Tag Archives: Materialism

Materialists Don’t Believe in Matter


“We only know the intrinsic character of events elsewhere. They may be just like the events that happen to us, or they may be totally different in strictly unimaginable ways. All that physics gives us is certain equations giving abstract properties of their changes. But as to what it is that changes, and what it changes from and to – as to this, physics is silent.”

-Bertrand Russel

To say that color, sound, taste, etc, as common sense understands these things, is not a property of material objects (but only exist in our minds), and that all there really is to matter is what physics tells us about it, is to (implicitly) reject materialism.

The reason is fairly simple: To say that matter doesn’t actually have these other properties (that scientists set aside when doing experiments) is just another way of saying that these properties are immaterial. Once one has done that, one is committed to some kind of cartesian dualism (whether one likes it or not).

This is for the very simple fact that science doesn’t operate without the sensations of the mind that materialists dismiss as not being part of matter. Theories, or any kind of explanation, cannot exist without reference to these properties. If one is going to say that these aren’t part of matter, then say that nothing more than matter exists, one dismisses science.

The only way to dismiss the cartesianism that materialists passionately mock is to find a way of saying that these extra traits, which are ignored by physics, are actually properties of matter after all.

Of course, many materialists think they have this answer in neuroscience. They seem to think that science will one day explain how these ideas arise from the brain. Personally, I’m convinced that neuroscience will one day explain much about the causal processes in the brain. But it simply cannot explain things that, as a science, it is forbidden to take into account.

Which is exactly where this started. And we can’t solve a problem using the same method that created the problem in the first place. Science (neuroscience as much as any other) ignores qualia (sensations as common sense understands them). It can record what brain-processes tend to be associated with people claiming (verbal behavior) to experience particular qualia. It cannot describe them. It leaves that to writers and other artists.

But there is always the option that Russell suggests: putting these extra things back into our concept of matter, and to quit demanding that the picture of reality given to us by physics is exhaustive.

After all, that demand is philosophical, not scientific. No scientific test on it has ever been (or could ever be) done on it. Those who demand that scientific evidence should be required before forming a belief should definitely reject this claim that there are no properties of matter other than what physics studies.

The trouble with this is that it means the abandonment of materialism. Once one is willing to accept that the properties of matter revealed by experience offer us information about the physical not offered by science (and, indeed, which science depends on), one is moving back toward a premodern view of the world–and all the arguments for theism that go with it. But that is the only way to believe in matter without believing in a cartesian view of the soul.

In general, passionate materialists respond to this argument as they do to many others: by appealing to the unknown. Who knows what the answer is, but they are “okay with not knowing”, and apparently are confident that the answer will be a better fit with materialism than the alternatives.

Personally, I don’t see a logical difference between being okay with not knowing, in this sense, and appealing to magic. But, on a more personal level, this makes a certain amount of sense. All roads before us, if one follows the path of logic, lead to theism.

The only way to maintain one’s atheism, in this case, is to stand at the intellectual crossroads and be “okay with not knowing”.

Total Meaninglessness

quote-the-man-who-regards-his-own-life-and-that-of-his-fellow-creatures-as-meaningless-is-not-merely-albert-einstein-312313“If where you came from is meaningless, and where you’re going is meaningless, then have the guts to admit that your whole life is meaningless.”
-Timothy Keller

Materialism demands that there’s no truth outside of physical truth. And, yet the materialists I encounter also demand that their lives are meaningful. Of course, they recognize that this is a purely subjective statement. Still, it’s hard to see what it is the materialist could call a subjective truth when he insists that all truth is physical.

I’ve been told, many times, that one can have a sense of meaning without there being objective meaning and that subjective meaning is something altogether different from physical reality. Apparently, the two are simply not the same. But this leads one to wonder, is the materialist proposing something other than physical reality? Or is he simply using “subjective meaning” as a polite term for a chemical reaction inside the skull?

Presumably, the latter. Indeed, materialists, in my experience, have insisted upon this. Their only real complaint here is with my idea that we should be concerned about this fact. Apparently, there’s nothing unhappy to be found in the statement that meaning is simply a chemical reaction that induces a feeling–and that any notion of actual meaning in life is simply a lie.
The problem, they say, is with my idea that this is even remotely unhappy.

It is unhappy, of course; it is tragic. But I’m not concerned about happiness. Not here. Rather, my concern is with logical consistency. And there is something deeply inconsistent about finding meaning in a life that one announces to be meaningless. To set-aside questions of meaning, and reduce one sense of purpose in life, and all the decisions that entails, to a matter of feeling, of emotion, is not rational.

Likewise, to insist that those of us who are concerned with true meaning should simply abandon the question is bluntly anti-intellectual. It is disbelief, not on the basis of thought, but on the basis of a lack of thought.

Simply put, anything short of  nietzschean abandonment of all meaning is out of touch with pure materialism. Those who claim to have a “scientific mind” contradict themselves to speak of meaning, right, wrong, or any other value.

To say, then, that religion is evil, and that materialism is good, is to abandon materialism.

Saving Atheism from Atheist Philosophers

life-preserver1Thomas Nagel has written some formidable challenges of the currently fashionable materialism. This is the theme of his most recent book “Mind and Cosmos”. (And, personally, may I voice my disappointment with the title? Given that his previous book was called “The Last Word”, I was hoping this one would be titled “P.S.”)

I’m not sure that I’d recommend the book to everyone, but I would recommend his summary of it. It gives one a good overview without delving into the technical. It even includes a much more straightforward version of a point that (as far as I remember) is not directly stated in the book.

That is this: as he’s laying out the options, he’s fairly open about the fact that philosophers of mind seem to have chosen their favorite position largely to avoid theism.

An atheist himself, Nagel is honest enough to admit to a certain amount of personal bias. (He says of theism “I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”) Thus, he’s offering other atheists what he sees as an escape from a physicalist belief system that (as he’s shown) is looking less and less defensible, without returning to the dreaded theism. He was actually caught off guard by the the fact that many theists see him as something of an ally.

But he is an ally to theists, whether he wanted to be or no. He’s far too committed to the truth to take back what he’s said unless someone can actually deal with his arguments. And what he’s said is devastating for the materialism that functions as the greatest bastion of atheist thought.

I hope to get to his atheism at some point, but perhaps it’s worthwhile to point out another reason why the standard (but fading) materialist view of consciousness is wrong.

For most of the twentieth century, experts held that consciousness is simply a part of the material world (i.e. brain functions). The first and most devastating problem with it was outlined in a previous post, but there is another I’d like to mention. It’s been called the “China-head” objection. This is the analogy:

There are about as many people living in China as there are neurons in a human brain. So, if consciousness is simply the pattern of neurons firing in the brain, what would happen if the Chinese people were to send each other text-messages in a brain-like pattern? Would that series of messages be conscious?

Most of us would find an answer of “yes” a little hard to swallow.

But this follows logically from the idea that consciousness is simply a pattern of activity. Anyone who wants to reject it, or reject the idea that a very complex collection of rocks tied to springs whacking one another is conscious, needs to admit that there is more to consciousness than a pattern of activity.

Now that this idea of consciousness is being revealed as false (for this and other reasons), there’s a great deal of scrambling to find a better view. And at least part of this is motivated by a desire that allows us a view that can still avoid theism, as Nagel admits.

Right now, a trendy phrase is “non-reductive” materialist (or, really, “non-reductive physicalist”). That is, a materialist who doesn’t believe that the mind can be fully “reduced” to material parts–that it is somehow emergent. But I think it’s fairly clear why the days are numbered for this approach. Materialism is, by its nature, a reductive philosophy. That was the idea, after all. Materialists rose to stature by promising to explain just as much without having to propose anything other than matter. To take back that claim now is to abandon the core, and key attraction, of materialism.

This is why “non-reductive materialists” have had such a hard time offering a view that isn’t either (a) simply a denial of mind written in very complex language or (b) something that isn’t materialism or physicalism at all, masquerading as physicalism.

Nagel, seeing (rightly, in my view) that this isn’t going to work, has opted for (c), throw out materialism altogether. Which, whether he likes it or not, means throwing out nearly all the main reasons why atheism was embraced by academia in the first place. It shields atheism from criticism, but only by cutting it off from its support.

The Argument From Willful Ignorance

Woman_BlindContinuing on about Nagel’s argument against the physicality of mind, we come to Philip Kitcher’s response to Nagel. Kitcher is a respected philosopher, which is why I was rather shocked to find such anti-intellectual sentiments in his article.

Rather than simply focus on how terrible his argument is, however, I want first to point out how common it is.

In fact, his basic approach can be seen in the comments section of this blog: the idea that, if an argument shows that there is something in our fundamental experience that can’t be explained by materialism, then what we need to do is quit thinking about it.

Personally, I find it hard to express how fundamentally close-minded I find this. Really, I doubt that I can improve on the words of Chesterton. “There is a kind of thought that stops thought, and that is the only kind of thought that ought to be stopped”.

But thought that stops thought is exactly what is being promoted by a professor in the New York times. He writes:

“Philosophy and science don’t always answer the questions they pose — sometimes they get over them.” And, in case anyone thinks he’s lamenting poor behavior on the part of philosophers and scientists, he adds this: “With luck, in a century or so, the issue of how mind fits into the physical world will seem as quaint as the corresponding concern about life.”

Part of me was shocked, but I had to admit that I’ve encountered the basic sentiment in many self-identified atheists. Until now, I’d assumed that it was the provence of the uneducated to claim that we stop thinking when thinking starts to contradict their view. But it seems that this isn’t the case.

In fact, it has often seemed that secularists’ real, lived answer to the issues of meaning of life, morality, and God are not so much denials of theists’ answers as a studious avoiding of the questions. Ignore a question long enough, and it will start to feel unimportant.

At least, this would explain why I continue to encounter such complete indifference to life’s biggest questions.

So, I’m forced to admit that it isn’t all that surprising when the materialist’s answer to the fact that mind cannot be purely physical is “just don’t think about it”.

But this doesn’t even rise to the level of an argument from ignorance. It isn’t the fallacious “we don’t know that I’m wrong, so I’m correct” it is the even more fallacious “we do know I’m wrong, but if we make ourselves willfully ignorant of that fact, we won’t know, so I’m correct”.

The second problem with this ‘argument’ is less severe, but largely by making the first one worse. That is, this tactic rather blatantly contradicts the original case for materialism.

Those that know something about the history of philosophy know that materialism became popular based on its promise that it could explain the world more simply than other views. The idea was that we should dispense with the non-material because we can explain everything without it. Ockham’s Razor, and all that.

But now that it’s being shown that materialism can’t explain the things it was supposed to explain, materialists are suddenly claiming that we just stop thinking that all reality can ever be given a unified explanation. Apparently, we should also stop thinking about the fact that there are more unified explanations on offer.

So, we accept materialism because it can explain everything that theism can, only more simply. Except that it can’t, it simply denies most of those other things. And, in the case of mind, we’ll just agree not to think about that.

And, when one asks why we’re materialists in the first place, we’ll be sure to dismiss that as a silly question.

This is all rather dogmatic, and it is not made less so by claiming that materialism is somehow “good enough” or “gets us pretty far”. These are simply false claims. Nothing shown to be false can be good enough for anyone committed to being rational, and, while science gets us very far, it doesn’t need materialism to do its job.

This is not to mention the very obvious fact that the greatness of science runs counter to the attitude that we refuse to ask questions when the answers threaten to destroy our pet theories.

Whoa There!


In arguing against materialism, one of the more common objections I’ve encountered has been a demand that I offer undeniable proof (to someone intent on denying) of my exact position before anything I say should be taken seriously.

This has come from enough people that I think it is worth mentioning the three main reasons why this is wrong-headed.

First is the simple fact that this is shifting the burden of proof.

The type to attempt this maneuver, of course, is likely to balk at that. Many see the burden of proof as something the theist alone has. But this is only when we are considering theism. When we’re looking at materialism, it is the materialist who has it.

Part of me suspects that there are many materialists so used to defaulting to the “give me evidence” response, that they literally don’t know what else to do. This is fine, so long as one is willing to learn. It is only with those that dig in their heels and demand that there is never a time when they need to support their position that it is a serious problem.

Second, this is off topic.

Whether or not I’m right about other matters has nothing to do with the current topic. I think we all grasp this on issues where we are more neutral. Someone who believes there are twenty provinces in Canada might still be right to say that hydrogen bonding is vital to life. It takes the fervor of controversy and passion to blind us into a kind of tribalism, where anyone who believes “those things” can’t possibly be right about anything.

Many of the people making this objection don’t even know my actual position, and actually have to ask me what it is in order to mock it. (Others simply start mocking what they think my position is–and are nearly always wrong.)

Third would be the fact that I am offering exactly what is requested: reasons to believe my claims.

I’ve now encountered quite a few people who, out of impatience, start demanding that I get from pure materialism to belief in a very specific understanding of Christianity in the span of a blog post. They often say things like “just give me your proof of Christianity, then we’ll talk about my view”.

I’ve tried explaining that there are quite a few steps, and, more pertinently, that the reasons to reject materialism is one of those steps. As such, these people are actually claiming “I reject the first part of your argument because you haven’t already proven to me that the whole thing is true in the space of a paragraph”.

But it doesn’t do any good to ask for reasons to believe something if one doesn’t understand logic any better than this. It’s always easy to reject the final steps if one hasn’t bothered to look at the opening which supports them.

Those who are willing to consider that opening will find that there are reasons posted here. They may agree or disagree with those reasons, but realize that they are there and need to be understood in order to disagree rationally.

Philosophy or Calvinball?

calvinballIt’s the job of the neurosciences to explain how the brain works without purposes.

– Alex Rosenburg (Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 206

As a passionate materialist-atheist, who lovingly quotes Christopher Hitchens, Rosenberg seems to think that the above sentence is a point in his favor. He is completely right to say, as he does, that neuroscience (like all the sciences) simply set aside purposes from the get-go. What he fails to see, however, is that this undermines his reasons for embracing atheism.

That is, he cites science as the source of his atheism. He argues that it has shown theism to be false, but directly states (in both the quoted line and other places) that science’s job isn’t addressing the question of God–or anything else that involves purposes. Rather, it simply ignores the question in order to focus on material and immediate causation.

That makes science the best tool ever conceived for understanding the patterns of the physical world. What it doesn’t make it is an answer to the question of purposes.

And it isn’t only God; it is any purpose. The reason Rosenberg brings up the point here is to argue that there is no such thing as purpose in the human mind. According to him, we don’t plan for things, we don’t think about things, and we don’t want things. This is because science doesn’t study purpose in the mind or anywhere else and (as far as Rosenberg is concerned) there is nothing other than what science studies.

Rosenberg insists that these are unavoidable conclusions which follow from science. But, for those of us who think it nonsense to say that people don’t actually think, the response is perfectly obvious. This doesn’t follow from science; it follows from the completely arbitrary demand that there is nothing more to reality than that which science studies.

So long as one is open-minded on the subject, it is obvious that neuroscience’s project of describing the brain without purpose, however amazing and useful, does not remotely show that there is no such thing as purpose or intentions in the human mind. In fact, the overwhelming majority of neuroscientific studies depend on trusting test subjects to be accurately reporting on the intentions, purposes, experiences, and desires they feel. If one thinks that neuroscience has (or will) do away with purposes in the mind, then one thinks that it is a self-destructive field of study.

And this is the final problem with all the appeals to science made in support of materialism. Not only do they simply assume that science covers all of reality (which is exactly what the materialist should be trying to prove), but they ultimately contradict science itself.

Simply put, science only functions if there are parts of reality other than the scientific. Claiming that non-scientific forms of inquiry should be rejected is simply a case of cutting off the branch science is sitting on.

And this is the basis of modern atheism.

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.

Either Materialism Goes, or You Do


But if the physical facts fix all the facts, there can’t be a me or you inside our bodies with a special point of view. (Alex Rosenberg, The Athiest’s Guide to Reality, p. 220)

This is one of the few points on which Rosenberg and I agree. In fact, I respect his willingness to follow the logic of materialism to its strange (I would say “incoherent”) conclusions. As I’ve said previously, this is a powerful reason to reject the materialistic dogma that “the physical facts fix all the facts”.

Professor Rosenberg’s argument is deceptively simple: physical configurations of matter cannot, in virtue just of its physical structure, composition, location, or causal relation, be “about” another configuration of matter in the way that thoughts are about things outside of the brain. As such, if there is nothing more than the physical, your thoughts aren’t about things and your mind doesn’t exist.

While the objections to this are legion, they all seem to fall into two broad categories:

First are simple rejections of the conclusion. The fact that we all experience a self, and thoughts about things, leads the overwhelming majority of us to assume his conclusion is wrong.

The trouble with this is that it doesn’t show his reasoning invalid. It follows logically, so long as one presumes materialism. To reject the conclusion, and be rational, one would have to reject materialism. This is, of course, my personal position.

Second, however, are attempts to show how the neural circuitry could be used to create thoughts about things outside of the brain.

But the vast majority of these are based on an analogy to computer systems–and the trouble with that is computer processes aren’t actually about anything without a human to interpret them. We personify computers by saying that they “think”, but they do no such thing. They are simply a machine for generating patterns that we humans find meaningful–in the same way that the gears of a clock turn at a rate that humans find meaningful.

I enjoy science fiction stories about androids as much as the next guy, but this is no reason to think that computers are an explanation of the mind. In fact, the comparison is helpful in that it is precisely the difference between the human mind and the workings of an adding machine that needs to be explained.

The only real reason to argue with Rosenberg’s logic, I think, is a prior conviction that there is nothing in reality other than the physical. But, that being the case, one would need to offer a reason to think that this is true.

And, thus far, I’ve encountered none.

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?”.