Posts Tagged ‘materialism’

Something to think about
Some strange ideas about human nature have emerged in recent years.  One such idea appears to be that humans have no control over their actions.

The world is made of particles
The argument for the idea runs like this.  The entire universe is composed of particles which are perfectly invisible to us ; but these particles assemble themselves in systematic ways to produce larger particles, such as molecules  ; and the larger particles arrange themselves in ever larger groups, until the largest of them are actually able to influence our sensory organs.  In other words, they become visible, audible, tangible and so on.

The world is determined by natural laws
This is not a particularly surprising model of what the world might be like.  We can imagine such things as rocks, puddles, mountains, rivers and so on being made of trillions of invisible particles, all arranging themselves according to what appear to be natural laws which decide on the shapes and sizes and masses of natural things.  In accordance with the natural laws, objects, such as the stones, puddles, mountains and oceans, etc., may only take on certain physical arrangements.  And the things themselves have no power to alter their physical arrangements.  A mountain cannot choose to grow either bigger or smaller, heavier or lighter, etc. ; nor can it decide where to place itself on the Earth’s surface.  This model of the physical world is easily imagined, so no surprises there.

Humans are no different to non-living things
When we come to living creatures such as people, we can certainly imagine the shape and size of a person being decided by the same natural laws that decide the shape and size of a pebble or a mountain.  We can just about imagine those same natural physical laws arranging the matter of our bodies so that we move about on the Earth’s surface.  We are able to imagine this because, if circumstances are right, even pebbles move about on the Earth’s surface – in high winds, for example.  The difference between a moving person and a moving pebble is that the person moves more elegantly and in a much more complex way.

All human behaviour is determined by impersonal natural forces
But now we begin to approach a puzzle.  The puzzle is this : a person will often move about without there being any external natural forces being applied to his body.  But pebbles, etc. do not.  Thus, the model seems to say, people move in that way in response to internal forces acting on the body.  But those forces are of exactly the same kind as the external forces that move pebbles ; indeed, those internal forces are dependent on external forces, in the form of the food we eat (so it is doubtful if they can really be called internal).

Humans have no personal control over their behaviour
And the puzzle deepens.  For this model of the world does not give the person any control over his movements ; all movement is governed by the natural laws which decide the way in which the particles of the body shall act.  So a person has no more control over his movements than does a cloud of dust being driven by the wind.  It’s just that his movements are more complex because his particles are more complex.

Humans are completely material and mechanical
In the new model of the world, there is no ‘essence’ to a human being ; no mind, no soul.  There are just material particles doing what particles do in accordance with the usual natural laws.  Thus there is no ‘person’ in control of the human’s body ; there is no transcendent ’soul’ which is in control of the body.  The model is completely material, mechanical and impersonal.

Humans are machines that have gone crazy
There are many surprises to be investigated in this model of the human being, if only because it is utterly unlike the models we have been used to.  One puzzle is that a completely material, mechanical and impersonal biological machine could ever have come up with the ideas of personality and free-will.  Surely, aren’t such ideas aberrations in the proper functioning of the machine?


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Just as the diehard materialist believes that all knowledge comes from some primaeval event such as the Big Bang, so the diehard theist believes that all knowledge comes from the Creator.  It is significant that neither of these beliefs is supportable by any direct sensory evidence of the everyday kind, but both are derived from reason.  Both are rational constructs which, by general consent, can be said with assurance to exist only in human minds.  Much may be said about these two contrasting beliefs by way of qualification and many elaborations may be made.

But, if we are to reach  an understanding of the materialist and the spiritual points of view, then it is important to clear up some common errors.  Perhaps the most important error, and the one therefore to be avoided,  is that of literalism.

There was no Big Bang, just as there was no lady called Eurynome.  And we must come to accept that there are no such intrinsically material things as electrons and protons, just as there are no such intrinsically material things as imps and demons.  It is a matter of serious debate, however, whether such rational entities might become material things, and whether they might take this form or that.

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I have mentioned before that, while I admire Freud, I am not a Freudian.  It is quite possible to see the virtues in a person without agreeing in the least with his or her ideas ; just as it is quite possible to see the  merits of a theory or of a hypothesis without buying into it completely.  Also it is more than likely that one may form an opinion of an idea only to discover later that the idea actually has a quite different interpretation from the one first seized upon.

I once read, in passing, that Freud considered the possibility that consciousness ‘arose from the very atoms themselves’.  And there is much that arises from that idea.  But in my haste my first thought was, “But this is typical Victorian materialism ! – a product of the Great Mistake that typified that otherwise great age.”  And, if I hadn’t more recently encountered another great thinker, I should probably still hold that opinion of Freud.

The mistake I made was so common that perhaps I may be forgiven ; it was the mistake of failing to ask the right questions.  I had forgotten the advice of Aristotle.  My first question to Freud ought to have been, “What do mean by the word ‘atom’?  I had assumed that he meant ‘the smallest indivisible particle of matter’ ; hence my judgement that he was proposing a materialist notion of consciousness.  (By the way, I had also forgotten that Freud was a near contemporary of Rutherford, and would have known of him.)

But further reading and further contemplation reveals that we do not have sufficient evidence that atoms are material things at all.  It all depends on how we look at the world and how we shape our arguments about it.

It depends on whether we are ‘outward lookers’ or ‘inward lookers’ – and on whether we are able to look both ways.  It depends on what we mean by empirical science.

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