Tag Archives: Materialism

The Boy Who Cried “No Wolf”

cuIn expounding his atheism, Alex Rosenberg nicely enshrines the materialist view on biology:

The banishment of purpose from the universe as a whole also provides for the banishment of purposes that are supposed to make sense of human and other biological activities. When physics disposed of purposes, it did so for biology as well. It is the causal completeness of physics that purges purpose from all living things and their lives. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 46)

Of course, it is controversial that even chemistry is fully reducible to physics. For Rosenberg to simply declare that biology (and, elsewhere in the book, everything else that exists) is so reducible is more than a bit presumptuous.

I think it would strike most of us as inherently wrong to say that bodily organs have no purpose, but that is the materialist’s position. The heart isn’t actually for pumping blood, on this view, that is simply what it does. Appeals to evolution claim that this is purely a matter of what helped past organisms survive, and that any concept of the heart actually having a purpose is sheer illusion.

But I find myself increasingly skeptical of theories which wave off large swaths of fundamental experience as illusion. It seems more than a bit like sophistry to simply throw out anything that one’s personal philosophy can’t explain. There are more things in heaven and earth, after all, than are dreamt of in materialist philosophy.

Or, to paraphrase a more contemporary thinker: to deny the reality of what one cannot explain is the crudest form of cognitive dissonance.

And, indeed, purpose can’t be explained by pure materialism, even biologists consistently make reference to the purpose of organs in professional journals. It is understood, apparently, that this is simply shorthand. We’re promised that philosophers of biology will come along later to rephrase all of these comments in terms that don’t mention purpose.

But many are starting to feel that the materialists have made this promise so many times that they’re starting to forget that they’re even making it anymore. The issue of purpose, which was supposed to have been long-since handled, still hasn’t gone away even among scientists. It’s rather like a weird case of a boy crying “No wolf”, where materialists can be consistently heard shouting the non-existence of something rather obvious. How long are we supposed to go on believing them?

To be absolutely clear, none of this is an argument against evolution as science. This doesn’t comment at all on the theory itself. It is, rather, an argument against the philosophical add-on that organs don’t serve an objective purpose. That is, it is an argument for teleology.

So, admitting to teleology wouldn’t discredit evolution, but it does deal a major blow to materialism. I think this is significant, because it can’t be a discovery of science that keeps people from accepting this view (Rosenberg’s overtures notwithstanding). In fact, the way we do science is more in line with a belief in teleology than a rejection of it. It seems more likely, therefore, that it is a commitment to materialism that is the trouble.

That being the case, the materialist owes us a reason to think that the heart merely pumps blood, without having the purpose of pumping blood.

Atheism and the Inability to Think

brainless_brainDo you ever have thoughts about anything–or simply “think” that you do?

If this strikes you as a strange question to ask in context of the debate over God’s existence, it’s likely that you haven’t read anything by prominent atheist Alex Rosenberg. He’s firmly of the opinion that our thoughts aren’t about anything at all:

Ultimately, science and scientism are going to make us give up as illusory the very thing conscious experience screams out at us loudest and longest: the notion that when we think, our thoughts are about anything at all, (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 162)

This may sound like utter nonsense (and it is). But, if you are a materialist, Rosenberg has a point. The “aboutness” of thoughts isn’t something that can be reduced to brain states alone. There is simply no way that any interaction of neurons, by itself, can objectively be about anything but itself–and nothing can be subjectively about anything without an interpreter already present. This would mean that we have to assume a mind in order to explain the mind.

As such, it might “feel” as if you have thoughts about things, or thoughts at all, but (so the argument goes) this is all illusion.

If you’re thinking that Rosenberg is a bit off his rocker, you’re not alone. What is an illusion after all, if it isn’t a thought? Rosenberg doesn’t actually tell us, but he compares it to trickery, sleight of hand, and several other things that make no sense whatsoever unless they involve (false) thoughts about things.

But he isn’t claiming that our thoughts are false; he’s claiming that they are literally about nothing at all.

Most might think that Rosenberg has given us a beautiful reductio ad absurdum of his materialist-atheist view. If the materialism which is the core of nearly all defense of atheism breaks down into denying that thought even exists (as Rosenberg shows later in his book), well, it might seem hard to imagine anything the theist could say to make this philosophy appear more inane than it already seems.

There is, however, one more thing.

Rosenberg never mentions the fact that science (so beloved by him and other materialists) is founded on trust of the human capacity to think about things. If materialism leads us to reject thought altogether, it leads us to completely reject science–which depends on thought. Hence, Rosenberg’s materialism is more deeply anti-science than anything the most fundamentalist preacher ever dreamed of saying.

The utter incoherence of this is striking, but there is nothing Rosenberg claims which doesn’t follow from his materialism. In this way, he’s simply being more consistent and clear-headed than most materialists. The act of rejecting the existence of anything that can’t be backed by experimental data has come around to reject itself, and science along with it.

So, if one isn’t willing to follow Rosenberg down this trail, one needs to reject the idea that there is nothing more to the mind than brain states.

But do to this is to reject materialism.

Logical Exemption Status

thI’ve run across quite a few people who seem to feel that materialism is the one philosophical position that doesn’t need defending.

This is not to say that such people think that it is such a strong position that there’s little point in repeating the arguments in its favor. Rather, it is to say that there are many who seem to think that, whereas other positions need to give us some reason to believe them, materialism represents some kind of “default” philosophy that can be accepted without a reason.

Of course, it is very hard for me to see why any position should claim this kind of status. Surely, those who seek to persuade others of it should be ready with an argument for it.

At the very least, might we give people some reason why this, and not agnosticism, represents a sort of base view?

And this is most of my difficulty in discussing philosophical issues with materialists. They seem to think I believe all the things they do, then add a few extras to that. Not only is this a warped view of my own position, it leaves many of them without any appreciation for what it takes to present a defense for a view–as most of them have never even attempted to do so.

In fact, I don’t know of any argument in favor of materialism that doesn’t reduce to something like asserting the verification principle (the idea that we should accept only those parts of reality that we can “verify” with our senses).

But this is no argument, it is simply a restatement of materialism. It gives us no reason to believe it. And, if you read on philosophy, you’ll already know that the verification principle utterly failed once it was pointed out that it’s self-defeating (it can’t itself be verified by the senses).

That being the case, I honestly don’t understand the confidence so many have in materialism, except in terms of zeitgeist and other pathos effects. I really don’t see any reason at all to believe it.

So, setting aside (for the moment) the reasons why many reject materialism, is there any reason at all to think it is true?

Reconciling Our Minds

Kant, for those who don’t already know, is considered to be the original source of the modern separation between fact and value. He envisioned a clean break between that which can be known through the senses, and that which cannot.

This black and white view has been thoroughly absorbed by modern thought. Secular materialists have based their entire position on it, of course, but it seems no less prevalent among the romantics. They argue that the realm of meaning and value are purely matters of emotional and aesthetic experience.

As is probably obvious, I’m increasingly convinced that we need to reject the idea of a simple divide between fact and value. Empiricists have long pointed out that there is a great deal of practical biological consideration which goes into our concept of ethics. Romantics, in turn, have pointed out that a great deal of abstraction and interpretation goes into our science.

To me, it seems obvious that the attempts of one side of the fact/value split at dismissing the other have been failures. Rather than sit with the romantics, denying the importance of science, or with the materialists, denying the reality of moral fact, we need to question the idea of a clean divide altogether.

This would take us back to something like the notion of truth in the middle ages, in which neither the validity of the senses nor of moral and spiritual experience are singularly trusted. In that world, this would be a key part of the doctrine of the incarnation (that the bridge between the physical and the non-physical can be crossed).

This idea, so often contemptuously dismissed by modern people, is far more probable than the alternatives on offer. The longer I’ve examined it, the more inescapable it seems.

Against Relativism

Through my experience, I’ve been left with the impression that the clear majority of atheists are moral relativists. That is, the bulk of atheists believe that ethics are simply the products of socio-biological evolution, which are not a matter of any truth external to our individual and collective opinions.

In general, I’ve always disagreed on two levels. First, I see no reason why moral experience needs any more justification than sensory experience. Second, and more pertinently to this topic, I don’t see how a true embracing of this sort of relativism can be lived.

It seems fitting that moral relativism is almost completely rejected in those places in the world which are facing tremendous suffering, and popular in those cultures which are complicit in that suffering. It seems clear why wealthy and oppressive societies are much more eager to abandon belief in objective justice than impoverished people.

Perhaps, one might say, that the poor believe as they do simply as a psychological necessity, or because they are (formally) uneducated. I hope, however, that we see the imperialism implicit in this. To say that we are somehow immune to being influenced by our culture in a way that the poor are not is neither intellectually defensible nor morally conscionable.

But, what is morally conscionable? The relativist believes that one simply accepts the morals of one’s society – or choses them as a matter of preference. In any case, she asserts that her own morals are not rationally held. As such, I am left to wonder why so many of the moral relativists in my acquaintance are morally appalled at the religious affirmation of faith.

This is not to say that such people have no right to hate those acts they chose to hate. But it seems an odd thing to attempt to convince me (as many have) that the God I believe in is evil while admitting that this is simply a statement of opinion. Isn’t my opinion equally valid?

More than this, on what grounds does the relativist, if she is a materialist, argue that her worldview has more grounding in evidence than my own? Personally, I do not accept that there is no evidence for God’s existence, but this seems moot. The relativist admittedly has no evidence for her moral positions or sense of purpose in life. I don’t, therefore, see this as an improvement in terms of taking a more objective approach.

Rather, this seems to ‘subjectify’ nearly all statements. To say that ethics are not objective is not to support an evidenced-based view of life, but to deny that such a thing could ever exist.

While I personally maintain that a divine reality is needed for an ontological grounding of ethics, not all agree. And it seems to be in the materialist’s best interests to seek grounds on which she can believe in the objectivity of ethics. I see very little future in a view which cannot offer an intellectual, as well as personal, defense of ethics. Such views can neither commend themselves as evidence-based, nor survive the next great crisis to strike our society.