The universe and everything in it is physical. Despite there being no shortage of supernatural, religious, new age and downright crackpot notions of some kind of non-physical ‘stuff’, not one of their claims, from crystal healing to ghosts to the effectiveness of prayer to out of body travelling, has ever been empirically verified, despite many efforts to do so. It certainly seems sensible to conclude from this that materialism (the hypothesis that the physical is all there is) is true. But does closing the door on ghosts, fairies and energy bodies necessarily consign us to materialism? I argue in this article that it doesn’t.
Let me begin by asking you a very simple question. Are you a robot? Surely, you will have answered this question in the negative. Of course you’re not a robot. You’re a human being.
Perhaps I should define what I mean by ‘robot’. A robot is a purely physical entity that merely enacts physical processes and slavishly obeys the physical law of cause and effect. It is, in other words, a clever machine. It is not necessarily composed of inanimate matter, nor must it be designed by humans. However, being a part of the natural world, like a rock or a tree, it cannot be anything more than a bunch of physical processes clunking away in response to physical stimuli. Some of the results of these physical processes may appear to indicate some kind of higher cognition but in reality, everything in this robot is reducible to the purely physical, causal interactions of non-conscious particles.
Now, let me refer you to that question again; are you a robot? I can deny that I am, but if you’re a strict materialist, then it turns out you have no choice but to confess your true robot nature, your inner Dalek, as it were. What about your (no doubt, over)active, inner mental life of thoughts not to mention your consciousness? Pure illusion. Fantasy. They must be. No amount, or complex arrangement, of physical matter could ever result in something as outrageous as genuine thought or, even more unlikely, a self-reflective awareness that one is thinking, happy, a human, here, etc.
Why must this be the case? Mental activity is nothing more than physical effects following from physical causes. None of these causes or effects are conscious (how could they be?) so throwing millions or billions of them together can’t be either. But isn’t consciousness an emergent property of the physical brain? I argue that it absolutely must be. The problem is that when scientists call consciousness ‘emergent’, what they are really doing is trying to have their consciousness cake and eat it too, all while adhering to a framework in which it is categorically impossible.
Alex Rosenberg, in his recent book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, is, to his credit, ruthlessly consistent in his materialism (at least, presumably until he stops writing about the universe and resumes living in it). He bites the bullet on a number of hard to swallow points including the notion that thoughts can be about anything.
He rightly points out that no clump of physical matter (i.e. your brain) can be about any other clump of physical matter. The very notion is ludicrous. Physical activity between these neurons is just that, physical activity between neurons. To suggest anything else is to have failed to understand what materialism means. Considering that this is precisely one way we can define consciousness; i.e. thoughts about things (including oneself), then this eliminates consciousness from the materialist worldview.
I would also add that thoughts themselves are equally fantastical. If I ask you to think of a dog, what happens? Well, the soundwaves generated by my mouth, lips and tongue trigger the firing of a whole bunch of specific neurons in your brain… and that’s all. No mysterious, ephemeral ‘mental image’ of a dog appears anywhere, least of all, in your mythical “mind’s eye”. To suggest anything else is a travesty to all materialism stands for.
But… is this materialist description of human reality adequate? Let me take thoughts first and ask you to think of a dog once more, this time without our materialist blinders on. For sure, neurons fire… but is that all? No. You “see” an image of a black and white border collie. You can describe not just what it looks like but what it is doing, where it is, whether it’s alone or not, and a hundred other details.
Now what can this “mental image” possibly be? It’s obviously real in some sense (or I couldn’t experience it in any way) but it’s just as obviously not physical. If it’s not physical and yet it exists, it must be non-physical. There’s just no other explanation. (Now, before you go accusing me of inventing a non-physical ‘ghost in the machine’ to pull our physical strings, let me remind you that I don’t deny the physical grounding of thoughts; if there’s no brain, there can’t be any thoughts – all I’m doing is pointing out that these physical processes alone are insufficient to explain what our thoughts are)
What about thoughts about things? It’s all just clumps of matter following the laws of cause and effect. No mysterious aboutness here… except for the fact that we clearly and unequivocally do have thoughts about things.
Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher, is particularly lucid on this topic when he says that we are never purely and simply our personality traits, emotions, thoughts… anything, in fact; because consciousness is intentional. Instead of just being what we are, we are always consciousness of __ (what we are). I am never happy like a happy-thing; rather I am consciousness of being happy. Even when I’m not explicitly focusing on my mental life, I am never just those thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, etc. I am always separated from them in some way, in such a way that I am never identical with them. This is aboutness.
Because it’s such an undeniable and fundamental datum of experience, the materialist’s only defence here is to claim that aboutness is an illusion. The problem with this is that, in this case, there is no difference between illusion and fact. Calling this mental event an ‘illusion’ does absolutely nothing to diminish it in any way; it’s still happening, even while you are denying that it is possible, even though it shouldn’t be possible according to materialism.
Materialism can’t be the ultimate truth of things because human reality is built on at least two fundamental, non-material experiences; thought and consciousness/aboutness. None of the fundamental components of clumps of matter (including the brain) are conscious or capable of thought. The inevitable conclusion here must be that these non-material capacities of the brain are impossible. Ironically, the only thing that we can be more certain of than the fact that the universe prohibits physical-transcending consciousnesses and non-physical thoughts is the very fact that we are conscious and having thoughts.