Readers might be interested in checking out the imbroglio over on Victor Reppert’s Dangerous Idea blog. It started on May 30 when he linked to William Lane Craig’s argument that life without God is meaningless, and to my brief critique of Craig’s claim. This posting elicited 32 comments (as of this writing), many of which are flowing with vitriol. A little of the vitriol has been squirted in my direction, for having the temerity to critique Craig, but most respondents have directed bucketfulls at each other. Most venomous of all is some character who calls himself “Ilion” who seems intent on setting new standard of nastiness higher even (or is it “lower?”) than the previous gold standard set by Holding, Hays, and their ilk. Pardon my Schadenfreude, but it is always amusing and instructive to see that those types, however much they hate us atheists, hate each other so much more. Atheists like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens have been excoriated for their splenetic commentaries on religon. I do think that D, H, & H should tone down the censure, not because it isn’t deserved, but because their invective is so embarrassingly amateurish compared to the true high-octane stuff Christians dish out at each other. Hell, if it weren’t for the Enlightenment, religious zealots would still be burning each other at the stake.

About Keith Parsons
  • PersonalFailure

    Yeah, atheists just don’t dial up the crazy the same way religious zealots do. We’re lacking, really.

  • UnBeguiled

    I’ve tussled with Ilion. He’s an idiot.

  • Danny Boy, FCD

    I take it as a personal failure my inability to hurl calumny like those christians.

  • RBH

    IS that the "Ilion" who used to inhabit the ARN board? If so, yeah, he's a master of invective. Not so much on reasoning, though.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith Parsons:
    Why the Schadenfreude of digging out examples of theists behaving badly? After all it’s not like theism implies that no theist will behave badly. You were blessed (it doesn’t matter whether by purposeful God or by blind nature) with a fine mind, so instead of concentrating on the venom of inane posts, why not comment on Aaron’s post there which it seems to me makes some valid points against your critique of Craig's ideas related to the practical/existential implications of atheism?

  • Keith Parsons

    Dianelos Georgoudis:

    Thanks for the nice comments. You're pretty darn smart yourself. Maybe some of the loudmouths over on Dangerous Idea should take a look over here and see that disagreement does not necessarily require disrespect. I'll look again at Aaron's comments. Unfortunately, voices of reason tend to get drowned out by the billingsgate.

    Why mention the venom spewed by mega-mouths with micro-brains? Isn't it somewhat degrading for rational people to dwell on such effusions–sort of like gawking at a gruesome accident?

    Yet, schadenfreude aside (and I certainly make no apologies for laughs at the expense of witless zealots), I think it is important to note the almost maniacal viciousness. I was not even half joking when I said that except for the Enlightenment these guys would still be burning each other at the stake. Religious rancor is the worst, both because it is the most intense and because, as Pascal noted, religion lets us hate with a clear conscience.

  • Steven Carr

    Why dig out examples of theists behaving badly?

    Because the argument from personal experience is trotted out so often?

    Because the Holy Spirit is supposed to indwell believers?

  • Victor Reppert

    In fairness, Keith, some of the Christians on our site are posting messages of the form "What part of gentleness and respect don't you understand?" A reference to I Pet 3:15, of course.

    A good many posts on that thread are devoted to people like Shackleman and Unkle E remonstrating with Ilion for his tone.

    The other thing is that I am guessing that people over here would get banned for saying some of the things they say on my blog due to my "free speech zone" policy. I have done two bannings, and one of those is no longer in force. One atheist superzealot by the name of Perezoso went far beyond anything you saw on the thread Keith refers to.

    Craziness and zealotry is pretty much distributed evenly between belief and unbelief.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Steven Carr said: “Why dig out examples of theists behaving badly?

    Because the argument from personal experience is trotted out so often?

    I fail to see the connection. The theistic argument is that experiencing the presence of God gives one warrant for believing that God exists. Surely you are not saying the digging out theists who behave particularly badly invalidates this argument.

    Steven Carr said: “Because the Holy Spirit is supposed to indwell believers?

    My understanding is that the Holy Spirit indwells all people, because we are all made in the image of God. So it’s not so that the Holy Spirit tends to visit only those who believe. Actually I think it’s the other way around: those who realize there is the Holy Spirit inside of them tend to be believers.

    But perhaps you mean something like this: If theism is true then believers would tend to be better people, but believers do not in fact tend to be better people. If that’s your meaning then digging out some particularly strong examples of theists behaving badly does not help justify the second premise. After all theism does not imply that all believers will be good. On the contrary it stands to reason that troubled or unfortunate people, people who for one reason or the other have more reason to behave badly, are the ones who need religion more and therefore will tend seek religion more. It also stands to reason that, all other factors being the same, a religious person who believes that there is a deeper meaning in life, that one’s actions here have consequences far beyond death, that good deeds are never in vain and that nothing good can ever be lost, and so on, will tend to be a better person (not to mention have a more positive Weltanschauung). In fact several statistical studies have shown that, all other factors being the same, religious people tend to give significantly more of their money, of their time, and even of their blood to help others. Nevertheless a non-religious person can reasonably argue that these facts only show that religion can be a useful illusion, not that a religious worldview is closer to the truth than a non-religious one. Still, if one axiomatically holds, as I do, that truth is a good thing, then the fact that religion can and at its best does help people have a better life and be better people does evidence that the religious worldview is closer to the truth than the non-religious one. Let's call this the argument from the goodness of truth.

  • Steven Carr

    'Surely you are not saying the digging out theists who behave particularly badly invalidates this argument'

    Supporters of a diet point to the personal experiences of many people on this diet.

    Is pointing out the fatness of lots of other very keen followers of this diet invalidating the argument that some people have had good experiences with this diet?

    Of course religious people give more money than non-religious.

    Charity is one of the 5 pillars of Islam. It is a religious requirement for Muslims to give charity.

    Does this mean that Islam is more true than Christianity?

  • Steven Carr

    Those people on Dangerous Idea are amateurs at hatred compared to the people God inspired to write Holy Scripture.

    Simply read 2 Peter or Jude to get some excellent suggestions on how to spew out hatred against fellow Christians.

    Or read Revelation 2 and feel the desire of the inspired Christian author that Jesus would get around to killing Christians in other churches.

    Or read Matthew 24 where Jesus himself is made to drip acid from his mouth.

    The people on Dangerous Idea are simply 'monkey see, monkey do'.

    They read the Bible and it has an effect on them.

    Couldn't we have a little warning sticker on the Bible?

  • UnBeguiled
  • Keith Parsons

    Victor, thanks for your comment.

    Suppose I concede–purely for the sake of argument (and contrary to my own impressions)–that "craziness and zealotry is pretty much distributed evenly between belief and unbelief." I have no idea how to get hard data on such a claim or even how to express it precisely enough to make it amenable to rigorous evaluation. Why, then, dwell on Christian zealotry and fanaticism instead of just condemning such behavior across the board? For the record, of course, I do condemn such behavior across the board. I used occasionally to see Madalyn Murray O'Hair on TV, and she was so gratuitously abrasive I'd think "Damn, that woman is so unpleasant she could give atheism a bad name."

    Seriously, though, to answer the question, why point the finger when we see Christians behaving badly? Simple: Which is more shocking, seeing the town drunk reeling along, several sheets to the wind, or seeing the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in such a state? Obviously, the potted preacher is much more shocking because of the hypocrisy.

    A main claim of Christian apologists has always been that Christian belief is supposed to impart a moral benefit, supposedly making one less truculent and even more charitable and more disposed to return good for evil. The Founder of the religion (despite the lapse into violence with the moneychangers at the Temple) urged his followers to turn the other cheek, love their enemies, give a soft answer to turn away wrath, bear imposed burdens the extra mile, etc. (Was it G.K. Chesterton that said something to the effect that Christianity is a great idea; too bad it has never been tried?)

    However, if, as you indicate, craziness and zealotry are evenly distributed between belief and unbelief, then what are we to make of this lack of correlation? The null hypothesis would be that Christianity has no net salutary effect of discouraging zealotry. So the apologetic claim about the purported moral benefits of Christianity is, in this regard, not supported.

    When Christian evildoing is pointed out, Christians almost always respond, as does Victor, with a tu quoque: "Why, we are certainly no worse than unbelievers X, Y, and Z." For instance, they claim that the Spanish Inquisitors were pikers compared to Stalin's. Such tu quoque replies are useful to politicians and TV pundits, but they are singularly inapt for employment by Christian apologists. When you are supposed to be the shining City on the Hill, it is very underwhelming to argue that your city is no swampier than Houston or smoggier than L.A. Critics do not have to show that the Christian record is uniquely monstrous (I imagine that Mao killed more in the Cultural Revolution than all the Christian crusades, persecutions, witch hunts, and Holy Inquisitions combined), only that it is human, all too human.

    In fact–withdrawing my concession–it seems obvious that the theistic religions are petri dishes for breeding "Ilions." David Hume explained it all so well in The Natural History of Religion, that I'll just leave it there for now.

  • metamorphhh

    "When Christian evildoing is pointed out, Christians almost always respond, as does Victor, with a tu quoque: "Why, we are certainly no worse than unbelievers X, Y, and Z."

    Like you say, what happened to the 'born again' thing. Non-christians are generally understood to be 'dead in sin'; hence bad behavior is understandable, if not excused. But Christians are supposed to have a 'spiritual center' from which to operate. Curious.

    Also curious is the free pass Christian monsters from days gone by are issued. Martin Luther, that proto-Hitler, is basically understood amongst the true believers as having made some 'little mistakes', but retains his status of Christian icon in most quarters. What's the deal with that?

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Steven Carr said: “Of course religious people give more money than non-religious. Charity is one of the 5 pillars of Islam. It is a religious requirement for Muslims to give charity. Does this mean that Islam is more true than Christianity?

    That’s a good question, but not particularly relevant to issue of whether the religious worldview is closer to the truth than the non-religious worldview. After all, if the epistemic distance between non-religion and religion is 100, the epistemic distance between Christianity and Islam is perhaps 2. I mean even if it is the case that the pragmatic effects of an ontological belief system are relevant to the question about which belief system is more reasonable or closer to the truth – even then that metric might not be particularly useful when comparing Islam and Christianity because they are relatively so close.

    Anyway, I wonder: Do you actually agree that ontologies that are pragmatically more useful must also be closer to the truth? Do you agree that reality is such that it is good to know the truth about it? Because if you do agree about this then, given that it is easy to agree about how a good life is and how a good person is, we have a metric for deciding ontological questions.

    I suppose the very deepest philosophical question is this: What is truth? Can one divorce truth from pragmatism? Is there ultimately any truth to the proposition “apples are edible” beyond the empirical fact that if one is hungry it helps to eat an apple? Or is there ultimately any truth to the proposition “walls are hard” beyond the empirical fact that if one tries to walk through a wall one will experience a painful bump to the head? Or is there ultimately any truth to the proposition “water is composed of H2O molecules” beyond the empirical fact that one successfully predicts experiences with water by modeling is as being composed of H2O molecules? – Or, conversely, if the truth or falsity of the proposition P has no effect whatsoever, not even in principle, to one’s experience of life can then P have any meaning? Or, at least, is there any reason to spend 5 seconds thinking about what P means or about whether P is true or not?

  • Keith Parsons

    On Dianelos Georgoudis’ suggestion, I took a look at some remarks on the Dangerous Idea blog criticizing my critique of William Lane Craig on the meaningless of life without God. Dianelos thinks that there is substance to this critique by “Aaron.” I cannot find any.

    Aaron thinks that I have misinterpreted Craig. He says that Craig is talking about the existence of God, whereas I am talking about something else, the atheist’s disbelief in God’s existence. Craig says that if God does not exist, man’s life is but “…a spark in the infinite blackness, a spark that flickers and dies forever…” Perhaps I am interpreting with a bit of license here, but is certainly seems to me that Craig is saying that God’s nonexistence entails that human life is insignificant. OK, let’s suppose that I at least got that bit right. What, then, is Aaron’s objection? His point (I think) is that Craig is claiming a logical consequence of the nonexistence of God: If God does not exist then life is meaningless for everybody. He is not singling out and picking on atheism, so why am I getting my nose out of joint and attacking a straw man?

    I guess my real mistake was to assume that any reader would immediately grasp the implied modus ponens:

    ~G –> I

    That is, from “If God does not exist, then human life is insignificant” (Craig’s claim) and “God does not exist” (the atheists’ claim), it follows that human life is insignificant. In other words, if Craig’s claim is true, then atheists are logically committed, like it or not, to the conclusion that human life is insignificant. So, Craig’s claim does entail something about atheism. It entails one of the oldest and silliest canards about atheism, namely that atheism must hold that human life is insignificant. That is why I emphatically reject Craig’s claim for the reasons I gave. Since when, by the way, is it a straw man to point out the logical consequences of someone’s claim?

    Aaron also wants to know how I can say that the ultimate “death” of the universe (billions upon billions of years from now) is a moot question for discussions about the meaning of human life. Gee, I guess I just cannot see how it could be any mooter. Indeed, to me it is paradigmatically moot. Woody Allen made a comic commentary on its mootness in Annie Hall. In the movie, Allen plays the character named (I think) “Arnie,” Allen’s usual hapless, neurotic, nebbish. In one scene the young Arnie, is dragged by his mom to the doctor because he is apathetic about everything. She tells the doctor that ever since little Arnie learned that the universe is expanding he sees no more point to anything. Are Craig and Aaron implying that Arnie’s apathy and hopelessness would be a healthy and rational response to such news? Surely, only a kid as neurotic as Allen’s Arnie would have such a reaction. Anyone—neurotic kid, theologian, or existentialist philosopher who really worries about such things really should get a life.

    Finally, Aaron takes me to task for allegedly failing to realize that Craig is talking about objective meaning rather than relative meaning and not recognizing that having a life of relative meaning does not mean that you have a life of objective meaning. Of course, the terms “relative” and “objective” are not defined or clarified in any way here, but I’ll play along. Question: If I have loads and loads of merely “relative” meaning in my life, why should I give a damn about not having “objective” meaning? Question: Why should life have to be everlasting to have “objective” meaning? I think I will have to wait until the death of the universe to get decent answers to these questions from Craig or Aaron.

  • Adrian

    Well played, Keith Parsons. Thank God for the internets!

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith Parsons said: "So, Craig’s claim [that if God does not exist then human life is meaningless] does entail something about atheism."

    Of course. But Craig’s claim is not a claim about atheists – as you appear to put it in your critique, and I quote from what you wrote:

    "Does atheism imply that life is absurd? Prominent philosopher and Christian apologist William Lane Craig thinks that it does. For the atheist, human life is just an infinitesimal moment before the eternal grave" And you continue: "What could Dr. Craig say to those of us for whom the above-mentioned sorts of goods – family, friends, learning, compassion – paradigmatically constitute the meaningfulness of life?"

    It seems clear to me that being an atheist you take personally Craig’s claims about atheism. Even though it might appear that claims about atheism imply claims about atheists too, this is not necessarily so. The claim “If atheism is true then X” does not imply “X applies to atheists” nor “All atheists believe in X”, nor “To be consistent an atheist must believe in X”. Consider the following analogy from materialism: Suppose I claimed that “Materialism implies no conscious beings exist”. By this I am of course not claiming that “Materialists are not conscious beings”, nor that “Materialists believe they are not conscious beings”, nor “In order to be consistent materialists must believe they are not conscious beings”; after all, assuming my original claim is true, a materialist may change or redefine the meaning of what “conscious being” means (perhaps like Daniel Dennett did). It seems to me that there are many cases where atheists (or naturalists, or materialists, or in general anyone who holds that reality is ultimately mechanical) are obliged to change the natural sense of concepts we use to describe our condition – be in relation to consciousness, or to freedom of will, or to ethics, or to personal responsibility, or, indeed, to meaning. In conclusion I suggest that when one compares ontologies one should either compare them on the theoretical/conceptual level, or else on the practical/experiential level (i.e. given that a person holds a particular how will these beliefs affect that person’s experience, or judgment, or behavior).

    So, what about life’s meaning?

    On the conceptual level I don’t see how meaning can have any place within a mechanistic understanding of reality: Reality is a huge machinery blindly evolving according to deterministic or perhaps probabilistic laws. It seems to me that no part of such a machinery can be said to have more “meaning” than any other part. Now assuming that in such a reality some complex subsystems would become conscious, they would evolve thoughts about meaning and tend to think that, say, caring about one’s family or showing compassion to strangers are meaningful behaviors. But that they should think so does not of course imply that it is so. To think that it is so would be, to use Dennett’s phrase, a folk-psychological concept of meaning. As there is no meaning present in the fabric of reality all talk about the meaning of life is really an invention, perhaps a practical and nice invention, but really nothing more than that. I think that’s basically Craig’s claim.

    Now, on the experiential or personal level, an atheist will realize that the concept of meaning forms part of one’s cognitive landscape, indeed that one can hardly think without using that concept. Even realizing that the concept of meaning cannot really be reduced back to the fabric of reality, the atheist will posit that meaning is a fundamental part of the fabric of one’s experience of life. Indeed the atheist may well arrive at similar judgments about meaningfulness as the theist (very few theists would object to “family, friends, learning, compassion” being meaningful things). In conclusion, even though I think theism does offer a relative experiential advantage over atheism the obvious fact is that the typical atheist experiences life as a meaningful enterprise, and that's that.

  • Keith Parsons

    Dianelos Georgoudis' comment is thoughtful and raises important issues, but does not undermine my critique of Craig. He says that, as I have argued, of course Craig's comments entail something about atheism. But, he says, this is not also to say something about atheists. Prima facie this is a very odd thing to say. Suppose I were to say "Theism is moronic." Wouldn't theists, rightly, feel some offense? Now, saying "theism is moronic" does not entail that individual theists all have low I.Q.'s (demonstrably false). It does entail that theists, qua theist, are committed to something moronic, and to say that they are committed to something moronic is to say something about them.

    As I note, the logic here is simply modus ponens. If it is the case that if P then Q, and I affirm that P, then, like it or not, I am logically committed to Q. Of course, this does not mean that I believe that Q, or that I have ever considered the possibility that Q, or even heard of Q. Nevertheless, I would possess the property of being logically committed to Q.

    Now, as Dianelos notes, the atheist could escape the charge of inconsistency by equivocating on the meaning of "meaning." He draws an analogy with materialism. If materialism entails that there is no consciousness, then materialists could escape the bizarre conclusion that they are not conscious by redefining "consciousness" in some arbitrary way. Do atheists pull such a sleight-of-hand by redefining "meaning" in an idiosyncratic and question-begging way?

    No. In fact, the shoe is on the other foot. Craig's claim that if God does not exist then life is meaningless only holds if "meaning" is defined in some question-begging way that entails theism. Clearly, if you define "meaning" as entailing God's existence, then, if God does not exist there cannot be any meaning. But if we take as constituting life's meaning the sorts of things that, as far as I can tell, most people would point to as paradigmatically constituting such meaning, then atheists are no worse off than theists. Family, friends, pets, career, hobbies, knowledge, art, the beauty of nature, compassion, the alleviation of hunger, ignorance or want, and, yes, even spirituality are all as open to the atheist as to the theist.

    Can there be objective meaning in a material universe? Of course. The fact that some facts necessarily involve consciousness does not mean that they are not facts. Qualia are real. They really exist. They are just as much a part of reality as nuts and bolts. Pain requires sentience; nevertheless, it really hurts. Redness is real, though "redness" is not a term that enters into any of our fundamental physical theories. The fire truck would not be red if we did not perceive it as red. Nevertheless, the fire truck IS red, and if you say it isn't then you are wrong, just as wrong as if you said that the speed of light is ten miles an hour or that protons are as big as beach balls.

    Likewise, meaning is real even if its reality is that it is a property only of sentient beings. Dianelos and other like-minded people seem to think that meaning must somehow be woven into the basic fabric, the warp and woof of non-human reality. I have no idea what such meaning is supposed to be like or why anybody would want it. For my life to be meaningful do I have to feel that the universe, in some vaguely sentient way, somehow wanted me to be here or intended me to be here? Why? Inevitably, I am led back to the question of egotism. At bottom, is it not egotism, a sense of one's own transcendent and ineffable worthiness, that makes you want the universe to want you?

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith Parsons said: “Can there be objective meaning in a material universe? Of course. The fact that some facts necessarily involve consciousness does not mean that they are not facts. Qualia are real. They really exist.

    Agreed. The question of course is, given materialism, how come they are real. I mean in ontology it’s not like one can fill a piece of the blackboard with equations here, another piece of the blackboard with equations there, and then draw an arrow between the two parts and say: “And here a miracle happens”.

    At this juncture materialists will often bring the issue of the “force élan” and point out how people once thought that there cannot be a purely materialistic explanation of life either. Similarly, they say, we shall one day explain consciousness. But there are several problems with this argument. First of all consciousness is not a phenomenon like life is, rather consciousness is the space in which we know about phenomena. Indeed as there is no materialistic explanation of consciousness there isn’t strictly speaking any materialistic explanation of any phenomenon whatsoever. Secondly it’s not like we can’t see how a material system could become conscious, rather we can see that a material system could not become conscious – in the same way that we can see that no matter how you place a set of a thousand white ping-pong balls you won’t make them red (in this context I also find David Chalmers’ reasoning quite conclusive). Thirdly, on materialism there are good arguments that show that there can’t be any evidence that our brain produces our consciousness, and indeed that it is improbable that our brain produces our consciousness. Fourthly there is no good argument for materialism, so it’s not clear why one would use it as a premise in the first place. Unless that is one believes in some mystical connection between materialism and science. Actually science provides a good argument *against* materialism (it appears to be impossible to describe a strictly mechanistic reality which is compatible quantum mechanical observations, including observations related to Aspect’s experiment).

    Keith Parsons said: “The fire truck would not be red if we did not perceive it as red.

    Agreed. So, on materialism, fire trucks or ripe strawberries are not objectively red. Their redness is a property of our subjective experience of them.

    Keith Parsons said: “Nevertheless, the fire truck IS red, and if you say it isn't then you are wrong, just as wrong as if you said that the speed of light is ten miles an hour or that protons are as big as beach balls.

    Here I disagree. What sense is there in saying that the fire truck is red, beyond our experience of it? While it makes sense to speak of the speed of light or of the size of protons independently of our experience of them (which experience is non-existent BTW), or, for that matter, of the wavelength of the light reflected by the fire-truck.

    Keith Parsons said: “Likewise, meaning is real even if its reality is that it is a property only of sentient beings.

    Agreed. If one posits consciousness as a brute fact of reality, then one can coherently speak of meaning, and of ethics, and indeed of libertarian free will (after all libertarian free will does not break any scientific laws). On the other hand if one posits consciousness as a brute fact of reality then one cannot coherently claim to be a materialist.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    In the previous post I claimed that if materialism is true then there are good arguments which show that there can’t be any evidence that our brain produces our consciousness, and indeed that it’s reasonable to believe that it’s unlikely that our brain produces our consciousness. In what follows I would like to present these arguments. I think they are good arguments. I would be thankful if Keith Parsons or any other reader would tell me if they find something wrong with them.

    The first argument goes like this:

    If materialism is true then our consciousness is produced by some material mechanism. If so a sufficiently advanced technological civilization will be capable of constructing such mechanisms and using some computing machinery realize a conscious experience just like the one we humans have. In short it is logically possible that we live in a so-called computer simulation (also see If we live in a computer simulation then our brain is nothing more than a part of the simulated universe we experience, and indeed is not the material mechanism which produces our consciousness. Now all evidence we have cannot possibly differentiate between the two possibilities, one that we live in the real world and two that we live in a computer simulation, and therefore there can’t be any evidence *for* the belief that it is our brain which produces our consciousness (because exactly the same evidence would obtain in the case of a computer simulation in which our brain does not produce our consciousness).

    A materialist may accept the above argument but insist that the probability that we live in a computer simulation is so small that even though it is logically possible it’s unreasonable to worry about such a possibility. After all it is also logically possible that Descartes’ evil demon produces our experience of life. But according to the second argument bellow if materialism is true then it’s reasonable to believe that it’s *probable* that we live in a computer simulation. Here is how the second argument goes:

    Given what we know it is reasonable to believe that sufficiently advanced civilizations are not only possible but also probable. But then, if materialism is true and consciousness can be produced by a material mechanism, it is also probable that there are several or indeed many computer simulations of worlds as complex as ours running in parallel within the one real world. Therefore it is probable that the world we experience is one of the simulated ones. Which means that it is probable that it is *not* our brain which produces our consciousness.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    I wrote: … materialists will often bring the issue of the “force élan” …

    I meant "élan vital" of course – my French aint too good

  • Jim Lippard

    Dianelos Georgoudis: "Agreed. So, on materialism, fire trucks or ripe strawberries are not objectively red. Their redness is a property of our subjective experience of them."

    Not necessarily so.

    For example, David R. Hilbert's _Color and Color Perception: A Study in Anthropocentric Realism_, argues that colors are objective properties involving surface spectral reflectance of objects. These properties are defined in an anthropocentric way with respect to the human perceptual apparatus, but require no reference to qualia.

    Also see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on color–there are other objective options for color:

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Jim Lippard:

    Thanks for the link. I had a look at that article, but I must say I am not impressed. The article starts by saying that according to physicists (from Galileo to Helmholtz) the physical description of the universe need not use the concept of colors and hence, under scientific realism, there are no colors in the objective universe. Some philosophers agree (the article mentions John Locke but omits, say, Bertrand Russell). But such a view, the article continues, is “clearly paradoxical”. Why? Because colors are too ubiquitous in the perceived world.

    This must be one of the weakest philosophical arguments I have ever encountered. Hasn’t the author of this article heard that the universe as we perceive it need not be identical to the universe as it is? After all it seems that the Earth is at the middle of the universe, but it isn’t. It seems that light moves instantly, but it doesn’t. It seems that a piece of iron is solid but according to scientific realism it is mainly composed of empty space. On scientific realism, it may turn out the strongest description of the universe will be that it is a two-dimensional hologram, which is a description as far removed from how the universe appears to us as it can get. So? Why should this latter fact be a problem, never mind “clearly paradoxical”?

    Or take this claim: “The notion of ‘color as it is in experience’ is incoherent”. But when we speak of “colors” we mean colors as we experience them – so this claim appears to be saying that what we actually mean when we speak of colors is incoherent. But then incoherent with what exactly? With a particular philosopher’s opinion of what we should mean when we speak about colors? I mean if a philosopher does not like what people mean by the concept of “colors” why not define a new concept, say “objecticolors”, which is to their liking? One does not make useful philosophy by attacking what people mean when they use a particular word, or using a word as if it had a different meaning than the one normally used – that is used by the “naïve” “unreflecting” “folk”. Philosophy is hard enough as it is, so perhaps it’s a good idea not to play fast and loose with the meaning of words.

    At least we are informed that “ Despite much thought, over thousands of years, by philosophers and scientists, however, we seem little closer now to an agreed account of color than we ever were.” Well, if after thousands of years of thought no advance is made, perhaps somebody should start suspecting that perhaps the path taken by all that thought is wrong.

    What bothers me is that I am not sure about what motivates several modern philosophers (the article mentions many by name) to dislike the “physicists’ position” about the physical universe – after all one would think that physicists are the experts in this field. (The article reminds us that “there other sciences beside physics”, such as “zoology” – one wonders what Richard Dawkins has to say about whether colors are an objective property of physical objects.) I suppose the unstated reason for resisting what seems to be a clear implication of scientific realism is really this: Qualia (and colors are paradigmatic cases of qualia) are often discussed in the context of the hard problem of consciousness, which is one of the more serious problems of scientific naturalism. Perhaps these philosophers sense that while no way to “naturalize” the concept of colors is found the hard problem of consciousness will remain unsolved. I recently read “Naturalism in Question”, an anthology of critical papers by several philosophers. Well, one of the authors there dryly remarks that theories about how to naturalize subjective concepts are really believed only by the ones who created them and perhaps by one or two of their students. As far as I can see some philosophers are not really trying to solve the problem at all, but rather to invent a new way to talk about colors such that the problem is not apparent.

  • Jim Lippard

    My reference to the Stanford Encyclopedia article was just to point to a survey of different philosophical views of color, in particular that there are objective ones that are available to a materialist or physicalist.

    And it is those objective notions that are relevant if we want to build robots or computer programs to analyze images and engage in color detection.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    ¨Jim Lippard said: “And it is those objective notions that are relevant if we want to build robots or computer programs to analyze images and engage in color detection.

    Ah, but nobody doubts that there are some objective properties of the universe which can *cause* us to see colors. Of course there are such properties (say electromagnetic radiation at a particular wavelength), and of course one can build machines that detect the same physical causes of color more or less just like we do. That’s not the philosophical problem at all. The philosophical problem is whether colors themselves can reasonably be said to be objective properties of the physical universe.

    One should not confuse the effect with one of its possible causes, and therefore it is wrong to say that such machines detect color; they only detect some of the possible physical causes of our color sensations. After all observe that light is not even a necessary cause of our experience of colors: we can experience colors while dreaming in a pitch dark room, or, for that matter, when hearing music under the influence of LSD.

    Actually, there is a well-known semantic ambiguity at play here, namely that one can use the same word to denote both the subjective sensation and the (or a possible) physical cause of it. Here is what Bertrand Russell wrote in his “The Problems of Philosophy” first published almost 100 years ago: "When it is said that light is waves, what is really meant is that waves are the physical cause of our sensations of light. But light itself, the thing which seeing people experience and blind people do not, is not supposed by science to form any part of the world that is independent of us and our senses".

    Or perhaps that semantic ambiguity is not that well-known. In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article you mentioned they speak a lot of possible physical causes of color such as the “reflectance profile” of surfaces, the “transmittance” of volumes, the “scattering” at molecules, and whatnot – but these are all irrelevant to the problem at hand. After all these physical properties can be present without any color being present, or these physical properties can be absent with color being present.