On mythical materialism
Religion & Liberty Online

On mythical materialism

Secular materialists and atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris like to mock religious people for being superstitious and illogical: resorting to fanciful explanations of events by invoking the work of God or miracles.

Yet it is always amusing to me to see the length that materialists will go to hold fast to their mythical materialist beliefs.

It almost charming to watch Sam Harris make a logical case for determinism and against the existence of free will, all the while imploring us to become convinced of the truth of his position and, well, change our minds. Doesn’t he realize I’m determined to believe in free will, and if he were me, atom for atom and gene for gene, golly, he would be too!

One of my favorite examples of materialists and Darwinists grasping for straws was done by the highly regarded neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran in his book The Tell-Tale Brain.

For the record, the book is fascinating and I am incredibly impressed by his work.  If, God forbid, I needed his help I would welcome it.  His work on phantom limbs and the power of the brain is nothing short of remarkable.  To list just one impressive story, Ramachandran used a box with a mirror to help a man who had a phantom limb get rid of the feeling of numbness in his amputated arm. He had the patient put his intact hand in front of the mirror while placing his amputated arm behind the box.  When he moved his actual hand it appeared in the mirror he was moving both hands, and his brain registered movement in his missing limb, which helped get rid of numbness and pain. His work is awe-inspiring.

Yet outside neuroscience (and I am not qualified to judge his work inside neuroscience), when it comes to philosophy and social theory, some of his insights leave much to be desired.

Boxed in

He is unfortunately entirely beholden to the materialist, Darwinian, establishment viewpoint.  While he argues that humans are special primates, he has to resort to mind-twisting acrobatics not to give up his establishment credentials. Though at one point he at least pokes fun at absurdity when, after suggesting that our enjoyment of Monet or Van Gogh might be traced back to our ancestor apes’ attraction to fruit, he writes, “This is what makes evolutionary psychology so much fun: You can come up with an outlandishly satirical theory and get away with it.”

Indeed. Whether this comment is propaganda or ironic writing under persecution I don’t know. Hopefully it is the second. But this doesn’t stop him from suggesting we should have gratitude that atoms came from outer space and it all turned into special us.


It’s easier to break a camel’s back than to make one

Take this one egregious example in his discussion of phase changes. In a discussion of the debates between Owen versus Huxley and Darwin about the unique distinctiveness of human beings, Ramachandran walks the tightrope.

He agrees with Owen that the human brain is distinct. But he still holds strong to dominant Darwinism by asserting that this development could still happen piecemeal over time without divine intervention. How? Through phase changes.

Ramachadran writes that “it is a common fallacy to assume that gradual small changes can only engender gradual, incremental results. But this is linear thinking, which seems to be our default mode for thinking about the world.”  He argues that major changes and “highly complex processes” can emerge from “deceptively simple parts” and bring about “radical qualitative shifts.”

To illustrate, he gives an example of a small, incremental change that leads to a major shift: ice to water. A small increase in incremental temperature from 22 to 23 degrees, or from 28 to 29 degrees, will not affect the condition of ice. But a small change from 32 to 33 degrees and the ice undergoes a radical change and becomes water. “At that key point,” he writes, “incremental changes stop having incremental effects, and precipitate a sudden qualitative change called a phase transition.” So far no problem, but wait, it is coming.

“Nature is full of phase transitions,” he tells us. This is how the human brain become so qualitatively different from lower animals. I know there are serious debates among biologists about what is actually needed for a radical qualitative change to take place at the molecular and cellular level, and among mathematicians about the probability of these things taking place, that Ramachandran doesn’t seem to address.

From ice to water

But it does not stop there. Ramachandran goes on to give various example of phase changes. Stock market bubbles, market crashes, traffic jams…and “on a positive note they were on display in the breakup of the Soviet Bloc and the exponential rise of the internet.”

So there you have it. The fall of the Soviet Union was just a materialist phase change.

Never mind all the work and suffering of Soviet dissidents to resist totalitarianism and get the truth out. Forget all you’ve heard about the political and clandestine activities in the Cold War. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s memorizing major sections of The Gulag Archipelago and his literary achievements in First Circle, Cancer Ward, and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; Vaclav Havel’s poetry and politics; the Polish Solidarity movement; John Paul II’s celebration of Mass in Warsaw, where thousands cried, “We want God!”; the witness of the martyrs for truth in the face of internal violence and decadence of the Soviet Union; Ronald Reagan’s call to “tear down this wall,” and on and on and on….

Why, it was just like ice changing to water. Nothing to see here. Darwin and materialism can explain it all. If he simply means a phase change is the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back, then the insight would be trivial. But he is clearly making a bigger claim that is also trying to account for the existence of the camel. Anything goes to hold fast to Darwinian, materialist assumptions. This isn’t science. And it is surely isn’t serious political science. That would require one to take the history and lived experience of human beings seriously.

For all the talk of scientific rigor and dismissal of religion, the dominant views are neither rational nor coherent. It is mythical materialism and it is the established religion of our day. And as long as you toe the line of mythical materialism, to quote Ramachandran: “You can come up with an outlandishly satirical theory and get away with it.”



Michael Matheson Miller

Michael Matheson Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Acton Institute