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Materialism

One assumption underlying modern atheism is the philosophical system called materialism. Essential to the atheist’s world view, this belief forms his basic attitude toward man and his place in the universe.

The word “materialism” is used in various ways. Its most popular usage refers to people guilty of greed and avarice, a “materialist” being someone whose life revolves around his material possessions.

The other major definition of “materialism” is used in a philosophical and technical sense, referring to those who reduce or limit reality to material objects. Their creed is, “Everything that is, is material.” By this they mean that anything not of a material nature does not exist, and is only a figment of man’s imagination. Thus God, by definition, does not exist. Man himself is only a material machine with no soul or spiritual essence. Everything that is man is material. In this chapter we will use the word “materialism” in this second sense.

 

Materialism and Empiricism
As a philosophic world view, materialism assumes the validity of the theory of empiricism. Thus materialism is a view of being which depends on a certain view of knowing. Empiricism states that knowledge must be restricted to those objects which can be perceived by our senses. Thus we cannot “know” nonmaterial objects. Materialists go one step further and state that since we cannot know nonmaterial things, we must conclude that these things do not exist. It is therefore a waste of time, because meaning is restricted to what we can know, which is reduced to material objects which can be perceived by the five senses.

The relationship between materialism and empiricism, however, is not a logical one in which one is validly deduced from the other. The materialists’ argument, “Since we cannot know anything about nonmaterial objects, therefore they do not exist,” is invalid. One may validly deduce from the principle of empiricism only that nonmaterial things are unknowable. To say that nonmaterial things do not exist is to know too much. Rather, materialism and empiricism are related on a presuppositional level where both are faith assumptions. And they are also related historically in that the popularity of empiricism paved the way for the acceptance of materialism.

 

A Brief History1
The philosophic world view of materialism first appeared in the writings of Democritus (460-360 b.c.), who was called “the Father of Materialism.”2 He stated as his creed, “Everything that is, is made of atoms.” As the first true materialist, he denied that the atoms were acted upon by forces such as “mind,” “love,” and “hate.” While Empedocles and Anaxagoras believed in nonmaterial forces, Democritus believed that atoms moved because of their own innate powers. He thus denied the existence of any nonmaterial forces.
Materialism did not reappear until the seventeenth-century Renaissance when the Greek classics were rediscovered and began to influence such writers as Gassendi (1592-1655) and Hobbs (1589-1679). Hobbs, the more consistent of the two, denied the existence of all nonmaterial things, including God, souls and angels.

In the eighteenth century, Julien de Le Mittrie (1709-1751) crystalized the concept of man as machine, while the anti-Christian materialist d’Holback (1723-1789), desiring to escape the theistic implication of creation ex nihilo, strove to establish the eternity of matter. For the first time, materialism was beginning to experience popularity.
During the nineteenth century, materialists such as Ludwig Buchner (1824-1899) taught that there is no force without matter and no matter without force. The evolutionist T. H. Huxley (1825-1895) did much to popularize a materialistic view of the origin of life that involved spontaneous generation, i.e., life out of nonlife.

When the twentieth century dawned, the philosophy of materialism began to exercise an iron grip on state universities and colleges. Writers such as Gilbert Ryle attempted to refute the idea that there is a “ghost,” i.e., a soul or mind, in the machine called man.3 Finally, in the 1970s-1980s, the grip of materialism began to weaken under the assault of modern brain research, parapsychological experiments and quantum mechanics.

As a philosophy, or world and life view, materialism must satisfy the same demands of reason and experience demanded of any other philosophy. No amount of special pleading can exempt materialism from a rigid philosophical analysis. Using the kind of questions (which I developed in an earlier book) which should be applied to all systems of thought, we will apply some of these questions to the philosophy of materialism.4 This analysis will have three divisions. First, we will analyze the internal integrity of the theory of materialism, thus, we will examine the theory itself. Second, we will analyze the theory as it relates to the world around us. Third, we will analyze the theory as it relates to its understanding of man.

 

The Internal Integrity of Materialism
Materialists have not solved all the inherent self-refuting elements and logical fallacies found in their system. When confronted by the lack of internal integrity in their system, most modern materialists reply that materialism is not really a system but only the best guess available. They have become “shy” about their materialism. This is in stark contrast to the bold dogmatics of the materialists who went before them. This modern insecurity has risen from their growing awareness of inherent problems in the theory. I will detail five of these problems.

1. Materialists fail to recognize that their system is based on metaphysical assumptions.

Every system has its “first principles,” or foundational presuppositions upon which it is based, and materialism is no exception. Yet, because these presuppositions are not material in nature or demonstration, materialists become very nervous when confronted by them. The following is a list of faith assumptions or presuppositions of materialism:

a. Materialism assumes the doctrine of human autonomy. Human autonomy is the theory that man, starting from himself and by himself, can understand man and the world around him without any supernatural revelation or information. “Man is the measure of all things,” and man can build a unified system of knowledge by which everything can be explained. The tragic history of philosophy, in which each system refutes the ones going before it, should have taught materialists the invalidity of the theory of human autonomy. Human autonomy always ends in skepticism, i.e., reason cannot come to any conclusions at all.

b. Materialism assumes the theory of empiricism is true. Its adherents fail to see that empiricism is self-refuting. The theory that all knowledge is limited to what can be empirically known is itself incapable of being known or demonstrated on empirical grounds.

c. Materialists assume we are living in a closed universe in which everything, in principle, is explainable in material categories. When confronted by evidence for nonmaterial realities, they end up arguing in a circle by asserting such things do not exist because they do not exist. The concept of a closed universe leads to a closed system and a closed mind which argues, “Don’t confuse me with the facts; my mind is already made up.”

d. Materialists assume the doctrine of ontological thinking, i.e., reality must conform to what they think it to be. Anything which is unthinkable to them cannot exist. They thus reduce or limit reality to what their finite minds can grasp. Since they philosophically reduce reality to material objects, they assume that nonmaterial objects-”unthinkable” in material terms-cannot exist.

Uncovering the metaphysical assumptions of materialism reveals its religious commitment to a mechanistic, closed universe. The presuppositions are groundless because they are not rooted in human experience. They are leaps of faith. While they reject metaphysics, materialists cannot escape building their system upon it.

2. As theory, materialism is self-refuting.5

C. S. Lewis, in Miracles, reveals the self-refuting character of the main premise of materialism:

… no account of the universe can be true unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be a real insight. A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid would be utterly out of court. For that theory would itself have been reached by thinking, and if thinking is not valid, that theory would, of course, be itself demolished. It would have proved that no argument was sound- a proof that there are no such things as proofs-which is nonsense.

… no thought is valid if it can be fully explained as the results of irrational causes.6
But Naturalism, as commonly held, is precisely a theory of this sort. The mind, like every other particular thing or event, is supposed to be simply the product of the Total System. It is supposed to be that and nothing more, to have no power whatever of going on to its own accord. And the Total System is not supposed to be rational. All thoughts whatever are therefore the results of irrational causes, and nothing more than that.

… The Naturalist will have to admit that thoughts produced by lunacy or alcohol or by the mere wish to disbelieve in Naturalism are just as valid as his own thoughts. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The Naturalist cannot condemn other people’s thoughts because they have irrational causes and continue to believe his own which have (if Naturalism is true) equally irrational causes.

Thus the Freudian proves that all thoughts are merely due to complexes-except the thoughts which constitute this proof itself. The Marxist proves that all thoughts result from class conditioning-except the thought he is thinking while he says this.7

If all thoughts have irrational causes, then that thought itself has an irrational cause. So why should we believe it? If all thoughts are irrational chemical secretions or electrical charges, then why should the thought of materialism be viewed as rational and reasonable?8 As Lewis eloquently points out, the materialists want to refute Christian thoughts by tracing them supposedly to irrational causes such as chemical determinism, behavioral conditioning or class consciousness. But they exempt themselves. This they cannot logically or rationally do.

3. Materialism is not coherent.

The theory states that reality is made solely of matter or objects which have material properties. The whole theory turns on the word “matter” or “material.” Yet, this is exactly where materialism’s incoherence reveals itself. No one seems to know what “matter” or “material properties,” means. They cannot define matter.9

Modern physicists long ago abandoned the artificial Newtonian models of atoms and molecules. Modern physics has led us to a crisis in which no one seems to know what matter is. As a theory, materialism was coherent in the nineteenth-century context of a belief in “celestial ether,” but it is incoherent in the context of modern physics.

4. Materialism uses circular reasoning.10

When confronted by evidence of nonmaterial realities, a materialist probably will “refute” such evidence by merely redefining it in materialistic terminology. Just because he redefines something, however, does not mean he has refuted it. Yet, this is the common practice of materialists. For example, when a materialist was confronted by the sober testimony of a credible witness who had experienced an angelic visitation, the materialist failed to recognize that giving an alternate explanation is not the same as proving that alternate explanation.

5. Materialism cannot validly speak of the world or the universe as a totality.

If human knowledge is limited to what the senses can perceive, who has ever been able to see all of reality in one-sense perception? Who can step outside of the cosmos to look at it objectively? And would not the person who “steps out” be part of this reality? How can the materialists talk about “ultimate reality” without contradicting their own position? Have they ever seen it?

Materialism holds, inherent within itself, the seeds of its own destruction. James Balfour stated it beautifully in 1895 when he said:

What sort of a system is that which makes haste to discredit credit its own premises? In what entanglements of contradictions do we not find ourselves involved by the attempt to rest science upon observations which science itself asserts to be erroneous?11

 

Materialism and the World
Materialism attempts to give a plausible explanation of the origin and nature of the universe. Popular TV series such as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Kenneth Clark’s Civilization, and David Attenborough’s Life on Earth each exemplify a dogmatically materialistic world view. Virtually every college and high school textbook presents the theory of materialism as a fact and ignores any other viewpoint. The writers assume their world view is the only plausible one and that it alone should be presented in secular education. As a system, it seems to generate arrogant, pretentious attitudes among its adherents, preventing them from being open to contrary evidence.

While the materialists assume that they have developed a completely satisfying explanation of the universe, five major defects in their world view render it highly questionable.
1. Materialism is simplistic.12

To sweep away all the complexities of this world and put forth the maxim, “Whatever is, is matter,” demonstrates the grossest simplicity. The universe is far too complex and varied to be the dull world of matter which the materialists claim it to be.

2. Materialism is guilty of reductionism.13

The method or process of reductionism selects one element of reality as absolute and reduces the rest of reality to that one category. Anything not reducible is relegated to nonexistence. This process reduces man to the status of a stone, for everything has the same material, there being no qualitative distinctions between objects.

While idealists such as Berkeley reduce reality to “mind” and deny the existence of “matter,” the materialists reduce reality to “matter” and deny the existence of “mind”! Both, of course, assume reality must be of only one being, thus conforming to the metaphysical theory of monism. They are both guilty of reductionism. But on what grounds do they assume reality must be of only one kind of being? Why cannot reality be of both matter and mind? Why do they demand that we must choose one over the other?

3. Materialism is inadequate to explain the origin of the universe.14

First, if (as the materialists claim) all knowledge is restricted to what our senses can perceive, then no one can logically discuss the origin of the universe or life because no person alive was there to perceive it. When they talk about origins, materialists have entered the realm of religion and metaphysics. Second, the materialists have yet to adequately explain why anyone should accept the astounding premises they present to account for the origin of the universe and life.

They would have us accept:
a.   Everything ultimately came from nothing.
b.   Order came from chaos.
c.   Harmony came from discord.
d.   Life came from nonlife.
e.   Reason came from irrationality.
f.    Personality came from nonpersonality.
g.   Morality came from amorality.

Believing the above claims of the materialist takes far greater faith than believing that a personal, infinite, rational God created this universe!

4. Materialism does not correspond to reality.15

The world appears to be more than matter, so materialism simply denies what it cannot explain. Simple denials carry very little weight with the thinking person. If all is matter, then where did the idea of “mind” come from? If all is matter, then why and how do we account for mental/emotional phenomena such as intention and memory? Why are the materialists kept busy trying to explain away the experiences of people who have had contact with the supernormal or supernatural?

5. The findings of modern physicists, particularly in the field of quantum mechanics and Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy, have raised serious doubts about the scientific validity of materialism’s understanding of the nature of reality.16

Many young physicists lean toward Eastern idealism, which assumes reality to be “mind,” and denies the existence of “matter”! There is a growing fascination with Taoism or Buddhism as a religious framework for modern physics.17 Why? The sterile character of Western materialism has driven people into the seductive arms of Eastern mysticism. The pendulum has begun to swing from the extreme of materialism to the extreme of idealism.
Dr. Bernard Ramm foretold this shift toward idealism in modern physics in 1953. His prophetic words are worth considering:

Both Nevius and Hocking believe that the current shift in physics from the older Newtonian physics to the new relativity and atomic physics is seriously damaging to the naturalistic program…. If the contentions of such men as H. Weyl, A. Compton, J. Jeans, W. Carr, A. Eddington, and F. Northrop are correct, then it is conceivable that fifty years of science will see an abandonment of the naturalistic program by the scientists…. The slight breeze in the direction of idealism may turn to prevailing winds.18

People familiar with modern physics know there is a growing movement toward idealism which is fearless and aggressive. Materialism is vulnerable, because as an attempt to explain the world, it is beset by a simplistic and reductionistic methodology which renders it philosophically unacceptable.

 

Materialism and Man
We now come to the most difficult part of the theory of materialism. Its adherents believe man is only an electrochemical machine, that everything man is and does can be explained solely in terms of the movement of particles of matter. Man does not have a mind, self, or soul which is different or distinct from his body, particularly his brain. Qualitatively speaking, man is no different than bricks or bats. He has nothing more, and is no greater, than any other material object.

Is this view of man true? Does it satisfy the demands of reason and human experience? What are the implications for society if it is true?

1. Materialism is once again guilty of reductionism.

Mark Cosgrove explains:

Reductionism is a way of viewing man that reduces him to an explanation of his parts, i.e., man equals a collection of individual brain and body processes. But reductionism is unable to answer why the whole man seems to be more than the sum of his physical parts.19

If the materialistic theory is true, a man and a rock are exactly the same. Neither man nor rock possesses “mind” or “soul”; both are simply a collection of atoms. If this is so, then materialists should easily explain why rocks do not think, feel and make decisions, yet man does these things. Or, since materialism views man as being qualitatively equal to animals, its adherents also should easily explain why animals do not experience self-awareness, religious worship, aesthetic feelings, and moral emotions. The materialists have yet to explain why and how man does what rocks or animals cannot do.

We must conclude that man cannot artificially be reduced to a random collection of atoms and be placed in the same category as rocks or dogs, though the materialists reduce man to that category simply by denying all those things which distinguish man from the rest of the creation. This is clearly understood by materialist scholars, such as B. F. Skinner, who stated in Beyond Freedom and Dignity, “To man Qua man we readily say good riddance” (p. 200).

2. Materialism cannot adequately explain man.

A philosophy must adequately explain reality as it is perceived by man. Materialism, however, does not correspond to what man is or does.

a. Materialism has never successfully refuted Descartes’ argument for the existence of “self.” 

To doubt or deny the existence of “self” really proves its existence, because the activity of doubt demands the existence of the doubter. Materialists are like the man who searched his house and, finding no one, declared, “No one is at home.” Or again, they are like the child who, when asked, “Is anyone home?” replied, “No one is here.” Man’s self-awareness is intuitive and necessary to thought itself. To deny it is to prove it.

b. Materialism has never developed a plausible theory for the origin or survival of man’s morality, aesthetic appreciation, religious drive, rationality, personality, pride, sense of responsibility, and self-awareness. In his classic, The Foundations of Belief, Arthur James Balfour argues that, given the materialists’ evolutionary premise of the survival of the fittest, man’s ethics, aesthetics, and reason should have been bred out of humanity long ago.20 

The materialists have never explained why or how man enjoys good music or a beautiful sunset. Neither can they explain why or how aesthetic feelings fit into a materialistic world. Rocks and cats do not appreciate the beauties of art or of this world.

Balfour applies this same argument to ethics and reason. If materialism is true, such things should not exist. Since they do, materialism is erroneous. And since the denial of the consequence is always valid in logic, Balfour’s argument has never been answered.

Materialism fails to deal with the evidence that reason transcends neurology, morality transcends stimulus, memory transcends time, and freedom transcends causality.21 In fact, by assuming their theory is true, the materialists refuse to reduce it to a “secretion” born out of the random motion of nonrational atoms. They assume their reason transcends neurology.

If stimulus is the source of morality, then the self-gratification of the pleasure zones of the brain would be the basis of ethics. But ethics is based on universal principles which call upon man to deny self-gratification for the good of others. Hence, morality transcends stimulus.

The fact that man remembers the past, perceives the present, and anticipates the future reveals that he is a transcendent self as well as a body. People with major brain damage still have a transcendence above time in which they talk about the past, present, and future. 

Seeing that the past no longer exists and the future has not arrived, if thoughts are the result of the present motion of nonrational atoms, how and why does man remember the past and anticipate the future? Since there is no “past” or “future” stimulating the brain, from whence does memory or anticipation come?

If man is a machine, then all of his thoughts, words and deeds are predictable and capable of being conditioned. Since we can condition a dog to salivate at the ring of a bell, if materialism is true, we can train all men to secrete the thoughts of materialism at the ring of a bell. But man is not predictable and cannot be totally conditioned.

If mechanistic conditioning were possible, how can the resistance by such men as Solzhenitsyn to Soviet conditioning be explained? The millions of people suffering in Communist concentration camps reveal the failure of the materialists to condition people, even when the materialists have unlimited political power and the use of all forms of conditioning from drugs to torture. By their failure, the Soviet materialists have demonstrated that man is unpredictable and cannot be programmed like a computer or conditioned like a dog. Man’s freedom transcends causality.

3. Materialism’s simplistic identification of man’s mind as his brain does not correspond to the findings of modern brain research.

Human intuition has always resisted identifying “mind” or “self” with some part of the body. People have an intrinsic awareness that while the “self” has a body, the “self” is not the body.

A man can lose his hand or foot in an accident and yet feel no loss of “self.” One Vietnam veteran who had lost both arms and legs stated that he did not feel his “self,” “ego,” or “soul” was in any way affected by the loss of bodily parts. The “self” or “mind” cannot be identified as the body or simply some process of the body.

Realizing that the loss of body parts does not affect man’s awareness of his “self” or “mind,” modern materialists have selected only one part of the body to be identified as the “self,” “mind,” or “ego.” They chose the organ we call the brain. They assumed that “mind” was simply a descriptive word for how the brain worked. Thus, the mind did not exist in some nonmaterial way; it was only the result of the random motion of nonrational atoms in the brain. The mind and the brain were one. What one did, the other did also.

The materialists committed a major anatomical error when they identified the mind as the brain. They failed to see that man’s “mind” or “self” is in the brain much as a hand may be in a glove. William James compared the relationship of the mind to the brain by the analogy of light shining through a prism.22 To identify the light as the prism or the mind as the brain is nonsense.

A pioneer of modern brain research, Sir Charles Sherrington, started out believing materialism’s identification of the mind as the brain. As a result of his lifelong research on the brain, however, he concluded in Man on His Nature (Cambridge University Press, 1963) that it was an error to equate the mind with the brain. After years of research he declared: “That our being should consist of two fundamental elements offers, I suppose, no greater inherent improbability than that it should rest on one only.”23 After conducting brain research in connection with epilepsy, prominent Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield provided startling evidence that the mind is not the brain. Penfield discovered that the mind is not a computer, but has a computer-the brain. The mind of man is related to the brain as a computer programmer is related to a computer, or as a viewer is related to the TV he is watching. Thus, man has a mind and a brain.

What evidence led Penfield and others to reject the materialists’ identification of the mind as the brain? A large body of evidence has been collected by Penfield in The Mystery of the Mind, and by Popper and Eccles in The Self and Its Brain.24 Perhaps one example from their books would help at this point.

While under a local anesthetic, an epileptic’s scalp was lifted away, and the cranium opened to allow the surgeon direct access to the brain tissue. Using an electrical probe, he touched that part of the brain which made the right hand move or twitch. As the hand moved, he said to the patient, “You just moved your hand.” The patient replied, “I didn’t move it, you did.” Evidently, the man’s self-awareness was not directly related to his brain.

The surgeon then directed the patient to will in his mind not to let his right hand move. The patient agreed to resist moving it in his mind and as the hand began to twitch due to the application of the electric probe, the patient’s left hand reached over and stopped the right hand from moving. The physician could control the brain and make it move the right hand, but the mind of the patient, which transcended the brain, moved the left hand to stop it! If the patient’s mind and brain were identical, then the surgeon would have been able to control the patient’s mind as well as his brain. In reality, the patient’s mind was free from the physician’s manipulation of the brain.

The materialists’ identification of the mind as the brain may have seemed plausible in the nineteenth century when brain research was in its primal stage, but it simply cannot stand up to modern brain research. Cosgrove comments, “A simple materialistic explanation for all that man is and does will not fit with human experience or with what we know about the human brain.”25

4. Materialists cannot live what they believe.

Materialists cannot logically believe in “love,” yet they fall in love and marry. They cannot believe in “mind,” yet they cannot avoid using “mind” terminology in their speech when referring to themselves or others. They believe that man is a random swarm of nonrational atoms no different than stones, yet they value people and relationships-they do not treat their children or mates as random atoms. What they say in the classroom is therefore contradicted by how they live in the home. They experience the mystery and beauty of this world and man while denying that such things exist.

Materialism is not a faith to live by or die by. It is unlivable because it is merely a philosophy of negation, denying anything that is worth living or dying for.

5. Materialism leads to the denial of all the social values and ethics which have formed the basis of human worth, freedom and democracy.

Materialists, from the left or the right, are committed to destroying the freedom and worth of man. The world they envision was prophetically portrayed in Orwell’s 1984 and graphically described in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. It is a frightening world of oppression and terror in which an elite group attempts to control the masses by torture, drugs, and other manipulations. In effect, the whole world becomes one vast Nazi concentration camp. One can almost smell the smoke of the ovens as one reads Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity. No wonder C. S. Lewis entitled his analysis of materialism’s view of man as The Abolition of Man. Our generation will do well to heed Francis Schaeffer’s observation in Back to Freedom and Dignity:

If we follow Skinner, we are left with a total skepticism in regard to all knowledge and knowing. Further, if the only way man is able to function in either knowledge or values is as Skinner does by acting on the basis of that which he and his system destroy, are we not left with Skinner himself as a pitiful man-not as a rat or a pigeon pushing levers but as a poor, optimistic rat or pigeon pushing levers.26

 

Conclusion
As a world view, materialism is neither philosophically nor logically valid because it carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. It does not correspond to what the world is. It does not describe man as he is or does. It is unlivable on a personal level and unbearable on a political level. Materialism is thus a rotted pillar which cannot give any support to modern atheism. It has failed the tests of reason and experience.

This is an excerpt of The New Atheism and the Erosion of Freedom by Robert Morey