The (very slow) Rise of Scientific Materialism


I was going to post about consciousness and free will, but while writing got caught up in digressions on scientific materialism. So rather than fight it, this week will be about scientific materialism.

By Scientific Materialism I mean the strong view of metaphysical naturalism, which asserts that the physical world is all there is. There’s a related but slightly weaker view of methodological naturalism, which only asserts that science should be done as if the physical world is all there is, but does not definitively assert whether other things exist or not. Practicing scientists who are religious typically hold methodological naturalism as their world view. Scientists who are atheists typically hold the stronger form of metaphysical naturalism. In terms of how science is practiced, they’re the same.

Why this matters is if you do science, then you must at least use methodological naturalism as a starting point. If not, then you are doing something, which is fine, but it’s not science. So for example when new atheists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett argue that religion is false, that’s not doing science per se. Rather it’s promoting a scientific point of view, in particular the strong form of metaphysical naturalism  Conversely the argument for religion being true is also not science. It’s about promoting a world view which holds there is more than the material world. This kind of debate has it’s place, and is deeply important to how people live. But philosophers long ago pointed out it can’t be decided by formal logic alone. Both views are logically consistent. Now of course, only 15% of the US population holds a scientific materialism view for evolution, so it’s a minority US (and world) viewpoint. Regardless, debates on atheism and religion get old fast. So much partisan passion and so few changed minds. Flame wars are deeply uninteresting. I’d much rather hear someone pick a side and from there develop an interesting thought. The bottom line is that for any science discussion I’ll take methodological materialism as a non-debatable given. So rather than debate the truth of that view, let’s take a look at the very slow rise methodological materialism, and in particular fields where it’s not taken as a given.

Darwin and the Humanities

Physics, chemistry, math, engineering – the hard sciences – are fully on board with the scientific materialism paradigm. But if we mark the start scientific materialism with the Greeks or other societies from the Axial Age, it’s taken over a thousand years to reach where we are today. From that perspective it’s not too surprising we’re not done yet. The social sciences are just starting a decades long transition along these lines.

NY Times columnist David Brooks provides a good frame. A few years back Brooks wrote a column called “The Age of Darwin” where he said ”….while we postmoderns say we detest all-explaining narratives, in fact a newish grand narrative has crept upon us willy-nilly and is now all around. Once the Bible shaped all conversation, then Marx, then Freud, but today Darwin is everywhere.” Now I would say that Freud was only a temporary owner of the humanities, and Marx made a comeback, but the frame is accurate enough. Marx, or at least a marxist influenced view of human nature, is now being overturned in the humanities by biology and evolution.

In a previous post I talked about how Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin fought E.O. Wilson’s view that evolution should be applied to understand human psychology. What I didn’t discuss was Gould and Lewontin were devout Marxists. That’s not a coincidence. Marxism provided a paradigm for human nature based on blank slate human equality and class conflict. That paradigm motivated Gould’s fight against racism, but also blinded him to the possibility of using evolution to understand humanities quirks. And Gould was not that unusual. In the humanities 80% of professors self-categorize as liberals. Obviously most are not marxists, but on the other hand it’s fair to say that a (marxist influenced) view of humanity and class structure is common for many humanities professors. Regardless, the real point here is what’s far less common – a belief that the social sciences are formally underpinned by biology and evolution.

This great xkcd comic captures in a self-mocking way which fields are built on top of which.


So why haven’t evolution and biology been underpinning the humanities since Darwin published his book in 1859? Especially since Karl Popper famously and correctly debunked Freud and Marx as unfalsifiable psudeoscience in 1934? Frankly it’s because until very recently science itself has not been up to the task. So Marx and other philosophers continued to hold sway. It was only in 1975 that E. O. Wilson published Sociobiology, and it took another 30 years to get that book’s ideas on using evolution to understand human social behavior to general consensus. E. O. Wilson calls underpinning the social sciences and humanities with biology “consilience”, and has conferences on it. David Sloan Wilson has written books on the evolutionary basis for religion. Economists are moving away from theoretical models of people as efficient market optimizers and trying to base economics more on real human psychology. Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow outlines the many systemic biases in human reason. And  Kahneman only got his Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. Now to be fair, if you ask a social scientist today if their views are compatible with evolution they’ll answer yes. And case by case that might be true. But that’s because we’re living in a transitional time. The revolution will be over when Marx is studied the same way we study Aristotle. Some particular insights will stand, but many will not. They’ll be discarded interesting dead ends. They key point is that the overall philosophical frame to human nature will come from somewhere else, namely biology and evolution. There are still decades for this to play out.

Now back to my original motivation: writing a post about consciousness and free will. At first it might appear these topics are still in the realm of philosophy. But I would argue that’s not true. The trick here is not to argue about theoretical concepts from philosophy like “the good” or “mind-body” problems. Instead ask the direct scientific question of how the human brain actually works. This is exactly the same shift that’s happening in all the humanities. Darwin and biology are taking over and in the process sidestepping older philosophical debates. And by asking about the human mind as a scientific question, we can take for granted a scientific materialist viewpoint. Of course all the philosophical debates will remain even if you figure out how the mind works, but as in other areas already taken over by science, the philosophic discussions will become pedantic and uninteresting once you know the scientific answers.

At bottom of course I’m in the tank for Daniel Dennett on free will and consciousness. So with that as background let’s take a stab at that next week.

Categorized as Science

By Nathan Taylor

I blog at on tech trends and the near future. I'm on twitter as @ntaylor963.

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