On another thread we have been discussing various issues related to materialism. Toward the end of the thread Origenes and I had a brief exchange on the question of whether morality can be grounded in the materialist worldview. kairosfocus highlighted part of our exchange here, which is worth reviewing and part of which I will quote below.
In this post I want to home in on a nuanced, but critical, disconnect between those arguing for grounded morality and some materialists. Specifically, why is the argument regarding an objective morality lost on some materialists?
Let me be very clear that I am not arguing against objective morality here. The case for such has been made by kairosfocus, Origenes and others in these pages, not to mention its long tradition of philosophical underpinnings.
Rather, this post examines the materialist mindset and explains why the argument for objective morality may be lost on many materialists.
There are essentially 4 categories of materialist:
1. Strong Materialists
These materialists assert a fully materialistic view of reality: everything, all reality, is just a confluence of matter and energy. Things are as they are – we are as we are – because of a long series of interactions and reactions of particles and energy over time. There is nothing more than the physical and the material.
These materialists are, typically, also determinists. Meaning, by Blackwell’s Dictionary of Social and Cultural Anthropology, that “human actions and natural events are determined by what preceded them.” Blackwell’s also notes that for true determinists “free will would be an illusion.”
This* is the view that would lead one of the most prominent historians of evolutionary biology and population genetics to proclaim “There are no gods, no purposive forces of any kind, no life after death . . . There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans” (the late William Provine, The Andrew H. and James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professor at Cornell University, Debate at Stanford University, April 30, 1994).
This strong materialistic view of reality logically undercuts itself, as many have noted over the years, thus becoming little more than incoherent self-contradiction. Whether the strong materialists actually believe their self-contradictory doctrine is an open question. But it appeals to a certain audience, sells a lot of books, and packs the lecture halls. Thus, the doctrine has definite practical utility – even if that utility remains unrelated to truth or reality.
Many debates over materialism and truth and morality often focus on this brand of strong materialism. Specifically, those arguing against materialism tend to assume that this is the brand of materialism that they need to counter. When encountering a materialist, they will naturally assume that they are dealing with a strong materialist. Thus, their arguments against materialism tend to cluster around the self-contradictory nature of the strong materialist position. They may also point to the lack of real-world application, noting the fact that essentially no strong materialist actually leads their life in accordance with their self-contradictory doctrine.
These arguments against strong materialism are sound and need to be made. They provide a valuable check against an absurd and corrosive doctrine that attempts to undermine the very basis of rational thought.
But these arguments do not adequately address the majority of materialists. Most materialists are of another stripe, which is why the well-made, knock-down, ever-so-carefully-crafted arguments against strong materialism don’t convince them. Despite the strong materialists’ high profile and the wealth and academic prestige they have accumulated peddling their self-contradictory nonsense at book signings and in lecture halls, they remain a small group.
There are two other groups of materialists that are much more numerous.
2. Weak Materialists
Unlike the few well-known strong materialists, weak materialists are legion.
Weak materialism holds that although the material and the physical is the most important part of reality – or at least the original source of reality – it is not all of reality. This leaves plenty of room for variation and opinion, with the result that weak materialists come in as many varieties as colors on your color wheel.
What they all share, however, is a general foundational premise. Like the strong materialists, they believe that reality began with only the physical and the material: In the beginning was not the Word, but in the beginning were the particles.
Yet the weak materialists differ from the strong materialists in that they believe at some point the purely physical and material gave way to that which is not purely physical and material. At some point the physical and material transcended itself. Many weak materialists recognize the range of human experience: love, altruism, consciousness, intelligence, morality, free will. Unlike the strong materialists who argue (but never consistently act thusly) that all of these things are but an illusion, many weak materialists acknowledge that these things are real, that they form an important part of the fabric of our existence.
For such an acknowledgment, the weak materialist should be commended.
The materialist opponent, however, will quickly object, pointing out that there is no explanation, under materialism, for how such things came about. After all, what is it about the starting point of particles and energy that can ever ground love or free will or morality? How can the purely physical and material transcend itself? What law of physics and chemistry, what kind of particle or interaction, could possibly explain such a state of affairs?
The answer? Nothing.
There is nothing in materialism that can rationally ground such non-materialistic concepts. Yet this does not deter the weak materialist. The weak materialist is quite happy to divorce in her mind the acknowledged existence of something from the source of its existence. This is not completely irrational at an early point in the analysis. After all, recognizing the existence of something is a separate question from explaining its existence.
And so the weak materialist, recognizing as she does the existence of, say, altruism or morality, is not convinced by arguments that assert the materialist position is inconsistent with such non-material concepts. Instead, she thinks to herself, “That isn’t right. That doesn’t describe my position. I do believe in love and consciousness and free will and morality.” She might even be forgiven for becoming annoyed by continued assertions that such things are inherently inconsistent with materialism.
And this is where the rubber meets the road:
They aren’t inherently inconsistent with her view of materialism. At least not (a) with the form of materialism she ascribes to, and (b) with the basic observation that such non-material concepts exist as opposed to the explanation of how they came to exist.
This is the logical underpinning of the weak materialist thought pattern. Now we get to the question of whether such a position can be fully grounded in the evidence, whether the materialism can provide an explanation for the observation.
It is important to recognize that the materialist “explanation” for the existence of something like free will or morality is substantively no different than the materialist explanation for the existence of any other aspect of observed reality, such as the existence of living organisms, or the immune system, or DNA. In the past Characteristic X did not exist. Then at some point Characteristic X arose, or “emerged,” or “evolved.” No explanation. No details. No demonstrated causal connection from the particles to the outcome. It just did.
This is really no different from the materialistic creation story generally. At some point organisms did not exist. Then, through a happy coincidence of particle collisions, they did. At some point DNA did not exist. Then, through a happy coincidence of random chemical reactions, mistakes and errors, it did. Again, no explanation. No details. No demonstrated causal connection from the particles to the outcome. It just did.
The situation is perhaps somewhat worse, we might note, for the materialist philosopher than the materialist evolutionist. The evolutionist can at least point to the concrete existence of various molecules and atoms and imagine that they came together to form something like a living cell. True, the math and the physics and the chemistry and the engineering don’t add up. But at least there are particles, and organisms are made up, at least partly, of particles. So although incredibly naïve and spectacularly lacking in supportive detail, at least it is theoretically possible under some wildly-imaginative, cosmic-lottery-level scenario that such a thing might have . . . perhaps, possibly, hypothetically . . . occurred.
But the materialist philosopher doesn’t even have that much. There is no known, or even rationally-proposed, mechanism that will get you from particles to things like thought, intelligence, love, free will, morality.
So that difference in kind and degree is important to keep in mind.
Ultimately, however, the explanatory framework – the rhetorical stance and the approach taken by the materialist philosopher must be the same as that taken by the materialist evolutionist. The thinking is quite simple, it just assumes that things like morality somehow came about through material processes.
As I noted to Origenes on the other thread:
This may not seem very intellectually satisfactory to the objective observer, but the materialist is perfectly happy to argue that morality evolved as a result of [insert made-up reason here]. It isn’t fundamentally different than any other system or characteristic evolving. No details. No particular reason or direction. It just did.
So while I agree with your general point, and Rosenberg’s frank admission, the entire issue becomes lost on the committed materialist. After all, the entire view of history and creation and all that this entails, is just — as you aptly noted — nothing more than a long accidental sequence of particles bumping into each other.
And those particles, so the thinking does, don’t have to ground anything. Not design, not functional complexity, not information. Nothing. Just wait long enough for the particles to bump into each other enough times, and — Ta Da! — here we are. Whether we are talking about molecular machines or morality, it is all the same in the materialist creation story.
Remember, this is all right in line with the Great Evolutionary Explanation for all things:
It is really no more substantive than that.
This is all rather frustrating for the opponent of materialism who is trying to carry on an objective debate with a weak materialist. He can make sound argument after sound argument about the lack of materialist explanation and the fact that matter and energy cannot ground morality.
But the argument will unfortunately have little sway on the weak materialist who acknowledges the existence of things like morality, but is satisfied with whatever vague or speculative explanation materialism can offer, or is happy to put the whole issue on the intellectual shelf, waiting with naïve hope for the distant day when the promissory note of materialism can hopefully be cashed.
3. Unsure Materialists
Then there are materialists who are unsure about all of this, primarily because they have never really thought about these issues and have never deeply considered what grounds their morality. You’ve met many such individuals: your roommate from your freshman year of college, your work colleague at the water cooler, your uncle at the family reunion.
Many of these individuals don’t oppose the idea of morality, even perhaps an objective one. They just cling to the materialist storyline because perhaps it is what they heard in school, perhaps they are under the misimpression that a material explanation for living organisms is at hand or soon to be forthcoming, perhaps it gives them an excuse to avoid looking in the mirror and closely examining their own morality or behavior, perhaps they enjoy the provocative nature of the materialistic position, or perhaps being a materialist makes them feel more “scientific” than those Bible-thumping rubes.
The good news is that at least some of these unsure materialists might be amenable to examining the issue in more detail and, perhaps, could even be convinced to examine their assumptions.
Many people fall into this category.
4. Grounded Materialists
Finally, grounded materialists are materialists who have carefully thought through the basis for their materialism, have discovered a causal connection from the purely physical and the material to the purposeful and the moral, and have offered a rational grounding for moral behavior – for what “ought” to be.
As far as is known, no materialist has ever fallen into this category.
* Based on good feedback from Bob O’H and goodusername, I have removed one sentence I originally had about Dawkins’ “selfish gene” concept, as it was distracting from the central point of the OP and was not necessary for the main discussion of materialism and morality. It would be an interesting topic in its own right for another time, if I get a chance. As I had said and repeat here, I don’t know if Dawkins would consider himself a strong materialist, though materialism certainly underlies his overall philosophy of origins.