One of the main targets of religious polemicists, apologists, and intelligent design proponents is the idea of materialism. For example, the intelligent design website Uncommon Descent establishes itself in direct opposition to materialism:
Uncommon Descent holds that…UD sees mainstream science and education as beholden to materialism and committed to spreading it as a worldview. Sounds rather nefarious, but I don't believe UD. They use "ideology" pejoratively and then make the remarkable but ambiguous claim that "the actual content of these sciences has become corrupted." What they call "corrupted" seems to be nothing more than scientific conclusions and research they don't like. Yet, they are not biologists and not cosmologists themselves but rather religiously-committed engineers, philosophers, and journalists--so they don't really know (and seemingly don't care to know) about how and why the scientific method is employed in these disciplines, and within what boundaries.
Materialistic ideology has subverted the study of biological and cosmological origins so that the actual content of these sciences has become corrupted. The problem, therefore, is not merely that science is being used illegitimately to promote a materialistic worldview, but that this worldview is actively undermining scientific inquiry, leading to incorrect and unsupported conclusions about biological and cosmological origins. At the same time, intelligent design (ID) offers a promising scientific alternative to materialistic theories of biological and cosmological evolution — an alternative that is finding increasing theoretical and empirical support. Hence, ID needs to be vigorously developed as a scientific, intellectual, and cultural project.
But what's the big deal about materialism, anyway? To understand, I think Wikipedia's entry on materialism does a good job of introducing the basic line of thinking:
In philosophy the theory of materialism holds that the only thing that exists is matter; that all things are composed of material and all phenomena (including consciousness) are the result of material interactions. In other words, matter is the only substance. As a theory, materialism is a form of physicalism and belongs to the class of monist ontology. As such, it is different from ontological theories based on dualism or pluralism. For singular explanations of the phenomenal reality, materialism would be in contrast to idealism and to spiritualism.We can see why materialism might be viewed unfavorably at UD and by committed theists: if matter is the only thing that exists and all phenomena are purely the result of physical interactions, then there cannot be God, the supernatural, the soul, or free will.
I probably am a materialist but I really don't know enough about either materialism, its philosophical alternatives, or the data behind it all to have a cogent opinion. I do know, however, that anti-Atheists love to attack Atheism through materialism. Discovery Institute guy Cornelius Hunter writes today about a supposed fatal flaw in Atheistic reasoning, and he brings materialism into it. Here's the entirety of the brief post:
Atheism's (Not So) Hidden AssumptionsHunter's first move is to introduce Jerry Coyne as the arch-Atheist. He gives a link to Coyne's site but unfortunately doesn't address the content there. So, here is what Coyne was talking about:
Evolutionist Jerry Coyne thinks atheism is true. But if atheism (in addition to evolution) is true, then how could Coyne know it? For if atheism and materialism are true, then Coyne's brain is nothing more than a set of molecules in motion. Its various configurations are simply a consequence of its beginning, subsequent inputs, and some random motion here and there.
What Coyne thinks is knowledge would merely be certain molecular states, not necessarily having any correspondence with truth. How do evolutionists reconcile their atheism with their convictions of knowledge and truth? This Hobbesian predicament is particularly ironic in light of the atheist's strong theological convictions and arguments. We know atheism is true because god wouldn't have created this world. Do you see why atheism is parasitic on (and much less dangerous than) theism?
I think it shows far more respect for the faithful to engage their arguments honestly and openly than to pat them on the back and say, “There, there—even though I don’t share your beliefs I won’t risk upsetting you by questioning them.”Coyne is talking about dialogue, about Atheists and theists engaging one another in an intellectually honest way--with both sides getting to say what they want in their own way. Coyne makes the very valid point that critics spend more time complaining about how "strident" and "vitriolic" the so-called New Atheists are instead of dealing with the substance of their claims about religion.
I personally think the complaints about the New Atheists' tone are completely bogus, but I also understand a bit about why people may be taken aback by a Coyne, a Richard Dawkins, or a P.Z. Myers. When I first read The God Delusion, I thought it was mean-spirited. I wasn't persuaded by it. I eventually became convinced of Atheism by the lack of substantive evidence in favor of theism, by the quality of the questions and arguments coming from the Atheist side, and by the hard data and sound reasoning in the scholarly disciplines that made religious explanations the much poorer ones. At the end of the day, the intellectual reasons against theism and for Atheism are overwhelming.
Now, here comes Cornelius Hunter. If atheism is true, he argues, then we humans cannot know whether it's true. Knowledge is just an illusion, a state of mind and not an objective fact.
This line of thinking and its specific application by Hunter has several flaws.
(1) Hunter conflates Atheism and materialism--although perhaps he just means to say that Coyne is both an Atheist and materialist.
(2) Nevertheless, there's no necessary connection between either Atheism and materialism or Atheism and knowledge (i.e., epistemology). One can reject a god (any god) and not be a materialist. Similarly, whether one admits the possibility of deities is separate and distinct from how that person learns and knows with her/his mind. The human brain works, biologically and neurologically, regardless of any deity's state of being.
(3) It's well-known that the human mind, while duly amazing, is unreliable. We remember things wrong. Our sight is limited. We are easily tricked and taken by illusion.
(4) It's also well-known that we can and do build tools to help us assess and refine the data gathered through our minds. Our data and inferences of the universe are constantly available to independent testing.
(5) Hunter seems to ascribe Coyne with a 100 percent certainty of Atheism's truth. I don't think this is the case. Most Atheists, including me, admit the possibility that one or more gods exist, and that some or one of them could have had a role in creating our universe. But we give this possibility a very, very low probability because of the lack of evidence in favor of it; the wealth of evidence showing human societies inventing tales of gods and super-humans; and the information we have gained about the universe and its history, thanks to technologies and tools we've developed.
(6) Hunter says: "What Coyne thinks is knowledge would merely be certain molecular states, not necessarily having any correspondence with truth." OK, so what? What we think we know might be wrong. It's happened before and will happen many times more. No big deal. That's why we test.
(7) Hunter characterizes an Atheist argument as "We know atheism is true because god wouldn't have created this world." This is not a true or fair characterization because we are not concluding that Atheism is true; rather, we are asking theists about their claims. If God made us and God is super-intelligent, why then does the vertebrate eye have its receptors facing backwards? As reported in a post on Panda's Thumb, "It is not the best arrangement optically." Our eye, that post continues, is --
an outpocketing of the cortex of the brain. It retains the layered structure of the cortex, even; it's the way it is because of how it was assembled, not because its origins are rooted in optical optimality. You might argue that it's based on a developmental optimum, that this was the easiest, simplest way to turn a light-sensitive patch into a cup-shaped retina.So, we're not saying that Atheism is true. Rather, we're saying that theist claims of Godly design don't seem to match the data. We're saying that theist claims of Godly design and intent don't help us understand the way Earthly life is actually built. We're saying that we have naturalistic hypotheses that, while themselves imperfect, do a much better job of accounting for the specific data under consideration and the data beyond.
Evolution has subsequently shaped this patch of tissue for better acuity and sensitivity in certain lineages. That, as I said, is a product of compromises, not pre-planned design.
Despite these flaws, Hunter's argument has its fans. Here's "Barb" posting at Uncommon Descent:
Materialism makes reason impossible. If our mental processes are nothing but chemical reactions in the brain, then there’s no reason to believe anything is true (including the theory of materialism). Chemicals can’t evaluate between true and false; they don’t reason, they react.To answer the last point first: many of us have considered the "startling contradiction." I'd heard the argument before, and it's not nearly so impressive as anti-Atheists and anti-materialists think because there really is no contradiction. Barb's error is in thinking that our mental processes are somehow diminished by being "nothing but chemical reactions in the brain." But she's right about one thing: there's no reason to believe that anything is true that we think is.
I wonder how many atheists have considered this startling contradiction in their belief system.
That's the point! That's why we've devised our sciences, our technologies, and our tools. Materialism explains why reason is necessary. Does theism?