Morality for the materialist (or physicalist) must be a form of subterfuge, a sleight of hand. You have to forget the foundation on which it stands. Once that forgetfulness is in place, then the dialogue can progress as if it were referring to real things rather than contrivances that arise from the neurons of a walking bag of chemicals. Nihilism is compatible with materialism but only if it is diverted by the use of a pretended reality such as fabricating meaning and rules of behavior.
There are, of course, those who manage to act as if nothing significant takes place when a cosmos of intelligence and transcendent love is exchanged for a selfmade Rube Goldberg machine that marginalizes the most immediate and significant aspects of human existence. The mind, emotion, beauty, virtue, love, all those things which differentiate us from rocks and tree stumps, become epiphenomena, secondary to the primordial reality which is always unintentional and unintelligent stuff, whereas the quantitive and the physical comprise the fundamental explanation of what a thing is. That which is most true is that aspect of a thing that is testable, reproducible, and empirical. Very few people actually live this way and that is why we have pretend reality. If we examines the world of materialism we will see it is very dependent on fantasy and creative make belief. Is it any surprise that modern societies are so dependent on escapism, on Disneyland and an industry created to entertain us until we die.
If materialism is correct, then being correct doesn’t matter that much. If we take that worldview seriously, there is nothing in principle to take seriously because the end game is always the same. Whatever we have done, wherever we have been, it is a journey to the same end. What constitutes discovery is a groping in the dark using tools developed in the dark under the assumption there is nothing but the dark. Materialism may appear true on first glance because we are immersed in matter, but one does not have to be a theist to recognize the difficulties that result when things like mind, language, and intelligence are reduced to it1. Reductionists narrow everything to basic physical components and so have even regarded consciousness itself as some kind of epiphenomenon. Incidentally, if consciousness is an illusion then how can something like morality that derives from this illusion have any truth value at all?
Materialists often insist that they can be ‘good’ and ‘moral’ people and of course they can—within a commonly agreed upon societal consensus of what the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mean—and that insistence is itself the issue, and not whether a given person can act in one way rather than another. The question has to do with this: if the claim is that the King has no clothes, then why discuss the color and quality of the fabric? In other words, if humans are what you say they are, situated in a cosmos that is the mindless and meaningless machine you claim it is, then why are you insisting on the truth value of human ethics?
The psalmist says regarding humanity, “You have made them a little lower than the angels, and crowned them with glory and honor.”2 The materialist has other ideas.3 World-class scientists and scholars have defined the human as a walking bag of chemicals, a collection of particles, an aberrant species, a hairless and upright ape, a pack of neurons, and the entire cosmos the result of a roulette wheel. As if that were not enough they also saddle the human with biological determinism (a lack of free will) so that we are controlled solely by our brain biology. Given the supposed lack of self-determination, any discussion about good or bad might end there, but they are not comfortable with letting it rest with ‘my brain made me do it’.
Human life within materialism can be described as a moment of consciousness sandwiched between eternal oblivion on both sides—-it is a flicker of time expended within the ultimate reality of a non-conscious universe. The statement by scientist Gaylord Simpson that the universe did not have us in mind has already gone too far. There is no Mind in their world. There was no imperative for life to have begun or to bring forth mice or men; our existence, as the biologist Jacques Monod once said, is the consequence of ‘a roll of the dice’.
In this picture of the world, even altruism is an illusion, reduced to serving clever genes in their blind quest to replicate, for no particular reason other than to replicate. The end game is always the same, and it matters not whether you are Attila the Hun, a serial killer, a serial rapist, Mother Theresa, or Saint Paisios. Oblivion means exactly that and cannot be defeated by fanciful notions that we live on in the memory of other humans, or in our offspring, or because our bodies return to the molecules and atoms of the universe. There is no awareness in oblivion. If the human species becomes extinct in some distant future, all of this effort—-our civilizations, cities, wars, art, politics, religions, and science, will have been so much background noise. This in fact, is what will take place for each person one at a time.
Given this worldview, on what basis does anyone dare tell another naked ape how they must behave? Why do we ridicule the myths of so-called primitive people when we have so many of our own? Love your neighbor as yourself, be a good person, do not be selfish, do not be hedonistic, be virtuous, don’t cheat on your exams (even if it means failing out of school), and don’t be a drug dealer (though it may make you rich)…how does any of this necessarily follow from the premises of materialism? Where is the hat from which these ‘virtues’ magically appear?
Upright apes can decide as a group that certain actions are better than others, even ‘virtuous’ if they want to call them that, but that does not make it so in any universal and necessary way. We believe that we are making this up and it has no more authority that what some other naked apes make of it. What about those individuals who view the world differently, who do not accept all or part of the social definitions of what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behavior? Are they immoral in the profound sense? Absolutely not—it is their opinion versus your opinion—and the standard will be determined by those who have power, not by truth.
Animals as Models for Human Behavior
The vacuousness of naturalism has lead some to look at nature itself for guidance, but given that monkeys don’t write very good books, rats are notoriously poor philosophers, and baboons have never raised up a clever scientist, why look at them? If humans have no free will then certainly neither does the Macaque monkey? Nonetheless, within some social sciences there is a tendency to look at animal behavior to justify or clarify our own. The conclusions and interpretations arrived at are (of course) heavily biased by the societal fashions of the current day. It is we that interpret what animals do in the light of our own presuppositions, and not the other way around. The power that the fashions of the day have on the way we view animal behavior is blatant, and others have noted the lack of objective ‘science’ in all this. Cetaceans and certain anthropoids have been favorites over the last few decades and the approval rating of the bonobo chimpanzee has risen greatly because its behavior accords better with the current norms compared to the common chimpanzee. But would eighteenth-century people interpret the same behavior in the manner that we do today? Most likely not.
The brute implications of materialism are not changed by assigning metaphysical qualities to physical actions. It is obvious that we are personifying an impersonal existence. The moral interpretation that is added to human behavior is a construct that requires pre-existing consensus in order to have force. The use of animal behavior to ground human behavior reveals the fragility of human ethics in the context of the modern worldview. It is an attempt to have it stand on something more solid, but nothing is gained by replacing one animal with another. If humans have no more free will than a lump of sugar, then it is the same for bonobos and squirrels. If the substrate of existence is founded on the meaningless and purposeless worldview of naturalism, then apes and dolphins are even less aware of the state of reality than we are.
Why should anyone who is fully aware of the worldview of materialism give credence to those parts of it that go against their interest, desires, and happiness? Why should I be forced to behave according to what some other hairless apes have decided is in the best interests of a particular society, given that this is my life, not theirs and each person enters the oblivion alone. What is good for the society may be harmful to my interests and unlike an ant, I am fully aware of this. Society does not enter the oblivion with me -— I enter it alone. To call this selfish is already to indulge in fantasy. Call behaviors whatever you like, but don’t expect me to take your opinions as authoritative.
To say as Ivan does in The Brothers Karamazov, that if there is no God then everything is permitted, is not to say we must be rapists and pillagers: it is not to say we must be anything, because that infers some kind of objective and universally true basis for ascribing moral attributes to animal behavior. We are the ones that label raping and pillaging as a certain kind of behavior with moral overtones; beyond the mere facts of the actions themselves. The behaviors are factual (speaking in reductive physical terms) whereas the moral interpretations are not. Using materialism as the full explanation of reality means we can no longer continue with the behavior and society that were handed down when a totally different set of assumptions existed.
When we conclude that nature is a blind and indifferent mother, and our presence is a fleeting and unplanned chance event, we are no longer obliged to submit to genetically or socially determined rules of behavior. The ones who want to remain subservient to fabricated moral codes of behavior may do so; those who rebel are also in their ‘right’. The one who defines humanity as a bag of chemicals with no more free will than a lump of sugar, existing in a mindless universe that is a product of chance only, cannot seriously label others as ‘evil’ in the profound and ultimate sense—without holding on to a delusion.
In atheistic materialism, evil is nothing more than the expressed opinion of some upright apes who don’t like the behavior of certain other apes, or some particular aspects of nature. Evil exists if one says it does but it is not present as objective reality situated within physical stuff. No matter what behavior a human society decides upon, certain facts remain. One is that no matter my opinion, I end in the same oblivion as the person who choose to act in ways that were contrary to mine. Behaviors have no final implications and they are not enduring. Whatever I may have done, it disappears completely from my consciousness at death and eventually from those humans who knew me. If the species goes extinct all of it is lost. Oblivion is the peace offered by materialism, which is rather different from that spoken of by Jesus4.
David Berlinski5 has this quandary in mind when he notes that the atheist philosopher Richard Rorty “…had no criticism to offer Nazi Germany beyond a personal sense of revulsion.”
And later Berlinski notes:
If moral statements are about something, then the universe is not quite as science suggests it is, since physical theories, having said nothing about God, say nothing about right or wrong, good or bad. To admit this would force philosophers to confront the possibility that the physical sciences offer a grossly inadequate view of reality.
Berlinski then sums up the dilemma when he writes:
Whence the familiar declaration that just as there are no absolute truths, there are no moral absolutes.
Of these positions, no one believes the first, and no is prepared to live with the second. This is precisely the dilemma is which we find ourselves.
The modern technological democratic societies are especially skilled at keeping us distracted until the moment we die. Hedonism, consumerism (a temporary cure for depression if you have the money), individualism, self-empowerment, endless forms of entertainment, sports, career building, wealth creation, the promise of the future, new and ever better technological toys, and for many it is social and political ideologies—-all of this can be very powerful and distracting. No one living in modern secular societies can in good faith claim that religion is the opiate of the people, rather it is consumerism and choice. As David Bentley Hart notes, today it is irreligion that is the opiate of the people. But what happens if the entertainment industry ceases to be entertaining? What happens when careers fail to satisfy, when the hype of the new becomes monotonous? What happens when politicos and social reformers actually get what they want but paradise is not realized?
In addition to cultural enticements and entertainments, there are other things that influence human behavior on a practical level, such as peer pressure, the biological wiring of the brain, development, and the penalties associated with breaking the laws. But practical and functional are not the same as Truth and everlasting reality. Guilt is also a factor, but guilt can be jettisoned by a rational consideration of the materialist worldview–there is no need for it and it only makes the person weaker. Many have learned to do away with it altogether.
Most materialists want to believe morality and societal norms are actually and truly real. The reason for this is fairly obvious— they don’t want to be treated according to their own definitions. It is one thing to define oneself as a mere collection of particles with no free will, but quite another to be treated that way. Certainly they need to foster the illusion for the propagation of society and culture, but that is solely utilitarian. So they pretend that certain human actions really are good and others really are bad, rather than just labels they place on things according to the prevailing political, social, scientific, and religious fashions of the day.
Morality within materialism is like the game of chess—the rules hold so long as we agree they do. If someone decides the King can move two spaces in each direction, the game cannot be played with those who hold to the classical rules. We know chess is a form of pretending, a game, so we can choose to create a new version and if enough people choose our version over the old one, then we replace the old with the new one. This is often referred to as progress.
Finally, there are among materialists some who appear to delight in substantive hopelessness, who relish pushing Humpty Dumpty over the wall, and I have encountered those as well—-they think they are shocking us. But when Humpty Dumpty is needed to establish social order, or a powerful ethical argument as to why another aberrant ape should not break into their home and steal their belongings, or assault their family, they are adept at pulling rabbits out of thin air and words of moral indignation pour forth.
C.S. Lewis summarizes this contradiction when he wrote,
We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and then bid the geldings to be fruitful.6
- Prominent intellectual atheists like Thomas Nagel, David Chalmers, Raymond Tallis, and Mary Midgley, for example, have recognized the inadequacy of reductive science and the failure of simplistic Darwinian mechanisms to explain mind or the fullness of human life.
- Psalm 8:5, Hebrews 2:7
- “Science has shown you that ‘you,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’” — Francis Crick.
“An impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless scrap of molecular machinery is the ultimate basis of all agency, and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe.” — Daniel Dennett.
“The reality is, not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar.” — Anthony Cashmore.
“The fact that we human beings — who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature — have been able to come this close to an understanding of the laws governing us and our universe is a great triumph.” — Stephen Hawking.
“But in fact we are nothing but bones, tissues, gelatinous membranes, neurons, electrical impulses, and chemicals.” — Alan Lightman, MIT Humanities professor.
“Man is the product of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.” — Gaylord Simpson.
“We are nothing more than an aberrant species.” — Richard Dawkins.
“We are nothing more than an upright and naked ape.” — Desmond Morris.
“We are an ape!” — Richard Leakey.
- John 14:27
- The Devils Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions. David Berlinski.
- The Abolition of Man. C.S. Lewis. Harper One. 2009.
About the Author
- Dr. Daniel Buxhoeveden from the University of South Carolina is the founder and director of the Religion and Science Initiative at the University of South Carolina. He has a JD from Loyola University and a PhD in biological anthropology from the University of Chicago. He is interested in the micro-organization of the cortex and how this can be applied to comparative neuroscience, medicine and brain evolution.