Materialism, Mechanism, and Evidence

Materialism is inconsistent with the evidence, if we take “materialism” to mean a “mechanistic view of nature.”

A.  What do I mean by a “mechanistic view of nature?”

1–The questionable idea that all causation between real entities (ultimate units of nature) must ONLY be efficient causation (as opposed to final);

2–The questionable idea that what are actually composite entities (humans, rocks, pencils, etc.) are taken to be real and final entities;

3–The questionable idea that there’s only one type of causal relation, and this causal relation is an external relation (as opposed to the view that there are two kinds of causal relations, external and internal);

4–Given 1-3 above, the questionable conclusion that all real entities are devoid of any kind of “experience” or “prehension” or “primitive feeling” or a “receiving data into the constitution” of another entity.  (I.e., the parts of the world are utterly separated from each other at the fundamental level.)

In other words, the entities of materialism are actual, but they’re “vacuous actualities.”  They are totally inert, inactive, dormant, idle, and lifeless.  They are exactly like a rock or a pencil–completely passive–unless they are thrown at something and move it by striking it (purely an external relation, and purely efficient causation).  (Note that the non-materialist or non-mechanistic view (the process philosophical view) DOES NOT espouse that actualities express CONSCIOUSNESS!  Self-awareness and consciousness come 15 billion years later in the form of animal nervous systems.  Self-awareness and consciousness are entirely different from prehension or primitive experience or internal relations.) The paradigm of the mechanistic view, of course, is David Hume’s is mechanistic cosmology (started by the “material” side of Descartes’ ontology).  Hume’s view spawned positivism, behaviorism, and sensate empiricism (and other related worldviews which were picked up by the scientific community starting in the 19th century).

B.  The mechanistic view of nature is inconsistent with the evidence in about a googol different ways.  I will only mention one or two.

First, the mechanistic view provides no logical basis for causation/induction.  We feel that we are causal agents and that thus we cause things.  We also feel that things in the environment cause other things.  Science (induction) is based on this assumption.  There’s a lot of evidence for induction.  But as Hume argued (in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding) on the mechanistic view, causation is impossible.  Further, no one yet has countered Hume’s argument, and in principle it CAN’T be shown to be false–simply put, Hume’s arguments (with his ontological assumptions) were 100% right.  This is why Quine, Ayer, and Putnam have all said that Hume cannot be logically countered, but we just have to “give up” and be logically inconsistent for the time being, because “science works.”  Maybe Hume will be answered some day, they say, but not now.  Also, Colin McGinn has said that the mind-body problem and the problem of causation are “cognitively closed” to humans, where this means there IS a solution, but our brains cannot comprehend the solution.  Indeed, science works, but just not in the way Hume and others think it works!

Second, there are some scientific reasons why mechanism as a worldview isn’t adequate.  The mechanistic view gives no reason why there should be anything like gravitational stresses between purely externally-related actualities (Whitehead argues this in his book “Modes of Thought”).  A corollary is that the flow of time itself makes little sense such that it’s an “accident” (a contingency) rather than being essential (necessary) in relation to actual entities (I think Whitehead argues this on p. 50 of his book “Science and the Modern World,” as well as in “Modes of Thought”); another corollary is that purpose (as well as sentience itself) has no place in the mechanistic cosmological scheme.  One of my favorite quotes from Whitehead (it’s in Function of Reason) is, “Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study.”  As David Griffin says, it is hopelessly futile to explain complexities like human experience and behavior purely in terms of a mechanistic view with the locomotions and external relations of vacuous actualities.

BTW, for those who want to dismiss this entire post because they think physics “proves” there’s no such thing as prehensive or experiential action at the most fundamental level, they should realize that physics itself takes no position about the nature of the final actualities of the world.  The current range/scope of scientific investigation cannot (yet) address this question.

Now, of course, if by “materialism” you mean something different than a purely mechanistic worldview, then that’s an entirely different story.  Some people try to argue that materialism can still mean that the ultimate actualities of the universe are internally related, prehensive etc. (especially given evidence in quantum mechanics), but this doesn’t really keep with the spirit of “materialism” does it?  (No pun intended about the “spirit of materialism.”)  Webster’s says materialism is “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.”  Note that the word “matter” is critical in this definition.

Of course, if one is utterly wedded to the word “matter” they may redefine “matter:”  The argument can be made that matter is ultimately energy, and that energy is ultimately prehensive.  On this definition, energy/matter is not limited to external relations, and is dynamic and internally related to itself.  But nevertheless “matter” (in this sense defined) is still fundamental.  OK, I certainly buy this argument.  It’s essentially Whitehead’s argument; one thing he’s doing is redefining matter.


One comment on “Materialism, Mechanism, and Evidence

  1. Good post, Aliman. I have no argument with it. It seems that by the definitions provided, I do not qualify as a materialist, unless one redefines matter in the more inclusive modern sense.


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