The Argument from Reason: Understanding Materialism and Determinism
Let’s star by examining the very first part of my rough outline of the argument from reason from Monday’s post.
1. If materialism is true then determinism must be true.
Let’s start by defining terms. What exactly does materialism mean in this context? Materialism as used here refers to a philosophical position about the ultimate nature of reality. Essentially materialism is the idea that everything that exists consists of matter following the laws of nature. In this definition “matter” and “energy” are essentially interchangeable, especially after Einstein proved that matter and energy are simply two different forms of the same thing. Materialism is also known as naturalism, or occasionally scientism (though technically scientism more properly refers to the idea that we can only know things that are provable through the scientific method, which is a whole different barrel of fish altogether). On a practical level materialists reject the existence of the “supernatural:” no ghosts, spirits, souls, or gods are allowed (interestingly enough a materialist wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with ghosts, or even a god, as long as such entities were shown to consist of and be produced by matter and energy working through purely naturalistic processes).
The essential point for the purpose of discussing the argument from reason is the materialist’s rejection of the existence of the soul. By soul, in this particular context, I mean the idea that there is something non material about my identity, something that may have existed before I was born and may exist after my death. This sense of soul could be interchanged with the idea of “mind” as existing, in some capacity, apart from the workings of the brain. Materialism naturally rejects the idea that the human mind consists of anything other than the natural and material actions of the brain.
With materialism out of the way we can move on to the next big word: determinism.
Determinism is simply the idea that everything occurs on a cause and effect basis and that there is only one possible effect for any particular cause. This means that everything is essentially predictable and inevitable. A good example of determinism in action is a game of pool. At the beginning of a pool game the pool balls are set into a triangular formation. Then the cue ball is hit with a pool cue and sent flying at speed into the triangle, scattering the pool balls all over the table. To a casual observer this scattering seems to be essentially random, a way of setting up a unique playing field for each game. However, as a determinist would be quick to point out, the pattern that results is anything but random. If you had enough knowledge you could predict the end pattern as soon as the cue ball has been hit. If you knew exactly how much kinetic energy the ball contained after being hit, it’s velocity, the amount of energy being lost to friction with the table’s surface, the exact positions, weights, and densities of the individual pool balls, their exact shape, etc., etc., and you knew all the relevant natural laws of physics involved, you could predict exactly where each individual pool ball will end up. This is because we know that matter and energy follow strict natural laws. When a pool ball is hit with the cue ball it doesn’t get to choose how it will react to that impact; it doesn’t get to decide which direction it will go, or how hard it will hit the other pool balls around it, or where it will stop. The pool balls simply follow the laws of physics. Really the whole pool ball scenario can be reduced to a physics equation, and there is only one right answer to any particular equation. You’ll never solve that same equation twice and get two different answers.
Such cause and effect relationships have been proven definitively when it comes to interactions of matter and energy. Matter and energy don’t get choices and their reactions can be mathematically modeled and predicted. Now, remember, a materialist believes that nothing exists besides matter, energy, and the reactions between the two. So now we have two ideas: the first is that matter and energy always follow the laws of physics in strict “cause/effect” relationships that can be modeled and predicted. The second idea is that nothing exists besides matter and energy. If both of these ideas are true then it naturally follows that everything that exists can be modeled and predicted. Everything is one giant chain reaction, like a pool table the size of the universe with pool balls crashing into each other at the speed of light and bouncing all over the place. It may seem random, and to an observer who doesn’t have all the information it is essentially unpredictable: but, if you did have enough knowledge you could predict exactly what will happen, what is happening, and what happened in the past all the way down the chain of cause and effect to the very beginning, and back around again to the very end. This is what we call determinism when it comes to the field of philosophy: everything can be predicted and everything is part of an inevitable series of cause and effect.
This is what I mean when I say “If materialism is true then determinism must be true.” Now what does that have to do with reason?
We’ll discuss that in detail in my next post.