Materialism

n a piece posted on the Discovery Institute website, responding to bad publicity surrounding the Wedge Document , the author or authors write:

Far from attacking science (as has been claimed), we are instead challenging scientific materialism –  the simplistic philosophy or world-view that claims that all of reality can be reduced to, or derived from, matter and energy alone. We believe that this is a defense of sound science.

So there we have a one definition of “scientific” materialism: “the world-view that claims that all of reality can be reduced to, or derived from, matter and energy alone”.

Let me turn this round.  If there are aspects of reality that impinge on our world that can NOT be “reduced to, or derived from, matter and energy alone”, that would mean that the law of conservation of energy would sometimes be violated. Matter would sometimes move in a manner unexplainable in terms of the translation of one form of energy into another.

This would be scientifically very interesting.  It would also mean that such deviations should be detectable by scientific methodology.  But, I suggest, if were to observe such deviations, it would merely falsify “materialism” in a very narrow sense – and it would tell us nothing about whether or not theism is true – it would merely expand our understanding of the world in the same way that anything so many discoveries in physics have expanded it over the last few hundred years, and particularly in the last hundred.  Even if we were to find evidence for bodiless intelligences possessing pure “mind” powers, capable of creating “intention fields” to guide nucleotides into place, for instance, without any energy conversion involved, it still wouldn’t be outside science – we’d simply have to expand our understanding of the world to include beings other than ourselves (we’d have no a priori reason to assume they had our interests at heart, after all), and revise our ideas about the conservation of energy.  Perhaps there are aliens who have mastered perpetual motion!

On the other hand, if there are aspects of reality that do not impinge on our world, and “reduced to, or derived from, matter and energy alone”, then that isn’t very interesting at all, and we won’t be able to apply the methodology of science to detect it.

So is it true (putting aside the paranoia that that DI document seems anxious to accuse Barbara Forrest of accusing the DI of, and which still seems to me abundantly apparent in the original Wedge document) that science has been hampered by a refusal to consider the possibility that the law of conservation of energy is sometimes violated?

Well, no, it isn’t.  Einstein didn’t assume it, he elaborated it; Heisenberg didn’t assume it, he elaborated it.  In other words it simply isn’t a foundational assumption of science.

I would say that the foundational assumption of modern science is simply that our knowledge of the world is limited by our ability to make predictive models, and that therefore where we cannot predict (at least probabilistically) we can only conclude that “we do not know”.  This is neither a pro-theist nor an anti-theist assumption.  What it does, however, is to place limits on what we can investigate scientifically: specifically we cannot test hypotheses that do not make differential predictions.  Which is another way of formulating Popper’s falsification test.

That’s why my objection to ID has nothing to do with being a theist or a non-theist, or being a “materialist” culturally, or in any other sense.  It’s to do with the lack of a testable predictive model.  It is perfectly possible to test the hypothesis that something was designed and fabricated by an intelligent agent – even by a Divine agent – but only if we can make a predictive model.  If the putative agent is entirely postulated to be unpredictable (and frankly it would be an odd Divinity who was – we can test perfectly good hypotheses about human, or even alien, intelligent agents), then we can’t test the hypothesis.

182 thoughts on “Materialism

  1. Well, the incoherence at the heart of the materialism vs non-materialism lies in the conundrum that if the non-material part of reality reacts with the material part to change the material part, we don’t have a way of distinguishing between the two, while if it doesn’t react with the material part, there can be no evidence for its existence.

    So if we want to include Gods and Minds and Volitional Beings in our model of the world, we really have to integrate them with our understanding of matter.

    Which Thomas Nagel sort of bravely tries to do from the atheist end, and the Panentheists sort of try to do from the theist end.

  2. Nice to see you keeping close to some theists (in particular, Anglicans) too.

    Your predictivist PoS is funny, Elizabeth. I wonder if you’ll ever get around to Bhaskar.

    p.s. Polkinghorne doesn’t accept the label ‘panentheist’ like Peacocke used to. But distinctions like this shouldn’t bother you.

  3. Elizabeth: I would like to know how you are defining those words.

    I would distinguish between sensory input – what is registered by our sense organs – and the model we make of the world based on that data, which I would call perception, and which involves much more than the sense data alone.

    But I don’t know if that is what you mean by those words.

    You did very well in answering without having to know how I would define those words. Isn’t that amazing! 😉

    So you agree with William. He is saying the same thing you are.

  4. Elizabeth: Well, the incoherence at the heart of the materialism vs non-materialism lies in the conundrum that if the non-material part of reality reacts with the material part to change the material part, we don’t have a way of distinguishing between the two, while if it doesn’t react with the material part, there can be no evidence for its existence.

    I don’t think they are looking at it that way.

    The theist view seems to be that minds are immaterial. So the evident existence of minds is evidence of the immaterial.

  5. Neil Rickert: The theist view seems to be that minds are immaterial. So the evident existence of minds is evidence of the immaterial.

    So if minds are immaterial, how do they make bodies do what they want?

    In what sense is something that has an effect on matter “immaterial”?

    If it’s a force, as William says, what makes it an “immaterial” force?

  6. If it’s a field, as Alan says, what makes it a non-physical non-material field?

  7. Elizabeth: So if minds are immaterial, how do they make bodies do what they want?

    That’s the old “mind/body” problem. If asked that question, they will become very evasive.

  8. Mung:
    If it’s a field, as Alan says, what makes it a non-physical non-material field?

    You can ask Alan what Alan says if you like.

  9. Mung:
    If it’s a field, as Alan says, what makes it a non-physical non-material field?

    Well, that’s my question? Why call mind immaterial if it does what material forces do?

  10. Elizabeth,

    This would all be so much clearer if everyone would just adopt the reality vs imagination convention. Stuff we know vs stuff we don’t. In the light cone or outside.

  11. It’s not as clear-cut as you ‘imagine’ it is, Alan. That of course won’t stop you from trying to convince people that it is.

  12. Gregory:
    It’s not as clear-cut as you ‘imagine’ it is, Alan.

    🙂

    That of course won’t stop you from trying to convince people that it is.

    Well, I think it is clear-cut. Others are welcome to disagree. Maybe I can be persuaded otherwise.

  13. petrushka:
    We hold others accountable without regard to philosophy or theology.

    Right. But I think what people fear about “materialism” is that it, to quote the Wedge:

    …undermined personal responsibility by asserting that human thoughts and behaviors are dictated by our biology and environment. The results can be seen in modern approaches to criminal justice, product liability, and welfare. In the materialist scheme of things, everyone is a victim and no one can be held accountable for his or her actions.

  14. Elizabeth: Well, that’s my question? Why call mind immaterial if it does what material forces do?

    You may have noticed, but then again maybe not, that I have been very circumspect about taking the position that the human mind is immaterial. No doubt there will be those who manage to find fault for my having done so.

    So what is it exactly that makes a force material? I’d need to know that in order to answer your question, and I do not know what makes a force material. I cannot say then that minds are like forces. [I’ll leave that to William :)]

  15. OK, well, we are in agreement there, Mung.

    I don’t think it makes any sense to describe any force i.e. something that can accelerate matter, as “immaterial”.

  16. The problem Elizabeth, is that no one knows what matter [or energy] is either. Did you miss that, or do you just disagree?

  17. Lengthy but good article on Materialism.

    Hopefully interested parties can find time to read it.

    I. Introduction
    II. The Rise of a Materialistic View of Nature in Greek Thought
    III. The Materialistic Roots of Atheism in Ancient Western Thought
    IV. Matter in a Created World: the Judaeo-Christian Religious Tradition
    V. The Rediscovery of Ancient Atomism in Renaissance Materialism and the Beginning of Modern Science
    VI. Cartesian Dualism and the Materialistic View of Res Extensa
    VII. The Modern Age and the Materialistic Approach to the Natural Sciences: Materialism vs. Mechanism
    VIII. Materialistic Naturalism of the 18th Century
    IX. Dialectical Materialism as Scientific Materialism
    X. Methodological Reductionism vs. Ontological Materialism in some Contemporary Scientific Views
    XI. Matter and Information in an Evolving World: is Evolution understandable within a Materialistic Context?
    XII. Non-Materialistic Views of Matter in a Spiritual Context.

  18. In reading the OP one might be led to believe this view of materialism is somehow unique to the Discovery Institute or is otherwise aberrant.

    However:

    In his encyclical Dominum et vivificantem (1986) John Paul II defines materialism —in both its theoretical formulations and in its practical forms— as the most serious and dramatic resistance to the action of the Spirit in history and in hearts, rife with negative consequences for human beings’ real progress and their transcendent dignity. In his words: “Unfortunately, the resistance to the Holy Spirit which St. Paul emphasizes in the interior and subjective dimension as tension, struggle and rebellion taking place in the human heart, finds in every period of history and especially in the modern era its external dimension, which takes concrete form as the content of culture and civilization, as a philosophical system, an ideology, a program for action and for the shaping of human behavior. It reaches its clearest expression in materialism, both in its theoretical form: as a system of thought, and in its practical form: as a method of interpreting and evaluating facts, and likewise as a program of corresponding behavior. The system which has developed most and carried to its extreme practical consequences this form of thought, ideology and praxis, is dialectical and historical materialism, which is still recognized as the essential core of Marxism” (n. 56).

  19. “unique to the Discovery Institute”

    The Discovery Institute, and even its “Centre (for the Renewal) of Science and Culture” is not unique. It is a symptom. The USA is sick. Mung is no doctor for this sickness. Mung doesn’t even acknowledge the (revolution, baby!) sickness exists.

  20. Mung: [Mung quotes]In his encyclical Dominum et vivificantem (1986) John Paul II …

    That protector of notorious sex criminals amongst his own underlings, that murderous man in a dress who fervently wished other men to die rather than use condoms, that backwards idiot who repudiated the leaders in his own church who were working with Liberation Theology to give hope to the poor in Roman Catholic nations. Yeah, sure, he’s worth listening to on the subject of morals or lack thereof.

    Sure thing, Mung, I’m thrilled to grant you John Paul II’s support for the ID anti-materialism bullshit. You’re welcome to him. Thank you for making the point that the kind of people (ID Thought Leaders and Catholic Popes) who object to “materialism” as the source of moral decay are the exact same people who have done the most to turn our world into a living hell for everyone.

    Sure, they’re not “unique” and not “aberrant” but they’re the epitome of everything bad in the pre-modern world, still trying to drag us back into the dark ages.

    Thanks but no thanks.

  21. And after all this round and round, the only counter to “materialism” I ever see is “immaterialism of the gaps.”

  22. Nature is organized by simple universal laws of physics to which all other laws and principles can eventually be reduced.

    – E.O. Wilson

    the view that all sciences are in principle reducible to the laws of physics, which is materialism, is not identical to an attempt to reduce all sciences to physics. The former must be true unless you’re religious…

    – Jerry Coyne

  23. Mung,

    Materialism comes in both reductive and non-reductive varieties.

    I myself am a reductionist (Is biology reducible to physics?), and I think reductionism has taken a bit of a bad rap at TSZ. Consciousness is the only thing I’ve seen that seems like it might be a non-reducible phenomenon, and that is merely a possibility, not a foregone conclusion.

  24. I have trouble finding an eff to give. Physical laws are human constructs and can be modified when phenomena don’t fit. The world can be divided into those who seek regularities and those who seek befuddlement.

  25. Mung:
    The problem Elizabeth, is that no one knows what matter [or energy] is either. Did you miss that, or do you just disagree?

    No I didn’t miss it, Mung. It’s just not relevant to my question.

    I want to know how people who categorise things as “material” and “immaterial” decide what category it falls into.

    Apparently forces, like gravity, can count as material as well (if they don’t then there are no “materialists”.

    But some things, like “Intelligence” or “intention” or “mind” are alleged by some to be able to move matter, and thus be a force as well.

    How should they categorise this force, and why?

  26. Elizabeth: I want to know how people who categorise things as “material” and “immaterial” decide what category it falls into.

    Apparently forces, like gravity, can count as material as well (if they don’t then there are no “materialists”.

    I gather that this is why some people prefer the term “physicalism” to “materialism”. Fields (such as the gravitation field), space, time are normally considered physical, but it isn’t so clear as to whether they should be considered material.

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