Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Critique of Scientific Materialism

The following is an excerpt from a 2012 lecture titled "A Professor’s Journey out of Nihilism: Why I am not an Atheist" by J. Budziszewski from the University of Texas.

I had been strongly influenced by the mythology of our age that confuses scientific rationality with materialism or physicalism -- with the view that matter is all there is. If that were true, then there couldn't be such things as minds, moral law, or God, could there? After all, none of those are matter.

Let us be clear what is at stake in materialism. "Matter alone" has always been a difficult slogan to swallow. If matter is the pure potentiality to receive form, as Aristotle thought, then at least, besides matter, there must be form. The formula of the ancient materialists, who disagreed with him, was that the universe is nothing but particles of matter in motion. But this presupposes that matter moves, so there must be space and time for the matter to move in. Viewed another way, all matter has spatial and temporal properties -- and numerical ones too, because "particles" denotes more than one. But in that case (to use Aristotle's language) the forms of space, time, and number are built into it already; it isn't a pure potentiality after all.

The materiality of matter has been even further compromised in our day. Once upon a time, materialists insisted that there is no such thing as action at a distance; to affect each other, particles must touch. It has been a long time since materialists gave up that battle. Today they routinely concede the reality of "forces" like magnetism, arranged in "fields" like magnetic fields, a concession which by the ancient standards means they are not materialists at all. It gets worse. Biological materialists speak of a genetic "code" which carries "information," and these concepts are plainly semantic. According to one standard interpretation of quantum mechanics, the theory cannot even be formulated without reference to conscious observers -- observers who cannot be consistently explained within the system because the system itself depends on them.

It seems that these days, materialism can concede anything you want it to -- except God. Excluding Him, which critics always suspected of being its main point, now seems to be its only one.

But such a materialism is self-destructing. Nothing beyond matter is real? Really? If you say so; but considering that not even the properties of matter are matter, it becomes hard to believe in matter either, and so it became for me. I realized that in my fondness for this self-destructing theory, I had committed yet another incoherency. Did I then reject it? Not in the way that you would expect. I concluded that reality itself was incoherent, and that I was pretty clever to have figured this out -- even more so, because in an incoherent world, figuring didn't make sense either. I decided that the philosophy of what is real is a blanket too small for the sleeper. Too cold in one place, he shifts the blanket to cover himself, only to expose another one. He can never get warm everywhere at once. If he reduces everything to matter, he leaves mind in the cold; if to mind, he leaves will in the cold; if to will, he leaves matter in the cold.

It never occurred to me to ask why my philosophy had to be reductionist in the first place -- why I couldn't accept the equally basic existence of matter, mind, will, and any other realities that might cross my path. In retrospect, I know the answer. Matter, mind, and will require explanation. There must be a reason why there is something rather than nothing. Just beyond the passage I quoted earlier, in which Paul explains that nonbelievers are not ignorant of the truth about God but suppress it, he says that they exchange the truth for a lie, worshipping and serving the creature rather than the Creator. That was what I wanted. I was looking for something within the created order to which I could plausibly attribute the creative power that belongs only to God.

The materialistic mythology of the day didn't make me an idolater; I was that already. It only offered me an idol. I used the idol of matter until it broke, and then made an idol of the breakage. Did nothing make sense? Then I would make an idol of Nothing.

Though a million idols are adored by the sons of men, in the end there is only one -- the million idols are all masks for the single idol of Self. Finding that we are made in God's image, we worship the image in place of God.