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"What Is the World Really Like?" Darwinism, Materialism, and How They Relate

Tom Bethell

John Searle, the eminent professor of philosophy at U.C. Berkeley, once said that "there is a sense in which materialism is the religion of our time." Sometimes called naturalism, materialism here has nothing to do with greed or a lust for riches. It is the name of a philosophy — the belief that physical matter is all that exists. Alex Rosenberg of Duke University’s philosophy department has put it nicely:

What is the world really like? It is fermions and bosons [elementary particles] and everything that can be made up of them, and nothing that can’t be made up of them.

To put it more simply still, the world consists of nothing but molecules in motion. And that does seem to be the philosophy of our time, at least within our most prestigious universities — sometimes even including their theology departments.

Daniel Dennett, the author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), wrote that "the prevailing wisdom, variously expressed and argued for, is materialism: there is only one sort of stuff, namely matter — the physical stuff of physics, chemistry, and physiology — and the mind is somehow nothing but a physical phenomenon." Dennett has derided any alternative to this philosophy as a reliance on "sky hooks."

Further, the belief of the materialists is that everything else, including our spiritual, mental and conscious life, is illusory and can be reduced to physical events; in particular to the firing of neurons in our brains. A whole discipline called neuroscience attempts to link or associate the activity of these nerve cells with our consciousness.

Those who accept this philosophy are bound to be atheists — by their own premise. Molecules in motion exclude God by definition.

Perhaps we can see how relevant materialism is to Darwinian evolution. For if materialism is true then something very much like Darwinism must be true. Complex organisms do exist, and so those molecules in motion must have somehow whirled themselves into the far more complex structures that we see around us — whether bacteria, bats or baboons. And that in turn necessitates a finely graded series of structures that gradually turn from bits and pieces of matter — fermions and bosons — into the life that surrounds us.

Armed with his creed, the true-believing materialist no longer has to study the details of evolution: Phylogeny, fossils, cell structure? Who needs them? "We have the starting point (molecules in motion)," he can say. "We have the end point (us). So how else could that development have happened, except by a long series of small steps?"

At that point Darwinism in its details becomes redundant — little more than a deduction from a philosophy. There’s no need to invoke Malthus, fuss about mutations, remind ourselves that the fittest survive. The unguided progression had to have happened.

Furthermore, other aspects of life not normally thought of in material terms must also be reduced to whirling molecules; whether it be morality, free will or consciousness. All are illusions created in our "grey matter," or brains.

The best known Darwinians, among them Richard Dawkins, Dennett and Will Provine, not only accept materialism but do their best to apply it consistently across the board. Cornell University’s Provine, for example, has said that "no ultimate foundation for ethics exists."

Phil Johnson, founder of the modern intelligent design movement, who frequently debated with opponents, particularly admired Provine for his candor and truthfulness, given his premises. In a recent interview in Berkeley, Johnson also expressed to me a measure of admiration for both Dawkins and Dennett, for consistently applying their (shared) philosophy across the board, no matter how unpopular it may be with the masses.

This is what we should note: Materialism is unpopular with a great many people. They are likely to be nonplussed if you tell them that "Darwinian evolution is a fact." Few will know how to respond to that. But if you tell them that they have no free will, or that they are automata, or that their morality has no real basis, they are much more likely to object. You will get their backs up.

Beyond that, materialism is itself an implausible philosophy, as another eminent philosopher, New York University’s Thomas Nagel, recently wrote in his much-despised book Mind and Cosmos. Its subtitle gives the explanation: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.

The explicit materialism of the Darwinians is the mirror image of creationism. Creationists are easy for scientific materialists to rebut, because the materialists can say, "That is just your belief. We don’t have to accept that." In a parallel way, we can say to the materialists: "That is just your belief. We don’t have to accept that. And it is the real basis of your evolutionism."

In between the Creationists and the Materialists we encounter the scientific evidence that makes the materialist position increasingly improbable — the evidence that Stephen Meyer recently presented in Darwin’s Doubt: information theory, insufficiency of the fossil record, epigenetics, complexity of life at the molecular level, and so on.

Increasingly, it seems to me, the Darwinians are responding to this science by saying (in effect): "Bah! We won’t read that! It’s creationism in disguise." They get graduate students like Nick Matzke, or incompetents like John Farrell (in National Review of all places), to do the work for them. All along the Darwinists have found that their materialism has allowed them to lie back and relax without really bothering to study the evidence.

Now that may be changing. They are being put in a position where they just might have to hit the books. I suspect it is not a prospect that they relish.