Intelligent Design

ID Foundations – A Definition of Materialism

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One thing that has often held up discussions about ID is the question of where are the bounds between the material and the immaterial? If one is going to claim materialism – methodological or otherwise – one must first know what they mean by materialism and its negation. There are some theologians, for instance, who claim to be materialists, but believe that angels and demons are part of the material world. Likewise, throughout history, the divide between what is considered material and what is considered immaterial has changed considerably.

Many people have complained that ID doesn’t follow methodological materialism. I believe that claim to be true. However, for someone to make the claim – either in praise or blame, they first need to have a good idea at what methodological materialism is. I have found that many people who claim materialism don’t want to specify a rigorous definition of materialism. I don’t know if it is just that they haven’t thought about it, or that they are too frightened that it might turn out to not be true.

In any case, I will put out here two (equivalent) definitions of materialism, from two different sources. These are very rigorous and meaningful definitions. If you disagree with these definitions, I would like to know (a) why you disagree, and (b) what your definition of materialism is. If you cannot specify a definition of materialism equally as rigorous, then any objection to ID as being against methodological materialism is simply spurious – without a rigorous definition, for all we know every other part of science might be just as guilty.

Materialism Concept #1 – The Principle of Computational Equivalence – This is Stephen Wolfram’s overarching principle of the universe. It states that all physical processes (and for him, this is all processes in nature) are computationally equivalent to a computer.

Materialism Concept #2 – van Rooj’s Tractable Cognition Thesis – this is essentially the same as Wolfram’s Principle of Computational Equivalence, but applied to cognitive science. It states that the human mind must obey the same types of finite computing limits that a computer does. Therefore, if a computational process would have a minimum runtime complexity of O(N^2) on a computer, it would have the same in the mind.

These are very well-defined and rigorous definitions of materialism. These are the definitions I use in my own research, and those basically presumed by the mathematics of Dembski and others. If these are incorrect, what is a better definition? If you are a materialist, and you don’t have a rigorous definition of materialism, then what is it except a rhetorical trick? What do these definitions lack that need to be modified?

My goal here is to simply lay the foundations, so we can all see the practical implications of both materialism and its negation. For example, van Rooj uses his Tractable Cognition Thesis to exclude many possible scenarios of mental computation because they are not computationally tractable. Dembski uses the same definition to find evidences of nonmaterial intelligence in the world.

What say you?

12 Replies to “ID Foundations – A Definition of Materialism

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    As to this definition of materialism:

    Therefore, if a computational process would have a minimum runtime complexity of O(N^2) on a computer, it would have the same in the mind.

    Here are a couple of examples that throw a wrench into that whole line of thought;

    At the 11:50 minute mark of this following video 21 year old world Chess champion Magnus Carlsen explains that he does not know how he knows his next move of Chess instantaneously, that ‘it just comes natural’ to him to know the answer instantaneouly.

    Mozart of Chess: Magnus Carlsen – video

    A chess prodigy explains how his mind works – video
    Excerpt: What’s the secret to Magnus’ magic? Once an opponent makes a move, Magnus instantaneously knows his own next move.;housing

    This ability to ‘instantaneously’ know answers to complex problems has long been a very intriguing characteristic of some autistic savants;

    Is Integer Arithmetic Fundamental to Mental Processing?: The mind’s secret arithmetic
    Excerpt: Because normal children struggle to learn multiplication and division, it is surprising that some savants perform integer arithmetic calculations mentally at “lightning” speeds (Treffert 1989, Myers 1903, Hill 1978, Smith 1983, Sacks 1985, Hermelin and O’Connor 1990, Welling 1994, Sullivan 1992). They do so unconsciously, without any apparent training, typically without being able to report on their methods, and often at an age when the normal child is struggling with elementary arithmetic concepts (O’Connor 1989). Examples include multiplying, factoring, dividing and identifying primes of six (and more) digits in a matter of seconds as well as specifying the number of objects (more than one hundred) at a glance. For example, one savant (Hill 1978) could give the cube root of a six figure number in 5 seconds and he could double 8,388,628 twenty four times to obtain 140,737,488,355,328 in several seconds. Joseph (Sullivan 1992), the inspiration for the film “Rain Man” about an autistic savant, could spontaneously answer “what number times what number gives 1234567890” by stating “9 times 137,174,210”. Sacks (1985) observed autistic twins who could exchange prime numbers in excess of eight figures, possibly even 20 figures, and who could “see” the number of many objects at a glance. When a box of 111 matches fell to the floor the twins cried out 111 and 37, 37, 37.

    Footnote to Wolfram’s conjecture:

    Quantum Computing Promises New Insights, Not Just Supermachines – Scott Aaronson – December 2011
    Excerpt: And yet, even though useful quantum computers might still be decades away, many of their payoffs are already arriving. For example, the mere possibility of quantum computers has all but overthrown a conception of the universe that scientists like Stephen Wolfram have championed. That conception holds that, as in the “Matrix” movies, the universe itself is basically a giant computer, twiddling an array of 1’s and 0’s in essentially the same way any desktop PC does. Quantum computing has challenged that vision by showing that if “the universe is a computer,” then even at a hard-nosed theoretical level, it’s a vastly more powerful kind of computer than any yet constructed by humankind. Indeed, the only ways to evade that conclusion seem even crazier than quantum computing itself: One would have to overturn quantum mechanics, or else find a fast way to simulate quantum mechanics using today’s computers.

  2. 2
    Neil Rickert says:

    If one is going to claim materialism – methodological or otherwise – one must first know what they mean by materialism and its negation.

    This is why I am not a materialist, though I am often accused of being one. I don’t think we have a clear characterization of what we mean by “material.”

    Materialism Concept #1

    To me, that seems a rather foolish definition. Computation is an inherently solipsistic operation. It doesn’t actually require a world, and we can compute with idealized models. While I don’t have a clear characterization of material, I do think it has something to do with the world. I can’t see the point of definitionaly linking materialism with computation.

    Materialism Concept #2

    I don’t agree with that definition, either. I don’t buy into computationalism (the thesis that cognition is computation). For that matter, computationalism seems a bit solipsistic, too.

  3. 3
    ian4851 says:

    If you trying to define materialism, it would only help you if your definitions actually define ‘materialism’ or ‘material’. But they do not!

  4. 4
    ian4851 says:

    (cont.) As it is, your definitions would be satisfied by some suitably disabled or stupid non-material mind.

    The problem is that ‘materialism’ concerns ontology (what exists), but your definitions only address function or form. They are purely formal definitions. They are certainly useful definitions of something, but hardly of the materialist ontology.

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    Joe says:

    Materialism- the premise that all we observe is reducible to matter and energy-> even information and mind

  6. 6
    ian4851 says:

    Joe gives the normal meaning of materialism, but still it is not completely clear what ‘reducible’ means or should mean.

    For example, suppose ‘mind is reducible to matter and energy’ means that mind really is some special form of matter and energy. Sounds ok. But it implies that those special forms of matter and energy are mind! If A=B then B=A. But is that still materialism?

  7. 7
    johnnyb says:

    ian4851 –

    Thanks for your comments! I agree that I did not lay out the connection in my blog post sufficiently between computability and materialism. First of all, I take materialism to be putting the efficient cause above all others. It means that the world operates according to first-order logic. That is what separates the material and non-material. The non-material operates without such restrictions. In other words, when I am talking about material causes, I am talking about causes for which, if I knew the entire state of the universe at time T0, I could then predict the entire state of the universe at time T1. If this is true, then that means that there is a computable function leading from T0 to T1. If that is true, then Wolfram’s Principle of Computational Equivalence is true.

    I would argue that some parts of the universe – most visibly human minds – are not subject to being part of a computable function from T0 to T1. I would argue that, as far as it may be computable, the mapping from T0 to T1 gives a multiplicity of possibilities upon which non-material causes can influence the T1 outcome towards ends which are not computable.

  8. 8
    John W Kelly says:

    One thing that has often held up discussions about ID is the question of where are the bounds between the material and the immaterial?

    Numbers are the boundary between the material and the immaterial.

  9. 9
    kairosfocus says:


    An interesting post.

    You have taken a computational definition, essentially that for materialists, the number one candidate for the immaterial reduces to in effect a computer and its circuits and software:

    Materialism Concept #1 – The Principle of Computational Equivalence – This is Stephen Wolfram’s overarching principle of the universe. It states that all physical processes (and for him, this is all processes in nature) are computationally equivalent to a computer [–> presumably programmed to run a simulation of the world, inclusive of models of matter, energy, space, time and interactions on forces of chance and necessity].

    Materialism Concept #2 – van Rooj’s Tractable Cognition Thesis – this is essentially the same as Wolfram’s Principle of Computational Equivalence, but applied to cognitive science. It states that the human mind must obey the same types of finite computing limits that a computer does. Therefore, if a computational process would have a minimum runtime complexity of O(N^2) on a computer, it would have the same in the mind.

    I would think that a history of ideas anchored view is also relevant. Here, let me cite first Lucretius in his De Rerum, and Plato in The Laws:

    Lucretius: [[Ch 4:] . . . All nature, then, as self-sustained, consists
    Of twain of things: of bodies and of void
    In which they’re set, and where they’re moved around.

    For common instinct of our race declares
    That body of itself exists: unless
    This primal faith, deep-founded, fail us not,
    Naught will there be whereunto to appeal
    On things occult when seeking aught to prove
    By reasonings of mind . . . .
    Again, whate’er exists, as of itself,
    Must either act or suffer action on it,
    Or else be that wherein things move and be:
    Naught, saving body, acts, is acted on;
    Naught but the inane [[i.e. void] can furnish room.
    And thus,
    Beside the inane and bodies, is no third
    Nature amid the number of all things
    . . .

    [[Ch 5:] Bodies, again,
    Are partly primal germs of things, and partly
    Unions deriving from the primal germs.
    And those which are the primal germs of things
    No power can quench; for in the end they conquer
    By their own solidness . . .

    This is of course a philosophical poem.

    Plato defines to object, first by exposing consequences in the world of knowledge, law and morality; later in the same passage he would draw out a cosmological design inference to a good architect of the cosmos; he is not quite a theist in our sense, though he is close, very close.

    Plato: [[The avant garde philosophers, teachers and artists c. 400 BC] say that the greatest and fairest things are the work of nature and of chance, the lesser of art [[ i.e. techne], which, receiving from nature the greater and primeval creations, moulds and fashions all those lesser works which are generally termed artificial . . . They say that fire and water, and earth and air [[i.e the classical “material” elements of the cosmos], all exist by nature and chance, and none of them by art, and that as to the bodies which come next in order-earth, and sun, and moon, and stars-they have been created by means of these absolutely inanimate existences. The elements are severally moved by chance and some inherent force according to certain affinities among them-of hot with cold, or of dry with moist, or of soft with hard, and according to all the other accidental admixtures of opposites which have been formed by necessity. After this fashion and in this manner the whole heaven has been created, and all that is in the heaven, as well as animals and all plants, and all the seasons come from these elements, not by the action of mind, as they say, or of any God, or from art, but as I was saying, by nature and chance only . . . .

    [[T]hese people would say that the Gods exist not by nature, but by art, and by the laws of states, which are different in different places, according to the agreement of those who make them; and that the honourable is one thing by nature and another thing by law, and that the principles of justice have no existence at all in nature, but that mankind are always disputing about them and altering them; and that the alterations which are made by art and by law have no basis in nature, but are of authority for the moment and at the time at which they are made.- [[Relativism, too, is not new; complete with its radical amorality rooted in a worldview that has no foundational IS that can ground OUGHT. (Cf. here for Locke’s views and sources on a very different base for grounding liberty as opposed to license and resulting anarchistic “every man does what is right in his own eyes” chaos leading to tyranny.)] These, my friends, are the sayings of wise men, poets and prose writers, which find a way into the minds of youth. They are told by them that the highest right is might [[ Evolutionary materialism leads to the promotion of amorality], and in this way the young fall into impieties, under the idea that the Gods are not such as the law bids them imagine; and hence arise factions [[Evolutionary materialism-motivated amorality “naturally” leads to continual contentions and power struggles; cf. dramatisation here], these philosophers inviting them to lead a true life according to nature, that is, to live in real dominion over others [[such amoral factions, if they gain power, “naturally” tend towards ruthless tyranny; here, too, Plato hints at the career of Alcibiades], and not in legal subjection to them . . .

    It is worth noting Plato’s identification of soul — in some aspects close to our understanding of mind — in the course of his cosmological design inference, as a self-moved first cause:

    if the soul turn out to be the primeval element, and not fire or air, then in the truest sense and beyond other things the soul may be said to exist by nature; and this would be true if you proved that the soul is older than the body, but not otherwise.

    [[ . . . .]

    Ath. . . . when one thing changes another, and that another, of such will there be any primary changing element? How can a thing which is moved by another ever be the beginning of change? Impossible. But when the self-moved changes other, and that again other, and thus thousands upon tens of thousands of bodies are set in motion, must not the beginning of all this motion be the change of the self-moving principle? . . . . self-motion being the origin of all motions, and the first which arises among things at rest as well as among things in motion, is the eldest and mightiest principle of change, and that which is changed by another and yet moves other is second.

    [[ . . . .]

    Ath. If we were to see this power existing in any earthy, watery, or fiery substance, simple or compound-how should we describe it?

    Cle. You mean to ask whether we should call such a self-moving power life?

    Ath. I do.

    Cle. Certainly we should.

    Ath. And when we see soul in anything, must we not do the same-must we not admit that this is life?

    [[ . . . . ]

    Cle. You mean to say that the essence which is defined as the self-moved is the same with that which has the name soul?

    Ath. Yes; and if this is true, do we still maintain that there is anything wanting in the proof that the soul is the first origin and moving power of all that is, or has become, or will be, and their contraries, when she has been clearly shown to be the source of change and motion in all things?

    Cle. Certainly not; the soul as being the source of motion, has been most satisfactorily shown to be the oldest of all things.

    Ath. And is not that motion which is produced in another, by reason of another, but never has any self-moving power at all, being in truth the change of an inanimate body, to be reckoned second, or by any lower number which you may prefer?

    Cle. Exactly.

    Ath. Then we are right, and speak the most perfect and absolute truth, when we say that the soul is prior to the body, and that the body is second and comes afterwards, and is born to obey the soul, which is the ruler?

    [[ . . . . ]

    Ath. If, my friend, we say that the whole path and movement of heaven, and of all that is therein, is by nature akin to the movement and revolution and calculation of mind, and proceeds by kindred laws, then, as is plain, we must say that the best soul takes care of the world and guides it along the good path. [[Plato here explicitly sets up an inference to design (by a good soul) from the intelligible order of the cosmos.]

    I suspect these issues and themes lurk behind much of our current discussion, but that we are usually not consciously aware of such roots.

    Going on, I would see materialism in our time as an evolutionary and physicalist school of thought that reduces all to matter and energy, in space and time, interacting by chance and necessity, from primordial states to hydrogen in our sub cosmos and from hydrogen to humans, with microbes to Mozart as a part of that; all though purposeless processes of blind chance and necessity. In this context such evolutionary materialism likes to wear the holy lab coat of science [“knowledge”], where also there is a strong tendency to reduce knowing to scientific or related, empirical approaches that suspect other ways to warrant claims.

    That is why we see often demands for operational definitions, and for “rigour.”

    Those who make such demands typically fail to realise that logical positivism failed by virtue of self-referential incoherence a half century and more ago. They do not realise that conception comes before definition, and that ostensive definition — by pointing to key examples (and inferring on close family resemblance) — is more fundamental than precising or operational definitions, or even ground and consequent ones. Indeed, they tend to forget that what we are really doing is tightening up borders making them as crisp as possible, not inventing the meaning. They also miss that in crucial areas of science and mathematics, conceptual models and paradigm cases have come first, leading onwards to precising definitions etc when there has been sufficient development. The case of calculus is the most notorious example.

    Methodological naturalism, in this context, soon exposes itself as such a priori materialism by the back door of implied assumption and dismissive assertion, Lewontin being simply the most notorious case. Indeed that same pattern of thought can be seen in both what Plato and Lucretius had to say.

    Of course there is a pretence that has misled many to imagine that such a priori imposition of materialism on the very definition of science is centuries old. That can be blown out of the water by pulling my Mom’s c. 1965 Webster’s 7th Collegiate Dictionary and a 1990 Oxford Dictionary:

    science: a branch of knowledge conducted on objective principles [[“objective: external to the mind; actually existing; real”] involving the systematized observation of and experiment with phenomena, esp. concerned with the material and functions of the physical universe. [[Concise Oxford Dictionary, (Oxford: Clarendon Press) 1990 — and yes, they used the “z.” (Emphasis and definition of objectivity from the same source added.)]

    scientific method: principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge [[= “the body of truth, information and principles acquired by mankind”] involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses. [[Webster’s 7th Collegiate Dictionary, (Springfield, Mass: G & C Merriam), 1965. (Definition of “Knowledge” in the same dictionary inserted, and emphasis added.)]

    The reasonable onlooker will easily see that these are not ideologically loaded, by contrast with the sort of thing we may read form say the US NSTA (national Science Teachers Association) Board c. 2000, once the design issue had come to the fore:

    The principal product of science is knowledge in the form of naturalistic concepts and the laws and theories related to those concepts . . . .

    [[S]cience, along with its methods, explanations and generalizations, must be the sole focus of instruction in science classes to the exclusion of all non-scientific or pseudoscientific methods, explanations, generalizations and products . . . .

    Although no single universal step-by-step scientific method captures the complexity of doing science, a number of shared values and perspectives characterize a scientific approach to understanding nature. Among these are a demand for naturalistic explanations supported by empirical evidence that are, at least in principle, testable against the natural world. Other shared elements include observations, rational argument, inference, skepticism, peer review and replicability of work . . . .

    Science, by definition, is limited to naturalistic methods and explanations and, as such, is precluded from using supernatural elements in the production of scientific knowledge. [[NSTA, Board of Directors, July 2000. Emphases added.]

    The ideological question-begging is blatant. And, Judge Jones’ blind wholesale copying of submissions by NCSE and ACLU — gross errors, irresponsible assertions and all — has simply served to confuse the issue.

    Against this backdrop, the cited definitions on reducing mind to computation act as focussing on mindedness and reason.

    The problem with such is that it implies the challenge of chance plus necessity as presumed causes reducing mind to absurdity highlighted by Haldane long ago:

    “It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” [[“When I am dead,” in Possible Worlds: And Other Essays [1927], Chatto and Windus: London, 1932, reprint, p.209. ]

    This can be elaborated by being set in an explicitly evolutionary context, in effect that if mind is a biological “computer” programmed by genes and memes, then it is self-stultified, as its driving and controlling processes have no relevance to truth or validity, or anything more than might makes ‘right.’

    As an alternative, I have long since highlighted the Derek Smith two-tier controller model, which as applied would have the brain as an in-the-loop I/O controller, and a supervisory controller that would be the mind. The question of what the mind is, would be left open: software, quantum influence etc are all on the table without a priori ideological censorship.

    So, the basic problem with evolutionary materialism — whether implicit or explicit — is that it can neither account for the credibility of reason nor for our being morally governed. It is thus evidently self-referentially incoherent and absurd.

    GEM of TKI

    PS: Given its title and focus, why not put it in the ID Foundations category, per the buttons and drop-down list? It also properly belongs with phil and sci & worldviews

  10. 10
    Axel says:

    Materialism is a world-view, in support of which its adherents constantly seek empirical confirmation, without any success whatsoever. In its inability to support materialism via empirical evidence, scientific reality is as helpless as morris dancing or basket-weaving.

    Intelligent Design is not a world-view. It is a simple observation. Even to qualify it as rational would be a kind of tautology, over-egging what is so transparently obvious. Anyone with an IQ of fifty could, indeed, would understand it. It is unavoidable. How could they not?

    So, while current science has gone beyond proving the truth of ID, even as far as proving our dependence on a personal God via the primacy of the mind of the observer, as well as the absolute speed of light in his regard; indeed, as far as proving Christ’s Resurrection, to all but the most wilfully blind, essentially ID really does not rise to the level of scientific observation. Just observation: indeed, unavoidable observation. Materialists need to take the lense caps off their eyes.

  11. 11
    johnnyb says:

    Kairos – Thanks for the excellent discussion!

  12. 12
    kairosfocus says:




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