The general problem of materialism
IV. The General Problem of Materialism
The argument from reason is best understood as an instance of what I call the general problem with materialism. The difficulty here is that the materialist holds, at the rock-bottom level, the universe is an empty universe. As Lewis observes:
The process whereby man has come to know the universe is from one point of view extremely complicated; from another it is alarmingly simple. We can observe a single one-way progression. At the outset the universe appears packed with will, intelligence, life, and positive qualities; every tree is a nymph and every planet a god. Man himself is akin to the gods. The advance gradually empties this rich and genial universe, first of its gods, then of its colours, smells, sounds and tastes, finally of solidity itself as solidity was originally imagined. As these items are taken from the world, they are transferred to the subjective side of the account: classified as out sensations, thoughts, images or emotions. The Subject becomes gorged, inflated, at the expense of the Object. But the matter does not rest there. The same method which has emptied the world now proceeds to empty ourselves. The masters of the method soon announce that we were just mistaken (and mistaken in much the same way) when we attributed “souls” or ‘selves” or “minds’ to human organisms, as when we attributed Dryads to the trees. Animism, apparently, begins at home. We, who have personified all other things, turn out to be ourselves mere personifications. Man is indeed akin to the gods, that is, he is no less phantasmal than they. Just as the Dryad is a “ghost,” an abbreviated symbol for certain verifiable facts about his behaviour: a symbol mistaken for a thing. And just as we have been broken of our bad habit of personifying trees, so we must now be broken of our habit of personifying men; a reform already effected in the political field. There never was a Subjective account into which we could transfer the items which the Subject had lost. There is no “consciousness” to contain, as images or private experiences, all the lost gods, colours, and concepts. Consciousness is “not the sort of noun that can be used that way.”
When Lewis says the universe is empty, we mean that it is empty of many of the things that are part of our normal existence. As I indicated, at the rock-bottom level, reality is free of normativity, free of subjectivity, free of meaning and free of purpose. All of these features of what makes life interesting for us are, on a materialist view, late products of the struggle for survival.
On the materialist view purpose must reduce to Darwinian function. The purposeless motion of matter through space produced beings whose faculties perform functions that enhance their capacity to survive and pass on their genes. In the final analysis “purpose” exists in the world not because there is, in the final analysis, any intended purpose for anything, but rather because things serve Darwinian functions. The claim that this type of analysis fails to adequately capture the kinds of purposiveness that exist provides the basis for arguments from design based on, for example, irreducibile complexity.
Just as clearly, according to materialist world-views, reality is free of subjectivity. The facts about the physical world are objective facts that are not relative to anyone’s subjectivity. And, once against, arguments from consciousness are advanced to try to show that a physicalist perspective on the world is going to leave out subjective inner states. Hence we have arguments which point out that when all the physical facts with respect to pain are given, we don’t seem to have the grounding for, say, the state of what it is like to be in pain. We can imagine a possible world in which all the physical states obtain but whatever it is like to be in pain is missing. Arguments from consciousness arise from these considerations.
And, equally, there is the fact that normativity is absent at the physical level. There is the notorious difficulty of getting an “ought” from an “is.” Let’s begin with all the naturalistic facts about, let us say, the homicides of Ted Bundy. We can include the physical transformations that took place at that time, the chemical changes, the biology of the death process in each of these murders, the psychological state of the killer and his victims, the sociology how membership in this or that social group might make one more likely to be a serial killer of a serial killer victim, etc. From all of this, can we conclude that these homicides were morally reprehensible acts? We might know that most people believe them to be morally reprehensible acts, but whether they are reprehensible acts or not does not follow from any of this information. So, if all facts supervene on the physical facts, how can it be true that these actions were really morally wrong?
But there are other types of norms. In addition to the norms of morality, there are the norms of rationality. Some patterns of reasoning are correct and others are not correct.
We ought to draw the conclusion if we accept the premises of a valid argument, and it is not the case that we ought to draw the conclusion of an argument if the argument is invalid. Some people have raised the question of how these norms can exist if naturalism is true. As William Lycan observed,
It’s interesting that this parallel [between ethics and epistemology] goes generally unremarked. Moral subjectivism, relativism, emotivism, etc. are rife among both philosophers and ordinary people, yet very few of these same people would think even for a moment of denying the objectivity of epistemic value; that is, of attacking the reality of the distinction between reasonable and unreasonable belief. I wonder why that is?
Hence there are anti-materialist arguments that ask how it is possible for rational norms to exist.
Further, on the face of things at least, physical states are not about other physical states. Physics suggests that particles and states have relations to one another, but it doesn’t seem to be part of physics to say that one state is about another state. Hence arguments from intentionality are advanced to challenge materialistic world-views. What is more, there is certainly no propositional content at the physical level. It does seem to be possible to entertain a proposition. Here I am not even talking about belief (I think that p is true) or desire (I want p to be true) but just the process of entertaining the proposition and knowing what it means. It seems possible for propositions to be true or false, and for certain propositions to follow from others.
V. Error theories and the argument from reason
At this point I am not endorsing these arguments, (commentators please pay attention) but am only saying that arguments of this sort are possible. One way for the skeptic to respond to those arguments is with an error theory. We think there are objective moral norms, but we are mistaken: moral norms are subjective. We think conscious, subjective states really exist, but strictly speaking there aren’t. As Susan Blackmore puts it:
“each illusory self is a construct of the memetic world in which it successfully competes. Each selfplex gives rise to ordinary human consciousness based on the false idea that there is someone inside who is in charge."’
By referring to the self as illusory, she is saying that what we ordinarily think of as consciousness doesn’t exist. As we think of consciousness, we think of some center in which all mental states inhere. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, consciousness has these characteristics: a first-person character, a qualitative character, a phenomenal structure, subjectivity, a self-perspectival organization, unity, intentionality, and dynamic flow. Error theories of consciousness, such as Blackmore’s, instead of showing how these aspects of consciousness can exist in a materialist world, instead suggest that we are mistaken in thinking that these elements what we thought of as consciousness really exist.
Defenders of materialism usually use three general types of arguments to criticize the family of arguments I have presented above. They use Error replies if they think the item that the anti-materialist is setting up for explanation can be denied. They use Reconciliation objections if they suppose that the item in question can be fitted within a materialist ontology. And they also use Inadequacy objections to argue that whatever difficulties there may be in explaining the matter in materialist terms, it doesn’t get us any better explanations if we accept some mentalistic world-view like theism.
We can see this typology at work in responses to the argument from objective moral values. Materialist critics of the moral argument can argue that there is really no objective morality, they can say objective morality is compatible with moral realism, or they can use arguments like the Euthyphro dilemma to argue that whatever we can’t explain about morality in materialist terms cannot better be explained by appealing to nonmaterial entities such as God.
However it is important to notice something about materialist philosophies. They not only believe that the world is material, they also perforce believe that the truth about that material world can be discovered, and is being discovered, by people in the sciences, and that furthermore, that there are philosophical arguments that ought to persuade people to eschew mentalistic world-views in favor of materialistic ones. They do think that we can better discover the nature of the world by observation and experimentation than by reading tea leaves. Arguments from reason are arguments that appeal to necessary conditions of rational thought and inquiry. Thus they have what on the face of things is an advantage over other arguments, in that they have a built-in defense against error-theory responses. If there’s no truth, they can’t say that materialism is true. If there are no beliefs, then they cannot say we ought to believe that materialism is true. If there is no mental causation, then they cannot say that our beliefs ought to be based on supporting evidence. If there are no logical laws, then we cannot say that the argument from evil is a good argument. If our rational faculties as a whole are unreliable, then we cannot argue that religious beliefs are formed by irrational belief-producing mechanisms. Hence arguments from reason have what I call a transcendental impact—that is, appeal to things that, if denied, undermine the most fundamental convictions of philosophical materialists. There cannot be a scientific proof that scientists do not exist; that would undermine the scientific enterprise which constitutes the very foundation of materialism.