Materialism, Free Will, and WJM Talking to Rocks

After reading a few articles on materialism, I came across an article that hits the problem on the head:


UDEditors:  WJM’s devastating rebuttal to Aleta’s materialism deserves its own post.  Everything that follows is WJM’s:

Aleta said:

William, I know that your view is that unless morality is somehow grounded (purportedly) in some objective reality to which we have access, then it is merely subjective, and that then people have no reason not to to do anything they want: it’s not just a slippery slope, but rather a black-and-white precipice to nihilism.So actually discussing this with you, which we did at length one other time, is not worth my time.

It’s odd that you say that it is not worth your time apparently because you already know my position. If the only thing that makes a discussion “worth your time” is finding out the other person’s position on a matter, then surely most of what you write here is “not worth your time” because you already know the views of most of the participants here you engage with. Correct?

Is it “not worth your time” to engage in a discussion in order to demonstrate to onlookers (and this site has quite a few thousand onlookers) the rational soundness of your views?

1. I believe human beings have evolved to have moral nature, and that this has been part of our evolution as a social animal.

But I believe we are materially-based biological organisms, and that there is no non-material dualistic aspect to our existence.

There are questions here, right off the bat, to consider about your worldview. First is the question of if whether or not a being produced entirely from unliving, material forces and necessarily, entirely obeying the naturalistic forces of chemistry and physics can even meaningfully be said to have a “moral” nature at all. This depends on what one is using the term “moral” to mean.

If one uses the classic definition, then morality is about how one ought behave; but under the naturalist view of human behavior, humans always act how they must act – according to what physics and chemistry demands. Indeed, under the naturalist view, there is no other available cause for any thought or behavior.

The idea that an entirely physics and chemistry-driven being ought do something other than what physics and chemistry actually drive that entity to do cannot, to my knowledge, be rationally supported. Care to give it a try?

Also, you appear to definitionally link morality to the social aspect of human interaction, when the classic definition of morality draws no such parameter around what “morality” entails. You’re free to believe that, of course, but the rest of us have no reason to consider that limitation valid.

2. I believe that our moral belief system, and our desire to behave morally (which varies among individuals), develops just as many other aspects of us do: through a combination of developmental biology (nature) and learning from our surroundings (nurture.)

So morality is a combination of innate tendencies to judge right from wrong with a great deal of cultural influences about the particular details of right and wrong.

Here you have terminologically strayed from your original premise of humans being the result of the evolutionary processes of material forces acting in biology. IMO, re-labeling “physics and chemistry” as “innate tendencies”, “nurture” and “cultural influences” serves to obfuscate what is actually going on in your worldview: physics and chemistry generating effects via the interaction of various physical commodities.

So, when you say: “judge right from wrong”, it invokes a classical perspective that is unavailable to you. Perhaps you mean it in a different way, but the problem is what the terms appear to mean. Under your worldview, it is perhaps more accurate to say that a physical entity is driven by physics and chemistry to feel it ought do one thing, and ought not do another, and that you are calling this aspect of physics & chemistry driven activity “morality”.

However, also people mature, and just as children go from concrete to abstract thinking, morality goes from being primarily influenced by feeling pressure from the judgments of adults and the desire to avoid punishment (external sources) to an internalized sense of willful choice informed at least in part by reason and education.

Under your naturalism, all of the above is nothing more than terminological re-characterizations of the same fundamental, exclusive driving force of human behavior (energies and particles interacting according to physics and chemistry) in order to gain conceptual distance from the naturalist facts of your view of morality.

In other words, calling some group of those forces interacting “nurture” and “judgement” and “morality” and an “internalized sense of willful choice” doesn’t change the fact that what is going on is nothing more than the brute, ongoing effects of the processes of physics and chemistry.

For example, because I might terminologically refer to what computer-generated characters do in a video game as their “judgement” and “internalized sense of choice” and “nurture” doesn’t change the fact that everything in the video game is just acting as the code dictates. I can say the code is “making a choice” or “making a judgement”, but under the classic understanding of those terms, it is no more making a “choice” or a “judgement” than river water makes a choice or a judgement about which way to go; the outcome is dictated by physics (and/or chemistry).

You go on through your statements furthering your re-characterization of “physics and chemistry” in broader terms to make it seem like something else is going on, but the problem is that everything you say later is rationally laid to ruin by the nature of your premise: naturalism ultimately insists that all human behavior is generated by physics and chemistry and not by a locus of consciousness that has any top-down free will power. The terms you use throughout your statements to re-characterize your naturalist premise are terms that deeply implicate, classically and traditionally speaking, metaphysics your naturalism doesn’t have access to.

So, what you must mean by them boils down to “the cause and effect of physics and chemistry”, which ruins renders the moral judgement of humans equitable to the moral judgement of rocks rolling down hills or the choice of river water about where to flow. That physics and chemistry happen to also make humans feel as if they have some sort of top-down choice and feel as if they are responsible and feel as if they have a conscience and moral obligations is irrelevant because all of those sensations are also physics and chemistry driven instances of physical cause and effect, just like the actions of rocks rolling down hills and river water taking any particular curve.

You say in your statement that you think I and others are “wrong” about where we think morality comes from and what it is. Why should I care what a physics and chemistry-driven biological automaton utters? Like anyone else under your paradigm, you would think and say whatever physics and chemistry commands; you would feel and believe whatever physics and chemistry dictate. If chemistry and physics dictate that you bark like dog and believe you have said something profoundly wise, that is what you will do. If physics and chemistry dictate that you rape little boys and mutilate little girls an believe that to be a good, moral thing, that is what you will do. Period.

If those things are what physics and chemistry commanded, that is what you would be doing and arguing for today, and there would be absolutely no external standard by which you, let alone anyone else, could judge your behavior and beliefs wrong, nor would you have any objective, top-down access or capacity for making such a judgment even if such a standard existed, let alone change your behavior.

That is the sad dilemma you find yourself in, Aleta, whether you know it or not. Under your paradigm, you and KF and Stephen and Gandhi and Obama and George Wallace and everyone else are just streams of water going wherever physics and chemistry dictates – yet here you are, arguing as if any of us could do anything other than what physics and chemistry commands.

Do you also try to argue rivers out of their course, or try to convince the weather to change?


It has been said that the problem with materialism is that it’s self-refuting: true enough, but it’s a lot more deeper than that!

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