Materialism Ought to be Judged as Much by the Ignorance It Demands as by the Knowledge It Purports to Afford

Michael Egnor

A contemporary phenomenon worth noting is the persistent denial of the relevance of philosophy by prominent materialists. It has almost become a rite of initiation for scientific materialists to deny the relevance of philosophical inquiry and assert the almost limitless insight on offer from natural science.

Harvard evolutionary biologist and leading ant expert E.O.Wilson (as I noted yesterday):

I like to say that most of philosophy, which is a declining and highly endangered academic species, incidentally, consists of failed models of how the brain works. So students going into philosophy have to learn what Descartes thought and then after a long while why that’s wrong and what Schopenhauer might have thought and what Kant might of thought or did think. But they cannot go on from that position and historical examination of the nature of humanity to what it really is and how we might define it. So by default the explanation of meaning, of humanity, falls to science and we are making progress, if I might speak for science.

Jerry Coyne, University of Chicago evolutionary biologist and fruit fly expert, on the Templeton Foundation’s funding of post-doctoral research on Ockham’s account of foreknowledge and God:

This is an area about which I’m completely ignorant, and happy to remain so, because it sounds like a godawful cesspool of theological lucubration. It of course begins with three completely unsupported premises: that there is a God, that that God has a mind that has "beliefs," and that how we act now somehow influences God’s beliefs about our actions long before we performed them. It sounds as if what we do now, then, can go back in time and change God’s beliefs. (That, at least, is how I interpret the gobbledygook above.)

Given those three bogus assumptions, the candidate will then spend many dollars ruminating about how God’s prior beliefs relate to the philosophy of time and metaphysics of dependence, whatever that means.

In other words, all the money is going to work out the consequences of a fairy tale. So much money for so much "sophisticated" philosophy!

Darwinist biochemist Larry Moran:

Jerry [Coyne] and I (and many others) have reached the tentative conclusion that much of what passes for modern philosophy is a house of cards. It doesn’t tell us anything. It doesn’t produce knowledge, or truth… Jerry and I are not the only scientists who wonder what the heck is going on in philosophy. As I pointed out a few days ago, this form of argument can just as easily be used to justify the existence of a Flying Spaghetti Monster who steals meatballs…

Steven Novella, a materialist neurologist at Yale, who believes that in neuroscience "every single [materialist] prediction has been validated":

I am an unapologetic materialist. I think the mind is entirely explainable as a manifestation of the brain’s biological function. The brain is thinking and feeling meat…

Materialist Jeffrey Shallit, a University of Waterloo computer scientist:

Most philosophers (unless they have some decent neuroscience training) have simply nothing of interest to say…

Here’s a pr�cis of this materialist logic: materialism is all the truth there is, and ignorance of philosophy advances knowledge.

I’ll leave aside the obvious reply that denial of philosophy is philosophy, albeit unexamined philosophy.

An insight by anthropologist Marshall Sahlins,1 who is a relentless critic of sociobiology, cuts to the heart of the materialist denial of philosophy:

…a theory ought to be judged as much by the ignorance it demands as by the knowledge it purports to afford.

Materialism, properly understood, purports to afford knowledge, but its salient contribution to modernity is the ignorance it demands. Materialism is a denial of reality. It’s an impoverished superstition, hardly more than magical thinking. Materialism is an amalgam of unexamined presuppositions, delusions of explanatory relevance, smug scientism, self-refuting pretense, and witless non-sequiturs posing as "scientific" conclusions.

The fact is that the world is plainly more than atoms in the void and man is plainly more than an evolved meat machine. Our beliefs and judgments and insight — all that make us human — are immaterial, and it is obvious that transcendent purpose permeates nature. To understand ourselves and the true nature of existence, we must study theology, philosophy, logic, ethics, metaphysics, literature, fine arts, history, medicine, mathematics, anthropology, sociology, natural science, and psychology, just to start with. Biology and physics and chemistry are important, no doubt, but man and nature transcend physical science and cannot be reduced to it.

As materialists like Wilson and Coyne and Moran and Novella and Shallit eagerly and witlessly attest, materialism entails deliberate denial of knowledge that does not derive from physical sciences.

Materialism demands a deep ignorance of reality, and it deserves to be judged as a kind of intellectual darkness.


(1) Quoted in Susan McKinnon, Neo-Liberal Genetics: The Myths and Moral Tales of Evolutionary Psychology (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2006), 149.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.