Materialistic Thinking – Rational or Irrational?

A materialistic way of thinking assumes that science is the be-all and end-all of human knowledge. Those who have this outlook claim that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything

Science provides all the significant truths about reality and knowing such truths is what real understanding is about.” (Alex Rosenberg, philosopher of science)

It is not so surprising that some people are starry eyed about science. It has such a huge beneficial impact on daily life in the western world. Smart phones, laptops, airplanes, television, domestic appliances etc. are all around us. Science, and the technology arising from it, greatly helps us to communicate, easily gain information, be entertained, visit foreign countries, and reduce domestic drudgery.

But should we really treat science as our exclusive guide to reality? Are there no other credible sources of knowledge and understanding about our existence?

Science and materialistic thinking

Science does provide us with reliable and valid facts about the world e.g. about electronics, chemistry, and biology. Great curiosity, together with rigorous observation and experiment, all lead to amazing discoveries.

But does this mean that we should dismiss non-scientific sources of knowledge as unreliable? I’m thinking of many common sense beliefs not based on science that we can test using our ordinary experience: for example ideas about vegetable growing, football tactics, personal relationships. And what about what some call enlightened understanding arising from states of meditation or spiritual knowledge derived from sacred writing.

Grand unifying theories

Science offers grand unifying ways of understanding reality whether it be in terms of evolutionary theory, the electromagnetic spectrum, the periodic table of elements, and so on.

However, the scope of the scientific instruments used to gather information limits the available evidence for any all-embracing theory of everything. In only championing theories built on data provided by the tools of science, are those with the outlook of materialistic thinking actually dismissing things that science cannot directly know about?

For example a materialistic outlook denies the existence of any supernatural beings such as angels, demons, and spirits. But there is no telescope, microscope or electrical device that scientists could use to investigate the existence or non-existence of such things. Are not the visions of those having near death experiences, or the mystical experiences of ordinary people of some relevance? Also are not personal insights, moral intuition or maybe religious experience also sources of information worthy of consideration?

Determinism of materialistic science

Science has discovered much about the causes of phenomena. Like accounting for chemical reactions in terms of molecular theory, the movement of planets in terms of the theory of gravity and the behaviour of animals in terms of their instincts and conditioning.

Actually, the working assumption of scientists is that some natural cause determines every single thing they study. Since something causes every event in nature and since human beings exist in nature, the science of psychology assumes that something natural determines human acts and choices.

In this way of materialistic thinking there can be no such thing as inner human free-will. You make a personal choice – say about what subjects to study or what partner to take and have children with – but science does not respect freedom of volition as a cause of your actions. Instead it assumes only external causes such as your inherited natural disposition and your experience of social learning can be responsible for your decision.

Reductionism of materialistic science

Scientific reductionism is the idea of reducing complex interactions and entities to the sum of their constituent parts, in order to make them easier to study. So science wants to explain the phenomena of psychology like temperament in terms of biology. In turn, chemistry explains the facts of biology like digestion. And physics explains the findings of chemistry like oxidisation.

Scientists likewise want to reduce what is not physical to something physical. So they try to explain human consciousness as nothing more than electrical activity in the brain.

Swedenborg on discrete degrees

Philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg offers us a way of understanding how materialistic thinking can be considered in terms of distinct degrees of the human mind. He suggests that even some intelligent individuals close their minds to deeper considerations. They adopt an external way of thinking and their reasoning in confined to natural facts. Such information limits their deepest beliefs. They do not raise their minds to think in terms of ends. They stick with natural causes and effects. This makes them natural-minded.

I suspect that those who do not adopt a materialistic science outlook, have a more inward perception of reality. This is because they use a distinctly higher level of mind to reflect about life. They are spiritually minded. They think more abstractly in the sense of not fixing their thoughts on matter. Neither do they confine themselves to ideas limited to self, person, space or time.

Instead they are in touch with the child’s sense of wonder at what is behind the amazing things in nature. The intuition that we all have each been created for some good purpose. That there is a world of meaning behind the sensations and appearances of the world. That there is a reality of love and wisdom which is the spiritual source of all that is good and true. That we will live for ever.

Which is more rational? To think about life only in terms of natural phenomena? Or in terms of a deeper dimension to existence? To be a materialistic thinker or spiritually-minded?