The Theology of Materialism

In 1996, the Catholic Church finally officially admitted that it had made a mistake in trying and convicting Galileo. It only took them 363 years to do so. It’s difficult for people to make adjustments in their theologies.

In the 20th century, a lot of scientists in Europe and the United States adopted a theology of deterministic materialism. This took many forms—Behaviorism in psychology and other social sciences, Logical Positivism and Verificationism and Determinism and Objectivism and Functionalism and Physicalism in philosophy. The underlying idea had been put forward by Lucretius long, long before, in his book De rerum natura (The Way of Nature), circa 55 BCE: All that exists is atoms and the void. Stuff. And, of course, the natural laws governing stuff. The breathtakingly brilliant French mathematician, physicist, engineer, and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) put the materialist theory succinctly when he argued that given the positions of all objects and the laws governing them, a sufficiently knowledgeable mind could calculate everything that was going to happen in the future. I call this, uncharitably, the Billiard Ball Theory of Everything.

Of course, 20th-century physics delivered a lot of blows to the Billiard Ball theory. It turned out that light was particles if looked at in some ways and waves if looked at in others; another formulation by contemporary physicists, called Quantum Field Theory, or QFT, holds that elementary particles and their constituents weren’t little billiard balls but interacting fields, that these fields permeate everything, that a photon, for example, is an excitation in an all-pervasive electromagnetic field; that virtual particles pop into and out of existence all the time; that some physical phenomena, such as radioactive decay, are truly random and clearly not determined; that time and space are not fixed and absolute but relative. And, a lot of philosophers (Nagel, Chalmers) started worrying about the fact that qualia don’t seem to be explicable from a materialistic world view. While scientists and philosophers could point to neural correlates of conscious states, they had no clue, no clue at all, how to account for qualia—for the EXPERIENCE of the smell of an orange or the sound of a violin, for example.

Old ideas like deterministic materialism die hard. Still today, there are philosophers like Daniel Dennett and Johnathan Carruthers putting forward theories that consciousness is, in fact, an illusion. The popular press runs a lot of this nonsense. There’s an article about the supposed illusory nature of consciousness in this month’s Scientific American, for example. Here’s the idea: stuff happens in the brain—unconscious processing—and the results of this are handed over to some sort of workspace in the brain, and we imagine that we are doing conscious thinking, but that’s illusory; all the work has taken place automatically, behind the scenes. We think that we are making a conscious decision, for example, between the orange marmalade and the blackberry jam, but what’s actually happening is that material processes are taking place unconsciously and then being delivered over to this “workspace,” a done deal.

That’s a totally ludicrous notion. Yes, there is all this unconscious machinery that operates in the brain when we are thinking, but there is no good reason to believe that the machinery is not the servant of consciousness rather than the other way around, and there is good reason, that I’m not going to go into here, for looking askance at the very notion of “material things.”

We know that the materialistic view is false because we are, each of us, an existence proof of that. We have these things called conscious states, and while they can be correlated to brain states, THEY ARE CLEARLY NOT REDUCIBLE TO THEM because they are something entirely different. Daniel Dennett wrote a book called Consciousness Explained to advance the materialist view that consciousness is an illusion. But all attempts to explain consciousness away are failures because when you awaken, there it is. You experience it, and THE EXPERIENCE ITSELF IS NOT A THING. Conscious states and stuff that we are conscious of are different TYPES of entities altogether.

Dennett calls people who talk about as I do about consciousness “Mysterians,” in an attempt to poke fun at us, as if the proper response to an unaccounted-for phenomenon were, instead, to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

What the fact of consciousness tells us is that there’s something wrong, fundamentally wrong, with the materialist paradigm. And this is what happens in real science. People look at some phenomenon in nature and say, “Hmm. That’s funny,” because IT IS NOT EXPLAINED by their current paradigm. And they go back to the drawing board and come up with a different theory that accounts for the old stuff AND for the unaccounted-for anomaly.

My suspicion is that we shall figure out, in time, that consciousness is fundamental, and that what we think of as the material world are various interfaces, differing in various creatures, to an underlying nonmaterial conscious reality of which our individual consciousnesses are a part. The great Victorian scientist Thomas Henry Huxley once observed that a scientist must “sit down before the facts as a little child.” Well, conscious states are one of the facts of life, and without them, there wouldn’t be any reflecting on facts of life, or anything else, at all. And accounting for conscious states requires jettisoning the superstition that all that exists are billiard-ball atoms and the void. Real scientists don’t simply decide that inconvenient facts can be ignored. People with the intellectual equipment of, say, Donald Trump do that.

Why are people like Dennett and Carruthers so intent on denying the existence of consciousness and providing a materialist “explanation” for it? Well, stuff like what the Church did to Galileo really pisses them off. They want to purge us of superstitious spiritualist kookiness. And, being high priests of materialism, they want to root out nonmaterialist heresy wherever they find it.

Ironically, they have the same sorts of ideological blinders on as do those whom they despise—the religionists. Theirs is not science. It’s a materialist theology. And “theology before breakfast sticks to the eye,” as the great American poet Wallace Stevens so brilliantly observed.

For a related essay, go here:


For more posts by Bob Shepherd re: philosophy, go here:


About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
This entry was posted in Epistemology, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Theology of Materialism

  1. Pingback: The Vast Unseen and the Vast Unseeable: Reconciling Belief and Nonbelief | Bob Shepherd | Praxis

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