The plausibility and credibility of materialism

One of the perennial issues underlying the poll to which Edward Robinson draws attention in his post is the question of loss of faith. The most obvious reading of the trend towards support for evolution not guided by God, and away from guided evolution, is that believers see the evidence for evolution (in its original undirected, unpurposeful guise) and are persuaded that God could not have been involved.

For all its theological faults, this is one of the central concerns of BioLogos – kids brought up in Creationist churches get to college and, realising the truth, lose their faith. The fact that the poll suggests this is rare (Creationist numbers are stable) and that it’s apparently commoner for “guided evolutionists” to lose their faith is an issue they’d do well to address. But the problem itself is the problem of the plausibility of materialism.

When I was studying worldviews (as per recent posts) in missiology and sociology, one very useful distinction became clear: that between credibility and plausibilityCredibility (in this context) relates to the inherent rationality of an idea or viewpoint, its internal consistency, its correspondence to reality and so on. Plausibility, on the other hand, is about how reasonable that idea or viewpoint seems to be in the context of ones worldview.

For example, when I was a snall child in mainly white, post-Imperial Britain (and even more so a century before), it was very plausible to believe that the non-white races were inferior. The “facts” on the ground were that blacks were in slavery to whites, rather than the reverse, and that Europeans were bringing civilization to primitive cultures. Evolution clearly pointed to the developmental hierarchy of the races, and even Scripture could be argued to acquiesce in slavery and to endorse the curse on Hamitic races – which “everyone knew” meant the black races. It’s hard now to comprehend how pervasive the underlying assumption was – even in the anti-slavery literature of the nineteenth century, one sees over and over again the theme of slavery as cruel exploitation of inferior races, rather than the abuse of equals.

Nowadays, the same evolution proves the intrinsic equality of mankind, the same Bible does likewise, and someone like Prof Hans Eysenck, whose research suggested there were differences in intelligence across the races, was howled down when invited to speak at student meetings in my youth. And the reason is that the prevalent worldview has changed, and “equality” talk is more plausible than “inequality talk” regardless of whether that is mere opinion or scientific data. What makes the difference between the two are the invisible presuppositions of the two worldviews.

Now regarding creation versus materialism (not “creationism” versus “evolution”, note), one has to understand that much of it is a plausibility issue, not a credibility one. The evidence for evolution (meaning the whole materialist package) seems overwhelming, simply because the actual foundations of materialism are seldom examined – least of all by those teaching science, who tend to go all pragmatic and commonsensical when “philosophy” or “metaphysics” are mentioned – a common sign, incidentally, in those who are intellectually complacent because they know their worldview is culturally dominant.

But in fact the materialism on which Neodarwinism depends has enormous credibility problems when it comes to explaining reality adequately – far more than does theism. Within philosophy, a British philosopher once told me, those problems are familiar – though paradoxically the academic philosophy culture is still mainly materialist. Still, an increasing number are swimming against the tide, like the Christians Alvin Plantinga and Roger Scruton, agnostic Mary Midgley and atheist Thomas Nagel, to name just a notable few. Let me look at just a few of these deep problems briefly.

Existence

Most fundamentally, materialism has a big problem explaining existence – which is quite a drawback for a worldview. One could talk about eternal matter quite reasonably until the Big Bang theory gave overwhelming evidence that matter and time both had a beginning. Since then, attempts to redeem the situation have ranged through reviving the ancient oscillating universe hypothesis (known as the Great Year in classical and Renaissance times), the various multiverse hypotheses (backed by Bruno the Magician) and Lawrence Krauss’s recent “universe from nothing” sleight of hand, which hinges on redefining “nothing” as, minimally, pre-existing natural laws and gravity.

Infinite time

Not only is eternal matter counterfactual, but a past-infinite universe (or multiverse) has been shown to be impossible. One simple philosophical presentation of that is this: if we imagine that time stretches out to a literal infinity in the future, it’s clear that however long we live we will never reach infinity. But equally, if time began in the equally infinite past, it would be impossible for today ever to have arrived. So matter can’t have existed forever. Incidentally that also does for Open Theist ideas that God exists in infinite time, rather than atemporally in eternity.

Spontaneous existence

As for the universe spontaneously popping into existence literally from nothing, the Kalam cosmological argument is a strong counter. Universal experience shows that whatever comes into existence has a prior cause, so unless one allows an infinite and unexplained regression, the first cause of all must have always existed, ie be eternal. And matter, as science now believes, is a product of space-time, which itself came into existence and so must have an atemporal cause.

That does remind me to contrast the materialist difficulty here with the existence of God. From Aquinas’s time and before, the nature of cause and effect has made such a First Cause logically compelling, and its nature such that one must call it God. God, being (in Thomist terms) “pure act” and “perfectly simple” is eternal and need not come into existence. “Who made the universe?” is a valid question, because we know it started. “Who made God” is self-contradictory, if he has been already described as the First Cause.

Contingency

One reason the Universe needs an explanation is because it is contingent, that is it needn’t be as it is. It’s made of lots of different bits operating under different laws and constants. The study of cosmic and astronomical fine-tuning suggests all kinds of different ways the Universe could be (as do the speculations about multiverses), and even in biology it’s evident that many species could exist that haven’t. If a thing has lots of particular parts, then their arrangement must be subject to some higher organising principle, and materialism can’t supply one. Theism can – the God who is perfectly simple, “without parts or passions.”

Change

Even change, central to evolutionary theory, is a problem for materialism. Why should there be a trajectory to history (and why should there be a Big Bang, again)? Why would eternal matter experience entropy? Once again, Christian philosophy arrived at the Prime Mover, the God who initiates change, but himself is not changed.

Teleology

The particular pattern of change, too, is a problem for materialism, that pattern being teleology. Materialism tries to deny teleology, but invariably smuggles it in under cover of its scientific worldview. Not only does life display teleology as soon as one admits the existence of “function”, but scientists display it too in having the purpose of investigating it. The denial of teleology has a simple justification – materialism has no plausible explanation for the tendency of things to move towards ends, and that includes not only human choice and animal volition, but the simple things Aristotle and Aquinas focused on first – the nature of heavy things to fall, hot things to burn etc. In other words, even basic natural laws are intrinsically teleological, and so a problem for materialism, but it evades the issue by treating laws as fundamental axioms needing no explanation.

Darwinian evolution tried to solve the teleology problem by throwing big numbers at it. Darwin believed that natural selection worked on effectively infinite variation in effectively infinite time. It’s seldom realised how central to materialistic evolution those two are. Now that the true complexity of life is beginning to be appreciated, geological time no longer appears infinite, especially when the evidence for gradualism has faded in the face of evidence of stasis and rapid change.

The get-out here has often been to argue that in some way variation is constrained, so that random search for rare function in huge space is no longer necessary. All this does, of course, is to put inexplicable teleology back into the constraints themselves. Darwin’s evolution would, arguably, work in an infinite and directionless universe – as soon as you invoke direction of any degree, materialism has to explain that. Chance cannot load dice.

Form

More recently the re-emergence of form as a scientific reality – in the guise of information – creates an issue for materialism that is only solved by denying the existence of true information, even though that denial is itself communicated by verbal information, and even though biology is nothing but the study of living forms such as species. Platonic philosophy required God (in some capacity) as the first source of form – and in Christianity the Logos of God – Christ – is that origin. Materialism has no explanation for form, or indeed any kind of universals.

Intelligibility and intelligence

The intrinsic wisdom of the information around us is another problem materialism simply ducks. Einstein said that the most mysterious thing about the universe is its intelligibility. Why should matter be in any way orderly? Aristotle critiqued Democritus, and his materialist theory that everything comes from randomly colliding atoms, on that very point more than 2000 years ago.

The other side of the same coin is why humans should be able to apprehend that intelligibility through reason. Evolutionary accounts of human reason are scarcely credible – and both Nagel and Plantinga (following C S Lewis decades ago, in fact) argue that the evolution of truthful reasoning is vanishingly unlikely biologically. Materialism undercuts the reliability of the reasoning that supports it – including, of course, the truth of science.

Consciousness (and suffering)

The assumption of basic human qualities, which even materialist evolutionary biologists possess and use, is another stumblingblock to materialism. There is no satisfactory material account of consciousness. To the contrary, it is the trajectory of materialism to destroy consciousness by reducing it to a neurological epiphenomenon – an illusion.

As I mentioned in a previous post, this is even a defeater for one of materialism’s main polemical arguments against theism – that a good God wouldn’t create such suffering. But of course, if consciousness is an illusion, so is suffering. To the believer, of course, consciousness and animal sentience are gifts of the divine nature – and probably immaterial in nature. The problem of suffering is one to ask God about – because denying his existence doesn’t even begin to solve it, except by dissolving it.

Morality

That links, of course, to another of materialism’s intractable problems – moral conviction, on which the whole anti-theistic argument from suffering depends. Not only does materialism have no adequate explanation for objective morality, but the very concept is incoherent – how can true moral meaning arise from an illusory consciousness within a meaningless universe? Where do the universals “right” and “wrong” exist, seeing that materialism denies universals anyway?

In desperation the perplexed my decide to turn to nihilism – pathetically insisting that people should believe that nothing is true except that nothing is true… which materialism cannot support.

Free-will

Finally, of course, there’s the vexed question of free-will, whose deep nature needn’t concern us here, as it’s the most superficial version that materialism must deny, because it denies the reality of the consciousness from which it arises. It’s actually quite laughable to see the all-too-common complaints of self-avowed hard materialists that they can’t persuade people to give up the idea that they have free-will (and see here for the issue in a nutshell).

Of course, free-will is a necessary attribute if you’re in the position of deciding whether or not to give up your faith in the light of the evidence for materialistic evolution. Just be aware that, by making up your mind on the issue either way, you’re denying materialism anyhow.

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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2 Responses to The plausibility and credibility of materialism

  1. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    I have sometimes imagined (or perhaps read somewhere) a kind of hierarchy that progresses as follows: possibility > plausibility > probability > certainty

    … in which ‘possibility’ just means it can’t be ruled out; ‘plausibility’ means it could even be reasonable to assume its truth; ‘probability’ meaning evidence seems to favor it; and ‘certainty’ being as confident as we can humanly get.

    That, however, does not neatly map onto your usage of credibility and plausibility since you seem to be thinking of the former as a rational assessment (somewhere at or between my ‘possibility’ and ‘plausibility’) whereas the latter is brought in as a check against prevailing worldview –and how possible or plausible such a proposition is as checked against that. Thanks for giving me this different way to think about and apply those checks.

    “But equally, if time began in the equally infinite past, it would be impossible for today ever to have arrived.”

    With all due respect to any great historical proponents of this argument, it still seems like sleight-of-hand to me. It doesn’t seem plausible that an infinite continuum philosophically rules out some existence along it. An infinitely long number-line doesn’t rule out our making use of quite special numbers along it.

    “… – the God who is perfectly simple, “without parts or passions.”
    Shhh! Let’s keep this one quiet lest Roger hear you say it from his roost on the Biologos site.

    “…especially when the evidence for gradualism has faded in the face of evidence of stasis and rapid change.”

    I wouldn’t hammer in the coffin nails of gradualism, nor does it seem to be on life-support quite yet depending on how strongly you define it. You probably didn’t mean the “hopeful monster” caricature that some creationists parody as a straw-man of evolution. Keith B. Miller has a good article here about the misconception of viewing such things as the Cambrian explosion as problematic for the evolutionary paradigm. As geologically sudden as such things may be, they are not ‘sudden’ in any common human understanding of that descriptor.

    Despite my rumblings and episodic convulsions here: Great article! I think we Christians suffer from having imbibed too much of the unquestioned plausibility of materialism. We preach one thing with our lips, and then quite another by how we choose to live.

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Merv

    I tried to convey that the “plausibility” – “credibility” dipole was being used in a specific technical sense, so it probably doesn’t map even to etymology, let alone your spectrum. As long as we understand what’s being suggested, that’s the main thing.

    The time issue is a valid one, I think – remember that our t^0 here is not “a huge number”, but “infinity” – the number beyond all numbers, which you can’t increase by adding 1. The concept of “infinity minus one day” makes little sense – yesterday would have been incalculable, today the world is one day old. Or using the initial example of future infinity, imagine yourself older than Methuselah and preparing a huge party because tomorrow will be infinity and endless time will have ended.

    I don’t think the punc eek timescales alter my point about Darwin – nor to be honest, do they really in my view serve as anything more definite than hopes themselves. Darwin saw that infinite random variation in huge timescales would be needed to make natural selection work. But variations are not random, and the timescales have shrunk to being un-resolvable in the fossil record, and/or the populations varying have shrunk so as to be equally invisible in the fossil record. That suggests a less random process – more teleological – than Darwin envisaged.

    So a small population in a corner, with variations constrained by genetics, can do in a million years what Darwin expected a limitless population varying infinitely to do in a few hundred million. And the evidence that it works is that we can’t see it happening! And we can’t make it happen in the lab even though we only need a small population and limited time… unless we work with bacteria, when with huge generation rates and populatiuons and 150 years of research, speciation has not been observed. But that’s another story – the OP assumes that the invisible process does work: it’s Darwin’s steady incremental change that really lacks any evidence at all.

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