Materialism is now the de rigueur assumption underlying any public discussion of the sciences, especially the life sciences thanks to the neo-Darwinist domination of that field. This is despite the fact that “material monism”, as my old philosophy professor liked to call it – the belief that only matter exists and is real, is falling increasingly out of favor among the “hardest” of the “hard sciences”, like physics. This popularity has become so widespread that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the reasonably educated layman to imagine a world outside of materialism.
For many raised in oppressive religious environments, generally monotheist (more on this later), materialism appears as a great liberation from the perverse and abusive conception of the “spiritual realm” with which they were raised. The West, collectively, has been laboring under this burden for the last several hundred years, and the “modern liberation” has meant, for many, nothing more than throwing off the shroud of any kind of ideology contradictory to the simplest possible materialist reduction. Sadly, along with this “progress” to a world denuded of any spiritual or transcendent influence has come an ever increasing nihilism. This is not to say that nihilism is a phenomenon limited to materialism. Nihilism, as a genuine crisis facing the West, is not dependent on materialism as we know it, but rather it is the reverse. Modern materialism merely sets the stage for nihilism, of which it is but one emergent phenomenon.
It should first be noted that concern with the desire to possess “things”, while colloquially referred to as “materialism”, is not what is meant by the term in this essay, nor the belief in an objective reality of some-sort, more or less correctly perceived by our physical senses. Neither vitalism, nor substance dualism (to name but two alternatives to materialism) deny the existence of physical objects. Rather materialism, strictly speaking, is the belief that all phenomenon may be ultimately reduced to the interactions of a spatially extended, highly differentiated, substance, which is itself un-perceiving and exists independent of any observer. All higher order functions, such as life itself or mental activity, are explained as merely complex “epiphenomenon” of material interactions.
Generally the arguments in favor of materialism fall into three categories. First, the argument for technical efficacy. Second, the argument for philosophical sufficiency. Third, the argument for experimental validity. I will attempt, as much as is possible in this short essay, to address each of these in turn. While an in-depth deconstruction and the subsequent construction of an alternative baseline conception of the universe lies outside the scope of this blog, I hope to be able to point the reader in the direction of the “cracks in the armor” of the modern materialist world view. It will be up to you to apply “hammer and tongs” to the gap indicated.
The argument for technical efficiency rests on the assumption that all modern technical production depends on a materialist ontology; either directly, in the sense of it being impossible to conceive of or construct a highly complex object – such as a cellular phone and its attendant network, or perform a highly delicate task, such a brain surgery, without assuming a materialist philosophical starting point; or indirectly, in the sense of materialism being a required historical pre-requisite for the highly specialized technical knowledge which makes the modern world possible. The first version of this assumption is easy enough to dismiss. It is simply untrue as a brute fact. Many highly skilled technical workers, and scientific professionals, have beliefs that lie outside the scope of material monism, and this group includes some of the most prestigious scientists in the history of Western culture. Much is often made of the fact that modern scientists are, as a group, less “religious” than the general public (as the term is commonly understood, meaning belief in the Abrahamic monotheistic god). It is, however, not necessary for all scientists to reject material monism, only for some to reject it and still be able to produce as scientists in order to disprove this version of the argument for technical efficiency.
The implied version is slightly more sophisticated. It recognizes that scientists are not always material monists, either in the modern world or historically, but argues for an “evolutionary” progression of thought which exists as a “substratum” to technical progress. The fact that almost every single pivotal scientific discovery or theory has been made previous to the modern age, and that the majority of scientists – like the majority of people – in ages past were not materialists, does not generally dissuade adherents of this view . In order for thought to be “evolutionary”, in this sense of progressing independent of any individual human mind, ideas themselves must be imbued with “intentionality” and purposeful behavior. This is the concept of the “meme”, or “mental gene” invented by neo-Darwinian Richard Dawkins. It rests upon the assumption that genes have intentionality – itself an unproven and problematic hypothesis, and that ideas likewise posses similar properties. How, exactly, a non-physical, non-material epiphenomenon could self-direct is entirely unexplained. This is because rather than being a legitimate theory derived from observation, hypothesis and the accumulation of supporting evidence (as materialists tell us is the only legitimate way of knowing) this “theory” is an attempt to get around or dodge the limitations of materialism by appealing to metaphorical description, in the hope that the metaphor itself will not be analyzed by the person hearing it. Upon analysis, without an implied appeal to some kind of transcendent reality beyond purely random material interactions the theory falls apart. This argument rests on many a-priori assumptions which are not, themselves, arrived at scientifically. This hypocrisy is itself enough to cast serious doubts on this claim.
The second argument in favor of materialism is philosophical sufficiency. This is the claim that not only does materialism adequately explain existence, it does so in the simplest, most comprehensible way, with the fewest number of entities. The first major problem here is the experience of consciousness itself, which in no way resembles the “robot like” function that materialist reduction would suggest. While we can interfere with the physical structure of the brain and produce effects, we are no where near a complete understanding of consciousness. Many modern neuro-scientists, like Dr. Mario Beauregard, are beginning to doubt the materialist explanation for consciousness. If consciousness itself cannot be explained by materialism it fails as a philosophically sufficient ideology, although it may still be adopted provisionally for certain purely technical and mechanical applications. The second major problem is the question of just what matter actually consist of in-and-of itself. The originator of materialism, Democritus, conceived of the “atom” as the smallest possible unit of reality. The atom has since been broken open and even the various sub-atomic particles are now in the process of being dissected and examined. What lies beneath the sub-atomic level is an open question at present but the most popular theory is “super-string” theory, which at this point is entirely a mathematical abstraction and requires the existence of several unknown “dimensions” not presently knowable by any human mind. So much for the fewest number of entities. The Bishop Berkeley first laid out the problem of matter’s ultimate nature in his “Three Essays”. While the reader might not find his solution convincing, it is certainly much simpler than string theory, and his laying out of the problems inherent in the materialist reduction are, in this author’s humble opinion, difficult to refute. Regardless of whether or not materialism is valid it must be admitted that it is certainly not, at the present time, philosophically sufficient by itself. There are simply too many open questions. One could certainly hold the opinion that one day these fundamental questions will be answered by materialism, but what is this confidence based on except faith and a hope or belief held to without evidence?
Finally we come to the question of experimental validity. This argument is somewhat unusual in that it is based on a supposed lack of evidence. It claims that, regardless of one’s personal beliefs, or the demands of philosophical consistency, there is no evidence in favor of the validity of any other interpretation of reality. Generally speaking those making this argument have not gone out of their way to examine experimental evidence which argues against materialism. A recounting of this evidence lies outside the scope of this blog, but interested parties should read the work of Mr. Rupert Sheldrake, especially his recent “Science Set Free”, which investigates ten materialist claims from a scientific, experimental, evidence based perspective. Whether or not one accepts Mr. Sheldrakes conclusions, or even likes him as a person, one must admit that the claim of “no evidence” is shocking. Counter-indicative evidence is a regular feature of scientific research. What that evidence signifies is a matter of interpretation, and here we come to the primary problem with materialism, which is that it is not primarily a matter of the natural sciences but of philosophy. Most of the natural sciences function perfectly well without appeal to the ultimate questions of existence, and this is doubly so for the knowledge workers which we depend on to make modern life possible. Doctors don’t work on an atomic level, but on the level of living systems. Computer programmers don’t directly affect quarks but rather the logical and aesthetic arrangement of information. The fossil record exists whether or not it is purely a construct of minds, or living spirits, or material substances.
The fundamental problem here is that we, as human beings, hunger for an understanding of our condition. At one time this answer was provided by religion. Earlier I mentioned that many modern materialists are particularly concerned with the abuses of religion, and by religion commonly mean monotheism. The dominant religion in the West for the last thousand odd years has been Christianity, which makes exclusive truth claims. The Catholic Church was, at one time, particularly concerned with establishing itself as sole authority over Christianity, and was very concerned with conceptions of the world which questioned the omnipotence and perfection of God. This lead to the church lending its support to early pioneers of science which conceived of the universe as a giant mechanism which logically and rationally proceeded from the omnipotent will of the deity. Many competing conceptions were left aside, not because they failed to reflect the observable facts of the universe, but because they argued for a living universe full of entities which were self-directed, or for multiple independent centers of value and meaning. In time confidence in the Church eroded, and now confidence in Christianity has gone the same route. While this, of itself, is not to be mourned material monism has been put forward as the best possible replacement for the Christian metaphysic. Structurally, however, it has done little more than decapitate the Christian ideology, and remove God, but keep the vast organized mechanism of the universe intact. It remains nothing more than a “holding position”, designed to keep Western culture rolling along for a few more decades. In this light it is probably worth noting that the rate of scientific innovation has slowed drastically. Almost all modern “discoveries” are a kind of “tinkering at the margins” and the cost of further innovation has increased. It seems that we are reaching the point of diminishing returns. It seems obvious to this writer that we need a new paradigm. What that shall be remains to be seen, but we cannot pursue a new paradigm without admitting that the old one no longer servers our needs.
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law
Your essay suffers from a problem that I see in most commentaries on materialism: you insist on presenting materialism as a belief or a positive claim.
Now, I’m aware that the term is often defined that way and is used that way by many philosophers, but in practice, I’ve never actually met a materialist who holds, as a point of dogma, that the material universe is all there is. Every single materialist I’ve ever known – myself included – simply lacks belief in worlds other than the material one.
I mean, obviously the physical world exists. We all accept this. What’s up for debate is whether there are *other* worlds (so-called “spiritual” worlds). Materialists (according to the way I use the term) are those who don’t currently accept that there are other worlds, for the reason that there is insufficient evidence to think that other worlds exist.
I disagree with many other parts of your essay, but I’ll leave it there for now.
Love is the law, love under will.
“Now, I’m aware that the term is often defined that way and is used that way by many philosophers, but…”
Yes, and there’s a reason for this.
“…in practice, I’ve never actually met a materialist who holds, as a point of dogma, that the material universe is all there is.”
This is because most modern materialists don’t really understand the genealogy of their own belief system. They think that what they’re presenting is some sort of eminently reasonable, non-judgmental, form of scientific “open mindedness” when in reality this is just a form of epistemological posturing and, quite frequently, self-delusion.
Materialism qua materialism is not merely the stance that physical objects exist. Even pure Idealism acknowledges the existence of sense objects. Materialism as such is the belief that ALL existence can be adequately explained by the interactions of blind matter – a plastic, non-perceiving, spatially extended substance. This is, historically speaking, a radical minority position.
Even many nominal materialists are really panpsychists, holding that so called “inert” matter is actually aware on some level and possessing of a transcendent spirit.
This view was rather popular at one time. Two of its proponents were Ernst Hackel and Alfred North Whitehead, both of whom were strong influences on Crowley. It is really from this perspective, which is quite foreign to materialism as most of us know it today, that Crowley’s more reductionist remarks can be best understood. Bishop Berkeley’s “Three Dialogues” is, after all, on the Crowley reading list for a reason.
You write: “Materialism as such is the belief that ALL existence can be adequately explained by the interactions of blind matter”
As I said, I have never met anyone who adopts this position as some point of doctrine or dogma, but I know plenty of people who would describe themselves as materialists and who simply think that beliefs in worlds other than the physical are insufficiently supported by evidence.
That’s what materialism is, as the term is actually used by many real people who hold the position. You can quote a bunch of sources till you’re blue in the face and insist that that’s not “materialism as such,” but you’re just having an argument with yourself, not addressing the substance of the issue.
As I said, everyone agrees that there’s a physical world. The debate is over whether there are other (“spiritual”) worlds. Some people think that there are, and those people have the burden of proof in these kinds of discussions. Those of us who doubt these claims – that is, those of us who are materialists – don’t think these claims have met their burden of proof.
You don’t get to pretend that the positions are on equal footing. They’re not.
“I know plenty of people who…”
Maybe the people you know aren’t very smart.
“That’s what materialism is, as the term is actually used by many real people who hold the position.”
You sure about that?
1. Philosophy The theory that physical matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, mind, and will, can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena.
philosophy : the belief that only material things exist
Full Definition of MATERIALISM
a : a theory that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality and that all being and processes and phenomena can be explained as manifestations or results of matter
Philosophy: the doctrine that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications.
the doctrine that consciousness and will are wholly due to material agency. See also dialectical materialism.
(source: Oxford English)
“Maybe the people you know aren’t very smart.”
Or maybe the “official” definition of materialism isn’t very useful because it doesn’t reflect how lots of actual materialists use the word.
Dictionaries don’t create meaning – they record usage. As usage evolves or becomes refined, dictionary definitions can become less useful and, in some cases, actually obscure discussion. Some dictionaries, for example, still give “immorality” as one of the definitions of “atheism.”
But regardless of the words we use, the substance of the issue – I hope you’d agree – is that pretty much everyone accepts that the physical world exists and that *some* people claim that there are *other* worlds in addition to the physical. It’s those claims about other worlds that are the contentious part, and those claims are the ones that need to be demonstrated before they can be accepted.
As I was explaining above, I’ve often noticed a disheartening tendency of the religious to hide behind dictionary definitions in order to pretend that everybody has an equal burden of proof in these kinds of discussions (when that is in fact not the case).
Given your post, I thought you might be willing to have a serious discussion about the substance of the issue, rather than about labels.
“Or maybe the “official” definition of materialism isn’t very useful because..”
The bottom line here is that my definition of materialism conforms with common usage according to not one, but three independent sources. You can stamp your foot all you like and insist that your usage is really the correct one, but you should go argue with the dictionary people, not with me.
“But regardless of the words we use, the substance of the issue – I hope you’d agree – is that pretty much everyone accepts that the physical world exists and that *some* people claim that there are *other* worlds…”
I don’t think you’re really following along here. This is a very popular science / high school understanding of a complex metaphysical question. When you say “everyone accepts that the physical world exists” what do you mean by “physical”? If you mean an external world more or less accurately represented by our senses, than sure that exists, what of it? That isn’t “materialism” and is equally admitted by strict idealism. This comes back to my earlier point: words mean things.
You keep refering to the “religious” point of view, and this makes me think that you don’t really understand that there are robust metaphysical points of view outside the continuum between Richard Dawkins and Jerry Falwell, which are really much closer to each other than either is to say Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, or Heraclitus.
“I thought you might be willing to have a serious discussion about the substance of the issue, rather than about labels. ”
In order to have a substantive discussion, we have to first agree on terms. If you want to call your version of materialism “soft-materialism”, and the standard definition “hard-materialism”, and construct an argument based on that distinction I’m willing to entertain it, but that burden is on you.
You write: “When you say ‘everyone accepts that the physical world exists’ what do you mean by ‘physical’? If you mean an external world more or less accurately represented by our senses, than sure that exists, what of it?”
Yes, that’s what I mean, and the “what of it” is that that’s the thing everyone agrees on. Where the agreement stops is that some people claim that additional worlds exist, whether those additional worlds might be Plato’s world of ideas, the Christian notion of heaven and hell, the Buddhist hells, the Classical Greek underworld, the “astral plane,” etc.
Claims about those additional worlds are the ones that need to be substantiated, and without such substantiation, people are more than justified in saying, “I don’t accept the existence of any of those other worlds – I’ll stick with just accepting the external world that we all agree exists.”
And the people who say that don’t have a burden of proof because they’re not making any positive claims: they’re simply not accepting claims that others advance.
I don’t think you really understand the significance of this discussion. So far you’re just stinking up my page with your “enlightened wisdom”, so I’m going to give you one last chance to say something interesting. Pick one of the following questions and say something that couldn’t come out of the mouth of a 15 year old who just discovered atheism.
What is the nature of that external universe and what is it fundamentally made out of?
Where do minds come from? Are they an epiphenomenon of matter, or do they have some kind of independent existence? If the former, how did that happen?
Why do you believe the explanation you hold to – whatever it is, is the correct one? How can man claim to know anything with any degree of certainty?