Matters Arising

Those philosophers living purely in a material world are now in the minority, as atheists and theists alike look to consciousness

Counterpoints Faith Philosophy

The American philosopher Daniel Dennett has said that almost all philosophers these days are materialists. That is almost the opposite of the truth. There are some very good materialist philosophers – including Dennett – but they are in a small minority among professional university teachers of philosophy. Indeed, materialism has rarely been taken seriously by philosophers until the last 40 years. One of my own teachers, A. J. Ayer, a militant atheist (at least he would have been an atheist if he had known what “God” meant) was as far from being a materialist as it is possible to get. He thought that material objects were constructs out of sense-data. Another teacher, Gilbert Ryle (Dennett’s teacher also), regarded materialism as a crude mechanical philosophy, much too metaphysical to be taken seriously.

In the history of Western thought, virtually all major philosophers, atheists and theists alike, have rejected materialism. In quantum physics, the very idea of matter has become so obscure that it is hard to know what being a materialist would amount to. If our space-time originates by quantum fluctuations in a vacuum, and if matter is stuff in space-time, then matter is dependent upon some supra-material reality that seems to be elegantly intelligible, almost Platonic in nature (Roger Penrose thinks it is Platonic).

Many quantum theorists, like John von Neumann, regard the whole material world as dependent upon consciousness, because measurements are required to collapse wave-functions. “All real things are contents of consciousness,” von Neumann said.

Materialism is mainly negative, denying either that consciousness, purpose or objective value have any existence, or that they have any causal efficacy. This is immensely counterintuitive, but it is also at odds with many competent interpretations of modern physics. Some materialists, like David Armstrong, accept that materialism is a contingent hypothesis. It could be false, and conscious states of some sort could exist without material embodiment.

But of course philosophers who think that thoughts and perceptions exist and have causal efficacy agree that all human consciousnesses are embodied – even Descartes said that mind and body are mixed up “so as to form a unit” (Sixth Meditation).

That is not in dispute. What is in dispute is whether matter itself is the fundamental nature of reality or an increasingly mysterious abstraction from the real, intelligible and value-filled world of our experience. It is worth remembering that most major philosophers have thought, and most living philosophers now think, that consciousness and thought are irreducibly real, and cannot be explained or described in purely material terms.

This by no means makes them religious believers. But it does mean that the idea of one supreme consciousness that generates the material world as an actualisation of some possible worlds that it conceives – a basic axiom of many religions – is seriously worth considering. And it does mean that programmes of scientific reductionism, for which all mental events are reduced to brain-processes, can be seen to depend on highly controversial and unsubstantiated philosophical systems, many miles away from the commonsense beliefs of widely admired philosophers like David Hume.