The Single Best Argument Against Philosophical Materialism?

Robert Ritchie, commenting on Wednesday’s post refuting philosophical materialism, raised another important line of argumentation: that we can see that philosophical materialism is false because of “the reliability of our cognitive functions.” Ritchie described the argument as “exceedingly powerful,” and “for my money, is the best single argument against materialism.” I’ll let you be the judge of that; it is, in any event, a very good argument. What follows is Ritchie’s explanation of the argument:

A Dilemma for Materialists
It is often difficult to get intelligent atheists to seriously consider arguments for the truth of Christianity. They will not listen, for example, to an argument for the resurrection because their worldview fundamentally excludes any event of that sort. In light of this, it seems to me that Christians need to attack this worldview–i.e. “materialism”–before they engage in other apologetical arguments.
Here’s a dilemma for materialists designed to do just that:


  1. Either subjective experience, in its capacity as subjective experience, is relevant in the explanation of behavior or it is not.
  2. If subjective experience is relevant in the explanation of behavior, then materialism is absurd (more than that, it is unambiguously false).
  3. If subjective experience is not relevant in the explanation of behavior, then materialism is absurd.
  4. Therefore, materialism is absurd.
    Premise (1): A Philosophical Axiom

Premise (1) is, as should be quite obvious, not controversial at all. It appeals, in philosophical jargon, to the “law of the excluded middle”, which holds that for any assertion X either X is true or not-X is true. One example of this axiom is that either Barack Obama is a horse or he is not a horse. There can be no “middle” position wherein he is somehow neither of those two possibilities. Premise (1) is simply another example of the same axiom where “subjective experience, in its capacity as subjective experience is relevant in the explanation of behavior” is used instead of “X” or “Barack Obama is a horse”. 

Premise (2): A Definitional Point


“Materialism” is a term used somewhat inconsistently by philosophers. However, materialists of every stripe are at least committed to the “causal closure of the physical domain.” For this reason, the truth of materialism and the explanatory relevance of subjective experience are mutually exclusive.


Perhaps most commonly, “materialism” is used interchangeably with “physicalism” as the view that everything including people consist of nothing by physical matter and that a person’s mental states just are (or at least are reducible to) physical states of their brains. But I am using the term in a broader sense to encompass the position known as “dual aspect theory” (or sometimes “property dualism” or “non-reductive materialism”) as well.


Dual aspect theorists are willing to admit that mental states are something distinct from physical states and that they are not reducible to physical states. This means, as the dual aspect theorist David Chalmers has put it, that our mental states are such that they could not be explained by anything we could reasonably apply the term “physics” to. Rather, on this theory there are as-of-yet undiscovered “psychophysical laws, specifying how [mental states] depend on physical properties.”


Importantly, however, both physicalism and dual aspect theory (and any other theory that could reasonably come under the term “materialism”) is committed to what may be called “The Causal Closure Thesis”: That there are no non-physical causes that operate on the physical level. This does not rule out the possibility—important to some theories of quantum mechanics—that some physical events are uncaused and random. But it does mean that even though the dual aspect theorist admits that non-physical mental states exist, he denies that they have any effect on the physical domain.


As Chalmers puts it, “the physical domain remains autonomous,” and “the view makes experience explanatorily irrelevant.” Rather, the true explanation of behavior may be diagramed as follows:




The sole explanation of the behavior in question (reaching for an apple) is the antecedent physical cause of that behavior. There may be an arrow from a physical state of affairs to the mental state of desiring an apple, but there could never be an arrow from that or any other mental state to a physical result. Stephen Hawking is a materialist and demonstrates his commitment to this position in his recent book The Grand Design:  

“Recent experiments in neuroscience support the view that it is our physical brain, following the known laws of science, that determines our actions, and not some agency that exists outside those laws… It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behaviour is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.”

Therefore, if materialism is true, then subjective experience, as Chalmers has put it, is “explanatorily irrelevant”; Premise (2), in other words, is sound.

Premise (3): Why Materialists Can’t Employ an Evolutionary Theory of Knowledge


It is tempting to jump to an overly simple objection to the materialist position at this point. Physics is governed by physical laws, not reason. As Victor Reppert has put it, when there is an avalanche the rocks do not move as they do because they think it would be a good idea to do so, but because they “blindly” obey non-rational physical laws. Why should we expect the atoms in our brain to behave any differently? Shouldn’t they too blindly follow non-rational physical laws? And, if so, why should we expect the result of such non-rational behavior would be rational and trustworthy? And, of course, the materialist must, to avoid absurdity, think his mental states are rational and trustworthy or else he could have no reason for believing materialism to be true in the first place.


C.S. Lewis used this as the basis for an argument for the existence of God in his book The Case for Christianity:


“Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”


But haven’t we  made that dangerous inference Richard Dawkins is always warning us about from the appearance of design to the existence of design? And, in this case, like so many others, shouldn’t we look to Darwinism to set us straight? William Hasker provides a nice summary of the position:


“The central idea of ‘Darwinist epistemology; is simply that an organism’s conscious states confer a benefit in the struggle to survive and reproduce. Such responses as discomfort in the presence of a chemical irritant, or the awareness of light or warmth or food, enhance the organism’s ability to respond in optimal fashion. For more complex animals there is the awareness of the presence of predator or of prey, and the ability to devise simple strategies so as to increase the chances of successful predation or of escape therefrom. As the organisms and their brains become more complex, we see the emergence of systems of beliefs and of strategies for acquiring beliefs, and the strategies that lead to the acquisition of true rather than false beliefs confer an adaptive advantage. Natural selection guarantees a high level of fitness, including cognitive fitness.”


But though this Darwinist sort of reasoning is quite convincing as an explanation of the apparent design of certain physical attributes of living things (such as the warm coat of arctic animals or the beaks of finches) it is unconvincing as an explanation of the reliability and rationality of mental states under a materialist worldview. This is because on such a worldview, as I noted above, subjective experience is utterly irrelevant as an explanation of one’s behavior. If this is true, then there is no survival advantage to proper thinking, meaning that evolution would be powerless to naturally select for proper thinking.


For example, if one person reacted to a vile of poison with the thought that poison is healthy and delicious and the physical state of running from the poison his thinking would be naturally selected over a person who reacted to the vile by thinking poison is poisonous and proceeded to take a sip. As Hasker puts it, on materialism “conscious experience is invisible to the forces of natural selection.” Or, in Chalmers’ colorful words “[t]he process of natural selection cannot distinguish between me and my zombie twin.”


In light of this, we can see that if subjective experience is not relevant in the explanation of behavior, then we have no reason for believing our thoughts to be true and, therefore, no reason for believing that subjective experience is not relevant in the explanation of behavior. Any position we might take under such conditions would be absurd, so Premise (3) is sound.

A Religious Conclusion


All right, materialism is absurd. So what?  Thomas Nagel notes that we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Christianity or even theism is true from such an argument. He calls the “overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind” “ludicrous.” And admits that “the capacity of the universe to generate organisms with minds capable of understanding the universe… has a quasi-religious ‘ring’ to it.”  But he concludes that “I think one can admit such an enrichment of the fundamental elements of the natural order without going over to anything that should count literally as religious belief. At no point does any of it imply the existence of a divine person.”


I think that Nagel is right about this. In fact, even C.S. Lewis provides further evidence for this position. Lewis converted from Atheism in reaction to the argument above (or something very near to it). But he did not immediately convert to Christianity. Instead, he sought refuge in the philosophy of absolute idealism.


But such philosophies have problems, which is why you see so few absolute idealists today. And, in any event, once materialism is given up, the door for Christian apologetics is thrown wide open. A reassessment of the argument for the resurrection, for example, is warranted.



15 Comments

  1. The Single Best Argument Against Philosophical Materialism?

    Yes.

    But, the AfR is not just an argument showing merely philosophical materialism to be false, it also shows “western-style” atheism to be false. This shouldn’t be surprising, as the two are just different ways of saying the same thing.

    As for “eastern-style” atheism, it refutes itself … and on much the same grounds that “western-style” atheism is refuted by the AfR.

    What I mean is this — “Western-style” atheism logically entails that oneself does not exist. In contrast, “eastern-style” atheism takes as an axiom that oneself does not exist. Since one does exist, and knows oneself to exist, therefore one knows both atheisms to be false, knows them to be impossible to be true.

  2. Premise 2 is an invalid:

    “Perhaps most commonly, “materialism” is used interchangeably with “physicalism” as the view that everything including people consist of nothing by physical matter and that a person’s mental states just are (or at least are reducible to) physical states of their brains. But I am using the term in a broader sense to encompass the position known as “dual aspect theory” (or sometimes “property dualism” or “non-reductive materialism”) as well. “

    so:
    A is materialism
    B is physicalism
    C is dual aspect theory
    and
    A = B or C

    Then you go on to prove ~C and claim ~A.

    This is a fallacy. Disproving half of a disjunction does not disprove the whole.

    Suppose I were to say “hot dogs are meat, I don’t like hot dogs, therefore I don’t like meat.” Would that logic be valid? Would that necessarily be true? Of course not, you might like prime rib.

    1. I disagree. The argument disproves the causal closure thesis which is a necessary element of *every* form of materialism. It is the “meat” in your example, not the hot dog. If “causal closure” is absurd, then every form of materialism (be it physicalism, dual aspect theory, or anything else) is absurd.

    1. That is indeed where I first encountered it, and Victor Reppert provides a nice history of the argument (which is surprisingly complex) here: http://books.google.com/books/about/C_S_Lewis_s_Dangerous_Idea.html?id=iQuoWpUCuWcC

      One problem with Lewis’s version, as is noted in the post, is that he does not deal with the challenge of evolutionary epistemology. This challenge is not convincing, but it is always brought up by materialists, so it should be dealt with explicitly.

  3. @Umassthrower. “Despite the great influence of Popper, single contrary observations rarely destroy a strongly established theory. The tendency is to fix theories, extend them, even to redefine their entities,, in ways that allow the contrary observations to be absorbed. If they can’t be absorbed in this way, they are sidelined as anomalies.”

    I haven’t read Nagel’s latest but I wonder if he doesn’t argue that – consciousness and reason are such basic phenomena in need of explanation that it is quite literally mindless to play the shell game saving these centuries old abstractions.

    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com.au/2009/06/materialist-shell-game.html

    1. Ok so our understanding of matter is impoverished, we can’t define the ‘body’ in the mind-body problem. But I don’t want to sacrifice mind to save C17th metaphysical idiocies. (dual aspect theory indeed).

      “No one in the learned world could be found
      to save the brilliant mathematical victories over the realm of physical motion, and at the same time lay bare the big problems involved in the new doctrine of causality, and the inherent ambiguities in the tentative, compromising, and rationally inconstruable form of the Cartesian dualism that had been dragged along like a tribal deity in the course of the campaign.” EA Burtt ‘The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science’

  4. “It is often difficult to get intelligent atheists to seriously consider arguments for the truth of Christianity. They will not listen, for example, to an argument for the resurrection because their worldview fundamentally excludes any event of that sort.”

    I happen to be an Atheist, however both my parents are Jewish and they don’t buy your claims&arguments of resurrection either. Are you making the same the same accusations against Jews? Native Americans don’t buy your arguments either. Are you making the same accusation against Native Americans? Hindus don’t buy your arguments either. Nor do Muslims, Buddhists, Scientologists, Wiccans, Shintos, and literally hundreds of other religions. In fact, if you lump together Catholics and Protestants and Mormons and the rest under the single heading “Christians”, they add up to almost precisely one third of the word population. You’re trying to single out Atheists, trying to accuse them of some sort of improper behavior for not buying your resurrection nonsense, when in fact it’s TWO THIRDS OF THE ENTIRE HUMAN POPULATION who don’t buy what you’re trying to sell. Atheists are an absolutely insignificant speck among an overwhelming majority of all humanity who think your arguments of resurrection are no more credible than Native American arguments for Animal Spirit Guides.

    The three most populous nations on Earth are: #1 China at 4% Christian, #2 India at 2% Christian, and then the United States overwhelmingly Christian. The next three most populous nations are Indonesia at 9% Christian, Brazil overwhelmingly Christian, and Pakistan at 1% Christian. The next three most populous are Nigeria at 40% Christian, Bangladesh at 0% Christian, and Russia overwhelmingly Christian. We can round out the top-10 most populous nation list with Japan at 0% Christian. The pattern is clear, and the global figure turns out to be 33.3% Christian.

    You’re like a penguin(Christian) in Antarctica(America) who looks around at all the other penguins in your neighborhood, and thinks that “birds swim” (Christian and belief in resurrection) is the obvious normal majority truth. You then see a handful of Seagulls(Atheists) in your neighborhood and you have the impression that flying birds are some weird minority. If you look beyond your neighborhood, look beyond your country, the fact is that only one in three people on earth is Christian. The fact is that penguins are a minority bird, and Christianity is a minority religion. The overwhelming majority of people on earth don’t buy your resurrection story.

    “It is often difficult to get intelligent atheists to seriously consider arguments for the truth of Christianity. They will not listen, for example, to an argument for the resurrection because their worldview fundamentally excludes any event of that sort. In light of this, it seems to me that Christians need to attack this worldview–i.e. “materialism”–before they engage in other apologetical arguments.”

    Really? Two thirds of all humanity don’t buy your resurrection story, of whom roughly 3% are Atheists. And you conclude that “attacking” an insignificant speck of a minority is somehow going to solve your apologetics failure? Seriously? SIXTY SEVEN PERCENT OF HUMANITY, almost none of whom are Atheists. Seriously, consider how effective you find it when Islamic apologetics focuses on attacking Atheists. I’m sure that powerfully persuades you of the strength and validity of Islamic Apologetics. Chuckle.

    Maybe later I’ll reply addressing Argument From Reason, but that’s what the blog entry opened with and I wanted to address it first.

    1. Bugmethx,

      1) Ritchie’s argument was that:
      a) Many intelligent atheists adhere to philosophical materialism, and b) For this reason, aren’t open even to the possibility of the Resurrection (since materialism leaves no room for anything like a spiritual realm, etc.).

      These claims strike me as almost self-evidently true. If materialism is true, the Resurrection is false. If the Resurrection is true, materialism is false. Atheists who start from the assumption that materialism is true are going to be closed off to arguments about the possibility of the Resurrection, as long as they adhere to materialism.

      Do your actually disagree with this? Because your comment doesn’t show him to be wrong in either a) or b).

      2) All you’ve done is suggest that other non-atheist groups may also hold to belief systems incompatible with the Resurrection. That’s true, but irrelevant.

      If he’d charged you with racism, and your answer was that a lot of people were racist, that wouldn’t be much of an answer. So too, here, he’s suggesting a prior commitment to an incompatible (and incorrect) belief system, and your response is just that lots of people have belief systems incompatible with the possibility of the Resurrection. I won’t bother debating the specifics (whether, for example, Judaism is open to the possibility of Resurrection), because it’s a complete non-sequitur.

      3) Absolutely nothing he said here (or anywhere else in the post) suggests that atheists are “some weird minority.” He isn’t saying “atheism is a minority view, and is therefore wrong,” which is what you seem to be responding to.

      So it seems like you’re going off against a line of argumentation he isn’t making, without responding to the line that he is.

      I.X.,

      Joe

    2. Right. I think you’re misinterpreting that paragraph, Bugmethx.

      What it means to say is that it is important in apologetics to get first things first. Often one will make the argument from the resurrection to a atheistic-materialist. The materialist retort, of course, is that regardless of how powerful the evidence is, one shouldn’t believe in the veracity of the resurrection because it is impossible. To solve this, one has to dissuade the materialist of his materialism, no amount of historical evidence for the resurrection will do.

      All this paragraph is doing is saying that, the above being the case, it is most effective to start an argument with an atheistic materialist with an argument such as the above, which directly attacks the materialism. After that, you can go forward with the other arguments.

      You might consider an analogy. There are a lot of arguments for the truth of Catholicism’s claim that the Catholic Church is the authoritative and divinely protected interpreter of the teaching of Christ. You could, theoretically, make these arguments to a non-Christian without first convincing him of a more basic Christianity. But he’s likely to retort that Catholicism couldn’t possibly be true, because Christianity is true. The more efficient strategy would be to convince him of Christianity first, and Catholicism second.

      I’m saying much the same thing here. It’s a pretty basic and I’d think uncontroversial point.

      What I did not say is that one could not reject the argument for the resurrection on the basis of (1) a commitment to a deist idea of God that excludes such miracles, (2) a rejection of the evidence provided in an argument for the resurrection, (3) a contrary interpretation of that evidence, (4) a refusal to engage that evidence, (5) or any thing else.

      Who would anyone think that? Of course there are non-materialist non-Christians. Not only was I not denying that, I explicitly provided for the possibility in the examples of Nagel and the (pre-Christian stage) Lewis.

      Admittedly, what is implicit in my argument is that, for someone honestly seeking the truth, the biggest obstacle to accepting the argument for the resurrection is materialism. There are other obstacles to be sure (as I said, one could simply not accept the evidence like I think you should), but once the big obstacle of materialism is gone, the other Christian arguments become pretty hard to avoid if you appraise them honestly. And what you’ve said doesn’t convince me I’m wrong on that.

  5. “For example, if one person reacted to a vile of poison with the thought that poison is healthy and delicious and the physical state of running from the poison his thinking would be naturally selected over a person who reacted to the vile by thinking poison is poisonous and proceeded to take a sip.”

    But it’s even worse than that. If subjective states have zero to do with anything, then it would be more like this: A person, upon seeing the poison with his eyes has the experience of buttercups falling from a green sky while a big drum goes bang bang BANG and this little circle thing goes shimmering in front of him while the laughing machine bunnies swirl around the singing strawberry ice cream cone.Therefore the man runs away from the poison, his mental states having nothing whatsoever to do with poison, running, or anything else about his physical situation.

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