Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Religion of Our Age

Tom Bethell writes a column at Evolution News and Views in which he identifies the religion of our modern age as materialism. He's talking about materialism in the metaphysical sense, of course, rather than the consumerist sense. Metaphysical materialism is the view that matter and energy are the only constituents of everything there is. Nothing immaterial - minds, souls, God, angels, etc. - exists.

Metaphysical materialism is a species of naturalism. Naturalism denies the existence of any non-natural entities. There's nothing supernatural. All materialists are naturalists, but one can technically be a naturalist and not be a materialist. Even so, most naturalists are in fact materialists.

Bethell cites Duke philosopher Alex Rosenberg who declares that everything that exists is made ultimately of fermions and bosons, the particles that comprise atoms. There's nothing else.

Of course, if this is true a host of profound consequences follow, among which are that there are no minds, no free will, and thus no moral value. Morality depends for its existence on our ability to freely choose between alternative actions. If we're simply material beings then we no more have free will than does a machine, and thus there are no morally right or wrong choices, only choices which we've been programmed by our environment or our genes to select.

Moreover, if we really are machines, if it's true that we lack free will and that morality is an illusion, then it's nonsense to talk about human dignity. Dignity is rooted in freedom and choice. There can be no dignity where there is no freedom. To go one step further, if there's no genuine dignity in being human then neither is their anything of worth or value in being human, and the notion of inherent human rights is a chimera. There simply is no such thing as an inherent "right" to anything - not property, not liberty, not life. Indeed, in a material universe where would such rights come from?

Materialism is a distressingly dehumanizing philosophy. It reduces us to little more than clever chimps. Little wonder that the materialism that held sway in 20th century totalitarianisms around the globe led to human slaughter on an historically unprecedented scale. A creature with no intrinsic worth, no intrinsic rights, no intrinsic dignity is simply fodder to satisfy the appetite for power of those who already possess enough of it to impose their will on the rest of us.

Ideas have consequences, and this maxim is particularly true of metaphysical ideas about the nature of humanity. Belief in materialism leads inexorably to what C.S. Lewis called the abolition of man. It puts us on an express train for a real life Panem, a dystopia where slaughter is a source of pleasure for a morally depraved and depauperate culture.