The non-reductive but still materialist point of view is that phenomena exist, and really exist, not merely as collections of parts and particles but also as mid- and large-level physical objects (in a context of relations with other mid- and large-level physical objects). Accepting this perspective allows us to avoid one easy trap that people sometimes fall into: taking a rejection or critique of materialism as implying that spiritualist explanations must therefore be true. I said last time,
“There is a common association between reductionism and materialism, which is so ingrained that people sometimes think that materialism automatically implies reductionism. This gives many people pause because they become uncomfortable with narrowly viewing very complex and important phenomena, such as cognition, emotion, beauty, and the like, in reductionist terms. Many then revert to spiritual or supernatural language and philosophies to deal with these phenomena, and so the narrowness of reductionism repels many people from the materialism that its proponents would prefer people to adopt.”
It can be easy to fall into thinking of the small and the large as a simple binary: if merely atomistic, i.e. “physical,” explanations of things do not give us a complete picture of the world, then necessarily some god or universal force guides and explains the larger whole. How else could one explain holistic phenomena?
But this pattern of thought is a non-sequitur, and rooted only in the easy dichotomy of its set-up. It does not follow from a rejection of reductionism that non-material entities or forces exist or, if they do, that they affect our material world in any way, for holistic objects are fully real and material too.
This pattern of thought seems to me to be common both among theologians who still hope to defend traditional religion -- sometimes with very complex arguments -- as well as acolytes of New Age “spiritual” forces, auras, crystals. It also appears to be increasingly ubiquitous among common people at large, many of whom report that they are “spiritual but not religious,” and who believe in some vague entity or force that gives purpose and meaning to an otherwise empty cosmos. Since this conceptual pattern is so common it is worth attending to.
First, it think it’s important to note that sometimes scholars and others use words like “spirit’ to describe holistic things but they don’t mean it in a supernatural sense. One might talk of “the spirit of the age” or “the spirit of a people” this way, referring to shared values or a common worldview. But because “spirit” and similar terms carry with them much historical baggage that is tied to mystical, supernatural, and religious views, such usage can be confusing. Non-reductionist materialism provides the conceptual apparatus to accept holistic objects without having to resort to spiritual language. They can be described, legitimately, in their own terms by a variety of discourses.
At the 2011 American Association for the Advancement of Science lecture that I previously mentioned, “Can Science Explain Everything?,” Lisa Randall’s counterpart speaker was MIT scholar Ian Hutchinson. Hutchinson also made a good presentation, criticizing scientism for its reductionism and its attempts to claim that science was the the only path to knowledge. He argued, and I agree, that the empirical methods of science deserve respect, but that science has limits, and that history, literature, philosophy, and law, were all legitimate fields of knowledge on their own terms. He concluded, however, that the laws of nature are “are what they are because God designed them that way and maintains them by his will.” He asserted that there is a god who continually sustains the universe by his “word of power.”
That is a non sequitur -- it simply does not follow. There must also be some positive evidence or argument for such a god. Just because reductionism leaves us with an incomplete understanding of the world does not mean that the areas that we don’t understand are where “god” or “spirit” must therefore dwell. That’s just a god-of-the-gaps argument, with all the weaknesses of such arguments: whereas natural events like lightning and volcanic explosions were once thought by superstitious people to be caused by the will of angry gods, eventually more rational explanations were found, giving “god” and “spirit” less and less space in which to operate. The history of such god-of-the-gaps arguments is one of constant retreat. It can’t even rationally be asserted anymore that a god created the universe -- time itself was created during the big bang, so there was no “before” the universe from whence a god could do the creating. Yet, reductionism does not adequately explain our experience of larger-level phenomena; its drive to quantify has conceptual trouble explaining qualia, or the large-scale qualitative properties of things, which now apparently looks to be a weak point for theologians to attack. Reductionism tells us the story of a world of quantum flux, but not how that flux gels together to create properties like “red,” “purple,” “anger,” “happiness,” and “justice,” nor necessarily how the small yields wholes like trees, animals, people, societies, and biospheres. But the idea that god is the sustainer of the world, holding all its otherwise supposedly chaotic forces in order, is simply a variation god-of-the-gaps argument to fill in reductionism’s difficulty with qualia. It immediately disappears if one understands that mid- and large-scale objects are physically real, just as real as atoms and quarks, and while atomistic reductionism can’t describe their qualia (or at least can’t do so fully), other disciplines, from carpentry to sociology to philosophy, can. They don’t require a spiritual explanation at all.
Furthermore, empirically is no positive empirical evidence for the claim that a god sustains the world; we simply don’t observe that. And as for rationalist arguments, the claim that god sustains the world through his will or power or love is just a variation of the argument from first cause, and subject to the same fatal objection. Any reasonably intelligent eight-year old, when presented with the claim that god made the world, can raise the objection, “Then who made god?” Is there a more powerful god to create god, and a more powerful one after that, and so on? The claim collapses into infinite regression. The same is true of this new sustainer argument: if god sustains the universe, then who sustains god?
The main problem with all the arguments for god’s existence is that they are inconclusive and incapable of convincing everyone. I won’t give a survey here, but in the last analysis the question of whether a god or divine force exists seems to be unverifiable and unfalsifiable. Even an avowed atheist like Richard Dawkins says that he is not absolutely certain that god does not exist, but that he is a six out of seven on a scale of atheism, which is about where I’d put myself too. Most people today accept religious diversity and even subjectivism: people have many different religious beliefs, and that’s ok; I’ll believe my way, and you believe yours, and everyone has a right to determine it for themselves.
But where does that leave those who think that morality should be based in religion? We’ll never convince fanatics and zealots that the rest of us have the right to determine such important matters of conscience for ourselves; they simply have to be rejected and defeated. But for those who are religious or “spiritual” and accept diversity in religion, the claim that shared morals must somehow come from religion has a weak foundation. I believe that non-reductionist materialism is important for ethics: science isn’t going to give us morality, because its reductionism makes it ill-equipped to either describe or prescribe in the middle level of interactions between whole human persons where morality is operative. Nor will religion give us morality: it looks for morality not in the realm of the small but in the realm of the spiritual, which it can’t definitively prove exists in the first place.
Morality, in the end, is a very earthly and material thing, for it concerns how we humans are to live together here on the earth. Morality is a discourse for the social interactions of certain organic beings who exist, as whole organisms, at a middle level of physical organization. Science looks for morality at a level that is too small, and religion in a place that isn’t even material. Thus both look in the wrong place. Morality can only come through study of disciplines and discourses at the mid-level of interacting human beings, where ethics is practiced, namely philosophy, history, and the social sciences.