Materialism through Equivocation
Tibor R. Machan
Within the secular philosophical community there is more division than
meets the eye. Critics of Secular Humanism, mainly from theological and
religious circles, tend to overlook thisÂ?they think that all those who
reject the supernatural realm are therefore materialists. This way they
can intimate that without embracing the supernatural, we consign ourselves
to the status of bits of matter floating about aimlesslyÂ?without
consciousness and, more importantly, without moral conscienceÂ?in the
universe (unless we drastically redefine these notions).
But some justification exists for how Secular Humanists are treated by
these critics. Quite a few secular thinkers do embrace the materialist
alternative. Their false choice is that between materialism and
spiritualism, where the former amounts to affirming only nature-as-pure
matter as real, the latter embracing something spooky and ineffable,
namely, the ghostly supernatural.
But there are other alternatives that many philosophers who have rejected
supernaturalism or spiritualism affirm without hesitation. These thinkers
are also naturalists, holding that there nothing besides what is part of
nature exists. They do not believe that any scientific laws can be escaped
in this natural realm, nor the laws of a metaphysics, limited to the basic
ones, such as the Law of Identity, the Law of Non-Contradiction, the Law
of the Excluded Middle, and the Law of Causality.
Yet what separates these secular thinkers from the materialists is that
they agree that many types of beings can exists in the world, not just
bits of matter (whatever that is supposed to be anyway). As a result, of
course, they also hold that there can be different kinds of causes in
reality, depending on the nature of what is involved in a causal
relationship. Sure, billiard balls on a pool table and a whole lot else
thatÂ?s part of reality will exhibit the Law of Causality in a mechanistic
fashion. On the subatomic level, however, this same law will be exhibited
in the fashion spelled out by quantum mechanics; while at the level of
human consciousness the Law of Causality will be manifest as self- or
agent causation or free will. And others versions may well exist, too,
with scientists looking into the matter all the time.
My point here isnÂ?t to show that these different forms of causation
existÂ?it is, at any rate, pretty evident to most of us that they do.
ThatÂ?s because human beings also have the unique capacity to know of their
own causal power Â?from inside.Â? They are able to experience it as it
exists within them when they act (and how this differs from when they are,
say, pushed about by forces over which they have no control, such as the
wind or a virus). Ed Pols, in his The Acts of Our Being (1982), shows this
brilliantly. The point is to make it clear that not all naturalisms are
alike. AristotleÂ?s is different from HobbesÂ?s, SpinozaÂ?s from MarxÂ?s, and
NewtonÂ?s (when he wasnÂ?t dabbling in supernaturalism and the occult) isnÂ?t
that of EinsteinÂ?s.
In short, not all naturalists are reductive materialists. Whether they
are correct is, of course, another matter. But to know that the
alternatives are more varied than both some of the critics and some of the
defenders of the secular stance make it appear is important. At least for
PR purposes! Why?
Because common sense tells many people that they have free will and there
are moral responsibilities they need to fulfill. They have a well enough
grasp that they could well neglect these (which is when they may be said
to be acting irresponsibly and can be blamed for this), or fulfill them in
exemplary fashion (which is when they deserve praise). When secular
thinkers deny this, along with denying some alleged supernatural
dimension, they easily alienate ordinary folks from secularism. Few will
go along at the price they think they have to pay, namely, to abandon
their common sense, what essentially gets them through their lives with a
good deal of success. So they remain linked to supernaturalism where they
think free will and morality has to be located.
But if they are aware that embracing secular ideas does not need to mean
giving up on their common sense beliefs in free will and moral
responsibility, they could well give the secular option more attention.
And they indeed should.