Monday, May 14, 2012

Atheist Materialism and Philosophy

     Some may wonder how I am an atheist materialist since I have a history of studying philosophy.  Haven't I read Derrida? Stanley Fish? Foucault? etc... Yes, I have read much of this.  I am familiar with a lot of the history of Western Philosophy.  I am familiar with the main arguments from the big movements in its history.  I am also acquainted with Eastern Thought.  I think the Tao Te Ching an incredibly wise book.  I once again recommend it to everyone.

 If I'm so aware of this, how can I adopt what seems a metaphysical position?  Well, let me start at what I consider the epistemological beginning:

1. Can  I demonstrate the existence of anything outside my immediate here and now experience? No.
This includes the universe and other minds.  There is, as far as I can tell, no successful argument.  Period.

2.  Can I use logic to demonstrate that I ought to use logic to make philosophical decisions? No.  These arguments immediately become self-referencial, circular, etc... There is no way out of this.  Sorry.

3.  Are there any valid logical demonstrations for any ethical points of view? No.

     Well, this looks pretty bad for logic and empiricism.  There are no necessary hypothesis.  To someone who believes in God as the creator it can be responded, why not have the universe be self-existing, save a step and don't invoke God.  To the atheist argument it can be responded, why have a universe at all?  Why not save a step and just have your current experience?  Both the universe and God are unnecessary hypotheses. So it seems we have a draw here.

     But, what should one really believe?  I think it's possible to be a solipsist or a metaphysical idealist or to believe just about anything if you want to.  There is ultimately no way to adjudicate among the wide range of positions one could take.

    That said, why would someone like me decide on metaphysical materialism and atheism?  Well, first, I've decided I can't live without assuming that other people exist.  So, I stipulate the existence of other minds.  Note that this is a stipulation; there is no argument.  Why should there be a physical universe outside of the mind?  Well, I seem to be affected by drugs, caffeine, and many things.  My mind seems dependent on something outside itself.  This is an experience I have that is rather immediate.  All I can say is that I have the experience and I conclude a causal relation from the association of drugs and my mental state.  Hume is obviously correct in his arguments against causality, but I accept this direction of causality because it seems so obvious to me.  I don't know how else to put it.

    So, I've stipulated there are other minds and that my mind is dependent on something outside itself, ie, my physical nervous system.  Where to go from here?

    Science is not just a little successful in predicting things and of creating pictures of reality; it is extremely successful.  I'm so impressed by its success that I find it difficult not to believe that it is on to something. From a logical point of view, we are only dealing with world pictures; there may be no universe at all.  But the pictures fit together so well, are so good at making predictions...  Religions cannot boast this kind of success.  Religions also have at best a 'mixed' record when it comes to ethics.  Thus I see no reason to go along with the unnecessary hypothesis of God, but I feel inclined to accept the universe.  It seems to me I'm just accepting the existence of the universe and the monotheistic religions accept the universe and God.  So, I'm accepting one less hypothesis than them.

     I also see religion as an impediment to human freedom and progress.  A humanistic perspective, that values the reduction of suffering, freedom of thought, and pluralism, strikes me as much better than those positions.

     Now, ironclad scientific realists are going to find this all very disappointing.  If you have a successful argument for scientific realism, please let me know.  My guess is that you don't.



  1. Could you please clarify the difference between being a materialist and a scientific realist?

  2. Good question. I fear my definitions are sliding around a bit. A scientific realist believes that scientific theories tell us about reality. They believe, for example, that atoms, protons, neutrons, electrons are part of reality. An non-realist believes that scientific concepts are parts of conceptual schemes useful for making predictions, but not necessarily part of reality. Stephen Hawking is a nonrealist, for example. He believes it is meaningless to ask whether scientific theories describe reality. He is only concerned with a theory's ability to make predictions.

    A materialist is someone who believes that fundamental reality is matter, as opposed to, say, mind. Materialists like myself believe that mind is a product of certain material processes. Mind does not exist independent of those processes. Thus, when my body dies, my mind dies with it.

    Materialists don't necessarily have to be scientific realists. I am not a scientific realist; I think I'm close to Hawking philosophically. I believe in material reality, but I also see components of physical theories as only part of conceptual schemes. For example, I could accept a theory like String Theory even if I didn't think Strings were 'physically real' but were useful for making predictions. The problem with String Theory is that there is currently no way to test its predictions; so, I don't accept String Theory yet, but I might in the future.

    On the other hand, it doesn't appear possible to be a scientific realist at the moment and not be a materialist. This is because our current scientific theories posit material objects as the fundamental components of reality.

    As a last, confusing, aside, quantum theory has interpretive issues that make it difficult to say what kind of 'material' fundamental objects are. They are probability distributions of observation. But these objects are not assumed to possess mind in any form so most scientists think of them as 'matter' -- whatever that may mean.

  3. The reason I think scientific realists would find this all disappointing is that I have no really good arguments defending the 'truth' of science, only its ability to make predictions. I also think the 3 statements at the top of the post are correct. Science has no way of overcoming these problems. Thus there is no logical foundation for the metaphysical truth of scientific statements. A person may picture the world in a scientific way, but it is not logically defensible. I may believe the components of our physical theories are part of reality, but I have no logical justification for this position. Sorry.