The Unbearable Lightness of Materialism

Sometimes people leave comments that I end up replying to at length, despite not really intending to write so much. Recently a comment in response to my screed against Rick Warren prompted a comment that invoked the M word… materialism. There were also a fair number of “quote me and then argue against my quote” comments, which I find almost as annoying, but that’s another issue.

Anyway, I ended up writing so much that I thought I’d at least try to salvage something of my time and effort by posting what I wrote as its own blog entry, which follows. I’m not sure if this flies in the face of the Uniform Code of Internet Propriety, but nonetheless I did it and I’d do it again.


Nope. There will be no Gish Gallups on this blog. No throwing out of ten different fallacious arguments, hoping the moderator (me) hasn’t the time to address them all, then when he (I) does, just throw out five more for each point addressed. Mathematically, by this method the galloper wins by default. Well, not here.

To nip this diseased flower in the bud, I’ll cut to the core fallacy: materialism. I’m sorry to break this to you, but there isn’t any such thing. It doesn’t exist. By that I mean it is fictional, imaginary. No scientist looks at a spread of data and says “hmmm, according to a materialist frame of reference my data signifies X…”. That does not happen. Ever. The term materialism is a made-up word used by theists when they have run out of arguments… and since they don’t have any arguments to begin with, “materialism” gets trotted out fairly quickly in most cases. Using the term materialism lends imaginary credence to the idea that there is a serious branch of study focusing on “non-materialism”… that there is a “material” part of the universe and a demonstrably “non-material” part. The problem with this setup becomes apparent the first time someone tries to pin down a definition for either. What is “material” and what is “immaterial”? According to theists, immaterial things include gods, angels, demons, souls, perhaps ghosts, sometimes faeries. These things, we are told by theists, are immaterial but real, and only our closed-minded refusal to see the real world as it truly is separates us from the ranks of the enlightened faithful. If only we would open our minds, they say, we’d be able to bathe in the light of true understanding. Usually, at that point, Shakespeare’s quote about more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy, etc., gets trotted out.

Sorry, no. Which of the following is more open-minded: 1) asserting that one simply knows, absolutely and beyond any possibility of falsification, that gods, ghosts and ectoplasmic spirit substance exists, or 2) observing that no reliable models for how anything works, anywhere and at any time, require an immaterial explanation, therefore immaterial things probably aren’t really there… but that if good evidence were to come forth, we’d all have an interesting new branch of physics to study? Which of those is the more closed-minded position? If someone is a theist, obviously the second option is more closed-minded, because no theist true believer will ever admit to the possibility that stories told to them from childhood were told to them by people who learned them through the same channel of hearsay, and that they’ve based their life and wasted their energy on a fiction.

What evidence is there to support the theist’s model of immaterial things? That we don’t fully understand every aspect of the Big Bang? That the lack of absolute knowledge allows one to insert whatever the hell one wants? Seriously? That’s an argument from ignorance, a god of the gaps fallacy. Basically, that point of view asserts: “We don’t understand what happened before the Big Bang, therefore I understand what happened before the Big Bang.” Sorry, but no you don’t. Lacking data about some high-level physics problem does not give one a logical basis upon which to assert some ridiculously even-more-complicated model of a cosmic superintelligence. It does not follow, nor does it lead rationally to the assumption of a benevolent Overmind about which one has highly specific information about its motivation, intent, wishes, and its propensity to answer prayers. It is simply astounding that theists cannot see the self-evident absurdity of their position.

I have no problem with the universe being bigger than I can understand or imagine. I don’t assume I have all the answers, nor do I assume that childhood fables prepare me to offhandedly contradict the sum of human knowledge because I find some of its conclusions unsettling. When I put my ego aside and try to examine things rationally, I see no evidence whatsoever for “immaterial” objects or forces. If you have such evidence then please bring it forward. I’m fairly sure we’d all like to see it. But keep in mind that personal imaginary experiences of voices in the dark, or dreams, or a warm fuzzy feeling, or appeals to tradition, or appeals to ignorance, or convoluted psychomasturbatory arguments from pre-industrial greybeards do not constitute evidence.

Scientists – good scientists – try not to assert positively that there is no ectoplasmic dimension to reality, they simply note that such a model is not required by anything we understand so far, nor is there an obvious place where it could fit, nor do we reliably observe the kinds of phenomena that would probably be commonplace if such an immaterial realm existed. The only honest conclusion to be drawn is that the supernatural is fictional. Theists, on the other hand, really do make routine, positive assertions that things exist without a single tiny mote of supporting evidence. They see gaps in our knowledge and are perfectly happy to leap right into those gaps and declare the problem solved by fiat, then shake their heads in sorrow at the poor, dogmatic, close-minded scientist.


~ by Planetologist on January 29, 2009.

10 Responses to “The Unbearable Lightness of Materialism”

  1. And that is the jillion dollar question. No matter how unlikely the big bang is, an omniscient and timeless god creating the universe will always be more unlikely.

    • Yes, and then they (usually) try to claim that the scientific viewpoint on the matter is also faith-based. I suppose they can’t imagine that anyone can think any other way.

      I used to think that the universe was going to expand forever and fade away in a heat death, because that’s what the world’s leading physicists thought. Then, new discoveries were made and physicists figured out that the universe will probably end in a Big Rip. Confronted with new data, I said “wow, that’s cool”, and changed my mind. Just like that.

      Some of Kaku’s work is now pointing the way toward determination of conditions before the Big Bang, using brane theory… and using predictions that can at least in principle be tested. Yes, it will take a very big and very expensive machine to do that, but at least we have options and can devise a set of experiments… and that’s a lot more than any theist can do.

  2. This post starts with sarcastic reference to Gish Gallups and bringing up fallacies by the dozen. You sounded so enthusiastic at the beginning, I thought you would address all my points. Instead you picked one and addressed only that. Instead of the “Great New Atheist Strategy” of not giving a millimeter to theist reasoning, I see a cornered atheist point of view trying to escape through the channel of smallest resistance.

    • Really? I see a cornered theist who refuses to stick to one argument at a time. Also I’m not sure what points you mean. Demographics of European parliaments? Really? On those points I just have to shrug. The political parties of Europe can call themselves what they want, but I’m unaware of any of the “christian”-oriented EU parties trying to get creationism into public schools there, or trying to rob women of their fundamental reproductive rights. Most don’t need to call for an official state religion, because many nations already have such… as a toothless relic.

  3. Sorry, but in the middle of an argument i can’t be in consideration of things that annoy you (for no acceptable reason).
    I’m not comfortable in the lecturing position, but you need to do some reading on the “m word”…. and I have to quote here again:

    ” materialism […] It doesn’t exist. By that I mean it is fictional, imaginary. No scientist looks at a spread of data and says “hmmm, according to a materialist frame of reference my data signifies X…” […] The term materialism is a made-up word used by theists when they have run out of arguments… and since they don’t have any arguments to begin with, “materialism” gets trotted out fairly quickly in most cases. Using the term materialism lends imaginary credence to the idea that there is a serious branch of study focusing on “non-materialism”…”

    I think fighting pseudoscientists all the time made you a bit paranoid. Materialism is not a scientific framework, it is one of the basic philosophical branches. It is not a word made-up by Christians, its a self-identified system of thought that has started well before christianity. It is not a word made up and used by theists: philosophers such as Karl Marx applied this word for themselves. Also, how exactly a simple word, such as materialism can be used in an argument, when you run out of arguments?
    The alternative important line of philosophy (and not scientific study) is not “non-materialims”, not “immaterialism”, not “theism” but idealism with its many branches. This is important, and way more than a question of definition, because while immaterialism (a minor little system of thought from the 18th century claiming that no matter exists) is plain insane, objective idealism is as valid of an attempt to understand the World as science is. That is because not only physical tests and experiments can lead to understanding, but human logic, too.

    My God is not only the god of gaps, who has been used to explain what lightnings or sea tides are, but my God is the god of the big-f*cking-basic-logical-contradiction in the very beginning of existence for which there is absolutely no indication that science can even remotely solve. It’s not a gap in knowledge, it’s the most basic elements of logical reasoning crushing into each other.
    Of course you can further explain Big Bang as you did in your post “Nothing from nothing is nothing”, and it may be true, it may be interesting in Nat Geo series, but since it does not explain the question of existence but its early history, its completely beside the topic of this argument.

    There are unexplained things we can’t test. It is common practice (in science, too) that people come up with theories. Until there is further evidence, people usually chose the theories that provide the simplest solution. You are a materialist and an atheist with no theory, I’m an objective idealist and agnostic theist with a theory. “There is probably a God, so I stop worrying, and start enjoying my life”.

    • I’m not a philosopher, so much of the solipsistic plethora of “isms” that fill the world’s philosophy texts is beyond my training. All I’m interested in is tangible, testable reality. Materialism is, indeed, a long-used term by all the people you mention. That doesn’t make the term useful. Materialism as a concept is utterly without utility because – and this is the crux of my argument – there is, to the best of our knowledge, nothing supernatural in the universe. At all.

      Your god doesn’t exist. It is imaginary, fictional, made-up, a figment. It is wishful thinking, wrapped up in a self-centric vision of the cosmos. When I say “you” I don’t mean to be personal, because I don’t know you. But the same is true for everyone, and you fall into that category. You can believe in your private thoughts whatever you want, and I support that right as a founding principle of free society, but thinking something exists doesn’t make it true.

      I’m sorry to see this argument devolve to the same old tired theistic retreat scenario: when all else fails, simply reject out of hand the body of physics as irrelevant, and keep saying over and over, like a mantra, “we don’t know how the universe started, therefore I know how the universe started.” There is no logical contradiction in the beginning of the universe. I really wish theists would get over this nonsense. If you really want to try and understand the physics of the Big Bang, and not simply reject it because it clashes with your childhood indoctrination, I’d recommend the books of Michio Kaku, specifically M-Theory: The Mother of All Superstrings, and Physics of the Impossible. I’d also recommend Timothy Ferris’s The Whole Shebang, and Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, as great layman’s introductions to the science of cosmology.

      The short answer to your “logical contradiction” mistake is that the universe did not start from nothing, it probably started from the interaction of higher-dimensional branes that are part of a much larger multiverse. The searing energies released when two other universes interacted probably caused the birth of our particular universe, which is otherwise closed in four-dimensional spacetime. I’m not a “materialist with no theory”. I accept tentatively the testable first-tier hypotheses that physics provides for the origin of our universe, and none of those ideas include a sentient Overmind. Physics is a lot more robust and useful than you give credit – or perhaps are able to give credit – despite your dismissive attitude.

    • And just to be clear… how would the spontaneous, naturalistic and mathematically describable formation of a universe be a logical contradiction, whilst one forming from the conscious actions of an extracosmic, even-more-complex organism – who does not possess an origin of any kind – wouldn’t?

  4. Wow.

    That was really good.

    Can you get that argument in liquid form? I have some people I need to administer 1000cc’s of it to, stat.

  5. Well said, especially this: “We don’t understand what happened before the Big Bang, therefore I understand what happened before the Big Bang.”

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