The other day I argued that unleavened empiricism puts blinkers on reason.
Materialism, as the puniest variant of empiricism, goes quite a bit further: it takes reason to the knacker’s yard.
Yet again I rely on Richard Dawkins to make this point for me, and where would I be without him. In one of his popular books he declares that natural selection explains all existence, or words to that effect.
My friend Richard has clearly neglected to ask himself this question: Natural selection of what?
The only logical answer comes right out of the beginner’s course in Darwinism. Various species struggle for survival in our inhospitable world, and some succeed while others fail.
Thus we have, say, the wolf that has evolved over the millennia by warding off the competition of other beasts to become what it is: grey, toothy, predatory, carnivore, gregarious with other wolves, dangerous to lambs and little children, and so on.
Any zoologist will easily explain the wolf’s essence (what it is), yet all the great natural scientists in the world could join forces and still be unable to explain the wolf’s existence (that it is).
This isn’t because they aren’t really great natural scientists. It’s just that the mystery of existence lies outside the reach of natural sciences.
Thus natural selection is a process of refining and modifying the existing biological material. But only in the feeble mind of a materialist can this process explain how and why that biological material got to exist in the first place.
After all, before things evolve they have to be.
Incidentally, the juxtaposition of ‘essence’ and ‘existence’ comes to us courtesy of history’s most sublime thinker Thomas Aquinas, who used them to substantiate his Five Ways (proofs of God’s existence) by inferring that at some point essence and existence have to converge in a supreme being from whom all being derives.
But we aren’t talking about Aquinas and other great minds here. We’re talking about materialists who, at worst, devote whatever intellectual wherewithal they possess to defending a logically impossible proposition, that matter is all there is.
This isn’t much of a thought, but a thought nonetheless, which makes the whole proposition self-refuting. A thought, after all, isn’t made up of matter. Hence materialists use a nonmaterial medium to argue that nothing nonmaterial exists.
This admittedly goes for especially silly materialists, such as Dawkins. The clever ones, like some of my close friends, try to get around this conundrum by simply saying that the issue of being and existence is so mysterious that grappling with it is an exercise in futility.
In a way, such meek surrender is even worse, because clever people ought to know better. They should realise that their statement consigns to futility not only faith and theology, but also philosophy.
For what is philosophy if not rigorous inquiry into first principles and last things? That’s where materialism and empiricism converge: both accept as valid only the knowledge obtained through the five senses, and never mind the Five Ways.
You might think that none of this really matters, since, close as a philosopher may come to the ultimate truth, he’ll never be able to yank the veil off its mystery completely, exposing it in all its naked glory.
That may be, but at least such a thinker will have to master the Art of Asking the Next Question – something that’s essential to pondering not only first principles, but in fact any serious problem worth pondering.
A materialist consciously truncates the pyramid of his thought very close to its base, leaving the upper reaches of thought inaccessible and, as far as he is concerned, nonexistent.
But they do exist, and they are accessible – provided the thinker knows how to ask the next question, which a materialist doesn’t. One can choose any subject at all by way of illustration.
Such as, say, politics. Alas, reading our political columns, one never encounters a practitioner of the art in question.
For example, some people extol the achievements of Castro’s Cuba, among which they list universal literacy: every Cuban now knows how to read. Yet here comes the next question: So what do they read? Communist propaganda? If so, they’re better off illiterate.
But the modern materialist mind doesn’t ask such questions: it can’t penetrate beyond the outer shell of an issue. Thus he notes that Cubans read, and this is as far as his mind allows him to go. What they read is the next question his mind isn’t equipped to ask.
Or take such a universally accepted virtue as freedom, which a materialist mind can’t distinguish from liberty, even though this is an important distinction.
The two concepts largely overlap, but where they don’t freedom means an unrestrained ability to make a choice, while liberty denotes an unrestrained ability to act on the choice freely made.
If you ask a materialist, without qualifying the question in any way, whether freedom and liberty are always good, he’ll nod an enthusiastic assent. He won’t have asked the next question.
Such as, what if the choice freely made is wrong? Would the liberty to act on it still be good? Let’s say, without indulging in reductio ad absurdum, that a man freely decides that dispossessing all rich people is a smashing idea and then freely votes for a candidate who promises to do just that.
Considering that such a development would spell an instant economic and social catastrophe, wouldn’t it be a good idea to curtail both freedom and liberty if that would avoid the catastrophe?
It might or might not be, but a democratic materialist won’t weigh the issue in the balance. The outer shell is all he can perceive. He won’t ask the next questions: Freedom to choose what? Liberty to do what? Can they function in the absence of inner restraints imposed by a supreme outer authority?
The same goes for democracy. One never reads in any periodical any serious doubt about the virtue of universal franchise in principle. Our materialist knows that democracy is the ultimate political virtue, and he can be easily confused or even enraged by a thinker asking the next question, or rather a series of them.
Do we believe that unchecked democracy usually elevates to government those fit to govern? Do we believe that today’s elected officials are accountable to their electors? Do we feel that majority opinion is always right, or at least more often right than wrong? If a show of hands is the best way of running a gigantic complex institution like the state, how come even small businesses are never run that way? How is it that, for the first 19 centuries AD, democracy, if it was practised at all, was checked by other instruments of power? What have we learned in the past couple of centuries that makes us so much wiser than all the previous generations combined?
I’m ready to accept that a materialist may consider such questions carefully and still come up with the same conclusion. My point is that he isn’t equipped not so much to answer such questions as even to ask them.
A materialist’s thought is like his picture of the world: it starts from nothing and ends in nothing. He can’t by definition possess the ability to think teleologically, or even logically.
His logical faculty is only activated at the lower reaches of human activity, typically those involved in amassing enough material possessions to secure sufficient physical comfort. Once again, I can only repeat my recurrent mantra: the Age of Reason, and the materialist modernity it adumbrated, spelled the degeneration of reason.
Thought forcibly pushed down to earth by untutored human will destroys intellectual – and in due course also moral – discipline. That point can be made not only by abstract reasoning but also by rather large bombs, reflecting the scientific progress of which modernity is so justly proud.