Thursday, May 4, 2017

Materialist Taxonomy

Eric Anderson at Uncommon Descent presents an interesting analysis of metaphysical materialism, or, more precisely, the different forms materialism takes. He argues that there are three kinds of materialism (and materialists), or four if you count one that only exists theoretically. He has much to say about these, but here's an overview. Anderson writes:
There are essentially 4 categories of materialist:

1. Strong Materialists

These materialists assert a fully materialistic view of reality: everything, all reality, is just a confluence of matter and energy. Things are as they are – we are as we are – because of a long series of interactions and reactions of particles and energy over time. There is nothing more than the physical and the material.

These materialists are, typically, also determinists. Meaning, by Blackwell’s Dictionary of Social and Cultural Anthropology, that “human actions and natural events are determined by what preceded them.” Blackwell’s also notes that for true determinists “free will would be an illusion.”
The majority of materialists, however, are not strong materialists:
Most materialists are of another stripe, which is why the well-made, knock-down, ever-so-carefully-crafted arguments against strong materialism don’t convince them....There are two other groups of materialists that are much more numerous.

2. Weak Materialists

Unlike the few well-known strong materialists, weak materialists are legion.

What they all share, however, is a general foundational premise. Like the strong materialists, they believe that reality began with only the physical and the material.... at some point the purely physical and material gave way to that which is not purely physical and material. At some point the physical and material transcended itself. Many weak materialists recognize the range of human experience: love, altruism, consciousness, intelligence, morality, free will. Unlike the strong materialists who argue (but never consistently act thusly) that all of these things are but an illusion, many weak materialists acknowledge that these things are real, that they form an important part of the fabric of our existence.

The materialist opponent, however, will quickly object, pointing out that there is no explanation, under materialism, for how such things came about. After all, what is it about the starting point of particles and energy that can ever ground love or free will or morality? How can the purely physical and material transcend itself? What law of physics and chemistry, what kind of particle or interaction, could possibly explain such a state of affairs?

The answer? Nothing....

There is no known, or even rationally-proposed, mechanism that will get you from particles to things like thought, intelligence, love, free will, morality.
The third kind of materialist, according to Anderson, are what he calls:
3. Unsure Materialists

Then there are materialists who are unsure about all of this, primarily because they have never really thought about these issues and have never deeply considered what grounds their morality. You’ve met many such individuals: your roommate from your freshman year of college, your work colleague at the water cooler, your uncle at the family reunion.

Many of these individuals don’t oppose the idea of morality, even perhaps an objective one. They just cling to the materialist storyline because perhaps it is what they heard in school, perhaps they are under the misimpression that a material explanation for living organisms is at hand or soon to be forthcoming, perhaps it gives them an excuse to avoid looking in the mirror and closely examining their own morality or behavior, perhaps they enjoy the provocative nature of the materialistic position, or perhaps being a materialist makes them feel more “scientific” than those Bible-thumping rubes.
Finally, Anderson mentions his "theoretical" category of materialists:
4. Grounded Materialists [G]rounded materialists are materialists who have carefully thought through the basis for their materialism, have discovered a causal connection from the purely physical and the material to the purposeful and the moral, and have offered a rational grounding for moral behavior – for what “ought” to be.

As far as is known, no materialist has ever fallen into this category.
This is gratuitously snarky, perhaps, but Anderson nevertheless makes a valid point. There really is no way to get from a materialist starting point to an objective ground for moral behavior. If materialism is true, then, morally speaking, we're all flying by the seat of our pants.

He has much more to say about each of these positions than what I've included here so you might check out his column at the link.