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 promote this metaphysical conjecture in a language which suggests that only a fool could fail to see that it must be true. 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. Alternative ideas to Materialism will often be labelled ‘unscientific’ as if scientists have an insider knowledge of metaphysics unavailable to those metaphysicians who often spend their entire lives studying the issues.
The truth is that the physical sciences can have nothing to say about whether Materialism, the idea that matter is fundamental, is any more plausible than subjective Idealism, the idea that mind is fundamental, and will never be able to falsify either. In physics Materialism and Idealism are untestable as are all fundamental theories. When a person says that they are a materialist or idealist they have left behind the natural sciences and are doing metaphysics and by claiming that Materialism would be the correct solution for Mind/Matter, one of the world’s most famous, ancient and venerable logical dilemmas, they are doing metaphysics very poorly.
In metaphysics Materialism fails. This can be demonstrated and is not a matter of opinion. The idea that it would be a rational metaphysical position to endorse is demonstrably irrational. We can reject metaphysics and rationalism if we like for the sake of a favourite theory but metaphysics is the application of logic and reason to philosophical problems and if we reject it as a means of testing and assessing theories then we cannot expect anyone to take our philosophical views seriously or for them to make much sense.
Unfortunately, the plausibility of Materialism is not an obscure metaphysical disagreement with few consequences beyond the discipline. Materialism matters. When professional academics, with all their power to influence the minds of young people, argue for this useless and life-denying doctrine 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 and utterly useless. For such a person Materialism is not merely a mistake but is a failure to think through the issues. If such a person then chooses to use their professional eloquence to poison the minds of their students by confusing them into thinking that Materialism is a rational theory then this should be a matter for the ethics committee.
It is not difficult to understand why many unscholarly 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 because I was unable to think of a better idea, but the faults and weaknesses of Materialism are not hidden and I could see them as a teenager. There is not one philosopher, not one person among its advocates, who can make sense of it. This can be said with confidence as it is a theory that contradicts reason. Materialists should find this no more difficult to verify than their opponents.
Regardless of its blatant faults Materialism is endorsed by many scientists and sometimes vociferously. It seems that these days scientists are no longer expected to be capable philosophers. Indeed, many openly reject philosophy as useless and clearly feel no need to know much about it. Apparently, rather than think carefully through the issues it would be more rational to pick a view out of a hat and ignore 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 usually assume that it is true anyway 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 in addition to being irrational explains nothing. If a scientist endorses it then for what reason can this be other than that they happen to temperamentally suited to 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 it is true. This is an ineluctable implication of the theory. Materialism cannot be tested in physics because 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. Nobody knows this and nobody ever will. It is a claim of perpetual ignorance.
For a different perspective on the same 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 a prior 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. Accordingly, most scientist who endorse Materialism 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 but 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. It is as if there has to be a war between science and religion when in fact there is just an unnecessary disagreement between people who usually have a poor grasp of one or the other and often 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 a systematic and fundamental theory that is comprehensible to us and thus might seem plausible. If, as some Materialists seem to believe, physics actually requires Materialism, such that physics is incapable of ever conceding the falsity of Materialism, then physics is non-reductive and must remain so forever. The popularity of this metaphysical conjecture in physics 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 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. 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. This approach protects their theory. For the man on the Clapham omnibus this approach to metaphysics may seem justifiable given the widespread endorsement of Materialism in the scientific community. We tend to trustingly follow the professionals as we do not expect professional scholars to adopt the same inexpert and hands-off approach as us amateurs. 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 and 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, by showing that they would predict true contradictions. A true contradiction would 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, proposes that the existence of matter is a logically-contradictory paradox or miracle. But paradoxes and miracles have no place in dialectic logic and rational analysis. Despite its attractiveness in the sciences Materialism is a rejection of logic and reason for the claim that the universe is paradoxical or miraculous and this is not a view that can be taken seriously in philosophy.
None of this proves the falsity of Materialism, of course, only its perversity, but surely this is enough. In philosophy and the sciences it is usually sufficient for the defeat of a theory to show that it gives rise to 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 assumption must be a consequence of little study of the issues. The failure of Materialism lends some plausibility to religion, even to monotheism, but an objective exoteric faith-reliant monotheism is not necessary to religion. Hence to abandon Materialism it would not be necessary to endorse Theism. In the case of a scholar, someone we would expect to study the issues surrounding their opinions before forming them, such a misunderstanding of religion will most likely be a 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 these 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 like the plague?
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. One justification might be that it is difficult to find an alternative view that is not also demonstrably absurd, but if we have so far failed to find such an alternative then the 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 support as it might seem at first glance, and what there is lacks substance. The problem begins with a 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 can be gained in metaphysics. This leaves us free to endorse whatever theory suits us best. If we take this approach, however, then we will be 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 for this would be why they reject metaphysics, but this leaves them unable to 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 a muddle since the theory that is the complementary opposite of Materialism is subjective Idealism. 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 famous and ancient philosophical dilemma, make sense in logic. This is why they form an ancient philosophical dilemma. It is only in logic that can we compare the virtues of these two positions and when we do this we see that logic rejects them both. Accordingly, a sound logical argument for Atheism or Theism must begin with the assumption that both Materialism and Idealism are false for otherwise the argument will fail. It would be impossible, therefore, to construct a metaphysically-sound argument against God while endorsing Materialism.
Is it possible that Materialists are right to dismiss metaphysics as a guide to truth? Clearly in their own case they are for metaphysics has not led them to it. 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. The two statements ‘Materialism is true’ and ‘Materialism is false’ would be empirically meaningless and thus, for the dedicated empiricist, entirely meaningless. And yet, if analysis did not reject Materialism and Idealism there would have been no motivation for Hume’s rejection of analysis in the first place. If metaphysics endorsed Materialism or Idealism then there would be no justification 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 and metaphysical analysis if it endorsed Materialism and so the rejection of metaphysics for the sake of Materialism is an open admission that Materialism does not make sense and can only be true if the universe does not make sense.
Metaphysics can make one important concession to Materialism. If it is true, as was proposed 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 in a co-dependent relationship such that mental phenomena would always have a material aspect. This would allow neuroscience to have some relevance to the problem of consciousness. But even if we make this concession to Materialism it would remain the case that neither Materialism nor subjective Idealism can explain the existence of mental and corporeal phenomenon. Both are non-reductive 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 the only problem is that we are not yet clever enough to do this. They do not see that it 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 is, rather, the entire cause of the problem.
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 highly confusing manner and it takes years of study to even understand the terminology. 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’ is a difficult term to define to everyone’s satisfaction but at a minimum it must mean the rejection of self-contradiction. Thus for a reasonable 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. 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 in his Laws of Form 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 if we wish to stay sane.
It has been known for centuries that all extreme, positive or partial metaphysical theories give rise to contradictions and are thus logically indefensible. Russell, Ayer and Carnap saw this clearly just as did Kant and Hegel and most philosophers will be well aware of it. As Materialism is an extreme, positive and partial metaphysical theory it is simply one of Wittgenstein’s facts that it is logically indefensible and 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, but the price is 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 making 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 we do not need a different and distinct solution 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 opposing Materialism it would be important to oppose subjective Idealism at the same time since both ideas fail for the same reason. 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 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.
Metaphysical problems may be expressed in the form of dualistic choices 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 ‘laws’ or theoretical alternatives, where this might 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 in his view they form a legitimate dialectical contradiction for which there can be 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 as a logical contradiction 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 legitimate dialectical contradiction must be between A and not-A and not between A and B. It would therefore be an error to assume that we are forced by logic to choose between Materialism and Idealism. This ‘antinomy’ may not be a logical contradiction and may not be subject to the laws of non-contradiction and excluded middle. For a rigorous dialectic analysis the falsity of Materialism would not ineluctably imply the truth of Idealism and vice versa, and the same would be true for all of Kant’s antimonies. We can refute both (objective) Materialism and (subjective) Idealism without causing ourselves any logical problems in metaphysics. If two laws oppose each other it would not inevitably follow 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 philosophers feel forced by logic to choose between Materialism or Idealism, seeing this as a rational choice, and see no need for Compatabilism or a ‘doctrine of the mean’ such as can be found in mysticism. yet if we confuse a Kantian antinomy with an Aristotelian true contradiction then Compatabilism becomes impossible and mysticism will seem not only redundant but logically incomprehensible. .
This subtlety of logic is often missed. 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 the two opposed positions must be true and the other false. This assumption is simply wrong. For fundamental questions, those about the world-as-a-whole, we find it is 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 form an antinomy, an 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. 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 be solved only by carefully distinguishing between an antinomy and a true contradiction, is that the dialectic method produces stark choices between pairs of opposing theories neither of which survives logical analysis. We might prefer to believe that one of, say, 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 most forms of Idealism requires the rejection of metaphysics. It 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 there is no terminal problem for Aristotle’s logic or for human reason. We have no need to decide between Materialism and Idealism. Rather, we need to decide between Materialism and not-Materialism and in metaphysics this is not a difficult decision.
All in all it seems difficult to make any kind of case for Materialism. If we do not know the facts then for us it may seem true but if it is then the universe must be miraculous, paradoxical, unreasonable and incomprehensible. There is no possibility of making a persuasive case for this idea.