What does “materialism” mean?

This term seems more straightforward than many of the others we are defining. But even this term has important subtleties that are too often overlooked. Evolutionists mean something very particular by it.

In short, “materialism” is a metaphysical commitment. It is a commitment to the existence of only matter and the forces that “surround” or act upon matter. For example, Einstein argued that matter having mass actually curves the space-time around it, thereby producing the “force” of gravity. The standard model of quantum theory accomplishes the same thing with electricity and other “forces,” saying that these “forces” really inhere in ever-tinier particles and their interactions.

So, the “real furniture” of the universe is matter, and that matter produces the “forces” that appear to “act upon it.” Thought of in this way, materialism is the metaphysical philosophy that reduces all of reality to matter, saying that there “really is” nothing other than matter and that all of the “other” things we think we experience are all reducible to matter. Thus, biology reduces to chemistry, which in turn reduces to physics; physics is that most materialistic of disciplines, as it studies what matter “really is” at the most fundamental level.

A materialist, then, will argue that “mind” and “consciousness” can be convincingly and completely explained in terms of neurochemistry, which is itself nothing more than an account of matter. A “mind,” then, is nothing over and above matter and the forces acting upon it.

The vast majority of scientists today are materialists, which closely aligns with their “naturalism” and their empiricism. After all, if matter is all that really exists, then everything there is to reality can be accounted for in strictly naturalistic terms, and all can be discovered by employing the standard five senses (and inferences from the discoveries of the five senses).

Materialism is what drove the distinction between Darwinism and, say, Lamarckism in the scramble to produce a purely naturalistic account of life and species. And Darwin’s theory provided naturalists, for the first time, with a mechanism of evolution that was entirely naturalistic, materialistic, and empirically-grounded. Darwinism supplanted Lamarckism precisely because Darwin’s theory of evolution was entirely materialistic, while Lamarck’s was not. And that materialism grounded Darwin’s naturalism.

Lamarck proposed a theory of evolution that emphasized the passing along of so-called “acquired characters” from parents to children. These acquired characters could be such things as a slightly elongated neck that a “pre-giraffe” parent supposedly got from stretching to nibble on the higher leaves that had been out of reach to other animals. This “character” (really, characteristic) somehow got transmitted to the next generation, so that “pre-giraffes” slowly turned into what we now know as giraffes. The problem with this proposal is that it relied on non-materialistic mechanisms, such as vitalism, that were not truly naturalistic.

Even Darwin (lacking the understanding of genetics that today makes up a pillar of the neo-Darwinian synthesis) believed in a form of “Lamarckism” insofar as his theory had parents passing along their “characters” to their offspring. But what made Darwin different from Lamarck was in his account of the acquisition of such “characters” in the first place.

Lamarck’s evolutionary mechanism was “use and disuse,” whereby “characters” that are used get developed and (somehow) passed along, while “characters” that are not used whither and are not passed along. Darwin proposed a sort of “genetics” (that proved to be surprisingly prescient) and the change-filtering mechanism of natural selection, while Lamarck proposed use and disuse and a somehow passed along non-mechanism that depended entirely upon an occult vitalism. So let’s compare these two accounts in the context of materialism.

First, let’s consider the notion of “acquired characters.” The notion that “characters” could be passed along to offspring was not new to Lamarck. This idea had been around for thousands of years. One thing Lamarck really codified was the notion that acquired characters could be passed along to subsequent generations, that stretching a neck slightly by trying could get passed down, that a blacksmith’s strength gained by trying could get passed down. There is something intuitively appealing about this basic idea, and some version of it has been believed down through human history.

Of course, what we now know of genetics makes this long-held idea seem almost silly, and countless experiments have turned up no evidence in favor of anything like Lamarckism. It turns out that very few things we can do during life affect the genome, and it is the genome that gets passed down to subsequent generations. But Lamarck argued that the striving itself (somehow) produced acquired “characters” (however slight) that did (somehow) get passed down. Thus, instead of a “fixed” genome, Lamarck had very flexible “characters” that included the results of choices and trying among their effects.

Second, Lamarck’s mechanism for transmission of acquired characters was occult (hidden). While Darwin’s theory did not contemplate a robust genetic theory as we understand it today, his theory was consistent with modern genetics (hence, the “synthesis” of the contemporary “neo-Darwinian synthesis”). Furthermore, Darwin actually argued for the existence of something like genetics as we understand the process today, making his theory have “predictive force,” while Lamarck entirely punted on this important aspect of a complete explanatory account. Indeed, the most that Lamarck and neo-Lamarckians have offered in this regard is that there is some “energy” or “force” that directs animals ever “upward” on the ladder of complexity, as he called it: “the force that perpetually tends to make order.” But this smacks too much of something “spiritual,” as it has no basis in matter.

Notice from just these two points that Lamarck lacked a materialistic mechanism of the emergence and transmission of these acquired characters, while Darwin rejected both the acquired part and the occult (or even spiritualistic) driving forces proposed by Lamarck. Darwin’s theory provided a materialistic account of both the mechanisms of change and of transmission.

What we have in the neo-Darwinian synthesis is the matter of change: the genome that gets occasional “additional” information in the form of random mutation, and then that altered genome that either makes it to the next generation through reproduction or is “filtered out” by the very materialistic process of natural selection. We also have in the neo-Darwinian synthesis the matter of transmission: the genome itself that either makes it to the next generation or does not. Everything, which is to say every metaphysical component, of the neo-Darwinian synthesis is material.

For modern scientists, the superiority of Darwin over every form of neo-Lamarckism is vast. Darwinism is testable in entirely empirical terms, while Lamarckism has failed every empirical test, both in terms of acquired characters being transmitted and in terms of the occult “force that perpetually tends to make order.” There is neither a material basis of such a “force,” nor is there any empirical evidence for it. By contrast, the neo-Darwinian synthesis has both the genome and natural selection that are both consistent with an entirely materialistic metaphysics.

So, Darwin, rather than Lamarck, provided naturalists with an entirely naturalistic/materialistic account of “descent with modification.” And that very naturalism/materialism is now the very earmark of a “good scientific theory.” As Newton proposed an entirely mechanistic, deterministic universe that was based on matter and the forces acting upon in, Darwin proposed an entirely mechanistic, deterministic theory of life that was based on matter and the forces acting upon it.

With the scientific rejection of such theories as Lamarck’s, the relentless push toward reductionism, materialism, mechanism, determinism, and thoroughgoing naturalism took another huge step forward. Today, “science” is almost monolithic in its absolute commitment to materialistic naturalism.

But right at this point an important distinction must be made between so-called “methodological naturalism” and “philosophical naturalism.”


Methodological  vs. Philosophical Naturalism

Phillip Johnson has made much of this distinction, claiming that scientists are inappropriately committed to a methodology (and associated interpretational schema) that presupposes naturalism/materialism, thus “loading the deck” before a single theory is formed or experiment run. Thus, scientists find “no evidence of God” exactly because their methodological commitment precludes supernatural explanations in advance.

By contrast, Johnson suggests that it can be appropriate to maintain a “philosophical distance” between the naturalism/materials that one might believe in and the methods of science that one actually practices. Johnson thinks that scientists can be philosophical naturalists while they should keep an open mind to interpret and follow the evidence wherever it leads. Frankly, Johnson thinks that scientists are not being intellectually honest on this most crucial point!

Scientists respond that history, if it shows anything, shows us that appealing to “God did it” is not an explanation at all, much less an adequate one! Again and again throughout the history of science, whenever scientific investigation comes up short, the appeal to supernaturalism is premature because a naturalistic/materialistic explanation ultimately emerges. Thus, the “God of the gaps” keeps getting relegated to smaller and fewer gaps. Indeed, scientists say, methodological naturalism is precisely the right way to practice science, regardless of one’s philosophical views!

So we are again back to the touchstone point of this entire seminar: The efficacy of science. Science today lives on a pedestal. Scientists point to the endless train of “successes” under the model of what Johnson would call “methodological naturalism.” The very alternative that Johnson suggests is precluded by definition, which is precisely Johnson’s complaint; but Johnson doesn’t offer an adequate response to the scientific claim that science simply cannot perform experiments at all without presupposing empiricism/materialism.

Furthermore, supernaturalism is by definition outside the realm of empirical, repeatable experiments! So, science says, Johnson is correct in pinning “methodological naturalism” on science… and so much the better for it! Science again points to its endless train of successes and says, “So much for not punting to ‘God’ every time we don’t yet understand this or that aspect of reality. By not punting, ultimately we do discover more and more; and the very ‘God’ that the punters would have too-early appealed to ultimately shrinks more and more.”

So, “methodological naturalism” is what science is by definition, and it ultimately seems fruitless to argue that science “should” be something that it is not! Even the likes of mighty Johnson have gotten nowhere with this approach. And creationist/intelligent-design folks have not swayed the courts on this crucial point!

At present the neo-Darwinian synthesis is the ruling paradigm. It is materialistic/naturalistic/empirical, while none of the alternative explanations of the origin of species has that pedigree. Thus, of course, science will find “confirmations” wherever it looks. Knowing what we know of paradigms, this should come as no surprise to us. And it should also come as no surprise to us that falsifications will not be seen as such by the scientific community until an alternative paradigm emerges. Finally, it should come as no surprise to us that the alternative that does emerge will also have the same pedigree: materialistic/naturalistic/empirical. Science can accept nothing else and remain science.

Let us be very aware of what materialism really is, how it grounds naturalism, and why science is necessarily committed to methodological naturalism. In the context of that understanding, let us be aware of why science cannot just “abandon” a paradigm like the neo-Darwinian synthesis. And let us thereby be wise regarding where the battle lines truly are drawn, so that our discussion going forward can be practically useful!