What more can the theologian say to the secular materialist?

I found not one but two good theologically-minded writers last week, who are I think taking theology’s case against materialist ideology to the next level.  By that I do not mean to call the approach wholly new or to forget those who, in the spirit of Plato, Berkeley, and Kant, have contributed at a level quite above the hubris we often find today on both sides of the online discussion between religion and science.

In my last post I mentioned the interesting views of essence and existence recently published by Jason Michael McCann over at homophilosophicusThe second writer, Matthew David Segall is the mind and soul behind Footnotes to Plato, a blog which includes an interesting use of video, and has been running at least a couple years.  When I encountered Segall he was offering a defense of the essential ontological status of human consciousness against the usual bad philosophy utilized by today’s materialist neuro-metaphysicians when imagining themselves heirs to all the authority of science.  Matthew writes:

In the end, what concerns me most is the practice of deepening consciousness, which means not only striving to learn the truth, but to feel the beautiful and to will the good. Is neuroscience relevant to these pursuits? Of course! Do its own methods, paradigms, and data have some sort of a priori authority over other ways of knowing? Of course not!  (Which is not to say that there may not be a posteriori reasons for altering a philosophical perspective because of a neuroscientific discovery–it is only to say that critical appraisal is always warranted of supposedly scientific claims that border on the metaphysical).

I think it is obviously very good for the physical sciences that the scientist, qua scientist, be a strict materialist.  It is good even that any truth-seeker, qua scientist, be a strict materialist.  But no truth seeker – not even the scientist 24/7 –  has some kind of professional duty to be a strict materialist in all of their approaches to all of reality.

I keep looking for help in the so-called theological ‘dialogue’ with materialism because materialism is an ideology which today appears to inform the thinking of most of the brilliant minds in our culture.  Not many of them appear to understand truth as an objective extending outside the grasp of their ideology, but I think they would be superbly furnished for truth-seeking of a higher kind if only they could be disabused of this fatal misunderstanding.  I see great things coming for our society if our scientific-minded persons could only be persuaded of the folly of applying materialistic theories and methods wholesale to psychology, abiogenesis, philosophy, and theology.

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8 thoughts on “What more can the theologian say to the secular materialist?

  1. This exploration is moving on apace. Of this I am so glad. It is indeed true that there is an online hubris; one ought to remember that we are not the first on this path or indeed alone in our research. I shall read over this post and subscribe to Matthew Segall. When I have finished some real work (much needed painting) I shall sit down and ‘comment’ on the inquiry so far.

    Again, thank you for this and for your inclusion of me in your own journey.

    Jason Michael

  2. Not many of them appear to understand truth as an objective extending outside the grasp of their ideology

    Setting aside the curious characterization of materialism as an ideology, can you identify what truth has been identified utilizing non-materialist theories?

    As I see it, the reason materialism “appears to inform the thinking of most of the brilliant minds in our culture” is because it works. It has excellent explanatory and predictive properties. All other approaches – and many have been tried – are dead-ends.

  3. Welcome Robert,

    I said that materialism was the only reasonable approach to matter; i.e. for the physical scientist qua scientist, so I share with you all the insights you may enjoy in those areas.

    But I also said that this materialist stance is inadequate for the scientist 24/7 – meaning that there is no help for him there in his successful adjustment to human relationships and in his apprehension of the highest truth, goodness, and beauty which is otherwise available to him.

    If you are not a scientist, that makes you only a poor materialist somebody. But that fact gives you no more entitlement than the scientist to play a materialist role 24/7. You have this metaphysical right only when you deal with matter and material objects, all of which are merely means to higher ends rather than ends in themselves. So in addition you must have a worldview adequate to fulfillment in your personal relationships and experience of higher values, and I doubt this could be satisfactory as a type of sheer materialism.

    Since I indicated specificaly that materialist views afford you no access to truths of abiogenesis, psychology, philosophy or theology, I see no reason for accepting the burden of proof here until we have agreed that this is our field. So you tell me in which of those areas you have found truth ‘identified’ utilizing materialist theories? I’m sure you must be referring to mere facts at best, and relations between facts.

    Your answer will help me understand what you mean by truth.

  4. So in addition you must have a worldview adequate to fulfillment in your personal relationships and experience of higher values, and I doubt this could be satisfactory as a type of sheer materialism.

    I think this is where the disconnect for me lies. I understand materialism as the theory that all which exists is matter, and that all phenomena are the result of material interactions. How that would necessarily exclude, say, fulfillment in personal relationships seems unexplained. My guess is that you consider something such as friendship incapable of ultimately being reduced to a material phenomena. Is that so?

    Since I indicated specificaly that materialist views afford you no access to truths of abiogenesis, psychology, philosophy or theology

    Besides theology, I don’t see how materialist views are incompatible with the above.

    So you tell me in which of those areas you have found truth ‘identified’ utilizing materialist theories?

    It seemed to me you make a broader claim, that at least some truth is inaccessible when holding a materialist perspective. If that’s so, you should be able to identify a truth discovered utilizing non-materialist perspectives.

  5. Robert, you are correct that the ‘how’ of identifying the truth of friendship by other than strict material analysis is not explained from the perspective of your principle. As the title of my post has it, What more can I say?

    But your absolute material principle of reality doesn’t give you sufficient metaphysical claim to an understanding of the spiritual principle of friendship – even if I were to offer an argument for it.

    What means have you and I of determining that some of the truth of friendship lies outside the borders of your material view? – you assume these borders to be non-existent. I can’t show you what might lie outside the borders of your principle until some border is self-imposed by you – and this requires a critical philosophy rather than a materialist ‘principle.’

    I quoted that fellow-blogger for a reason – – “critical appraisal is always warranted of supposedly scientific claims that border on the metaphysical.” Have you read Kant? I would say that’s a bare minimum requirement if we are to move on from here.

    And if you are going to proceed without Kant, I will have to forget your remark that a materialistic ideology would be a curiosity, because without a critical philosophy you are into full blown ideology whenever you make absolute assertions about the material basis of abiogenesis, psychology, or philosophy. Nor could you understand any that I would attempt from my side.

    [Beware Robert – I have edited my comment in paragraphs 2 and 3 and your quote from there.]

  6. Robert, you are correct that the ‘how’ of identifying the truth of friendship by other than strict material analysis is not explained from the perspective of your principle.

    John, this is not what I believe, but wondered if it’s what you believe. In fact, I don’t regard something like friendship unexplainable from a materialist perspective. I also think it’s improper to conjoin truth and friendship. To my ears, it’s like speaking of “the truth of jealousy” or “the truth of indifference”. What about friendship makes it a truth?

    But your absolute material principle of reality doesn’t give you sufficient metaphysical claim to an understanding of the spiritual principle of friendship – even if I were to offer an argument for it.

    It seems to me you’re begging the question here by assuming the principle of friendship is a “spiritual” (or non-material) phenomenon. On what grounds do you assert this?

    because without a critical philosophy you are into full blown ideology whenever you make absolute assertions about the material basis of abiogenesis, psychology, or philosophy.

    Who’s making absolute assertions? You’ll notice above I called materialism a theory.

    In any case, because materialist theories – and only materialist theories – have been so successful in explaining the workings of the universe, I see no reason why something like abiogenesis should not have a purely material basis too. Paraphrasing the French mathematician Laplace, other theories are simply not needed.

    • Robert, what I said was that you have claimed not to understand how any truths of friendship could be explained outside of your materialist theory. And that is certainly not what I believe. I might be able to understand some of these truths by a materialist hypothesis – but no all.

      For the sake of discussion – – we can take the idea that I could be absolutely ‘true’ to my friend, even at the risk of my own life – this kind of loving loyalty is beyond material analysis.

      Now notice I have not said that a materialist could not be so true as this – he certainly could. What I doubt is that this truth of friendship can be understood by material analysis.

  7. Dear Robert and John, I beg both of you pardon for presuming to interject. The reasoning of Robert here is sound, but with John I tend to agree. This puts me in the awkward position of argument from feeling; always dangerous. So I shall attempt to rationalise this intuition here.

    Pierre Laplace’s ubermensch suggests a proto-Einsteinian god, an ‘intellect’ in possession of the the totality of the equation of complete and universal determinism. As a materialist working hypothesis this is wonderful. Yet it too begs the question. It presupposes that the physical laws understood in terram are in uniform operation in every part of the, mostly unknown, universe. This is an argument to probability and is logically weak.

    This logical frailty demands that his conclusion that no other theories are required is established on sand. I agree that materialism offers the best current theory of physics, but such physical sciences rest themselves on the idea of ontological validity; truth. Once materialism is enthroned as the only required hypothesis of existence, then meaning itself can be brought into a philosophical reductio ad absurdum. Truth is an abstract concept which ‘exists’ sine existentia and in independence from human thought.

    Scientific fact demands the ontological being of truth in order to provide meaning. The logical conclusion of this is that knowledge has meaning only as a consequence of the intellectual ability to perceive that which is ultimately unknowable.

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