Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Battle of the Bald Claims?

There’s a common tactic used by religious believers that has surfaced (once again) on the Temple of Thelema Forums. It might be instructive to look at this tactic and how religious believers use it.

On the thread I was posting on just prior to the start of a ban on certain posts (that is, any posts that do not begin from the assumption that “we are spiritual beings”) Jim Eshelman was doing his usual act of declaring, without any justification, that “the universe is inherently conscious […] consciousness itself is the fundamental substance of all that is.”

When I correctly called it a “bald assertion,” he responded, “That ‘bald assertion’ [is] just possibly the most important foundation principle of everything we're about."

This prompted the following response from me:

Right. That’s been my big criticism of your philosophy: you rest everything on a principle that you just baldly assert. I’ve asked you to support your claim with evidence, and not only do you not, you pretend that it’s not necessary to do so.

In a recent post over there, Eshelman actually did concede that his position (which he phrased this time as “Consciousness […] is the root matter of the universe”) is,“As stated […] just a bald, unsubstantiated claim.” He proceeds to add that the statement “consciousness itself is cerebral activity” is also a “bald, unsubstantiated claim.”

Well, what we’ve got here is a battle of the bald claims, isn’t it? Looks like neither side has evidence, so it’s a draw, right? I guess it all comes down to whichever side you just randomly pick because you like believing it or because your daydreams support it, right?


This tactic is remarkably similar to what religious types often say about atheism: they say that the statement “There is no god” is just as unprovable as the statement “There is a god,” so it takes just as much faith to say that there is no god. Therefore, we’ve got a battle of the faiths. You got faith in one thing, and I got faith in one thing, and nobody can be sure, so it’s equal, isn’t it? You make a bald assertion, I make a bald assertion, and then people just pick whatever they like. Like flavors of ice cream.

That’s what these religious believers want: they want important issues to be reduced to a question of preference.

Read on for an explanation of what this dishonest religious tactic gets wrong.


The problem with this religious tactic is that it confuses the actual state of reality with belief/position about the state of reality. Let me explain.

In point of fact, one of three things is true: the root of all things is matter, the root of all things is consciousness, or the root of all things is something other than matter or consciousness. Those are the only options. One of those three statements is the actual state of things.

But an individual’s belief /position about the root of all things is not limited to those three options. One might believe that the root of all things is matter, one might believe that the root of all things is consciousness, one might believe that the root of all things is something other than matter or consciousness, or one might not believe any of these things.

That last option is the crucial component that makes nonsense out of the religious believer tactic in question. Religious believers accuse anyone who doesn’t agree with them of making claims that are just as bald. But as we see above, merely not agreeing with the religious does not necessarily mean that one is making a positive claim.

[Note: to be fair, Eshelman was having a conversation on that thread with someone who *was* making a positive claim, but I’ve seen him do this same act with a strawman of “materialism,” so the criticism is quite valid. See here]

Now, I’m one of the people in that italicized group. That is, I’m in the camp of not holding a belief/position about “the root of all things.” What that means is that I’m not persuaded that any of the earlier three claims (the non-italicized ones) are correct. Frankly, the question is irrelevant to all practical things. In a similar way, I don’t hold a belief about the name or ethnicity of the guy who built my house. It’s irrelevant. Lacking that belief doesn’t stop me from walking from room to room.

Now imagine if a friend came to me and said, “I think the guy who built your house was named Frank.”

I’d look at him awfully weird for saying that, but I’d inquire further: what makes you think that his name was Frank?

Do you think anyone would seriously say, “I just take it as a fundamental axiom that his name was Frank, and if you *don’t* accept that his name was Frank, then *your* fundamental axiom is that his name wasn’t Frank!”

Of course no one would say that. It’s retarded. But if someone did, I would patiently point out that I don’t have a “fundamental axiom” that the guy who built my house was not named Frank. I’m just not persuaded that his name was Frank, and I don’t think that’s the sort of thing anyone should take as a “fundamental axiom” without a good reason.

And when my friend continues that he has a good reason to take it as a funamdental axiom – that he had a daydream that the guy’s name was “Frank” and that his daydreams are sacrosanct and that it’s “intolerance” to question his daydreams – I’d again patiently explain that that’s not a good reason to accept something as a fundamental axiom.

To shift registers away from the metaphor and back to the actual topic under discussion, I don’t have any axioms about the “root of all things,” and I don’t have any positions/beliefs about it.

Now, if you wanted to move the conversation away from “the root of all things” and just discuss consciousness, and if you then asked me what I think consciousness “is,” I would say that it certainly appears to be a product of brain chemistry. I’d say that because of evidence: that the only known examples of consciousness have been connected to brains, that causing changes to brains alters consciousness, that damage to brains can result in people losing consciousness for a period of time, etc.

Obviously, those pieces of evidence don’t demonstrate absolutely that consciousness is a product of brain chemistry, but all of the evidence seems to lean in that direction.

If we take that tentative judgment – remember, this is a *judgment* based on evidence; it’s not an “axiom” – the judgment might change the way we look at the question of the “root of all.” Seeing that all of the available evidence suggests that consciousness is a product of brain chemistry, the proposition that “Consciousness is the root of all” appears to be fighting an uphill battle against the evidence. When I say that, I’m not claiming that matter is the root of all, nor am I claiming that something other than matter or consciousness is the root of all. I’m also not saying that it’s impossible for consciousness to be the root of all. I’m just pointing out that the claim “Consciousness is the root of all” appears to be at odds with all the known evidence and that, for that reason, it’s not only a position not justified by evidence but one that would require some startling new evidence before we can consider it justified.

If you seriously think “Consciousness is the root of all” – or if you really think that Frank is the name of the guy who built my house – what makes you say that? Until you provide some compelling evidence for your claim, I’m going to continue to not believe you. And my not believing you is not some “fundamental axiom,” it’s not a belief, it’s not a “bald assertion,” and it’s not a faith. It’s just me not being convinced by what you say.

As always, people are welcome to present evidence that supports their case, but it seems that whenever religious folks are challenged to do this, they shriek something incoherent about “fundamental axioms!” and the “logic of the materialist position!” and the “you’re making bald assertions too, so you and I are both equally just guessing, so it’s a draw, so stop oppressing me!”

If anyone’s got evidence to support their claims, I’d be interested in hearing it.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliantly explained. Yes it certainly looks like Esheleman unwittingly fell on a false dilemma (false dichotomy) in his talk of, "bald assertions".