A Priori Materialism

Photo by Beth Drendel

Photo by Beth Drendel

Materialism is defined in in the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary as “a theory that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality and that all being and processes and phenomena can be explained as manifestations or results of matter.” Science is the study of the material world, so it may come as no surprise that many (most?) scientists are materialists.

If materialism is reality (nothing exists but matter), then science is the study of everything that exists or cold possibly exist. In fact, that is what the scientific community, generally, claims, and many in the academic community have accepted that claim. But is that claim something that is proven by science?

It may depend on the definition of science. If science is defined such that nothing but matter and natural laws exist, then science will (naturally) only prove what it is defined to prove. If that sounds like circular reasoning, it is!

It is one thing to define science as the study of natural laws and matter, which it is certainly is, but it is another thing altogether to define science to exclude the possibility of other “things”. Stephen Meyer, the Cambridge University PhD., observes that this is precisely what the “scientific community” attempts to do, and by doing so, not only limits the scope of science (which actually makes sense) but also attempts to exert influence over academic inquiry to the realm of science – which they say is the study of all there is to the exclusion of other possibilities.

If this seems somewhat dogmatic, it is. In fact, the dogmatism of the scientific community is nothing new. Phillip E. Johnson, in his essay, The Unraveling of Scientific Materialism , Nov. 1997, quoted the essay on Carl Sagan, New York Review of Books, Jan. 9, 1997, by Richard Lewontin, Professor of Genetics at Harvard:

“We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.”

Interesting, is it not? A particularly unscientific statement, but there it is. But, one might wonder, did Lewontin really mean what he said? Was he “speaking out of school”? Maybe not.

We find Dr. George Wald, an evolutionary biologist, Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University at Harvard, and Nobel Prize winner in Biology, echoing similar sentiments many years earlier:

“There are only two possibilities as to how life arose; one is spontaneous generation arising to evolution, the other is a supernatural creative act of God, there is no third possibility. Spontaneous generation that life arose from non-living matter was scientifically disproved 120 years ago by Louis Pasteur and others. That leaves us with only one possible conclusion, that life arose as a creative act of God. I will not accept that philosophically because I do not want to believe in God, therefore I choose to believe in that which I know is scientifically impossible, spontaneous generation arising to evolution.”

(“Innovation and Biology,” Scientific American, Vol. 199, Sept. 1958, p. 100}

And then there is Paul Davies, the English physicist. Fast forward to more present times. He is popular for writing about science in a poplist kind of way, invoking the name of the God, in attempts to recast the discussion about science,  but only as a device. At the bottom line, he says this in his book, The Fifth Miracle:The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life:

“Science takes as its starting point the assumption that life wasn’t made by a god or a supernatural being: it happened unaided and spontaneously as a natural process.”

Of the God-device using Davies, William Dembski comments in his critique of the book:

“Intelligent design—the idea that a designing intelligence is responsible for the origin of life—is for Davies scientifically unthinkable. Yet all the options that for him are scientifically thinkable fail miserably to explain the origin of life.”

“It is the job of science to solve mysteries without recourse to divine intervention. Just because scientists are still uncertain how life began does not mean life cannot have had a natural origin.”

Even the innovation desirous Davies cannot let loose of the anchor to naturalism. The commitment to naturalism, or materialism, or whatever you want to call it, is as religiously dogmatic as any theist, and the scientific community can be as entrenched as the religious community in holding to materialism and its champion, evolution, its sacred text for the explanation of the origin of life. The insistence on materialism a priori is really no different no more scientific than starting with belief in God.

One thought on “A Priori Materialism

  1. Wonderful post on the commitment to materialism that is prevalent within the scientific community. Unfortunately science has been co-opted into being synonymous with material explanations for all phenomena.

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