Atheists take a lot of guff from religious people for our ”materialism.” But what does that mean?
Some people treat materialism as a cartoonishly simple (and thus easy to dismiss) lifestyle: According to this view, atheists think that nothing in life matters beyond personally experiencing material pleasures and accumulating money and physical goods. Equating to hedonism and greed, this evil and supposedly rampant form of materialism is condemned as a consequence of atheism and secularism, especially during the holidays. People posit this caricature materialism as the only alternative to believing in gods, spirits, miracles, and other assorted religious nonsense.
Are there atheists who are nothing more than greedy hedonists? Yes, but in my experience they are as rare in atheist circles as they are in society in general. Which is to say, there are more of them than there should be because that’s a bad way to live – but there’s no reason to suspect that atheism is the cause of it.
Once we get past the cartoon caricature of materialism, we are left to consider a more serious definition. Here’s mine: The universe is made up of physical matter and energy, and the physical matter and energy interact according to laws, and nothing exists outside of the universe*. By this definition of materialism, there is nothing “outside” or “beyond” physical matter and energy and there are no “miracles” or exceptions to the laws by which matter and energy interact. Materialism by this general definition is accepted by every atheist that I know who has ever expressed an opinion about it. Materialism by this definition is also generally rejected by religionists, who believe in something “outside” or “beyond” the physical universe, and many of them also believe that whatever is “outside” or “beyond” also sometimes intervenes to create “miracles” - exceptions to the physical laws.
Thus, this definition of materialism is a good means of separating what atheists tend to believe about the world from what religious people believe. It still doesn’t address causality: does atheism cause materialism, or does materialism cause atheism, or is there some other cause for both? Let’s hold that question for a future discussion, as well as the aforementioned disagreement between religionists and atheists over whether materialism is true. For the sake of this discussion, let’s presume that the serious kind of materialism is true.
Unlike the cartoonish definition which describes an entife lifestyle, the serious definition of materialism still leaves us with important questions about life, meaning, morality, purpose, etc. The discussion of free will that Tip and I had uncovered what seems to me to be one rather important distinction: given the definition of materialism above, are the fundamental interactions of matter and energy the only things that matter and thus are “real”?
From comments on previous discussions, I gather that some people have a hard time even fully grasping this question. This may be because of the baggage and emotional weight applied to concepts like consciousness and free will. So I’ll try another example, one which should avoid triggering anyone’s emotions – either pro or con:
Consider a fair dice: six sides, equally weighted on each side. Consider throwing that dice onto a table in a game of chance, where you win if a “1″ comes up. You shake the dice in your hand, throw it onto the table with sufficient force and angle that it bounces off a barrier at the end of the table before coming to rest with one of the six sides facing up.
A non-materialist might believe that praying to a god or summoning a spirit could cause the “1″ to come up when it otherwise wouldn’t. Or perhaps they might believe they could use telekinesis or some other supernatural power of their own to make the “1″ come up when it otherwise wouldn’t. All such claims are rejected by materialists, and we need not concern ourselves with them further here.
Given the stipulation against any supernatural involvement, the question that arises for materialists concerns whether or not the number that comes up on the dice is “random”. At the level of forces, matter, and energy, the number that will turn up on the dice throw is completely determined the moment the dice leaves your hand, by the inertia and angle of the throw, the physical size and shape and surface characteristics of the table, gravity, air, etc. That’s not too difficult to conceive once you accept materialism. But wait - the force you apply and the angle you throw the dice at are also completely determined by your muscles and signals from your brain, which are completely determined by their physical characteristics and the state of your brain, and so on. Therefore at the level of elementary forces, matter, and energy, the number the dice is going to come up was completely determined not only at the time the dice left your hand, but before you even walked into the room.
If we accept all that as true, then does it make any sense to characterize the number that comes up on the dice roll as “random”? Isn’t the idea that the dice roll is ”random” just an illusion, if the number that was going to come up on the dice was completely determined before you even walked into the room?
David Deutsch, a practicing scientist (physicist), argues that concepts at an explanatory level above that of elementary particles and forces are both real and compatible with the underlying deterministic reality of those same particles and forces. I refer anyone who is interested in what Deutsch has to say on this topic to the chapter titled “The Reality of Abstractions” in Deutsch’s recent book, The Beginning of Infinity. Dr. Deutsch doesn’t use the example of dice rolls, but I would characterize the randomness of such rolls as an emergent property of the dice and the method of rolling it, in the same way that Deutsch discusses other emergent properties.
Not to put words in Tip’s or anyone else’s mouth, but some materialists might counter that the “randomness” in the case of the dice roll is not an emergent property, and it’s not real; it’s just another word for “complexity”. They would say, the dice’s behavior is too complex for us to predict, so we perceive it as random and we call it random but that randomness is an illusion. The fact that the dice’s behavior is complex is true as far as it goes, but it’s also missing something important. A dog’s behavior or a human’s behavior may also be too complex for us to predict, but such behavior is not usually characterized as “random”.
The argument I think that Deutsch makes, and that I’m inclined to agree with, is twofold:
The first part is that abstract concepts about emergent properties like “randomness” in the case of the dice roll, have greater explanatory power than that of generic terms like “complexity”. Meaning: Saying that the outcome of a dice roll is “random” can tell us things about real events in the real material world that merely saying the outcome is “complex” does not. A human being generating numbers between 1 and 6 as they pop into his head cannot be substituted for a fair dice roll, even though either may be accurately characterized as both determined and too complex for someone else to predict. Why? The only useful explanations are of the form of “because the human is not random, but the fair dice roll is random.”
The second and in my view more important part of Deutsch’s argument is that we must regard emergent properties with explanatory power in the real world - like ”random” dice throws - as real, in the same way that forces, particles, and energies referred to by fully reductive explanations are real. ”Random” explains certain real events in the real world – in this case, real dice throws – better than any other explanation including that of particles and forces. Therefore, the randomness is real rather than illusionary. Meaning: If I operate a casino honestly, then apart from insuring the dice and the methods used to roll them are fair, I must treat all dice rolls as not just apparently random but as really, truly, random. I cannot increase my casino’s profits by treating the randomness of dice throws as an illusion and, say, trying to figure out a way to discourage or refuse entry to those customers who are predetermined to make winning dice throws. If an atheist materialist philosopher walks into my casino, neither he nor I can benefit in any way from treating his dice rolls as having been determined before he walked in the door, even though at the level of elementary particles and forces they were determined. This also means that while the explanation for dice roll outcomes at both the abstract level and at the level of particles and forces are true, the particles and forces explanation *is not useful* in the context of running a casino, whereas the explanation using the emergent property “random” *is useful* in that context.
So what say you, fellow materialist atheists, to this argument? Must one believe in some kind of “magic” (if so, what kind?) in order to treat a fair dice roll as being really, actually random rather than as only having the illusion of randomness? Or is Dr. Deutsch on to something with his argument that emergent properties with explanatory power are themselves real?
Those who believe in supernatural forces like spirits and sky fairies may also comment, but I’d appreciate if for the purposes of this discussion you consider only natural factors.
* I use “universe” here in the broadest sense of the word – for example, it would include all worlds in the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics.