Why Materialism is Alive and Well

Is Materialism Dead?

The denial of materialism is the in-thing at the moment, the dead horse that’s fashionable to kick. You’ll find all sorts of articles about the “Myth of Materialism”, how “Materialism is a Dead End”, and even claims that materialism is an outdated theory clung onto only by hardcore scientific atheists who want to deny the existence of anything spiritual or supernatural.

To understand whether materialism is dead, we need to understand what the term actually means. Although the term has not always existed, we can imagine that the word would’ve meant different things to different people through history. Take the Greek philosopher Empedocles, who believed that the world was made up solely of the four elements – water, earth, air, and fire. If you let Empedocles come up with a definition of materialism, he might well have said that it was: “The belief that the universe is made up of the four elements and nothing more.” Fast forward to John Dalton, and the definition would change. Dalton was one of the first proponents of the modern atomic theory, and we can guess that some of his contemporaries may have suggested that materialism was the belief that the world was made up entirely of atoms and the laws of mechanics that describe their motion.

Empedocles four elements
The four elements of Empedocles.

Throughout most of history, although the specifics of materialism have varied considerably, the core principle has remained unchanged. The primary tenet of materialism is that everything in the universe is made up of some basic forms of matter, and that all phenomena can be explained in terms of this matter’s behaviour.

The anti-materialist sentiment that has arisen in the last century seems to stem from three different beliefs:

  1. The belief that God exists, and is immaterial
  2. The belief that materialist science is incapable of providing a satisfactory explanation for mental and conscious phenomena
  3. Believing certain interpretations of 20th century developments in physics

Let’s briefly look at what kind of arguments against materialism these beliefs tend to generate.

The Religious Objection

Those who take the belief in God as the main source of their anti-materialism tend to be the most vocal group on the internet. I haven’t seen a single apologetics website which doesn’t feature an article on why materialism must be wrong! This article here at Cross-Examined is a typical example of the kind of arguments that get made.

The primary objection is that materialism cannot explain certain features of the world that are most important to someone of religious persuasion. These being things like consciousness, free-will, and the origin of life. The articles then go on to list a series of experiments which “support” their conclusion that there can be no purely physical explanation for everything. Theists select examples like the apparent “fine-tuning” of the universe, and the difficulties that proposed theories of abiogenesis have uncovered. The argument then goes that because of these “failures” of modern science these phenomena cannot be explained at all by science, and so there must exist something other than mere matter.

Wild men are to feminists what tame men are to women ...
Some theists assume that because they can’t comprehend something, science can never explain it.

But the arguments make a big unjustified jump in their reasoning. Many results in modern science have demonstrated how difficult it is to develop a successful theory of consciousness or abiogenesis, but it has never been shown that no physical explanation can ever be produced – which is what many theists go on to claim. What’s especially revealing is that no alternative solution is proposed to the problem other than to say “anything’s possible with God”. This “solution” leads to the ad-hoc situation where the vast majority of the history of life on the Earth, and biology is explicable in materialistic terms except for the actual origin of life. This begs the question: why would God choose to make everything work perfectly naturally, except for one moment of abiogenesis? It should be obvious that this reasoning is no better than “God of the Gaps”.

The Mind-Body Objection

The second class of objections is much more interesting, and a very fertile area of philosophy. A significant cohort of academics support the view that consciousness and mind are fundamental entities which can’t be explained through appeal to brain patterns or other physical mechanisms alone. Notable people who promote this view include David Chalmers, Thomas Nagel, and Bernardo Kastrup.

What is it like to be a bat? by Thomas Nagel
Nagel’s essay “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” is infamous

Being an active area of research in philosophy, the arguments for this view are much more developed and sophisticated. I could easily write a whole series of articles on the contemporary arguments in this field, but that would be a diversion from the purpose of this article. What I will say is that a key motivation for this position is that there exists an “impossible explanatory gap between material qualities and  experiential qualities.” There is a lot to be said in favour of this view, but the issue with it is similar to the problems that the religious view faces. These writers say a lot about how matter can’t explain mental properties, but much less about what alternative could provide an explanation. Until a feasible alternative is fleshed out, it is very premature to say that materialism can’t ever explain consciousness. Nevertheless, the endeavour to search for an alternative is important and potentially fruitful.

The Objection from Physics

In order to refute materialism, many writers appeal to the developments of physics in the 20th century. Various interpretations of quantum mechanics seem to deny that matter really exists at the fundamental level, and that the role of the observer in the world is undeniable evidence for the importance of consciousness. The theory seems to offer a way in for spirit and mind to supervene on the world. These arguments however rely on a very specific interpretation of quantum theory which would adequately described as “fringe”.

One specific interpretation of quantum theory is that the observer plays a fundamental role in the “collapse of the wavefunction”. On this view, the actual nature of the world itself becomes dependent on observers making them, in a way, more real than the external world. This particular interpretation of quantum theory does have a few academic supporters, but it is certainly not canon. I have written a separate article before on the various ways quantum theory can be interpreted and why the role of observers is unlikely to really be fundamental.

A common objection to materialism based off quantum theory is that the fact that fundamental particles don’t have well-defined positions or momenta, means that there isn’t really any such thing as matter. The ghostly behaviour of electrons as waves of probability are so counterintuitive compared to our innate conception of matter, that they cannot be classed as such. But this is an objection not to modern materialism, but to the old picture of materialism as atomic billiard balls bouncing around in space. If we take this as our understanding of materialism, then it is most definitely dead.

The development of quantum mechanics overthrew this view of matter in dramatic style. No longer was matter the solid entity we believed it to be. Matter was replaced with fundamental particles that had no well-defined position or velocity, and later by ghostly quantum fields that permeate all space. The development of relativity also showed us that the mass of familiar particles can be equivocated with pure energy, the solid foundations upon which we built our physics dissolved into quantum foam the closer we looked.

Even more devastating was the loss of determinism, a belief that went hand in hand with the old materialism. In a Newtonian world where everything is made up of quantifiable particles strictly obeying Newton’s laws of motion, everything is in principle predictable. Theoretically if you knew the position and momentum of every particle, you could apply Newton’s laws to work out both the past and the future of the universe at any point in time. The development of quantum mechanics showed us however that some processes are inherently probabilistic. The probabilities themselves are strictly predictable and deterministic, but the actual behaviour of the particles when measured is impossible to determine with certainty.

Fast forward to the modern day and our understanding of the innermost workings of the world are nothing like that of the old materialism. We have no such thing as solid matter constituting everything. Instead we have quantum fields in space which can create new particles and annihilate them just as easily, and systems which are fundamentally unpredictable. It’s easy to see from this why the public have gotten the impression that materialism is dead and that science is discovering that it cannot explain everything with absolute precision.

Quantum foam, the barrier between General Relativity and Quantum ...
The “Quantum Foam” is very far from our intuitive picture of matter as little billiard balls, but is there any reason it can’t serve as the mechanical framework that can explain all things?

But people infer from this death of the old materialism that the current entities of theoretical physics – whether they be strings, quantum fields, or energy – are not sufficient to describe everything in the universe. This belief does not have support. There is nothing in our current understanding of physics that demands the existence of some “immaterial” entity to explain the origin and nature of reality. History has repeated itself. The old definition of materialism has been replaced with a new one. Whether it’s appropriate to still call it materialism is up for debate, but to claim that science is verifying the existence of things that lie outside its remit is a claim without convincing evidence.


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