The Atheist Experience is a weekly live call-in public TV show from Austin Texas. I was listening to a show from a few weeks ago. I heard an absolutely Epic Call. The caller espoused the worst form of nonsense — the kind masked by a [generally false] intellectual sophistication.
The hosts made a few mistakes too and Matt Dillahunty later wrote a blog post about how he mismanaged the call. However the caller is the epic one here. Especially if you’re interested in consciousness, materialist explanations of consciousness, mind uploading, transhumanism etc.
It would take weeks to unravel it all so instead I present it without commentary. Below is a YouTube excerpt. Here’s the full episode in mp3 and streaming video. Full version starts at about [23:50]. Finally below that I made a very rough transcript — I just HAD to get it down. I heartily recommend skimming through it despite the length. I was listening to it on the bus and I must have facepalmed 100 times. I’ve already ruined the punchline but it’s still worth it.
Matt: Got Charles here in Austin, how are you?
Charles: Doing well, thankyou for taking my call.
Jeff: Hey Charles.
Charles: Hello. I’m calling because — the screener asked me if I was a theist, I told him I was a deist with theist inclinations and — the purpose of my call is because I’m terribly disturbed about what I perc–what I see as the danger of New Atheism. Or what’s probably more aptly described as a sort of reductionist materialism. And I think it’s very tangible, not like spiritual I’m going to be sentenced to hell danger but a real material danger if you will.
Jeff: Ok and what’s that danger?
Charles: First of all I think is that the New Atheism isn’t primarily atheism. It’s almost…structuraly defective. I mean I think atheism in and of itself is sort of vacuous, it doesn’t really propose anything, like you guys often claim.
Charles: But for something interesting when you say “will you please tell me what your belief is or base it on the reasons or your proof that god exists because we’re really a refutation of an ideology rather than an ideology in and of itself” that really presumes to have the mechanism by which to judge the answer.
Matt: It’s not atheism from which we derive that, it’s skepticism, science, critical thinking.
Charles: That’s actually what I was getting to! That’s actually what you’re NOT as well, unless you’re talking about philosophical atheism. Because that’s completely what you’re not. Like in terms of Hume, science, which you continually parrot as being some sort of redemptive primary mover here in material life is not skeptical in nature. The presumption of the uniformity of physical law throughout the universe–
Jeff: It’s not a presumption, it’s an observation.
Charles: No it’s n–[laughs]–when’s the last time you observed–
Matt: –from what he’s talking about. No no no, it’s a practical assumption. It is a practical necessity.
Charles: But it is not skeptical.
Charles: –if you talk about Hume who is the godfather of skepticism–
Matt: –ok, I am a Hume follower. My point is, if such a thing made any sense, that science (and I don’t want to get caught in equivocation here) as it is done is applied skepticism.
Charles: No you’re using the word in a different sense, in a very modern loose sense–
Matt: –yes! Because I don’t live in the 12th century–
Charles: –but not the sort of rigorous skepticism that most people assume you’re talking about. Hume–
Matt: –it absolutely is.
Charles: Hume was not proposing incredulity. Hume, I’m sure you’re familiar with the–
Jeff: –excuse me, excuse me! I’m sure you two guys would love to have a long philosophical debate about this but you called the show to say there was a danger and I asked you what that danger is. Tell me what the danger is!
Charles: The danger is that reductionist materialism seeks to deprive us of the mechanisms by which we would defend ourselves from certain pseudo-modern horrors that maybe Ray Kurzweil or other reductionist materialis[ts] would like to perpetrate on humanity. Like uploading the entirety of the human race into some massive computer because humans are really reducible to physical structures. And those are dangerous assumptions–
Matt: –why is it dangerous?
Jeff: Why is an idea dangerous? I mean he’s not — [cross-talk]. You know, any idea can be forced on people and then you can call that activity of forcing that idea on someone dangerous.
Charles: Well is ??? dangerous or is it not dangerous?
Jeff: It’s not true, how’s that?
Charles: Well it’s not what I said, I said is it dangerous?
Jeff: Well, are you saying that uploading consciousness would work?
Charles: I have no clue.
Jeff: Well, if it works then isn’t the underlying premise true?
Charles: I think that’s going to be nearly impossible to determine and that brings us —
Jeff: –no no no! Hold on now! You’re talking about this horror — [cross-talk]
Matt: You gotta let Jeff talk. I know you can’t hear him, he’s trying to ask questions.
Jeff: You called in to tell us that we’re dangerous, ok? And now we get a chance to defend ourselves. Now if your example of a horror that you think is led to by reductionism was uploading consciousness to a computer as if human beings could be boiled down to just material forces, right?
Jeff: And I’m asking you, do you think it would work? Cause if you do think it would work then the assumption that we are physical is true. If you don’t think it would work, then the assumption that we are physical is not true and you win. So either way, where’s the horror? Either it’s true or it’s not. Nobody’s going to get uploaded if it won’t work.
Charles: I have the intuition — I mean it’s impossible to say at this juncture — but I have the intuition that it is not possible.
Jeff: Well, ok?! Where’s the horror? If it won’t work then where’s the horror?
Charles: Where’s the horror?! [LAUGHS] Where’s the horror in essentially convincing humanity that — I mean, I assume you’re familiar with Ray Kurzweil? Singularity?
Jeff: Yes. In fact I agree with him!
Charles: Ok, I assume that because you’re a reductionist.
Matt: Well did you assume that I agree with him?..Never mind, keep going.
Charles: I’m having a little trouble distinguishing between the two voices, I’m sorry.
Matt: Are you wathing the show?
Charles: Yes but there is a delay and it makes it a little tricky.
Jeff: All right. Please…I’m trying to find out where this horror is that you think that there’s a danger of our position leading to.
Charles: Well if it’s wrong, is it good to suppose that uploading grandpa into a computer is harmless? If it’s wrong.
Jeff: If it’s not true that it could be done then that idea will last only as long as — only until it’s discovered, hey this doesn’t work. And then the idea is finished.
Charles: I think you might be structurally prevented from that discovery. I mean how would you know?
Matt: Then there can’t be a horror!
Jeff: If there’s no uploading because we can’t get it to work then there’s no uploading, where’s the horror?
Charles: No no no! You misunderstand me. I don’t think the uploading is possible–
Jeff: –you’re just turned off by the idea–
Charles: –supposed to be upload[ing] is possible.
Jeff: Well, ok, scientists are not going to be uploading anybody if they can’t. Right? Right?
Charles: You’re misunderstanding me, I’m sorry. What I’m saying is I don’t think the creation of this structure that would…let’s say we have this human level intelligence recreated with the same memories the same structure the same capacities, I don’t think that’s sufficient to say that that person was uploaded. I think it’s conceivable to me that you could create–
Jeff:–so the horror is, let me see if this is correct. Tell me if I’m wrong here. What you find horrifying is the idea that a human being’s could be exactly duplicated and you personally would be creeped out by that because you have an a priori assumption–
Jeff:–that that’s not how our consciousnesses work therefore you’d be creeped out by that copy of grandpa?
Charles: I don’t find the process itself to be disturbing, I find the assumption that — as Ray Kurzweil says — that it will be US. That this future sort of–
Jeff: Right! That’s exactly what I just said.
Matt: That’s what he just said.
Jeff: You have an a priori assumption that that can’t be us. And so if they make a thing that seems to be–
Charles:–I don’t have an a priori assumption, a suspicion. I’m really not sure.
Jeff: Fine! So you called us to tell us that what we’re doing could lead to horror and the horror is an a priori suspicion you’ve got. Well, congratulations! Congratulations, you can join the people who thought that automobiles were terrifying because it must be physically impossible for our bodies to go more than 25 mph.
Jeff: –that’s where you’re coming from!
Charles: It’s not where I’m coming from.
Matt: Yes it is [cross-talk] — Charles, Charles. The other thing that I find assinine about this entire conversation is that I haven’t proposed that idea at all and it’s not something that is…while it is consistent with it’s not in any way dependent upon atheism.
Charles: I agree but what does happen–
Matt:–well then I’m right! So what’s your point?
Charles: The problem is, forgetting what I said is that the whole discussion seeks to deprive us of the mechanisms by which we might defend ourselves. And let me take Michael Shermer as an–
Jeff:–what are you defending yourself against? See that’s the thing. The only horror you’ve mentioned is the horror you’re gonna feel because of a suspicion you have. That’s it! You want to be defended from that? Go ahead and believe whatever you want dude! Nobody is telling you you can’t continue to believe that our bodies are animated by spooks!
Charles: –want you’re screaming at me?
Jeff: Dude! Can I make my point? You’re saying that we’re running the risk of depriving you of the ability to defend yourself of challenges to your notion that our bodies are animated by spiritual spooks.
Charles: That’s a strawman argument you’re presenting.
Jeff: What? Explain it then, explain where you’re really coming from.
Charles: I’m afraid in this pseudo-modern generation, you know, the modernists being those living in the time of social Darwinism is sort of this resurgence in —
Charles: –faith on both sides…scientism and…are going to commit the same things that would naturally follow once you have the presumption that humans are merely structure. It becomes–
Matt:–you’re wrong. No, stop Charles. Charles, stop. Please demonstrate that it naturally follows from the idea that humans are “merely” material what you can do. How do you get from that is to the ought?
Charles: Ok, then if–
Matt:–no, Charles. Don’t do an ok? I asked a question.
Charles: I’m answering your question.
Matt: All right [smile]. How do you get from the is to the ought?
Charles: No it’s not the ought.
Matt: Yes you are, you’re saying it’s a necessary conclusion from it.
Charles: No no no. I’m saying that the argument is that there is no difference so there isn’t an ought, it doesn’t matter.
Matt: No the argument is not that there is no difference. Nobody–[cross-talk]
Jeff:–I’d be happy to defend the transhumanist position since I’m a transhumanist. I’d be happy to defend that, that’s what he’s going after. Though it’s just not true Charles — not all atheists are — [cross-talk]. May we speak on our own show please?
Charles: I think you’re having no problems speaking.
Jeff: Charles! It is not true that all atheists are transhumanists. I’m one–
Charles: –I didn’t say they were. I said reductionists generally are
Jeff[long laughter]: Charles, you are free to continue to believe that there’s something else going on besides the physical–
Charles: –I know there’s something else going on–
Jeff:–would you please stop interrupting me? Or we’re gonna hang up on you. You are free to continue to believe that there’s something else going on besides the physical function of our brains. You’re going to remain free to believe that. Why would you not? What are you afraid is gonna happen?
Charles: I’m sorry, are you asking now? Can I talk?
Jeff: Yes, I asked you a question, what are you afraid is gonna happen?
Charles: It’s not about what I’m afraid is gonna happen as a direct result of that. I think you’re really misunderstanding me. What I’m saying is that once you deprive me of the mechanisms to defend against that, like things like mind, love, non-material things that [???] take for granted–
Jeff:–excuse me just to correct you for a second–
Charles:–that we’re just mechanisms, that we’re just machines.
Jeff: Not depriving you of love. Not depriving you of any of those things you just listed. Not a one of them.
Jeff: –they are in fact–
Charles: –that’s what I was gonna say about Michael Shermer–
Jeff:–and, by the way, atheists are not depriving you of anything. Atheists are pointing out that you already lack the ability to prove the things that you seem to want to prove.
Charles: I disagree and like I said–
Jeff:–yes, well ok, fine. And you’re calling our show and telling us that we’re dangerous–
Charles: –you are dangerous!–
Jeff: –because you disagree–
Charles:–arrogance, you’re philistines. You are exceedingly practical scientism–
Matt: –no not scientism. You don’t get to just make up words in order to–
Jeff: –may I ask, I just wanna, I just wanna verify, has this caller insulted us enough. Has this caller insulted us enough that we may now insult him in return?
Matt: …probably, but–
Charles:–won’t let me tell you my argument.
Jeff:–Charles! You haven’t got one dude. That’s the problem.
Matt: Hang on, hang on, EVERYBODY STOP!!
Matt: Charles, a minute ago, you said that you know that humans are more.
Charles: No, that’s not what I said, I know that there are non-material things that the materialist structure doesn’t allow for that I know–
Matt: –ok, how do you know this?
Charles: Because I’ve had direct experience with them as have you…would you like an example?
Matt: Sure, I’d like an argument not an example.
Charles: Ok. I take it for granted that you’ve read a novel?
Charles: Ok where was that novel located when you read it?
Matt: In my hands?!
Charles: Well that’s where the text was!
Matt: That’s correct.
Charles: I’m making a distinction between–
Matt:–that’s correct, I had a conceptual [Jeff: oh good grief!] perception of the novel. It existed only as a physical brain state and if you think there was more to it–
Charles:–that isn’t sufficient. That isn’t sufficient because–
Matt:–how do you know it’s not sufficient? How do you know it’s not sufficient?
Charles: Because it doesn’t take into account the two different minds that are involved in the ultimate fruition of the novel [???] one state for you isn’t sufficient to take into account that brain which created it, that mind–
Matt:–the brain that created it has one conception of the novel and the guy that reads it has a different conception of the novel. And my–
Charles: –no no, that’s inaccurate. That’s really a rudimentary insufficient understanding of it.
Charles: Because the object itself is not reducible–
Matt: –it’s not an object! It’s — ARGH!
Charles: Why is this tree? Tree! Matt Dillahunty, tree! What just happened? I’m not very specific but–
Matt: –you said a word that conveyed an idea in the English language–
Matt:–which brought into…you gonna let me finish or am I gonna hang up on your ass? Which brought into my head the concept of a plant. There is, in my head, as a physical brain state, because of what you said, the concept. You do not get to conflate your idea of a tree with my idea of a tree and then say that because there are 2 ideas of a tree, there’s something we can’t explain. Cause you’ve got a brain — despite evidence to the contrary! — and so do I.
Charles: I think you’re missing the point. You’re doing the same thing that [???] which is interrupting me.
Charles: [???] every [??? Matt: Let him go] the edges of perception, the basis of our understanding we’re hemmed in by illusions of meaning that materialism can’t explain. It’s not a sufficient framework. If I say “I believe in a non-material being called God”–
Matt:–no, you are asserting that it is impossible–
Charles:–material science doesn’t allow for that!
Matt: No sir! No sir, you are asserting that it is impossible — materialistically — to account for thought. Please demonstrate that this is true and not just a flat frikking assertion–
Charles:–I actually did not say that I said that it is impossible to account for the thing called a novel…..You’re talking about thought and I’m talking about the novel.
Matt: The novel?!
Charles: Now here’s what I’m–
Matt: –that is an abstract concept. The novel — as you’re using it — is an abstract concept. I’m talking about–
Charles: –I don’t believe in the ghetto of conception like you do. I don’t believe that love is just a chemical fever with all this other poetic baggage–
Matt:–what else is it and how do you know that it’s more?
Charles: You are not skeptical [Jeff: You know what I think is dangerous?] you’re a pragmatist!
Jeff: I think it’s dangerous for us to be living in a world where we are in fact discovering the physical basis for things.
Jeff: And there’s people like you. People like you-
Charles: –uh-huh, people like me, ok!
Jeff: You know — hey — you called us to call us dangerous! Right back at you!
Jeff: Cave men like you, who want to reject what has actually been discovered because it kinda creeps you out.
Charles: What has been discovered?
Jeff: You are a–
Charles: –what has been discovered? WHat are you talking about?
Jeff: We know vast amounts about how the brain works.
Charles: I’m not talking about the brain–
Jeff: –all right–
Charles: –I’m talking about the mind.
Jeff: I’ve had my say and you’ve had your say over and over and over again–
Matt: –what is the mind? What is the mind?–
Charles: –[???] rather ineptly [???]–
Matt: –what is the mind? What is the mind?
Charles: What is the mind? That’s a great question! And because I’m a solipsist, because I am uncertain–
Matt and Jeff, in perfect unison: –YOU’RE A SOLIPSIST?!
Charles: –trapped like most people–
Matt [hangs up]
Long silence with facepalming.
Matt: WHy didn’t you start? If you’re a solipsist–
Jeff: [hysterical laughter]
Matt: –we’re all just figments of your freaking imagination anyway, so why don’t you just stay home and mentally masturbate instead of calling and wasting time on our show?
Jeff: Ask yourself why you’re imagining a couple of guys like us who are going to sit here and argue with you and in fact the entire universe is — you know — an imaginary creation of your own…Wow…Wow
Matt: Until you actually demonstrate that some thing that you wanna label a mind actually exists as a thing, now you’re just talking about abstracts and it’s a waste of our time which is why we went round and round. Yeah, enough of that.
Jeff: [???] far enough. I think it’s dangerous to live in a world with like nuclear bombs when there’s solipsists running around loose.
Matt: It’s dangerous that you guys are actually in favour of investigating to discover the real vs the unreal! Sorry! Some of us give a damn.