Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Materialism and All There Is

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…

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.
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.

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 Assumptions
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?
Hunter'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:
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.

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.
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.

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.

I wonder how many atheists have considered this startling contradiction in their belief system.
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.  

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?


  1. >"What Coyne thinks is knowledge would merely be certain molecular states, not necessarily having any correspondence with truth."

    >"Chemicals can’t evaluate between true and false; they don’t reason, they react."

    This is one of the most ignorant (I was going to write "stupidest," but reconsidered) critiques of atheism/materialism I have ever heard. They may as well complain that a computer could not possibly add numbers together, because a computer is made of chips, and metal and plastic can't add. Chemicals give rise to higher-level patterns that can process information about the external world.

    These people need to read a book on information processing or how cognitive processes are instantiated in brains before trying to critique it.

    It's quite the reverse, actually--all data from cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience makes it rather difficult for anyone to believe in a non-materialistic conception of the mind.

    Anyway, for a purview of materialism, evolution and cognition, Steven Pinker has some good popular books on the topic.

  2. JG,

    Thanks for the comment!

    I'm looking at your word "ignorant" and I still don't think it's right, although it's probably better than stupid.

    Let me again give full disclosure at my lack of intellectual credentials regarding materialism before noting my observation that ant-materialist arguments draw heavily upon the personal incredulity and offense of the opponent. their arguments are often a species of "it doesn't make sense to me" rather than a clear delineation of how the dots connect (or fail to connect) from data to hypothesis.

    Take Hunter's comment using the phrase "correspondence with truth." Someone who wants to go after materialism seriously ought to spend some time considering the correspondence theory of truth--it ain't what it used to be. But Hunter merely assumes that knowledge in the mind does/should correspond to truth, which is a problematic assumption right out of the gate.

    So, I find his thinking in this case as lazy (i.e., lacking philosophical rigor) and based on appeals to popular sentiment (i.e., fear-mongering over our ability to "know"). Unfortunately, I think it's a pattern with Hunter. he's good enough to make this sciency sounding argument that also has common sense written all over it, but when you look at the logic and the evidence, you find just another hustler for jesus.

    And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why the religious side is always frustrating and disingenuous in these science, evolution, materialism, and atheism discussions. They are not fighting facts or evidence or method. They are fighting for your confidence. They are political candidates looking for your vote.

  3. I agree about the arguments from incredulity. What I had in mind--besides being annoyed at it- -is that even if he assumes a correspondence theory of truth, what he said would be wrong. He assumes information processing and knowledge take place at the level of a chemical, which is like assuming digestion is impossible because the body is made of atoms and atoms can't digest food. It's just the wrong level of analysis, and either willfully or unknowingly ignores the actual relevant discussion. Perhaps laziness and ulterior motivation are better descriptions after all.

  4. "That's the point! That's why we've devised our sciences, our technologies, and our tools. Materialism explains why reason is necessary."

    You are saying that materialism is necessary for develope science technologies and tools?

  5. Blas,

    No, I am not saying that materialism is necessary for developing science technologies and tools.

    I am saying that we have needed reason to develop our sciences, technologies, and tools. And we have needed reason because our unaided experiences of the world are often, at best, partially accurate.

  6. "I am saying that we have needed reason to develop our sciences, technologies, and tools. And we have needed reason because our unaided experiences of the world are often, at best, partially accurate."

    So I missed where you explain

    "Materialism explains why reason is necessary"

  7. Blas,

    OK. Glad it's cleared up.

  8. Anonymous2:57 PM

    I don't think the argument is really that bad, I think it's too good. Even if we have a non-physical aspect, this in no way necessitates we have a legit truth-compass.

    I am not a philosopher (I'm a working scientist), but I have always found Descartes's methodological skepticism to be beyond fascinating and an area I'd love to peruse more (although I don't expect to find ANSWERS).

    "We are a bunch of molecules" seems like just a restatement of the basic idea that we can't prove reason. There is no argument that can prove our intrinsic ability to perceive truth because we must implicitly assume our conclusion to even begin the excursion. This is true regardless of which 'isms' we ascribe too.

    I am not too familiar with the body of philosophy on the subject, but it would seem that we need a few premises about our ability to perceive reality to be accepted before we can really start to debate any area.

    The argument is correct in that materialism does not necessitate that we can perceive reality, nor does it explicitly forbid it. Whether we accept materialism or not, there is no way to know that we can know anything.

    I think "how do we know that we can know?", like "Why are we here?" or "What came before everything we know?" are all on the same plane. The observation of atheists (in general) is that "God did it" is not a good answer to these questions, it just pushes back all the questions to "Why should God make us know things", "Why did God create?", etc. All of these questions that theism gives us no answers too.

    We live our lives according to the unproven assertion that we live in a world of repeatable experiments that we can accurately depict. Why we do this is part of the ineffable. Again though, there is no reason to speak amongst each other and think about such things unless we assume the premise.

    BTW I am the Maimonides Guide II.33 guy. I like your blog. For some reason I think revealing my own name is bad policy for me when espousing atheist views. I am a scientist working in the USA. I know the scientists are mostly atheists, but I am afraid of closing doors because I seem like a pompous ass for saying that religious arguments are stupid all over the web. I dunno...


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