Monday, August 19, 2013

If Materialism Goes, What Goes With It?

8/19/2013—Thomas Nagel argues that materialism, and its variant in Darwinian thinking, cannot account, practically in principle let alone in fact, for reality: in particular, the emergence of life, or consciousness, or self-consciousness, or cognition, or value determination. The problem with life is time and the actual mechanisms. Consciousness is subjective and the link between physical processes and subjectivity, even for animals, seems insoluble. By cognition, Nagel means the mental functions of thought, reasoning and evaluation that are limited to humans, as far as we know. Here the issue is that cognition transcends the immediate world and cannot be explained by evolutionary factors. The same is true of value orientation by humans that would seem to have no survival benefits.

Leaving aside whether Nagel is right, I would like to assume for the moment that he is. What else goes when materialism goes? How much of the popular worldview of secularism is premised on materialism?

For example, I just read a great critic of religion, Professor Marci Hamilton, invoke natural law principles to defend the right to abortion. But the natural law tradition, or the version we associate with Hegel, arises out of monotheism absolutely. If rights are real, in contradiction to materialism, which posits that only matter is real, where do they come from (to put it crudely)?

Nagel says that once materialism is jettisoned as an explanation of the world, one is left with theism, which he rejects as implausible (no being separate from nature with an intention can exist given everything else we know) or some form of teleology somehow built into nature from the start. The latter is his position, but as H. Allen Orr pointed out in reviewing Nagel’s book, this would require a whole new approach to everything.

What I’m hoping is that the religious and nonreligious might meet in teleogy.


  1. Hi Bruce, I read your entry then came across this, and found it apropos, enjoy!

  2. The site to which Darren is directing us challenges the abuses to which crude teleology has subjected people. For example, there is the notion that homosexuality is unnatural, which assumes that nature is fixed by the origins of functions. The author moves from this criticism to a more general criticism of fixed normativity in general. I must admit this seems to me to do at least as much harm as good purely as a tactic. After all, the inherent rights of human beings also descend from this criticized view of nature.

  3. As a Biology major in college with an ongoing interest in life science, I have come to the unavoidable conclusion that teleology is factual. Nagel is correct that there really is no matter-based explanation for consciousness, but the overwhelming evidence for cognition in organisms involves all aspects of all life forms.

    There are trillions of movements of matter in each of trillions of living organisms every day and they are essentially 100% purposive, efficient and intelligent. To get just a few such movements to happen by luck would be mathematical insanity, even for those foolish enough to think genetics can cause such a thing by chance or standard chemistry.

    The brain forms intelligently because of natural intelligence. If it formed by random chemical chaos, then it could not in any case be coherent and functional.

    I can find no logic, math or science behind materialism or Darwinism. Teleology is the most certain fact in any branch of science.

  4. As to your primary question: "If materialism goes, what goes with it?" I would note that only about 10% of the world denies the existence of all forms of innate intelligence, so we already have a hint of what that world would be like.

    On the other hand, pushing aside materialism in the scientific community would have a significant impact. Rather than try to force-fit a philosophy (materialism) that is, at best, arbitrary, we could more freely study natural intelligence and its effects in science classes. The medical fields would benefit heavily, by understanding better the cognitive nature of our own bodies.

    Once the public is aware that scientific evidence refutes, not supports, materialism, even that 10% might decrease to miniscule numbers.

    On the religious front, I would expect a slight increase in theism, and a significant increase in agnosticism, both at the expense of atheism. Still, as you note, one can be atheist and still accept teleology, as many already do.