Should a materialist be an eliminativist?

In a previous post (which newcomers should read), I went into the problem of subjective awareness (or consciousness).


Like the great philosopher Thomas Nagel, I considered what a bat subjectively feels when it is sending out ultrasounds.
Try to imagine this for a few minutes.
I suppose that the large majority of my readers will acknowledge the fact they don’t have a clue what it feels like to be a bat in that particular situation.
But why is it the case, if this subjective feeling is nothing more than a complex physical phenomenon?

Nagel’s thought experiment consists in imagining a scientist of the future knowing absolutely all chemical and physical processes taking place in brain of the animal as it is emitting the ultrasound.

Would he know what the creature is experiencing?

Most people think intuitively it is obvious that a knowledge about the movements of the electrons in the brain would NOT bring him a knowledge about the subjective perceptions of the living thing.

But why is it so?

In the post I linked to I explain why this cannot lie in the fact that our brains are too different. To (modestly) quote myself:

“I’ve never understood how one can make sense of that in a materialist framework.
If the subjective experience is as material as the atoms of the chair I’m sitting on and the electrical processes of the computer I’m using, then why would a complete knowledge of physics allows me to know everything about both objects but not about the feelings of the animal?

Let us suppose that species A and species B dispose of brains enabling them to perfectly understand physics and chemistry while being radically different in other respects. It makes only sense to say that species A cannot know what species B feels if these very feelings are something MORE than physics and chemistry, that is if one form of dualism is true.”

Now materialists have answered me that no human scientist knowing everything could figure out what the bat feels because the human brain is not capable of processing such an amount of complex information.
Other materialists were more optimistic but seemed to recognize that there will always be a gap owing to the extreme complexity of the phenomenon and our own mental limitation.

At face value, such a response has a certain degree of plausibility

It is entirely true that the brain of living things are the most complex structure in the whole universe, far more complicated than a cluster of black holes taking over stars could ever be.


But there is a huge problem here. How on earth can a stupid bat be perfectly aware of its subjective experience, if it is something that our most brilliant scientists cannot (yet?) figure out?

I think that the following argument can be considered,

1) If the subjective experience of a bat is identical to a ensemble of brain processes, it is going to be extremely complex.

2) Our scientists could only be (partially) aware of this very complex processes if they disposed of much more knowledge than they currently do.

3) School children or anyone lacking the education, competence and physical knowledge cannot be aware of the experience.

4) A bat lacks all these attributes.

5) Yet a bat is perfectly aware of what it is feeling as it is sending out the ultrasound.

6) Thus this subjective experience cannot be identical to extremely complex physical processes.

6) logically follows from all the steps.

How can a materialist react to this?

1) and 2) are the excuses they came up with for explaining away our utter lack of knowledge of the bat’s experience as it emits the ultrasound.

3) logically follows from  1) and 2).

4) is obviously true.

Therefore I think it is fair to say that materialists will have to deny 5): the bat is not perfectly aware of its subjective experience.

But given the definition of subjective consciousness, this amounts to asserting that the bat is not perfectly aware of what it is aware of. Therefore this would mean embracing eliminative materialism, which is the belief that there is no such thing as phenomenal consciousness.

There is no such thing as being a bat or a bee. Or, to use the phrase of the great materialist neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger, we should accept “being nobody”.

(I’ve used “conscious” and “aware” as synonyms in the entire post).

Some people will certainly quibble with my use of the word “perfectly”. I think it is justified in this context, given the nature of our experienced feelings.
If I am in pain, I know perfectly well what I am experiencing, feeling or sensing.
If there are bodily processes I am not aware of, they don’t belong (by their very nature) to my subjective conscious experience.

Nevertheless, I think that if you replaced 5) by “Yet a bat knows much better what it is feeling as it is sending out the ultrasound than what our best current scientists can figure out”,  the argument and its conclusion would remain largely unchanged.

I have used the example of a bat, but any extraterrestrial creature being radically different from us in the some way would do the job too.

I have just realized that my argument could be stronger if one were to consider a self-conscious bat-like creature possessing the intelligence of a seven-years old average human (and presumably living on another planet).

Although it won’t probably convince everyone, I think that what I have outlined here is a decent philosophical argument.

Addition: saying that the conscious experience of the bat is a representation produced by its brain does not seem to solve the problem since a representation itself is an ensemble of extremely complex physical processes (according to materialists).


Is John Loftus a consistent biological robot? Can he avoid redefinitions?

Alex from the website


dealing with paranormal topics interviewed the militant atheist John Loftus.


I am going to offer my random thoughts as the dialog went forward.

John is a former conservative Christian who has been emotionally abused by Christian fundamentalism which taught him he had to worship an evil God along with an inerrant Bible.

He became a resentful atheist and now seek to destroy the whole Christendom at all costs.

The topic of the interview was the so-called Outsider Test of Faith (OTF) which aims at pushing Christians to evaluate their religion in the same they critically considered other religions.

As a progressive Christian, I completely agree with that!
Actually, when conservative Evangelicals from the website “” point out that the Koran is false because it includes immoral stuff, I evoke worse atrocities in the Bible and tell them with love that they ought to treat Muslims as they themselves would like to be treated by Antitheists. Alas I have never gotten any kind of response from them.

I believe that the Biblical Canon is not MORE inspired than book outside the Canon and when discussing with fundamentalists, I often get answers from folks wanting to prove the Bible by assuming (without any reason) that other parts of the Bible is true.

So progressive Christian do the same experience as non-Christians when dealing with fundamentalists trying to prove their very specific worldview.

That said I believe a valid OTF should mean we are agnostic about every worldview for avoiding biases. I am not sure this is possible to do that while still being able to consider evidence and thinking logically.

Alex agrees with John that Christianity ought to be debunked and dismissed some Christian miracles such as the virgin birth and the empty tomb as nonsensical.
For someone open to the serious investigation of anomalous data, this is strange, to say the least. The empty tomb is a well attested fact accepted by most critical scholars. It is its explanation which is uncertain and heavily depends on worldview commitments.

Alex did not contest any of John’s argument against Christianity (and most of them are actually aimed at Conservative Evangelical Christianity and are very weak against other forms of Christianity) but focused on the problem of materialism and biological determinism.

This is certainly the weakest point in John’s worldview and one he is not well equipped to deal with, since his specialization is in theology, anti-theology, and a bit of philosophical theology.

He was humble enough to recognize this and referred to other naturalism defenders such as Victor Stenger and Keith Pearson. Exposing some fallacies of these authors will be the topic of future posts here…

Alex is a non-Christian theist strongly rejecting materialism and wanting John to defend his own worldview, namely Reductive Materialism (RM) to an outsider like himself.

John is misleading as he said that atheism makes no positive claim at all. This is even worse for Reductive Materialism (RM).

Saying that everything which is real is IDENTICAL to material processes is clearly a positive claim, which not only (given the existence of countless unknown parallel worlds) cannot be reasonably proven but is also probably inconsistent.

John agreed that in one million years (let alone in one trillion years) nothing humans can do matters.

But he emphasized that his actions and his love matter now.

But is John really capable to love, act morally, combat injustices if he thinks at the same time that his love is IDENTICAL to a bunch of molecules, atoms and more elementary particles moving within his brain?

Is that compatible with the way humans over the centuries in the entire world have felt about love?

Would it be not more honest for John to accept the fact that love is an illusion, just a bunch of physical processes leading a self-reproducing chemical system to produce offspring?

John is persuaded that an objective morality exists, and that many stuff described in the Old Testament are wrong (and I partially agree with him about that).

But if everything which is real is identical to particles, and the proposition “Genocide is always wrong” is real, then to what neutrons, atoms, molecules, currents is it IDENTICAL to?

The overwhelming majority of humans would find it absurd to reduce the moral wrongness of an atrocity to a bunch of particles without completely redefining the word.

And when John speaks of making a choice, he is just expressing the fact that his brain molecules are going to push his body to act in a certain way, according to purely physical causes which can be traced back ultimately to the big-bang.

Is that not a striking redefinition of a “free choice”?  How can it be freer than a choice predetermined by God?

John rightly pointed out that fundamentalist and many conservative Christians have a harmful influence on them and others and ought to lose their faith.

I agree and interact a lot with such folks as a blogger. But why should progressive Christians like myself worshiping a God who is perfectly good and loving and rejecting any kind of human dogmas (both outside and inside the Bible) give up their faiths?

And anyone taking a look at my blog, at those of Randal Rauser, James McGrath, the Naked Pastor, Rachel Held Evans, Kimberly Knight and many others won’t fail to see that the antitheistic meme (Liberals and Progressives legitimize fundamentalism) is completely wrong.  We constantly oppose fundamentalism.

John thinks apparently that deism and the belief we live in a very complex computer simulation are not irrational. Great, but if that’s the case, he should view himself as an agnostic rejecting traditional religions.

Considering this whole debate, I regret that Alex did not show slightly more respect to John who was very polite. But I understand it is very hard not getting emotionally involved during such discussions  and I am unfortunately no exception.

I don’t agree with Alex’s final claim that science shows us that consciousness survives death. While sometimes very intriguing, the results of parapsychology and NDE researches are far from being conclusive.

I am much more convinced by philosophical arguments showing that consciousness is not the same thing as material processes studied by science.

Now I am looking forward to receive critical and approving comments!



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On the Compatibility of Materialism and Moral Realism

Deutsche Version: Von der Kompatibilität des Materialismus und des moralischen Realismus.


Moral realism is the view, held by most humans, that there exists a certain number of objective moral facts which human beings ought to fulfill, like “Don’t steal!”, “Don’t murder!, “Be honest at work!” and so on and so forth.

I believe there is a serious problem trying to reconcile the existence of objective moral facts with God’s will, called the Euthyphro dilemma: is something good because God tells it (in which case morality is arbitrary) or does God say that something is good because it is good (in which case morality is independant of God).

However, there are also two problems concerning a materialist, evolved morality.

The first is ontological and concerns the nature of the things we’re talking about.

I define Reductive Materialism (which I’ll refer to as RM) as the belief that everything which is real is identical with the sum of an ensemble of physical objects and processes involving the interaction of matter and energy.

It is certainly no problem for RM to state that the chair I’m sitting on is reducible to a heap of cellulose and lignite molecule occupying a certain shape in space.

KAUSTBY Stuhl  Massive Kiefer ist ein Naturmaterial, das in Würde altert.

Likewise, I can believe that the computer I’m currently using is identical to a bunch of electrons moving through an appropriate material (Okay, my knowledge of informatics is not particularly good 🙂 )

Cartoon angry laptop - vector illustration. Stockfoto - 9353091

But what about the fact: “It is always wrong to rape a woman”. It clearly exists, therefore it should be reducible to a bunch of particles.

But I fail completely to see the candidates. Someone might mention the chemicals within her brain associated with pain. I see two problems with that:

  1. this distorts the meaning of the moral imperative: “you ought not to rape a woman” becomes an ensemble of chemicals and electrical currents going on inside her particular brain.
  2. You cannot deduce from that pain that you ought to act against it or avoid it, this is the famous naturalist fallacy described by the Scottish philosopher David Hume
  3. Since for materialism, pain itself is identical to particles in interaction with energy, why ought we to allow certain reactions to happen while avoiding others?
    Remember, a materialist cannot say “because they’re meaningful” or “because they’re painful” for in this case he would either be hopelessly circular or 
    become a dualist, recognizing the difference between the neural processes and the subjective experience.

Materialists like to embarrass theists with the Euthyphro dilemma, which is in fact a problem for believers in God. But they tend to overlook the formidable difficulties facing the grounding of their own morality. Moral facts seem much more at a home in a world where mental facts exist besides matter.

My conclusions are by no means absolute and I welcome all challenges!



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On the feeling of a lonesome bat / Von den Gefühlen einer einsamen Fledermaus / Des sentiments d’une chauve-souris solitaire

To my mind, the existence of consciousness, of a subjective experience is one of the greatest mysteries of the entire universe.

I remember very well my feelings as I followed a course about the origin of life as a high-school student. I was a young atheist and I had no problem to believe there were (and still are) various plausible theories explaining how self-replicating systems can come into being.

Yet, I was deeply puzzled by the very existence of conscious experiences, which I associated at that time with every living things including bacteria.

So I was wondering: “how can a bunch of chemicals lacking any kind of subjectivity become a being with inner experiences and sensations?“

This was for me a startling but awe-inspiring unanswered and probably unanswerable question.

I believe that the intuitions I had then as a teenager are still largely valid, and that what has been called the “hard problem of consciousness“ is unanswerable within a reductive materialist framework.

I define Reductive Materialism (which I’ll refer to as RM) as the belief that everything which is real is identical with the sum of an ensemble of physical objects and processes involving the interaction of matter and energy.

It is certainly no problem for RM to state that the chair I’m sitting on is reducible to a heap of cellulose and lignite molecule occupying a certain shape in space.

But what about the following situation: a neuroscientist of the future has isolated a bat in a very complex machine which allows him to know exactly all chemical and electrical processes taking place within the brain of the poor animal. Suddenly, the bad emits an ultrasound and the researcher measures absolutely everything going on in its body.

Would he know what the bat subjectively felt as it sent out the ultrasound?

This is a question which the great philosopher Thomas Nagel famously raised in his groundbreaking article: „What is it lile to be a bat?“ which is freely available on the internet. I recommend readers unfamiliar with this line of arguments to first take a look at the groundwork.

The argument against RM one might derive from his ideas is as follows:

  1. if RM is true, someone knowing all the physical processes making up the subjective experience of a creature would know that experience

  2. a brilliant neuroscientist in such a position couldn’t know what the above bat experiences

  3. therefore RM is false

While examining the philosophical literature on this topic, I was astounded to see that most reductive materialists don’t contest the validity of 2). Intuitively, it seems to be obviously true.
Our current scientists are already capable of knowing a lot about the physics and chemistry of what’s going on in a bat’s brain, and I fail to see how any increase in our understanding of the synaptic impulses could provide us with a knowledge of the inner experience of our evolutionary distant fellow mammal.

This is probably the reason why it is premise 1) which is generally denied.
Many reductive materialists would say that even if we knew everything about the neurology of such a brain, we would not know what the being experiences because the structure of our own brain is too different.

I’ve never understood how one can make sense of that in a materialist framework.
If the subjective experience is as material as the atoms of the chair I’m sitting on and the electrical processes of the computer I’m using, then why would a complete knowledge of physics allows me to know everything about both objects but not about the feelings of the animal?

Let us suppose that species A and species B dispose of brains enabling them to perfectly understand physics and chemistry while being radically different in other respects. It makes only sense to say that species A cannot know what species B feels if these very feelings are something MORE than physics and chemistry, that is if one form of dualism is true.

So to my mind a reductive materialist has no other choice than to deny premise 2).
In spite of our strong intuitions an exhaustive knowledge of the brain’s physics of the animal would allow the scientist to know subjectively what the bat is experiencing.

But this seems very close to if not indistinguishable from eliminativism, the belief that what we refer to as our subjective experience is an illusion, probably spawned by evolution.

An obvious epistemological problem of this position is that the existence of our conscious experience is immediate and much more certain than complicated physical, chemical and biological theories.

In such a context, dualism (which I define as the belief that mental and physical processes are not identical) appears to be the most reasonable position.


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Meiner Meinung nach ist die Existenz des Bewustseins, einer subjektiven Erfahrung, ein der größten Geheimnisse des ganzen Universums.

Ich errinerre mich sehr gut an meine Gefühle, als ich als Gymnasiumschüler einen Unterricht über den Ursprung des Lebens hatte. Ich war ein junger Atheist und hatte kein Problem, zu glauben, dass es vielfältige plausible Theorien gab und immer noch gibt, die die Entstehung von selbstreplizierenden Systemen erklären.

Dennoch war ich über die Existenz von bewussten Erfahrungen sehr erstaunt, die ich zu dieser Zeit mit jedem lebendem Wesen (einschliesslich Bakterien) verband.

So fragte ich mich: “wie kann ein Haufen von Chemikalien ohne irgendwelche Art von Subjektivität ein Wesen mit inneren Erfahrungen und Empfindungen werden?”.

Dies war für mich eine verblüffende aber ehrfurchtgebietende unbeantwortete und wahrscheinlich unbeantwortbare Frage.

Ich glaube, dass meine Intuitionen als Teenager weitaus gültig sind, und dass was das “schwierige Problem des Bewustseins” benannt wurde in einem reduktiv materialistischem Rahmen unbehandelbar ist.

Ich definiere den reduktiven Materialismus (die ich fortan als RM bezeichnen werde) als den Glauben, dass alles was real ist mit der Summe eines Satzes von physikalischen Objekten und Prozessen identisch ist, die die Wechselwirkung von Materie und Energie involvieren.

Es ist ganz bestimmt kein Problem für RM auszusagen, dass der Stuhl, worauf ich sitze, reduzierbar auf ein Haufen von Zellulose- und Lignitmolekülen ist, die eine gewisse Form im Raum besetzten.

Aber wie sollte man die folgende Situation betrachten: ein Neurowissenschaftler der Zukunft hat eine Fledermaus in einer sehr komplexen Machine isoliert, die ihm erlaubt, genau alle chemischen und elektrischen Prozesse zu kennen, die innerhalb des Gehirns des armen Tieres stattfinden.

Plötzlich emittiert die Fledermaus einen Ultraschall und der Forscher misst wirklich alles, was in ihrem Körper vorgeht.

Würde er wissen, was die Fledermaus subjektiv fühlte, als sie den Ultraschall aussandt?

Dies ist eine Frage, die der große Philosoph Thomas Nagel in seinem bahnmbrechenden Artikel „What is it lile to be a bat?“ aufwarf, der auf Internet freilich verfügbar ist. Ich empfehle Lesern, die mit dieser Art von Argumenten nicht vertraut sind, zuerst einen Blick auf das Grundwerk zu werfen.

Das Argument gegen RM, das man aus seinen Ideen ableiten kann, sieht folgendermaßen aus:

  1. wenn RM wahr ist, würde jemand, der all die eine subjektive Erfahrung eines Geschöpfs ausmachenden physikalischen Prozesse kennt, diese Erfahrung kennen
  2. ein brillanter Wissenschaftler in einer solchen Position könnte die Erfahrung der Fledermaus nicht kennen
  3. deswegen ist RM falsch

Als ich die philosophische Literatur über dieses Thema untersuchte, war ich verblüfft, festzustellen, dass die meisten reduktiven Materialisten die Gültigkeit von 2) nicht bestreiten. Intuitiv scheint es, selstverständlich wahr zu sein.

Unsere gegenwärtige Wissenschaftler sind schon fähig, viel über die Physik und Chemie der Vorgänge in einem Fledermausgehirn zu wissen, und es gelingt mir nicht, einzusehen, wie irgendwelche Verbesserung unseres Verständnisses der synaptischen Impulsen uns die Kenntnis der inneren Erfahrung des evolutionär entfernten Säugetiers liefern würde.

Dies ist vermutlich der Grund, warum die Prämisse 1) generell verleugnet wird.

Viele reduktive Materialisten würden sagen, dass sogar alles über die Neurologie eines solchen Gehirns wissen würden, würden wir nicht wissen, was das Wesen erlebt, weil die Struktur unseres eigenen Gehirns zu anders ist.

Ich habe nie verstanden, wie das in einem materialistischen Rahmen Sinn machen kann.

Wenn die subjektive Erfahrung genauso material wie die Atome meines Stuhls und die elektrischen Prozesse meines Computers ist, warum würde dann eine vollständige Kenntnisse von Physik mir erlauben, alles über beide Objekte zu wissen, obwohl es für die Gefühle des Tiers nicht der Fall ist?

Lasst uns annehmen, dass die Art A und die Art B über Gehirne verfügen, die ihnen erlauben, vollkommen Physik und Chemie zu verstehen, obwohl sie in anderen Hinsichten extrem unterschiedlich sind. Es macht nur Sinn, zu sagen, dass die Art A nicht wissen kann, was die Art B fühlt, wenn diese Gefühle MEHR als Physik und Chemie sind, d.h. wenn eine Form von Dualismus wahr ist.

So meiner Meinung nach haben reduktive Materialisten keine andere Wahl, als Prämise 2) zu verleugnen.

Trotz unserer starken Intuitionen würde eine vollständige Kenntnis der Gehirnsphysik vom Tier dem Wissenschaftler erlauben, subjektiv zu wissen, was das Tier erlebt.

Aber dies scheint, dem Eliminativismus sehr nahe oder sogar damit identisch zu sein. Der Eliminativismus ist der Glaube, dass was wir als unsere subjektive Erfahrung bezeichnen eine Illusion ist, die vermutlich durch die Evolution hervorgerufen wird.

Ein offensichtliches Problem dieser Position ist, dass die Existenz unserer bewussten Erfahrung unmittelbar und viel gewisser als komplizierte physikalische, chemische und biologische Theorien ist.

In einem solchen Kontext scheint der Dualismus (den ich als den Glauben definiere, dass mentale und physikalische nicht identisch sind), die vernünfigste Position zu sein. 

Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son