Our view of reality can go beyond materialism and therefore be literally meta-physical.
However, it is not necessary to posit an ontological break between nature and super-nature; what we need may be a larger understanding of nature. Developing a larger view begins with a critique of the materialist view.
Falsifiable does not mean false. Rather it means that there must be some conceivable experiment that could show the proposition to be false, in case it is. The materialist view is non-falsifiable. Whatever happens is known after the fact to be possible. Since this world is what it is, and since according to materialist doctrine natural selection is the only way that things develop, a world like this could have and must have evolved by natural selection.
Likewise, since there is such a thing as consciousness, according to the materialistic hypothesis, consciousness obviously could and did evolve by natural selection. Given the vastness of time and space, anything that can happen probably will.
The question is whether the materialist view is the most rational one, as materialists assume that it is.
A non-materialist view holds that consciousness precedes evolution and so evolution is consciousness struggling toward more complete manifestations. Those who affirm a God-Creator, or hold to pantheism, or any form of idealism, see consciousness as a reality prior to matter. I will refer to those who hold a non-materialists view as teleologists, meaning that they believe that life is purposeful.
Teleologists take consciousness as a given and can examine the development of consciousness in human beings without appeal to a miracle. In using the term “miracle” in this context, I am not making any super-naturalist assumptions but referring to any event that is wonderful, surprising, and not understood.
The materialist view holds that the evolution of consciousness is the product of unconscious particles that over time become conscious. The emergence of consciousness would seem to be a miracle, although a very slowly forming one. But materialists do not see the need for a miracle because they take consciousness for granted. The bland assumption of consciousness resembles the way that we as individuals look at our own personal consciousness. We do not consider our consciousness and the control that we have over our voluntary muscles as a miracle, because by the time we are mature enough to think about these things, they have already become so familiar as to seem ordinary.
The familiarity of consciousness is seen in the fact that it is difficult to speak of the movement of material elements toward unity without using the language of intention. In materialist descriptions the elements “strive,” they are “selfish,” they “tend.” Materialists make it clear enough that this language is metaphorical and that the elements do not really have intentions.
I think most of us frequently miss a most crucial gap in our knowledge, namely that the workings of anything below the conscious level lies beyond our understanding. We think that we understand inanimate nature because of familiarity and because of analogy to intentionality. Even when we manipulate things through our science and technology, it is our intentions that we understand, not the inner working of the things.
Both the materialists and the teleologists struggle with the relation between the elements and consciousness. The materialists explain the whole, namely human consciousness as a more complicated rendition of the mechanical action of the parts; genes are complicated molecular replicators, and memes are the cultural equivalent of biological genes.
Can we instead turn the relationship around and see the movement of the parts as primitive expressions of the reality that we experience at the human level? Might there be a force which American Philosopher C. S. Peirce (1839 – 1914) calls agape, meaning love, working along side of mechanical necessity and chance? Pierce holds a view, which he calls agapaism, which affirms a force of loving attraction that moves things at every level toward a teleological unity.
In this case evolutionary attraction would be seen as a more primitive instance of what we would think of as the highest form of love. Agapaism is the inverse of materialism in that it gives the movement toward meaningful unity an ontological priority rather than seeing it as a mere chance product of inert particles. This view is not provable, but it is at least as feasible as the materialist view.
Purpose and the Meaning of Good
From at least the time of Aristotle, the Good was identified with purpose. Aristotle’s Nicomachaen Ethics opens with the assertion: “Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has been declared to be that at which all things aim.” The highest good is the end, telos, which is desired for its own sake. The task of ethics consists in understanding what this good is and how to attain it.
Aristotle’s notion of the Good as the final end or purpose came into Medieval Christian thought primarily through the work of St. Thomas Aquinas and his theory of natural law. St. Thomas defined natural law as an aspect of eternal law, the order by which all things are directed to their end.
Like Aristotle, St. Thomas thought of God as pure being, pure actuality, whereas creation consisted of a process of things becoming by actualizing their potential. Using a popular example, an acorn has the potential to become a mature oak tree. Inanimate things, plants, and non-rational animals achieve their actuality naturally. We humans, as rational beings, participate in the eternal law and must seek our end voluntarily using reason and free will. Reason and free will, in this view constitute the human faculties that enable us to know and love that which is good.
Goodness and being are co-extensive, meaning that all being is good. Evil is a lack of something that ought to be. To take an example of a physical evil, if a person loses his eyesight, we call that a physical evil, (more often we would say “misfortune,”) because we cherish sight as a good thing that ordinarily accompanies our human nature. Moral evil consists of a lack of virtue. As we humans grow from infancy to adulthood, we ought to learn to control our lives by reason.
The habits of rational governance constitute virtues such as temperance, courage, and justice. Anyone who fails to develop these qualities slips into intemperance, cowardice, and injustice. Since being is good, a good human being is one who is constantly becoming more human, which means a more highly developed rational animal. As we develop in this way we actualize our potential and move toward achieving our end, our telos.
Contemporary Evolutionary Materialism
Contemporary materialism provides a view that rejects all of the concepts that constitute traditional natural law theory. Materialists deny the reality of the soul, eternal law, teleology, and objective good. Francis Crick states the materialist position in explicit contrast to the notion of a soul, which his wife had learned in Catholic school:
The Astonishing Hypothesis is that “You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.
If this thesis holds true, then we must understand conscious behavior of human organism as nothing but a product of physical and chemical events at the level of molecules.
For contemporary materialist thought, the term: “soul” does not refer to anything real. The activities that traditional philosophy attributed to the soul are now seen as nothing but “the behavior of nerve cells and other molecules.” So it is not you and I who experience joy and sorrow, remember things past, and strive for things future - the molecules are doing all of this.
Reason itself does not have the privileged place that it had in traditional thought, but we can choose to make it a supreme value. The materialist philosophers and scientists, to their credit, or to the credit of their molecules, give reason a place of pre-eminence. Materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett says in praise of scientific researchers and in response to those who argue that “trading mystery for mechanism” will impoverish our view of human potential:
"Look around at those who are participating in this quest for further scientific knowledge and eagerly digesting the new discoveries; they are manifestly not short on optimism, moral conviction, engagement in life, commitment to society."
Fortunately we can value such things as life, health, and virtue. But nature is indifferent, neither good nor bad apart from our judgments. For materialism, there can be no eternal law, and inanimate objects do not seek ends. The question for us is whether we can show that the principle of seeking ends still applies to us humans as understood in contemporary science.
To answer this question we must first look at what the materialists put in the place of the teleology of eternal law, namely, an interpretation of natural selection based on chance. In the materialist view, everything from the formation of molecules to the most complex human thought comes about by natural selection. Some molecules replicate themselves and therefore copies of them will survive. Of the replicating molecules, the ones that are best suited to the environment in which they find themselves and which are not self-destructive, will pass along copies of themselves. This process continues as some of the molecules happen to join with others to form more complex structures. The fittest of these survive and eventually evolve into living organisms, which by the same process of natural selection develop sensation, consciousness, and intelligence.
In the materialist view there is no need to posit a design or goal at any point in the process. At the lower levels there is no striving or wanting to survive. At the level of consciousness, the desire to survive might give an organism a competitive edge, allowing those organisms who happen to have a survival instinct to survive and reproduce. At the level of intelligence, planning and deliberately working toward long range goals may greatly enhance survival.
Daniel Dennett offers an explanation of free will based on non-biological survival structures called memes. (The term “meme” has taken on a more restricted meaning in social media.) Dennett describes Memes as “cultural replicators” parallel to genes, which are the biological replicators. Examples of memes would be anything that is part of what we call our culture, from the way we prepare food to the way we enjoy music. The memes are products of natural selection so that, for instance, an innovation in food or music may or may not be replicated depending on whether or not it is to the liking of the biological host.
Just as our genes have a natural tendency to replicate themselves, so do our cultural memes. Dennett quotes Richard Dawkins author of "The Selfish Gene” and coiner of the term "meme." Dawkins writes:
"We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and if necessary the selfish memes of our indoctrination…We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines but we have the power to turn against our creators. We alone on earth can rebel against the power of the selfish replicators."
Who are “we?” We are sharers of information. With the sharing of memes we have the beginning of a community rather than just an aggregate of individuals. The question is how we rebel against the replicators as Dawkins affirms that we in fact do. Dawkins does not say how, and so Dennett himself attempts to answer this question. The answer is that the memes open up a world of imagination, which provides a variety of options to choose from.
Because of imagination we are not limited to only the option that best enhances our own individual survival, nor the survival of our genes. One person may forgo a family and children to live a life of service; another may do so to live a life of hedonistic delights. In both cases the genes’ metaphorical “desire” for perpetuation will not be met.
There does not seem to be any reason in the nature of thing to affirm that any choices are better than any others. And although scientific thinkers like Dennett and Dawkins stand poles apart from the classical existentialists who hold that reality is absurd, the ultimate outlook on what is good or bad is strangely similar. As Jean-Paul Sartre states after arguing that values have no reality apart from the choice of a free being that choose them:
"It follows that my freedom is the unique foundation of values and that nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies me in adopting this or that particular value, this or that particular scale of values."
Is anything good in reality or just a matter of taste?
It seems that those who pursue scientific knowledge, as well as other pursuits such as health care or social justice, do so with the assumption that they are on to something real. We need to ask whether our contemporary scientific world-view is compatible with the notion that science is really good and not just one of the myriad of memes, along with such things as astrology and sorcery, that people happen to adopt.
Purposefulness in a Materialist Age
Materialism and Teleology
We can look at the things around us and the events in our own lives in several ways, but two of them stand out.
1. We can look back at the causes.
2. We can look ahead to the purpose.
For example we may compare a tree that a storm knocks over to a baseball that a centerfielder throws to home-plate.
In the first case, air moves from an area of higher pressure to one of lower pressure in ways that meteorologists can explain. A tree or house that happens to be in the path of the wind might be destroyed, but the destruction does not serve any known purpose.
By contrast, the trajectory of the baseball results from the fielder’s intention to get the ball to home-plate before the base-runner. Explainable factors such as the skill and strength of the player, wind resistance, and gravity all play a role in the outcome of when and where the throw ends. But, unlike the storm, the throw occurs only because of the intention of the player.
Apart from human intention, do you believe everything has a purpose? Nothing has a purpose? some things have a purpose?
Some people believe everything happens for a purpose. “It was (or wasn’t) meant to be.” Others hold that apart from human intentions, such as throwing, the universe lacks any purposeful action. We might also believe that there is purpose in the universe but that not everything serves a purpose.
Examining the meaning and of purpose, we may ask the question, “Why are we here?”
This question might refer to an immediate presence such as why are we here in this meeting, classroom, or social get-together; or it may address a more cosmic concern: “Why are we here on this planet? Why do we exist?” Looking backwards in the case of the specific “here”, we may say that we are here because we were called in by our boss, it was on our class schedule, or we were invited. If we are extremely literal minded we may say that we are here because we drove or walked.
Those answers look backwards at how we got here. But we may also look ahead to the purpose of our presence: to discuss how to improve our company’s safety record, to gain insight into an academic field, or to be introduced to a method of enhancing our income by selling home products. Our individual purpose might be different from that of the boss, professor, or host. But whether the purpose is that of the person who called us to be there, or our purpose for showing up, the purpose refers to looking ahead to what we expect from our action of attending.
In asking the larger question of why we are here in the sense of our very existence, we may again look backwards. Depending on our knowledge and interest we may begin with the “big bang” and trace the history of star and planet generations up to and including the evolution of life on earth. Or we may be more interested in demographics, genealogy, or how our parents met. All of these questions look backwards and involve research in physical or social science, or family history.
But the question that emerges as most important to each of us asks, “Now that we are here, what should we do with our lives, what is our purpose for living?” We might try to answer this question by believing that we are part of a larger purpose and that we need to find our individual role. Or we might believe that our purpose consists only in what we ourselves create in an otherwise purposeless universe.
The belief that all events can be explained completely and solely by what has happened previously is called a materialist or mechanistic view. These terms reflect an older worldview that portrayed nature as composed of material particles moving according to the laws of mechanical science. But contemporary materialists think in terms of every kind of physical energy and even allow for some randomness. Purpose plays no role.
The view that things happen for a purpose we call a teleological view. This word is based on the Greek word telos, which refers to an end or purpose. Of course, a person may believe that physical causes – pushing from behind, and teleological causes – pulling from ahead, may both be factors. The belief that there is some purpose in nature, however little, marks a decisive contrast to the materialist world-view. The distinction between materialism and purpose goes back at least to the time of Plato. The following two posts will contrast the traditional teleological view with the prevailing contemporary materialist view.