Can materialism be meaningful?

Deutsche Version.

 

In a last post, I argued that materialism (the belief that everything which exists is reducible to particle and energy) is self-refuting because its truth itself cannot be identical to a bunch of interacting molecules.

ImageSeveral people told me my argument is fallacious because materialists believe that a “truth” does not objectively exist but is a subjective brain state corresponding to facts of the outside world.

That’s fair enough but what is the fact that materialism is identical to?

Normally the fact corresponding to a truth claim made it logically inevitable.

Take for example the truth S “The sun does not rotate around the earth”. The corresponding fact is the periodic movement of the earth around the sun. Given its reality, it naturally follows that S is true and it could not be otherwise.

ImageOr take for example the truth C: most cats fear hounds. Given the brain states of most cats, C logically follows, and this fact is incompatible with C not being true.

Image

Consider now the truth of materialism M: there is NO world containing non-material things.
The fact would be (for example)  the 10E+57754757785 particles of all existing universes.

But there is a huge problem here. The truth of materialism is not logically entailed by the particles themselves. For their existence is entirely compatible with the existence of a paralell world with non-material things.
I think that the problem lies in the words “everything” and “no other”. They  seem to be abstract concepts beyond the reach of materialism.

The fact that the particles are everything which exists cannot be contained within the particles themselves.

ImageIf I am right, it seems that materialists should give up their grandiose claims about the entire reality and limit themselves to definition such as “everything in our universe is reducible to matter.”

Now I am curious to see how I am going to be challenged, though I hope I am (at the very least) on to something 🙂

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78 thoughts on “Can materialism be meaningful?

  1. Maybe I’m just obtuse, but I’m afraid I don’t see what the problem for materialism is here. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I can’t logically prove that no world exists with non-material forces or beings. I just don’t see any evidence for them in our universe.

    And I don’t see how the existence of ideas, however one defines them, poses a problem for materialism. Imagine a universe devoid of life, but otherwise similar to ours. Would it still be a “fact” that planets orbit their suns in this universe, even with no one to perceive it or formulate it? It seems to me that “facts” are descriptions that correspond to reality, and I don’t see what requires them to call forth mysterious non-material worlds. Or perhaps rather, if ideas and descriptions of how the universe behaves are “non-material”, I don’t see what that kind of being non-material has to do with the existence of non-material beings: they are two completely different concepts.

    cheers from chilly Vienna, zilch

    • Of course, it depends on what you consider a “being” to be. If a Turing machine can be constructed in the ideal world of Conway’s “Life”, which apparently it can, then you might say that beings can exist that are immaterial, or at least substrate-neutral.

      • Douglas Hofstadter speculated that it might theoretically be possible to map Einstein’s entire brainstate at the point of his death with toilet paper and stones. What would the toilet paper and stones say if you said “hi” in the proper language? Is this a being?

    • “Would it still be a “fact” that planets orbit their suns in this universe, even with no one to perceive it or formulate it? ”

      Yes and it would be identical to the planets and their movements.

      The problem is that the claim of grandiose materialism “everything is material” cannot be identical to 10E+6654567778865566 particles because it is LOGICALY compatible with ythe existence of non-material worlds.

      It just seems that the claim “materialism is true” is meaningless because it cannot correspond to a fact.

      • Sorry, lothar, you’re going to have to parse that for me- I still don’t get what you’re trying to say. All I understand is that materialism cannot logically rule out the possibility of non-material planes or worlds. I don’t think any materialist would deny this. But I, and I think most materialists, don’t believe in materialism because of logic, but because of evidence- the same sort of evidence that leads me to believe in evolution and not believe in unicorns.

        I can’t logically rule out the possibility of anything, but so what? Everyone is in the same fix, as far as I can see. Luckily, it’s not a terrible burden.

        cheers

      • “It just seems that the claim “materialism is true” is meaningless because it cannot correspond to a fact.”
        – Well, the way you try to argue that would imply that every claim is meaningless.
        You contrast it to:
        “Take for example the truth S “The sun does not rotate around the earth”. The corresponding fact is the periodic movement of the earth around the sun. Given its reality, it naturally follows that S is true and it could not be otherwise.”
        => Of course it could be otherwise. We could live in a matrix and there is actually no sun and no earth – only simulations of it (although such matrix or brain-in-a-vat scenarios or any other form of solipsism is fundamentally indistinguishable from realism as David Deutsch argued). Or a trickster God could fool us into believing that this is true by interfering with our thoughts and our scientific experiments to make it look as if geocentrism is false although it is actually true. And countless other scenarios.
        Accepting the validity of your approach would turn EVERY conceivable claim into a meaningless one IMO.

        • Hey Andy.

          I believe that you cannot show the implausibility of being a brain in a vat WITHOUT smuggling assumptions favoring the existence of our world into the reasoning.

          But this will be the topic of another discussion.

          Here, I am not concerned about the epistemology of truth claims (how one comes to know it is true), but about their ontology: given materialism, what does it mean to say that something is true?

          SAYING these things about the rotation of the sun or the fears of cats are TRUE means that there are facts (those I mentioned) which make it impossible to believe otherwise.
          (It might not be possible to prove this due to solipism but this is a separate epistemological issue).

          Saying that Jupiter turns around Saturn is a claim which would be true IF the movements, kinetic energy and positions of the two planets were like that.

          But let us now suppose that materialism is true, what does it mean?
          The corresponding fact cannot be the existence of 10E+898769868746235687656787654567545 particles in all multiverses because this is LOGICALLY compatible with the existence of non-material things.

          Do you understand now what I mean by the ONTOLOGY of truth claims given materialism?

        • According to the correspondence theory of truth http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correspondence_theory_of_truth

          a claim A is true if and only if there are corresponding facts of the real world which make its negation impossible.

          This is the ontological nature of truth (if one is a realist).

          In practice, it might very well be that we are only capable of showing it is probably true.
          This concerns epistemology.

          I know this can make oneself feel dizzy, but I entirely trust the abilities of your impressive brain :=)

          Liebe Gruesse.

      • “I believe that you cannot show the implausibility of being a brain in a vat WITHOUT smuggling assumptions favoring the existence of our world into the reasoning.”
        – Sure, but that was not what I said – what I said was, that even if the matrix-, or brain-in-a-vat or any other kind of solipsism scenario would be true, it would actually make no difference, it would be completely indistinguishable from realism:
        http://jake.freivald.org/deutschOnSolipsism.html
        So, while the brain-in-a-vat scenario could well be true, there is no reason to care about whether it actually is true or not.

        “SAYING these things about the rotation of the sun or the fears of cats are TRUE means that there are facts (those I mentioned) which make it impossible to believe otherwise.”
        – Erm…. have you actually read my comment? 😀 If you did, you completely ignored what I said 😉

        • I fear we might be talking past each other.

          Consider the claim: “it is wrong that the sun rotates around the earth”.
          To your mind:

          A) What does that mean? (ontology)
          B) Could one prove it? If so how? (epistemology).

          Your comment concerned B), you did not adress A) (as far I can tell).

      • “a claim A is true if and only if there are corresponding facts of the real world which make its negation impossible.
        This is the ontological nature of truth (if one is a realist).
        In practice, it might very well be that we are only capable of showing it is probably true.
        This concerns epistemology.”
        – This is exactly my point, you say “facts of the real world which make its negation impossible”, but if you consider supernatural scenarios, then there can be NO scenario where ANY claim would be supported in a way that would make it´s negation *impossible*. Just like there can be no set of facts that would make a negation of materialism *impossible*, there can be no set of facts that would make the negation of the claim “the earth rotates around the sun” *impossible* (think about it – how could there be any set of facts that rule out the trickster god scenario which I mentioned in my previous comment).
        By considering supernatural scenarios, you undermine EVERY claim in exactly the same manner as you undermine materialism – nothing can be supported by facts that make its negation impossible.

      • “Consider the claim: “it is wrong that the sun rotates around the earth”.
        To your mind:
        A) What does that mean? (ontology)
        B) Could one prove it? If so how? (epistemology).
        Your comment concerned B), you did not adress A) (as far I can tell).”
        – I did. I pointed out that your argument against materialism could just as well be used against your examples of the earth rotating around the sun or most cats fearing dogs.
        You say that the latter two correspond to the “periodic movements of the earth around the sun” and “the brain states of cats” (ontology) – and you say “it could not be otherwise”. But of course it could be otherwise. Just like the “10E+6654567778865566 particles are completely compatible with a supernatural parallel world” – the facts that allegedly prove that the earth rotates around the sun are perfectly compatible with a trickster God who only makes it look as if the earth would rotate around the sun although it is actually the other way around.
        I think you are confusing ontology and epistemology – physicalism simply means “everything is physical” (ontology) but there is no set of facts that would make it *impossible* to deny the truth of physicalism (epistemology) if supernatural scenarios are allowed. And the exact same is true for EVERYTHING. Nothing is impossible to deny if supernatural scenarios are allowed.

        • “the facts that allegedly prove that the earth rotates around the sun are perfectly compatible with a trickster God who only makes it look as if the earth would rotate around the sun although it is actually the other way around.”

          That’s not true.
          According to the correspondence theory of truth, if there were such a deceitful demon making that, the claim would be FALSE.

          It is an epistemological problem that we cannot rule this out.

          It is the claim “In the world we PERCEIVE, the earth rotates around the sun and not vice-versa”
          which is compatible with the scenario you mentionned.

          This changes nothing to the fact that (in general) something is objectively true IF AND ONLY IF there are facts of the real world which makes its negation impossible.

          Cheers.

      • @ Andy & lotharson

        “Nothing is impossible to deny if supernatural scenarios are allowed.”

        and therein lies the rub.

        i believe when we allow for the supernatural then perhaps we end up with every thing is. because, as far as i am aware, the supernatural has no bounds, or, does it?

      • “That’s not true.
        According to the correspondence theory of truth, if there were such a deceitful demon making that, the claim would be FALSE.

        It is an epistemological problem that we cannot rule this out.”
        – Wel, in that case I´m not sure what your problem with materialism / physicalism actually is 🙂
        “EVERYTHING that exists is physical” (ontology), if this is true – the truth of physicalism would be undeniable, but we cannot possibly know if this is true (epistemology).
        So how is materialism / physicalism / naturalism any different in this respect than your other examples, like the earth rotating around the sun?

        You say:
        “For their existence is entirely compatible with the existence of a paralell world with non-material things.”
        => “Compatible” in the same way as the facts that we are aware of which refute geocentrism are entirely compatible with a trickster God who only fools us into believing that these facts exist…

        You further say:
        “I think that the problem lies in the words “everything” and “no other”. They seem to be abstract concepts beyond the reach of materialism.”
        => I fail to see why that should be a problem – everything is physical and nothing is non-physical, and the “truth” of these claims corresponds to the total sum of stuff that exists. If all of this stuff is physical, the claim is true, and if some stuff is non-physical, the claim would be false. So I don´t see any difference between the truth of materialism / physicalism and the truth of “the earth rotates around the sun”.

        cheerio,
        Andy

        • It seems we begin to approach the heart of the matter 😉

          If materialism WERE true, there would be facts of the real world which would make its denial impossible, exactly like for the rotation of the sun in an independent universe.

          Let us suppose that there are 10E+98654574335433665445 particles (my mind is a powerful generator of random numbers).
          This fact CANNOT correspond to the truth of materialism because it is logically COMPATIBLE with the existence of countless non-material things.
          For materialism to be true, the fact should be “The 10E+98654574335433665445 particles are EVERYTHING which exists”.
          The problem is that “everything” is an abstract property (according to nominalism a construction of our mind) which cannot itself be identical to a bunch of particles.

          Let us consider the claims:

          1) Andy has an adorable girlfriend
          2) there is almost no difference between the SPD and CDU in Germany
          3) Andy will get a professorship in 2 years.

          Regardless of their respective likelihood, there are material things which WOULD make their truth UNDENIABLE.

          But there could be no such things for materialism.

          I hope I am providing some food for your hyperactive brain 🙂

      • Lotharson, you say:

        If materialism WERE true, there would be facts of the real world which would make its denial impossible, exactly like for the rotation of the sun in an independent universe.

        But there are many facts of which we are unaware, and will almost certainly always be unaware of. We will always be able to find some possibility, in the god of the gaps, to deny materialism. I still don’t see why that’s a problem, since the same can be said of any worldview, as Andy has pointed out.

        • Hallöchen.

          Ich wess, dass es gonz schwierig fir een menschliche Gehirn isch, solche Dinge ufzefasse, un es geht mir nit onners.

          It is obvious you cannot prove that a given worldview is true beyond the shadow of a doubt.
          Yet you have to ask yourself the question: IF we knew everything, which facts of the real world would make this worldview true?

          For example it is impossible to prove there is a God for you could use the “Brain in a Vat” scenario to explain away every evidence.
          Yet it is meaningful to ask which facts would make theism true. The answer is obvious: God. Given His existence, theism CANNOT be false.

          Likewise, it is impossible to prove the truth of materialism.
          But what would it make true?
          Let us suppose there are 10E+765457855677 particles in the multiverse.
          If you answer that the fact would be that “the 10E+765457855677 particles are EVERYTHING which exists”, you run into big trouble because “EVERYTHING” cannot be a product of the particle themselves.

          Ich huffe, dass ich nit dien Kop voll gemacht hon, wie ma uf lothringisch säit :=)

      • ——————————————————————————–
        “If materialism WERE true, there would be facts of the real world which would make its denial impossible, exactly like for the rotation of the sun in an independent universe
        ——————————————————————————–
        – As I already said, if supernatural scenarios are allowed, such facts
        COULD exist (ontology), but we cannot possibly know that since any facts which THEORETICALLY would make the truth of “the earth rotates around the sun” (or ANY other claim) undeniable, could be easily denied by inventing an ad hoc supernatural scenario to refute it (“trickster God is fooling us” beats EVERY conceivably claim).
        There is no difference whatsoever in this respect between “the earth rotates around the sun” and “everything is physical”.

        ——————————————————————————–
        “Let us suppose that there are 10E+98654574335433665445 particles (my mind is a powerful generator of random numbers).
        This fact CANNOT correspond to the truth of materialism because it is logically COMPATIBLE…”
        ——————————————————————————–
        – Yes, you´ve said that several times and I always answer the same thing: “the SAME is true for every other claim”. The facts we have that prove that geocentrism is false are COMPATIBLE
        with “these facts actually don´t exist and a trickster God is only fooling us to believe they exist”.
        And if you counter that with “well then the truth of “the earth rotates around the sun” corresponds to the facts that we have PLUS the additional claim “there is no trickster God””
        – then I will steal that approach and say “the truth of physicalism corresponds to “the sum of all stuff that exists is physical PLUS there is no supernatural scenario that invalidates the claim I just made””.

        ——————————————————————————–
        “For materialism to be true, the fact should be “The 10E+98654574335433665445 particles are EVERYTHING which exists”.
        The problem is that “everything” is an abstract property (according to nominalism a construction of our mind) which cannot itself be identical to a bunch of particles.”
        ——————————————————————————–
        – Languages are abstract concepts. “Everything” is no more abstract than every single word in “the earth rotates around the sun” or ANY other word in ANY other sentence in ANY other language. And under physicalism (or naturalism or materialism), the words we use (EVERY word) correspond to mental states, which we use to create a conscious model of the reality we live in.
        The english word “sun” is obviously not the same thing as the ACTUAL sun, the word corresponds to a mental state, a MODEL of what the ACTUAL sun is (which is thus obviously different for every individual,
        a physicist will have a very different mental state corresponding to the word “sun” than Sarah Palin, which is why scientific models can never be validated *objectively* (they can be validated INTERsubjectively however)).
        And we can try to test how true / accurate this MODEL is – how well it corresponds to the ACTUAL sun – by using the scientific method. If we consider supernatural scenarios however, it is immediatly obvious that
        everything we think we know could be 100% wrong, no matter what the facts look like (again, “trickster God” is a universal epistemological Joker which beats EVERY knowledge claim).
        You can replace “sun” in what I just wrote by “everything” – it´s the exact same principle, a word / an abstract concept that corresponds to a mental state which in turn corresponds to a MODEL. If all stuff that
        exists is indeed physical than my model corresponding to the sentence “everything that exists is physical”, would be 100% accurate / true.

        ——————————————————————————–
        “Let us consider the claims:

        1) Andy has an adorable girlfriend
        2) there is almost no difference between the SPD and CDU in Germany
        3) Andy will get a professorship in 2 years.
        Regardless of their respective likelihood, there are material things which WOULD make their truth UNDENIABLE.”
        ——————————————————————————–
        😀 I love #2) 😉
        But again, if supernatural scenarios are allowed, those claims are NOT “undeniable”, NO claim would be “undeniable” – “trickster God” beats every conceivable claim supported by any conceivable
        facts you could come up with. To make them UNDENIABLE, you have to add the following to your claims:
        “there is no supernatural entity that invalidates what I just said”.
        And seriously where is the qualitative difference between:
        1. “The earth rotates around the sun, and there is no supernatural entity which only makes this APPEAR to be true although it is actually false”.
        2. “Everything that exists is physical, and there is no supernatural entity which only makes this APPEAR to be true although it is actually false”.
        ?

        ——————————————————————————–
        I hope I am providing some food for your hyperactive brain 🙂
        ——————————————————————————–
        Still processing whether “hyperactive” is good or bad in this case… 😉

        cheerio,
        Andy

        • I’m puzzled by your concept of truth and still believe you are confusing “true” with “extremely unlikely”.

          What does the claim “the earth truly rotates around the sun” mean?
          Is that compatible with the claim “the earth does NOT rotate around the sun because we are tricked by a demon”?

          If so, I don’t understand your problem with free will violating the law of non-contradiction 🙂

      • “I’m puzzled by your concept of truth and still believe you are confusing “true” with “extremely unlikely”.”
        – Maybe because you see “true” / “false” as something binary, i.e. a claim is either ABSOLUTELY true or ABSOLUTELY false, and nothing in between can exist. I wouldn´t disagree that claims actually can be completely true or completely false, but this is almost completely irrelevant for scientific claims. Think about the claims:
        1. The earth has the shape of a flat disc.
        2. The earth has the shape of a sphere.
        3. The earth has an equatorial bulge and thus has the shape of an oblate spheroid.
        4. The earth has the shape of an oblate spheroid and one of the poles is very slightly closer to the center than the other.
        => If you only allow for binary true / false labels, then all four claims are false and by implication, claim #4 is just as wrong as claim #1 is. And this has nothing to do with “likelihood”. In a scientific context, thinking about “truth” as “accuracy” on a continuum from 0 (= no correspondence to reality) to 1 (= perfect correspondence to reality) is virtually always much more meaningful than binary true / false labels.

        “What does the claim “the earth truly rotates around the sun” mean?
        Is that compatible with the claim “the earth does NOT rotate around the sun because we are tricked by a demon”?”
        – It isn´t compatible and I didn´t say it would be. What I said was, that the facts based on which we believe that the earth rotates around the sun are perfectly compatible with a trickster God who only fools us into believing that these facts exist although they actually don´t. And since you said that you think that materialism cannot be meaningful because the facts it could correspond to are perfectly compatible with the existence of something supernatural which would invalidate the truth of materialism – I pointed out that the exact same is true for your example of “the earth rotates around the sun”.
        Your argument against materialism being meaningful could be applied to every conceivable claim, there is no set of “claim + facts it corresponds to” that is not perfectly compatible with the existence of a supernatural entity (or entities) that would invalidate the facts which correspond to the claim.

        • “1. The earth has the shape of a flat disc.
          2. The earth has the shape of a sphere.
          3. The earth has an equatorial bulge and thus has the shape of an oblate spheroid.
          4. The earth has the shape of an oblate spheroid and one of the poles is very slightly closer to the center than the other.

          While all of these claims are false, there are material facts which WOULD make them true, were they to hold.
          Truth and falsehood are absolute by their very nature, if 99.987 of my glas is full of water, the proposition “my whole glas is full of water” is wrong, period.
          Its closeness to truth is another question.
          And there is a state of affairs which would make it true.

          But there can be no such fact for materialism as I’ve explained at length.
          It CANNOT even be true, regardless of all facts.

          Of course, a less grandiose materialism such as “The universe we experience is entirely material” can avoid this problem altogether.

      • ——————————————————————————
        “1. The earth has the shape of a flat disc.
        2. The earth has the shape of a sphere.
        3. The earth has an equatorial bulge and thus has the shape of an oblate spheroid.
        4. The earth has the shape of an oblate spheroid and one of the poles is very slightly closer to the center than the other.

        While all of these claims are false, there are material facts which WOULD make them true, were they to hold.
        Truth and falsehood are absolute by their very nature, if 99.987 of my glas is full of water, the proposition “my whole glas is full of water” is wrong, period.
        Its closeness to truth is another question.
        ——————————————————————————
        The “closeness to truth” as you call it is usually the only thing that is of scientific interest however. Imagine we´d say “quantum field theory and general relativity are false, period. So lets stop doing science because we´ll never find anything that is not false anyway” – that is no exaggeration, every scientific model is not only false by this standard, but all are EQUALLY false – the flat disc model is just as wrong as the oblate spheroid model and there would be no reason to preliminarily accept one and dismiss the other.

        ——————————————————————————
        And there is a state of affairs which would make it true.

        But there can be no such fact for materialism as I’ve explained at length.
        It CANNOT even be true, regardless of all facts.

        ——————————————————————————
        You´ve explained it at length but you ignore the problems with your approach. The reason which you give for why you think that materialism cannot be a meaningful claim could just as well be applied to the claim “the earth rotates around the sun” and every other claim as I´ve explained at length.
        You said that the facts that materialism could correspond to are compatible with the existence of something that would render materialism false – I showed that the same is true for “the earth rotates around the sun” (and every conceivable other claim).
        You tried to save your example by adding the word “truly” – “the earth TRULY rotates around the sun” – but I can do the same: “TRULY everything is physical”.
        You claimed that the word “everything” is problematic because it is an abstract concept which cannot exist except as a mental state under materialism – I pointed out that the same is true for every word in every sentence in every language, the word “sun” is not the same thing as the actual sun.

        ——————————————————————————
        Of course, a less grandiose materialism such as “The universe we experience is entirely material” can avoid this problem altogether.
        ——————————————————————————
        I don´t understand what your problem with ontological materialism / physicalism / naturalism is in the first place. These views have exactly zero political influence and no one is pressuring you to include them in your worldview (compare that to Christianity, especially the former…).
        Furthermore, these positions are all both *provisional* and *falsifiable* – unlike supernaturalism, you can actually refute these models (can you give a specific scenario that would lead you to the conclusion “yes, I was wrong, Christianity is false after all” ?)
        Could something supernatural exist? Of course! And I say that as someone who subscribes to physicalism… It´s not a religion, prove that something is non-physical and I´ll change my mind.

        • Ok Andreas, ich glaube immer noch nicht, dass man Warheit definieren kann, wie du sie definierst.

          Aber ich verschiebe die Fortsetzung unserer gegenwärtigen Konversation nach einer zukünftigen Post.

          Dazwischen kannst du dir diese Video anschauen http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKAqWKyVNlQ
          denn es gibt eine Überlappung mit diesem Thema.

          Zunächst werde ich eine Post über die Beweisführung von Bayes Therorem schreiben.

          Liebe Grüsse und eine erfolgreiche Woche wünsche ich dir!

          Liebe Grüsse.

      • lothar, you say:

        Truth and falsehood are absolute by their very nature, if 99.987 of my glas is full of water, the proposition “my whole glas is full of water” is wrong, period.
        Its closeness to truth is another question.
        And there is a state of affairs which would make it true.

        I disagree. As far as I can tell, absolute truth and falsehood only exist within circumscribed systems of formal logic such as math- they don’t apply to real-world situations. How exactly do you define “full”? Look closely at what happens as you fill a glass of water and you’ll see what I mean. Surface tension making a meniscus, wetting of the glass, temperature, evaporation, all make it impossible to draw an absolute line down to the atomic level between “full” and “not full”.

      • And btw andy- very well stated, I agree completely. Materialism doesn’t logically disprove the supernatural, but so what? In the absence of evidence for the supernatural, I will continue to embrace materialism, because it’s simpler and explains the facts at least as well or better.

      • “I disagree. As far as I can tell, absolute truth and falsehood only exist within circumscribed systems of formal logic such as math- they don’t apply to real-world situations. How exactly do you define “full”? Look closely at what happens as you fill a glass of water and you’ll see what I mean. Surface tension making a meniscus, wetting of the glass, temperature, evaporation, all make it impossible to draw an absolute line down to the atomic level between “full” and “not full”.”
        – Very interesting point zilch! Sounds like “the glass is full” is yet another instance of the Sorites paradox – if you start with a grain of sand, what is the exact number of grains you have to add until it turns into a heap of sand? – works just as well if you substitute “grain of sand” by “water molecules” and “heap of sand” by “full glass” (and is even worse if you consider things like temperature and evaporation as you pointed out).

      • Yep, andy. I look at all statements about the real world as instantiation of the Sorites paradox, except I don’t see it as a paradox: it’s just a reflection of how our tidy words always imperfectly model the messy Universe. This, in a nutshell, is also why I reject “truth” in morality. Luckily, like those bacteria who imperfectly follow those nutrient gradients upstream but still manage to feed themselves, we imperfectly follow gradients of love and knowledge, but still often manage to learn and love.

  2. “They seem to be abstract concepts beyond the reach of materialism.”

    is there some “ism” that has these abstract concepts within its reach?

    what are 1) everything, and 2) entire reality?

    “and limit themselves…”

    can limited entities exceed their limits?

  3. Brave attempt to refute materialism! 🙂 My brain just goes into reverse when I try to process this kind of logic, so I’m not sure whether the attempt is successful or not. I suspect it’s just not possible to prove or disprove materialism logically.

    Take the classic parallel example of someone who believes that they are all that is, and that all the rest of the universe is just a figment of their imagination. You can’t use logic or even experience to refute their claim. You know it’s wrong, because you know you have independent existence; but you can’t make them see it. They’ve drawn a small tight circle around themselves and no evidence can get in – neither logic, nor a slap in the face.

    It seems to me that materialism is in a somewhat similar position. It draws a circle around physical existence and says ‘there is no other; everything we experience can be explained by causes within this circle’. So whatever you say and whatever you can show will make no difference to the committed materialist. Answered prayers and fulfilled prophecies are lucky coincidences; heavenly visions are hallucinations or delusions; miracles are freak natural events with as-yet unknown causes.

    But of course it all depends a little on what you mean by materialism. With Superstrings, multiple dimensions, dark matter and the odd behaviour of quantum particles, the physical world may not be quite such a ‘solid’ and well-defined space as it used to be in classical physics. So you could perhaps try to define classically ‘spiritual’ things in terms of the physical – as energies, or dimensions, or whatever. I’m not sure I’d buy into that (sounds a bit New Age to me), but it might at least make materialism slightly less of a closed circle.

    • Hey Harvey thanks for your comment and having recognized my bravor :=)

      “Take the classic parallel example of someone who believes that they are all that is, and that all the rest of the universe is just a figment of their imagination. You can’t use logic or even experience to refute their claim. You know it’s wrong, because you know you have independent existence; but you can’t make them see it. They’ve drawn a small tight circle around themselves and no evidence can get in – neither logic, nor a slap in the face.”

      Actually, you cannot know if you are not YOURSELF a brain in a vat. I could be just a fragment of your imagination, or a virtual wonderful masterpiece of the scientist running your brain.

      It seems to me that fundamentalists have the same problem, they presuppose that the Bible is free of mistakes while being completely oblivious to contrary evidence.

      “With Superstrings, multiple dimensions, dark matter and the odd behaviour of quantum particles, the physical world may not be quite such a ‘solid’ and well-defined space as it used to be in classical physics. So you could perhaps try to define classically ‘spiritual’ things in terms of the physical – as energies, or dimensions, or whatever. I’m not sure I’d buy into that (sounds a bit New Age to me), but it might at least make materialism slightly less of a closed circle.

      Yes, and I believe that angels and demons (if they exist) are such kind of beings;

      Cheers.

    • “It seems to me that materialism is in a somewhat similar position. It draws a circle around physical existence and says ‘there is no other; everything we experience can be explained by causes within this circle’. So whatever you say and whatever you can show will make no difference to the committed materialist. Answered prayers and fulfilled prophecies are lucky coincidences; heavenly visions are hallucinations or delusions; miracles are freak natural events with as-yet unknown causes.”
      – Assuming that we would live in a world where spontaneous remission of cancer occurs statistically significantly more often for people that prayed to the christian god, and this can be replicated for every control group. It would be statistically more frequent compared to people who don´t pray at all, and compared to people who pray to different gods, or to people who regularly meditate or any other control group that you could think of. This would strictly prove that the results christian prayer *cannot* be “lucky coincidences” and I doubt that there would be a significant number of non-christians who would disagree with that.
      As it is, I don´t think that atheists on average evaluate “answered prayers” or “fulfilled prophecies” or “miracles” ANY different than christians do. The only difference is that atheists don´t apply a double standard and accept miracle claims from one religions much more readily than miracle claims from every other religion.

      “So you could perhaps try to define classically ‘spiritual’ things in terms of the physical – as energies, or dimensions, or whatever. I’m not sure I’d buy into that (sounds a bit New Age to me), but it might at least make materialism slightly less of a closed circle.”
      – Materialism is falsifiable. If we would live in an alternative universe where the strong force coupling constant is too high for heavy elements like carbon to be stable, and carbon thus actually would be unstable in any compound that we study, except for living organisms – it would unambigiously prove that life is sustained by a force that *transcends* nature. There would be no other explanation, materialism / naturalism / physicalism etc. would have been conclusively refuted in such a universe. Supernaturalism on the other hand is unfalsifiable, by definition.

      • Hi Andy, it’s good to make your online acquaintance 🙂

        “The only difference is that atheists don’t apply a double standard and accept miracle claims from one religions much more readily than miracle claims from every other religion.”

        – I’m sure many Christians do have double standards; it’s a fairly common human flaw. But please don’t tar us all with the same brush. I’m not particularly partisan about my own faith, and I suspect Lotharson isn’t either. If miracle claims for other religions could be proved, I’d be perfectly happy to accept them as supernatural and even divine in origin.

        My position regarding other faiths is essentially agnostic; I don’t have enough personal experience of them to draw conclusions. I believe in one God, and I don’t limit ‘his’ activity to within the confines of my own religion. I’ve got no problem with ‘him’ answering prayers of Muslims, Hindus or indeed atheists.

        Indeed, as far as I’m concerned he’d be no God at all if he (a) answered all prayers regardless or (b) only answered those of particular folk who know him by a particular parochial name or within a specific local tradition.

        Now, I do happen to think that Christianity gets closer to the truth of God than most faiths, because I believe that Christ reveals God more fully, and that Christ’s life, death and resurrection brings God closer to humanity than any other religious pathway. But I don’t think Christians have a monopoly on God or on the truth.

        I’ll answer the part about whether materialism is falsifiable in a separate comment.

        All the best,
        Harvey / TEL

      • Hi again Andy,

        “Materialism is falsifiable. If we would live in an alternative universe where the strong force coupling constant is too high for heavy elements like carbon to be stable, and carbon thus actually would be unstable in any compound that we study, except for living organisms – it would unambigiously prove that life is sustained by a force that *transcends* nature”

        The first problem with this is that the scenario you postulate is purely hypothetical. The fact is that we *don’t* live in such an alternative universe, nor do we know if any such universe does exist or could exist. So for all practical purposes within our current knowledge of the universe, materialism is effectively non-falsifiable.

        Secondly, I’m not sure I’d agree with your view of supernaturalism (if I’ve understood you correctly, which I may not have!). I certainly don’t see God as an alternative hypothesis to the working of physical laws, nor do I see the supernatural and natural as being in competition.

        So for example, I see biological evolution as perfectly compatible with a divine creator and sustainer of life. When the Hebrew Bible talks about God ‘knitting together’ a baby in its mother’s womb, I don’t see this as an alternative explanation to the normal biological processes by which a foetus is formed. Rather it’s an explanation or description on a different level, or of a different kind.

        So for me the supernatural or spiritual provides an additional layer of explanation to the description provided by science. It’s not saying that science is false, simply that there’s also a divine meaning and purpose behind it all.

        NB I’m not here to refute materialism, which I think is a perfectly reasonable position – just not one that I hold.

        Thanks
        Harvey

      • Hi Harvey!

        “I’m sure many Christians do have double standards; it’s a fairly common human flaw. But please don’t tar us all with the same brush. I’m not particularly partisan about my own faith, and I suspect Lotharson isn’t either. If miracle claims for other religions could be proved, I’d be perfectly happy to accept them as supernatural and even divine in origin.”
        – Sounds reasonable. I´d be curious then if there is an example of a miracle that has been proven in your opinion?

        cheerio,
        Andy

      • Hi Andy, this is just a quick PS to say that I realise I was confusing terms in my last reply – doh. You were talking about falsifiability and I was talking about non-provability, which is obviously different. Sorry, my mistake.

      • Hello again Harvey,

        “Secondly, I’m not sure I’d agree with your view of supernaturalism (if I’ve understood you correctly, which I may not have!). I certainly don’t see God as an alternative hypothesis to the working of physical laws, nor do I see the supernatural and natural as being in competition.”
        – Well, it is of course logically possible that a supernatural being interacts with out world in a way that is undetectable and unpredictable for us, by simply working within the constraints of the laws of nature and never violating or suspending them.
        However, this has some rather unorthodox implications for the supernatural being in question if it is supposed to be the christian God. Most importantly, what other reason could a supernatural being have to do that except for wanting to stay hidden? (and how would a supernatural being that wants to stay hidden be compatible with the Christian God who *wants* to be known by us or even “have a relationship with us”?)
        And second, I presume that you do not believe in an actual great deluge and other OT miracles (all of which would not have worked within the laws of nature but rather only by suspending them – the “classical” definition of a miracle). But I guess you believe in at least some of the NT ones (virgin birth? raising Lazarus?) – certainly the resurrection of Christ (if you don´t – you would be stretching the minimal definition of what it means to be a Christian 😉 ).
        If God was ok with suspending the laws of nature for the resurrection (assuming you believe it happened) how could the belief that God would never do something comparable again be justified?

        “So for example, I see biological evolution as perfectly compatible with a divine creator and sustainer of life. When the Hebrew Bible talks about God ‘knitting together’ a baby in its mother’s womb, I don’t see this as an alternative explanation to the normal biological processes by which a foetus is formed. Rather it’s an explanation or description on a different level, or of a different kind.”
        – Ok. But that sounds a little like a deification of natural phenomena – like “God is love” or “the Universe is God” – more pantheism than theism IMHO.

        “NB I’m not here to refute materialism, which I think is a perfectly reasonable position – just not one that I hold.”
        – Well, the way you described it in your first comment did not sound like a reasonable position ;-). You said:
        “So whatever you say and whatever you can show will make no difference to the committed materialist. Answered prayers and fulfilled prophecies are lucky coincidences; heavenly visions are hallucinations or delusions; miracles are freak natural events with as-yet unknown causes. ”
        – This would be an irrational position to hold, and I doubt that this would be a fair description of what most people who subscribe to materialism (or naturalism or physicalism – I prefer the last one) believe. All this stuff you mentioned *could* be real, we are not convinced by the available evidence of them being real however.
        And if you believe that miracles work within the constraints of the laws of nature – they are under almost all scenarios unprovable. One exceptions would be, if miracles work only as a response to particular prayers or religious rituals, which could be then be statistically tested and the efficacy of these prayers / rituals could be proven even if the “miracles” would not be violations of the laws of nature. But since you believe that muslim, hindu or even atheist prayers could be “answered” as well, I´m curious how you believe that ANY miracle claim could be substantiated ;-).

        cheerio,
        Andy

      • Hi Andy, you make lots of very good points – rather too many to respond to adequately via a blog comment, I fear. Perhaps an email discussion might be better?

        Firstly, apologies if I maligned materialists and naturalists in my original comment – that wasn’t my intention but I understand that it may have come across that way. It can be hard in these discussions to avoid giving offence entirely. It often feels like we’re speaking in different languages with entirely different grammars (and occasionally in this thread, some of us really ARE speaking in different languages!).

        I think miracles are a minefield, and I don’t generally set too much store by them either way. The only miracles I see as absolutely crucial to my Christian faith are the interlinked ones of the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some others I would see as important but not essential, and the rest I’m agnostic about – not completely discounting them, but not building my faith or theology on them either.

        One of the difficulties with miracles is in coming up with a definition of ‘miracle’ that we can all agree on. Another is in agreeing on what would constitute proof that a miracle had taken place. I’m generally of the opinion that it would be almost impossible to prove any given miracle, whether it is in fact genuine or not.

        So yes, I believe that God generally works in a more-or-less hidden way, through natural events and causes. Indeed, not to believe that would be to malign his ability to run a half-decent universe. If you have to keep constantly tinkering with what you’ve made and breaking the rules just to keep it running, you clearly haven’t done all that good a job. 🙂

        None of this precludes having a relationship with him. I don’t think God has to prove himself to me or anyone. But for those of us who for whatever reason do end up seeking him out, we generally find enough evidence to keep us going. Whereas however much I want to believe in Father Christmas and unicorns, I’ve never found even the merest shred of evidence for either.

        Technically, my theism tends towards panentheism rather than pantheism, but I don’t have an absolute settled position.

        I’m aware this doesn’t answer everything, but you set a fairly hard task! 🙂

        PS ‘God is love’ is a direct quote from the New Testament – though admittedly the author means it slightly differently to how you meant it…

        Cheers
        Harvey

      • Hello again Harvey,

        “Firstly, apologies if I maligned materialists and naturalists in my original comment – that wasn’t my intention but I understand that it may have come across that way.”
        – That´s cool, no offense taken 😉

        “It can be hard in these discussions to avoid giving offence entirely. It often feels like we’re speaking in different languages with entirely different grammars”
        – I couldn´t agree more.

        “One of the difficulties with miracles is in coming up with a definition of ‘miracle’ that we can all agree on.”
        – Yup. I think on a very abstract level, there are only two different definitions, one considers a miracle to work within the laws of nature and the other considers a miracle to be an event that was only made possible by “violating” / suspending the laws of nature. To me, it doesn´t seem appropriate to call the former a “miracle” because it is, at best, only something very unlikely. Of course they *could* be miracles in the sense that a deity meddled with the event in some way, but the only way to prove that these kind of miracles do exist would be, if there is a pattern that could be found (if some events that should be extremely unlikely are not as unlikely as they should be if and only if [insert religious practice here], then this would be very good evidence that the religious practice and the events are causally connected in some way). For the other definition (which would cover most of the biblical miracles), it would depend on the specific miracle in question. The great deluge described in Genesis would be easy to prove if it happened, because it would have left behind mountains (literally 😀 ) of material evidence. The resurrection of Jesus on the other hand seems to me rather hard to prove because ancient documents written by mostly (except for Paul) unknown people are the only thing that can be evaluated.

        “Another is in agreeing on what would constitute proof that a miracle had taken place. I’m generally of the opinion that it would be almost impossible to prove any given miracle, whether it is in fact genuine or not.”
        – I think it strongly depends on the miracle in question. For some miracles, I would not expect to see any evidence even if they actually happened. The miracles connected to Jesus for example are not described as events that would leave behind any material evidence even if they had happened, so we have to rely on second hand accounts of eyewitness testimony (and even if we could interview the alleged eyewitnesses directly, eyewitness evidence is generally one of the least reliable kinds of evidence – false or misleading eyewitness testimony is the single most frequent cause of wrongful convictions).
        Whether one accepts that a miracle happened based on such evidence is personal preference. I wouldn´t accept a miracle claim even if I could interview the eyewitnesses myself (instead of just reading about them in second hand sources), because mere eyewitness testimony alone could IMHO never be sufficient to establish something as extraordinary as a miracle (but I would apply the same standard to non-miracle claims as well, I wouldn´t believe in alien abductions just because there is eyewitness testimony saying that they happened – I would change my mind however if there was some material evidence (a tissue sample of an alleged alien under the fingernails of an abduction victim for example, which could be tested independently by several labs)).
        But that´s my preference and I wouldn´t insist that anyone has to share my views on that. However, I do think it is important to try to avoid double standards as much as possible, and if someone accepts that Jesus was a miracle worker based on eyewitness testimony, but doesn´t accept that Sathya Sai Baba (or any other alleged miracle worker other than Jesus) based on eyewitness testimony – then I think (s)he should have a good reason to justify the apparent double standard.

        “So yes, I believe that God generally works in a more-or-less hidden way, through natural events and causes. Indeed, not to believe that would be to malign his ability to run a half-decent universe. If you have to keep constantly tinkering with what you’ve made and breaking the rules just to keep it running, you clearly haven’t done all that good a job. :)”
        – Good point. But if God set it all up so that all goes according to his will without his intervention being required, then it would seem to me that the only meaningful prayer is “thy will be done”, and even that would be merely stating the obvious. Anything along the line of “please protect…” however would be rather bold, because it would be like asking the Allmighty to change his plans if protecting whoever you prayed for were not included in his plan already anyway 😉

        “None of this precludes having a relationship with him. I don’t think God has to prove himself to me or anyone. But for those of us who for whatever reason do end up seeking him out, we generally find enough evidence to keep us going. Whereas however much I want to believe in Father Christmas and unicorns, I’ve never found even the merest shred of evidence for either.”
        – Well, I have heard of non-believers who said that they wanted to believe but just never managed to (I don´t know anyone personally who feels like that however). What seems strange to me IF there is actually a deity that can be found, is that it so strongly depends on your cultural background what you end up finding. There is a lot of common ground between the beliefs of the three abrahamic faiths, but if you compare that to eastern religions or animistic and shamanistic beliefs, there seem to be much more differences than commonalities when it comes to religious belief and practice. These “cultural glasses” also seem to exist for non-believers, I grew up in a nonreligious household in a traditionally christian country, and while some of the beliefs of Jews, Christians and Muslims seem very “strange” to me, they don´t seem as strange as the rather sizable Hindu pantheon for example. But for some of my co-workers who are non-religious but grew up in a culture that was mostly influenced by Hinduism, it is exactly the other way around ;-).

        “I’m aware this doesn’t answer everything, but you set a fairly hard task! :)”
        – Thanks a lot for your answers and for being very polite!

        cheerio,
        Andy

      • Hi again Andy!

        I like your working definition of miracles – sounds about right to me. With my mystic panentheist hat on I might argue that *all* of nature is miraculous (or shot through with the miraculous/supernatural) – but with my more practical hat on, I think your definition is spot on 🙂

        Re ‘proof’ of miracles, where I’d differ is that I’d set slightly more store by first-hand eyewitness testimony, particularly if several witnesses broadly agreed on what they’d seen/experienced. I wouldn’t take it as 100% proof, but it might swing the balance of doubt for me.

        That’s one of the reasons I broadly trust the gospel accounts, while not holding them to be flawless or ‘inerrant’. If they all agreed on every single detail, I’d think they were trying too hard to get their stories lined up. But as they generally agree on the more crucial points but differ on peripheral details, they strike me as basically trustworthy.

        “I have heard of non-believers who said that they wanted to believe but just never managed to”
        – I’ve heard this too, but again never met anyone in this position. I suspect that most of us believe what at the deepest level we want to (or at the deepest level feel to be right), and then find rational, philosophical and moral justifications for that position.

        “if God set it all up so that all goes according to his will without his intervention being required, then it would seem to me that the only meaningful prayer is ‘thy will be done’…”
        – fair point! Some Christians (mainly deists) would indeed argue that the only valid prayer is ‘thy will be done’. My own view is that God has deliberately built a lot of flexibility, freedom and autonomy into the universe, so that what happens and what we do is not determined according to some fixed divine order.

        Again, my belief is that God does want to have a relationship with us, in which we freely choose to love him and each other and act in ways that promote human flourishing. Love, relationship and moral responsibility can only be predicated on genuine freedom, so we have to be free to screw things up spectacularly. This doesn’t mean God will always step in to fix everything miraculously, any more than I bail my kids out every time they screw up – otherwise they wouldn’t grow up.

        “What seems strange to me IF there is actually a deity that can be found, is that it so strongly depends on your cultural background what you end up finding”
        – I’m broadly agnostic towards other religions and their gods, but my general view is that most major religions (except Scientology!!) may have something useful to say about the divine or the spiritual. I also think that most major faiths that believe in a god/gods may have some kind of genuine contact with the Christian God (as I believe there is only one real God).

        I’d see it that there’s an inherent religious consciousness in all human cultures, but that we see ‘through a glass darkly’ and confuse what we see. Christianity’s claim is that the one God who all cultures dimly perceive actually entered space-time and history in Christ and revealed his true nature and purposes more clearly.

        Then there’s C.S. Lewis’s related view that all human cultures have these basic religious myths which seem to come from time immemorial. Jung might have rather called them archetypes. But in Christ, thought Lewis, the myths or archetypes finally became reality.

        All the best,
        Harvey

      • @ TEL

        a few queries please.

        “But as they generally agree on the more crucial points but differ on peripheral details, they strike me as basically trustworthy.”

        on the resurrection, you consider this excerpt to be peripheral?

        “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” Mathew 27 51-53 (NIV)

        “… genuine freedom.”

        what does genuine freedom mean? is this different from freedom?

        • Hi xon-xoff!
          Re the resurrection accounts, I think the best answer I can give is the blog post I wrote about this last Easter: http://evangelicaliberal.wordpress.com/2012/04/13/resurrection-reflection-why-dont-the-accounts-match-up-and-does-it-matter/

          Re ‘genuine freedom’, perhaps that’s just a tautology. ‘Freedom’ will do. I suppose I’m qualifying it partly because there are various contradictory ideas floating around about what freedom means. One popular view is that it means freedom from all restraint and responsibility; whereas the Christian view is that ‘true’ freedom is freedom to love, freedom to give and to forgive, and freedom to be the whole person you have the potential to be.

          Secondly, there is the Calvinist view which I’m also rejecting, which is that humans have the *appearance* of freedom of choice, but that actually it’s God who utterly predetermines all of our actions and decisions. I find this view insulting both to God and to humanity.

          Cheers
          Harvey/TEL

      • @ TEL

        “Evangelicals sometimes forget that the Bible has never been what Muslims believe the Qu’ran to be, an eternally changeless, divinely-dictated document based on a pre-existing perfect original housed in highest heaven. Rather the Bible is a rough-hewn human testament to divine presence and providence, shot through in every part with the endlessly creative life and breath of God.”

        ok, this is your understanding, as per your blog from the link provided..

        and here are Items 2 & 3 of the Summary Statement of the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy:

        “2. Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: It is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.
        3. The Holy Spirit, Scripture’s divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.”

        –> http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/creeds/chicago.htm

        so, pray, do tell, how do/should i determine which of these understandings is the correct understanding?

        cheers

        • @xon-xoff – mine of course 🙂

          Again, it seems to me you’re getting overly hung up on what is the ‘correct understanding’ or the ‘true definition’. It’s the ‘fundamentalist’ Christian groups (e.g. neo-con evangelicals) who try and sew up everything into neat watertight doctrines and systematic theologies, and in doing so I think they miss the entire point and lose the heart of Christianity. Christianity isn’t an exact science or a precise legal code, and it doesn’t need to be. It’s first and foremost a practical way of living, of relating, of treating people, of responding to God etc.

          The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is, in my view, pointless, wrong and counter-productive. I understand why it’s important to some, but I think it would have been better off left unwritten.

      • @ TEL

        i apologise for my obtuseness. i’m just trying to understand your meaning. so, i’ll try one last time.

        “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is, in my view, pointless, wrong and counter-productive.”

        all well and good.

        now, if you hold that the Chicago Statement on BI is wrong, then i should assume that some other view should be held as not wrong, at least; and indeed, perhaps that ‘not wrong’ view may be even right or correct.

        “…mine of course”

        i take it you hold that your view is not wrong.

        so, if you hold your view as not wrong, then please, how did you determine that your understanding is not wrong, and that the understanding, as detailed by the Chicago Statement of BI, is wrong?

        cheers

        • Hi xon-xoff, your questions are perfectly reasonable and not obtuse 🙂

          I was a little unguarded in calling the Chicago Statement ‘wrong’ – an emotional reaction rather than a rational response! I get irritated by hardcore inerrantists, because I think they’re barking up the wrong tree and getting worked up about stuff which I don’t think matters hugely. Young Earth creationists have a similar effect on me.

          Perhaps my more considered response would be not that the Chicago statement is ‘wrong’ exactly, but more that it’s not particularly helpful or necessary. I do disagree with its substance (quite strongly), but I couldn’t say for certain that I’m right and they’re wrong. It’s more that we have quite different emphases and understandings of what matters regarding Christianity.

          Now if you read the small print, the statement is only referring to the ‘original’ (lost) documents of Scripture, and it does allow for poetry and metaphor if that was the author’s original intention (though it doesn’t explain how we’re to determine what the author’s intention was).

          Nonetheless, it seems to me to be misguided in a number of ways:

          1. It’s trying to apply very modern standards or understandings of ‘truth’ and ‘error’ to a set of ancient documents, whose authors would not have seen the world in those terms.
          2. It’s also trying to impose a modern (and non-biblical) idea of ‘perfection’ on the Bible. The Bible never claims to be inerrant!
          3. It seems to me that the Bible clearly *isn’t* inerrant in any normal sense – e.g. the author of Matthew’s gospel misquotes the Old Testament, and the four gospel accounts do differ on many details
          4. The doctrine of inerrancy tends to put the focus on the letter of the law, rather than its spirit. Inerrantists often get obsessed with tiny details of doctrine and can be very antagonistic about defending them. I don’t see that Christ ever had this emphasis or encouraged it in his followers – quite the contrary.

          So I’d not say that I’m definitely ‘right’ and they’re ‘wrong’. What I would say is I believe that it’s better to be wrong but loving than it is to be correct but unloving. Though I may be wrong about that 😉

      • @ TEL

        “So I’d not say that I’m definitely ‘right’ and they’re ‘wrong’. What I would say is I believe that it’s better to be wrong but loving than it is to be correct but unloving. Though I may be wrong about that”

        thanks, and well said. it’s a challenge for many of us–if not all of us–to hand ten on the emotional tides as they come crashing in when we’re engaged in discussions on our beliefs.

        appreciate the candour and honesty.

        as zilch opined sagaciously in a post above:

        “Luckily, like those bacteria who imperfectly follow those nutrient gradients upstream but still manage to feed themselves, we imperfectly follow gradients of love and knowledge, but still often manage to learn and love.”

        cheers

        • @xon-xoff – thanks!

          It’s funny, but I find that the ones who get me most riled are not people of other faiths, or of no faith. I expect Buddhists or atheists to disagree with my beliefs or to find them strange – I don’t mind that. It’s my fellow-believers who annoy me, particularly the rigidly fundamentalist ones, the literalists and inerrantists and those who insist on absolutely correct doctrine, whatever the heck that is.

          I wrote a post ‘I am not a Christian…’ to express my differences from Christians who hate gays, think everyone else is going to hell etc: http://evangelicaliberal.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/i-am-not-a-christian/

          And yes, that’s a great line of @zilch’s. 🙂

          All the best,
          Harvey

    • TEL, you say:

      Answered prayers and fulfilled prophecies are lucky coincidences; heavenly visions are hallucinations or delusions; miracles are freak natural events with as-yet unknown causes.

      Yep, that’s pretty much my position. But it’s not merely unexamined skepticism: it’s based on evidence. All large-scale scientific studies of answered prayer come up with nothing. People demonstrably have hallucinations and delusions. And while there are plenty of events that are not understood, the scientific method has a very good track record of solving them. Lightning not being Thor-tossed thunderbolts is a good example of the relative success of science vs. religion.

      ’… d’oh…

      I respect people who can laugh at themselves. This is one of the forces that makes the world go round. Lunch is on me if you’re out this way.

      cheers from chilly Vienna, zilch

      • @ zilch

        “I respect people who can laugh at themselves.”

        not only respect, but i would recommend it for all homo sapiens. laughing at your self is cathartic.

        in my 23 years with the UN, working in peacekeeping, i believe that if more people laughed at themselves we may see less conflicts.

        i do it often: i take a mirror, look at myself, and go, “Jesus H Christ, you can’t be serious!” and then i laugh at myself.

      • Hi @zilch (and hi @xon-xoff) – good to hear from you!

        I’m actually with you on 95+% of all reported miracles, alleged supernatural events, visions and so on. I think humans (including myself) have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves and for reading meanings into random patterns. If I hear a report of a miracle, my immediate response is sceptical.

        Nonetheless I do believe in the *possibility* of ‘supernatural’ occurrences, including miracles, answered prayers and so forth. I’d even so far as to say that I (tentatively) think I may have experienced some examples of the supernatural or spiritual (but I may just be bonkers or kidding myself).

        In particular, I’d echo William Temple’s famous line “When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t pray, they don’t.” Though I’d rather say that the more I pray, the more coincidences I see.

        Of course, if there *is* a God who answers prayer but who (for whatever reason) chooses largely to operate behind the scenes, it’s not all that likely that he would play ball with scientific studies on answered prayer…

        Anyway, thanks for the offer of lunch! And if you happen to be passing Greenwich (the London one), the offer is fully reciprocated. 🙂

        All the best,

        Harvey / TEL

  4. I wonder if materialism (or ‘physicalism’, as I prefer) fails due to Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem: since we seem to accept “basic arithmetical truths and also certain truths about formal provability”, any statement which says “this is all that there is” is either unprovable, or is part of an inconsistency. The only way that we can say that “this is all that there is” is to appeal to a theory which is not a “formal effectively generated theory T”.

    An ‘effectively generated’ theory is one where the axioms are recursively enumerable, which means the axioms can be generated by a Turing machine, where the Turing machine can run forever. There is a crucial restriction on Turing machines which gives us a hint at what ‘effectively generated’ means—how it restricts us. Turing machines have a finite number of ‘states’, which is roughly equivalent to saying that they are programs which are finite in length. So an ‘effectively generated theory’ is a theory that is finite in a crucial way. Although it could have an infinite number of axioms, they would have only a finite pattern. Kind of like how 0.333… = 1/3. The former representation seems infinite, but we can find a different representation which is finite.

    We humans are engaged in trying to come up with The Description of How Reality Works. I take Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem as giving us two choices: either (i) How Reality Works is infinite in the ‘interesting’ way, in which case all true statements really can be proven, or (ii) How Reality Works is finite in a way that we’ll hit some ‘wall’ past which we cannot penetrate. I believe that (ii) is anathema to science, even though really smart people routinely say stuff like:

    “The electric charge of an electron doesn’t arise out of more elemental properties. It simply has a charge,” says Koch. “Likewise, I argue that we live in a universe of space, time, mass, energy, and consciousness arising out of complex systems.”
    […]
    Ultimately, there’s a point beyond which there’s no further regress. We live in a universe where, for reasons we don’t understand, quantum physics simply is the reigning explanation.

    I understand that there’s a desire to dig into the secrets of the universe. This is a good desire. But to say that one has found them and that there is no further to dig is, I think, the height of arrogance. When done in the moral realm, it allows people to say that they have figured out the perfect form of society, and if it doesn’t fit someone, that someone is wrong and must change. Sometimes this is true—someone who refuses to believe that F = ma is a good approximation in the vast majority of life needs to change. But the general idea that I’ve Really Figured It Out is extremely dangerous.

    If physicalism is true, I don’t think we can know it. What we can say is that we currently have no reason to doubt physicalism—or if we have a reason, we have no known evidence or theoretical evidence which would do it. This is fine, because it says that we need to do more evidence-gathering and theorizing within our current system, before we can isolate enough instances which don’t really fit—like the ultraviolet catastrophe—before we can start seeing the shape of the theory/metaphysic that will replace the current one. (In the case of the ultraviolet catastrophe, quantum mechanics solved it.)

    The Christian, above anyone else, has reason to believe that all true things can be ‘proven’, for a useful definition of ‘proven’. This idea though, may require an infinite deity—one infinite in the nontrivial sense. When God is described as ‘unfathomable’, where ‘fathoming’ means to measure the deepness of water, perhaps this means that no Turing machine could properly and completely describe him. On some mysterious level, I think Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem tells us that only such a being could truly know that he knows what he knows. That, or we live in a very small world that doesn’t have the richness of arithmetical truths which we currently hold to.

    I’ve occasionally come across folks like Norman Geisler, who say that we can only know that we know because we trust God. Such statements have always confused me. Plantinga follows the same sort of pattern when he cites his evolutionary argument against naturalism. I think his EAAN fails because the atheist can always appeal to an unprovable axiom which ‘rescues’ him from epistemological doom. But do such axioms really rescue? Not clear! I can’t state this nice and analytically, but it seems to me that Christians may have a secret weapon to piercing whatever our current metaphysic is, a weapon not really possessed by atheists. Christians know their God is infinite and increasingly knowable.

    • Hello Luke, thanks for your thoughtful comment on Gödel’s theorem.

      I do believe, however, that this is not the problem I have adressed here.

      The epistemological problem of materialism looks as follows: what can we DO to prove that materialism is true?
      You might very well be right that it could turn out to be impossible due to the incompleteness theorem.

      The ontological problem of materialism is: what fact has to hold for materialism to be true, regardless of the difficulty or even impossibility to show it is the case.
      The fact cannot be: “EVERYTHING which exists is material”, because the first word is an abstract concept which cannot be material.

      The fact of materialism should be a finite (like 10E+43547534475847744468846864) or infinite ensemble of particles.
      But this is logically compatible with materialism being false.

      For the two claims I mentioned above (that is the planets and the cat) there are facts whose truth would make the negation of these claims logically impossible .

      But there CANNOT be such a fact about materialism.

      Do you now understand my distinction between epistemology and ontology a bit better?

      If the truth of a proposition A implies its falsity, A is called self-contradictory.
      If the truth of a proposition A is compatible with its falsity, A is meaningless .

      If my argument is sound, while we cannot say that materialism is self-contradictory (and hence false), we are justified in believing it is meaningless.

      • You may find the following relevant: my reply to you on “Dan Wallace, Incarnation and Inerrancy”, as well as my Phil.SE question, Does Gödel’s second incompleteness theorem interact with logical positivism??

        The ontological problem of materialism is: what fact has to hold for materialism to be true, regardless of the difficulty or even impossibility to show it is the case.

        Is the answer to this nominalism? Maybe throw in some logical positivism as well?

        Let me try to construct a physicalist system. The way I do it is by simulating it on a computer. Can I simulate something that has no property which a materialist universe would have? I really just see physicalism as a property which a system may or may not have. It has that property if I can define ‘physicalism’ such that it completely describes the thing.

        If these questions don’t get at yours, then I don’t understand your point very well.

        • Hello Luke.

          If nominalism were true (which I assume in my argument) what is the material fact corresponding to “ Everything which exists is material”?

          According to nominalism, “everything” is an abstract concept just existing in our mind.

          So what is this fact?

          I agree that you can say: “our entire universe is physical”.

          But what does that mean (according to nominalism): “There exist NO non-material universes and realms?”

          To what material fact does this assertion correspond to?

          It cannot correspond to our universe or even the multiverse because it is logically compatible with the existence of immaterial realms.

          • What is a “material fact“? Any system of particles and/or fields doesn’t express properties, it has properties. The assertion, “There exist NO non-material universes and realms” is too strong, unless this universe is connected to the other “universes and realms”.

          • The movements of planets or the brain chemistry of cats are material facts.
            The (alleged) physical nature of all creatures in our universe is a material fact, it is identical with the bunch of atoms which makes them up.

            But the non-existence of immaterial realms cannot be a material fact, because the bold expression is an abstract concept.

            I know all too well that materialism are nominalists who would say that this is nothing more than a concept of a mind which is useful for describing a real state of affair.

            But what is this real material state of affair expressed by “NO immaterial realm exists”?

            It looks like it cannot correspond to a physical state of affair because NO is an idea.

            So as I wrote at the end of my post, materialists should give up this grandiose definition.

            Do you agree with me?

            I greatly appreciate your constructive criticism and hope we can pursue this conversation.

            Otherwise I’m still looking forward to skyping with you 🙂

            I live in the UK, can skype between 09 am and 12 pm and my name is “Lothars Sohn” or “lothars.sohn”.

            Lovely greetings and shalom.

          • This reminds me of the two definitions of ‘atheist’:

            1. No god exists.
            2. I have no sufficient reason to believe a god exists.

            The same, I think, can be applied to “no immaterial realm exists”.

          • @labreuer, good distinction between ‘no God exists’ and ‘insufficient reason to believe in God’. In your experience would most atheists you know fit into the latter category?

            To me it sounds almost like very strong agnosticism – essentially saying we don’t (can’t?) know for certain, but that the balance of probabilities tends to the conclusion that there is no God / immaterial realm. Which sounds fair to me, even if as a Christian I might take a rather different view! 🙂

            If that is so, my question to all practical atheists / materialists would be – what for you would constitute sufficient reason to believe in God? Could such reason ever actually exist or be supplied?

            If not, I wonder if it might be possible to envisage a middle ‘agnostic’ position where there may not be sufficient grounds to *definitely* believe in God, but there might still be reasonable grounds for belief which push the balance of probabilities away from the ‘no God exists’ end.

          • I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that “I only believe when there is sufficient evidence” is a very backward-looking attitude. Consider how little scientists can predict into the future. They can tell us where the earth will be in 100 years with high probability, but not what society will look like, what technology will have invented, etc. “The probabilities” are remarkably fuzzy when one tries to be scientific in the areas that matter to most people, to whether we end up promoting human thriving for all, or only for some. I don’t mean that science cannot be used here—of course it can—but it vastly underdetermines what actions are good to take.

            This may change, but these days I find myself saying that I believe in God because I hope. In some circumstances, strong belief which goes beyond the evidence seems to have the power to construct a corresponding reality—the evidence ‘catches up’. Not all strong belief has this property of course; much of it ends up being strong delusion. But banning all strong belief because of this danger is like banning sharp knives because they can be used dangerously, or banning science because it allows us to potentially harm more and more people.

            Therefore, your question about “sufficient reason to believe” is central. Those who insist that beliefs—including what I call ‘tentative beliefs’—be only formed on ‘sufficient evidence’ essentially limit the extent to which they can envision and work for possible futures which are sufficiently different from the one dictated by the current ‘probabilities’. Would skeptics have been able to make the Great American Experiment such a resounding success? (It is this success I claim, despite all of America’s problems.) Not clear!

            A very scientific way to view this issue is to look at the ‘noisiness’ of Hubble’s original data, and ask whether he had ‘sufficient evidence’ to draw a linear fit with y-intercept of 0. Post-hoc questions like this are fascinating, because we know he was obviously correct. And yet if you look at his data, it’s kind of crazy that he was able to draw such a fit. Those who demand too much evidence to form beliefs will not win Nobel prizes! Great scientists have to take risks, have to develop informed hunches, but hunches nonetheless. And so I am skeptical of skeptics. 🙂

          • Hello Luke, nice to read from you again 🙂

            I think I will write a second post on that particular issue.

            Given materialism and nominalism, there is just no fact which can correspond to the assertion ” Everything that exists is material”.

            This is an ontological problem which is utterly unrelated to the type of epistemological questions you mention here.

            Otherwise, you might be interested to take a look at my pondering on materialism and eliminativism, especially to the discussion with atheistic philosopher Jason Thibodeau who kindly accepted to answer me.

            Otherwise I have a rather dumb question: could you please help me to switch to Disqus? 🙂
            I did not manage to follow the steps and don’t know how to upload a file which is not multimedia in its nature.

            Best wishes from Lorraine/Lothringen, land of king Lothar the great.

      • “But what is this real material state of affair expressed by “NO immaterial realm exists”?”
        – This one:
        {}

        • Well this is a mathematical concept.

          Can “nothing” be reduced to particles and energy? Obviously not.

          Likewise, I don’t view how the non-existence of immaterial dimensions can be a material state of affairs (like what is going on in Andy’s brain when he is thinking on creationists).

          But thanks for challenging me!

      • “Well this is a mathematical concept.

        Can “nothing” be reduced to particles and energy?”
        – Nope, just like the words “can”, “be”, “reduced”, “to”, “and”…. cannot be “reduced to particles and energy”. Words are abstract concepts and those concepts don´t exist except as an idea in the mind of a being that can think in abstractions.

        “Likewise, I don’t view how the non-existence of immaterial dimensions can be a material state of affairs.”
        – Yup, just like there is no “material state of affairs” that is EQUAL to the word “Likewise” or any other word or sentence in any language.
        Why you think that this is a problem for materialism continues to elude me.

        • I completely agree that according to nominalism, there are no such things in the real world!

          BUT there are material state of affairs which are described by the propositions (truths) I gave as examples in my original post above.

          My point is that there cannot be a material state of affair corresponding to “NO immaterial realms”.

          Unlike the number “three”, this “nothing else exists) is an abstract concept which cannot correspond to something of the real world (given nominalism).

          Once again, I want to emphasize I do not view this as a problem for more modest forms of materialism which state “the universe (or multiverse) is entirely material”.

          If this is your view, we don’t have any disagreement as far as the topic of this post is concerned.

      • “BUT there are material state of affairs which are described by the propositions (truths) I gave as examples in my original post above.”
        – That depends on what you mean by “corresponding”. There is no “material state of affairs” that is IDENTICAL to the concepts “sun” or “cat”.
        There is not even just a single concept corresponding to “sun” or “cat” – someone who has never seen a cat will have a very different idea of what “cat” means compared to a Biologist and an elementary school kid will have a very different idea of what “sun” means compared to an astrophysicist.
        “Cat” and “sun” are ideas that can be a good or poor description of things that actually exist, depending on what exactly a given person understands them to mean.

        “My point is that there cannot be a material state of affair corresponding to “NO immaterial realms”.”
        – “Everything that exists is physical” <- this is an idea. If something non-physical exists, the idea does not correspond to reality, if all that exists is indeed physical, the idea does correspond to reality.
        It really is as simple as that.

        • “if ALL that exists…” what does that word correspond to, given nominalism?

          Let us grant that you believe there are 10E+7464874683784487474 elementary particles and nothing else .

          The material fact described by the (invented) abstract concept nothing else cannot correspond to the 10E+7464874683784487474 particles for they do not contain the information they are alone.

          As a side not, universe is only a synonym with “everything which exists” if you are a materialist not believing in parallel worlds 😉

          So (at this point) I still believe it is incoherent for a materialist to assert “it is very likely that there are no immaterial things ” because the claim in italic is meaningless in a materialistic (or nomalist) framework.

      • Oh and:
        “Once again, I want to emphasize I do not view this as a problem for more modest forms of materialism which state “the universe (or multiverse) is entirely material”.”
        => The word “universe” literally means “all that exists”, so there is no difference whatsoever between saying “the universe is material” and “all that exists is material”.

      • ““if ALL that exists…” what does that word correspond to, given nominalism?”
        – all that exists corresponds to all that exists, what else should it correspond to?

        “Let us grant that you believe there are 10E+7464874683784487474 elementary particles and nothing else .

        The material fact described by the (invented) abstract concept nothing else cannot correspond to the 10E+7464874683784487474 particles for they do not contain the information they are alone.”
        – That makes no sense because the abstract concept “nothing”, by definition(!), cannot have any correspondence in reality, that´s what the concept MEANS.

        “As a side not, universe is only a synonym with “everything which exists” if you are a materialist not believing in parallel worlds ;-)”
        – Strictly speaking no, the phrase “parallel universes” is often used colloquially, but if there are other spacetimes (or any other stuff) beyond the one we live in, the word “universe” would strictly include all of that as well.

        “So (at this point) I still believe it is incoherent for a materialist to assert “it is very likely that there are no immaterial things ””
        – And who says that? I´d say that there is no evidence for anything non-physical and nothing even remotely resembling a coherent concept of any putative non-physical thing.

        “because the claim in italic is meaningless in a materialistic (or nomalist) framework.”
        – “X doesn´t exist” doesn´t sound meaningless to me. But if you disagree, please explain what your framework is and how exactly the phrase “x doesn´t exist” is meaningful given your framework.

  5. I just came across Daniel B. Hart’s 2013-06 First Things article Gods, Gods, and Fairies. The ending is directly relevant to the thread title:

    All of which is to say (to return to where I began) that it is absurd to think that one can profess atheism in any meaningful way without thereby assenting to an entire philosophy of being, however inchoate one’s sense of it may be. The philosophical naturalist’s view of reality is not one that merely fails to find some particular object within the world that the theist imagines can be descried there; it is a very particular representation of the nature of things, entailing a vast range of purely metaphysical commitments.

    Principally, it requires that one believe that the physical order, which both experience and reason say is an ensemble of ontological contingencies, can exist entirely of itself, without any absolute source of actuality. It requires also that one resign oneself to an ultimate irrationalism: For the one reality that naturalism can never logically encompass is the very existence of nature (nature being, by definition, that which already exists); it is a philosophy, therefore, surrounded, permeated, and exceeded by a truth that is always already super naturam, and yet a philosophy that one cannot seriously entertain except by scrupulously refusing to recognize this.

    It is the embrace of an infinite paradox: the universe understood as an “absolute contingency.” It may not amount to a metaphysics in the fullest sense, since strictly speaking it possesses no rational content—it is, after all, a belief that all things rest upon something like an original moment of magic—but it is certainly far more than the mere absence of faith.

    I think I strenuously disagree with what seems like a “God of the philosophers” on Hart’s part (see Randal Rauser’s Oliver Crisp on the God of the Philosophers and the God of the Bible), but I do sense some truth in what he says, above. There seems to be some sense in which materialism/physicalism/naturalism is an attempt to make a statement from outside the system, although they state there is no ‘outside’. I’m afraid I cannot word it better than that, at least yet.

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