Sunday, April 21, 2013

Atheism As Ultimate Intellectual Decadence

I will be spending some time with questions of free will and consciousness as discussed at Moving Naturalism Forward later this week.   But before getting into that I'm going to say that in addressing those realities materialism achieves its ultimate decadence, its ultimate denial of reality, its most outrageously obvious yet so obviously and willfully ignored contradictions and absurdity.

A number of times, I've heard groups of materialists gathered together for the purpose of debunking, reducing, demoting and defining free will and consciousness out of existence.  There is something rather desperate  and even disgustingly pathetic in the attempts.  Hearing famous and august figures, who our academic culture set up as great thinkers using their ingenuity to its utmost to debunk their minds has to count as the ultimate in intellectual decadence.  It is the same kind of silly intellectual act of drawing up the chairs around a table to discuss the non-reality of the chairs and tables that the great minds have put their coffee cups and sugar dispensers and their very bottoms on, only it has a rather more ideologically exigent purpose.  It is a lot like the denial of the mental aspect of science which the same thinkers assert, the theme of yesterday's post.  Only it's far more obvious.  And yet such thinkers wonder why people, who they clearly and condescendingly consider to be naive and unsophisticated,  watching this kind of stuff, find it unconvincing.  

Just as the reality of generous, self-sacrificing acts present the greatest problem for the use of Darwinism, as a hard, universal and eternal Law of Nature,  in atheist ideological struggle, the very experience of consciousness, of free will, presents materialism with its biggest  and most unsolvable problem of all.

Atheism and materialism have no existence outside of the minds of people who hold those twin faiths, yet the minds that hold them are not, ultimately, explainable in material terms.   I'll go into some of that later.  Only I think it's necessary to admit one thing, the motivation of  most atheists doesn't seem, ultimately, to be upholding the integrity of materialism or Darwinism or even their general acceptance in the culture.  At its bottom, most of this stuff is said to gain some kind of intellectual support for their thoroughly emotional need to deny God, the spiritual nature of human beings and other living beings, to deny the reality that life is, at every level of experience, not the same thing as nonliving mater.  But it is definitely the support of the theophobia, the emotional comfort they get from pretending to know there isn't a God that is at the bottom of things.

Perhaps some of that can be seen in Sean Carroll's opening of the days of "workshops" as he rather snarkily and, one would think, irrelevantly, presents some "Wash Away Your Sins hand soap" that he bought at the giftshop of the Inn where he convened the "naturalists" to dispose of free will and consciousness as well as morality among other things.   Only the coercive effort to make atheism a requirement of academic repute is really based on that kind of thing, not just in the end, but also in the beginning.  The rest of the discussion are just intellectual trappings of that effort.


I'm going to post some of the sections of Arthur Stanley Eddington's Swathmore lecture, Science And The Unseen World, given in 1929.    I typed out the entire thing three years ago but never got around to proof reading what I posted online.  Any underlinings are mine, to call attention to passages that strike me as being especially important, as are any typos.  Please call those to my attention.


I have already said that science is no longer disposed to identify reality with concreteness. Materialism in its literal sense is long since dead. But its place has been taken by other philosophies which represent a virtually equivalent outlook. The tendency today is not to reduce everything to manifestations of matter – since matter now has only a minor place in the physical world – but to reduce it to manifestations of the operation of natural law. By “natural laws” is here meant laws of the type prevailing in geometry, mechanics, and physics which are found to have this common characteristic – that they are ultimately reducible to mathematical equations. They may also be defined by a less technical property, viz., they are laws which, unlike human law, are never broken. It is this belief in the universal dominance of scientific law which is nowadays generally meant by materialism. 

The harmony and simplicity of scientific law appeals strongly to our aesthetic feeling. It illustrates one kind of perfection, such as we might perhaps think worthy to be associated with the mind of God. One of the important questions that we have to face is whether the unseen world is governed by a like scheme of law. I am aware that many religious writers have felt no objection to, and even welcomed, the intrusion of natural law into the spiritual domain. (Probably, however, the are using the term “natural law” in a more elastic sense than that in which the materialist understands it.) Why (they ask) should we insist for ourselves on exemption from a kind of government which is displayed in inorganic nature might be hailed as a manifestation of divine perfection? But I am sure that those who take this view have never understood and faced the meaning of the ideal scheme of scientific law. What they would welcome is not science but pseudo-science. Analogies can be drawn between spiritual and natural phenomena which may serve to press home a moral lesson. For example, one of Kirchoff’s famous laws of radiation states that the absorbing power of substances is proportional to the emitting power, so that the best absorbers are also the best emitters. That might make a good text for a sermon. But if ever scientific law makes a serious inroad into the spiritual domain the consequences will not be limited to supplying texts for sermons. 

Natural law is not applicable to the unseen world behind the symbols, because it is unadapted to anything except symbols, and its perfection is a perfection of symbolic linkage. You cannot apply such a scheme to the parts of our personality which are not measurable by symbols any more than you can extract the square root of a sonnet. There is a kind of unity between the material and the spiritual world – between the symbols and their background – but it is not the scheme of natural law which will provide the cement.

In saying this I am not forgetting the likelihood of great future developments in science which may and indeed must bring to light types of natural law of which as yet we have no conception. Thus I do not judge the problem of life (in so far as it can be dissociated from consciousness) to be impregnable to the attack of physics. It is a matter of keen controversy among biochemists whether physics and chemistry as they stand are adequate to deal with the properties of living organisms. I express no opinion; but, in any case, whether they are adequate or not today, I cannot assume that future revolutions of science and the admission of new fundamental conceptions will not make them adequate. It is when life is associated with consciousness that we reach different ground altogether. To those who have any intimate acquaintance with the laws of chemistry and physics the suggestion that the spiritual world could be ruled by laws of allies character is as preposterous as the suggestion that a nation could be ruled by laws like the laws of grammar. The essential difference, which we meet in entering the realm of spirit and mind seems to hang round the word “Ought.”

This limitation of natural law to a special domain would be more obvious but for a confusion in our use of the word law. In human affairs it means a rule, fortified perhaps by incentives or penalties, which may be kept or broken. In science it means a rule which is never broken; we suppose that there is something in the constitution of things which makes its non-fulfilment an impossibility. Thus in the physical world what a body does and what a body ought to do are equivalent; but we are well aware of another domain in which they are anything but equivalent. We cannot get away from this distinction. Even if religion and morality are dismissed as illusion, the word”Ought” still has sway. The laws of logic do not prescribe the way our minds think; they prescribe the way our minds ought to think.

Suppose we concede the most extravagant claims that might be made for natural law, so that we allow that the processes of the mind are governed by it; the effect of this concession is merely to emphasise the fact that the mind has an outlook which transcends the natural law by which it functions. If, for example, we admit that every thought in the mind is represented in the brain by a characteristic configuration of atoms, then if natural law determines the way in which the configurations of atoms succeed one another it will simultaneously determine the way in which thoughts succeed one another in the mind. Now the thought of “7 times 9" in a boy’s mind is not seldom succeeded by the thought of “65.” What has gone wrong? In the intervening moments of cogitation everything has proceeded by natural laws which are unbreakable. Nevertheless we insist that something has gone wrong. However closely we may associate thought with the physical machinery of the brain, the connection is dropped as irrelevant as soon as we consider the fundamental property of thought – that it may be correct or incorrect. The machinery cannot be anything but correct. We say that the brain which produces “7 times 9 are 63" is better than a brain that produces “7 times 9 are 65"; but it is not as a servant of natural law that it is better. Our approval of the first brain has no connection with natural law; it is determined by the type of thought which it produces, and that involves recognising a domain of the other type of law – laws which ought to be kept, but may be broken. Dismiss the idea that natural laws may swallow up religion; it cannot even tackle the multiplication table single-handed.

I will add that I think Eddington was a bit too modest in his refusal to speculate on what science might achieve in that area in the future.  Most of the definitions of the relevant words in the discussion would have to undergo an enormous change in denotation in order to achieve what they can't today.   Any  science that could account for "ought" statements would have to be much different from the science of today.  Such a science would not count as science today.

UPDATE:  Due to family matters I will probably be posting pieces about once every other day for the time being.  I will try to find things to post in between, such as sections of Eddington's essay and links to other pieces, on the off days.   I hope you find reasons to check in.  


  1. It's the theophobia you mention that used to bother me.

    Then I realized, as you say, the root of the problem.

    This material on materialism is fascinating. Many thanks.

  2. Oh, and the interesting thing about "natural law" is that the phrase gained its currency in Western philosophy from Aquinas, who coined it to apply Aristotle to theology.

    No doubt the definition as Eddington defines it is somewhat different from the use Aquinas put the phrase to, but nonetheless, the roots are still there. Except for Aquinas it refers to "Because the Creator created it that way," and as Eddington means it to be used, it refers to "Just because."

    Which is a curious sort of answer.....