17 September 2008

Deus Ex Machina

Materialism: a theory that physical matter is the only or fundamental reality and that all being and processes and phenomena can be explained as manifestations or results of matter. –Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary, 2003.

As I usually hear it expressed, materialism is a modern philosophy that explains the universe in terms of scientifically knowable and testable causes and effects. I distinguish it from what I call the supernatural, which for me also includes the agency of unknown, unexplainable, supernatural causes as a part of the hypothesized real world.

Typically, materialists tell me that their philosophy is equipped to answer any significant question. Then they sometimes tell me that the questions that it can’t answer are either unimportant, or should be set aside as temporarily unknowable. Sometimes they go on to admit that although the materialist approach may not be able to answer all questions today, they are confident that it can explain everything sooner or later, if pursued correctly. In contrast, I’ve had them tell me that a supernatural view is invalid because it takes the questions that it can’t answer, and then explains them by fabricating an imaginary world in which the causes are external to the local frame of reference: “It was God who did it,” and so forth.

Deus ex machina, so to speak.

You’re probably familiar with “Deus ex machina.” It’s an old Greek theatrical ploy, in which hopeless predicaments are resolved by the sudden intrusion of an Olympian god, who imposes a cheap fix by divine intervention. In some of the crasser theatrical productions, an actor portraying the appropriate god was actually swung over the stage props by a crane, and precipitated into the story by mechanical means: “Deus ex machina”—“God from the machine.” All just in time for dinner, of course, but not a profound solution. The materialists, in effect, accuse me of invoking Deus ex machina when I suggest that a possible addition to my explanations of the physical world might include the hand of God.

Now, my understanding of the scientific method asserts that testable ideas are required before an assertion can be said to be phrased in scientific terms. This is how we use the scientific method in both the earth and the life sciences, on our better days, anyway. If a hypothesis invoked supernatural mechanisms, then valid ways of testing the supernatural would be required before the explanation would be a tenable scientific theory in explaining the world. Not proven, you understand, but merely an acceptable theory subject to routine scientific investigation. But the other day in conversation, when discussing what supernatural evidence might be appropriate in a test of that sort, my local materialist told me, “If I ever experienced a vision of angelic visitation, I would conclude that I was hallucinating, because angels don’t exist.” Or in my re-phrasing, “My pre-existing belief is more valid than any contrary evidence I might be presented with.” And I asked my other materialist what evidence could convince him of the reality of a divine intervention in his life. You know what he told me? “Nothing.”

Wait a minute, here …

Scientists agree that for a theory to be “scientific,” it must be possible to think of a prediction that can theoretically disprove it—a null hypothesis. If any theory cannot be tested this way, then it has not been stated in a scientific way. Note that you don’t have to disprove it—if it’s true, you won’t be able to anyway—but if you can’t ever come up with an experiment that would prove it wrong if it was wrong, it ain’t science. A scientific-sounding theory for which you can't generate a prediction that would disprove it remains just speculation, no matter how many professors gravely nod their heads at it. There is a place for speculation in science, but it is to generate testable hypotheses. If enquiry stops at the speculation stage, we don’t have the scientific method in action, just daydreaming.

Now listen carefully, because I don’t want to hear accusations that I’m creating a straw man:

If a materialist tells me that he would always consider a visitation—of angels, say--to be a hallucination, then he is asserting that physical evidence cannot shake his disbelief in angels. The admission that contrary evidence cannot disprove a theory renders it untestable, and indicates that it rests on faith--not facts, not reason. If physical, sensory evidence is not acceptable to demonstrate that a supernatural vision was real, a priori, then materialism is not ultimately logical or scientifically supported by facts, but is instead maintained independently of natural evidence, and hence is a supernatural world view—a religion, so to speak. I’ve asked materialists what would convince them, and many of them are so sure of the truth of materialism that they don’t even understand my question.

This is a typical materialist world view, but when it is supported in this way, materialism is no more logical—or scientific—than supernaturalism. In my argument, such a materialist world view rests on scientifically unproven assumptions, and while the superstructure built above the premises may be internally consistent and logically valid, it cannot be said to depend on a logical or scientific framework. This is fine with me, but it upsets the materialists I explain it to.

I am not trying to prove the existence of God here, which I will maintain is not a scientific question, but denying the existence of God because no evidence is acceptable is also a materialist position that I hear frequently. I am pointing out that with respect to the supernatural, the materialist appeal to science is frequently unjustified, because ultimately the materialist point of view often departs from the scientific method into reliance on unproven assumptions. Not in theory, but in practice, which is where the money is. This puts them in the same boat as the supernaturalists, albeit unwillingly.

The exception that will disprove this line of reasoning is if a materialist is able to state a situation or occurrence that would disprove the null hypothesis that angels don’t exist—or that God does not exist--in other words, to describe a real-world situation in which his disbelief in angels or God could be scientifically disproven, to the standard level of confidence accepted in science—perhaps a P value of 0.95, for example. It is unnecessary to perform it, merely to describe what it might be. Unless that can be done, this type of materialism is a religion that relies on non-material evidence for its validity.

This isn’t hard for me to conceive of, but it would require a materialist to explain what might make him believe in God. Any materialists out there who might suggest something like that? (And don’t say that you’d have to visit Heaven yourself to believe in it, because I’ve never been to Australia, and I’ll tell you to prove to me that Australia exists, too.)


Heather said...

I love the way you stretch my brain, Kevin :)

kevin roberts said...

It's actually because you listen to all that head-banging music, Heather.