Scientific materialism

February 20, 2011
I read—well, I stopped reading and moved to skimming and then quit altogether—reading a book that purports to be the Catholic answer to atheists. It’s not.
The authors claim that atheism enables sociopathic behavior and warn that “a significant number of people” who deny the existence of God could “do terrible damage to society.” As proof they list totalitarian atheist regimes under Hitler (said to be “Godless”), Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, Pol Pot, and others. Their exaggerated charges resemble Christopher Hitchens' charges against religion in God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Such alarmist, one-sided observations inevitably distort reality.
My greatest disappointment is the authors’ inability to transcend the traditional, primitive concept of Divinity—an individual with a humanlike mind and will. Their routine references to “Him” reduce Infinite Intelligence to human dimensions, and they assume that all atheists deny ALL spiritual reality because they reject this deity that Christians pray to. I wonder what they would do with Shug’s,
Whenever you try to pray and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to get lost.
Trapped in the mindset formed by our liturgies, they play into atheism’s strongest suit—its scorn for the anthropomorphic god modeled on pagan gods popular during our religion’s infancy.

The authors do manage some great passages by quoting atheists with extreme materialistic positions—I call them physicalists. Paul Churchland, for example, believes, "We are creatures of matter." In Churchland's and others' statements we see physicalists assuming that there is "no you apart from your body." (I want readers to know that not all atheists have these extreme views.)

The most determined deniers of spiritual reality would have us believe that our desires, intentions, beliefs, pain, even our entire consciousness, is delusional and that only material realities—nerves, electrochemical reactions, etc.—exist. This is where atheistic materialism absolutely fails—it cannot explain our thoughts, beliefs, memories, and intentions. It cannot explain our YOU or I, the person behind our material existence.

Common sense tells us that our minds are more than the product of chemical reactions in our brains and our decisions are not determined by physical processes. I heard a much better answer to the follies of atheistic materialism last fall in a presentation by Dr. Vincent Smiles at the College of St. Benedict. This will be the subject of my next post.
March 1
In a Friday Forum at the College of St. Benedict, Dr. Vincent Smiles examined the position of scientific materialists that God is an illusion manufactured by human brains. Here are samples of their thought.
Edward Wilson, a biologist, in his book On Human Nature:
If humankind evolved by Darwinian natural selection, [then] genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species. … I believe that the human mind is constructed. . . [as] a purely biological instrument . .
Loyal Rue, a philosopher of religion, suggests that the belief in life having value and purpose is a “noble lie,” although we hope most people continue to act on that belief.
The universe is blind and aimless; it has no value in and of itself
. . . The universe is dead and devoid of meaning . . . The universe just is.
The famous atheist Richard Dawkins writes that the universe,
has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.
Smiles observed that books advocating these views “are amazingly popular.” Wisely he added,
I suspect that anger and frustration at religion may well be a driving force behind this popularity.
Conceding that the anger over religious wrongdoing is understandable, he rejected the “purely materialist view of reality” that some atheists are promoting and termed it “their mythology.”
What then about our most quintessential human qualities—the desire for truth, the capacity for discovery and transcendence, moral purpose, artistic creativity and so on—why do we not take these qualities also as clues to understanding the universe?
Indeed. Smiles referred to Keith Ward, a Christian philosopher who observes that materialism ignores the entire sphere of value, purpose, and consciousness. Surely they exist, as scientific materialists admit. Perhaps because they exist outside the sphere of natural science, materialists fail to appreciate their proper value and origin.

More next time. I confess I’m distressed because my main site, that containing my information on God Is Not Three Guys in the Sky, suddenly disappeared, one of many challenges for me this past week.

March 5
As you can see if you click God Is Not 3 Guys, it’s up again, thanks to my trusted tech helper, Peter. Some images need work yet, but the information is all there. WHEW!
“Humbling” really fits in the case of technology vs. Jeanette. One way I keep a positive attitude toward technology is to remember the surmise of a scientist/philosopher that information technology is the brain of our planetary organism, the Earth.

But not its mind, which brings me back to scientific materialists. I stand in the middle between them and religious traditionalists, agreeing partially with both sides and disagreeing with both. Now it’s the materialists getting my arguments as I continue relaying the presentation by Vincent Smiles (scroll to previous post).

Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) was a chemist turned philosopher who researched the “art of knowing” (epistemology). He was a practicing scientist in Hungary when Stalinist Russia repudiated all things religious or spiritual to extol “scientific certainty.” But Polanyi noted that its “mechanical conception” of humans allowed “no place for science itself” and led to hundreds of millions being killed. The true scientist, faithful to science, cannot ignore religious and spiritual phenomena. Fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe, Polanyi landed in England, where he developed a theory that answers the scientific materialism he lived under.

He was convinced that human knowing, in its very structure, demonstrates the reality of spiritual values and meaning. He observed that we learn through what he called “indwelling”—trusting the modeling and informing of other persons, whether parents, teachers, mentors, community, or whole tradition. Not even the greatest geniuses function without relying on inherited skills and knowledge, on authority and tradition.

And it all happens through interpersonal relationships. Try learning anything without other persons. If we think long enough about any learning, we’ll find the human persons behind the transmission. The more personal, deeper, and closer the personal relationships, the more we learn. This indicates that mind is more than brain, more than chemistry or bits of matter flying about. Mind includes feeling, as all teachers know well. Try telling an elementary teacher that minds are just machines.

Consider the values of truth, goodness, and beauty. It’s hard to express why or how they transcend physical matter; we just know that they do; we know they are spiritual values. It’s beyond my mental power to figure out how a materialist can seriously believe that truth, goodness, and beauty are only the accidental products of material stuff. Thoughts and feelings with spiritual import vastly surpass in value the physical mechanism of brains.

I know that determined materialists will not be convinced by my argument and will continue to deny the existence of spiritual reality. To me it looks like their determination arises from emotional needs, perhaps in reaction to religious corruption and foolishness, which also disgust me, as anyone familiar with my writings can see. Their indignation, while justifiable, does not justify denial of what plainly exists—spiritual reality.


Will said…
Sorry Jeanette, I don't see any 'spiritual' reality. It's all words and they reside with in the minds of individuals - neurons and synapses. Sure we share the words but they are all somewhat ambiguous, the meanings being derived from use. 'Love' has many different meanings and it's usage varies with language and individual usage just like other words. There's no reason to believe that love or any other emotion or concept has an existence outside of the material world. That would be Plato's world view responsible for much confused thinking.

This isn't to deny that there maybe things I don't know or understand but the scientific method can be the only judge of what what is likely to be true or false and to claim that something is true that cannot be scrutinized by the scientific method is opens the door to all kinds of silliness.

After all how do you even define spiritual things without putting them outside our ability to assess their truth?

Will - Sauk Rapids

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