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Image of birds flying. Image of birds flying.

#263 Materialism

April 29, 2012

Dear Dr. Craig,

I am a young born-again Christian from Belarus (nominally Eastern Orthodox country with a recent history of 70 years of militant anti-religious Communism), and I want to thank you for your ministry. Watching your debates with the "New Atheists" such as Harris and the late Hitchens has been very inspiring. My wife and I were appalled at how poor the arguments of Sam Harris were for objective morality without God, for example. God bless you and other apologists for restoring the rationality of the Christian faith in this day and age of the insanity of relativism!

Right now I am studying apologetics by example of Greg Koukle, yourself, R.C. Sproul, and others. However, I lack a solid philosophical background, and that's my reason for writing to you.

I'm currently in an email debate with an atheist (we have many in our country). The relevant part of the correspondence follows.

In light of the dialog below, could you please clarify some things about materialism for me, and/or also point me to a good resource that's not overly daunting? Also, if I made mistakes in reasoning, could you identify those, too?

The questions come right after the dialog, which sets the context for them.

Atheist: Theists misrepresent materialism when they say that in materialism only material things exist. But of course immaterial things exist! Emotions are immaterial, yet they exist. Materialism only says that the material is primary (cause) and the ideal is secondary (effect or manifestation of the material).

Theist: I'm not sure it's a misrepresentation, it seems that's what a lot of materialists say, yes. Vulgar materialists and modern materialists alike say that emotions, feelings, love, duty, good and evil can in fact be broken down to elementary particles working in our brain. Which is matter. So emotions are ultimately made of matter, so they must be material to a consistent materialist.

E.g. Dawkins says at bottom there's no good or evil, so no morality or virtues are possible. Then, inconsistently, he calls God 'evil' -- which doesn't exist according to him.

Atheist: I agree they can, that, e.g. emotions can be BROKEN DOWN to physical processes in our brain, but that doesn't mean immaterial emotions DON'T EXIST. Immaterial emotions do exist, since "being broken down to" and "existence" are very different things.

And you misunderstand Dawkins. Of course good and evil exist, but no objective STANDARD for discriminating between the two exists.

Theist: How can emotions really, objectively exist if matter is the only substance? If everything is made of matter, are emotions part of everything? If they are, they are either material, or they don't really exist, they are illusions. What actually exist are neurons firing in our brain, and that's what science studies.

Atheist: I didn't say everything was MADE of matter. Speed is not made of matter, yet it exists. Emotions are a MANIFESTATION of material processes, but they actually do exist (they are NOT illusions) and they are IMMATERIAL, they are not made of atoms.

Theist: Aren't you breaking the fundamental law of philosophy and science -- the Law of Causality here? You've only got matter to begin with as an initial cause, but it somehow creates something it doesn't have -- non-matter (immaterial emotions). It seems that matter creates non-matter 'ex nihilo', no?

Questions I'm struggling with:

1. Do theists indeed misrepresent materialism when they say that to a consistent materialist nothing but matter must really, objectively exist?

2. What IS real, objective existence? Does it mean the existence of something independent of the observer? In that case, can an atheist say that my emotions objectively exist to him, since they are independent of him? Or does objective existence mean existence independent of our consciousnesses, at least?

3. In materialism, matter is the only substance. Does it mean that everything have to be made of matter, ultimately? If so, can emotions still be immaterial in a materialistic worldview? Or is it some kind of 'worldview cheating' or equivocation in terms?

4. If materialism is false, what would be some good ways to attack it? We don't have a lot of Mormons or JWs in Belarus, but a whole lot of materialists and Marxists, especially in the academia.

Thank you for your time and your ministry, your comments would be very much appreciated.

God bless,

Flag of Belarus. Belarus

Photo of Dr. Craig.

Dr. craig’s response


Thank you for boldly contending for the faith in a very difficult setting, Andrei! May God use you greatly in impacting Belarus for the Kingdom!

Your letter raises very profound metaphysical questions which are a matter of considerable controversy and debate. Fortunately, I don’t think that these controversial issues need, in the end, derail a fruitful witness to your atheist friend. Let me take them one at a time.

1. Do theists indeed misrepresent materialism when they say that to a consistent materialist nothing but matter must really, objectively exist? That depends on which materialist you’re talking to! Materialists or physicalists hold various positions, and the important thing is to understand what your friend’s view is, not what it’s called. “Materialism” or “Schmaterialism”—what does it matter what he calls it? The important question is: what reason do we have to think that his view, whatever he calls it, is true?

Some materialists do, indeed, take the hard line that only material objects exist. They would deny that the items mentioned by your friend really exist. Your friend, for example, thinks that even speed exists! I doubt that there are very many philosophers of any stripe who would have so generous an ontology!

Other materialists, like your friend, would hold that the only things that exist are material objects and objects that supervene upon a more fundamental material base. This relation of supervenience is notoriously difficult to explain. Your friend thinks of it in terms of a causal relation, which is problematic. For what differentiates a causal relation between two fundamental entities from a causal relation between a fundamental entity and a supervenient one? More explanation is needed if we are to understand what supervenience is.

Now since your friend grants that immaterial entities exist—indeed, he seems to believe in a lot more immaterial entities than I do!—, I take it that he calls himself a materialist because he denies that there are any immaterial entities which do not supervene upon fundamental material entities. Otherwise, a materialist could believe in God, mathematical objects, souls, all the things which non-materialists might assert to exist. So what we want from him is some argument that the only immaterial entities that exist are supervenient upon material entities.

2. What IS real, objective existence? This is, as we Americans like to say, the $64,000 question! Yes, mind-independent is what is meant by “objective.” But what does it mean to say that something exists? I’ve encountered this problem in my own work on abstract objects. I’ve found that many Platonists, who supposedly affirm the existence of abstract objects, do so only in a very light sense, so that their view is often called “lightweight Platonism.” Lightweight Platonists will affirm even the most bizarre of abstract objects, like whereabouts in the sentence “The whereabouts of the Prime Minister are unknown.” This is rather like your friend’s affirmation that speed exists! Lightweight Platonists are using the word “exists” in a very light sense.

Robert Adams has argued that ordinary language does not have a heavy sense of “existence” but uses the word in this light sense. He proposes that we can make metaphysically heavy affirmations of existence only by taking them to be assertions that something is metaphysically fundamental, where fundamentality is a relational concept having to do with the role that the fundamental thing has in a system of things. “Broadly speaking,” he says, “what is fundamental is in a position of relative or absolute priority or independence.” Presumably, assertions of existence in a metaphysically light sense affirm the existence of things without commitment to their fundamentality. Adams writes,

I believe that the meaning of ‘exist’ and of (informal) quantifiers is metaphysically light in natural languages. I think we speak sincerely and literally, but without meaning to commit ourselves on deep metaphysical issues, when we say, as we do, that there are rocks as well as roosters, shapes and sizes, numbers and theorems, molecules composed of several atoms, amoebas and other living cells that split in two, cities and states, laws and agreements, properties and relations, words that are spoken and written, books that exist in both printed and electronic forms—and so on. I suppose that few if any of us would say that all of those objects are fundamental metaphysically.[1]

In Adams’ view what is asserted to exist in a metaphysical light sense is a matter of linguistic conventions and one’s personal interests.

I think your friend is a materialist in the sense that on his view the only fundamental entities that exist are material entities. Immaterial entities are not fundamental but supervene on material entities. Take holes, for example. I’ll bet your friend would say that holes are immaterial entities that exist (“Look,” he might say, “Here’s one in my shirt!”), but he would deny that holes are fundamental. It’s less clear whether he thinks that his shirt is fundamental; maybe it exists only in a light sense, too!

3. In materialism, matter is the only substance. Does it mean that everything has to be made of matter, ultimately? The materialist needn’t say that matter is the only substance. He might think that horses, trees, and other material objects are substances in the sense of existing things. Maybe he thinks matter/energy is the only stuff of which fundamental things are made. Things which are immaterial exist only in the light sense of “exists.”

4. If materialism is false, what would be some good ways to attack it? First, demand from the materialist some arguments for the view that the only fundamental entities which exist are material. Don’t let him get away with just asserting his metaphysical worldview or trying to shift the burden of proof to you (demanding that you prove that a fundamental, immaterial entity exists). He’s making the materialist claim; now insist that he support his claim. Second, give arguments for the reality of immaterial, non-supervenient entities. The arguments for God’s existence come to the fore here. If God exists, then materialism is false. I’ve presented cosmological, teleological, axiological, and ontological arguments, all of which, if sound, imply the existence of a transcendent, immaterial being. These are great arguments to use against the materialist because they focus on what the real issue is: theism vs. atheism. Unless the materialist has some positive arguments of his own to prove that materialism is true, then he can’t justifiably dismiss theistic arguments merely because they imply that an immaterial, fundamental entity exists. He needs to show why those theistic arguments are unsound—which is just the discussion you want to have!


  • [1]

    Robert Adams, “The Metaphysical Lightness of Being,” paper presented to the Philosophy Department colloquium at the University of Notre Dame, April 7, 2011.

- William Lane Craig