Physicalism of the Gaps! A Reply to Jeff Williams

Physicalism of the Gaps! A Reply to Jeff Williams February 6, 2020

What is going on? 

If we wish to follow the Logos where He leads, we need to listen to critics, especially those with interesting things to say. Jeff Williams is a critic of metaphysics. A University of Chicago grad, he agreed to present his argument and I have posted it here unedited (except for some formatting and the title). As result of his rejection of metaphysics, he rejects objective moral law as an illusion.

Mr. Williams previously argued that Athens has no need of Jerusalem, which contributes nothing good to Western civilization. I responded and enjoyed the interaction immensely. Mr. Williams has taken the time to discuss Martin Heidegger, a philosopher not much in favor when I was in graduate school. I have enjoyed reading more Heidegger (alas in translation). As usual, I allowed his post to stand without comment for a time and now here is a  response. Mr. Williams suggested to me that I had not gotten him right, so it seemed decent and in order to let him respond. I suggested that Mr. Williams has ended up looking for a pony, because he has found a pile of LEGO blocks shaped like a pony. 

Mr. Williams finds my response lacking, so I joyfully invite you to follow the argument where it leads. In this case, it leads to a sadly dogmatic physicalism (or materialism) that sees “gaps” or problems where there are none. We also learn that having a bad history of the philosophy of science can lead to some bad conclusions.

The Physicalist has a deal for you! 

Once one adopts a point of view, there is a dangerous temptation to reduce every problem to a coming triumph. Some adopt an entire metaphysical position (such as “there is not metaphysical realm”) based on certain past events. Too often this hapless soul is like an investor who careens into a bad deal because past success means future success

And as the fine print on such deals always says: maybe, maybe not.

The less the circumstances are the same, the less one kind of success is a guide to the other. A coach with a Hall of Fame NFL record as a football coach hired to manage might seem like a great idea (past success!) unless it is for a baseball team.  Such a manager is not more likely to win the World Series because of his past coaching success. Some of the experiences are relevant, both are sports-ball and both consist of leading men to victory, but many relevant skills are not!

The problem of comparing two things that are not alike is particularly easy to do in philosophy, especially if your worldview collapses categories. Berkley’s idealism can explain what is happening when Samuel Johnson kicks a rock, but we must force ask why anyone would have adopted physicalism to start. The default position amongst experts is that numbers exist and world class thinkers like Frege have argued for this position. In fact:

Mathematical platonism enjoys widespread support and is frequently considered the default metaphysical position with respect to mathematics. This is unsurprising given its extremely natural interpretation of mathematical practice. In particular, mathematical platonism takes at face-value such well known truths as that “there exist” an infinite number of prime numbers, and it provides straightforward explanations of mathematical objectivity and of the differences between mathematical and spatio-temporal entities. Thus arguments for mathematical platonism typically assert that in order for mathematical theories to be true their logical structure must refer to some mathematical entities, that many mathematical theories are indeed objectively true, and that mathematical entities are not constituents of the spatio-temporal realm.

I am not arguing from authority that this is true, but that any dismal of metaphysics as “obviously wrong” or ad hoc is quite foolish. Mr. Williams is, I suppose, entitled to assert on the basis of a priori physicalism that these positions cannot be so, that numbers cannot be real, but that is not an argument. This is merely a form of Bulverism. I fear Williams is explaining away problems with “could be,” not explaining on the basis of an almost overwhelming sense of what is happening. Abstract objects (like numbers) really may exist and they seem to exist to the relevant experts. At the very least, the subject is not closed and there is no reason for the level of confidence Mr. Williams’ displays.

I am not sure numbers exist and both theist and atheist philosophers are in both camps. I am sure that plenty of atheists take this is a good reason to doubt strong physicalism, but read for yourself and decide.

An Important Agreement: Avoid the Guru

On many issues, Williams and I agree and one of them is a hatred of gurus who tell us to agree with their views. Williams says:

Perhaps we two are destined to eternally consider each other to be in error, which is in no way a bad thing. I shudder in horror at the thought of everyone agreeing with me – a fate no better than solipsistic imprisonment.

To which I can only say: “Hoop la! Just so! Amen, brother!”

We must not look for certainty, the just will live intellectually by faith. One sometime meets on social media folk (theist and non-theist) who invent definitions that are unique to themselves and demand people answer questions using their terms. This is guruism and often comes with self-aggrandizing tales of intellectual triumph.

Williams is to be strongly commended for rejecting that approach, doing his homework, helping us all understand an important philosopher better (Heidegger) and using standard academic approaches. Even when his views are (as far as I can tell) in a minority, they are careful and part of a respectable minority of scholarship.

This is important, because it enables us to talk, disagree agreeably, and make progress. Private, self-contained systems (some apologists and some cranky atheists) keeps us from having such intellectual fellowship.

On Consciousness: Williams Asserts 

As we have seen there is no certainty in the present academic community, that all that exists is physical. In fact, mathematicians default to a denial that this is true even atheist mathematicians. There is another more basic phenomena that seems to be in an utterly different category from material stuff: consciousness.

This is not an eccentric view. Human consciousness is the “hard problem” for the physicalist, because it does not even seem like it could be solved. My consciousness to me, your consciousness to you, in our most basic experience are less like our experience of the physical than football is like baseball! Attempts are made to solve this problem (of course), but none are widely held to be successful. 

If one must be a physicalist and think that matter and energy is all there is, then I suppose you must accept on faith some solution is out there. Why do this? My thought, my experience of the cosmos as experience, is not at all like my experience of a LEGO. Even when are not sure, theists and atheists look to past success of science in explaining physical phenomena to rationally assume that science will probably be able to explain this physical thing.  To compare anything so dissimilar as our experience of selfhood and a star and assert that they will have the same type of explanation as to what they are is a leap of faith utterly unjustified by the evidence.

Willaims says:

Although it was commonly believed among metaphysicians since at least Descartes that mind was proven to be non-physical, that is not so obviously the case.

Note how absurd this response really is. We do not think our experiences are not physical, because Descartes or anyone else told us this is so, but because of our experience. Descartes simply used this universal experience to make a point. Ideas in my mind, or your mind,  seem nothing like a pile of stuff. If we must (?) reduce everything to a pile of stuff, then clever men might work on how to do this, but since nobody has ever done so to most thinker’s satisfaction, there is no reason to think they ever will.

Only assumptions flowing out of dogmatic predispositions would make anyone think we could reduce Hamlet to a collection of any physical things. The play is the thing that captures the conscience of the King, not paper and ink chemistry hanging out with some neurons. Where is Hamlet in that? Where is the experience of Hamlet? The mystery of how the brain works will almost surely be solved by science using physical causes, because a brain is a physical thing that is very complex, but still physical. 

An idea just is not or seems very, very different than a brain. We don’t have past success in reducing ideas to LEGOS or any other physical thing to cheer us on. This is true of numbers and consciousness. I am betting that past failure suggests (though does not prove!) future failure.

Essentially Williams justifies this (fairly bizarre) assumption about ideas and numbers by a false history of the development of science. He says:

In my last response, I traced the continuous appropriation by physical inquiry from what had been the province of metaphysics since the time of Bacon. The word “ontology” had been coined to accommodate the migration of the question of being increasingly into the realm of the physical. Consciousness is but the most recent emigrant from the land of metaphysics to that of neuroscience, theoretical physics, and non-metaphysical philosophy. I believe that denying the ability to explain consciousness solely through physical terms will someday look as naïve as those who thought gravity could never be explained. Some physicists are looking into evidence of a sort of panpsychist universe with levels of consciousness varying with levels of complexity, which could ultimately explain entanglement. This is an important premise, for example, in Sean Carroll’s Many Worlds Theory. The philosopher Thomas Nagel has also done important work in this area.  Other physicists and neuroscientists study the similarities between quantum indeterminacy and action of wave functions to the function of the brain and how mind could emerge purely from physical waves, which are the basis of all reality. Michio Kaku, among others, is a proponent of this direction of study which could also explain the reality of free will. It’s interesting to note that the two instances of being that seem to not be under deterministic causality are quantum events and the mind.

This is the kind of history of the development of science one can believe until one examines the details of the history of the philosophy of science. Medieval philosophy did not confuse the “physical” with the “metaphysical.” Doubt this? Mr. Williams who exactly did this and where?

Give us details or go read a good overview of the topic as found in John Losee. Philosophers favored physical explanations for physical things (primary causation) with the possibility of secondary causation by mind or Mind. For example, cows made cows. God may have created the first cows directly or (Augustine?) set up the system so that cows came to be (secondary causation).

This side of polemicist Dickson White, nobody now thinks everything in the Middle Ages was explained by “God” and metaphysics and then “science” came and pushed metaphysics out. This was widely believed in the mid-twentieth century (sadly), but research and scholarship on the Middle Ages showed this to be wrong. (This went along with the myth of the dark Christian ages.) 

Atheist historians no longer defend that perspective.

Christians in the Middle Ages did not primarily explain physical actions by invoking metaphysical causes (like angels) and then slowly retreat from that view. This is a secular urban legend that metaphysical gaps in the created order were slowly filled by “physics.” This is just not so.  In fact, Christians explained physical phenomena by physical causes. We (rightly) saw a role for personal causation and so left a place for the human and the divine. 

Those qualifications have served us well and have not changed. Williams sees it differently:

If the mind proves to be a physical manifestation the last gasp of metaphysics will expire along with any concept of god. Your claim to experience god could be no more than a metaphysical interpretation of what is properly the mystery of physical Being.

No, but now we get the introduction of metaphysics by capitalization. Saying the “mystery of physical Being” is a kind of Platonist woo (capitalize All the Things) united to physicalism.  We can feel like there is a mystery when all that is there is a pile of stuff. From that pile of matter nobody has ever found a Hamlet, the missing fourth, or consciousness.

It’s all in Timaeus.

And by the way the notion that “gravity” has been “explained” is deeply naive as well. . . The world is a lot less settled that mid-twentieth century European physicalism thought and Mr Williams apparently still thinks. What is gravity? Who knows? What is a physical object? Even that is hard to say, so to assume the physical is sure and somehow the metaphysical (like numbers) is unsure is exactly wrong.

We are more sure that 1 is 1 than what gravity is. As a result, though I am not an idealist, idealism of the Berkeley sort is more sensible just now than hard physicalism. Science still makes sense. The things that appear physical can be treated “as if” they are physical. We do not have a hard problem of consciousness, numbers exist just like mathematicians think they do, and ideas are ideas. If we must reduce everything to one thing, ideas in a mind (or even Mind! Woo!) seems like a more rational bet.

I prefer to keep looking for physical explanations for physical things and metaphysical explanations for metaphysical things, since that has worked so well in the past. 

Williams often confuses what a thing is made of with the question of what it is:

Much depends on what you mean by existence, but it has been shown that numbers and ideas exist solely in the human subjective mind. Your claim that the experts believe otherwise is somewhat akin to the fallacy of argumentum verecundiam. Kant clearly showed the subjective ground of ideas and number, which reason through the subjective senses of space and time. Since then, evolutionary biologists have shown how reason came to evolve in homo sapiens, around when that happened, and the changes in the brain that enabled it. Contemporary neuroscientists such as Donald Hoffman and Anyl Seth demonstrate how this happens in the brain. I would clearly count Kant, evolutionary biologists, and contemporary neurologists among the experts.

Suppose (!) all the science here is perfectly true. We have already seen that experts do not agree with Williams about numbers. Let me concede (!) that we know exactly how humans came to reason. That does nothing to show what reason is. To know how a thing is done is to not necessarily to know what is. If a star is made of hot glowing gas, then one still has not said what a star is, just what makes up the star.

Our minds use our brains.

Just so.

God bless neuroscientists who show us “how” this happens. This has nothing whatsoever to do with our discussion unless we assume that physicalist accounts are true. That a brain can be used by a mind no more shows the mind is a brain, then showing that an organist can use an organ reduces the organists to the organ!

Assuming this thing that seems entirely non-physical (ideas, numbers, minds)  MUST be PHYSICAL because PHYSICALISM is not persuasive to anyone not in the cult of physicalism. 

On Morality at Last

Williams turns to morality at last:

We are made of complex drives, otherwise we would not need moral sensibilities. These moral sensibilities are a very late evolutionary development which enable our consciousness to reach a higher plain and are all we need to determine the ought from the is through our evolved conscience which is derived from these sensibilities and refined over time. The only question is the grounds for these sensibilities.

Assume we are made of complex drives. Assume those produce moral sensibilities in us. That does not imply that this is all those moral sensibilities are anymore than my ability to see you based on my physical eyes and brain means you are just my physical eyes and brain.

I have no idea, and Williams has not told us, what makes our recent beliefs a “higher plane.” Evolution is by scientific definition unguided. We are not going anywhere. Why prefer now to then? Williams has actually imported a theistic assumption into his worldview. If evolution is unguided development, why prefer our dispositions today to our dispositions yesterday?

That I am able to ask the question means that the question can be answered: I defy the flow of biology with my mind even if biology created my mind. My dreams can present a better possibility than “reality.” This is also true of what is. So why prefer Williams just-so story about what all this means to another?

The notion that nature “refines” or reaches a “higher plane” is merely a creationist assertion of teleology snuck into a physicalist account of the world. There is no God, but somehow as in a PBS nature show, “Nature” (capitalization WOO!) does awesome and good things.


That is as much pseudoscience (from the physicalist point of view) as Answers in Genesis. Nature has no plan. We can dislike or dispute now as compared to then. Of course, I (as a theist) do see a plan in the totality of reality. All the world contains our dreams, our ideas, our numbers, and matter and energy. All is orderly and there is, as Dr. King would say, an arc to history bending toward justice. We can form the beloved community.

I can say that consistently as a theist. Mr. Williams must use weasel words that betray his very position.

Or so it seems to me.

An Agreement that Williams is a Good Chap 

In his first post, Williams who knows much more about Heidegger then I, spent a good bit of time quoting, using, and explaining the world according to Heidegger. To say this philosopher is controversial is . . . True.

Let me clear: extensive use of Heidegger in some ways has implications that are dangerous. I certainly do not think that Williams is a fascist or a Nazi. I do not bother to dialog with such cretins and Williams is no boor.


When one starts looking to nature, the good chaps (like Williams) will twist what is to what they hope should be.

All good.

Sadly, since is in nature does nothing to tell us what should be, other less noble people end up seeing what they wish to see in nature.Williams is a good chap so sees decent things, but not so much with the philosopher he extensively uses (Heidegger). Nature is no certain guide. What evolution is telling us is too often whatever the thinker already thought. It is useless. 

On Logic 

Oddly Williams has attacked the idea that “A=A” is true. I asked him to explain this and Williams claims he has:

A more careful reading of my last response would reveal that I did explain it as the difference between metaphysical objectification and ontological thought. Perhaps an example would help? You know your wife in a deeper sense than objectification and would surely say that your wife is your wife, with “is” being more than just a copula, but would you say she is equal and additive to or replaceable by any other wife? When you reduce to a concept you eliminate the physical essencewhich in this case inheres in the physical being of your wife.


Ignore the “big” words.

Williams must explain how A does not equal A. How do you think this will go? Demand clarity of us both.

He uses an example of Hope, my wife, and the result is a (romantic) disaster.

As a Christian, I think my wife is both utterly a body and totally more. I love her body, soul, and mind. I refuse to ignore one, because that would be ignoring one awesome part of the beloved.

Suppose my wife gets a heart transplant. Because she is more than that body part, she is still the woman I loved, love, and will love for all time.

Suppose in some future science (God allow it!) Hope can live longer as part after part of her physical body is replaced. Still I will love her, just as I love the fifty-six year old now more than the twenty-two year old I married so long ago. Her body then is long gone, but she has continued. Our love can live as our bodies change, because the mind goes on.

And yet even the memory of the way she was is sacred to me. I do not deny she is not physically the same. I do not deny any love for her body and the matter and energy that house her soul. I venerate that shrine, even if every decade or so every physical cell of her is gone. She endures, because she is more than those cells.

Williams analogy suggests that there is more to Hope than her body, though I love every cell every day of her blessed body. She endures over time even though her cells do not. 

When the last day comes, and she slips the surly bonds of Earth and touches the face of God, I will love Hope more passionately than I did thirty-five years ago even though not one physical cell is the same as then. The woman is thing that captures the love of her beloved.

On Morality 

Williams now attacks my views of moraliy:

Next, we move on to the topic of our discussion: objective morality. Ironically, you also portray this objective law as altering over time. I had noted that if the morality of the Bible were objective it would also be immutable, yet very few of us would want to return to the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Our refined moral sense finds much of it barbaric and offensiveto our moral taste. You try to explain this away thus:

I do not portray justice (the “objective law”) as changing over time. I portray our ability to understand the objective law as changing over time.


I get to work with a kindergarten through college school.

There are some ideas explained in elementary school that we explain differently to the junior high, because they can “take” more difficult concepts. By the time they come to high school, we go deeper. College gives a better answer.

The truth has not changed, but the capacity to understand the truth has and so has our heuristic devices. We give them the best they can grasp, while pushing them to something better. Educational revelation is progressive, just like divine revelation.

My Papaws lived hard lives in the Great Depression and I would never wish to go back, yet their growth in understanding the world are why I am here today. Standing on the shoulders of moral giants, does not mean there is not morality to see when standing there. As Jesus put it: in the beginning it was not so, one had to do the best one could with intervening broken minds, and now we can do better. 

God told us what we could hear and over time we could hear more.

Imagine how ludicrous is the alternative:

There is an undeniable contradiction here: the Bible cannot be a source of objective morality and change over time. Morality is either objective and immutable or it is alterable over time. Itcannot be both. Even more, a “good God” would not countenance slavery, genocide or stoning of people with different beliefs even in the primitive Bronze Age. I would have expected him to set a better standard rather than one that is now too egregious to accept. It is infinitely more likely that man, on his own, improved his moral senses instead as he distanced himself from Biblical morality. It is undeniable that the Bible provides no acceptable immutable objective law.

The Bible can be the “source of objective morality” and our understanding of that unchanging standard can develop over time. Even as simple a concept as “monotheism” was hard to grasp in our broken state. Imagine “love your enemies.” Slowly, asking for our consent at every turn, God helped us see the arc of history bending toward justice.

Never Strawman

Williams thinks I was unfair to him in my last:

Next you construct a strawman in order to more easily confront an argument I made:

“When one says ‘morality is an innate sensibility’ then one has run into explanation by semantics: like the use of instinct to describe why a being acts as he does.”

Even if I had said something like that, instinct would be a better explanation than an imaginary metaphysical construction, but you conflate sensibility with instinct. Instinct is a wired and usually involuntary reaction to specific stimuli. Sensibility is very different in that it is a general emotional attitude toward something that we are able to direct through reason or contemplation. You attempt here to both misstate evolution as araw-toothed drive that always seeks its own individual need over all others and to reduce our mental abilities to mindless instinct. Both are false. As I noted last time, and you still ignore, evolution seeks best fit for adaptation, and many times that involves cooperation among individual instead of competition. The animal world is rife with such examples, and our innate sensibilities for empathy, fairness and love contribute to that enabling cooperation – an adaptation that has allowed us tosurvive beyond any other species.

I agree. Absolutely! Evolution can (and should!) be seen as cooperative.

However, evolution contains both cooperative and selfish desires. Which should I choose to prioritize? The moment I ask the question “evolution” says nothing. God is love, so I know why I prefer love. Evolution shows love and red fangs just now. I am confident Mr. Williams, who is an honorable man, prefers love to blood, but do not really see why he should. Both are seen in nature. At best, he might balance both?

As a Christian, I must seek the beloved community and pay attention to the limits of present nature, but not allow my moral ambitions to be limited by them.

Williams responds:

We get our nature from Nature (Being), and if you wish to do otherwise, you only de-nature man. It is a ground because we can actually know it physically, understand our place in it, andfind our own nature revealed in it. What you suggest instead is to imagine a realm that we cannot experience and have no reason to believe exists. That is not a ground for morality or anything else. From our nature we understand empathy, fairness and love to be the ground of the good. Because we are such beings, it is in our nature to do so. As I said, we can do no other. Despite your simple denial to the contrary, Being as essence in this physical world is the only possible source of sanctification, and we can only derive the good from this nature. You also ignore the much larger question of the possibility of intention in Being itself, which seems to reveal itself over time; in this case in the arc of morality from Bronze Age barbarism toward the yet distant goal of empathetic cooperation and man’s purpose as the conscious experience of the universe for Being.

We do not know what stuff is. We do know that our experience of stuff happens in our minds and those minds don’t seem like stuff. Calling matter and energy “Being” doesn’t make what being is more certain. I think and then experience stuff. Why then explain the thinking by the stuff?

We have good reason to think this realm exists (numbers, ideas, consciousness) and those reasons are more primary and less doubtable than our notions of matter. We can understand “empathy, fairness, and love” from nature, but we cannot know why we should prefer that to conquest, winning, selfish genes making more selfish genes.

By his peroration, Williams suggests the possibility of a panentheism.


However, much I like panentheism (and what Platonist does not!), there is no reason (sadly!) to prefer it to vanilla theism. Theism has arguments in its favor (start with the ontological and move forward). I don’t see any reason to think my LEGOs are infused with the divine, how that works, or why that is less weird than theism. Since we have the evidence of the life of Jesus, philosophical arguments for the God of Plato and Aristotle, I see the glimmer of a reason to stay with the culture that gave us science, Bach, Dante, Shakespeare, and republican forms of government. 

Williams sees Christianity differently:

I would go further and claim that your own Biblical understanding of morality is itself a projection onto an unreal and imaginary realm of the fears and hopes of man trying to work out his nature. Yours is in fact just another interpretation from our physical nature and the surrounding world, but one from a prior and very primitive stage of development of our consciousness. We have progressed at the same rate as ourthinking moved from metaphysics into ontology rightly thought as physical Being. With consciousness itself having emigrated to physical ontology, the gods are truly dead, and we can begin anew with a better understanding of who we are, and where we go.

Movement from the “primitive understanding” of the divine to a better understanding makes better sense under theism. Mind is working with matter and as souls in bodies we are learning from this divine mind and from the cosmos.   We have not (in philosophy, mathematics, science) over from metaphysics. Williams is just trying to have his metaphysical pay off without explaining.

We are not computers made out of meat. We have not refuted arguments for God. We have not nearly explained consciousness in physical terms and short of a predisposition there is no reason to think we have tried. Moral man should stay in the school for humans, God has been using to get us here and hope, that for all our degradation (nearly as great as our improvements) that we can survive by His good grace.

Meanwhile, these very words, ideas, that probably appear to Willams on a screen, but could be read by him on paper, or read to him by a voice simulator, are not reducible to any of those things. As Plato knew, and Jesus lived, the Logos is more basic than the cosmos.


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