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5/18/2005

Why are people still materialists?

A popular blog-meme-quiz-thingy going around is the one that asks, 'What is your world view?' I took it a while ago and came out as a 'cultural creative', whatever the hell that is. Majikthise was unsurprised to see her score come out 94% materialist, and Socialist Swine, though he scored as a 'postmodernist' (Ha-ha!), describes himself as more of a materialist/physicalist.

This got me thinking. Most educated, liberal type people seem to describe themselves as materialist. I don't understand why this is so. If you haven't spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about this--and really, who in their right mind would?--you would have no reason to know this, so I'm not faulting anyone here. But physicalism has been pretty thoroughly eviscerated and is basically just a pathetic hulk of a theory at this point. As Noam Chomsky points out, there hasn't been a coherent, credible materialism since Newton.

The reasons for this are fairly involved, but I'll try to gloss them. The basic physicalist (or materialist; these are generally considered the same thing) thesis is this: the only things that exist are physical things. So, for example, your mind is not an immaterial entity; you don't have a 'soul'. All you have is yer brain, a physical thing.

But if you're going to claim that everything is physical, you're going to have to tell us what you mean by 'physical'. And this is where the physicalists get into trouble. See, they don't really know ...

Click here to continue reading this post and see why materialism is wrong.



Almost invariably, some appeal is made to the science of physics. They point to physicists and say: the physical is what those guys study. 'Quarks and the like--everything is made up of those.' The problem: physics is probably wrong. Not totally wrong, not mostly wrong, probably not fundamentally wrong. But it is, in important ways, wrong--or at least incomplete. Physicists are, of course, the first to acknowledge this (they'd be out of jobs, otherwise). To name just one area, most physicists believe there is an incompatibility between relativity and quantum mechanics. This doesn't usually come into play, but it does with, e.g., black holes. So the assumption is that there is something we're missing; there must be some deeper, more fundamental theory that undergirds both of these. Physicists hope to find this 'theory of everything' (T.O.E.) one day. So they must think it strange that philosophers are pointing to them saying, 'They've got all the answers!'.

The materialist retorts: well, that--the T.O.E.! Whatever the physicists find when they're done--That's what we mean by 'physical'!

Now your theory is completely trivial and totally empty. You're basically just saying, 'Whatever exists, exists.'

The physicalist might respond to this: be that as it may, our theory is that all that exists is that which is discoverable through the study of physics. Whatever physics studies, the world is made up of that kind of stuff.

But, for one thing, physics doesn't really have a 'kind of stuff' that it studies; that is, there's nothing inherent about physics that dictates the nature of its subject material. (Note: there's a way in which this actually isn't true, but it's a way that not only doesn't help the materialist, it dooms him. If I ever want this post to end, I can't get into it here, but let me know if you want to hear about it.) In other words, physicists are discovering the nature of reality, not dictating it.

But even more importantly: what in the world could make someone so hubristic as to assert, with absolutely no evidence, that humans, a single species on a single planet that happened to arise as an accident of evolution, have nonetheless capable of knowing the whole of reality?!? What could possibly justify the claim that the human animal is somehow capable of painting a comprehensive picture of the universe? Why should we suppose--again, with no argument or evidence--that reality in its entirety must conform to the concepts and theories of human scientists?

Please note: this is not to cast doubt on the truth of what science tells us. Saying that physics doesn't have all the answers isn't the same as saying it doesn't have any; a rejection of materialism does not entail some kind of relativism/postmodernism/pragmatism about truth.

It also doesn't entail anything religious, just to be perfectly clear. Some people seem to equate the materialist view with a 'scientific' or 'secular' outlook. It is not. In fact, it seems to me that the only possible justification for the centrality of the human being that materialism is committed to is the existence of some God who created man in his own image!

In case you aren't convinced of this, please note that the most famous anti-materialist since Descartes was none other than the anti-Christ himself, Friedrich Nietzsche. In Gay Science, Nietzsche says:

How far ... existence extends ... cannot be decided even by the most industrious and most scrupulously conscientious analysis and self-examination of the intellect; for in the course of this analysis the human intellect cannot avoid seeing itself in its own perspectives, and only in these. We cannot look around our own corner ...

But I should think that today we are at least far from the ridiculous immodesty that would be involved in decreeing from our corner that perspectives are permitted only from this corner. Rather has the world become "infinite" for us all over again, inasmuch as we cannot reject the possibility that it may include infinite interpretations.

In other words: what makes you so special? Nietzsche asks the same thing of materialists:

It is no different with the faith with which so many materialist natural scientists rest content nowadays, the faith in a world that is supposed to have its equivalent and its measure in human thought and human valuations—--a "world of truth" that can be mastered completely and forever with the aid of our square little reason. What? ... That the only justifiable interpretation of the world should be one in which you are justified because one can continue to work and do research scientifically in your sense (you really mean, mechanistically?)—--an interpretation that permits counting, calculating, weighing, seeing, and touching, and nothing more--—that is a crudity and naiveté, assuming that it is not a mental illness, an idiocy.

Would it not be rather probably that, conversely, precisely the most superficial and external aspect of existence—what is most apparent, its skin and sensualization—would be grasped first—and might even be the only thing that allowed itself to be grasped? A "scientific" interpretation of the world, as you understand it, might therefore still be one of the most stupid of all possible interpretations of the world, meaning that it would be one of the poorest in meaning. This thought is intended for the ears and consciences of our mechanists who nowadays like to pass as philosophers and insist that mechanics is the doctrine of the first and last laws on which all existence must be based as on a ground floor.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Materialism is long past its sell-by date. Nietzsche was writing in 1887. To continue to insist that all reality is such that it can be mastered by our 'square little reason' is to risk the folly of Galileo's contemporary, Francesco Sizi, who said that there couldn't be more than seven planets, because:

There are seven windows in the head, two nostrils, two ears, two eyes, and a mouth: so in the heavens there are two favorable stars, two unpropitious, two luminaries, and Mercury alone, undecided and indifferent. From which and many other phenomena of nature such as the seven metals, etc... we gather that the number of planets is necessarily seven. Besides, ...[we] have adopted the division of week into seven days, and have named them for the seven planets; now if we increase the number of planets, this whole system falls to the ground. Moreover, the satellites are invisible to the naked eye and therefore can have no influence on the earth and therefore would be useless and therefore they do not exist.

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