Forget May 21st—Materialism Already Ended Existence

Many a naturalist (all?) lives under the spell of thinking he is simply noting “facts” and throwing his objective gaze around robotically and as if he had appeared without birth, family, culture, education, or influence. Science lends itself to this unfortunate naivety, because of its striving for objectivity and distance. In and of itself, this is laudable. Taken further however, and actually believed, it is damaging and especially to science.

One’s methods, processes, algorithms, and frame-works as they are applied to objects and phenomena do not capture, freeze, or reduce those objects or phenomena. They do not generate ontology or meaning—they only describe. They are not a first philosophy; they are in fact derived and only possible because of a first philosophy and thus their efficacy in their limited but important role.

What confuses many naturalists is their belief that a process (methodology) can take the place of being, existence itself (ontology). These are two different areas, entirely, and never the twain shall meet. Methodology is always derivative. Continuing on with Darwin’s Pious Idea, Cunningham speaks to this difference:

“There are two mains types of naturalism: methodological and ontological. The former is the approach that science must take when it engages with the universe insofar as it will fail to make any progress unless it brackets the divine. The latter holds that bracketing the divine is not merely methodologically necessary but constitutive of reality as such. A certain methodological naturalism is commonsensical. It would not be very helpful when making a cup of tea if, when the kettle boiled, we became overly entranced by the mystical wonder of the emission of steam, thinking it was the communication of the spirits of our ancestors. Science must preclude this, and thus it seeks to explain phenomena in purely natural terms. This is eminently sensible…”

And here we would add that this is what makes science workable and approachable by scientists, who also happen to be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, or any other faith we might add.

“Ontological naturalism goes further. While methodological naturalism issues no philosophical or metaphysical opinion on what exists, ontological naturalism suffers no such shyness. It tells us not only that science must stick to what we take to be natural but also that the natural is all there is, indeed all there ever could be. Moreover, ontological naturalism deposes philosophy’s ancient position as the final arbiter of our understanding of existence to which even science is subjected (what is called first philosophy).”

“This is commonly known as scientism, the perspective of which Richard Lewontin captures in one pithy sentence: ‘Science is the only begetter of truth.’ Leaving aside that this proposition is extrascientific—it is a philosophical thesis and not a scientific one at all—we might be inclined to inquire why he asserts something so question begging.”

In my many conversations with atheists and agnostics, especially those with science backgrounds, this is the most common (and certainly most fundamental) error they make. They usually have no idea they are spouting philosophy and not “science.” The moment one begins to articulate, unpack, talk about, and tell us what something “means” even if it is to say that such-and-such means “nothing” or that “this, whatever “this” might be, means there is no God or spiritual aspect to the world, he has left “science” and joined philosophy. It is fine to do this, but own up to it man! Quit hiding. Quit trying to privilege your take on things as “objective science.” But the more incredible realization is that many have no idea they are doing it. They actually think they are pointing out something obvious or that there is a direct one-to-one correlation between their observations and their take on its meaning in a Meta- narrative sense as if collapsed into one. Good grief!

Cunningham continues:

“When it comes to human nature and culture, scientism and ontological naturalism would contend that we are guilty of what John Ruskin called the ‘pathetic fallacy.’ We commit this fallacy when we attribute emotions to what quite obviously cannot have ‘emotion’—as in ‘the wind cried’ or ‘the trees wept’…we are left in a world that consists solely of the physical or the material. Consequently, what we see before our eyes is merely the agitation of matter; now thus, now so. That remains the case whether such agitation is murder, rape, cancer, war, famine, love or joy, birth or death…How do we discern real difference if all events and objects—all change—seems to be wholly arbitrary? To account for real difference, surely we must appeal to something besides matter—yet any such appeal is prohibited in what amounts to a monistic philosophy (the notion that existence is composed of only one type of substance, which we call ‘matter’). As John Peterson puts it, ‘If matter is the ultimate substrate and is identified with some actual thing, then all differences within matter must come from something besides matter.’ Consequently, the materialist must admit that his description is metaphysical; it tacitly invokes something that transcends what is basic at the level of immanence, or the merely physical. The only other option is to deny all change, just as one must, it seems, deny objects themselves.”

“As Peter van Inwagen writes, ‘One of the tasks that confronts the materialist is this: they have to find a home for the referents of the terms of ordinary speech within a world that is entirely material—or else deny the existence of those referents altogether.’

One constantly sees this when a materialist will note a description as “better” or a goal as something to make us “happy.” It is almost painful. It is like watching the teacher have to remind a student over and over that he cannot use that tool now that his philosophy has banished it, when the student continually reaches for it to explain his position. When one cuts off the branch on which he was sitting, the only thing remaining is to watch him fall, which leaves the materialist in an almost constant state of free-fall. Cunningham finishes with a very sobering assessment:

“Those that celebrate scientism and ontological (restrictive) naturalism do so because they have set out to achieve the banishment of the divine, no matter what the cost. These fundamentalist atheists will bring the whole house down so as to leave no room for God. Once again, they are willing to cut off their faces to spite their noses—willing to leave us all faceless. And make prisons into cultural artifacts, and eccentric, unjustified ones at that. Moreover, and shockingly, we all become Holocaust deniers. For we find it impossible to provide a metaphysics that can notice real difference. All wounds become impossible—cancer is removed from the vocabulary and is no longer to be eradicated—for this is radicalized democracy, the very flatlining of reality. All such notions now appear only in folktales. We are, therefore, beyond good and evil, as Nietzsche foresaw. And if this is true, naturalism, rather than occupying the high ground of the enlightened, is more damaging than all the wars, diseases, famines, disasters, and crimes put together. For it is the liquidation of existence itself.”

Of course many a materialist will respond, “Oh, come now, you go too far—certainly it is not that bad.” But one can be assured that such a response is out of ignorance—it only means the materialist has never had the forethought or nerve to take his presuppositions to their logical conclusions. Materialism, I believe, is a world-view that gives some psychological comfort to its holders in its radical nature, novelty, and its “me against the world” narrative (something most grow out of—after all didn’t I just describe a teen-ager?), but it certainly isn’t a world-view anyone can live with. It’s all for show. It’s the equivalent of getting a tattoo. A materialist may believe while at the office, 9-5, but that’s the end of it. When he joins his friends, family, life partner, and social life—the life he really cares about and truly lives, as he listens to his favorite music, shares his dreams, and sips that glass of wine—he believes and behaves as if love, joy, peace, goodness, beauty, and truth were indeed real. Such is all one needs to know, to know when a world-view is bankrupt and false.

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2 Responses to Forget May 21st—Materialism Already Ended Existence

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    Let us suppose that the naturalist does realize that she is engaging in philosophy with an ontological position. What then? Is it not a “first philosophy”? And how do you defend your first philosophy in opposition? How is that better?

    You seem to confuse ontology with meaning. This seems the cardinal problem on the theist's side, especially that something with great meaning must ipso facto be ontologically real. But meaning is rather obviously a human construction. It fades increasingly as we get farther from planet Earth.

    So ontology and meaning are separate projects, only unified in our thoughts as feeling & imagining humans with a subjective feeling about our ontological and other positions. What the facts of those positions are is a separate matter, which should be logically and empirically defensible.

    “As John Peterson puts it, ‘If matter is the ultimate substrate and is identified with some actual thing, then all differences within matter must come from something besides matter.’”

    Sorry, this is gibberish. Matter comes in a profusion of elementary particles & forces. Why this is so has yet to be fully learned.

    “… because they have set out to achieve the banishment of the divine, no matter what the cost.”

    As you have focused on yourself, the ur-scientists like Newton and Darwin were looking for the divine, not seeking to banish it. Yet they found a problem.. that the divine was not evident. Now you could postulate the divine as *being* matter, or quantum fluctuations, or “everything”, or some other wan deistic concept. But how is that different from naturalism?

    “.. behaves as if love, joy, peace, goodness, beauty, and truth were indeed real.”

    How many times do we have to go through this? As you now accept evolution, you also accept an aspect that Darwin saw as absolutely central- the evolution of behavior along with all other aspects of our physical being. So behaviors like grooming for insects, choice of mates by females, social instincts and group formation.. all are fruits of the evolutionary process, as are also the basic parameters of motivation- happiness and pain.

    “In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” – On the origin of species

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  2. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “Let us suppose that the naturalist does realize that she is engaging in philosophy with an ontological position. What then? Is it not a “first philosophy”? And how do you defend your first philosophy in opposition? How is that better?”

    Of course it is a first philosophy and some own up to it and some just say something like, “I just observe the facts and evidence” as you do in part of your response.

    One way I would defend it is by noting that at least “better” actually means something within a Christian/transcendental first philosophy as opposed to it meaning nothing in materialism.

    “You seem to confuse ontology with meaning. This seems the cardinal problem on the theist's side, especially that something with great meaning must ipso facto be ontologically real. But meaning is rather obviously a human construction. It fades increasingly as we get farther from planet Earth.”

    As noted from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

    The larger discipline of ontology can thus be seen as having four parts:
    • (O1) the study of ontological commitment, i.e. what we or others are committed to,
    • (O2) the study of what there is,
    • (O3) the study of the most general features of what there is, and how the things there are relate to each other in the metaphysically most general ways,
    • (O4) the study of meta-ontology, i.e. saying what task it is that the discipline of ontology should aim to accomplish, if any, how the question it aims to answer should be understood, and with what methodology they can be answered.

    Meaning and ontology are inherent in one another. That should be obvious. The two are bound together. Meaning derives from a first philosophy and is bound up in ontology and is what creates and empowers methodologies. You say we “create” meaning but that also applies to the atheist. He is creating even if he is asserting there is no meaning (after all, it would “mean” something if there were no God or all was material!). It is more accurate to say that we recognize meaning and then articulate that meaning and unpack it so to speak. Everyone does this. You are trying to separate the two and it is impossible. Why? Well, just start writing, unpacking, explaining, and articulating your position, and it will become obvious.

    “How many times do we have to go through this? As you now accept evolution, you also accept an aspect that Darwin saw as absolutely central- the evolution of behavior along with all other aspects of our physical being.”

    I have always accepted evolution, so I don’t know what you talking about. And evolution per se has nothing to do with the arguments Cunningham is making. You should try and deal with those first.

    The real question is do you understand the difference between methodological naturalism and ontological naturalism? Or, are you simply a believer in scientism?

    You don’t seem to grasp the depth of what Cunningham and these others are pointing out. If all is only agitated matter then there is no real or true difference between objects and, indeed, no true objects to speak of, there is only motion.

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