Jeffrey Thayne

Science often parades itself as the search for truth, or the the search for an understanding of what is actually going on in the world. In the pursuit of truth, science has largely adopted a philosophy known as reductive materialism. This is the philosophy that all events can be accounted for and explained by the interactions of inert matter, acting in accordance with scientific law. Of course, scientists generally exempt themselves from this process, but if pressed, many will profess the belief that even the human mind is the product of its material constituents, acting solely according to scientific laws. In other words, the mind is just grey matter in action. Thoroughgoing materialists are forced to admit this (many reluctantly, but a few enthusiastically—Paul and Patricia Churchland, for example) because to admit that something is not ultimately reducible to or explicable by its material constituents closes the door on the imperialist belief that reductive materialism will be able to explain everything in the world.

Many scholars have raised concerns over the philosophy of reductive materialism, particularly because it negates the reality of moral agency, and eventually leads to a kind of nihilism—a real dearth and death of genuine meaning. Some scholars have also argued that not only is reductive materialism damaging to the human spirit, it leads to the death of science itself. C. S. Lewis, for example, argued that if science is to survive as a coherent discipline, it must abandon the strictly reductive and materialist path it presently walks.

As materialism and naturalism are closely related, Lewis also presents a similar critique of naturalism. Naturalism, he explains, attempts to account for everything in terms of explicable and deterministic causes and effects, usually invoking materialistic causes (the motions of matter). Since we cannot be a thoroughgoing naturalist and also exempt human thought and action from the naturalistic worldview, we must examine the implications of naturalistic causality in human thought. This, however, threatens any claim we can make that our thoughts are true. He says,

The mere existence of causes for a belief is popularly treated as raising a presumption that it is groundless, and the most popular way of discrediting a person’s opinions is to explain them causally—‘You say that because (Cause and Effect) you are a capitalist, or a hypochondriac, or a mere man, or only a woman’. The implication is that if causes fully account for a belief, then, since causes work inevitable, the belief would have had to arise whether it had grounds or not. We need not, it is felt, consider grounds for something which can be fully explained without them.1

The implication here is that if my beliefs are inevitable, considering the conditions of my environment or the chemical structure of my brain, then my beliefs are non-rational. I don’t mean irrational—they may be true, and they be logical—but rather that they are arrived at through non-rational means. That is, reason had nothing do with their formation, despite how reasonable the beliefs may be. If all beliefs are like this—if all beliefs are the product of non-rational causes, such as the material constituents of my brain, my genetic heritage, or the stimulus-response training of my environment—then I have no basis to claim that any of my beliefs are true, for even my belief that they are the product of non-rational causes must also have a non-rational cause. Lewis concludes:

No account of the universe can be true unless that account leaves it possible for our thinking to be a real insight. A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court. For that theory would itself have been reached by thinking, and if thinking is not valid that theory would, of course, be itself demolished. It would have destroyed its own credentials. It would be an argument which proved that no argument was sound—a proof that there are no such things as proofs—which is nonsense.1

Lewis then quotes a Professor Haldane: “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true … and hence I have no reason for supposing by brain to be composed of atoms.”1

For these reasons, I believe that Lewis is correct when he claims that not only do reductive materialism and strict naturalism negate human agency, they also negate the possibility of science itself; at least, science as a pursuit of truth. In a future post, I will expand upon this train of reasoning, and show why I believe that the philosophy of reductionism in accounting for the origin of life, as exemplified in basic evolutionary theory, threatens the very essence of science itself.

C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperCollins, 1947), p. 21-24.