Sunday, March 20, 2005
Christianity Versus Atheism (Part Two)
Materialism through Equivocation
Tibor R. Machan
Within the secular philosophical community there is more division than meets the eye. Critics of Secular Humanism, mainly from theological and religious circles, tend to overlook this—they think that all those who reject the supernatural realm are therefore materialists. This way they can intimate that without embracing the supernatural, we consign ourselves to the status of bits of matter floating about aimlessly—without consciousness and, more importantly, without moral conscience—in the universe (unless we drastically redefine these notions).
But some justification exists for how Secular Humanists are treated by these critics. Quite a few secular thinkers do embrace the materialist alternative. Their false choice is that between materialism and spiritualism, where the former amounts to affirming only nature-as-pure matter as real, the latter embracing something spooky and ineffable, namely, the ghostly supernatural.
But there are other alternatives that many philosophers who have rejected supernaturalism or spiritualism affirm without hesitation. These thinkers are also naturalists, holding that there nothing besides what is part of nature exists. They do not believe that any scientific laws can be escaped in this natural realm, nor the laws of a metaphysics, limited to the basic ones, such as the Law of Identity, the Law of Non-Contradiction, the Law of the Excluded Middle, and the Law of Causality.
Yet what separates these secular thinkers from the materialists is that they agree that many types of beings can exists in the world, not just bits of matter (whatever that is supposed to be anyway). As a result, of course, they also hold that there can be different kinds of causes in reality, depending on the nature of what is involved in a causal relationship. Sure, billiard balls on a pool table and a whole lot else that’s part of reality will exhibit the Law of Causality in a mechanistic fashion. On the subatomic level, however, this same law will be exhibited in the fashion spelled out by quantum mechanics; while at the level of human consciousness the Law of Causality will be manifest as self- or agent causation or free will. And others versions may well exist, too, with scientists looking into the matter all the time.
My point here isn’t to show that these different forms of causation exist—it is, at any rate, pretty evident to most of us that they do. That’s because human beings also have the unique capacity to know of their own causal power “from inside.” They are able to experience it as it exists within them when they act (and how this differs from when they are, say, pushed about by forces over which they have no control, such as the wind or a virus). Ed Pols, in his The Acts of Our Being (1982), shows this brilliantly. The point is to make it clear that not all naturalisms are alike. Aristotle’s is different from Hobbes’s, Spinoza’s from Marx’s, and Newton’s (when he wasn’t dabbling in supernaturalism and the occult) isn’t that of Einstein’s.
In short, not all naturalists are reductive materialists. Whether they are correct is, of course, another matter. But to know that the alternatives are more varied than both some of the critics and some of the defenders of the secular stance make it appear is important. At least for PR purposes! Why?
Because common sense tells many people that they have free will and there are moral responsibilities they need to fulfill. They have a well enough grasp that they could well neglect these (which is when they may be said to be acting irresponsibly and can be blamed for this), or fulfill them in exemplary fashion (which is when they deserve praise). When secular thinkers deny this, along with denying some alleged supernatural dimension, they easily alienate ordinary folks from secularism. Few will go along at the price they think they have to pay, namely, to abandon their common sense, what essentially gets them through their lives with a good deal of success. So they remain linked to supernaturalism where they think free will and morality has to be located.
But if they are aware that embracing secular ideas does not need to mean giving up on their common sense beliefs in free will and moral responsibility, they could well give the secular option more attention. And they indeed should.
Machan is R. C. Hoiles Professor of business ethics at Chapman University, Orange, CA. He is research fellow at the Hoover Institution and advises Freedom Communications, Inc., on libertarian issues.
An original response (available nowhere else):
Materialism, Naturalism and Supernaturalism
Begin with a proposition that will be acceptable to most: that Western Civilization has given us essentially two worldviews as I call them. C.S. Lewis’s terms (in On Miracles) were naturalism and supernaturalism. The prevailing form of supernaturalism in the West has been Christianity. Clearly there are other forms of supernaturalism. Are there multiple forms of naturalism? On the face of it, most likely so. Of greater interest at the moment is a different (but related) question: are naturalism and materialism the same? Or is naturalism a broader concept, so that while all forms of materialism are forms of naturalism, not all forms of naturalism are forms of materialism? Professor Machan sees naturalism as the broader concept. Let’s work with that. There is, as he says, the naturalism of an overt materialist such as Hobbes versus (at the very least) the kind of position he defends, which integrates Aristotelian essentialistic realism into naturalism.
What, precisely, is naturalism, however (in a sense to be clearly distinguished from materialism)? We must do more than merely define it as any of a range of theses in metaphysics all of which reject the supernatural (God, etc.). Negative definitions are to be avoided most of the time.
To paraphrase Lewis, naturalism is the worldview that conceives of reality as being exhausted by nature and consisting of a single, interlocking system of causes and effects. Lewis then infers paradox from this (the impossibility of a human mind capable of conceiving such a thing as naturalism and deliberating its truth or falsity), inferring further that naturalism should be rejected as a condition of the very existence of rationality in the universe. Professor Machan would reject this chain of inferences. His metaphysical pluralism—a consequence of Aristotelian essentialism—integrates into naturalism the commonsense idea of their being many different kinds of entities (natural kinds, that is) distinguished by their different essences, and different brands of causality appropriate to them. Room is left open for agent causation or human free will that is more than mere efficient causation.
To test this thesis, let us rewind the argument back to metaphysical pluralism. Are the multiple entities it postulates material entities? (Material here means: comprised, ultimately, of matter, obeying physical law and existing in space and time.) If the answer is Yes, then in the final analysis, the distinction between materialism and naturalism fails. If the answer is No, then we must ask, What is added? (The acceptable parameters here, I would presume, rule out everything inexplicable in terms of science or reason, since otherwise we have compromised naturalism.)
We might get some mileage from the idea of the configuration of systems. After all, that matter is configured in specific ways is something we can all agree on, because we can observe it directly. It may be the key to whatever essences are supposed to be. Consider the atomic level: gold (the favorite example of analytic essentialists such as Saul Kripke) is what it is because it has 79 protons in its nucleus. This is how atoms of gold are configured; configuration makes atoms of gold what they are, and not something else. Consider now the biological level. A dog or a cat or a human being are what they are because, from the genetic level (DNA) up through their biology, they are put together in specific ways. That is, they are what they are because their biological systems are configured in specific ways.
In this case, human beings—acting persons—are configured in such a way that they can act freely and accept moral responsibility (praise, blame, etc.) for their actions. The ultimate test for naturalism—its acceptability on its own terms as well as its distinguishability from materialist—stands or falls with its ability to make sense of our unique (so far as we know) capacity for action.
For the record, I accept action as necessary, because I accept the Misesian argument that the denial of action is self-contradictory: the denial of the reality of action is itself an action (since denials of anything are actions of a specific kind, linguistic actions or as Searle called them, speech acts). Therefore action necessarily exists in all possible worlds containing entities capable of discussing the subject.
Now what, specifically, is it in the human person that acts. Is it the entire person? The brain and central nervous system? The first matches our use of ordinary language, but unfortunately isn’t helpful otherwise. To say that all of the components of a person work together in some way and that free will emerges from their interdependent interactions is to explain the mysterious with the equally mysterious. The second sounds good—until we look deeper and just see components of systems within components of systems, all of them obeying physical and chemical law (efficient causation) without ever finding that homunculus that acts (agent causation). Even Sperry was compelled to describe himself as a microdeterminist—our sense of freedom was generated in the brain. How? We don’t know. It is unclear, in this case, that naturalism really offers an account of human free will (and thus its difference from materialism begins to blur—of course there are different versions of each, but if our interest is in what they have in common rather than where they differ, among the things they will have in common is rendering unintelligible the capacity for action outside the laws of efficient causation).
Mises, of course, dodged the entire issue in Human Action with his methodological dualism. If we postulate an immaterial soul as the seat and source of agent causation, we have attempted not to dodge the issue, and surely said nothing less mysterious than the naturalist. Metaphysical pluralism is a fine thesis—and I would affirm that it is probably a true thesis as well—but it does not decide between naturalism and supernaturalism. It appears it can have supernaturalistic variants.
And even Professor Machan’s metaphysical pluralism has some features that make it an odd sort of naturalism. What, precisely, are the referents of the phrases, law of identity, principle of non-contradiction, law of causality, and so on? Obviously they are not material entities. (I leave aside the view that they are conventions, or combinations of signs, or statements of pure form without content, since I know Professor Machan rejects all these interpretations—as do I.) Do they fit into a naturalist’s conception of reality? These depends on the parameters of naturalism. Such entities—logically incontestable propositions asserting complete generality in the sense that the apply in some way to everything real—by virtue of this cannot be spatiotemporal at all! Calling them “natural” seems to me to stretch the definition of natural. Surely we don’t want the result where natural is simply synonymous with real. Naturalism then becomes true by a sort of stipulation. This would be cheating.
But surely such entities aren’t “supernatural”?!
Suggested reading: theologian and philosopher Gordon H. Clark’s intriguing essay “God and Logic.”
Also Alvin Plantinga’s recent work, especially the sections on naturalism in his book Warrant and Proper Function, the upshot of which is that the proper function of an entity cannot be satisfactorily analyzed without the concept of its having been designed to fulfill or further that function, and that this in turn cannot be harmonized with naturalism. Or the entire book Warranted Christian Belief.
A number of these problems are taken up in my forthcoming Worldviews (in the chapter entitled, "Is Materialism Self-Contradictory?"). This has been an exercise in mostly “concept-crunching”; going back to Lewis, terms like naturalism and supernaturalism name kinds of worldviews, not mere abstract metaphysical systems. Worldviews, by definition, integrate seamlessly into human life and into communities. As far as I am concerned, these are much more important questions: what kind of worldview was mostly in place and contributed to the founding and building up of our original Constitutional republic, which set about to place limits on arbitrary government power? Must this kind of worldview must be in place if a free republic is to be sustained (having this kind of worldview may not be a sufficient but will surely be a necessary condition for freedom)? Does some kind of materialistic naturalism lie at the core of our long, multigenerational civilizational decline? Has materialistic naturalism received special favors that have been unavailable to advocates of Christianity? (To answer these last two questions in part: the Rockefeller Foundation funded Kinsey sexuality studies, conducted at Indiana University in the 1940s, had as their express dual purpose the “equalizing” of all forms of sexual activity and breaking the ties between sexual activity and traditional Christian morality.)
Of course, most science today is naturalistic or materialistic. Need it be so? (Newton’s was not. Some would divorce Newton’s physics from his Christianity or his dabblings with “the occult.” This is erroneous. Newton’s philosophy forms a seamless whole; his action-at-a-distance thesis, criticized by his peers as an “occult” thesis, in fact has no immediate physicalistic explanation despite the massive success it enjoyed in terms of predictive power.)
Before answering, let us make another observation. Most “mainstream” science is either government science or foundation-funded science, and has been for some time. Might this not prejudice the results of its research? It is, I have learned, always a good idea to “follow the money trail.” If those supplying the funding, be they government or huge foundations like Rockefeller, want naturalistic explanations of phenomena, then it is likely that naturalistic explanations of phenomena they will get. Others assumptions about reality (or about some particular subject matter) will wither on the vine. (That is assuming that efforts are not made to sabotage the careers of their advocates, as was the case with William Dembski, advocate of Intelligent Design.) This, too, is common sense. Whether we like it or not, money is power in the America that presently exists. Including the power to dictate what the researcher dependent on money declares is true or established.
What would “science in a free society,” meaning by that phrase science that had to stand on its own, without the immense funding mechanisms of government and foundations, look like? The plain truth is, we don’t know. But by virtue of this, we don’t know that it would be naturalist. This, of course, does not establish the credibility of a Christian-theist science, or “prove” that God exists. But it does undermine what has been, for perhaps 150 years now, one of the chief sources of objections to such.
It has been known for some time by philosophers of science that virtually every modern scientific theory, the product of immense funding mechanisms and institutional (prestigious-university) support, is surrounded by what Lakatos once called an “ocean of anomalies.” Anomalies here refers to facts that are well-verified but for which the theory at stake has no explanation. There are anomalies within physical cosmology (for example, Halton Arp’s discovery of evidence, quasars that appear to be connected to relatively nearby galaxies, rendering the so-called big bang hypothesis very dubious). There are anomalies of history and archeology (for example, Charles Hapgood’s uncovering of maps that appear to show an Antarctica and a Greenland free of their present mantles of ice). These are just two examples of the kinds of anomalies besetting the theories well-funded and favored by “the establishment,” as opposed to those forwarded by upstart “outsiders.”
All of which, given the size and scope of the field, is for another time. But for now: before deciding the issue between what Lewis called naturalism and what he called supernaturalism—or between what I call materialism and what I call Christian theism—we should be sure that a longstanding arrangement of funding mechanisms within academia and elsewhere have not “stacked the deck” in favor of the one, while unceremoniously pushing the other out of the way perhaps with the hope that it will die of neglect: the equivalent of an organism suffocating in an atmosphere without oxygen. The upshot: there is plenty of room in our conceptual universe for forms of inquiry that are neither materialist nor naturalist—even assuming that there is a difference between these that makes a difference.
Dr. Yates teaches philosophy at the University of South Carolina Upstate and the University of South Carolina at Union. His latest book Worldviews will be published soon by the Worldviews Project.