The Chilly Cocoon of Materialism
I’m still thinking about that Paul Bloom piece in The Atlantic that I wrote about last week. What’s most striking about it is Bloom’s determination to hang on to the doctrine that materialistic natural selection is responsible for everything in human nature even as he admits that his own research undermines it. Unable to credit simplistic explanations for the evolutionary utility of religious belief, he falls back on the assertion that the mental processes that lead to religious belief must be accidental by-products of other more easily explained features.
The first of many responses that came to me is to ask how an accidental and non-adaptive byproduct of an evolutionary development could ever come to dominate the organism as religion does the human. But, setting aside specific objections for the moment, I wondered why Bloom is so committed to the natural selection hypothesis. Serendipitously, I found an answer in this Godspy article by Michael Behe. The crucial insight here comes, not surprisingly, from Chesterton:
The Christian is quite free to believe that there is a considerable amount of settled order and inevitable development in the universe. But the materialist is not allowed to admit into his spotless machine the slightest speck of spiritualism or miracle.
Of course. Behe (who as you probably know is one of the leaders of the Intelligent Design movement) adduces this passage in his exploration of the reasons for the intense hostility with which the design hypothesis is often met. The objection to ID is usually that it isn’t science, in the sense of being a hypothesis that is empirically verifiable in the laboratory, and I think that’s a valid objection. But the people who are outraged by ID are unperturbed by the entanglement of materialist philosophy with science. It’s pretty clear that the two philosophies are not accorded equal treatment. Materialists are passionately defensive of the ground which they erroneously believe has been conquered by their philosophy. No one likes his deepest convictions challenged, and materialists certainly show the same signs of distress as any Christian when it happens to them.
The curious turning of the psychological tables continues. I noted last week the way the roles of challenger and defender of conventional thinking, habitually assigned to science and religion respectively, are being reversed. The same is true for conventional emotional categories, in which religion is seen as a security blanket for those who can’t face the world as it really is, and science as the domain of those bold enough to follow the trail of facts, however distressing. Dogmatic materialism presents us with a pretty chilly world, but also with a safe one—it is at least in theory knowable and controllable by the human mind. But a world which is the product of an active and purposeful intelligence greater than our own is not
The irony of the situation is that it is now the Christian who is urging the materialist to shake off the chains of his dogma, summon his courage, and step into a larger world. My conception of the world can include all the physical processes found in the materialist’s, but it also includes much more, conceptions of spiritual life and purpose that trouble the soul of the materialist even as he denies that he has one.