One astonishing feature of the debate about Materialism is that so many of the professional scholars who openly reject metaphysics as a source of truth, as we must for Materialism, nevertheless imagine that they have the right to promote this metaphysical conjecture in a language which suggests that only a fool could fail to see that it must be true. Yet these are the same scholars who would normally agree that it is precisely the fool who abandons intellectual analysis for conjecture. It is an odd situation. Furthermore, alternative ideas to Materialism will often be labelled ‘unscientific’, as if scientists have an insider knowledge of metaphysics unavailable to metaphysicians, who often spend their entire lives studying the issues, and that allows them to know what is true without having to work it out or discover any evidence.
The truth is, of course, that the physical sciences can have nothing to say about whether Materialism, the idea that matter is fundamental, is any more plausible than Idealism, the idea that mind is fundamental, and will never be able to falsify either of them. In physics, Materialism and Idealism are untestable, as are all fundamental theories. When a person says that they are a materialist or idealist, therefore, they have left behind the natural sciences and are doing metaphysics. By claiming that Materialism would be the correct solution for one of metaphysics’ most ancient and venerable logical dilemmas, one that remains a logical dilemma to this day, they are doing it very badly. In metaphysics, the discipline whose responsibility it is to decide these questions, Materialism and Idealism both fail. This can be demonstrated. It is not a matter of opinion. The idea that either would be a rational metaphysical position to endorse is demonstrably irrational. We can reject metaphysics and rationalism if we like, for the sake of one of these two opposing theories, but metaphysics is the application of logic and reason to philosophical problems, and if we reject it as a useful activity then we cannot expect anyone to take our philosophical views seriously, or for them to make much sense even to ourselves.
Unfortunately, the plausibility of Materialism is not an obscure metaphysical disagreement with few consequences beyond the discipline. Materialism matters. When professional academics argue for this useless and life-denying doctrine, with all their power to influence the minds of young people, this could almost be viewed as a crime against humanity. Professionals are paid to think clearly and honestly about such issues on our behalf and to truthfully report back with their findings. This is not at all what many professional academics do. Nothing like it. Many professional academics publicly endorse Materialism, even though for anyone capable of passing an undergraduate degree a little thought would show that it is logically indefensible, utterly useless and not even as plausible as Idealism. For such a person Materialism is not merely a mistake, it is a failure to think through the issues. If such a person then chooses to poison the minds of their students by confusing them with their professional eloquence into thinking that Materialism is a rational theory, then this should be a matter for the ethics committee.
All the same, it is not difficult to understand why many people are materialists these days. The strong views expressed here concern professional academics, not all materialists. I was a materialist on and off for many years, mainly because I was unable to think of a better idea. But the faults and weaknesses of Materialism are not hidden. I could see them as a teenager, and there is not one philosopher, not one person even among its advocates, who can make sense of it. This can be said with confidence, since it is a theory that contradicts reason. Materialists should find this no more difficult to verify than their opponents.
Regardless, Materialism is endorsed by many scientists, sometimes vociferously. It seems that scientists these days are no longer expected to be capable philosophers. Many openly reject philosophy as useless and clearly feel no need to do any. Apparently, rather than think carefully through the issues it would be a more rational method to pick a convenient view out of a hat, ignoring the logic of the situation.
It is not as if Materialism makes useful predictions for the natural sciences. In this respect it may be even less useful than string theory. For the natural sciences Materialism is a convenient doctrine, a suspiciously consoling one, precisely because if it is true then this would make no difference at all to the natural sciences. Nobody would notice. These sciences assume that it is true anyway, as a methodological principle, so nothing will be gained if this assumption turns out to be justified. If we cannot explain x by assuming the truth of Materialism then we cannot explain x if Materialism is true. So why would a scientist care about Materialism? It is an uninteresting philosophical theory which as well as being irrational explains nothing. If a scientist endorses it, then for what reason can this be other than that they happen to like it? It cannot be because there is, or ever will be, a shred of scientific evidence for its truth.
Another problem for Materialism is that if it is true then it would be impossible to know that it is true. This is an ineluctable implication of the theory. Materialism cannot be tested in physics since every experiment requires an observer, and solipsism can never be falsified. It follows that when we say ‘I am a materialist’, we are claiming that we do not know whether Materialism is true, that nobody knows this and that nobody ever will. It is a claim to perpetual ignorance.
For a different perspective on the same central problem we could observe that Materialism is not a fundamental theory. It says nothing about the origin of matter. Matter would be a brute fact. Materialism is the claim that matter cannot be explained. When we try to extend Materialism as an explanation of the universe and make it fundamental we find that it points beyond itself to an original non-material source, and thus contradicts itself. The alternative to this contradiction is an infinite regress of fields on fields, and it might as well be turtles on turtles for the sense that this idea makes. Most scientist who endorse Materialism reject an infinite regression of substances and favour a theory of ex nihilo creation. This theory may make less sense than Creationism, and it is even debatable whether it should be called Nihilism. At any rate, it is not a fundamental theory, or, if it is, it has a rather obvious gap in it where common sense would suggest there ought to be a phenomenon.
It is particularly ridiculous that Materialism leaves open the question of origins and in this way concedes the possibility of a creator God. It makes such a God almost a necessity. Materialism is, therefore, the claim that a creator God might exist. Accordingly, the more we argue for Materialism the easier it becomes to argue that matter is created by God. This leads to a lot of utterly pointless head-banging and no progress, as if there has to be a war between science and religion, which is in fact a unnecessary disagreement between people who usually have a poor grasp of one or the other and sometimes both.
It is not just that Materialism is useless. It is highly obstructive. It may be the most effective barrier to knowledge human beings have ever invented. If Materialism is true then we can never have a systematic fundamental theory. Materialism is logically indefensible and this cannot be a property of any systematic and fundamental theory that is comprehensible and thus might seem plausible to us. If, as some Materialists seem to believe, physics actually requires Materialism, such that physics would be incapable of ever conceding the falsity of Materialism, then physics is nonreductive and must remain so forever. The popularity of this metaphysical conjecture in physics, therefore, reflects not only the low regard in which metaphysics is held, but also the limited optimism and confidence of theoretical physicists.
Since Materialism ignores the results of metaphysics, it is the metaphysical conjecture that there would be no point in doing metaphysics. It is the proposition that it would be more rational to pick a metaphysical theory by guesswork, if at all, than to follow a rational procedure for making such decisions. Not all materialists seem to realise this, and many may think that their lack of respect for metaphysics is a personal thing. But it is not difficult to verify that this is a statistical phenomenon. On average materialists do very little metaphysics, do not take it seriously, and may have little to say about it unless it is to dismiss it as nonsense. For the man on the Clapham omnibus, as it were, this would be inevitable, explicable and even justifiable, given the endorsement of Materialism by the scientific community and by some serious philosophers. We tend to trustingly follow the professionals. This would be because we do not expect professional scholars to adopt the same hands-off and trusting approach as ourselves. Where they do we might reasonably consider this a betrayal of trust, and not merely incompetence.
Let us examine the logic of the situation. In order for metaphysics, as a process of logical analysis, to begin, we must assume that universe does not contain true contradictions, such that where a theory predicts one this would seal the fate of the theory. This is the way we refute theories in the dialectic logic of metaphysics, the entire method, by showing that they would predict true contradictions. A true contradiction would, after all, be incomprehensible and indistinguishable from a Divine miracle. The metaphysical method, when the time comes to get down to making decisions, is simply the application of the rules of everyday dialectical reasoning as described by Aristotle to questions of first principles. Metaphysics rejects Materialism because it does not survive such an analysis but, rather, explains the existence of matter as a paradox or miracle. Paradoxes and miracles have no place in dialectic logic. Despite its attractiveness in the sciences, Materialism is the rejection of logic and reason for the claim that the universe is paradoxical or miraculous. This is not a view that can be taken seriously in philosophy.
None of this proves that Materialism is false, of course, only that it is perverse. But surely this is enough. In philosophy and the sciences it is usually enough for the defeat of a theory that it gives rise to self-contradictions. Why should Materialism be exempt from this rule?
It is unfortunate that materialists often assume that to abandon their belief would mean having to become an Evangelical Protestant or Jehovah’s Witness, or at any rate some kind of monotheist, for this leads to a lot of heel-digging resistance to alternative ideas. This can only be the consequence of a failure to study the issues. The failure of Materialism lends some plausibility to religion, even to monotheism, but objective monotheism – the idea that there is a God, He is an object, He creates the universe and so forth – is not necessary to religion. Hence to abandon Materialism it would not be necessary to endorse Theism. In the case of a scholar, someone who we would expect to study the issues surrounding their opinions before forming them, any such a misunderstanding of religion will most likely be the result of being a materialist, for to adopt the materialist hypothesis requires that we do not study such issues but jump to conclusions. It would be perfectly possible to abandon Materialism and remain an atheist. But if we are a materialist why would we bother to study the issues? Do we see any honest and well-informed analysis of the relationship between metaphysics and religion in books by materialists? Or are such issues usually avoided?
Perhaps these observations would explain why Materialism, to the understandable annoyance of many of its adherents, is often dismissed by its critics with few words and not much patience. There is simply no point in arguing at length with someone who insists that it is rational to hold a view that is demonstrably absurd. We can concede that a problem for materialists would be that of finding an alternative view that is not also demonstrably absurd, and that this is no small problem, but if we have so far failed to find such an alternative then a rational response would be agnosticism, the admission that we cannot figure out which view is correct.
There appears to be widespread support for Materialism, and this may make it seem a fairly safe bet. But perhaps there is not as much there as it might seem at first, and what there is seems to lack substance. The problem begins with the rejection of metaphysics. Many scientists and not an insignificant number of philosophers conclude that metaphysics is a waste of time. Russell, for instance, is outspoken, saying that that no knowledge of the world as a whole can be gained in metaphysics. This leaves us free to endorse Materialism. If we take this approach, however, then we are unable to produce a reasonable argument for any metaphysical position. All materialists share this problem. They will be aware that their conjecture makes no sense in logic, and this would be why they reject metaphysics in order to endorse it, and this would be why they cannot make a reasoned case for it. While there may appear to be many eminent scholars who endorse Materialism it is, therefore, a rather lukewarm and insubstantial kind of endorsement, and it is never backed up by any evidence or decisive formal argument.
For reasons already mentioned debates about Materialism are often also debates about Theism. The result is rather a muddle, since the theory that is the opposite of Materialism is Idealism, while the Theism-Atheism question would be better approached as an entirely separate debate. Neither Materialism nor Idealism, where these are defined as the two polarities of the ancient philosophical dilemma, make sense in logic. This is why they form an ancient philosophical dilemma in the first place. It is only in logic that can we compare the virtues of these two positions, and logic rejects them both. Accordingly, any sound logical argument for Atheism or Theism must begin with the assumption that both Materialism and Idealism are false. Otherwise the argument will fail. It would be impossible, therefore, to construct a decisive argument against God while endorsing Materialism.
Is it possible that Materialists are actually right to dismiss metaphysics as a guide to truth? Clearly in their own case they are. Metaphysics has not led them to the truth. But is this a result that can be generalised to all metaphysicians? Hume’s Empiricism, the basis for logical positivism and other low views of metaphysics, as well as the dismissal of the knowledge claims of mysticism, leaves us free to ignore the logical faults of Materialism and endorse it regardless. Rational analysis would be trumped by empiricism. The two statements ‘Materialism is true’ and ‘Materialism is false’ would be empirically meaningless and thus, for the dedicated empiricist, entirely meaningless. And yet, there would have been no motivation for Hume’s rejection of rational analysis in the first place if such analysis did not reject Materialism and Idealism. After all, if metaphysics endorsed Materialism or Idealism then there would be no motive for logical positivism and other low views of metaphysics. Almost everybody agrees, and especially those who reject metaphysics, that Materialism does not make sense. It is certainly not plausible that so many scientists would reject Rationalism, in the form of metaphysics, if metaphysics endorsed Materialism. The rejection of metaphysics for the sake of Materialism is an open admission that Materialism does not make sense, and that it can only be true if the universe does not make sense.
Metaphysics can make one important concession to Materialism. If it is true, as has been said by Empedocles, that ‘all things contain a portion of thought’, then it is possible that all thoughts contain a portion of thing. It is possible, in other words, both logically and empirically, that mental and corporeal phenomena are not distinct except as aspects and only ever appear as co-dependent phenomena. Mental phenomena, that is, would always have a material aspect. This would allow neuroscience to have some bearing on the problem of consciousness. But even if we make this concession to Materialism it would remain the case that neither Materialism nor Idealism can explain the existence of mental and corporeal phenomenon. Both of these ideas are nonreductive and clearly a third category of phenomenon would be required for a fundamental theory.
It is tempting to cite the problem of consciousness as an objection to Materialism. This is because philosophers find that once they have assumed the truth of Materialism, consciousness becomes impossible to explain. The difficulty for this objection is that many people continue to believe that the ‘hard’ problem can be solved without abandoning Materialism, and that the only problem is that we are not yet clever enough to do this. They do not see that this is a problem of principles rooted in the ancient Mind-Matter dilemma because they have little respect for rationalist metaphysics. They struggle on with Materialism. hoping to prove in consciousness studies an idea that is easily refuted in metaphysics and which makes no sense to anyone. This objection to Materialism cannot be conclusive, therefore, although it is clearly damaging. Perhaps in another thousand years, if the problem of consciousness remains unsolved, philosophers of mind may start wondering whether Materialism is not the solution after all, but, rather, the entire cause of the problem.
Admittedly, there are many different ideas as to what metaphysics is and how it should be practiced. Reading the academic literature is more likely to confuse us than clarify anything. In academia metaphysics is taught and discussed in a massively confusing manner and it takes years of study to even understand the language. In the end, however, it comes down to a few simple issues. Do we believe that the universe is reasonable? If we do, then we believe that a correct description of the universe will seem reasonable to us, and, accordingly, that formal metaphysical analysis will produce truth, or at least never falsity. ‘Reasonable’ may be a difficult term to define to everyone’s satisfaction, but at a minimum it must mean the rejection of self-contradiction. Thus for metaphysics we must reject Materialism.
Russell’s problem with the set-of-all-sets is an example of our instinctive rejection of contradictions. He may not have seen the value of metaphysical analysis but he did not reject its logical principles. If our reason could countenance the contradiction inherent in the concept of the set-of-all-sets then we would not see it as paradoxical. The set-of-all-sets could contain itself and not contain itself, and this would make complete sense to us. But we cannot countenance this idea. We are rational thinkers. Our reason tells us that the solution must be one or the other idea, or, if not, a synthesis for which these two ideas would be seen as partial views reducing to a single non-paradoxical truth. Russell accepted this latter idea as a solution for his paradox when it was proposed by G. S. Brown, precisely because it avoided self-contradiction. Russell rejected metaphysics, or certainly meant to, but he did not reject the idea that a reasonable theory should not contain contradictions. Nor can we do this if we wish to stay sane.
It has been known for centuries that all extreme, positive or partial metaphysical theories give rise to contradictions. They are logically indefensible. Russell, Ayer and Carnap saw this clearly, as did Kant and Hegel, and most philosophers must be well aware of it. As Materialism is an extreme, positive and partial metaphysical theory it is simply one of Wittgenstein’s facts that Materialism is logically indefensible. It is not something worth arguing about. Of course, as we have conceded, we can endorse Materialism on the basis that the universe contains true contradictions, an idea promoted by Priest, Routley, Melhuish and others. The price is only that we must abandon the idea that the universe is reasonable and embrace instead the idea that we might as well believe any old thing. The assumption of an unreasonable universe reduces metaphysics to uselessness before it has even begun but there is nothing to prevent us from adopting it. What we cannot do is expect other people to see our approach as a rational one.
Metaphysics is entirely devoted to the creation of a general theory. Often it is the study of individual problems in isolation, but this is a method and not because we must have a different and distinct theory for each problem. In what sense, then, is Materialism a general theory? If it is not a general theory then in what sense is it a metaphysical theory? In what sense is it even a theory? What would it explain? What would it predict? How would we test it? How could we develop it? It is an isolated metaphysical conjecture offering no benefits at all to science or philosophy. In the sciences the truth or otherwise of Materialism is simply not worth arguing about. It does not work as a theory regardless of its truth-value as an isolated hypothesis.
In opposing Materialism it seems important to oppose Idealism at the same time, for both ideas fail for the same reason and it would be a mistake to give the impression that we are arguing against one for the sake of the other. For an idealist to oppose Materialism would be difficult, since their own view will be undermined by the main arguments they would want to deploy against their opponents. This is a ‘Catch-22’ situation, and it may explain why Materialist and Idealists are so poor at persuading each other to change sides. They are on the same side already. Only if we oppose Idealism can we offer any real opposition to Materialism, and vice versa.
Metaphysical problems may be expressed in the form of dualistic choices that Kant calls ‘antinomies’. The term ‘antinomy’ comes from the Greek and literally means ‘the mutual incompatibility, real or apparent, of two laws’. (Wiki). Metaphysical antinomies present us with a choice between two directly opposed alternatives, where this may be Materialism-Idealism, Theism-Atheism, Freewill-Determinism, Internalism-Externalism, Something-Nothing and so on for all matched pairs of partial or extreme metaphysical positions. Materialism-Idealism would be an antinomy for Kant because both ideas fail and, in addition, because they would form a contradiction, an undecidable question for which there can be no third option. On this view metaphysics is inconclusive and not a guide to truth. There is, however, an important subtlety here, often missed even by philosophers.
According to Aristotle, who codified the rules of the dialectic game, to oppose Materialism and Idealism in this way would be to make a category-error. In dialectic logic the true contradiction would be between Materialism and not-Materialism, Idealism and not-Idealism. A true contradiction would be between A and not-A, and not between A and B. It would be an error to assume that we are forced by logic to choose between Materialism and Idealism. An antinomy need not be a logical contradiction and thus may not be subject to the laws of non-contradiction and excluded middle. For a rigorous dialectic analysis, therefore, the falsity of Materialism would not inevitably imply the truth of Idealism, and vice versa, and the same would be true for all of Kant’s antimonies. Thus we can refute both Materialism and Idealism without causing ourselves any technical problems in metaphysics. If two laws oppose each other it would not follow inevitably that either of them is a sensible law, or that no other law is possible. With his endorsement of a fundamental phenomenon that is beyond the categories of thought Kant seems to have reached this conclusion himself, but his followers often assume that a Kantian antinomy is an Aristotelian true contradiction. The result is that many feel forced by logic to choose between Materialism or Idealism, seeing this as a rational choice, without even considering Compatibilism, and see no need for a ‘doctrine of the mean’ such as can be found in mysticism, or for the solution proposed by Kant. If we confuse a Kantian antinomy with an Aristotelian true contradiction then Compatabilism becomes impossible.
This subtlety is often missed because for any positive, partial or extreme theory concerning the world as a whole there will always be an anti-theory, a contradictory and complementary doppelganger. This is what we mean by calling a theory positive, partial or extreme in the first place, that it is one half of a contradictory and complementary pair of theories. Such theories are dualistic. This leads us to assume, fairly naturally, that one of these two opposed positions must be true and the other false. This assumption is wrong. For fundamental questions, those about the world as a whole, it is found to be impossible in any case to decide between these polarized positions. Whenever we place in direct opposition two contradictory and complementary metaphysical positions they are found to be antinomies, not merely difficult but impossible choices. Antinomies are undecidable. There are no exceptions, because if one side of an antinomy survives logical analysis and the other does not then it is not an antinomy in the Kantian sense. These antinomies are not true contradictions in the dialectic, however, and thus we are not forced to decide between them. We can follow logic and common sense and reject both as being partial and inadequate.
The problem for metaphysics, the problem that Materialists must ignore, the problem that can only be solved by carefully distinguishing between an antinomy and a true contradiction, is not that its dialectic method produces stark choices between pairs of opposing theories, but that in all cases neither of them survives logical analysis. We might prefer to believe, say, that one of Freewill or Determinism is true, but the application of reason shows that neither theory works. The same holds true for Materialism and Idealism. The situation can be summed up in a single statement: All positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible. Bradley puts this as ‘Metaphysics does not produce a positive result’. Kant puts it as, ‘All selective conclusions about the world as a whole are undecidable’. To argue against this fact would be useless. It is the reason why an endorsement of Materialism or Idealism requires the rejection of metaphysics. This is an unnecessary rejection, however, if we keep things straightforward. The undecidablity of Kant’s antinomies is a problem that makes metaphysics mind-bending, but as long as we do not confuse antinomies with dialectical contradictions then this is not a terminal problem for Aristotle’s logic or for human reason. We do not need to decide between Materialism and Idealism, we need to decide between Materialism and not-Materialism, and in metaphysics this is not a difficult decision.
So all in all it seems difficult to make any kind of case for Materialism. If we do not know the facts then it may be true as far as we are concerned. If it is true, however, then the universe would be miraculous, paradoxical, unreasonable and incomprehensible. There is no possibility of making a persuasive case for this idea.