Pruning the Branch We’re Standing On

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Jeffrey Thayne

Science often parades itself as the search for truth, or the the search for an understanding of what is actually going on in the world. In the pursuit of truth, science has largely adopted a philosophy known as reductive materialism. This is the philosophy that all events can be accounted for and explained by the interactions of inert matter, acting in accordance with scientific law. Of course, scientists generally exempt themselves from this process, but if pressed, many will profess the belief that even the human mind is the product of its material constituents, acting solely according to scientific laws. In other words, the mind is just grey matter in action. Thoroughgoing materialists are forced to admit this (many reluctantly, but a few enthusiastically—Paul and Patricia Churchland, for example) because to admit that something is not ultimately reducible to or explicable by its material constituents closes the door on the imperialist belief that reductive materialism will be able to explain everything in the world.

Many scholars have raised concerns over the philosophy of reductive materialism, particularly because it negates the reality of moral agency, and eventually leads to a kind of nihilism—a real dearth and death of genuine meaning. Some scholars have also argued that not only is reductive materialism damaging to the human spirit, it leads to the death of science itself. C. S. Lewis, for example, argued that if science is to survive as a coherent discipline, it must abandon the strictly reductive and materialist path it presently walks.

As materialism and naturalism are closely related, Lewis also presents a similar critique of naturalism. Naturalism, he explains, attempts to account for everything in terms of explicable and deterministic causes and effects, usually invoking materialistic causes (the motions of matter). Since we cannot be a thoroughgoing naturalist and also exempt human thought and action from the naturalistic worldview, we must examine the implications of naturalistic causality in human thought. This, however, threatens any claim we can make that our thoughts are true. He says,

The mere existence of causes for a belief is popularly treated as raising a presumption that it is groundless, and the most popular way of discrediting a person’s opinions is to explain them causally—‘You say that because (Cause and Effect) you are a capitalist, or a hypochondriac, or a mere man, or only a woman’. The implication is that if causes fully account for a belief, then, since causes work inevitable, the belief would have had to arise whether it had grounds or not. We need not, it is felt, consider grounds for something which can be fully explained without them.1

The implication here is that if my beliefs are inevitable, considering the conditions of my environment or the chemical structure of my brain, then my beliefs are non-rational. I don’t mean irrational—they may be true, and they be logical—but rather that they are arrived at through non-rational means. That is, reason had nothing do with their formation, despite how reasonable the beliefs may be. If all beliefs are like this—if all beliefs are the product of non-rational causes, such as the material constituents of my brain, my genetic heritage, or the stimulus-response training of my environment—then I have no basis to claim that any of my beliefs are true, for even my belief that they are the product of non-rational causes must also have a non-rational cause. Lewis concludes:

No account of the universe can be true unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be a real insight. A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court. For that theory would itself have been reached by thinking, and if thinking is not valid that theory would, of course, be itself demolished. It would have destroyed its own credentials. It would be an argument which proved that no argument was sound—a proof that there are no such things as proofs—which is nonsense.1

Lewis then quotes a Professor Haldane: “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true … and hence I have no reason for supposing by brain to be composed of atoms.”1

For these reasons, I believe that Lewis is correct when he claims that not only do reductive materialism and strict naturalism negate human agency, they also negate the possibility of science itself; at least, science as a pursuit of truth. In a future post, I will expand upon this train of reasoning, and show why I believe that the philosophy of reductionism in accounting for the origin of life, as exemplified in basic evolutionary theory, threatens the very essence of science itself.

C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperCollins, 1947), p. 21-24.


  1. A few thoughts. First off I’m not at all convinced materialism results in nihilism. That’s simply a very controversial position. Certainly most materialists aren’t nihilists. Some philosophers claim that this is simply because they haven’t thought through the consequences of their thought but that seems dubious in my opinion.

    The claim that materialism negates the reality of moral agency is problematic as well. Even ignoring the position of semi-compatibilists like Fischer there’s also the question of whether agency could be an emergent phenomena. It is not at all clear that materialism is incompatible with a real robust mind, Chalmers notwithstanding.

    So while one could argue for these implications of physicalism it isn’t obvious that they are implications of physicalism and many philosophers argue strenuously against their being implications of physicalism.

  2. Just to add, Lewis was adopting a very outdated model of physics. Given quantum mechanics it is by no means clear that any physical state is inevitable. Most people who adopt realism towards physical theory (as opposed to a empiricist epistemology or instrumentalism) think QM entails ontological indeterminism. There are a few hold outs following David Bohm who try to maintain Einstein’s Spinoza like view of determinism. But they aren’t the majority by any means.

    Given ontological indeterminism many of the claims about physicalism are dubious. The only question is whether ontological indeterminism can create a free mind as a regular emergent phenomena. (As opposed to something more extreme such as Blake Ostler’s ontological emergence view)

  3. Thanks for your thoughts! I really appreciate hearing from astute and intelligent readers as yourself. We hope to continue to hear from you in the future.

    In response, I haven’t included all of Lewis’s thoughts. He freely admits that quantum mechanics changes the rules of the game, and raises the possibility of an indeterministic “subnature” (as he calls it). However, after acknowledging the possibility, he does not evaluate the merits of the possibility and proceeds to critique the kind of deterministic naturalism that he was more familiar with. He was aware of alternatives, though.

    I too am fully aware that my claims are controversial, and far from consensus among philosophers. At this point, however, I am not at all convinced that agency, purpose, or meaning can be emergent phenomena. I do not believe that meaning and agency can emerge from a fundamentally non-purposeful and non-agentic substratum. While I have many good reasons to believe this, I am not yet at a point where I can defend this belief against criticism… but I will be talking about it in the future, so we could postpone any serious discussion of the issue until then.

    Also, as I will explain in a post on Monday, I think we too often conflate agency with indeterminism. I do not believe that an ontological indeterminism can save us from a nihilistic worldview. I don’t see random events as any more meaningful or agentic than inevitable events. I’ll have more to say on the issue Monday.

    In the end, I think it is likely that many philosophers and scientists have not fully thought through the implications of their worldview. Although you may find this dubious, I find it holds true on a regular basis. A simple conversation with an ardent behaviorist in the psychology department at BYU will show that that many are unwilling to accept the implications of Skinnerian thought that even Skinner himself understood and embraced (e.g. “Beyond Freedom and Dignity”).

  4. I think Nietzsche was the great philosopher of overcoming nihilism with naturalism. So I’m pretty skeptical of equating nihilism and naturalism. There are some pretty standard moves one can make.

    The debate about randomness and agency is a big one. I’ve been discussing the past few months this issue with Blake. I’m pretty skeptical of his view. It seems to me the biggest problem is whether one could distinguish the differing kinds of indeterminsim. That is how does one distinguish emergent phenomena coming from underlying ontological chance from agent libertarianism? Blake’s solution is just to say that there are some phenomena chance can’t mimick but I don’t buy that in the least.

    Maybe you’ll have something new to say here. But I think it is a big problem. Even Blake’s approach is only possible by adopting a fairly complex and controversial metaphysics. (IMO) Arguing for the reality of that metaphysics is even more problematic.

    Regarding thinking through implications of thought, I think the problem is that of asking how far one must think and how “obvious” the thinking must be. Given all the disagreement on the issue I don’t think one can say it is merely not thinking through ones position enough. Otherwise anyone thinking through it carefully would come to the same position. But the bigger problem is that saying an idea leads to nihilism seems a problematic claim if one has to engage in quite a lot of thinking of a particular sort to get to that nihilism. That in and of itself suggests that the position could at best only lead to nihilism rarely.

  5. Dear friend,

    Your post has been the harbinger of some exciting discussion! Bravo! Although I don’t consider myself an expert of the current and historical discourse on free will and agency, I would like to add a few thoughts for your consideration.

    I consider myself somewhat a student of the neurosciences and I have never heard or read an expert in the field profess that the properties of the mind are completely or even can be explained by the molecular nature of “grey matter.” We know that when certain portions of the brain are damaged, corresponding capacities of the mind are withdrawn, but no where does anyone state they understand precisely why or how this happens. Basically, they know when X is damaged, Y disappears. Period. Some have explained what parts of the brain are most-likely responsible for the experience of Y and what is, on a more-likely-than-not basis, the correlation between X and Y. But how Y arises from the corresponding neurobiology is still cloaked in mystery.

    I have heard, however, many neuroscientists explain (with much respect and fascination for the organism) that the mind far out-performs the capacities given it by its neurobiology. There are emergent properties we do not understand–and perhaps never will.

    In fact, on any level–even down to the atomic–our perception of “causality” is completely post hoc. If given an atom with six neutrons and six protons, surrounded by six electrons, it would be quite impossible to predict how that atom would react with other atoms of the same/different nuclear make-up…of course, that is unless one already knew atoms with six neutrons/protons/electrons were classified as “Carbon” and that, under normal conditions, “Carbon” atom acted in such-and-such a way.

    And this is not causality, but merely classification based on past empirical evidence.

    As Clark mentioned, many are pulling the quantum card to explain the indeterminate nature of matter, especially when it comes down to such emergent properties as freedom and agency–things that seemingly stem from neurobiology, but cannot be explained by it. But this smacks of old causality wine in 21st century wine bottles; by trying to explaining “why” things happen, it would seem we are trying to accomplish precisely what we say is impossible. How can we postulate what determined an indeterminant event?

    John Searle, in his book “Freedom and Neurobiology” provides excellent treatment of the subject. I would submit this book as a source for our further consideration of the matter.

    Buona notte

  6. Daniel,

    Thanks for stopping by! I appreciate your comments. I love how many scientists have the professional humility to avoid making claims beyond what the evidence shows. Causality is not something that falls on the retina, and therefore can never be empirically observed or demonstrated. I wish all scientists could acknowledge the limits of their own observations.

    I’ll take a look into Searle’s book! Thanks for the recommendation!

  7. Daniel: By trying to explaining “why” things happen, it would seem we are trying to accomplish precisely what we say is impossible. How can we postulate what determined an indeterminant event?

    Very well put.

    It seems to me that agency (or something like it) must be one of the most fundamental realities. Because if there is something behind it that “explains” it, then it’s not really agency.

  8. My only caveat is that agency isn’t unexplainable… we don’t want to get into mysticism; rather, it is unexplainable in causal terms. We can certainly develop narrative explanations. For example, I am doing homework because I want to get a good grade in my class. However, the “because” of the previous sentence means something very different than it would if I were to say “the billiard ball moved because the other one collided with it.” The first is a teleological causation, the second is a mechanistic causation.

    That is one of my claims in my indeterminism and agency posts: agency doesn’t make the world into something explainable and arbitrarily random. We can still take account of agentic acts, just not in mechanistic terms.

  9. I would be interested in hearing (actually reading) how Jeff and Nathan (and others too) define the word “agency”. In reading the above comments, it appears that the concept of agency may not be limited to the typical LDS definition.

    Are you using “agency” as an LDS concept, a theological/philosophical concept, or still something else?

  10. Speaking just for myself, I’m trying to use it in the way it’s used in the scriptures. I’m aware that people use agency (and other words) to mean subtly different things. My overall purpose is to figure out what the Lord and his prophets mean by it, and use it that way.

  11. Nathan,

    When you say you try to use the word “agency” in the way the scriptures use it, I still have to wonder what that means.

    How do the scriptures use “agency”?

    In your post, “Astronauts without Planets,” you said, “Thus, power to choose is not in itself agency. The ability to make a choice is only one of several ingredients necessary for agency.” But the most common definition of “agency” in the LDS church is something related to an unconstrained choice or the freedom to choose, so now I’m back to wondering what it means to you.

    By the way, I do agree with you that there is more to scriptural agency than a simple freedom to choose.

  12. But the most common definition of “agency” in the LDS church is something related to an unconstrained choice or the freedom to choose.

    I agree that many members use “agency” to mean unconstrained choice. I just don’t know that they should. I think the Lord may mean something more profound or complex, but we don’t even notice because we assume a definition that we inherit from our culture.

    As I’m studying this to figure out what all the Lord means when he uses the word, there’s one thing I think might be added to the definition. I think agency might be making meaningful choices, or choices related to joy and sorrow.

  13. I agree that that’s the most common definition. I just wanted to know if that’s the one you were using.

    I also agree that there’s actually more to it. Accountability, consequences, and the principles you referred to from “Mormon Doctrine” fit in there as well. That’s why I referred to the concept of “moral agency” — Agency applied to moral actions (good and evil), and all that goes with it.

  14. [In my above comment I said I had previously referred to “moral agency.” I actually did that in my comments under the “Astronauts without Planets” post and not under this post. Sorry for the possible confusion to other readers.]

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