Home > Uncategorized > An Atheist’s Perspective: The Materialist Conundrum

An Atheist’s Perspective: The Materialist Conundrum

If you do not believe that there is sufficient evidence to establish the existence of a divine being, you may also not believe in the spiritual realm either. The commonality between the two is that we are dealing with an immaterial/material interaction that needs to be explained if there is to be a consistent metaphysics underlying reality. For spirituality we have to first define what that means, and then we have to explain how it works. For any kind of theism the same dual fold issue remains: yet the theist usually has recourse to magic. Both of these viewpoints have something in common with atheism (deism for this post is within the purview of theism for obvious reasons).

Hard materialism states that we are merely a conglomeration of material and gaps between the material allowing for both motion and change–this is the immaterial. In simpler terms there is only things and nothing. Call them atoms, call them monads (although the followers of Leibniz will have a stroke if you try and use the term this way), it doesn’t matter: there is material and nothing. Forces emit from the material, e.g. gravity, but without the material there is only void. With only these two categories of stuff, the hard materialist will then have to claim that all of the stuff is subject to some kind of law of nature in order to make sense of the material. This is the goal of modern physics, to determine the laws by which the universe behaves so that we can understand it and use it to make predictions. 

Our science has done a pretty good job of this, we can make large bodies of metal float and fly through the air. I can use this computer on this internet all because we understand a good deal of the behavior of the stuff of the universe. Biology, chemistry, and now physics allow us to shape our world. So we understand the biological causes of each of us, how we came to be alive. We understand the chemical causes with gametes and DNA; and to some extent we also understand the physical causes with the bindings of molecules to each other. The hard materialist will smile using all of these things as examples of natural things being subject to the natural laws. Using occam’s razor, they can literally shave all of the supernatural causes that were once used to explain the world. There is no place for them as they exist outside the natural order. 

As unsettling as it sounds, atheists have to eat a bullet here–a bullet that theists are more than happy to supply. Hard materialism offers no room for free will. At last no room that can be proven with any kind of consistency. The most famous of the early materialists were the Epicureans, and Lucretius, the second most famous of the Epicureans, wrote that the atoms–which construct all material objects–would somehow swerve and in this swerve would create free will. I should note here that this “Swerve” is not in the existant writings of Epicurus it seems to be wholly an invention of Lucretius in his “On the Nature of Things.” The problem for this belief is that any swerving of the atoms is either subject to some natural law that we are not aware of and thus we are back to predetermination and a lack of free will, or it is entirely arbitrary in which case it is difficult to determine how it is free will to begin with, i.e. if the swerve determines our free will then is it really free will? Some cite features of quantum physics in which free will is based on the uncertainty principle, or the unique results of experiments were sub-atomic particles appear in two different locations at the same time as being evidence that there exists materialist free will; those explanations are lacking in that for the former it relies on a misunderstanding of the term “observe” within quantum mechanics and the latter is an example of a deficiency in our ability to explain an outcome, e.g. there is something we are missing that we have yet to explain. The alternative is to just accept that there is no free will but that our perception of it is what really matters. We may never be able to prove either way so what, in the end, is the difference?

If free will is an illusion, we will never know. If there is free will, we will never truly know that either. In both cases our behavior would be exactly the same. Materialism, if it is to remain consistent: has to accept one of two propositions. The first is that all action is governed by laws and that what we call free will is also governed by these laws. The second, is that we don’t know. 

The second is risky only because accuracy and consistency is a burden that only atheists seem to be forced to carry. By claiming that we don’t know, the theists seem to think we’ve fallen into some kind of trap in that they have an explanation for what we don’t. Their explanation of course is magic. Free-will and the material/immaterial divide is granted through divine fiat and that unexplainable explanation is their solution. It’s a fallacy of course, an appeal to ignorance or what is also known as the “god of the gaps” argument but they don’t see it that way. They use divine revelation to explain where that information comes from, but it’s never their divine revelation it’s always at least third hand. 

The important thing to remember as an atheist is that admitting you don’t know is not a weakness, it’s honest. That kind of answer is much better than accepting an answer because you find the alternative unsettling or using magic to fill in the holes. Perhaps one day we will understand, or perhaps not; either way we don’t know now and that’s the best any of us can truly say.

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  1. April 29, 2014 at 8:41 am

    Personally, I have found no good argument yet to convince me that there is “free will” (without it being simply a random element). So, personally I assume there isn’t. Of course, it changes nothing, because the question “What should I do, as there is no free will?” implies the possibility to choose which is absurd given the premise (“there is no free will”). So, I will simply continue to assume there isn’t but accept the fact, that we only can operate as if there was (because, what else can I do? Nothing. Even choosing to do nothing because there is no free will would include the choice. So I accept the illusion of choice.). It’s a nice paradox, but not one that makes me especially sleepless.

    • rdxdave
      April 29, 2014 at 5:12 pm

      The Stoics believed in what is termed “soft-determinism” where your actions are determined but your thoughts are not. I think people who believe that determinism would cause them despair are in this vein, but you are correct; if there is no free will nothing can be done to change that.

  2. Ignostic Atheist
    April 29, 2014 at 1:33 pm

    Materialism, if it is to remain consistent: has to accept one of two propositions. The first is that all action is governed by laws and that what we call free will is also governed by these laws. The second, is that we don’t know.

    How about both? Assume that the first is true in absence of evidence otherwise, but readily admit the second.

    • rdxdave
      April 29, 2014 at 5:13 pm

      Well the “or” in their is meant to be inclusive. Any reasonable person ought to be able to change their mind when new evidence presents itself.

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