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Posted by on Jul 20, 2014 in Creationism, featured, Philosophy, Science, Skepticism | 1 comment

Materialism and Scientism

A reviewer of our book, 13 Reasons To Doubt, at Amazon has claimed

Every author is a deluded materialist and materialism makes extraordinary claims that cannot be tested by science

First of all, since there is no “verified purchaser” note on the Amazon review page and at the time the “review” was posted it was ONLY available on Amazon Kindle (except for a few review copies, none of which went to the reviewer), it’s not so much a review of the book. Indeed, it’s more a whine because the authors of the book (including me) have been dealing with this individual for, in some cases, over 6 years and he has yet to show the least idea of what science, philosophy, or human decency is really about.

But enough about that, what I really wanted to talk about was the charges he laid forth. The way I see it, there are a two.

  1. The authors are deluded materialists.
  2. Materialism makes extraordinary claims that cannot be tested by science.

Well… someone is deluded, but I don’t think it’s the authors of this book.

Materialism is the philosophical stance that all that exists is the material universe that we see around us. This includes matter, energy and other forms that we may not know about yet (dark matter and dark energy for example).

This brings up a two concepts, which we need to mention. First, there is ontological materialism, which is the belief that the material universe is all that exists. This also includes the idea that everything that appears to be none of these things (for example, human thought, consciousness, morality, etc) are based on matter and energy in the material universe. Second, there is methodological materialism, which is not a belief, but a claim that a non-material assumption should not be made. In other words, we do not assume that because we do not have a material explanation currently, that we revert to the supernatural for an explanation.

Some people who hold to methodological materialism (e.g. scientists) are also ontological materialists. Richard Dawkins would probably be a good example of one such individual. However, I would like to point out that I disapprove of the word “belief” in the definition of ontological materialism. It is not a belief so much as a well supported explanation.  Until there is evidence that anything supernatural exists, then we, using methodological materialism, reject those explanations.

Back to our claims for our detractor. The authors are, indeed, materialists. I don’t think it too far out of line for me to make that statement. Everyone writing for the Skeptic Ink Network is, to the best of my knowledge, an atheist. I would make no claims on an individual’s thoughts about any other aspect of this, but we are atheists. That is a very clear sign that we are all materialists.

We reject theism and the supernatural. I would also say, without a doubt, that we are all skeptics. That is, we examine the claims of people and require that they provide evidence for those claims. That’s what skepticism is. Over time, some claims have been made so often and with absolutely no evidence to support them that those claims are rejected as a matter of course. For example, in the history of the human species, I am not aware of a single example of psychic powers that has ever been verified. If there has been one, do let me know (and let James Randi know as well).

Skeptics reject psychic powers. This is not because we are “materialists”[1] or because we are no longer skeptical. It is simple because in the hundreds of years that just things have been examined in a detailed way, none has ever been validated. As such, anyone claiming to have psychic powers is not rejected out of hand because we believe only in science, but because psychic powers have failed every test. I’m confident that (at least in theory) sufficient evidence could be provided to change our minds.

I guess the real claim here is that the authors (including myself) are “deluded materialists”.

That’s why I brought up the difference between the two kinds of materialism. The reviewer attempts to make materialism into a pejorative term.  Here, I do not speak for the other authors of 13 Reasons to Doubt, only myself. I am an ontological materialist, as well as a methodical materialist.

Again, this isn’t because of beliefs or assumptions. I haven’t seen any evidence of anything that exists outside the universe (we’ll leave a discussion of possible other universes for another day). Again, if anyone has such evidence, then feel free to present it. Keep in mind that this is something that has been contested for centuries and evidence like “you can see the creator in the sunrise” is not sufficient.[2]

So, let’s consider the opposite condition. Someone who is a (for lack of a better term) supernaturalist. Would we call that person deluded?

That all depends. It depends on whether what they think agrees with what the person making the decision thinks. To a Christian, a Muslim is deluded. To a Baptist, a Catholic is deluded. To all of them, a pagan is deluded. And yet, every single one of them believes in something, not just without evidence, but in spite of evidence. It’s the same with creationists, UFOlogists, anti-vaxers, anti-GMO, intelligent design proponents, believers in psychics and mediums, and the others. For all of these groups, there is almost zero to zero evidence that supports what they believe and significant amounts of evidence against what they believe.

And yet, somehow, the people who believe these things are not deluded and the people who accept only what can be observed are deluded?!?!!?!?

While I accept that the authors of the book are materialists (for some value of “materialist”), I reject that we are the deluded ones.

On to the second bit; “Materialism makes extraordinary claims that cannot be tested by science.”

Personally, I find this claim to be utterly hysterical. Saying that materialism makes claims that can’t be tested by science is like saying the New York Philharmonic makes noises that can’t be picked up by a microphone or a writer uses words that can’t be defined in a dictionary.

The entire point of science is to describe and understand the material universe. Science is, by definition, materialistic.

What’s interesting, and I feel compelled to note here, is that science CAN detect supernatural things. This is because if the supernatural thing can affect the material universe, then those effects can be observed. Much like we can’t see electrons, but are fully capable of detecting and using them in a variety of ways (for example, the computer you’re using to read this), material effects of the supernatural would be observable.

Finally, a point of order. Materialism doesn’t make claims. Again, if we’re looking at methodological materialism, it’s not a claim that we don’t consider the supernatural. It’s… prudence.

So far, there is no reliable evidence that any supernatural cause has ever done anything. Yes, I do think we would know what that evidence is. Consider a church whose every member is perfectly healthy (no matter the age) and wealthy, yet humble, caring and giving. I would consider that to be evidence of a deity. If a person was brought into the emergency room with massive trauma from a car accident and a believer in a deity prayed for them and that person walked out, perfectly healed the next morning. I would consider that evidence. Most religions have people coming back from the dead, so it’s not a stretch. This would be especially valuable if it was repeatable. No matter the injury or problem, healing was instant. That would be an impressive piece of evidence for a supernatural agent.[3]

Now, if our reviewer was referring to ontological materialism here (and we don’t really know if the reviewer even understands that there are different types of materialism), then we do have a bit of a quandary. Again, I reject the use of “belief” and “assumption” in that definition. The reason is based on prudence. Without evidence of something… anything supernatural ever happening in a way that even partially verifiable, then there simply is no reason to consider the supernatural.

Consider a hunting lodge in the middle of the deep woods of the Northwest US or Southwest Canada. The owners come back after being gone for several months. They find that the door has been ripped off it’s hinges, staple food stuffs ripped open and eaten, beds and furniture destroyed and some strange black and brown hairs all over the place. Obviously, the first thing the owners and local law enforcement consider is Bigfoot.

No wait, that’s just stupid. There have been so many fakes in the past decades that it just not reasonable to consider Bigfoot as a suspect in a criminal investigation. There are bears and possibly even vagrants and even the owners to consider (why not land a spot on such a reliable show as “Unsolved Mysteries”).

It’s the same thing with science. We don’t consider the supernatural because there’s no reason to.

So, I totally reject the reviewer’s claim number two and suggest that the reviewer learn what words mean before using them.

Now some would accuse this (and me) of scientism. This is another term that is often used pejoratively. In this manner it is basically used against someone who thinks that only scientific claims are meaningful (not valid, “meaningful”). As Merriam-Webster says “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities)”.

When not used as an attack, the actual meaning of the word is “methods and attitudes typical of or attributed to the natural scientist”.

Science is how we learn about our world. It is my understanding that many of the social science are using natural science methodology to learn things. An example would be how humans think. If we can understand the substrate (the brain), then we can understand how we think. And this isn’t too far from science fiction. We know that physical changes can cause changes in how (and what) people think. Drugs, hormonal changes, even stress caused by external events can change how a person thinks and behaves. Why wouldn’t understanding the brain lead us to learning about how we think… thinking happens in the brain after all.

So yes, you can count me as someone who does think that the tools of science, once restricted to natural sciences, will be very valuable to people in other fields. I also think that there is no more robust way to know that what you are learning about the universe or a quark or anything in between is valid.

I cannot think of a single tool or invention that is not the result of the scientific method (methodological materialism and/or methodological naturalism) or something that used at least parts of what we call the scientific method (trial and error, for example).

I hope that this will serve as a source for when someone calls you “materialist”, “non-skeptic”, or “believer in scientism”. These claims are often the last refuge of the person who A) doesn’t have a clue about science, B) has no evidence to support their preferred position, C) is losing an argument.

_________________________

[1] The use of the word here implies a negative connotation as does the reviewer above.

[2] As I typed this, I got to thinking and wondering if the modern concept of God/Allah/any deity could survive in a court with an unbiased panel. It’s an interesting question and, if you really think about it for a moment, I think you’ll agree that the existence of any deity wouldn’t survive without a biased jury.

[3] Just a note… it doesn’t suggest that a particular agent is correct… just that SOME agent exists and is willing to do some healing.

  • johzek

    I agree that materialism is not a belief nor an assumption nor a presupposition. These are concepts that indicate mental attitudes but materialism properly understood is pre conceptual in that it is concerned with what we perceive. We perceive the material world and our senses do this automatically. We do not have to adopt a mental attitude to perceive, we simply perceive. Perception precedes conceptualization.
    When materialism is understood simply as that which we perceive, anything else attached to it is superfluous. The idea that materialism needs to assert that what is perceived is all that exists, is just the result of failing to appreciate the nature of what is being considered. Implied in this assertion is that something else could exist and we just don’t perceive it. But where does an idea like this originate. Certainly not at the perceptual level of our consciousness. Ideas like this take form at the conceptual level of our consciousness when a mental attitude of imagining is adopted.
    So it is easy to see that the non material viewpoint requires some sort of mental attitude, whether it be assuming or imagining or believing or combinations of these, whereas the materialism view entails just perception. One can be characterized as a viewpoint while the other is simply a view. In other words one is an adopted mental attitude while the other is what is seen.