I've blogged about Materialism quite extensively, so a lot of this will be rehash, but a long debate at closing time yesterday reminded me how important these topics remain in the public mind. So let me remind you of the foundations of Materialism, the 20th century of Materialism, and how it has failed in the 21st century.
arose in the 5th century BC by Democritus
and Leucippus, whom we know through fragmentary writings, but was much developed by Epicurus
in the 4th century BC and especially as translated by Roman poet, Lucretius
in the 1st century BC. It arose in response to two interrelated desires: 1) to rid the world of the gods, 2) to explain the world through reductionism (e.g. atoms). That is, gods and people are big, complex, indescribable things, and when one invokes a god to explain some natural phenomenon (rainbows, thunderbolts etc.) we have explained one complex phenomenon by something even more complex. There is no progress toward simplicity, no capacity to understand much less predict future phenomena. In contrast, reductionism is the attempt to use simpler things to explain more complex ones, until ultimately we have the simplest things known to man: metaphysical atoms.
But our metaphysical atoms must be insulated from all attempts to reintroduce the gods. They must be impervious to the wishes of the gods. They must be independent and even predate the gods, they must have no beginning. And to prevent any future interference, they must be also be indestructible and eternal. No beginning, no end, and no messing around in between. That, in a nutshell, are the three pillars of Materialism.
Atomic theory was an attempt to make this philosophy more concrete, and Lucretius did a tremendous amount of "scientific" work, opposing the reigning Aristotelean and Platonic science/philosophy of his day. Read his chapter on magnetism from De Rerum Natura
to see how he counters the organic and spiritual interpretation of Aristotle; it is almost word for word the modern theory of mass and the Higgs Boson (or what Nobel laureate Leon Lederman impishly calls the "God Particle"
). In 2100 years, we have yet to go beyond Greek science. We still want the God who is spirit to be a particle.
Historically, materialism had a brief flowering in the Greek world, leading to many scientific advances, and then seemed to collapse with the Roman conquest and the introduction of Persian and Eastern religions. Stanley Jaki
talks about the poison of bad metaphysics, that causes science to search in all the wrong places for an answer, ultimately descending into superstition and dogmatic assertion. And Greek science, despite many successes, ultimately proved incapable of negotiating the maze of blind alleys that is experience. It seemed to work the best when the least was known. Vern Poythress
is the most recent theologian to have published
on the necessity of Christian metaphysics for doing science.
But as a consequence of this failure of Materialism to survive the Hellenistic period, and receiving a further blow from Augustine in the 5th century AD who adapted Platonic philosophy to Christian theology, Materialism was declared heretical and banned for 1000 years. Not until Gassendi and 17th century classicists revived it did it take over Chemistry in the 18th century, and Physics in the 19th. Biology alone was the sole remaining fortress of Aristotelean purpose until Charles Darwin successfully scaled the ramparts with "Origin of the Species" in 1859, and closed the century with the total victory of Materialism.
This set the stage for the great Materialist Century, the 20th century since the birth of Christ. It was a century that saw entire empires founded on the spiritual, economic and philosophical bedrock of Materialism. Communism, Socialism, Progressivism, Fascism, were all the various societal structures built upon the foundation of the uncaring and absent gods, the three pillars of Materialism. The result, as we fully appreciate today, was the simultaneous advance of science and the holocaust of humanity. No other period of history has seen such human carnage, such devastating destruction, such all-encompassing wars. If we have escaped to the other side of that century, it was a triumph of spirit over atom, of ethics over brutality, of faith over atheism.
Yet strangely, the 20th century of Materialism began with the discovery that all three pillars were broken. In 1905, Einstein showed that matter could be converted to energy, and atoms could be destroyed. In that same year, he described light waves as a particle, leading to the strange world of the quantum where atoms behave like spirit and spirit like atoms. In 1911 he wrote the equations that described the Big Bang, the beginning of all space and time. And so before the century had even birthed its first war, physics had removed all three pillars.
That revolution begun by Einstein was resisted by the same man
. He was an unconverted materialist who never accepted the reality of God except in some sort of Spinozan materialist sense. His ethics and family life were a disaster, and he never reconciled his behavior with his aesthetics (math). It was this schizophrenic philosophy that became the dominant attitude of all scientists in the 20th century, with a theistic view of nature (aesthetics) combined with an atheistic view of anthropology (ethics). Nowhere is this schizophrenia more evident than in biology, where anthropomorphized "Nature" takes the place of God, yet the demands of that same God on anthropos are resolutely denied. With one hand we model "apparent purpose" and evolutionary necessities, and with the other hand we remove any ethical consequences of those constructs. Whatever else you might say about the Nazis, they were consistent Materialists.
Our brief historical overview brings us to the 21st century today, when many alternatives to Materialism are being debated. Post-Modernism is the polytheistic answer to atheistic materialism, Islam the mono-theistic answer, while Christianity the maternal answer. Yet like a rebellious teenager, bipolar Science lashes out against his mother with diatribes such as Richard Dawkins' and Xopher Hitchins' books. Staid scientific organizations such as the American Geophysical Union have sessions at their annual meetings dedicated to discussing the growing threat of "evangelicals" and "Intelligent Design", which are apparently only comparable to Global Warming in their potential for destruction. What do we make of all these histrionics?
I see in them all a similar phenomena as Darwin's publication. Just as biology was the lone bulwark against atheism in 1859, so the "objectivity" of science, the "no messing around in between" pillar of materialism has become the highest spot to stem the returning tide
of Matthew Arnold's faith. "Science cannot be influenced by ethics
" we can almost hear Einstein roar, as it makes an ethical imperative, "the gods cannot be permitted to influence Science!" No President's panel on Bioethics should be permitted to control what science can study. No Intelligent Design advocate should be permitted to smuggle purpose or ethical imperatives into science. Yet these same people argue that Global Warming as revealed by science is such an alarming danger it imposes an ethical imperative on our consumption of oil and SUV's. So how, precisely, are science and ethics related? The 21st century is schizophrenic.
Do we return to the 20th century fascist
solution? Do we return to the 15th century medieval solution? Or the 7th century Islamic solution? Or perhaps the 4th century BC Greek solution is best? These are the debates swirling about that knot of scientists standing on the ruin of a column on a shingled beach while the tide comes in around them, dark and deep.