The philosophical foundations of science – sand?

One of the things that surprises me greatly is how little support materialism gets from philosophy. In fact, materialism is rejected so much as a matter of course, apparently, that philosophers seldom even make much of it. This is because, according to those in the field, it is simply untenable as a worldview. I gather that most of the history of materialist philosophy is contiguous with the history of Marxism – and with the latter more or less in terminal decline the former is also largely a museum piece.

This doesn’t stop vainglorious claims from its supporters. Daniel Dennett apparently wrote that virtually every serious philosopher nowadays is a materialist. Yet to quote Wikipedia:

Emeritus Regius Professor of Divinity Keith Ward suggests that materialism is rare amongst contemporary UK philosophers: “Looking around my philosopher colleagues in Britain, virtually all of whom I know at least from their published work, I would say that very few of them are materialists.”

Despite this lack of support from philosophy, materialism is still the ruling paradigm in science – although Alvin Plantinga has argued that materialism, if supported together with unguided evolution, actually undermines science, because evolution is not at all likely to produce the ability to form true beliefs (about nature or anything else) in humans. So we have the odd situation that the philosophy underlying science is one that is largely discredited, if it ever had widespread support for more than a brief period.

To be more specific, now, and speak of methodological naturalism. Philosophically, virtually all materialists are naturalists, though not all naturalists are materials. The materialist denies all but physical causes – the naturalist simply denies the supernatural. But in today’s science-based climate, the two are virtually synonymous, and in the case of methodological naturalism, the consideration only of material causes is assumed. So a more accurate term would actually be “methodological materialism”.

Scientists insist, and theistic evolutionists largely agree with them, that the principle of methodological naturalism is foundational and indispensible to science. It is impossible, they say, to do proper science without acting as if materialism were ultimately true. As Lewontin said, God mustn’t get a foot in the door, etc. So a disturbing thought occurs to me.

If materialist presuppositions are, as claimed, absolutely necessary to do modern science, and yet at the philophical level such materialist presuppositions have been decisively rejected, then what does that say about the ultimate truth of science itself?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to The philosophical foundations of science – sand?

  1. Gregory says:

    “I gather that most of the history of materialist philosophy is contiguous with the history of Marxism – and with the latter more or less in terminal decline the former is also largely a museum piece.”

    That would not be a well-informed gathering in two ways based on evidence available around the world. First, there are non-Marxist materialists. Second, Marxism is far from being in ‘terminal decline;’ in fact it is growing and replenishing in different sites. Who is David Harvey?

    Some call Marx ‘the greatest critic of capitalism,’ and if that isn’t relevant today, I’m not sure what is. One may challenge Marx’s historical materialism or ‘diamat’ (coined by Plekhanov) without threatening his criticisms of capitalistic explotation and dehumanisation. Even Max Weber’s reproaches to his fellow-German sociologist’s views are not enough to overturn Marx’s impact.

    I’m doubtful if one can safely say that “materialism is still the ruling paradigm in science.” This is partly behind my strategy of challenging both naturalism and scientism as ideologies in their own unique way. Whether ‘guidance’ is a suitable term ‘in biology’ is a welcome topic for teleologists, though it is deemed mainly irrelevant for ‘doing science’ by practising biologists.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Gregory

    I may well be wrong about Marxism – somehow the anti-capitalism movement doesn’t seem the same doctrinaire beast of my student years. But I’m no longer a student nor an academic, so who knows when we shall see a resurgence.

    I also committed the unforgiveable sin (given our recent exchanges) of contracting “natural science” to science. HPS is a completely different beast. I still think my general points stand: the methodology behind natural science is mainly the philosophy of materialism, and yet a majority of philosophers consider materialism untenable. If you needed a particular questionable philosophy in order to do theology or economics properly people would be rightly suspicious of its validity as a truth-gatherer.

  3. Gregory says:

    Let it be said for clarification, that I’m not promoting Marxism. So much talk of ‘alternatives to capitalism’ and ‘varieties of capitalism’ nowadays in the social sciences. The notion that ‘the West’ did something called ‘win’ wrt the Cold War is harder to maintain nowadays with a simplistic ‘capitalism’ vs. ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ approach.

    In case you hadn’t heard about it, perhaps the new Das Kapital (2008) by Marx might be of interest. Surely the priest from Trier won’t be accused of ‘materialism,’ whether historical, dialectical or otherwise.

    Well, shall we call it a forgiveable sin (HSS, NPS vs. Science as monolith), which hopefully I would not make towards medicine or music? = )

    An irony for me in the proposition that “materialism is still the ruling paradigm in science” is that I was chastised by a British scientist for challenging his notion of “Christian Materialism.” It was mentioned by others at the forum that ‘non-reductive physicalism’ was allowed, but that ‘materialism’ carried unnecessary ideological baggage to be allied with Christianity. As it turned out, he would not relent, claiming there are actually more ‘materialistic’ religious persons than one might wish to guess.

    p.s. actually, “Wealth of Nations” comes from the biblical text, twice in the book of Isaiah, 61 & 66: “I will extend peace to her like a river, and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream…”

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    It would be a bit diificult to confuse music with science, I suppose. Medicine? Hmmm.

    Nancey Murphy, as you probably know, sides with the Christian Physicalists, and I can’t say I’m totally sure of the fine distinction between that and materialism that allows God not to be material. Even so, it seems to be the (natural!) science that predisposes to both views, rather than being a clear conclusion from either theology or philosophy.

    On Marxism, the founder of an extremely conservative Christian (even Charismatic) magazine for which I used to write trained in sociology and defended a Marxist assessment of the economic system, if not the political system. It would seem that any combination of ideologies is, at least, possible.

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