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Why materialism makes the worst worldviews

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December 9, 2022

Which worldview is the worst worldview?

That’s an obvious question that arises from the one we started with in the last article in this series: How do we determine whether one worldview is better than any other? If some worldviews are better than others, then at least one worldview must be worse than all others. Based on criteria outlined previously, the obvious candidates for the worst worldviews are those that are built upon materialism. The adoption of materialism into a belief system automatically makes a worldview unaffirmable and unlivable.

Materialism (sometimes called physicalism) is the belief that matter is all that exists and anything that is not composed of matter (i.e., that is not a physical entity) does not exist. Most forms of atheism and almost all variations of philosophical naturalism are worldviews built on materialism. The problem for such worldviews is that by clinging to materialism they become inherently anti-intellectual and require accepting a range of beliefs that can be proven to be logically impossible. 

To understand why this is true, let’s start by examining how materialism affects what philosophers call doxastic states—states of the mind that are either beliefs or are similar to beliefs (i.e., thoughts, judgments, opinions, desires, wishes, fears). If materialism is true then all doxastic states are (a) illusions, (b) physical states, or (c) emergent properties of physical states. 

If beliefs are not made of matter, and only entities made of matter exist, then beliefs are not real; they are merely illusions. Eliminativism is the term used to refer to this theory that science will eventually prove that doxastic states do not exist. Believing that our beliefs are illusions, though, is self-refuting. Having an illusion about an illusion is a meaningless concept. And for science to produce a hypothesis (which is itself a doxastic state) that claims that doxastic states do not exist would be illogical and self-defeating. 

As noted in the last article, all false worldviews contain statements or beliefs that are similar in that they are unaffirmable. What makes most unaffirmable claims unaffirmable is that what is being affirmed is denied in the process or act of affirmation. Materialism goes even further and denies that anything can be affirmed since affirming is a doxastic state and is thus illusory. To embrace materialism requires adopting an anti-intellectual position that ideas are not real.

Many who embrace materialism are smart enough to recognize this problem and so commonly adopt a revised position. They claim that physical states (i.e., within an entity though not necessarily in the brain) produce a doxastic state with a special causal or functional role. Under this view, known as non-reductive physicalism, functional properties cannot be reduced to physical properties, but that all causality is still, nevertheless, physical.

The problem with this approach, as the late philosopher Jaegwon Kim and others have shown, is that a person can either be a materialist or believe that doxastic states are non-reductive, but they cannot believe both. Kim uses a simple diagram to show the problem:

M causes M*
P causes P*

In this diagram, P is a physical event (such as a particular arrangement of neurons in the brain) that causes another physical event, P*. M is a non-physical mental event (such as a thought) that causes M*,  another non-physical mental event.

A Teed Rockwell explains, Kim’s argument is that under materialism the top layer (M causes M*) does no real work. P can cause P* all by itself, with no help from M. There is no coherent way in which M can cause M* without P’s help, or without causing P*. If everything is physical then there is no reason mental states are needed to explain physical states.

One last option yet remains for the materialist. They can adopt reductionism, which says that physical events are identical with mental events. Unfortunately for them, this leads to two equally strange conclusions. 

If mental states (such as thoughts) are nothing more than physical states (such as clumps of neurons firing in the brain) then mental states are controlled by the same natural laws that apply to physical entities. That would mean that all human behavior would be directly caused by and contained within the laws relating to chemistry and physics. Not only would we not possess free will, we could not claim to control any action. We would be so biologically determined that we could not be considered morally responsible for any of our actions, whether good, bad, or indifferent. Every aspect of our behavior would be nothing more than physical reactions to physical stimuli produced by our physical environment.

Within such a context, ethics is meaningless. Indeed, all behavior is meaningless since there is no meaning and no way for any human action to be different from what happened.

Of course, no person can function for more than 20 minutes, much less their whole life, acting as if what they do was neither caused by their mental states and was solely the result of physical stimuli over which they have no control. Yet those who embrace materialist-based worldviews must live as if materialism is not true. They must act as if their thoughts are real, that beliefs and ideas exist, and that they are able to choose at least some of their actions. That is why worldviews based on materialism are the most unlivable. 

In the next article in this series, we’ll consider another non-Christian worldview and show why it should be abandoned as unaffirmable and unlivable.

Addendum:

There are numerous other problems with materialism, but there is one that is so bizarre that it’s worth pointing out.

If matter is all that exists, then all physical events—as well as mental events—are ultimately composed of physical matter. Doxastic states, if they are more than an illusion, must therefore be either matter or a property of matter. But of course all matter is of the same stuff—various types of particles that occupy physical space. Whether it is the material that comprises stones and plants or the human brain, it is ultimately the same.

Yet if doxastic states can be produced by matter, then matter can produce doxastic states in anything (or everything). If this is true it leads to a peculiar result. Mountains can have ‘beliefs’, car engines can feel ‘pain’, and rivers can have ‘memories.’ This is the view of panpsychism, the idea that mentality (doxastic states) is fundamental and ubiquitous in the natural world.