Monday, July 19, 2010

Materialism and Radical Materialism: “Why Science Can’t Say Only Physical Matter Exists:” Part #1 in the Series "Science and Beyond Science"

I constantly have abstract arguments and logical syllogisms racing through my head – or, more appropriately, blindly knocking around my head, heedless of their all-too-often nonsensical and inconsequential nature. Recently, one of the central debates raging inside the corridors of my often-miscalculating mind has been the dispute between what I’m calling science and beyond science.

To be more specific, I have been contemplating the wonder, mystery, and limits of science. I am sure to blog about a whole bunch of these thoughts, as well as a number of tangential topics. As usual, please feel free to point out my flaws. Most of this occurred strictly within the confines of my single brain, and I have known many brains acting solely (and may I add solipsisticly) to come to wacky or misguided conclusions via flawed assumptions or undue emphasis of certain things – and my brain is most definitely not an exception to this observation.

For this first thought-process, I am stealing very exorbitantly and without compunction from an American fantasy writer, John C Wright. I recently began a trilogy of his after running across his name on a list of current Catholic writers. Besides being very entertained by his books – I’m now on the second one – I was reading some of his online blog. He writes a lot concerning free will, and how free will does not contradict or pose a problem to physics. In one of his posts, he distinguished between materialism and radical materialism. Materialism is a simple acceptance that there is physical matter, and this matter is guided by rules and laws. We can use things like physics, empirical data, and the scientific method to help understand the physical matter within our universe. However, radical materialism takes it one step further: it states that all of the universe – all of reality, in fact – is composed of matter. Wright goes through why he thinks materialism does not explain the totality of reality, etc. He ends up showing how free will fits into this narrative without rattling any findings in physics or elsewhere.

However, Wright’s early dichotomy between materialism and radical materialism got me thinking about something I was discussing recently in a medieval spirituality course I’m taking at Drew. We were discussing John Wickliffe’s (rather new for the time) idea that everything Christian must have its basis in the Scriptures. In many ways, Wickliffe is an obvious predecessor to Luther. In class, we were discussing how the idea of solo Scriptura is somewhat contradictory – or, at the very least, lacking plausibility. [I’m sure people have an answer to the argument I’m about to outline; but remember, the point here is materialism, not religion.] There is nothing within the Scriptures that says the Scriptures are the only thing that contain truth; you must posit an outside idea, belief, or revelation that argues that solo Scriptura holds water. But the problem should be obvious: you are using an outside idea or revelation to make the point that no outside ideas or revelations should be trusted, only those that find their root in Scriptures.

Let me draw the analogy. There is nothing within materialism, within the physical sciences, that allows it to posit radical materialism: to say to there is only material in the universe. It is simply not within the scope of what science or materialism can do. This is not to belittle or scorn science, but to simply point out its necessary limitations. You can’t use a method that only studies physical matter to claim that there is only physical matter. This is akin to using a specific lens that only reveals certain colors to prove that only those colors actually exist. Well, the lens is only made to see those colors, so obviously it cannot see the rest of the colors. And so with science: of course it can only find or prove that matter exists, for all science can talk about it physical matter. This is a somewhat obvious point, but it often seems to go unnoticed.

It is outside of the bounds of science to discuss non-material existence – free will, intention, real emotions, real thought, metaphysics – and so it should be an obvious logical syllogism that allows us to state, even before science does, that science does will not prove or discover any of these things. If any of these things are non-material, then science simply cannot prove them. But the irony lies in the fact that scientists and materialists repeatedly sit upon the their scientific chairs and claim that material is all that the universe is composed of. This leap is, how shall I say, non-scientific?

To return to the analogy of the lens that only recognizes certain colors – let’s say blue and green – someone may object and say, “Yes, but the scientist in this case can simply put down his lens, and see that the world exists in more colors than blue and green.” My response is, yes, it is obvious that reality extends beyond the colors of blue and green. But I think it equally obvious, even if less appealing to a scientific world like our own, that there exists more to reality than physical matter. Everyone experiences free will; everyone has experienced emotion – love, fear, regret, guilt, or loss – as something beyond its physical properties. Now, I’m not saying these “experiences” prove the existence of non-material reality; what I’m saying is that they point to, even in an empirical sort of way, something beyond materialism.

One may claim that our emotions are completely connected to or dependent on the physical matter of our brains – but even this sort of connection or dependence cannot then make the bold claim that, therefore, there is only material in this universe. If there is connection between my emotion of loss – say, when a person close to me dies – and something physical going on in my brain, then all you are proving is that the specific emotion is not purely non-material; you are not, however, proving that all of emotion is physical. This, quite simply, is outside the bounds of what science can say.

Rightfully so, an objector may ask the following questions: A) Knowing what we know of science, what actually points us in the direction of the existence of non-material reality? OK, so science can’t say “only material exists,” but what would lead us to say there is stuff beyond matter, other than long-held superstition? B) If you’re claiming that empiricism cannot truly discuss the non-material, then how is one to talk about it?

To answer B, I say, “Philosophy.” Pick up and read Aristotle. The man is not a dualist who believed in non-material Forms like Plato, but he is definitely discussing the existence of non-material reality. Answering A takes more time, and perhaps that’s what I’ll work on next: for I truly think our basic experience of the world around us points us beyond radical materialism 100 times a day; but in a scientific world, we either don’t recognize these moments, or we are afraid of claiming them as such. I plan on stepping beyond these fears very soon.

1 comment:

  1. Fun topic! Has anyone ever made a decent argument that free will is a mere illusion? I've heard or read a couple of things about consciousness developing or rising out of cohesive physical movements like a school of fish or a flock of birds (winding up with some pretty amusing Douglas Adamsish ideas of a self-aware thunderstorm beginning to question the universe). In any case, I think if this could be done, it would throw a stick in Descartes' self-referential clockwork: maybe I can be deceived that I'm an extent of course; for as I write that it's own flaws become manifest even as they remake your point that even proving material determinism to the extent of debunking "free will" would not possibly disprove free will of a certain kind (the self, the I)... indeed would not even be working with the right categories.
    But how to engage the current scientific community? It doesn't seem to be all that receptive to philosophy. For an interesting discussion, I recommend First Things column "Believe it or Not" by David B Hart, the best short essay I've read in a long time, on how the New Atheism is just a shallow fad (a favorite line: "Dawkins couldn't find his way to the end of a simple syllogism").