Category Archives: Problems With Materialism

What’s Trendy in Your Demographic?

10From David Smalley’s “Top Ten Reasons Why I’m an Athiest”:

8. All babies are Atheists. Religions are taught depending on the location and era in which you are raised. Being born in the U.S. in 1974 does not make you right, it most likely just makes you another Christian. That’s no better or worse than the person born in Tibet in 1955, who proudly worships the Dalai Lama.

I’m aware that many atheists have been hard at work arguing that atheism is merely “a lack of belief in theism”, but simply using this definition to claim that “all babies are atheists” isn’t going to produce a rational reason to think that adults should be.

While it is true that one’s culture has a profound influence on one’s beliefs (though it doesn’t dictate them, as Smalley implies here), this argument assumes that this is less true of the atheist’s view of life than of the theist’s.

That is, if one can dismiss Christianity by saying “You were born in the U.S in 1974.”, why can’t one dismiss the currently trendy materialism with “You were born in the U.S. in 1992.”?

This is a point that the overwhelming majority of atheists in my acquaintance miss:

However we define atheism, the choice isn’t between theism and “a lack of belief”. The choice is between theism and materialism. And materialists have done little to nothing to defend their view.

But, rather than claim that all babies are a-materialists, and imply that everyone who is a materialist is so simply because of cultural pressures, I’ll say that I find the Tibetan Buddhist’s view more in touch with reality. True, we disagree on a great deal, but I see much less self-contradiction in that position than in materialism.

Admittedly, the Buddhist has a great advantage. There is a long history of philosophy, debate, and refinement in all the major world religions. Modern materialism, by contrast, tends to be held by people who are stuck inventing a philosophy on their own–and its chief defenders in this culture have spent a great deal of energy in studiously avoiding the criticisms which might help to refine it. The insistence that atheism is simply “a lack of belief” is merely one example of this.

Thus, the only real defense the typical materialist seems to have is to avoid the subject of materialism and shift back to (usually very poor) objections to God–as if rejecting God justified materialism.

But this is getting into Smalley’s next point. I’ll pick up the thought when I discuss it.

Assuming What One Should be Proving

circularreasoningIf materialism is true, theism is false.

If that strikes you as rather obvious, I should add that many don’t seem to understand the implications of this. I’m speaking, as some of you may have guessed, of those who insist on assuming materialism when evaluating whether or not theism is true. If that’s one’s modus operandi, atheism is a foregone conclusion, and only thing left to be done is to drop the facade that we’re actually investigating theism.

At first blush, this may seem a rather obvious mistake to make–that very few would fall into this trap. I’d probably agree, were it not for the fact that I’ve encountered this approach more often than any other challenge to theism.

Every time someone declares that “science hasn’t found evidence for God” (apparently ignorant of the fact that science only looks for the material) is assuming that the material is the only thing out there to be studied.

When someone claims “belief in God is no different from believing in an invisible unicorn”, the same mistake is being made. Anyone who can’t see that inquiring into the truth of claims about physical things doesn’t automatically settle non-physical questions is assuming that the physical is all there is to study.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the statement “there’s no evidence for God” by anyone who didn’t end up insisting that evidence needs to be physical. If we’re simply throwing out the non-physical from the start, we’re assuming materialism.

There are many more examples, but the point is that all of these arguments rest on the assumption of materialism. This makes every last one of them a circulus in probando fallacy. If one needs to assume that materialism is true in order to make an argument against belief in God, then one’s case against God is only as strong as the case for materialism.

And, as I’ve argued many times in the past, there is no good reason to believe in materialism, and every reason to dismiss it as self-contradictory, lacking evidence, and counter to what we know.

The Intellectual Poverty of Modern Atheism

breaking-light-bulb-imageWhile it isn’t possible to address all the logical problems I find in modern atheism in a single post (or, perhaps, even in a single book), I’ll try my best to put it in a nutshell:

Every reason I’ve ever been given to reject the arguments for theism rests on one of two demonstrably false assumptions:

1. That nothing exists other than the physical, or

2. That there is no way of knowing anything except via the senses (including science, of course).

Now, let me expound on that just a bit:

Though I’m sure some will argue, this should be uncontroversial. Those who demand evidence for theism are, so far as I’ve experienced, never open to non-sensory evidence. And those who attack the Bible as being bad science generally aren’t willing to acknowledge that it wasn’t written as science in the first place.

But, rather than defend the idea that this is the basis of the modern atheist view (which seems rather obvious), I want to point out that it is these ideas, not theism, which are self-contradictory and unsupported.

The first view is properly called “metaphysical naturalism”, “physicalism”, or (more casually) “materialism”. To believe this, one has to believe that nihilism is true, that thoughts are never about anything, that there is no reason at all why science works, that you can’t trust your own logic, and that you (in terms of your own inner life and personality) don’t actually exist.

So I’ve argued in the linked posts (and I’m sure I will again).

Still, there is the second assumption (properly “epistemilogical naturalism” but often called “scientism”). This is the view that, while there might be more than the physical, we should only believe what we can test for scientifically.

The first thing we should note here is that many of the same problems arise. This idea would force us to reject the idea that we have minds, that our morals are rational, and that our thoughts are either about anything or base their choices in logic. It is also deeply problematic that the basis of science itself is rejected by this view. “Science alone”, if one follows the logic, means “not even science”.

The second thing is that this view also contradicts itself. After all, there is no sensory evidence for it. So, by its own standard, it should be rejected.

The only way that modern atheism can hope to escape the absurd conclusions mentioned here is if it could offer an attack on the arguments for theism that doesn’t rest on one of those two assumptions.

After years of encounters, I’ve come across no such thing. This leaves the arguments for theism on the table, with the attempted refutations having been shown to be circular reasoning.

Speak for Yourself

ku-mediumAlex Rosenberg, like many in my acquaintance, attempt to justify materialism by speaking for science in much the same way that Christians often try to justify their ideas by speaking for God.

“Is it really still up to me to choose which way to point my finger, to my left or to my right, or neither? Science answers no.” (Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality p. 152)

Science has offered no proof of determinism–or even anything like a proof. This is for the very simple reason that science doesn’t study the mind’s non-physical traits.

I’ve written on this in the past, however. For now, I’d like to point out that claiming to speak for science, or for God, is hardly a respectful position to take. It is for this reason that those who claim to be the greatest defenders of an idea are often its most insufferable opponents.

Rosenberg’s view of science comes across rather like a teenage girl’s view of her favorite boy-band singer. He’s memorized a lot of facts, and speaks always tenderly about his idol, but such talk only makes it more obvious that he’s never actually met the real thing. As much as he would balk at the idea that he doesn’t actually know or love science for what it actually is, he’s in love with a fantasy.

This would be moot if it were limited to Rosenberg, but it’s been far too often that I’ve been told that quantum mechanics has “disproved” causation or that evolutionary psychology has “disproved” moral realism to wave this off as idiosyncratic.

Actually, I didn’t give much attention to this phenomenon until I started to notice how often Rosenberg and others were willing to jettison any respect for the scientific method in certain fields. He completely dismisses any need to refer to sociology or anthropology when discussing the social effects of nihilism, for instance. As often as I’ve witnessed the term “soft-science” used as an airy excuse for ignoring statical data in favor of a personal gut-instinct, I’m still bothered by it.

The fact that Dawkins, for instance, is still beating the “religion is bad for people” drum in spite of his utter failure to produce any real evidence for it is as clear a sign as one is likely to get. Far too few of the New Atheists show any real interest in what science has to say about their favorite topics. They seem much more interested in what they can make science say.

But turning the object of one’s reverence, be it science or God, into a sort of ventriloquist’s dummy may well be the final stage in closing one’s mind to anything like a dissenting opinion. And this is a very big problem.

After all, why believe anyone else when “science says” one is right?

The Extraordinary Claims of Materialism

tall2Nearly all the materialists I know would agree with the statement “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.

This strikes me as very strange, in that materialism involves so many extraordinary claims that tend to be presented without any evidence at all.

For the sake of honesty, there are some caveats that should be added to that slogan, but it is true that wildly improbable claims should be supported. Still, those defending materialism are consistently forced into the position of making these claims:

1. Something can come from nothing
2. Applying logic to questions about God’s existence (i.e. metaphysics) is useless
3. The principles that are the basis of science (such as Ockham’s Razor) aren’t true
4. Having directly experienced a thing is no reason to think it exists
5. People are no more conscious than computers
6. People only think what we’re programmed to think, rationality is an illusion
7. A reason to think a thing can be dismissed with “I don’t know, and I’m okay with remaining ignorant”.

These claims seem pretty extraordinary to me. To the end that one agrees with the above mantra, one should demand an overwhelming amount of evidence before accepting that materialism (which requires these things) is true. And, given how much evidence there is against them, I’d say that it can’t be done.

In fact, any set of ideas this counter to the real world in which we live could only be called a (disturbing) fantasy world.

The fact remains, however, that most materialists seem very confused when I ask for support for materialism, and the kinds of things it leads to. It doesn’t seem to occur to many that it shouldn’t simply be the default position – true without evidence unless something else can be proved.

But if there is a position that should prompt us to ask for some support, surely, it is materialism.

Rejecting the Entire Conversation

imagesIt seems that attacking the idea that metaphysics is a valid discipline is a staple response of many in the discussion over God’s existence.

Personally, I find this rather astonishing. When I first began debating, I expected requests for evidence, questions about the existence of evil and suffering, and discussion about how evolution relates to theism. What I didn’t expect is a complete rejection of the topic for discussion.

Rather, I assumed that anyone showing up for a metaphysical debate already agreed that metaphysics was a valid topic to discuss. The fact that so many disagreed on this point, and seemed to feel no hesitation about rejecting (even ridiculing) metaphysics left me with two possible theories:

1. The New Atheist movement is interested only in rhetorical persuasion, and is therefore unconcerned about whether or not its claims are logically consistent.

2. These people don’t actually know what metaphysics is, and are unaware that their own position is every bit as metaphysical as theism.

I tend to suspect that the former idea is more true of people like Dawkins, Krauss, and Harris than their lip-service to reason would have us believe, but I like to think that the latter is the main issue for most (that being the more morally excusable of the two).

As such, I find that most who attack metaphysics get very stumped when one explains what the use of metaphysics actually means. In most of these debates, it is simply applying logic to the question at hand. And, so far, I’ve not encountered anyone willing to respond by dismissing logic.

Moreover, most seem hesitant to dismiss those metaphysical principals that are the basis of science – at least, so long as it is being pointed out that they would be demising science by doing so. As such, the metaphysical concepts of Ockham’s Razor and Sufficient Reason are a little more safe than others.

I say “a little more” because so many have been willing to reject sufficient reason in discussions on, say, the Kalam Cosmological Argument (which asserts that the universe must have a cause). It seems odd that the basis of science isn’t more treasured by this group. But, rather than read implications into that, my point is that the rejection of these principles is deeply anti-science, and should be rejected on those grounds.

I suspect that it is going to become increasingly well-known that a rejection of metaphysics is a rejection of science (not to mention all rationality). If that happens, Those who have based their argument in the rejection of metaphysics will begin to look very foolish.

So, for those who are simply interested in the rhetorical value of sound-bytes, this may not be the wisest choice, even then.

How Do We Know Anything?

babyNearly every non-theist I’ve debated has insisted that the physical senses are the only valid source of information. The idea is that, if we can’t measure it, there’s no reason to think it exists.

Now, I completely agree with the materialist that, if that were true, theism would be “very unlikely” as Dawkins puts it. But that seems rather irrelevant to me. It is simply false, factually incorrect, to say that all evidence is physical–and demonstrably so.

But this is so far off the mental maps of most non-theists that it is difficult even to explain to them the concept that not all evidence is physical. They often respond with “Show it to me so that I can test it scientifically.” or “But without evidence, how can you know things?”. The point is completely missed.

But it is no less true for that. We each have a basic experience of reality: a sense of the truths of logic, a sense of one’s self as a thinking person, a sense of right and wrong, and, of course, a sense of the physical world around us. This experience is the basis for everything we know. It isn’t perfect, of course, but we accept it as valid until we have a reason to think otherwise.

When we think about it, this is the real reason why we believe what we do. No one believes in the mind because of what they saw in a brain scan (there’s no evidence for the mind to be found there, anyway). We believe in the mind because we experience our own thoughts. Nor do we believe in the moral, or even the physical, for any other reason than that we experience these things. This is almost tediously obvious.

That is, unless one has imbibed the materialist dogma that all evidence is physical. In that case, one doesn’t want to start with basic experience, but with that dogma. And this is entirely arbitrary. No one has ever been able to give a reason to believe it, and there is a rather long list of reasons why it is false.

And this is where the conversation always seems to return. I agree that we shouldn’t accept an idea without a reason to do so, but that would mean rejecting this arbitrary claim that all evidence is physical.

I’ve listed the reasons why this contradicts science, the mind, and itself, but the point for now is that it is also simply a bare assertion.

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.

Applying Ockham’s Razor Correctly

imagesMost atheists I’ve debated have been fond of referencing Ockham’s Razor.

For those not already familiar with it, Ockham’s Razor (sometimes spelled “Occam’s”) is the position that we not “multiply entities unnecessarily”. That is, we shouldn’t propose two or three different things to explain something when one will do the trick.

It is often claimed that God is an “unnecessary entity”, and that Ockham’s Razor is, therefore a reason to reject belief in God. For this reason, and because it helps to undergird science, it is one of the few metaphysical principles that even the most anti-metaphysical materialist is loathe to abandon.

Which is why I think it is so significant that a real belief in the principle leads to theism.

This because the concept of God explains so many things: moral truth, the origin of the universe, the existence of contingent objects, the intelligibility of the universe, the existence of consciousness, etc. Materialism, on the other hand, has a great deal of trouble explaining any of them, and tends instead to refer to them as brute facts.

But what is a brute fact, if not another entity? There are, therefore, a great many more inexplicable things under materialist philosophy than under theism.

Nor do the responses to this help. Materialists often claim that God isn’t an explanation because it’s a simple appeal to “God did it”. This is only true, however, if one refuses to learn any more about the specific nature of God. Otherwise, it is very much an advance of knowledge.

But, if the first response is untrue, the second is off-topic. It is also very common for materialist to claim that they have accepted not having answers to things. Whether or this is commendable as a personal trait, it is not a response to the argument. Rather, it is simply the admission that materialism has no unified explanation for these things, and is therefore less parsimonious.

And, therefore, it should be rejected by anyone who accepts Ockham’s Razor.

The only real alternative, I think, is to simply reject Ockham’s Razor. However, this would be to reject the materialist’s central argument against belief in God: that it is a an unnecessary add-on.

Of course, I don’t accept this last. But the point is that neither does the person who rejects Ockham’s Razor.

Choosing The Best Answer

CareerChoicesProbably the most significant difference between my approach to answering life’s biggest questions, and the approach of the materialists I know, is that I’m interested in the most reasonable option on the table–as opposed to proof or disproof of a single idea.

Essentially, I agree with such people that no position is perfect. While we try to get as close as we can to the truth, it will always be possible to attack positions. But it is for this very reason that I think the fact that we can attack a view does not give us cause to reject it. Rather, one needs to present a more plausible view for consideration.

This has a clear parallel in science, of course. It is not enough to make criticisms of, say, relativity. Even very good criticisms (such as the claim that, as it is, it cannot be unified with quantum mechanics) is not enough to dislodge it as the standard theory until a better view is presented.

This is of great relevance to the question of God’s existence, of course. The fact that human reason is finite seems to mean that we can’t prove anything beyond all criticism. But, that is not enough to reject all knowledge. Rather, it must be shown that there is a view which is more probable than theism before belief in God should be rejected.

Of course, much of this blog has been dedicated to the idea that materialism (which is the position of the overwhelming majority of atheists) is not as good a fit with reality as theism is. In starting it, I’d meant to address the arguments in favor of materialism, but have found very few.

And this is significant. If there are no good reasons to accept materialism, then it cannot be said that it is a more realistic approach to life than theism. Rather, it seems that theism is more in line with reality as one experiences it.

That being the case, the interesting question is not “Is there a God?”, but “Which God is there?”.