10-year-old. Fair enough, but in that case
I advise you to stop engaging me in sophisticated philosophical
argument and attempt to help me fix my gross mental deficiency.
I shall assume henceforth that you don't think that, because
otherwise we're wasting our time.

It's also possible that *you* don't have any understanding
of this matter that goes beyond a 10-year-old's. That seems
improbable to me; all the evidence is that you're an intelligent
chap and quite a deep and clear thinker. So I'll also assume
that *that* isn't our problem.

What, then? I can only suppose that you think I'm engaging
in obfuscation or mired in confusion, splitting invisible
hairs and tilting at non-existent windmills, and that if I'd
only abandon one or another broken habit of mind that makes
this stuff appear harder than it really is then I'd know
there's no point to such questions.

Let me therefore attempt to clarify why I keep asking that
question, and why I think it would be helpful if you would
actually answer it rather than repeatedly brushing it aside.

1a. You keep saying that no observable consequences follow
from "the consciousness hypothesis". That may be true
if by TCH you mean some abstruse metaphysical thesis;
it is emphatically not true for what every normal
10-year-old understands. Ask that normal 10-year-old,
next time you see him, whether anything would change
if you stopped being conscious; he could list lots of
things that would change, and plenty of them would be
externally observable.

(So: your rhetoric about 10-year-olds doesn't seem to
match up with other things you've said; those other
things seem more important; so I reject your rhetoric
about 10-year-olds.)

1b. It is a simple matter of empirical fact that "consciousness"
is not used by everyone in the same sense. Simply telling me
that you mean it in the obvious sense that everyone
understands does nothing to help me identify what sense
you have in mind, because almost everyone thinks *their*
sense is the obvious one that everyone understands. Yours
and mine, for instance, are certainly not the same, because
yours is apparently of something devoid of observable
consequences and mine isn't.

(So: your ostensive definitions don't actually define,
at least for me.)

1c. You have tried to define consciousness ostensively along
these lines: "Consciousness is what I experience every
waking second of every day". But then you go on to apply
the term to small babies, to "lower" animals, to God.
I hope you won't be either puffed up with pride or
offended, but I don't think your mind is similar enough
either to a cat's mind (if it has one) or to God's mind
(if there is such a being and it has a mind) that I can
just transfer a concept you've defined by reference to
yourself to those very different beings.

(So: your ostensive definitions, in so far as they
actually define, don't define nearly enough for the
purposes of our discussion.)

1d. Further, even if I assume for the moment that I'm only
trying to understand *your* consciousness (which will
probably transfer OK to other normal humans', at least)
then I find your descriptions insufficient to distinguish
between multiple things you could mean. Are you referring
to sensation, or to some separate *awareness* of sensation,
or to awareness of self (of which sensory awareness is
part), or to something else? When you refer to "every
waking second", do you mean to include those "waking
seconds" most of us have from time to time in which
we're doing something "on autopilot" and not, so far
as later introspection can reveal, consciously aware of
anything much? Are you excluding whatever sort of awareness
we have in dreams (which, while not "conscious" according
to some definitions, has some of the same "subjective"
qualities as ordinary conscious experience as I understand
that term)? Are you intending the term to carry any sort
of metaphysical freight, e.g. about what sort of thing
"I" denotes or about whether consciousness is rightly
described as *existing* as well as *happening*?

(So: your ostensive definitions, in so far as they
actually define and considering only what they do
define, don't define precisely enough.)

1e. You appear to be certain that no description of anything
in material terms could actually be a description of
consciousness, but nothing you've said gives me a clear
notion of why. I would like to know how you know you aren't
in the same situation as someone who decides that the word
"mass" denotes something ineffable, and defends her claim
by refusing to acknowledge any description that doesn't
use that word as a genuine description of mass. So, e.g.,
you might say that the mass of something is proportional
to the gravitational attraction it exerts on smallish
nearby things, or that it's proportional to the force
required to impart to the object a given acceleration,
or that it's a measure of how much more space near the
object is curved than it would have been without the
object, or that it's what's measured under normal
Earth-gravitational conditions by a weighing scale,
or whatever, but each time she says "No, I can imagine
all those things being exactly the same but the mass
being something quite different"; none of those attempts
at saying or showing what mass is, she says, really
captures the essence, the fundamental mass-ness, of mass.
She concludes that no metaphysics in which mass isn't a
fundamental notion can be acceptable.

Now, I don't claim that your position on consciousness
is as implausible as this; but I'd like to know why
whatever arguments you might deploy against our
massologist don't seem to you to apply equally to
your beliefs about consciousness.

(So: your arguments about consciousness seem to depend
on some rather startling features of consciousness as
you understand it, and I would like to understand just
what those features are; your definitions don't get me
any way towards understanding that.)


2. Methodological implications of materialism?

You've claimed that materialists necessarily have a terrible
problem dealing with notions of ethics, aesthetics and so on,
on the following grounds: Materialists say that physical
things are all there are; so materialists shouldn't use any
concepts other than those of physical things; moral values
and the like don't seem to be physical things; therefore
materialists can't consistently talk about moral values and
the like.

I think this is dead wrong, and here's why. From "materialists
don't believe in any non-physical *things*" to "materialists
shouldn't use any *concepts* other than ones simply statable
in material terms" is an enormous and unjustified leap. There
isn't the slightest reason, for instance, why a materialist
shouldn't be a moral realist in the sense of believing that
some moral judgements are true and some are false.

Of course, a materialist who holds that there are such *things*
as moral values is probably in serious trouble (though, who
knows?, perhaps some sort of theory can be made that considers
moral values as particular configurations of brains or of sets
of brains -- but for sure no one has any idea at present how
one might fill in any of the details, and that would need to
be a subjectivist theory anyway). But there's no necessary
linkage between what concepts you can use and what objects
you think exist.

I feel a digression coming on. Excuse me.


3. Varieties of existence and varieties of materialism.

I think you use the words "materialist" and "materialism"
in stronger senses than I do. I'd like to explore that

Imagine someone who says (and means) something like this:

| I don't believe in gods or ghosts or spirits or
| universal consciousnesses; there are no such things.
| Neither are there Platonic ideas, or ethical laws,
| or anything else of the kind, "out there".
| However, there "are" all sorts of things for which
| it's convenient to speak as if they exist, even though
| they certainly don't exist in anything like the sense
| in which physical things do, nor in anything like the
| senses in which gods and suchlike have been thought
| to exist. Talk of such "things" could always be
| done away with, without changing the underlying
| meaning as I understand it, by judicious paraphrase,
| but it's so much more convenient not to that we don't:
| just as we find it convenient to say that the sun
| rises or that someone's heart is broken.
| For instance, this applies to abstracta such as
| numbers and propositions. They're always eliminable,
| with some effort; for instance one can consider
| propositions as equivalence classes of statements
| under synonymy, and then avoid talking about the
| classes by talking about the statements (considered
| as physical events, hence as regions of spacetime)
| instead. But doing this is just incredibly cumbersome;
| the traditional language is the way it is because
| it's so much more convenient, and I don't propose
| to stop using it.

Would you consider such a person to be a materialist?
(I would.)

Now, what about someone who says instead:

| I don't believe in gods or ghosts or spirits or
| universal consciousnesses; there are no such things.
| Neither are there Platonic ideas, or ethical laws,
| or anything else of the kind "out there".
| However, I do believe in the existence of certain
| abstracta such as numbers and propositions. Their
| "existence" is of course entirely unlike that of
| physical objects, and entirely unlike the existence
| that's wrongly predicated of gods and suchlike;
| they share some grammatical features and the term
| "exist", and that's about it. None the less, it
| is a variety of existence, and I am not ashamed
| of saying that those things exist.

Would you consider such a person to be a materialist?
(I think I would; I don't think s/he disagrees about
any matter of fact with the first person above.)

What about an extreme modal realist like David Lewis,
who believes in "possible worlds" -- just like, and
just as real as, this one, except that they are possible
rather than actual -- but who believes that the actual
world contains nothing but matter (broadly considered)?
This person believes that other possible worlds contain
gods and God and such things, but that *this* one, the
*actual* world, doesn't. (I suppose that the word "actual"
is for such people purely indexical, like "here" and "now"
and "me".) I would -- I think -- be inclined to say that
such a person is "materialist as far as the actual world
goes", and that even though his god-inhabited possible
worlds are arguably non-material on two counts (that of
mere possibility, and that of having gods in them) this
is close enough to *proper* (best not to say "actual"...)
materialism for most purposes.

What all these questions have in common is that they are
exploring different notions of "existence", and that the
modes of existence our hypothetical people attribute to
some non-material things might be sufficiently different
from the sort we have the best handle on. Now, to be sure,
some believers in God say that his existence is of just as
different a sort as that of (say) numbers. God is, for
instance, said to be the "ground of all being"; to say
that he exists is about as true as it is to say that
the Olympics is a first-rate athlete. But I think adherents
of such a notion would all want to affirm that God's
existence is *more* real and solid and so on than the
existence of tables or electrons; please consider that
my hypothetical people above grant to numbers what they
consider a rather "thin", ethereal, secondary kind of
"existence"; they aren't conceding anything a theist
should be much heartened by.

If you have arguments that show that a materialism
too strict even for the first of our hypothetical
people above is problematic, or even outright incoherent,
then I don't think any sensible materialist need be
troubled at all. (I'm not at all convinced, so far,
that you have.)


2. Methodological implications of materialism? (continued)

Very well. Someone who thinks that ethics, or pure mathematics,
is concerned with questions of genuine truth and falsehood,
might -- at least for practical purposes -- need to adopt
a position like the first one I mentioned above. I don't think
this makes them any less a materialist in any sense that

Let's return to your claim about what sorts of things
materialists should be allowed to think. You wrote:

| There are many flavors of materialism but the common
| and foundational element is that according to materialism
| (or physicalism - the concepts are often used
| interchangeably) everything is physical, or, if
| one wants to be precise, that everything supervenes
| on the physical - and that all phenomena are the
| result of material interactions.

(So far, so good.)

| The epistemological implication is clear: that
| everything can be explained without requiring
| non-physical concepts. "Everything" presumably
| includes us and how it is to be us.

Whether and how I disagree with this depends on just what
you mean by "non-physical concepts" -- because, of course,
one thing that distinguishes you from some materialists
is that they regard some concepts (perhaps including
that of consciousness) as physical where you don't.

If you mean something like "concepts that absolutely
cannot be expressed without presupposing non-physical
entities" then I suggest that some things you regard
as non-physical concepts are only contentiously so.
Consciousness, as I understand it, would be an example:
I don't think it's at all obvious a priori whether it's
non-physical in this sense or not. It's possible --
and I'm hoping that you'll clarify this as a result
of section 1 above -- that you may understand it
in a way that makes it *necessarily* non-physical;
but then I think it's not at all obvious that it's real,
that you aren't misinterpreting the evidence.

If you mean "concepts that aren't most naturally
defined in purely observational terms" then I agree
with you that plenty of things we all (including
materialists) want to be able to say are difficult,
and perhaps impossible, to express using only such
terms. But I see no reason why materialists should
be restricted to them. If you think they should,
could you please explain why?

Or you might mean something a bit stronger: "concepts
that can't be defined in purely observational terms".
I think both the above objections apply to this one:
it's not clear that any of the concepts worth caring
about have that property, and it's not clear that
materialists should be forbidden to use them even
if they do.


4. Alleged incapacities of materialism.

There are various things you protest that materialism,
or materialists, cannot do: provide a complete and coherent
worldview, give a good account of consciousness, give an
account of ethics that's consistent with moral realism,
and so on. I find all your examples unconvincing, for
various reasons. I'll look at the "complete and coherent
worldview" thing later, and address the more specific
issues here.

4a. Beauty.

I've suggested that beauty is broadly intersubjective
but not objective: that, for instance, (1) there could
be an intelligent being, capable of perceiving sound waves,
for which the music of Bach would hold no special joys
even after long exposure, and (2) there may simply be
no fact of the matter as to whether Bach's or Mozart's
music is more beautiful.

I think we are agreed that if this is conceded then
beauty poses no fundamental problem for materialism:
beauty is defined in terms of the emotional and mental
reactions it causes, in one individual or in many within
a population, and these can be described in purely
material terms. You might want to say that those
reactions can't be defined other than in terms of
consciousness, and that consciousness is problematic
for materialism. I disagree with both halves of that,
but even if you're right then beauty poses no independent
difficulty for materialism that isn't already posed by
consciousness. In any case, I was proposing to understand
those "reactions" in physical terms; I think you agree
that this could be done, but if not then I can explain
the sort of thing I have in mind.

You offer, if I've understood you right, two arguments
against my proposal that beauty is intersubjective rather
than objective. Firstly, that if people are capable of
learning to appreciate Bach then there must be *something*
about his music "that teaches brains to delight in it".
Secondly, that if we were to encounter some intelligent
being -- an alien, say -- capable of perceiving sounds
but incapable of appreciating Bach, then we would in fact
be better advised to conclude that the alien wasn't really
capable of perceiving sounds *as we do*. (Presumably
similar arguments apply, mutatis mutandis, for other
forms of beauty; let's stick with music. I think that
of all arts it's the one that offers your argument the
best prospects.)

To the first argument, I reply that indeed there is
something about the music that teaches brains to delight
in it, namely its adaptedness to our brains. I don't
think this suffices to justify calling it "objective".

To the second, I reply that you're arguing in a circle.
You agree that an intelligent being with the ability to
perceive sounds might not appreciate Bach; but you want
to consider the ability to appreciate Bach as part of
what it means to perceive sounds *like we do*. Well,
fine; but then all you're saying is that someone enough
like us will necessarily appreciate Bach, whereas someone
less like us might not. That sounds to me like the very
definition of (inter)subjectivity!

I think that perhaps what you want to say is that if
our hypothetical alien had the same *consciousness*
of sounds as we do, then it would appreciate Bach,
but if not then it might fail to appreciate Bach
despite having the same sort of purely-physical response
to sounds as us. But if that's your meaning then you've
contradicted yourself, because you've claimed frequently
that consciousness-the-non-physical-phenomenon has
no observable consequences -- but taking delight in
a given piece of music (given the material definition
of "delight" we're talking about -- see above) is an
observable consequence.

A couple of minor subtleties. (1) Any sufficiently
clever being could presumably learn a lot about what
sort of things we find beautiful, and might get very
good at identifying beautiful things and perhaps even
producing them. I think it's clear that these facts
don't make any sort of trouble for materialism. (2)
We have, and perhaps some other intelligent beings
have too, a certain propensity to grow fond of things
we are exposed to for a long time; this applies even
to things that aren't by ordinary standards good or
beautiful. One can grow fond of cruelty, or bad
architecture. If I'm right about #1, then our
hypothetical originally-amusical being could first
learn to identify beautiful music and then grow
fond of it. I think this is irrelevant, firstly
because it's unclear that this should count as
learning to appreciate the music -- if the being
had been perfectly misinformed about what we find
beautiful then it might equally have grown fond
of ugly music -- and secondly because this phenomenon
doesn't seem to require any sort of non-materialistic

So I'm not impressed by either of your arguments that
beauty must be objective and not merely intersubjective;
I conclude that you haven't shown any problem for materialism
here, or at least none not already posed by consciousness.

4b. Ethics.

I think we're agreed that a materialist can give a
decent account of ethics in the "subjective" mode;
the sort that says that what's right is what we find
pleasing in a certain sort of way, or that what's
right is what is approved by society in a certain
sort of way. So your main ethical argument against
materialism is that materialists can't give an account
of how ethical judgements can be genuinely true or false.
I'm leaving aside for now your parallel claim that
idealists, unlike materialists, can.

(The problem can't be that *materialism* can't do so,
because that isn't materialism's job. No one claims
that materialism is in itself a complete philosophical
system, any more than theism or atheism is. What
matters is whether it's an insuperable obstacle
to having one; that is, whether *materialists* can
coherently be ethical realists.)

(I'll come to another, slightly different, ethical
argument you've made against materialism, shortly.)

I've tried to address this one in two ways. Firstly,
by showing how a reasonable materialist can come to
hold a definite ethical position, at least on some
matters, without abandoning materialism; secondly,
by observing that moral nonrealism, although both
of us happen to disagree with it, isn't obviously
crazy, so that if materialism requires adopting it
then that isn't all that terrible a blow to materialism.

4b1. My sketch of a materialist approach to ethics.

Briefly, I proposed adopting some axioms: pain is
bad, pleasure is good, everyone's pain and pleasure
are of roughly equal moral weight. I have, as I said,
reasons for them but not derivations. (Note to readers
other than Dianelos, if any there be: What I actually
said was a bit more nuanced; please don't imagine me
to be a naive hedonist; I'm not.)

Unfortunately, your response to this seems to me to
consist entirely of ungrounded assertions about what
materialists can consistently think; it's difficult
for me to see what I can say other than: well, I don't
agree with you.

The underlying problem seems to be, once again, that
you *say* materialism but *mean* something that goes
much further than materialism: some kind of commitment
never to use any ideas or terms that don't amount to
combinations of observational primitives. In fact,
when you say "materialist" you appear to mean "logical
positivist" or something of the kind. But there simply
is no reason why a materialist need be anything like
a logical positivist; it's as if I were to pretend that
all theists are Islamic fundamentalists.

There is one part of your response that's definite
enough to engage with: you invite me to consider a
cellular automaton whose behaviour is isomorphic
to our universe's, and you suggest that applying the
terms "good" and "bad" to regions of that "universe"
that exhibit pleasure and pain would be the mere
application of arbitrary labels. Well, no, it wouldn't,
not for someone who accepts the axioms I proposed.
The labels wouldn't be arbitrary because, although
I suggested that "good" and "bad" be regarded as
primitive terms, that doesn't make them content-free.
For instance, what is "good" is what we ought to
seek for; to say that we "ought" to do X is inter alia
to admit that we have reason to do X. These terms do
engage with the actual world. And, on the other side,
applying them to particular regions in that computer
simulation of our world isn't arbitrary if you grant
my axioms; it follows from them. Perhaps all you really
mean is that you disagree with my axioms or with their
consequences; well, fine; it's hardly news that we don't
all agree about ethics.

I gave some reasons (which, as I said, I don't consider
to be proofs or anything much like them) for accepting
my axioms. You responded in a rather curious way, by
observing (and I quite agree) that acting in accordance
with those axioms isn't always in the best interests of
our genes. So what? Why should I care? Why should any
materialist care? Do you imagine that materialism implies
acceptance of E O Wilson -style sociobiological ethics?

You went on to say "Why should a consistent materialist
do the right thing?" (in a particular instance where doing
the right thing doesn't seem to be in their interest).
Answer: on account of accepting axioms like the ones I
listed. If you think there's some problem with that, then
yet again I think you are saying "materialist" when you
mean something quite different.

4b2. The possibility that moral realism is incorrect.

I can't find anywhere in your replies to me where you've
addressed this. I think I've made the observation twice;
once it was next to a parallel observation about aesthetics,
and you responded only to the bit about aesthetics; once
you just said "Yes, that's my point" which didn't make any
sense to me at all.

4b3. Another ethical argument against materialism.

You've made another ethics-based argument against
materialism: that a consistent materialist can't have
any way of ascertaining the truth or falsehood of any
ethical proposition.

I think this is obviously wrong; a materialist who
accepts the ethical axioms discussed above can use
them to ascertain (with as much confidence as anyone
can reasonably have about any point of ethics) the
truth or falsehood of lots of ethical propositions.
Now, you apparently believe that no materialist can
rightly accept such axioms; but I still don't understand

Of course a materialist can't *deduce* those axioms
from purely physical propositions (i.e., the sort of
propositions that the logical positivists were prepared
to countenance). Yet again, I say: so what? No one
deduces their ethics from first principles. If you
think you do, you're fooling yourself. If not, you
haven't identified any problem with materialism that
isn't equally a problem with idealism.

4c. Consciousness.

I'm not sure how useful it is trying to write this before
finding out what you mean by "consciousness" (see #1 above),
but I'll try anyway.

I think the situation is as follows. Anything you can
give a clear description of will turn out to be explicable
in material terms. (No, "all *this*" doesn't count as a
clear description.) For anything you can't, there's no
way to tell whether there is, or could be, an explanation
in material terms. That doesn't entitle you to claim that
there isn't or can't be one.

Consider, for instance, sensations. Someone kicks you in
the leg and you feel pain. Lots of features of this seem
eminently explicable materially (in two different modes:
physiological, for what happens, and evolutionary, for
why things should be that way). Thus: you're sensitive
to pain from being kicked because it's the sort of thing
your ancestors needed to know to run away from (or fight
against, or whatever), the early bits of the process work
by the transmission of impulses down two kinds of nerve
fibre, and the later bits are still somewhat mysterious
because the brain isn't too well understood yet. You find
pain unpleasant because, evolutionarily, it needs to be
something you're motivated to avoid; that's what it's
for. You know that that pain is something affecting *you*
because you have a mental model of the world that has you
in it, which you need for "simulation" purposes. And so on.

What remains? Some alleged ineffables. How come pain
feels *just like this*? (I think that's like asking
why you got dealt the exact hand you did in a game
of cards.) How come pain *feels like anything*?
Well, what's the alternative?

Your answer to that last question appears to be: the
world could have been exactly the same, as far as anything
externally observable goes, but without anyone really
feeling anything, having real wishes, etc. (If I've
misunderstood you on that point, then what follows will
probably be pointless; please excuse me.) In other words,
I think you are suggesting that the following is, modulo
some technical difficulties, possible: neuroscientists
become able to track the exact brain processes that occur
when you feel pain, from when someone jabs a spike into
your leg to when you say "Ouch! It feels like someone just
jabbed a spike into my leg"; they find no gaps in the
chain from the spike-jabbing to your response, and it
turns out that a sufficiently laborious physical simulation
would have been able to predict your response without
taking consciousness into account; but, as it happens,
you *are* conscious and your decision to say what you do
is the result of that consciousness.

That seems, to put it mildly, paradoxical. I won't be
surprised if I've got some important part of it wrong;
please set me straight if so. But if not, I suggest that
your position has consequences so bizarre (namely the
ones above) as to make it absurd for you to claim that
you have a better account of the phenomena of consciousness
than ... well, just about anyone, frankly :-).

Let me be a bit more explicit about what I find paradoxical
here. It's the combination of the following features:

1 That a purely physical explanation of your response
to pain, no part or parts of which are identifiable
with conscious activity, is possible.

2 That, none the less, conscious activity *causes*
(partially, at least) your response.

(I don't think you've explicitly affirmed #2, but you
have made denigratory remarks about epiphenomenalism;
in any case, if your consciousness of pain isn't part
of what makes you say "ouch, I'm in pain" then once
again I find that your notion of consciousness and mine
are very different.)

Let me put the matter slightly differently. There are two
goals we might have. Firstly, to explain "in the third
person" how come there is experience. Secondly, to explain
"in the first person" why it feels just like it does.
It seems to me that the first goal is accessible to science
and that there's no reason to think it's unattainable
on materialistic lines. (But the notion of "experience"
in question might not satisfy you.) The second is
inaccessible to science *by definition* (of "first person"),
and therefore its inaccessibility can't have any consequences
not already implicit in the definitions.

4d. "Fundamental differences".

You've said that a consistent materialist can't see
something that any 10-year-old can: that there's a
fundamental difference between (say) your baby brother
and a set of drums. So much the worse for materialism,
we're supposed to conclude.

"Fundamental" is a dangerous word, like "significant"
and "real"; it sounds very fine but is easy to use without
pinning down just what one's saying. So it's possible that
I've misunderstood what sort of distinction it is that
materialism is allegedly unable to draw. Whether I have
or not will hopefully become clear enough as we proceed.

First of all, let's get that 10-year-old out of the way.
Being 10 years old does not qualify (or disqualify) one
to judge what is fundamental and what isn't, and furthermore
most 10-year-olds would probably be rather baffled if you
were to ask "But is that a *fundamental* difference,
or not?".

It seems to me that a materialist can see, just as
clearly as you (or your favourite 10-year-old) can,
that a child is conscious and a set of drums isn't.
(How clearly is that? Not very, I suspect. But
materialists don't seem to have any more difficulty
distinguishing conscious from non-conscious entities
than anyone else, nor are they often found beating
people as if they're drums because they like the

The materialist's alleged deficiency, then, is that
whatever difference she sees isn't "fundamental". Not
according to you, anyway. But it seems to me that
even if materialism is entirely right, the distinction
between hitting your baby brother to elicit a noise and
hitting your drums to elicit a noise is a pretty clear
one. It's a difficult distinction to define, of course,
but if you're happy with "one is conscious, the other
isn't" then a materialist can say that just as well,
and just as sincerely, as you can.

You say that this isn't a "fundamental" difference to
a materialist, because to the materialist all phenomena,
including those of consciousness, are physical. This
doesn't make the least bit of sense to me; why should
that stop the difference being fundamental? (If all
you mean is that for the materialist the difference
is, in principle, further analysable, then I agree, but
then why should non-fundamental-ness be any sort of

If you could show that the difference shouldn't *matter*
to a materialist, then that would be interesting, and it
would be a strike against materialism. But you haven't
shown that. You've shown that it doesn't meet some
arbitrary criterion, that you just made up, for being
"fundamental". I can't see why anyone should care whether
it meets that criterion or not.


5. Your idealist theory.

Your case against materialism is based on claiming (1) that
materialism doesn't give a good account of various things,
and (2) that another theory, namely yours, gives a better
account of them, and indeed amounts to a complete and coherent
worldview that explains everything. I've indicated above why
I'm unconvinced by #1; let's turn now to #2.

5a. Completeness.

You say that your theory is complete; that it explains
everything, including all the things materialist theories
can explain and also things (such as those discussed above)
that materialist theories allegedly can't. Unfortunately,
you haven't given much indication of what those explanations
actually look like, which makes it difficult to evaluate
your claim.

It's very easy to make a theory that explains everything;
you just lower your standards for "explanation" and declare
that something-or-other explains everything. Or, you take
every observation anyone can make as an axiom, at which point
everything becomes a consequence of your theory. Of course
moves like this don't constitute support for your theory.
I submit that the alleged explanatory power of your idealist
theory of the world comes largely from this sort of sleight
of hand -- done, of course, more subtly :-).

I'm sure you disagree; the way to tell whether my accusation
is right is to look in detail at some of those purported
explanations, and see how convincing they are.

5a1. Consciousness.

(I approach this hesitantly, as before, because I still
don't know what you mean by "consciousness"...)

Supposedly your theory gives a better account of consciousness
than materialism does. I think it does so only to the extent
that it begs the relevant questions.

It's difficult or impossible, you say, to see how mere matter
could give rise to consciousness. Sure, it could produce something
that looks externally the same as consciousness does, but it
couldn't produce *actual* consciousness. I've said a bit above
in response to this challenge; but let's see whether your
theory does any better at explaining the relations between
consciousness and matter.

First of all, a brief digression on matter:

You say that consciousness comes first, and that what we
call matter is just a pattern in our experience. Very well;
perhaps so. But this is only an *explanation* of matter
if your theory provides some reason why matter is the way
it is; that is, in your language, some reason why we see
the sorts of patterns that we do and not other sorts.
You've offered no such reason, so far as I can recall,
beyond the claim that conscious experience exists for us
to learn virtue and that it's somehow optimized for this
purpose. If you could somehow show that a material "world"
like ours is optimal for virtue-learning, then perhaps
you'd have an explanation for matter; but it doesn't seem
that you can. And our success in learning virtue doesn't
seem so impressive as to make your postulate plausible
to me. So your allegedly complete theory lacks (so far
as I can currently tell) an explanation for the biggest
and most salient fact about our conscious experience,
namely that it appears to be that of a material world.
This is already enough (it seems to me) to explode your
claim to have a complete theory.

Now, back to the relations between consciousness and
matter. The salient facts, the things that want explanation,
seem to be these:

- That we are conscious.

- That our consciousness seems to be limited by
our (very much material) brains, and to be
greatly modifiable by material manipulation
of those brains.

- That the material world doesn't seem to be
much modifiable by changing our consciousness;
I may be able to make the world seem different
to me for a while by altering my consciousness,
but that generally makes no appreciable difference
to how it seems to anyone else.

- That, so far as we can tell, everything we're
conscious *of* is materially explicable. (Even
if our consciousness itself turns out not to be.)

Your theory certainly has no problem "explaining" the
existence of consciousness. Unfortunately, it does this
by making consciousness an axiom. One can explain
*anything* that way.

Those other facts about consciousness and matter
seem to me to be much more readily explicable by
a theory that gives primacy to matter than by one
that gives primacy to consciousness. (They seem like
strong indications that *our* consciousness, at least,
is derived from matter.) Perhaps your theory gives
convincing reasons why those things should be so;
if it does, you haven't yet presented those reasons.
Maybe this too is supposed to be a consequence of
the alleged optimization of our conscious experience
for the learning of virtue?

When I pointed out a number of ways in which our
consciousness is limited by our physicality, you
agreed that such limitations aren't what we'd expect
if consciousness is primary and are what we'd expect
if matter is primary, but then you said that this
doesn't bother you because you think that after death
we'll be liberated from those limitations. Imagine
that a physicist proposes a theory; that her colleagues
do some calculations and show that her theory implies
that protons ought to have a mass of about 1kg each;
and that she responds by saying "Ah, well, I think
there's a shadow universe in which all the extra mass
of the protons lives". I think everyone would regard
this as a cop-out (unless some good evidence could be
found for this shadow world); if a theory's predictions
don't match observations, then this problem isn't fixed
by postulating some unobservable kludge. I think your
answer has the exact same problem as this: sure, you
can postulate that the discrepancy we observe between
what your theory suggests and what we actually observe
is resolved by changes that happen after our death,
but the fact is that what we actually know about
doesn't match your theory.

Elsewhere, I asked you how your theory explains the
fact that all our interactions are mediated by "the
physical world". Your answer, unless I grossly
misunderstood it, amounted to this: We observe a
pattern in our experience, that our interactions
are mediated by our physical universe. But that
isn't an answer, it isn't an explanation, it's just
a restatement of the thing I asked for an explanation
of! It's easy to make a theory "explain" everything,
if you're prepared to accept null explanations.

5a2. Beauty.

Since you criticize materialism for having no good
account of beauty, I take it that you think your theory
does better. Unfortunately, you've said nothing at all
about how your theory does better.

5a3. Ethics.

Since you criticize materialism for having no good
account of ethics, I take it that you think your theory
does better. Your account of ethics, if I've understood
it right, is that a good action is one "that makes the
pattern that we are become more similar to the pattern
that God is". Unfortunately this is pretty much useless:

- You've described God as the highest-level pattern
in our experience. That's too vague to be meaningful.

- You haven't said what notion of "similarity" is to
be used here.

- Merely offering a definition of a good action
doesn't necessarily constitute giving a decent
account of ethics. ("A good action is one that
reduces the total potential energy in the universe."
"A good action is one that increases the number of
beans within a metre of the surface of the earth.")
You've offered no evidence that your proposed
notion of goodness has anything to do with any
existing one.

You've said some other things about what actions are
right and wrong, and have claimed that they follow
from your theory. Unfortunately, they appear to do so
only if we assume a bunch of things that seem to me
to be absolutely groundless, such as that the highest-level
pattern in our experience is primarily one of love
and that Jesus somehow exemplifies this highest-level
pattern in our experience.

5b. Coherence.

You claim that your theory is not only complete but
coherent, by which (as I understand it) you mean two
things: that it has no internal contradictions, and
that it's "all of a piece", not composed of lots of
separate sub-theories that don't hang together.

I'm happy to accept, at least for the sake of argument,
that your theory lacks internal contradictions. So does
materialism, so far as I can tell. (Of course either
might turn out on closer inspection to have contradictions,
but I don't know of any yet.)

As for the all-of-a-piece-ness, I'm not so convinced.
You object to materialism (if I've understood you
correctly) because you think that to explain all our
experience a materialist has to adopt

| a potpourri of unrelated islands of local coherence
| such as a theory of physical phenomena here, a theory
| of ethics there, a theory of justice here, a theory
| of esthetics there, a theory of logic and math here,
| a theory of consciousness there, and so on

and you imply that your theory doesn't have this
alleged problem. Well, if you indeed have a unified
theory of all these things then let's see it. But
if all you have is a *claim* that all these things
are accounted for by your theory, then I'm not
impressed. Anyone can claim to have a theory that
deals with everything. The difficult thing is to
actually have it. I have yet to see any evidence
that you have a useful theory of *any* of those
things, let alone all of them at once.

Let's suppose for the sake of argument that you really
do have a unified theory of physical phenomena and ethics
and justice and aesthetics and logic and mathematics
and consciousness. Does that make your theory better --
i.e., more likely to be right -- than materialism?
I'm not sure it does, for two reasons.

Firstly, it's not clear that your demand for a unified
theory is a sensible demand. Perhaps physical phenomena
and justice really *are* different kinds of thing.
(Does that mean materialism is wrong, since it says
there's only one kind of thing? No, for a reason I've
mentioned already above: calling justice a "thing"
may just be a matter of convenience.) For instance,
perhaps they exist at different levels. Consider
computers; we have a physical understanding of how
their hardware works, a mathematical understanding
of how algorithms behave, and a variety of other
understandings of particular sorts of program they
might run. (For instance, to understand the behaviour
of a chess-playing program it's helpful to understand
chess, and the explanations we give for its behaviour
might be in terms of chess strategy.) None of this is
evidence that computers aren't purely material or that
materialism isn't able to cope with computers.

Secondly, it's not clear that materialism can't also
provide a unified theory of those things. It might
turn out, for instance, that ethics and justice are
reducible to propositions about suffering and desire
satisfaction and the like, and that those are reducible
to propositions about brains; similarly for aesthetics;
that consciousness is reducible to propositions about
how physical things model their environments and their
selves; and that logic and mathematics are better regarded
as part of the language of our theories than as things
that need separate theories in their own right. In that
case, we'd basically just have a big theory about physical
things, and that would be all.

5c Patterns.

I'd just like to draw your attention to a couple of
things you've said that seem to me to be irreconcilable.
Your view of human thinking and understanding is that
it consists of pattern-spotting, and you say that
there is a single overarching pattern "that explains
the whole of my experience to my satisfaction"; that
this pattern is God, who is "perfect in all her properties".

You also say that "random stuff does happen", and
from what you say about it you appear to think that
rather a lot of random stuff happens. And you say that
randomness can fit into a "pattern" thus: "they allow us
to predict that here and there nobody will be able to
predict any bits".

Now, it seems to me that if, widely present in your
experience, there are areas where so far as you can
tell "no one will be able to predict" anything, and
if some pattern "explains the whole of my experience
to my satisfaction", then you are too easily satisfied;
and that if you proclaim that this pattern is "perfect
in all her properties" despite conspicuously *not*
explaining lots of things then your notion of perfection
is pretty strange too. Perhaps this helps to explain
how you can claim that your theory is "complete" even
though there's lots it doesn't appear to cover. But
I too can make a theory "complete" if I'm allowed to
declare that in large part its completeness consists
of being completely unable to offer predictions.


6. Learning virtue.

You've suggested that our world (that is: our present
range of conscious experiences) is designed to enable
us to learn virtue, and is optimized for that purpose.
And you've suggested that this offers an answer to
the problem of evil -- "either a defence or a theodicy"
depending on how willing your interlocutor is to accept
that the world really is designed for the learning of

6a. The problem of evil.

So, first of all, have you really got an answer to the
problem of evil here? I don't think you've shown that
you have, at any rate. Suppose someone says "The world
is designed to produce as many beetles as possible";
and suppose they can even demonstrate that they're right,
that the world is exquisitely adapted to beetle maximization.
Have they offered a solution to the problem of evil?
No, of course not, because maximizing the number of
beetles is a lousy goal and no one is much inclined
to reckon it valuable enough to outweigh evil and misery.
(Except the beetles, or some crazed entomologists, perhaps.)
So if your answer is going to be any use, you'd better
offer some reason to think that maximizing virtue-learning
is a suitable goal, one that justifies all the crap in
the world.

I suggest that it's not a suitable goal; that a world
with more virtue in is clearly a better thing than a world
with more virtue-learning in; and that a world such as
perfect virtue would create is a better thing than a world
with lots of virtue in it. That's almost a definition of
"virtue"; if making virtue is more important than doing it,
then "virtue" has been defined wrong and we should reckon
what we currently call virtue-making the principal component
of virtue.

Against this, you've suggested that "unearned goodness
is self-contradictory" (which apparently means that
achieving goodness has to be exactly as hard as it
is in this world; how convenient). Could you please
explain what constitutes "earning" goodness, and why
unearned goodness is self-contradictory?

6b. Does the world maximize the learning of virtue?

Even if it turns out that maximizing virtue-learning
*is* a worthy goal and one that would justify all the
badness of the world, this is no use -- and indeed
your claims about what the world is optimized for
are wrong -- if in fact the world doesn't maximize
the learning of virtue.

Since no one knows just what alternative worlds are
possible, we can't be *certain* whether this world
maximizes the learning of virtue. But we can ask whether
it looks as if it does. To me, the answer is a very
clear no. It just seems too easy to imagine how we
could be better at learning virtue (look at how slowly
and reluctantly we actually learn it), and how our
environment could be more effective at fostering the
learning of virtue (look at how many people live in
situations where vice -- greed, overambition, callousness --
is rewarded, and how much disagreement there is about
what constitutes virtue). Of course you can claim, and
I think you have claimed, that in some mysterious way
these things are necessary for *real* virtue-learning;
obviously I can't prove that they aren't, but you've not
given any evidence that they aren't and I see no sign
that *any* evidence would, for you, count against the claim
that the world is optimized for virtue-learning.

You've asserted, for instance:

| Imagine a conscious experience that is much harder
| than the one we have now, or a conscious experience
| that is much easier than the one we have now. In
| both cases this would constitute a worse environment
| for learning virtue than the one we have now.

It would, huh? How do you know? Have you any evidence
at all? Or have you just decided, a priori, that this
world must be optimal? I'm afraid it looks very much
as if you have. Likewise:

| But, you may object, why shouldn't our publicly sharable
| experience be one where the physical and spiritual were
| mixed and present at the same time? Why don't we live in
| (i.e. experience) a demon-haunted world - to use Sagan's
| memorable expression? We discussed the answer to this at
| the very beginning of this post: it would go against the
| purpose of creation.

Any evidence that having the physical and spiritual
both present to our experience would go against the
purpose of enabling us to learn virtue? Why, no.
(You did ask some rhetorical questions along the
lines of "suppose we could learn what a wise person
knows just by putting our hands near his head; would
that help us to learn wisdom?", obviously intending
the answer no. For what it's worth, I think the answer
to that question is yes.)


7. An external world?

You've said a few times that there's no reason to
postulate a material world "out there", going beyond
our experiences. I think the reason why you regard
this as a useful idea is that it weakens the case
for a "physical world". But I think there *is* reason
to postulate a physical world out there, unless you're
going to embrace solipsism (which you've said you

So. Let us suppose that solipsism is wrong; that
there really are multiple persons; that, in fact,
the other people we interact with are other persons,
and that their reports of their own experiences are
broadly accurate. (That goes a bit further than merely
supposing that solipsism is wrong, but I don't think
it goes further than you're willing to go. Please
correct me if I'm wrong.)

We find a host of correlations between these other
people's experiences and our own. I throw a brick
at you; my experience of throwing the brick, of
seeing it hit your knee and smash it up, and hearing
your screams of pain, correlate with your experience
of seeing a brick flying towards you from my hand,
feeling it smash into your knee, and so on. (My
apologies for the gruesome example, chosen for
vividity. I have no wish to throw bricks at you.)
These correlations don't only concern gross things
like bricks; we can, for instance, point widely
separated telescopes at "the same" star and see
the same things happen to it as it goes supernova.

Whence all these correlations? Coincidence is one
option, of course, but the more coincidences a theory
requires the weaker the theory is. Can't we do better?
Yes, we can, in two ways. We can suppose an "external
world" and say that our experiences are derived from
that world (in which case correlations between different
people's experiences inevitably follow, and just the
right sorts of correlations) or we can build a theory
in terms of the correlations themselves.

The first option is the one you say there's no reason
to prefer. But I see no way to make the second option
work that doesn't have one of two features: (a) that
it is enormously more complicated than the first sort
of theory, or (b) that it's equivalent to the first
sort of theory. Because if you really deal with the
correlations directly, you have O(N^2) separate things
to explain, N being the number of observers, but if
you explain everything in terms of matching with a
shared external world, you have only O(N) things to

That's a bit hand-wavy, but it seems to me that if you
think there's a way of handling all those correlations
that works as well as the Shared World Postulate then
the onus is on you to show what that way is. Show your
working. Write on one side of the paper only. :-)

Gareth McCaughan
.sig under construc

Dianelos Georgoudis

Nov 21, 2006, 10:36:19 AM11/21/06

Gareth, thanks for your comments. I appreciate the effort you put in
this, and recognize your willingness to engage.

I think we are touching on two broad fields:

1) Theodicy, specifically the so-called moral virtue defense
(originally the ancient Ireneaus theodicy as expressed by John Hick in
modern times). I think this issue lies at the heart of the rational
justification for atheism. The argument from non-belief (or from divine
hiddenness) is either a special case or else can be methodologically
tackled in the same way that the argument from evil is. So I suggest we
leave the argument from non-belief aside for the moment; as the
argument from evil is important enough on its own.

2) The comparison of the effectiveness or usefulness of the idealist
versus the materialist paradigms of reality. Idealism as a paradigm of
reality does not entail theism, but materialism does entail non-theism;
so clearly this is a relevant issue.

I would like to suggest we to discuss these two issues separately in
two different sub-threads.

There is a third issue, that of the justification for theism. Now,
existential belief can be justified intellectually and experientially.
For example one's belief that mangos are edible and sweet fruit can be
justified on one's study of biology, on the existence of many cooking
recipes that use mangos, on images of mangos and of people eating them,
and so on. But it can also be justified on one's actually tasting a
mango. Contrary to what's generally accepted I think that belief in God
can be justified intellectually, so that would be issue 3A. And there
is the issue of God's direct revelation in our experience, about which
there is a post of yours I have long meant to answer; that would be
issue 3B. As google does not allow me to post answers to very old
posts, I think I will post that answer here.

Further I would like to suggest that we need not feel any compulsion to
hurry and quickly answer posts in this thread. I will certainly need
some time to think.

Finally, I too sometimes wonder if other people take any interest in
our discussion - but if they do they are of course welcome to
contribute. This is not a supposed to be a private debate. I find it
very interesting to understand why people hold the views they hold - no
matter if they are structured within a theistic or an atheistic

Gareth McCaughan

Nov 26, 2006, 5:32:52 PM11/26/06
Dianelos Georgoudis wrote, in response to my 1000+-line missive:

> Gareth, thanks for your comments. I appreciate the effort you put in
> this, and recognize your willingness to engage.
> I think we are touching on two broad fields:
> 1) Theodicy, specifically the so-called moral virtue defense
> (originally the ancient Ireneaus theodicy as expressed by John Hick in
> modern times). I think this issue lies at the heart of the rational
> justification for atheism. The argument from non-belief (or from divine
> hiddenness) is either a special case or else can be methodologically
> tackled in the same way that the argument from evil is. So I suggest we
> leave the argument from non-belief aside for the moment; as the
> argument from evil is important enough on its own.

I think it's generally best considered a *part* of the
argument from evil, and suggesting that it be left aside
makes about as much sense as suggesting that a discussion
of the argument from evil should roam freely apart from
never mentioning (say) cancer.

However: in this thread (others may differ) you and I
haven't been discussing the argument from evil, or theodicy,
very much at all. Rather, you've been proposing a positive
apologetical argument: that when we look rightly at the
world we see a world optimized for the learning of virtue,
and that this supports your position. I dare say that
if this were true it would be a useful element in a response
to arguments from evil, but you're claiming much more than
that such arguments don't work.

> 2) The comparison of the effectiveness or usefulness of the idealist
> versus the materialist paradigms of reality. Idealism as a paradigm of
> reality does not entail theism, but materialism does entail non-theism;
> so clearly this is a relevant issue.

Right. This seems to me to be very much the dominant issue
in our discussions in this thread, and I'm puzzled to see
you putting it as #2 rather than #1.

> I would like to suggest we to discuss these two issues separately in
> two different sub-threads.

OK. Will you start them, or shall I?

> There is a third issue, that of the justification for theism. Now,
> existential belief can be justified intellectually and experientially.
> For example one's belief that mangos are edible and sweet fruit can be
> justified on one's study of biology, on the existence of many cooking
> recipes that use mangos, on images of mangos and of people eating them,
> and so on. But it can also be justified on one's actually tasting a
> mango. Contrary to what's generally accepted I think that belief in God
> can be justified intellectually, so that would be issue 3A. And there
> is the issue of God's direct revelation in our experience, about which
> there is a post of yours I have long meant to answer; that would be
> issue 3B. As google does not allow me to post answers to very old
> posts, I think I will post that answer here.

Please feel free; I suggest that you include the text to which
you're responding to and that you change the subject line of
that article to match the one you're responding to. (Or, if
that's silly on account of topic drift, some other subject line
that makes more sense.)

> Further I would like to suggest that we need not feel any compulsion to
> hurry and quickly answer posts in this thread. I will certainly need
> some time to think.

Having taken something like two months to respond to your
earlier articles, it would be strange for me to insist on
quick replies from you. If it's of any interest to you,
the thing I would like to see a response to first is my
question about what you mean by "consciousness". But you
are of course under no obligation to tackle things in the
order I'd like you to, or indeed to reply at all :-).

> Finally, I too sometimes wonder if other people take any interest in
> our discussion - but if they do they are of course welcome to
> contribute. This is not a supposed to be a private debate. I find it
> very interesting to understand why people hold the views they hold - no
> matter if they are structured within a theistic or an atheistic
> worldview.

I have no idea whether anyone else is reading this stuff;
I know that many people are put on by very long articles.
But who knows? maybe ten years from now someone will stumble
across this discussion via a search and find it useful or

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