Materialism and Book Burning


“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity of school of metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experiential reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”
-David Hume

This passage may be the original source of the modern idea that we should trust nothing other than science. It has been repeated so many times that it hardly reads as shocking. At this point, the thing that struck me is that Hume allows for mathematics, rather than “just science”.

Of course, one might well point out that mathematics is fundamental to science. This is true, but no more so than the idea that philosophy is fundamental to science. Though many will object at this point, it is a simple fact. Science doesn’t function without metaphysical foundations such as the principle of sufficient reason and Ockham’s Razor.

Still, some might argue that science supports philosophy, not the other way around. But this is a distortion almost beyond recognizability. While it is true that certain philosophical positions have premises which are scientifically established, and that philosophy should always be done in light of scientific knowledge, it is clearly the founder of science. In fact, most lay people tend to underestimate how often philosophical points ground scientific theories and how important it is that science always be done in light of philosophical knowledge.

In fact, Hume’s statement is an excellent example. By his own standard, the page on which he wrote this declaration should be burned–for it contains no mathematical or scientific truth and is, by his reckoning, “nothing but sophistry and illusion”.

And this is the problem that still plagues materialism today: it is precisely the sort of thing it rejects.

What strikes me as odd, however, is the fact that most materialists I know are less bothered by a direct contradiction than the fact that there is no evidence in support of materialism. The latter is, to be certain, a big problem. But it is arguably untrue if one doesn’t define evidence as narrowly as materialists tend to define it.

Being self-contradictory, however, amounts to a proof (in the logical and mathematical sense) that the position is false. There is no more powerful disconfirmation than that.


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