Chapter 28. Materialism and Conscious Matter

28.1 Metaphysical materialism

Material theories of the mind became popular in the 1800s, when science began to describe nature as if it were a complex machine. In 1796, French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace’s nebular hypothesis explained how the Solar System formed without the need for divine intervention[1] (discussed in Book I). The atomic theory of matter was developed by British chemist John Dalton in 1808[2] (discussed in Chapter 6), and British naturalist Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, first published in 1859, removed the need for God in order to explain the creation of species.[3]

Around this time, an intellectual movement arose in Germany called metaphysical materialism. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with what is true, as opposed to epistemology, which is concerned with what we can know. Metaphysical materialists argue that nature is entirely self-regulating, that there is nothing but physical substances, and no need for God or mind-body dualism[4] (discussed in Chapter 26).

28.2 Charles Darwin and materialism

Darwin’s The Origin of Species was particularly useful to materialists because it’s incompatible with a literal reading of Genesis. Darwin’s theory also added to a growing acceptance that the age of the Earth was far greater than the bible suggests[3] (discussed in Book I).

In 1871, Darwin’s The Descent of Man, caused greater controversy by suggesting that people and apes probably evolved from the same ancestors.[5] Aside from being morally unpalatable to some, this conflicts with the biblical description of the divine creation of Adam and Eve.

Darwin was never accused of materialism because he refused to talk about religious matters in public. He stated that:

“...freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of [people’s] minds, which follows from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion”.[6]

Darwin’s religious views are found in his personal correspondence. When The Origin of Species was first published, he suggested that we should find relief in the fact that pain and suffering result from universal laws, rather than as a direct result of God.

A year after publication, Darwin supported British biologist Thomas Huxley’s stance on religion, referring to Huxley’s statement that “extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science as the strangled snakes of Hercules”, as a “splendid” analogy.[7]

Darwin also claimed that the argument from design, which suggests that God must exist as the universe appears to have been intelligently designed, might be false. Darwin stated, “the more I think on the subject, the less I can see proof of design”. He considered design arguments to be too selective, they could explain “the accumulated variations by which the beautifully adapted woodpecker has been formed” but had nothing to say about “each variation in the rock-pigeon”, which “[people have] made by accumulation a pouter or fantail pigeon, as providentially designed for [people’s] amusement”.[8]

In 1871, Darwin also admitted reservations over the first cause argument for God. This is the argument that every event has a cause and so a being must exist that caused its own existence. Darwin stated, “I can never make up my mind how far an inward conviction that there must be some Creator or First Cause is really trustworthy evidence”, but he still adamantly denied atheism.[9]

In 1879, Darwin claimed:

“I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God - I think that generally (and more and more so as I grow older), but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind”.[10]

By 1880, Darwin’s religious views had evolved to the point where he stated: “I do not believe in the Bible as a divine revelation, and therefore not in Jesus Christ as the son of God”.[11] Yet Darwin was never a materialist, he claimed to have once “received a German pamphlet about the idea of God and immortality and socialism under a Darwinian point of view” but found it “so difficult” that he could not “make head or tails of it”.[12]

28.3 John Tyndall and the ‘young guard’

Materialism caused controversy in the UK and Ireland when the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), Irish natural philosopher John Tyndall, used his 1874 annual address to defend science against the encroachment of the Catholic Church.[13]

Tyndall summarised the history of science starting with Democritus, the first atomist (discussed in Chapter 1). He described Democritus’ belief that “the only existing things are the atoms and empty space; all else is mere opinion”, and that the “soul consists of fine, smooth, round atoms, like those of fire”. He went on to discuss Copernicus, Bruno and Galileo (discussed in Book I), whose theories were all met with resistance from the Church.[13]

Tyndall stated that “matter” contains “the promise and potency of all terrestrial life”. He went on to attack the Church’s role in science, claiming that “in relation to scientific culture” religion is “dangerous, nay destructive, to the dearest privileges of freemen”.[13]

The Church was offended and, for the first time, the press began to portray Tyndall as “aggressive, dishonest, devious, and distinctly un-British”.[14] It was even suggested that he should be investigated for blasphemy, a crime that people were imprisoned for up until 1921 in the UK and Ireland, but nothing came of this accusation. Tyndall denied that he was advocating materialism but he did admit to making ambiguous claims that could easily be misinterpreted.[14]

It appeared that science and religion had become incompatible, however the conflict was not purely intellectual. It was during this time that science became a profession in its own right, and this involved separating science from religion at all levels. Previous to this, members of scientific institutions like the Royal Society and the BAAS officially investigated the same truth as the bible. Members typically believed that knowledge came in the form of revealed truth, which comes from studying scripture, and from natural theology, which seeks to learn about God by studying nature. The conclusions of natural theology were not accepted if they contradicted revealed truth.

While the term ‘scientist’ was first used in the 1830s,[15] it did not become a popular term until the late 1800s, and science was still not considered a profession by the 1850s.[16] Most scientists, including presidents of the BAAS still put revealed truth above natural theology, and many amateur scientists were professional Clergymen or were otherwise funded by the Church.[4] Science and religion do not have to be incompatible, but science couldn’t progress as a separate profession while large areas of research were forbidden, and some results couldn’t be published or taught.

In the 1850s, a group of scientists that included Tyndall, Huxley, and British polymath Francis Galton campaigned to separate science from religion. They called themselves the ‘young guard’ and quickly became a powerful influence, participating in the BAAS, the Royal Society, and the Philosophical Club. They helped establish the journal Nature and formed the X-Club, a place for discussing science free from religion. This was where Huxley first coined the term ‘agnostic’, devised to distance their views from those of atheists.[4] New standards were created across the scientific establishment, and amateur and Clergymen-scientists were phased out of scientific institutions.

Science education remained an area of conflict by the time of Tyndall’s address. The Education Act of 1870 had lessened the Anglican influence on science education in the UK, when religious tests were removed from science lessons, but physical science was still not part of the Catholic curriculum in Ireland.[4]

In the 1874, the year of Tyndall’s address, Galton accused Clergymen-scientists of duel loyalties, and claimed that the “pursuit of science is uncongenial to the priestly character”. In order to fill the gap of authority Galton hoped to “give rise to the establishment of a sort of scientific priesthoods”.[17]

28.4 References

  1. Laplace, P. S., The System of the World, R. Phillips, 1809 (1796).

  2. Dalton, J., A new system of chemical philosophy, R. Bickerstaff, 1808.

  3. Darwin, C., The Origin of Species, Project Gutenberg, 2009 (1859).

  4. Turner, F. M., Isis 1978, 69, 356–376.

  5. Darwin, C., The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Penguin, 2004 (1871).

  6. Darwin, C., Letter 12757 - Darwin, C. R. to Aveling, E. B., 13th Oct 1880, University of Cambridge, 1880.

  7. Darwin, C., Letter 2760 - Darwin, C. R. to Huxley, T. H., 14 Apr 1860, University of Cambridge, 1860.

  8. Darwin, C., Letter 3206 - Darwin, C. R. to Wedgwood, F. J., 11 July 1861, University of Cambridge, 1861.

  9. Darwin, C., Letter 7924 - Darwin, C. R. to Abbot, F. E., 6 Sept 1871, University of Cambridge, 1871.

  10. Darwin, C., Letter 12041 - Darwin, C. R. to Fordyce, John, 7 May 1879, University of Cambridge, 1879.

  11. Darwin, C., Letter 12851 - Darwin, C. R. to McDermott, F. A., 24 Nov 1880, University of Cambridge, 1880.

  12. Darwin, C., Letter 10338 - Darwin, C. R. to Darwin, G. H., c.1876, University of Cambridge, 1876.

  13. Tyndall, J., Address Delivered Before the British Association Assembled at Belfast, With Additions, Longmans, Green, and Co, 1874.

  14. Lightman, B. in Science Serialized, (Ed.: Cantor, G.), MIT Press, 2004.

  15. Ross, S., Annals of Science 1962, 18, 65–85.

  16. Babbage, C., The Exposition of 1851, or View of the Industry, the Science, and the Government of England, John Murray, 1851.

  17. Galton, F., English Men of Science; Their Nature and Nurture, Macmillan & Co, 1874.

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