Animal minds Artificial Intelligence Culture Evolutionary psychology Intelligent Design Naturalism

The end of promissory materialism? What advances has materialism (naturalism) made in the last decade?

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Here is a piece I (O’Leary for News) wrote for the first edition of Salvo (2006). Interesting to see how it has held up after more than a decade has past.

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About three years ago, I predicted that the intelligent design controversy would explode in a few years, with every instapundit punding away furiously — some thoughtful, some foolish, some merely malign. The latter mood was expressed beautifully by a board member of Kansas Citizens for [promoting materialism in] Science, who summarized her public relations strategy against intelligent design advocates in February 2005 as follows: She advised her troops to portray them “’in the harshest light possible, as political opportunists, evangelical activists, ignoramuses, breakers of rules, unprincipled bullies, etc.”

[Oppo research has its limitations when there is a growing fact base to consider.]

Why does intelligent design generate such hysterical hatred? Having studied, researched, and blogged on it almost full time for the last three years, I think the answer is that it challenges the point of view that philosopher of science Karl Popper has called promissory materialism— currently the strongest trend in science. According to promissory materialism, any problem, including human nature, that currently eludes a material interpretation will eventually be solved by future findings—as long as we stay faithful to the purely materialist perspective. Materialism is the best tool we’ve got, we are told. It has given us the car, the computer, the atom bomb, the cure for AIDS—no wait, that last one is still in the pipeline, but please be patient, folks.

[We keep banging the ceiling on questions like origin of the universe, origin of life, human evolution, and the human mind. There are many more elegant essays today than there were back then but the only real change is the packaging of the problems. Elegant essays tend to predominate where trolls once bawled unhindered.]

If intelligent design is correct, however, then some aspects of nature—the human mind, for example—might not be purely material entities in a closed universe. Investigating them properly includes addressing that fact and its outcomes.

[It is still possible to make a living generating nonsense about human consciousness and it may still be possible to do so for at least a decade. However, the number of conundrums has grown considerably. Thoughtful people are getting tired of the impositions. ]

In popular culture, promissory materialism is the staple of almost all science writing. It powers the “nothing but” approach to humans. Humans are nothing but robots, or meat puppets or a bunch of chemicals running around in a bag. These descriptives, coined by academics, not rappers, have in common only the materialism that underlies them. The trend reached its latest peak in the fall of 2005 with the London zoo’s display of “homo sapiens”, a group of eight nearly buff humans cavorting in a cage for the express purpose of assuring the public that “the human is just another primate.”

If so, then why were the eight just-another-primates wearing swimsuits under their artful fig leaves? Why were they permitted to go “home” at closing time? One somehow suspects that for the just-another-primates, home—however shabby a squat—is not a pile of bracken somewhere. Thus, innocently enough, the London zoo curators expose a fatal flaw in their own thinking.

[The researchers stumbled across the human race and us is them.]

The nothing-but approach is doomed, not because it violates religion or morality but because it is not producing the goods. Consider three of pop culture’s science darlings: evolutionary psychology, primate studies, and artificial intelligence.

Evolutionary psychology would be better titled “Furry tales for baby hominids” on account of its practitioners’ talent at coming up with just-so stories that explain current culture according to fictions about early man, loosely based on scant evidence. Spouses who cheat, parents who kill, and kids who won’t eat greens, to name just a few, can all receive absolution through evolutionary psychology. It’s way more fun than the Catholic Church too, because no stern moral lectures are offered and no penance is imposed. Evolutionary psychology has proven unable to explain the specifically human trait of altruism in situations where there is no reciprocal benefit—like the young Canadian who recently gave a kidney to save a dying stranger. As Ernst Fehr and Suzanne-Viola Renninger admitted recently in Scientific American Mind, “Our species is apparently the only one with genetic makeup that promotes selflessness and true altruistic behavior.”

[The steepening decline of traditional pop media has probably harmed evolutionary psychology, an internally contradictory discipline without a subject: If humans are psychologically unchanged after two million years, the claim would count against evolution, not for it. However, there is no living subject on which to actually test the proposition.]

Primate studies is based on a simple principle: Humans share 98% of our genes with the chimpanzee, and therefore the 100% chimpanzee can help us understand ourselves. Hmmm. As British rabbi Harvey Belovski has pointed out, we share perhaps 30% of our genes with a banana. So can the banana help us 30% toward understanding ourselves? Maybe the chimp and the banana would make a better pair than the chimp and the human. The chimp would certainly think so. Seriously, what have primate studies really shown us? As anthropologist Jonathan Marks says, despite the public interest in efforts to teach apes to communicate with humans, “Unfortunately, they have nothing to say.” If so, the trail ends here.

[Recently, we have been informed both that chimpanzees might be entering the Stone Age and that intelligence test are unfair to them. Postmodern life demands an almost limitless tolerance for reason-free contradiction. In some controversial areas, it may become compulsory.]

Then there was artificial intelligence (AI). Remember, this is supposed to be the “age of spiritual machines,” when computers are becoming indistinguishable from humans. In reality, the human mind works quite differently from a computer, and simply increasing computing power does not produce characteristic human qualities. AI enthusiast Kenneth Silber complains, “This is a disappointing state of affairs.” It sure is, if you are HAL or Deeper Blue.

[No computer has become inherently smarter than its programmers, for the same reasons as characters in a novel do not have more insight than the author. ]

Notice the pattern? Ominously, all three media-darling disciplines fail at the same point: precisely the point at which, if materialism were true, they should succeed: Evolutionary psychology can’t explain uniquely human qualities. The 100 percent chimpanzee has nothing to say to the 98 percent chimpanzee. And the human brain is not enough like a computer that AI studies are even particularly relevant, great as their future achievements may be.

I think this is a great time for Christians to go into science. Clearly, promissory materialism is indeed failing and there is a need for new directions. The Christian, of course, will need courage and strategy, to fend off the materialist mob whose god has failed them, who are looking for someone to blame. Oh, and a sense of humor helps, too. Remember, you will be dealing with people who think that you ( and they) are either a chimp or a computer or a bunch of chemicals running around in a bag. Whatever.

[Stay well away from people who are looking for someone to blame and keep on working.]

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See also: Nature, as defined today, cannot be all there is. Science demonstrates that.


Can science survive long in a post-modern world? It’s not clear.

5 Replies to “The end of promissory materialism? What advances has materialism (naturalism) made in the last decade?

  1. 1
    Jon Garvey says:

    “It has given us the car, the computer, the atom bomb, the cure for AIDS—no wait, that last one is still in the pipeline, but please be patient, folks.”

    Come on Denyse, you’re selling it short! What about climate change, nitrates in the bedrock, atmospheric particulates, environmental lead from petrol, plastics in the oceans, holes in the ozone layer, good old fashioned high explosives and poison gas? And gycophosphates. And neonicotinoids. And biological monocultures. Never in the field of human history has anything so successfully reduced the world’s life expectancy on so regular a basis in so short a time.

  2. 2
    News says:

    Jon Garvey at 1, I can blow anything except my word count. 😉

  3. 3
    Latemarch says:


    It has indeed held up well for eleven going on twelve years.
    They like to taunt with their ‘God of the gaps’ accusation but what are we to make of the ‘research of the gaps’ that they promise?
    That’s not working out so well in paleontology where the more fossils they find the more the gaps are accentuated. Now genetics, that’s where the materialists shine…no, wait that’s where what is being discovered is a multilayered symbolic language.
    AI, that will of course work out eventually because the meat machines eventually became self aware and capable of manipulating non material concepts so that should eventually emerge in the electrical ones….eventually, get right on it.

  4. 4
    Axel says:

    An awful lot of distinctively-gratuitous conjectures, in the form of promissory claims, seems to increasingly predominate in the theoretical physics of the modern atheist, doesn’t it? Mad stuff you couldn’t fool an infant with. Unless the child were well-versed in the subtle intricacies of one of the post-thinggy schools. Post-modernism: nihilism without tears.

  5. 5
    Axel says:

    @Latemarch’s #3

    LOL. You can almost guarantee to have your spirits lifted by posts on this forum.

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