What Are We Willing To See?

Here is a fairly good example of why evidential type apologetics,  whether done by evangelicals or atheists, more often than not end up going nowhere.  The truth is that we “see” what we want to see.  As noted in the essay- the two philosophers, who both find that consciousness escapes a completely physical explanation, still don’t think this should lead us to believe there is anything beyond, or in excess of, the material.

Also, few philosophers think these thought-experiments show that there are souls or some other sort of supernatural entities. Frank Jackson, who first proposed the Mary scenario, and David Chalmers, who gave the most influential formulation of the zombie example, remain philosophical naturalists. They maintain that there is no world beyond the natural one in which we live. Their claim is rather that this world contains a natural reality (consciousness) that escapes the scope of physical explanation.

I’m not sure how one could “maintain” that there is “no” world beyond the natural given they think the most important and significant part of that world (consciousness) escapes physical explanation.  I would think this would at least make them agnostic regarding a positive assertion like, “there is no world beyond the natural…”  A further issue is- are they (or the writer who is speaking for them) aware that such an assertion is a philosophical assertion and not an empirical or scientific assertion?

For Jackson and Chalmers it would appear their world must remain entirely materialistic, regardless the evidence.  They must interpret the evidence a certain way.  Why?  Because it would probably turn their world upside down to interpret it otherwise.  It would shake their faith.  One world-view would crumble and another would need take its place.  It would mean there could be other aspects to existence that are in excess—that also escape a purely physical explanation.

We should ponder the last sentence of the above quote: “Their claim is rather that this world contains a natural reality (consciousness) that escapes the scope of physical explanation.”

How does a “natural” reality escape physical explanation?  Because they are not saying it escapes it for now, but future advances will give us a physical explanation.  They appear to be saying, based upon these thought-experiments, that a physical explanation will never exist.  So why the need to describe it as a “natural” reality then?  

This is why appeals to evidence and facts are not the deciding issues in these types of discussions (Obviously, if we were talking about distance to the sun- such an appeal would be critical).  They are, rather, red herrings used to privilege one’s philosophy or faith held world-view.  And evangelicals can be just as guilty of their use as those committed to scientism.
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14 Responses to What Are We Willing To See?

  1. Burk Braun says:

    “The truth is that we “see” what we want to see. “

    Yes, and… ?

    Is this philosophy, or a psychological observation? If the former, it is obviously invalid. If the latter, then it is something to be broken through.. by evidence and compelling logic.

    More generally, I can't always be responsible for “seeing” things your way, if you have some Peter Pan delusion. It is only when evidence arises that can be critically interpreted that it becomes a responsibility for people with intellectual integrity to heed it and change their views accordingly. Viz the Republicans of today with regard to austerity economics, and a few other issues.


    Far be it from me to defend in any way Chalmers or Jackson. I agree that their position is illogical. If they observe an explanatory gap, and speculate that it can never be filled by a nature-based understanding, then I would agree with you that they must needs be open to something beyond nature, not only in the simple deist sense of there being some principle behind the cosmos generally, currently unknown, but something impinging on our day-to-day activities that is quite beyond nature.

    Naturally, I disagree completely, but I wouldn't give particular credence to philosophers anyhow. Not after they have screwed up so many other perspectives on nature and reality.

    At the same time, taking the logical position that there is “something” fully beyond our natural understandings, and yet impinges closely on our daily lives .. in no way implies anything specific about what theists have to say about the matter. Unless they have some evidence buttressing their superior discernment- (which they don't and which concept becomes, frankly, weaker by the day)- as much as they may excel in framing the question, they have no claim to having an answer.

    “We know that our experiences—of seeing red, feeling pain, falling in love and so forth—depend on physical systems like the brain that science can, in principle, exhaustively explain. But it’s hard to make sense of the idea that experiences themselves could be physical.”

    Sorry, but this is nonsense. Information in all its forms is always and everywhere physical. Just because our brains paint for us a wonderfully flowing and un-introspective picture of the world doesn't mean that every bit of it is not a matter of physical effects. I recognize the “hard” problem habitually referred to by philosophers, but it wouldn't be the first philosophical conundrum evaporated by the acquisition of data.

    For the Mary narrative, the issue is subjectivity. Can we experience subjectivity vicariously? Obviously not. It is the most fundamental application of the concept of perspectivism in philosophy. Being inside an experiencing system is going to be dramatically different from being outside it. It has nothing to do with “facts” or “understanding”.

    The zombie narrative is even more defective … there is no way that a physically identical being can exist where you can just magically subtract subjectivity. Since subjectivity is part of the physical system. We already know enough about the brain to state this as fact. The narrative simply assumes that which it purports to prove.


  2. Hi Darrell

    Well, here I certainly do agree wit you. If either of the thought experiments established the points Jackson and Chalmers suggest they do, then for them to adhere to some sort of unseen naturalism strikes me as both odd an inconsistent. If we find their thought experiments convincing, then something like dualism surely follows.

    Myself, I'm not moved by either argument. in the case of zombies, it appears to be question begging. If zombies are a logical possibility, then conscious experience is separate from the associated physical activity. But are they, or are we in fact being asked to imagine the equivalent of a round triangle? Unless we can answer this question (which requires we prejudge the issue) the thought experiment gets no traction.

    With Mary the colour blind scientist, it always seemed to me that this hinges upon what we mean by knowledge of physical processes. I can have theoretical knowledge regarding riding a bike, but until my brain and body gets hold of the extra knowledge of how the balancing process feels, and can calibrate the sensations and responses, I don't have complete knowledge, I don't really know what it means to cycle.

    Likewise, until Mary has the physical experience of the neuronal connections associated with seeing red, we can not fairly say she has complete knowledge of the physical processes. Knowledge is not an abstract thing, but rather is an embedded set of connections and responses. If she really knows everything about the physical process, then it's not unreasonable to assume the red flower will come as no surprise. This one may be more a conjurer's trick than a genuine argument.

    Still, as you say, they certainly don't see it this way, and yet are committed to rescuing some form of naturalism despite their conclusions, and that does appear to be inconsistent.



  3. Darrell says:


    What interests me though is that I’m sure if you were to interact with Chalmers or Jackson, they would give you some plausible response and then you would respond and on and on it would go. I doubt either side would give up their view here, although obviously it is possible. People change their minds all the time.

    So my point is that these types of discussions are not, at the end of the day, about evidence or facts. They are about interpretations of such. And our interpretations are filtered through the boundaries contained within our world-views/narratives/faiths and these determine how we will “see” or interpret the evidence and facts and even such things as “thought-experiments.”

    Again, it goes to the whole issue of the empiricist who wants to claim that every question, every issue, can be determined empirically. This, ironically, again, is a philosophical claim not an empirical or scientific claim and is thus self-defeating—but that's another matter.

    Oh, and by the way, as I’m sure you would guess—I do find both thought-experiments compelling although not in any way decisive. I think the camera analogy compelling too:

    “It’s worth noting that philosophers who find these thought-experiments convincing do not conclude that there is no sense in which an experience is physical. Seeing red, for example, involves photons striking the retina, followed by a whole string of physical events that process the retinal information before we actually have a subjective sense of color. There’s a purely physical sense in which this is “seeing.” This is why we can say that a surveillance camera “sees” someone entering a room. But the “seeing” camera has no subjective experience; it has no phenomenal awareness of what it’s like to see something.”

    But my greater point is that none of these type arguments ever really convince someone unless a person is willing to, at the same time, re-consider their world-view/narrative/faith, which would then allow them to try and “see” from a different perspective.


  4. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    You are describing the psychological phenomenon of rationalization. It is good to see that you set some store by psychology, even if it does not reach introspective proportions.

    The way to break through rationalization and confirmation bias, etc.. is to present evidence that is compelling. Compelling enough to demand interpretation in a specific way, as is common in scientific topics, which means not dependent on a particular world view, prejudice, or delusion to be assimilatable. Sometimes this requires quite a bit of preparation, by pieces each of which are individually compelling in their turn (as in any complex topic). But such education is distinct from the inculcation of a “worldview” for the reason that each step is rigorous and evidence-based.

    As for your opinion of empiricism, it is not the solution for “every issue”. It is only the solution for claims that purport to be “truths” about the empirical world. That shouldn't be difficult to understand, philsophically or otherwise.


  5. Hi Darrell

    I'm sure you're right that many times a sort of intellectual parochialism prevents us from seeing the strengths in an imposing argument. I'm optimistic enough to draw inspiration form those times where this isn't true, where people, despite the great trouble it has caused their prior beliefs, have been swayed by argument, and adjusted their points of view.

    Within your tradition, a great many Christians reframed their notions of creation as the evolutionary model was established, in science many great upheavals have turned our understandings on their head, in my own life I very often change my point of view when a sound argument comes my way (I was once a great enthusiast for Popper's falsification model, not so much now). I think the ability to open our narratives up to challenge is one of humanity's greatest qualities, and one worth aspiring to.

    So, as long as I am careful to acknowledge and understand my prejudices, I believe progress is possible. Perhaps Chalmers could convince me. All I would need to see is how his case can be framed in such a way that it doesn't start out by assuming its conclusion (which is the most common accusation leveled against it). I've looked for his defence on this point, but have never found it. If there is a solid argument, I'll buy it.

    You say you do find the zombie case compelling, so maybe you have a way around the circularity, in which case I like to think I'm open to being swayed.



  6. Darrell says:


    “I think the ability to open our narratives up to challenge is one of humanity's greatest qualities, and one worth aspiring to.”

    Yes, I agree. This is the key. It is really the ability to turn the guns upon our own world-view—our own faith. The willingness to actually try and put on the “other’s” glasses and to try and “see” what they are trying to get across—what they “see” from their perspective. It is what helps us to identify the myths, false assumptions, and prejudices in our own narratives. Even the realization that our world-view is as faith-based as the “others” is enough to help us begin to question our own world-view more closely. We all fail to do this. It is most certainly worth the effort. This is where deep and true change happens. One of the most prominent atheists in the Western world, Anthony Flew, recently gave up his atheism.

    But what accomplishes this- is not arguments over the “evidence” and facts. Such always misses the point. It basically assumes one’s own narrative is fact and evidenced based, while the “other’s” is based upon either a lack of information (ignorance) or a disregard of the evidence and facts. Unfortunately, if one is an empiricist (I don’t think you are), this is the only way one can view the world. It misses the deeper reality that the conversation has to start at the level of narrative/world-view/faith, before one even gets to the “evidence” and the facts.

    As to the thought-experiments, I don’t think the Zombie example is compelling specifically. I meant each of them, together, and similar ones, as to what they bring out as far as the difficulties inherent in a purely materialist account of existence.

    I am sure there are reasonable responses to them along with counter responses. But, again, that is my point.


  7. Darrell says:

    I should qualify the “recently” for Mr. Flew because he, of course, passed away in 2010. And I should also note that many believers also change and become atheists.

    Again, my point is that I think most of this happens because of intangibles rather than a person being shown a “fact” or piece of evidence they were unaware of before. The facts and the evidence are all part of the puzzle—I just don’t think in most cases they are the deciding factor.


  8. Burk Braun says:


    I agree completely, and it is rather unfortunate, isn't it?

    If we all hewed strictly to the evidence, uncolored by our gut feelings and various cultural templatings, we would all be agnostics. And that would hardly be a terrible thing- better than aged men mumbling around in ridiculous costumes trying to hold their grip over the absurdist farce that is the Catholic church.

    Perhaps we could save our faith for things closer to home, like other people, artistic endeavors, etc.


  9. Hi Darrell

    I'm sure you're right. When the professionals wish to change our minds, they rarely reach for reason or evidence: witness advertising, political campaigns or propaganda in general. We are tremendously susceptible to beguiling narratives. Which is all faintly depressing, but there you are.

    That said, should one wish to honestly examine one's own world view, opening the windows to the fresh air of contrasting arguments and awkward to assimilate data can be most enlightening.

    Blogs like this, that support open discussion, surely help.



  10. Darrell says:

    Thank you Bernard, I hope they do help.

    I would suggest though that I am saying something a little different. What I’m suggesting is that the professionals do reach for reason and evidence. What they do, what we all do (not just “they” or the “other’s”) is try and get people to see the reason and evidence from their perspective—from their narrative/world-view. That was, after all, the whole point. Chalmers and Jackson are well aware of the evidence and facts.

    And it is only depressing when done as if their, or our own world-view, is put forward as the only one that is based upon the facts and the evidence.

    The only narrative that is beguiling is the one that thinks it is something else, something based purely upon reason, facts, and evidence.


  11. Hi Darrell

    this may be a little harsh on Chalmers and Jackson. Although I agree their position appears inconsistent, I suspect that the debates they are engaged in are not just a case of world view head butting. Rather, the technical philosophical points of what we mean by metaphysically possible, for instance, are in dispute, and it is the very difficulty of reasoning through such issues that causes the temporary stalemate.

    Over time a consensus may emerge, or new technical understandings of the workings of the brain might suggest new solutions to the philosophers. Sometimes disagreements are about world views colliding, I agree, but very often they're also about the difficulty of grappling honestly with data and logic.



  12. Darrell says:


    Yes, I agree. Depending upon the questions involved sometimes it is just a matter of showing someone a piece of evidence or fact they were unaware of before. If I am hunting snakes in Hawaii and wonder why I haven’t run across any, it is because I was unaware of the “fact” that there are no snakes in Hawaii (obviously I exaggerate). When someone tells me about the snakes, I say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that—thanks.” However, in a discussion like the one Chalmers and Jackson are having, it is not as if they are unaware of the facts and the evidence in this whole area. They are quite accomplished and respected. So I’m not accusing them of avoiding or disregarding the facts and evidence. My only point was to show that such isn’t even the issue in these types of conversations or issues.

    “Sometimes disagreements are about world views colliding, I agree, but very often they're also about the difficulty of grappling honestly with data and logic.”

    What I would add here is that your quote is contrasting two things that are often the same thing. We can’t divorce world-views from the facts and the evidence. All world-views are interpretations (which hopefully includes grappling honestly with data and logic) of the facts and evidence—we cannot set them in opposition to each other. We can’t say, “Well, you have your world-view but I’ve got my facts and evidence.” The person who would say such is only telling us what his world-view is—he is not evading anything or setting up a true contrast.


  13. Hi Darrell

    I agree that world views allow us to interpret the evidence. Often, however, the evidence itself is not at all clear cut, and many disagreements are about what the relevant evidence is.

    So, in the consciousness case, Chalmers offers as evidence the observation that we can imagine a zombie, with the physical attributes and behaviours of the human, but without the conscious experience. This claim is central to his case. Against this, others ask, can we really imagine this, or does this claim not bear up to closer scrutiny?

    The status of this imagined thing, and whether the capacity to say 'I imagine it' constitutes metaphysical possibility, and whether this type of possibility is strong enough to establish a real world difference between conscious experience and conscious enabling structures, is in dispute.

    Chalmers and his critics are trying to get to the heart of this difference: to better define their terms, consider the validity of various analogies (Can I imagine a car that can propel itself, despite having no form of motor?) and so forth.

    So, in cases like this, and very many others, part of the dispute may well be an honest attempt to grapple with difficult and open questions, and might therefore occur between people with the same world views, as per your snake example.

    It seems to me that if we are to quick to attribute difference to world view, we might miss the logical difficulties that are causing the dispute. And that's a shame, because logical difficulties are very often resolvable.



  14. Darrell says:


    Yes, I agree, the issue is not the disregarding or dismissal of evidence and facts on either side. Thus, in conversations like these, it is simply a nonstarter to say things like, “There is no evidence for the existence of God” or, “I decide these things by evidential means, while my opponents decide by faith.”

    As you note, the issue is really questions of relevance and resolving logical difficulties rather than accusing one side or the other of not being empiricists or being empirical enough. Now, to be sure, we still decide questions of relevance and understand or “see” logical difficulties through our world-views but as long as this is understood we stand the chance of at least attempting to “see” where the other person is coming from, which makes it possible to then go further in our understanding of each other.

    So you raise very good points. Thank you.


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