Is Materialism Incompatible with Mind, Meaning, and Morality?

7 minutes, 23 seconds Read
Mike, a frequent commenter on my Facebook page, blog, and elsewhere, and someone I have met and chatted with in ‘real life,’ has recently authored a blog post alleging that materialism is incompatible with mind, meaning, and morality. He also claims that secularism is “vacuous and unrewarding” and that secularists are “partial to pervasive cynicism.” Mike claims that secularists can be “entrenched in their dogmas” and “are not familiar with the issues.” He also claims that the metaphysics of materialism leads to nihilism. He concludes his post saying that “secularism is utterly unequipped to step up to the plate as a replacement for religious worldviews.” I believe that Mike has a misunderstanding of what materialists and secularists endorse or otherwise is limiting his understanding to the worldviews of a select few. While I might be totally wrong about this, I will argue that materialism is compatible with mind, meaning, and morality.

Before responding, I’d like to define some terms here because misunderstanding about definitions or people employing different definitions is often is the root cause of disagreement or argument. I define a secularist as someone who advocates that government should remain completely neutral in regards to religion and non-religion and that there should be a complete separation of church and state. I define a materialist as someone who believes that everything that exists is the result of interactions of matter or that everything that exists is physical matter.

First, secularism and materialism, at a ‘bare-bones nothing added’ glance, offers nothing. While one may reap benefits from being a secularist and a materialist (they might realize that many of their previously held beliefs were false and be glad that they hold more justified true beliefs, they might find joy in looking at the world in a different way, etc.), the positions themselves offer nothing. Please note a difference, as I mentioned, between a position offering something and someone benefiting from holding a position. To draw a parallel, atheism, likewise, offers nothing although a person may benefit from being an atheist. While the positions offer nothing, one may benefit from holding a position.

One need not be a cynic because one is a materialist or a secularist and materialism and secularism do not entail that someone be cynical; while it might be the case that a materialist is cynical because he/she is a materialist, materialism does not entail that this person be cynical. Personally, I would not say that I am cynical and would not identify as a cynic. Instead, I identify as a skeptic and am still not cynical. While I evaluate arguments and look for crucial flaws in arguments, I do not radically doubt everything I hear, but rather am taking an open-minded and positive approach toward claims in which I am asking questions that should be asked and am not blindly accepting claims.

It certainly is the case that some secularists out there really do not understand the issues that they often discuss. Some secularists also might not be able to defend their positions, may have arrived at their positions for non-smart reasons, and hold on to their positions for no intellectual reason. Just because some secularists might behave in this manner, though, does not entail that one should distance themselves from other secularists or say “fare thee well” to secularism. In any given group or any given demographic of people, there are going to be some very unskeptical people, people you disagree with, people you don’t identify with, or people who haven’t arrived at their positions for intellectual reasons.

I’ve meet many atheists with which I’ve profoundly disagreed with. I have disliked the tactics of other atheists, noted that the arguments of some atheists are fallacious, have not identified with some atheists, and have not picked the same battles as other atheists. One huge point of contention I have had with atheists is focus of argument: I don’t think that atheists should focus on religion being ‘stupid,’ treat religious people with disrespect (even if religious people are being disrespectful), point to why they believe people are religious (they fear death, they became brainwashed, etc.), and argue about Bible verses (unless a verse is really clear, but better arguments can be had without mentioning specific Bible verses).

Secularism and materialism are two radically different issues. Not all materialists are secularists and not all secularists are materialists. One need not be a materialist to be a secularist and one need not be a secularist to be a materialist. While many secularists might be materialists, it is very possible to ‘have one without the other.’ If you reject materialism, for example, you can be a secularist.

Mike claims that materialism is incompatible with the mind. While some materialists might be eliminativists (people who believe that there is no mind, but rather is only the brain) or monists [Michael Shermer has taken this position in his most recent book] (people who believe that the mind is part of the brain), not all materialists need be monists or eliminativists. Personally, I am not even sure where I stand, but I’m certainly a materialist who is leaning toward eliminativism, but I don’t know too much about these issues and would not take a ‘hard stance.’ Many materialistic philosophers argue against both monism and eliminativism and argue, for instance, that subjective experiences cannot make sense unless there is a mind. Materialism can be compatible with the mind.

Mike claims that materialism is incompatible with meaning. Meaning, as I and many other philosophers see it, is entirely a human concept that we attribute to certain parts of our lives that we find to be sentimental, pleasing, worthwhile, etc. People might believe that meaning is not a physical ‘thing’ and is thus incompatible with materialism, but this is a misunderstanding; meaning arises from ideas which arise from consciousness (which is the result of physical processes). Ideas and consciousness, also, cannot be ‘touched’ (like matter can), but these are the products of physical processes. Materialism can be compatible with meaning.

Mike claims that materialism is incompatible with morality. Many materialists, though, make sense of morality and don’t even think that these two issues intersect; whether or not all that exists is the result of physical processes is a totally different issue from making sense of morality or questioning why we should be moral individuals. In my paper “Making Sense of Ethics in a Modern Scientific Worldview,” I discussed this issue in a longer fashion.

Here is an excerpt from what I wrote. Please read the entire paper for more information.

“Drawing upon the ideas of Hume, Spinoza, modern evolutionary theory, and rejecting those of Hobbes concerning human nature can lead to an accounting of values. Values don’t need to exist in the sense of a Platonic worldview or originate from a god, but rather can be thought of as contingently existing within social mammals and the realization of this, at least by humans, can be attained through moral philosophy and scientific findings. It makes sense to talk about values only because social mammals exist and are are generally concerned with well-being of themselves and society.”

Materialism can be compatible with morality.

Materialism need not lead to nihilism (the stance that life is without meaning). We can find meaning in whatever we will to find meaning in. There also need not be an answer to the question “What is the meaning of life?” in order for someone to find meaning in life. There also need not be meaning in an ‘eternal’ sense for a person to find meaning. Whether or not the statement “all that exists is the result of physical processes” is true has no bearing on whether we can find meaning.

Secularism also need not be a replacement to religious worldviews. Again, a secularist can be religious. I would like to think of secularism as a response to religious worldviews [which assert that the government should endorse religion] instead of thinking of it as a replacement.

Restating, one need not be a materialist to be a secularist. To also restate an often endorsed point of mine, we need not agree on everything to ‘be friends.’ You can advocate for a total separation of church and state and find common threads with others who do the same without being a materialist. For example and to draw a parallel here, I am a straight ally and defend homosexuals on a daily basis although I disagree with many homosexuals defending religious groups that are intolerant toward homosexuals or otherwise directly work against the interests of homosexuals (namely normalization and equality). I need not say “fare thee well” to every homosexual just because I disagree with some of them on some issues. One can rightly be a secularist while not being a materialist and one can rightly reconcile materialism with mind, meaning, and morality.

Similar Posts