Belief in Materialism is Irrational

People who are active in apologetics often hear or read the opinions of various skeptics about how this or that skeptic was formerly Christian, but then they "wised up" or "learned better." This is consistent with the idea held by many people that a belief in God (or a god) is irrational because there is no evidence that such a god exists. Ignoring for a moment that a claim that "no evidence exists" stems from a failure to recognize the distinction between "evidence" and "proof", this position implies that it is possible to rationally infer the true state of affairs, i.e., that there is no God and that the universe is the end result of purely physical processes acting in a closed system. This view fails to recognize within itself a deep logical problem hidden beneath the surface. If the speaker is correct that there is no god and Materialism constitutes the explanation for the universe as we know it, then they are irrational to think so.

This past week, I was reading Victor Reppert’s fine book, C.S. Lewis’ Dangerous Idea, wherein he adopts and defends C.S. Lewis’ argument from reason. In the course of the book, he proposes a syllogism that argues that a belief in materialism ought to be rejected because it negates its own belief. While reading his arguments, it occurred to me that even if materialism is true, the belief "materialism is true" appears to be necessarily irrational.

A. Understanding Materialism

First, let me clarify the meaning of "Materialism." Materialism begins with the worldview that the universe is all that exists, and nothing exists beyond the universe. In other words, the universe is a closed causal system. This belief that the universe is everything leads to the view that everything that exists in the universe results from the application of physical processes on the basic materials in the universe, and those materials were themselves formed by the physical processes of the universe. For example, stars come together and act the way they act due to a combination of physical laws, chemistry, electromagnetism, etc. acting upon the star’s constituent elements (which themselves arose as the result of purely physical processes). When the star kicks off a solar flare, such a flare is the result of the combination of these physical processes acting on the star’s constituent elements.

Materialism, as a worldview, is akin to a religion. It is a belief that cannot be positively affirmed through scientific testing, but which serves as the basis for the entire understanding of the universe and how it works. While there are differing sects of Materialism, Victor Reppert identifies three traits that all sects of materialism share:

a. "The physical level is to be understood mechanistically."
b. "The physical order is causally closed."
c. "Given the state of the physical, there is only one way the mental can be."

B. Materialism and Rational Inference.

With this understanding of the basic traits of Materialism, we can reason that if Materialism is true, then the universe has no outside intelligence which imbued humanity with the ability to reason. Reason, or what we understand as reason (or more accurately, rational inference) arises solely from physical forces acting on our brains. Thinking is no more than (and cannot be more than) the end result of our brain cells interacting with and reacting to the electro-chemical occurrences in our brain. While the creation of a thought is much more complex than the creation of a solar flare, both can traced their genesis to purely physical processes.

If physical processes are all there is and explain the existence of all matter and how it acts, and if human beings are no more than evolved gatherings of physical cells that act as they do because of these physical processes, then everything about human beings, including their ability to engage in rational inference, is the end result of these natural processes and only these natural processes.

C. Two Syllogisms and a Hobson’s Choice

If it is true that human beings are merely the end result of a series of physical processes and that our perceived ability to engage in rational inference is the end result of those processes, then it leads to a Hobson’s choice for Materialists. The choice is shown by the following two Syllogisms.

Syllogism 1:

Premise A: If Materialism is true then all beliefs can be fully explained in terms of non-rational causes.

Premise B: If all beliefs can be fully explained in terms of non-rational causes then no belief can be rationally inferred.

Conclusion 1: Therefore, if Materialism is true then no belief can be rationally inferred.

Premise D: “Materialism is true” is a belief.

Conclusion 2: Therefore, if Materialism is true then “Materialism is true” cannot be rationally inferred.

Premise F: If a person claims to have a rationally inferred belief that cannot be rationally inferred then such a belief is necessarily irrational.

Conclusion 3: If materialism is true, the belief that “Materialism is true” is necessarily irrational.

Syllogism 2:

Premise G: If materialism is false, then beliefs are not necessarily explainable solely in terms of non-rational causes.

Premise H: If all beliefs are not necessarily explainable solely in terms of non-rational causes, then there is a possibility that a belief can be rationally inferred.

Premise I: “Materialism is true” is a belief.

Conclusion 4: If materialism is false, then there is a possibility that “Materialism is true” can be rationally inferred.

Both arguments (each of which is merely the converse of the second) depend on the truth of the statement “If Materialism is true then all beliefs can be fully explained in terms of non-rational causes.” Is this true? It seems to follow from the fact that Materialism posits that we are in a closed universe. If there is no outside intelligence that has imbued us with the ability to engage in rational inference, then what we call “rational inference” must be the result of the physical processes acting on our brain cells. In such circumstances, is there really such a thing as rationality, or is it more appropriate to say that the reason that a person has “rationally inferred” proposition X is because their in their present brain state they could not believe otherwise? I think that the argument that it must be the latter is very strong.

This raises the interesting question for Materialists: if Materialism is true then you may be right, but you could not arrive at that conclusion through rational inference and you have decided this issue irrationally. If Materialism is untrue, then you can at least rationally arrive at that conclusion even though you are wrong. Which is preferable?


Anonymous said…
Thank God you're on our side of the materialism v. supernaturalism issue. This post is full of lush information which all serious apologists ought to commit to memory when speaking with materialists.
Weekend Fisher said…

This is one of the rare occasions when I find myself on a different side of an issue than you. And I know I’m in the minority within the CADRE on this one. But I’ve always doubted the validity of Lewis’ argument; in fact Lewis was the main person I had in mind when I previously wrote at length here on the CADRE about the natural world and rationality.

But with your argument neatly laid out like this, I can easily explain exactly where my objection comes in: Syllogism 1 Premise A: “If Materialism is true then all beliefs can be fully explained in terms of non-rational causes.” I disagree with the premise, specifically at the point of “non-rational causes”.

“Rational” only has the possibility of validity with reference to a mind. So obviously up to a certain point in causation, things have no mind and therefore cannot be validly evaluated in terms of being “rational” in themselves.

The next question is this: when a mind is involved, what does being “rational” mean? I’d take the view that “rationality” means at the minimum perceiving accurately and evaluating accurately with respect to truth. I’d also take the view that “accurately” means “reflecting the thing(s) in question without deviation”. On this view, when the mind observes (and evaluates with respect to truth) exactly what it sees and perceives, if there is a forced, deterministic outcome -- that forced nature of the outcome is not a barrier to the rationality of the outcome. Take an example: there is an apple. You perceive an apple. The cause of your perception of the apple is the fact that there is an apple in front of you. Say that your perceptions are working “deterministically” if you will, but they’re not irrational on that count. Rationality can be defined in terms of clean correspondence; in turn, clean correspondence can be caused by the mind “deterministically” / accurately perceiving and evaluating.

In short, I think Lewis took a big misstep in not noticing that “rationality” just means that the mind accurately mirrors the world around it; that so long as the mind is tracking along with its surroundings, even if it tracks along “mechanistically”, the result is properly evaluated as “rational.”

Now many people are horrified by this kind of talk but I think without good reason. They think perception and evaluation caused “naturally” means “irrationally”, whereas if perception is working right I’d expect it just means “accurately”. Some people also speak as if this implies some sort of insult to God but I can’t quite figure out why.
Anonymous said…
I love this argument, weekend fisher's comments aside (really, there is a good counter-argument there). Plantiga is known for a powerful formulation of it as well. I think you might also could throw in the "purpose" of evolution. How can we know that our minds are working rationally given that we cannot be entirely sure the natural processes have evolved us to that point? What if our sole "purpose" is survival, not seeking truth? In that case, we certainly could not trust our truth-seeking faculties, for they may be deceiving us.
BK said…

First, I want to say immediately that when you raise a question about something I write, I would be foolish not to take it seriously. In this case, if I understand your objection, I think that my argument overcomes it (but we’ll see).

I agree that the lynchpin of the debate has got to be premise A. For your information, that statement is adopted word-for-word from Victor Reppert’s book, so if it is wrong, at least I have good company in being wrong. But it is clear that if this premise is wrong, then the entire argument fails.

You are correct in saying that “rational” only makes sense in reference to a mind. That is why I (following Victor Reppert’s lead) was careful to call the causes “non-rational.” I am not saying that the cause are “irrational”, i.e., contrary to rationality, but “non-rational,” i.e., without rationality.

Where I think you go wrong is in the next step. You say “rationality” means “at the minimum perceiving accurately and evaluating accurately with respect to truth” and that “accurately” means “reflecting the thing(s) in question without deviation”. Here is the problem: if the thoughts that we have in our head are the end result of purely physical properties (which is what materialists must believe) then there is no way to know that we are accurately perceiving or reflecting reality.

On a practical level, when I say “All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal,” I have confidence that that is true. But on the deeper level, if my thought processes are merely the result of non-rational processes, then how do I have any confidence that I have rationally arrived at that conclusion as opposed to having that conclusion seem to hold truth for me only because my brain chemicals are responding a certain way by the physical processes acting on them?

I believe it is Alvin Plantinga who makes the case that we cannot trust a “practical” approach to rationality to determine whether what we think is true. The illustration he uses is something like this: suppose that a group of villages see a man-eating tiger but have no way of knowing that the tigers are man-eaters. Instead, for whatever reason, the villagers are convinced that the tigers are going to cast them into a television reality show, and like good sensible people they flee the tigers in terror. In reality, they are wrong about the reason to avoid the tiger, but if they were basing truth merely on whether the truth worked for them, then their belief is sound because no one is getting hurt and no one is being forced to go on reality TV programs by tigers.

So it is here. Even though we can order are lives around experience and what we perceive as reasoning, even if it works for us on some level, there is no way to know whether an inference is truly rational if it is ultimately based on non-rational processes.

So. I guess where we differ is on the level of trust given to the mind to think rationally if our thoughts are merely the end result of non-rational processes. Yeah, we can infer that we have come up with a reasonable reflection of reality that works for us, but there is no way to know if it is ultimately rational.
to me no matter from which point of view, materialism is totally irracional, the human only need the neccessery to live, greed is the monster that consume our society.

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