April 27, 2009

Dennett Devolving, Part II

This is the second part of Dennett Devolving, my reflections on Darwinian ideology prompted by philosopher and Darwinian Daniel C. Dennett’s book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995). I posted Part I on 4-23-09. This part will be a discussion of the philosophical shortcomings of materialism for explaining human consciousness (or anything else), and the need for a moderate realism in metaphysics to understand the nature of mind and human knowledge. To keep this post from being any longer than it is, I will continue with the discussion of the intellect and knowledge in Part III. Also, I will present the issues in a simplified form and define various philosophical terms.

The primary philosophical problem is the crude materialism Charles Darwin grafted on to evolutionary theory. The Darwinian bias for materialism precludes it from doing justice to the uniqueness the human mind. This is not a criticism of evolution in itself, which is a fact of biology regardless of how inadequately understood. It is criticism of the materialistic version of evolution in which extreme Darwinians misuse science for their ideology of evolutionism. In this manner, the Darwinian takes science to be evolutionism.

Nonetheless, for ourselves, we can avoid the errors and pitfalls of philosophical materialism through a moderate realism, even though we may not convince a single dogmatic Darwinian to be more scientific and less ideological. Darwinian ideology, the modern Weltanschauung, is the perfect example of Einstein’s observation that the man of science makes a poor philosopher.


Most people understand the basic distinction between material or physical reality and spiritual reality, though their ideas may be a bit fuzzy. We can weigh, measure, and count physical objects. We experience the particular qualities of physical objects that exist in a place through our five senses. We see their colors and shapes; we hear the sounds they make, and so on. On the other hand, the body’s sense organs do not apprehend qualities such as charity, justice, or honesty. These are spiritual qualities.

Material and spiritual reality

The human body is a physical entity and its activities such as eating, breathing and swimming are physical acts. The soul is the spiritual component of the human person, and thinking, willing, are judging, which are proper to the soul, are spiritual acts. In addition, God and the angels are spiritual beings. (No, my dear reader, angels do not have wings and demons do not have horns and a tail.)

Certain schools of philosophy deny the existence of spiritual reality. We call their doctrines materialism. Materialism claims that reality is ultimately physical. At the opposite extreme of the philosophical spectrum, we find idealism. The idealist believes reality is only mental or spiritual, and that matter does not have a separate, independent existence outside the mind. Idealism, as defined here, is of no further concern for this discussion.

Between the two extremes of materialism and idealism are various versions of dualism. The dualist teaches that both material and spiritual entities have real existence, and that material and spiritual reality are truly distinct and different from each other. Platonic philosophy is an example of a radical dualism. Platonic philosophy wrongly claims that man is completely his spiritual soul, which inhabits a physical body. Moderate realism is the common sense dualism of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy. Here and in Part III, I will address two of the three main philosophical positions, materialism and the dualistic nature of the moderate realism taught by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.

What is philosophical materialism?

In the ancient world, atomism is the most noted system of philosophical materialism. The Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus founded atomism during the fifth century B.C. According to the Atomist, reality consists of an infinite number of indivisible units called atoms (un-cut). Atoms are too small for us to perceive with the senses, vary in geometrical shape, and they move in the void. In atomism, God does not exist. There is no Prime Mover to account for the origin of motion in the universe as there is in Aristotle’s metaphysics. The human soul and its acts are asserted to be the distinctive motions of atoms. Lucretius gave the classic exposition of atomism in his De Rerum Natura, during the first century A.D.

The consistent materialist is also an atheist, which should come as no surprise to anyone. Materialists are also sensists, and believe that all human knowledge is sensation. Sensists deny the non-sensuous nature of intellectual thought. Materialists are usually determinists. Determinism asserts the physical laws of nature necessarily and solely determine all events in the world. The excessively broad extension of the physical determinism entails the exclusion of purpose or goal directed activity in nature. The determinist views free will as an illusion, and natural processes, both internal and external, completely determine human acts.

Darwinian ideology denies purpose in nature, but some Darwinians hold that man does have free will. However, these Darwinians are oblivious to the profound metaphysical contradiction involved their position. The brain’s neuro-physiological processes cannot sufficiently account for the non-determined acts of free will. Neither is the rational will an uncaused cause; it is self-causing.

Matter is incapable of rising ontologically above the laws governing its nature and display free, self-causing rational acts. The superficiality of Dennett’s discussion of free will (p. 366-368) makes it pointless to attempt any philosophical critique of his position. Dennett’s resort to talking about memes, genes, and self-controllable flying machines underscores materialism’s utter inability to explain rational free choice.

Only two modern philosophers of any stature have been hard-core materialists: Thomas Hobbes and Karl Marx. The world, as imagined by the materialist, is metaphysically bland. This is all we can expect from a modern philosophical version of atomism. The materialist’s simplistic world-view calls to mind a statement made by the great G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy:

“The Christian admits that the universe is manifold and events miscellaneous, just as the sane man know that he is complex. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman. But the materialist’s world is quite simple and solid, just as the madman is quite sure he is sane. The materialist is sure that history has been simply and solely a chain of causation, just as the interesting person before mentioned is quite sure that he is simply and a solely a chicken. Materialists and madmen never have doubts.”

The natural or positive sciences concern themselves solely with the phenomena of physical reality. Epistemology is that branch of philosophy, which treats of knowledge, its nature and limits, it causes, and so on. The epistemological error of Darwinian ideology is the assumption that the only valid and worthwhile knowledge is that gained by methods proper to the natural sciences. A modern trend in philosophy called positivism says that we acquire knowledge only by scientific method. Catholic scientist Pierre Duhem says,

“To be a positivist is to assert that there is no logical method than the method of positive science, that what is inaccessible to that method, what is unknowable by positive sciences, is in itself and absolutely unknowable.”

Thus, the materialist denies that first philosophy, metaphysics, can give us knowledge of the world. He denies the existence God and the spiritual soul since they are not potentially observable phenomena, and thus remain outside the scope and methods of the natural or positive sciences.

For example, Carl Sagan says in the Dragons of Eden, "there is not a shred of evidence" for "the idea that inhabiting the matter of the body is something made of quite a different stuff, called mind." Convenient for Sagan, the only evidence he accepts is what the natural sciences afford. And spiritual reality is beyond the scope and competence of science. Science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of the spiritual soul or the spiritual nature of the human mind. Sagan's epistemological bias accounts for his avoidance of any open minded consideration for the philosophical proofs of the soul's existence.

The materialist denies that first philosophy, metaphysics, can give us knowledge of the world. He denies the existence God and the spiritual soul since they are not potentially observable phenomena, and thus remain outside the scope and methods of the natural or positive sciences.

Materialism entails atheism, the denial of God’s existence. Many materialistic scientists characterize themselves as agnostic rather than atheist. Darwin’s notable contemporary, evolutionist T. H. Huxley, coined the term “agnostic.” Agnosticism denies the human mind can know anything about spiritual realities. As respectably modish as it has been to call oneself agnostic rather than atheist, agnosticism is just practical atheism. Cardinal Newman remarked,

“I do not see much difference between avowing that there is no God, and implying that nothing definite can be known about Him.”

Darwinian ideology misuses evolutionary biology to promote its own reductionist, materialistic view of the world. Repeatedly, civilization laments the misuse of science, such as Nazi medical and eugenics experiments, and construction of the nuclear bomb. But the damage caused by nuclear weapons, so far, pales in comparison to the damage done to culture by the ideology of evolutionism. The Darwinian ideologist proselytizes its new Weltanschauung or atheistic religion, which undermines the permanent things of civilization. On modern atheism, the eminent Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain noted in The Range of Reason,

“Absolute atheism starts in an act of faith in reverse gear and is a full-blown religious commitment. Here we have the first internal inconsistency of contemporary atheism: it proclaims that all religion must necessarily vanish away, and it is itself a religious phenomenon.”

Maritain’s remark aptly applies to Darwinian Richard Dawkings, some of whose writings display hostility to traditional religion.

In Darwin’s Descent of Man, we find the absurd materialistic idea that the human moral sense evolved. This is tantamount to denying the existence of the natural moral law. Civilizations for millenniums have recognized the existence of the natural law. Ancient Greek philosophers, the Stoic philosophers, Roman jurists, the Church, and so on, recognized the existence of an unchanging law higher than human law. Since Darwinian ideology rejects natural law and evolution does not provide anything toward a system of ethics, Dennett argues for creating a naturalized (materialistic) ethics (Ch. 17, “Redesigning Morality”). The idea of manufacturing an ethics that does not recognize God, the spiritual soul, or natural law, contains within itself the seeds of its own failure. As Thomas Merton says,

“Agnosticism leads inevitably to moral indifference. It denies us all power to esteem or to understand moral values, because it severs our spiritual contact with God Who alone is the source of morality and Who alone can punish the violation of moral laws with a sanction worthy of our attention.”

In conclusion, I have attempted to explain the place of Darwinian ideology on the philosophical spectrum, which is at the extreme of metaphysical materialism, and that it has proven itself as a profoundly inadequate philosophy. In the next part, I will continue explaining why materialism cannot correctly deal with the philosophical issues related to biological evolution, especially the problems of the human mind and knowledge itself. We will also see that moderate realism provides the conceptual tools for correctly understanding the human mind and unlocking the mystery of knowledge.

Moderate realism and the nature of human knowledge

To be continued…

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