Do Materialists Commit a Blatant Contradiction?

By | July 16, 2011

Recently a respectable fellow argued that materialists blatantly contradict themselves when they take a materialist view of reality and yet affirm that free, independent action is possible.

The argument presented relied on three premises:

1) Materialism affirms that reality in nothing but matter-in-motion.
2) Materialism implies affirmation of determinism, the metaphysical idea that all physical reality is causally determined.
3) Free, independent action requires action free of determinism.

To draw the conclusion:

4) Hence, when materialists affirm that human freedom is possible they contradict themselves. (They affirm that all reality is determined and affirm that some reality (human free action) is not determined.)

The argument fails because it relies on very questionable, if not downright false, premises with regard to (1) ‘materialism,’ (2) ‘determinism,’ and (3) ‘free action.’

Materialism: Defining “materialism” as the view that the only reality is matter-in-motion is not at all consistent with the materialist philosophy held by scientific materialists. At best the idea that materialism is the metaphysics which claims nothing exists but matter-in-motion is the philosophy of the ancient Greek atomists such as Democritus and Epicurus.

One plausible version of modern materialism is one that proposes that everything real ultimately has a physical base. For example, the living entities of biology and the thinking entities of psychology, sociology, and culture are entities that exist at such a level of complexity that calling them mere matter-in-motion amounts to a caricature of that level of reality. Yet, the materialist claims that ultimately each of these has a physical base. This is a viable form of realism and far removed from the simplistic notion that only matter-in-motion is real.

It would be a gross distortion to claim that the sub-atomic reality studied by quantum physics and the atomic reality studied by atomic and nuclear physics is a study of matter-in-motion, as the sub-atomic particle-waves and the atoms are the basis for matter. It would be a gross distortion to say that electro-magnetic band, which includes visible light, radio waves, ultra-violet waves and other forms of energy, is just matter-in-motion. No knowledgeable scientific materialist would ever claim that such physical realities as electrical and magnetic energy is simply matter-in-motion.

To claim that the realities of living organisms, of beings with a complex central nervous system, and of persons with culture (language, science, art, mathematics) are nothing but matter-in-motion is to commit a gross reductionism, one which scientific realists (materialists) do not commit. To say that all living organism have a physical-chemical basis is not to say that the reality of living organisms is nothing but the sub-atomic particles, the atoms, and molecules which make up that living organism. Likewise to say that all beings with a complex central nervous system and those with complex, large brains have a physical-chemical basis is not to say that the reality of such beings reduces to a set of sub-atomic particles, atoms, and molecules which make up those beings. In short, the complexity of existence at the biological and psychological levels is not reducible to mere matter-in-motion.

Determinism: The claim that all materialists must accept the truth of determinism is a false claim.

Universal determinism is a metaphysical philosophy that is not held by many scientific materialists. There is no compelling reason for holding that all physical reality is held together by a universal net of causal determinism. This view of a universal determinism is an old metaphysical philosophy that modern scientific thinkers have mostly abandoned because a number of factors that question that universal determinism; e.g., the indeterminism of quantum physics, the randomness that is found in physical and social reality, the chaotic aspects of much of physical reality and the complexity the characterizes much of physical reality, making claims of causal determinism to be claims of academic philosophy at best.

The fact that many of the sciences utilize a from of causal explanation, i.e., explain phenomena in terms of the conditions and processes that caused the phenomenon in question, does not imply that those sciences entail a metaphysics of universal determinism. When we consider human reality (action, behavior) at the cultural-sociological-historical level, claims of universal determinism governing human behavior are not at all tenable, since the ability to predict human behavior is very limited at best.

Freedom (“free will”): The statement that a materialist philosophy implies the impossibility of free, independent action by human beings is a false statement.

The belief that materialism negates the possibility of free, purposive, and autonomous human behavior is a belief that rests on a particular, philosophical notion of ‘freedom,’ one which identifies free action with free will, and sees freedom and free will as being independent of all conditioning factors. Accordingly, if human behavior can be causally explained as arising from neurological factors, psychological conditioning, and such, it is held that such behavior is not free behavior. Only action that would take place in absolute independence of any determining factor would be considered free action or action indicative of free will.

There are good reasons for rejecting that notion of ‘freedom,’ which turns out to be a concept of metaphysical freedom held by many traditional philosophers, but one which has nothing to do with our ordinary, effective concept of freedom. A rough statement of our ordinary, effective notion of freedom is that one acts freely when one acts in accordance with one’s desires and self-interest. In other words, one is not coerced or compelled to act by some determining force, external or internal. A modern materialist does not have any trouble accounting for the fact that humans make ‘free’ choices and rational decisions which are not just the outcome of factors beyond their control.

Even if one accepts some version of metaphysical determinism (and there are many reasons for rejecting such), many philosophers have developed views of human ‘freedom’ which are compatible with determinism. In other words, it does not follow that if one accepts determinism, the implication is one that denies human free, ‘independent’ action.

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