Why Materialism is Failing as a Worldview

Tennyson: “Then you admit, Professor Darwin, that there is a higher power behind evolution?” “Certainly, I admit it; I am compelled to do so, because evolution has always gone onward and upward, from lower to higher forms of life.  That could not be chance; it is unscientific to postulate such a hypothesis, because chance never moves in one direction.” ..Charles Darwin, 19th century naturalist .. from Talks with Great Composers, Arthur Abell “Anyone who believes in a creator God is scientifically illiterate.” .. Richard Dawkins, writer Whether divinity is believed to take the form of incarnation in a single individual, a pantheon of deities, or an all-pervading Universal consciousness, the materialist often becomes frustrated with the believer’s refusal to relinquish their faith. The reason materialism finds its way blocked in its efforts to eliminate religion is not because materialism and evolution are hard to grasp: its basic tenets can be understood by anyone.  Nor is it a result of some longstanding and ingrained manipulation by religious leaders, of a mass mind which materialists assume to be infinitely plastic.  The belief that humanity can be permanently distorted by charlatans is an error, revealing the contempt in which the materialists hold the religious: this attitude becomes more apparent when one reads Richard Dawkins, or the often vitriolic comments made by his followers, eager not only to criticise, but to ridicule religion and all those who follow it. Resistance to a logically presented materialistic explanation of the Universe would be puzzling if the mass mind really did have a flexible and naiive quality simply abused by the superstition of religious leaders in the past.  In fact the human mind has both a remarkable ability to accept new ideas over a relatively short period of time when they deepen its understanding of the cosmos (as for example the surprising, and at first, incredible notion that energy is equivalent to mass) while, at the same time resisting concepts either repugnant to it or which decrease the apparent harmony of the Universe in which it lives.  Despite the intitial resistance meeting those who propose new ways of thinking, ahead of the time at which the mental soil of the masses is prepared to accept them – of which there are many examples, such as the Sun-centric solar system, innoculations, television, space flight and even the vacuum cleaner – humanity gravitates, eventually, to concepts which expand its quality of its life, or its perception. Not only is the mind capable of absorbing advanced ideas, it is robust enough to return to its preferred worldviews after generations of repression.  When communism fell after more than three generations of outlawing religion, a period of time in which the religious sentiment should have been bred out and eliminated, society immediately returned to its natural faith.  In fact, nowhere are the churches and icons more lovingly maintained and attended than in Eastern Europe.  In Ukraine, I saw for myself that all generations willingly attended church and  followed ceremonies honouring the spirit: not only grandparents and peasant farmers, but the Gucci-shod young women also made these ceremonies part of their way of life, without any urging from others.  I was surprised to find that amidst the search for new fashions and entertainment, a visit to the tiny local church was part of the weekly routine: not to pray for material things, but to light candles for friends and family, living and departed, and to commune in silence before returning to their busy lives.

Iain Carstairs Twitter Lilya Alborova

Beautifully restored church in Ukraine, taken on my first visit there in 2004.   Lilya (pictured here) and her friends and family all embrace Christianity as part of their lives.  After several generations of enforced atheism, and decades of appalling brutality at the hands of Stalin, Ukraine is the most religious of all countries I have visited, and contains some of the most beautiful shrines to the mystical sentiment I have ever seen.

Lastly, materialism’s problems are not due to unfair suppression or incoherent presentation, for at no other time in human history had the materialist such a strong, global and immediate platform for disseminating their views, which are argued by presentable and highly intelligent personalities, and bolstered by illuminating graphics, animations, screaming headlines, entertaining television shows, and all the other forceful tools made available by the mass media, and to which billions of minds are exposed every day.  It is true that where the religious bias is strong, schools sometimes conflict with Darwinian theory, for example.  But in the process, the theory is given far more publicity than if it had been quietly accepted everywhere, and both sides are explored once again in the media, until  attention is diverted to some new and more exciting crisis elsewhere. The real reason materialism fails as a convincing worldview, especially for the religious, is that it attempts to promote matter over consciousness.  It presents this idea to a living being whose sole possession of any value, and on which all its decisions and beliefs rest, is consciousness.  Once consciousness is reduced to an unintended byproduct of dead matter, and stripped of cohesion with a grander reflection of it throughout the Universe, though visualised in different ways by every mind according to its evolutionary stage, its very existence becomes  meaningless.  It should not be surprising that the human mind, in all its phases from simple faith to a towering intellect such as Einstein’s, would tend to resist all efforts to dislodge its idea of higher intelligences. The human mind can easily make do without skyscrapers, cars and computers.  Those who return refreshed and full of ideas after simple, scenic holidays, away from the media and the stress of a mechanised existence, are evidence of this.  But it cannot survive without belief in a meaning to its own existence.  This essential requirement became apparent to Victor Frankl in Auschwitz: the Nazis’ efforts were directed at removing all hope and self belief among the inmates of their camps, by reducing life to a meaningless and ghastly existence, punctuated with merciless and arbitrary cruelty.  Frankl found that as long as the inmates felt their suffering had some meaning, and that some good might emerge one day, they tended to survive.  But once the individual succumbed to this nightmare philosophy, and their hope was lost, the individual was dead within days from the same severe presures which they had survived until then.  Frankl therefore occupied his time by supporting others in their faith and hope, and later wrote “Man’s Search For Meaning”, a highly unusual book.  The attempt to deprive a living being of all reason for living, and undermine its own existence, was a profound act of cruelty, akin to murder; a fact which the Nazis realised and derived great satisfaction from, and which the normal human mind resisted for as long as it was able. Frankl was once slipped a small crust of bread by a sympathetic camp guard.  This simple act of kindness nurtured his spirit for three months.

Inner beauty, Dneprotrovsk: Yana, Dina, Lilya and Natasha.  All suffered severe difficulties in life but never lost their spiritual viewpoint.  They are among the friendliest and most resourceful people I have met in this world.   Their spiritual perspective survived intact through the trauma and upheavals of Eastern Europe; their life contains a rich and sustaining inner world.

To counteract this accusation on a logical level and attempt to defuse the powerful emotions which greet their arguments, the materialists state that no harm is intended, and truth must be presented despite any concerns as to the damage it may do to long held superstitions; they perform this function out of a sense of duty towards progress and intellectual evolution, an admirable intention.  But what this argument does not take into account, due to the shortcomings within the philosophy itself, is the nature of consciousness, and its central role in human life. All discoveries, all art, all music, design, engineering, and all love, morality, faith, all intellectual progress, and all religion, and even all of science with its concern for investigation, order and truth in the material world, have been extracted not from lifeless matter, but from the depths of consciousness. It is consciousness, mysterious and undetectable at present, which has provided man with all the elements of human life.  Were it not so, animals would be at liberty to make the same discoveries as man.  But the missing element is within their consciousness.  The animal mind, driven by instinct, and limited to a strictly reduced range of thought, is separated from the human model by such a vast gulf that if an animal were to suddenly possess human consciousness, the experience might be so disorientating as to be unbearable.  It is human consciousness which possesses the abstract quality neccessary to reflect on the past and speculate on the future, and a powerful intellect which enables it to imagine or measure the eons-old behaviour of the universe, and attempt to forecast the millennia to come.  It is the human mind which enquires into the nature of its own existence and its relation to the Universe itself.  Matter cannot perform any of this.  The entire history of the human race is one long example of the material world gradually yielding its secrets to a steadily expanding consciousness. It is consciousness which names, measures, weighs and assigns importance to all aspects of the Universe.  It is only consciousness which imagines, conceives, designs, and presents its theories.  And invariably, it is consciousness alone which forms the audience for these theories, since without it there is no theory, no audience, no presenter, and none to argue for or against.  How the Universe would appear, devoid of consciousness, it is impossible to imagine, since it is the brain which creates the impressions of light and sound, from tiny disturbances presented to its sensory apparatus, and which also creates happiness, sadness, love, hate, hope, faith, science and all the other facets of human life, including the concepts of the spirit, of religion and of divinity. It is only consciousness which provides the insights of genius from which the race progresses, or in decaying or unstable forms, the horrors of insanity and the rampages of the psychopath.  The materialist presents an idea dismissing the fundamental nature of consciousness to an audience comprised not of lifeless molecules and barren rocks, but of consciousness itself. How can one expect a theory describing the mind as an accidental, temporary and meaningless by-product of lifeless molecular collisions, haphazardly extending itself only according to errors within its own organisation, and their influence on the frequency of reproduction, to be gladly embraced by a thinking, intelligent entity who searches for order and meaning all of its life, and uses intelligence to make progress?  The very idea is a negation of everything he learns in life, a contradiction of every one of his experiences since he began to move and to think, which showed him that random efforts never achieve an organised result and can even pose a danger to his health and progress.  The word “random” has become an insult in today’s lexicon, not because of any grudge against materialism, but because of the common distasteful experience from “some random act”.  It is the very opposite of intelligence, in form and in result: leaving aside the disdain with which it treats the quality of consciousness, the entire philosophy is an insult to an intelligent mind, even an affront to sanity. If, as is often claimed by the Dawkinites, in order to bring knowledge to the masses, only the logical mind of the materialist is competent to stamp a reliable order on such a dead, random, unintended and misinterpreted Universe, from where does this state of order, this saving grace, this salvation from chaos, come from?  Only from consciousness – the very commodity being ridiculed as having no place of its own within the Universe. Bearing all this in mind, the surprising thing is not that the materialist should meet with such profound resistance.  More incredible by far is that a living mind undermining its own sovereign nature in such a dogmatic manner, while declaring it completely reliable in every respect, should expect to be taken seriously at all.

About iain carstairs

I have a great interest in both scientific advances and the beauty of religion, and created www.scienceandreligion.com about 15 years ago with the aim of finding common ground between the scientist and the believer, and to encourage debate between the two sides.
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7 Responses to Why Materialism is Failing as a Worldview

  1. Pingback: Monday’s Round-up: The New Year « The Writers' Block

  2. Shajan says:

    I am not sure if materialism is failing as a worldview. It appears to be gaining more acceptance, atleast in these parts of the world. It sure is a slow cancer eating into the spirit of man. Here is something I wrote earlier on this question. What is this mind stuff?

  3. There is interest I’m sure, but the longer-term trend is the growing debate, and those people who support religion and spiritual ideas are getting more aware of the weak position of the loud materialists, like Dawkins etc. Instead of just saying “you’re wrong!” they’re seeing the holes in materialism and the damage it’s doing. Like a cheap nightie – it looks great in the window but eventually it’s full of holes and an embarrassment, and gets thrown away. You have to give it time – perhaps 10 or 20 years would be enough; i think people experiment with new ideas all the time but they ultimately don’t want a philosophy that makes them feel foolish for having deeper thoughts

  4. Rick Wade says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful article. The stubbornness of human nature is a problem for materialism.

    Because of your interest in religion, there may be an implication in your article which, while unstated, was intended to be understood. I’ll make it explicit.

    The two important words in your description of the materialist view, I think, are “accidental” and “meaningless.”

    I can imagine someone making a case for consciousness as “an unintended byproduct of dead matter” which, nonetheless, is capable of producing the kinds of things that we find meaningful: art, music, design, etc. Maybe the materialist can argue that, even if our thoughts are the end-product of cause-effect relations among the atoms or electrical firings in our brains, they still function well enough to enable us to live.

    However, I think people would still react against that notion, not because consciousness per se is being brought into question but because meaningful and purposive consciousness is rejected. There is no personal (in the strict sense) accomplishment in drawing a “reasoned” conclusion; *I* as a person didn’t do anything. My brain simply produced the thought. There is nothing meaningful in it even if it is functionally useful (although one then has to give a metaphysical explanation for the fact that, if the conclusions of our “reasoning” don’t accord with the world around us, we reject them; shall we invoke Hegel to explain such a systemic ordering of the cosmos?). On the personal level we reject that notion.

    But how to explain it? Here is what was left unsaid, although perhaps implied, in your article. There has to be an explanation for us being this way, for wanting our ideas and beliefs not to be accidental and meaningless. How did we get this way? One cannot simply assume as true a metaphysical starting point (materialism) and then force-fit the evidences (and ignore what doesn’t fit). The materialist wants to only look at the workings of nature to support his materialism. What about the evidences of human nature, the kinds of things you mentioned? Naturalism isn’t up to the task of explaining it. The explanation Christians give is that we persons were created by a divine Person. What He does is purposive and meaningful, and, being made in His image, so is what we do.

    Thanks again for the insightful piece.

    • Thanks very much for your comment – I think this was the first post I wrote so perhaps I need to go back and re-read it. But certainly materialism presents some problems, since the mind cannot be a material commodity unless we say material is capable of being a mind, which then negates materialism. But all these ideas depend on mind.. it is hard to say what the universe would even look like without a mind to observe it.

      Certainly there would be no colour or sound, and there might not even be any form. After all, if we could see neutrinos, we could see through a planet, making everything more or less invisible except for the source of the neutrinos. And who knows what else is there, since we can’t see it, and yet it is all around us. Material, certainly, but completely imperceptible. And there’s ten times more of it than what we can see. Where is it?! A difficult thought experiment.

      Well, anyway, you might enjoy Rupert Sheldrake’s “The Science Delusion” which is an excellent read, since he is a top scientist. As it happens I’m sending 15 copies out to the first 15 skeptics who want one – I don’t know if you qualify as a skeptic but you must be skeptical about something – let’s say, the hopes for an economy based solely on coconuts. Therefore it turns out you are eligible!

  5. Rick Wade says:

    Thanks for the offer. Being a biblioholic of the first rank, I should jump at the chance. But the book would not be put to use any time soon. Already in that general area of study I have Goetz and Taliaferro’s “Naturalism” and J.P. Moreland’s “The Recalcitrant Imago Dei” shouting to be read.

    It was good timing, reading your blog when I did. One of my colleagues is in a running dialog with Jerry Coyne and others on the materialist view of the brain as a meat computer. I pointed him to this blog.

  6. Maybe some other time; I suppose a biblioholic cannnot go for long without a new bibliohol..

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