Saturday, August 28, 2004


Materialists believe that only material things exist. Originally it seems that scientists proposed materialism as a sort of approximation. Since material things can normally be studied profitably without introducing non-material concepts, it turned out to be a very good approximation. For instance, Galileo was able to observe and study sunspots because he ignored the ancient assertion that heavenly bodies are perfect. In practice, material objects are measurable and non-material things are only accessible subjectively.

At some point, people wondered if there might not be anything except material objects. After all, the approximation was so good that many phenomena were yielding to scientific explanation. Perhaps, the reasoning goes, non-material things simply do not exist. Materialists often make exceptions for things like Justice (which is a goal or ideal and does not exist outside of the realm of thought), or scientific laws (which are observable, though not necessarily binding). But they don't allow for a spiritual world or anything more than a Deist god.

Arguments from popularity normally exhibit the bandwagon fallacy, but it is telling that most people have believed in some form of dualism. It's difficult to understand why dualism should be so deeply ingrained in our intellectual history unless people have some reason to believe it is true. The materialist explanation seems to be that people have a need to understand the world around them and when they don't understand something (for instance, why the sun rises every morning) they would rather invent an explanation (a sun god) rather than admit they do not understand. Now that we know how the sun (or rather the earth) moves, we no longer need a sun god.

I'm not really a philosopher, so I won't pretend to be able to refute materialism. But I do think I can show why we should be skeptical about accepting it at face value. Materialist reject non-material phenomena because they don't conform to the level of evidence that is needed for material phenomena. Souls don't exist, since they can't be measured, even indirectly. Material phenomena that can't be explained by a materialist are meerly considered challenges to be solved by newer theories, better evidence and more study. In this way, materialism can resist apperant contradictions.

But why should we think it true? I can construct a simular philosophy of spiritualism in which the material world does not exist. All experiences, no matter how vivid, are meerly the result of realistic dreams. Through meditation, it will be possible to transend the illusion of the material world and assume the true, spiritual form. Naturally, a materialist would object that this is counter-intuitive or is unfalsifiable. But the same arguments may be used against materialism.

Further, the materialist explination for why dualism entered human belief systems seems unconvincing. Why did Aristotle believe in the soul? What was he trying to explain?

No comments: