The Real vs. The Merely Real

11 May


(Magnets… how do they work?)

This is one of those very annoying phenomena that comes up repeatedly in arguments between religious and non-religious people. When someone offers a scientific explanation for some phenomenon, the non-scientific person will say something to the effect of “Oh, so this means that XYZ is merely atoms colliding randomly”.

The offending word here, with all of its deliciously negative connotations, is “merely”. Or some connotative equivalent, like “nothing but” or “only”. Take this criticism that Jerry Coyne posted on his blog:

Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago, whose faith in evolutionary naturalism has no limits, will continue to remind us that the high degree of accident and blind necessity in biological evolution renders the emergence of mind nothing but a fluke of nature.

The point being, you can tell when people are using this sort of sophistry by the inclusion of these weasel words, especially due to the negative connotation of it all. As a matter of fact, you can insert the weasel words into just about any sort of scientific explanation and come away with a pretty transparently ridiculous critique. The transparency is the connotation of the weasel words “merely” or “nothing but”. As though there is necessarily more to it than “merely” the scientific answer.

Rainbows are merely refracted sunlight [connotation: therefore rainbows no longer have meaning]

Magnets are nothing but electrical charges [connotation: therefore magnets no longer have any meaning]

Stars are merely balls of colliding hydrogen in space [connotation: therefore, stars no longer have any meaning]

Love is merely a chemical cocktail of oxycontin, dopamine, serotonin, and other hormones sloshing around in the brain [connotation: therefore, love no longer has any meaning]

You can go to town with this. Pick any phenomena — any at all — and insert the word “mere” into its explanation, and you can reduce this critique to its obvious absurdity. Yes, the emergence of the mind is merely due to blind evolution; because the mind is merely real instead of… not real.

Why settle for mere reality?

You can even throw the “mere” accusation back at them. Love is merely the infinite expression of god’s infinite infinity, or Jesus Christ was nothing but god’s firstborn son and took on all of our sins and merely washed them away with his blood, or… so on and so forth. Really, this whole “mere” thing really annoys the crap out of me.

Eliezer Yudkowsky points out this phenomenon in his post Explaining vs. Explaining Away

John Keats’s Lamia (1819) surely deserves some kind of award for Most Famously Annoying Poetry:

…Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow.


Apparently “the mere touch of cold philosophy”, i.e., the truth, has destroyed:

  • Haunts in the air
  • Gnomes in the mine
  • Rainbows


The rainbow was explained. The haunts in the air, and gnomes in the mine, were explained away.

I think this is the key distinction that anti-reductionists don’t get about reductionism.

You can see this failure to get the distinction in the classic objection to reductionism:

If reductionism is correct, then even your belief in reductionism is just the mere result of the motion of molecules—why should I listen to anything you say?

The key word, in the above, is mere; a word which implies that accepting reductionism would explain away all the reasoning processes leading up to my acceptance of reductionism, the way that an optical illusion is explained away.

I think the larger valuation problem is with most people’s love affair with mystery. If something is mysterious then it’s good; it’s valuable. If something is not mysterious, then it is bad. Boring. Vanilla. Mere. God is mysterious. Therefore god is something good, something to venerate (or maybe it’s the other way around? Euthyphro?). The mind or the nature of consciousness is something good; venerable. Therefore, the mind is mysterious. It has to be, if not then it wouldn’t be valuable. Women are mysterious. Therefore, women are valuable. If women weren’t mysterious, then they wouldn’t be valuable! They would be mere women (dark arts warning: If you want to be seen as “valuable”, then you want to be seen as mysterious. Not as a “mere” or “nothing but”).

Who knows why this mystery = veneration link happened. I blame the ancient Greeks.

Anyway, I’ve written about this before. But the gist of it is that nothing is fundamentally mysterious, meaning that mystery is subjective. Mystery is a description of your own state of knowledge. So if you are venerating something because it is mysterious, this is a subtle arrogance since you are in effect worshipping your own ignorance.

Nothing is mysterious. Everything is merely real. And that’s the only response needed when someone says that XYZ phenomenon is merely atoms colliding randomly. Yes, that’s right; the phenomenon is merely real.


Posted by on May 11, 2013 in apologetics, fallacies

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