Consolations of Materialist Philosophy

Increasingly, the 2008 Presidential campaign is taking on the form of some sort of weird competitive theology stand-off. “My faith is stronger than yours!” “Yeah, well, my God can kick your God’s ass any day of the week! Except on Sunday, when He rests.” Not that you can really blame the candidates; when Americans put atheists just above child molesters in terms of electability, savvy politicians are happy to put their faith in the Big Guy on public display.

Which provides us with an excuse to fire up the Wayback Machine and revisit last May, which brought to us this delicious circumlocution by Karl Rove, of all people:

Karl Rove is not a believer, and he doesn’t shout it from the rooftops, but when asked, he answers quite honestly. I think the way he puts it is, “I’m not fortunate enough to be a person of faith.”

That’s courtesy of Christopher Hitchens (of all people).

The “I’m not fortunate enough” phraseology raises two questions. One is, “Is Karl Rove congenitally capable of telling the truth?” I’m guessing no. If he is not a person of faith, then he believes that people of faith are wrong. So he’s saying that he’s not fortunate enough to be wrong. Which is the sort of transcendently twisted conflation of condescension and disingenuousness that only a true political genius is able to achieve, and even then only when all the stars are properly aligned.

The other question is, “Should atheists feel regretful that God doesn’t exist?” To reformulate it in a more operational language, imagine that you are given the choice of a Red Pill and a Blue Pill. If you choose the Red Pill, you suddenly and with 100% certainty live in a world which is purely materialistic, governed by impersonal and ironclad laws of nature, in which we human beings are nothing other than complicated chemical reactions, and there is no realm outside the physical. If you choose the Blue Pill, you suddenly and with 100% certainty live in a world which shares the same gross features and known laws of physics as our world, but in which there exists an all-powerful supernatural deity who cares about us humans and is the origin of our lives and consciousness. Which do you choose?

Not only would I unhesitatingly choose the purely-materialist cosmos in which I actually believe, I would have guessed that almost all atheists would do so. But Ezra Klein provides at least one counterexample, so there you go.

last-judgment.jpg On the face of it, the notion of a higher power that somehow cares about us can be attractive. (Also potentially attractive is the handing-down of rules from on high, helping one decide what actions are right or wrong — there’s something reassuring about being told what to do, rather than working out the rules of the game as you play.) It’s nice to have someone looking over you, in precisely the same way that it’s nice to have parents that care for you when you’re growing up. When it becomes unattractive, I think, is when you try to think seriously and consistently about what kind of deity could possibly be consistent with the world in which we live. One that is purportedly pretty darn powerful, but that allows all sorts of pain and suffering. One that, if the majority of scriptures are to be believed, not only “cares” about us, but is quite willing to punish us when we go wrong, despite handing down somewhat muddled instructions. One that, despite all that power, seems to be pretty darned parsimonious when it comes to actually intervening on our behalf. And one that, when it comes to giving moral guidance in the tangible form of the teaching of various religions, seems to hew suspiciously closely to the prejudices of the local tribes that wrote them down.

When taken to their logical conclusions, the consequences of a supernaturally powerful deity that judges us from on high are not really ones that I would prefer to live with. I know that some people would feel a sort of cosmic disappointment that they and their loved ones simply represent the workings-out of a few physical laws when applied to some particularly complicated chemical structures, but I don’t share the feeling. None of that prevents me from loving them just as fiercely, or caring just as much about justice or beauty in the world. I’m stuck in a universe where the rules of right and wrong and good and bad are for me to decide, on the basis of reason and evidence and consultation and negotiation with my fellow chemical reactions. I like it that way; give me the Red Pill any day.

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39 Responses to Consolations of Materialist Philosophy

  1. drunk says:

    Let me see:
    Middle Eastern religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) claim ultimate morality from the ultimate gods. We have 2000 years of non-stop religious wars and missionary conquests.
    Asian religions (Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism, others) offer enlightened philosophies of humbleness, but no god. We have 3000 years of the most moral and peaceful existence.
    What’s the difference? Why of course, God did not create man. Man created gods!

  2. Matt Handley says:

    Your blog is excellent, and I read it daily with interest.

    However, I’m a bit disappointed with today’s posting. I’m surprised not because of the subject matter (which I think it tied intimately with scientific inquiry), but because of the simplicity of the argument. I would suppose that most who actually believe in a faith don’t do so because it’s simply more comforting for them to think in that way. Such arguments like the one you are making are debated in high schools and colleges everywhere. After that time, a more mature look on faith and man’s relationship to God must be considered.

    As a suggestion from a relatively anonymous person, I would recommend your reading Paul Tillich’s The Dynamics of Faith, who changed my perspective on God from a purely materialistic one to something with deeper and more challenging avenues of intellectual pursuit.


  3. Matt Handley says:

    In response to drunk:

    Peaceful relative to what? To take an example, if I remember my Chinese history, it wasn’t until 1950 or so that the country finally unified after years and years of struggle. I don’t think that is terribly peaceful, especially for a mostly Buddhist country.

    Of course, I think Buddhism rocks.

    – Matt

  4. Neil B. says:

    First of all Sean, the idea of something more is the daring option deserving of the “red pill” metaphor. More importantly, as some of us have patiently explained, scientists don’t always make good theologians or philosophers about ultimate questions. For example, there is no need to think that the absence of God would make ethics something to “work out” (in principle, not to be confused with having to in the absence of command teachings.) Ethical realism is a logical notion about inherent principals of right and wrong independent of whether there’s “someone” telling us what to do. (“God wills it because it is good, not that it is good because God wills it.”) Very importantly, you need not assume that what most religions teach about “God” is the best way to frame the issue. I find it ironic that atheists figure that the religious are wrong about God’s existence, but must be right about what He/She/It would be like if It did exist. Many thinkers find it plausible to imagine there being something greater behind the universe, that need not be able to control any particular details (the first does not logically entail the second.) We may find a first cause plausible due for example to the anthropic features of the world’s laws, very fine-tuned to the existence of life. They cannot be justified by a circular appeal to someone being around to notice that, since no matter what existed, the outcome should be consistent with the starting conditions. Some scientists postulate multitudes of universes with different laws of physics, oblivious to the contradictions of positivists talking about unobservable and so-far physically unjustified worlds. (Hmmm, how can the existence of such other universes be falsified, supposedly the core feature of a true scientific theory or postulate?)

    Talk of “existence” compels me to point out the disturbing but nearly inescapable point of the modal realist philosophers: material existence can’t even be logically defined. Sure, we can define “exist” for platonic entities like the roots of equations. However, it has been cogently argued by thinkers like David Lewis, presaged by Liebnitz, that we really can’t say what it means for there to be a “materially real” model world (describable conceptual structure) and a model world that “isn’t real.” Seriously, I defy you to do it in purely logical terms without introducing a circular definition or argument. You have to just say, our world or designated others are “real” but other platonic worlds “unreal” because we just “get” the difference, or etc. Throwing around the word “matter” as mystical clothing around the descriptions has no pure logical content. In this sense, saying one world really exists and the others don’t except as descriptions, ironically parallels the trouble explaining that you are “really conscious” as opposed to being a “zombie.” (Look all this up in sources about philosophy of mind.)

    If modal realism is true, then it’s really hard to say what really exists or does not exist, even “God”. We certainly have to believe in heavenly worlds of angels (if describable) and hells, the reification of all fiction, and maybe Anselms’ argument can make God close to being a something, if nothing really is anyway. It also gives some support for survival of death: since computer programs can survive the destruction of the machine they originally ran on, maybe your mind can “run” somewhere else. Of course, there’s a lot of ambiguity about what was really you among that infinity of platonic “computers,” but at least you’ve got a shot at some kind of continuation …

    However, I don’t think modal realism works. The totality of descriptions is too large, and includes too many chaotic possible behavior profiles. If we were a modal possible description that had our history up to this point, we couldn’t expect rational continuation of the orderly behavior that we’ve had so far. Why not? Because “laws” wouldn’t be either some controlling vitus or expression of the identity of a substance. They would just be after the fact generalizations (as Hume pointed out, per pure rational assessment) of whatever things did. I can describe a world where the “law of attraction” goes to 1/r^1.13 or whatever, at any time, or distance, or a continuum of complex disconnected behaviors, because those are all descriptions. Hence, there’s an infinitesimal chance of ending up in a world – even given orderly behavior up to a given time – that continues to express itself lawfully. (And relativistic simultaneity is itself a rule that could be broken by such descriptions.)

    Hence, I think there’s something/someone in effect that “breathes fire into the equations” and makes at least some universe real and able to hold conscious beings. Realness, like consciousness, is more than just being a description. Both are equally indescribable in logical terms. We just know we are real and conscious (the connection being no coincidence), unlike I suppose the denizens of the Road Runner cartoons. Additionally, I don’t think our world is a describable model world anyway, since the features like collapse of the wave function, pure chance for some events, etc., aren’t describable in reasonable logical terms. I mean, not just the outcomes, but what happens to the “entity” supposedly involved and thereby “modeled” in a model universe. (Surprise for many of you: we can’t mathematically model pure chance. Saying “random variable” is just a fait accompli imaginary construct – no actual mathematical process can produce random events, only pseudorandom sequences. What purely mathematical machinery would be inside muons, and how generated, to get their decay worked right?) Well, agree or disagree, you can’t go stuffing this sort of musing into the same crude “religion” pigeonhole.

    (Count Iblis – you must have something to say about this.)

  5. eye-of-horus says:

    The history of Buddhism in China presents the opposite of Xianity’s success during the collapse of the western Roman Empire.

    “The fall of Buddhism began during the reign of a Chinese Emperor Wu-Tsung (841-847 [CE]). Probably noticing the greed that characterized many monasteries, he ordered for the general destruction of all Buddhist establishments and return of all Buddhist monks and nuns to lay life. This shook the foundations of Buddhism though it did not destroy it. Emperor Wu dismantled the greedy monasteries probably to fill his own coffers, but not Buddhism. However his actions definitely reversed the fortunes of Buddhism in China and sowed the seeds of its decline .

    From 11th Century onwards, China witnessed the reemergence of Confucianism and revival of people’s interest in their traditional religions.”

    Somewhat King Henry VIII of England, the Chinese Emperor dissolved the monasteries . . . confiscated their wealth . . . consolidated his power. Buddhism, like Roman Catholicism, had become too much like a State within a State.

    On another front, Buddhism was once the State religion of India . . . it was an inspired choice for warriors and for empire building.

    History . . . please get it right. There’s no excuse with the Web/Google literally at your fingertips.


  6. Archer says:

    Clearly people go in for religion because it gives “meaning” to their lives. But I confess that I don’t understand how this works. Consider these statements:
    “My mom loves me.”
    “God loves me.”

    The first is true [right mom?! :-)] Suppose the second is also true. Now if, despite all the love my mom has lavished on me, I am *still* afflicted by feelings of meaninglessness, how does the second “truth” help me? What’s the difference between my mom and God [apart from the fact that, well, from all I can see, my mom is a lot nicer!]? I mean, why is God’s concern more “meaningful”? Just because he is more powerful? Does that mean I should feel a lot better if I am loved by George Bush, who is much more powerful than my mom?

    Sorry to be so simple-minded, but I can never get excited about whether religions are true — they don’t seem to work even if they are!

  7. eye-of-horus says:

    Let’s get away from the always amusing abstract and look at America’s history and at the real drivers of cultural transformation which are not “values” from God.

    What’s the background to the ‘no state religion’ portion of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1786).

    As former English subjects, newly victorious Americans had also thrown off a state church, the Church of England. In the Mother Country of 1786 a religious nonconformist (not a confessing Anglican) could not become a physician, attorney at law, an officer in HM forces on land or sea, could not attend either Cambridge or Oxford.

    Americans were not about to tolerate a repeat performance. The issues were meat-and-potatoes: who eats well, procreates, educates the kids, rises in social standing. Real issues — not how to communicate with some cultural Icon, either theistic or deistic.

    As Marvin Harris would put it — we’re always talking about “cultural materialism.” The race to death of food production and reproduction. Guts pull God along by the nose every time.

    Amendment 1 protects what used to be called “freedom of conscience.” Initially the right of every man (not slave, not female, not propertyless) to freely choose how to conduct his religious life. “Freedom of conscience” provides cover for the atheist, agnostic, deist, and an overwhelming population of the blessedly indifferent. (And people like Madison, Jefferson needed cover.)

    Check it out, the Constitution does not contain the word ‘God.’ “We the people” give rights to each other, that is, to ourselves as the sovereign body. Neither Bush, nor Cheney, nor Xian theocrats understands this.

    copyright asserted 2007

  8. Aggie says:

    Thanks Sean, I think you gave me something new to think about. I spent my early childhood years raised as a Catholic. Now I am an atheist. I still, however, sometimes have thoughts along the lines of “I’m not fortunate enough to be a person of faith.” The reasoning being that a person of faith thinks they have eternity ahead of them, while I have 60 years left at best. Regardless of the reality, the former is a much more comforting thought, and I would long for when I was a child and still had those comforting thoughts. But going back is not an option, unless I go against what I actually believe and lie myself into it.

    But when you phrase it in terms of whether I would actually want there to be a god or not, I would definitely chose the latter. It puts a very interesting spin on things for me. Maybe I don’t want eternal life after all. The thought of that is just as terrifying as the thought of ceasing to exist. However, this does not make ceasing to exist any less terrifying. I guess we have a choice of two shitty ends of a stick.

  9. John Baez says:

    If both ends of the stick are so shitty, why are you so terrified of ceasing to exist.

  10. fh says:

    The idea that God *unfortunately* doesn’t exist, isn’t that absurd, right?

    Sartre spoke of the God shaped hole in our society, Voltaire quipped that “If there were no God, it would have been necessary to invent him.” (the Atheist would argue that we did), and Jean Paul famously had Christ deliver a Speech from the top of the building that is the Universe on the Horrors of a Godless Universe to remind those who argued about the existence of God that this was not merely and academical question but deeply personal.

    Also why red pill/blue pill what with the option of a God that does not interfere with mankind but takes us “home” after we die? A “God exists and the scriptures have nothing to do with it” option.
    The hope is simple, that suffering is transient while love is eternal and deeper in some sense. There is no indication that this is the case, and that can well be considered unfortunate.

    (This strays considerably from Roves quote of course)

  11. John Baez says:

    Sorry, I hit “submit” by mistake. Proof: I would never willingly end a question with a period – it’s disgusting.

    More importantly, my initial reaction was glib – the kind of thing you write and then think better of.

    One can consistently feel the universe is a nasty place because we’re doomed to cease to exist, yet still cling to existence in this nasty universe. This sad position is one most religions and philosophies of life try to help us escape. The promise of eternal life seems like a transparent ruse to me. Cultivating a degree of “non-attachment” seems better.

    To me the tough part is not the idea that I’ll cease to exist. It’s the idea that I’m slowly getting weaker, sicker, deafer, blinder and stupider – a trend I can only fight temporarily, a fight I’m bound to lose in the end, when I cease to exist.

    This is where a bit of non-attachment really comes in handy.

  12. absolutely says:

    I have been close to 2 grandparents, a parent and sibling while they slowly died. Not one of them showed any terror at the thought of ceasing to exist (only one was overtly religious). They all faced death with dignity and courage.

  13. Blake Stacey says:

    John Baez:

    To me the tough part is not the idea that I’ll cease to exist. It’s the idea that I’m slowly getting weaker, sicker, deafer, blinder and stupider – a trend I can only fight temporarily, a fight I’m bound to lose in the end, when I cease to exist.

    One day, I’ll see an issue of This Week’s Finds in Mathematical Physics which only makes me puzzle for three days — and then we’ll know you’re in trouble. 😉

    (A friend of mine read TWF just before bed and woke up from a nightmare screaming, “I don’t even know what the f—k a cobordism is!” Seriously.)

  14. Garrett says:

    I think the greatest injustice is that the religious never get to find out they were wrong about an afterlife. It is somewhat consoling that they don’t get to find out they were right either.


    “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.” — Philip Roth

    On the bright side, serotonin levels seem to rise and stabilize as one gets older. I see lots of “weaker, sicker, deafer, blinder and stupider” people slowly shuffling along, madly smiling to themselves.

  15. Count Iblis says:

    People believe in God for all sorts of reasons. I think that many people intuitively feel that something is missing in a purely materialistic description. The very fact that we can feel things etc. seems difficult to explain.

    I think that these problems can be addressed within science itself by dropping “materialism”. Because we don’t know whether what we think is a “material world” is just an abstact mathematical world that from our pint of view seems like a “material world”

    So, despite the objection of Neil B above, I think that Modal realism is a good alternative to religion. The moment we postulate that the world we live in is somehow “more real” than the other possible worlds we open a can of worms. We need to explain what makes it more real, or as some say “what blows life into the equatons”. I think that many people on a subconscious level are aware of this problem, even though they have never consciously thought of it. This then leads people being attracted to the idea of a God.

    Arguably the assumption that a “material world” exists that is different from a purely mathematical world is also a form of religion, the “material world” playing the role of a God who just executes the laws of physics.

    It is much easier to accept the “Strong Artificial Intelligence” assumption when you drop the idea of a material world. The brain and therefore our thoughts and feelings can be formally described and that formal description has the same ontological status as the universe itself, because the universe is ultimately also “nothing more” than a formal description.

  16. Steve Esser says:

    Thank goodness the red and blue pills aren’t really the only options (although you wouldn’t know this from most of the public debate).

  17. Neil B. says:

    Count Iblis:

    I agree that the idea of “material existence” breathing life into the equations is mystical and not truly rationally describable. (What an irony, that “materialists” consider themselves the epitome of rationality, and they can’t even logically define the difference between “material” and descriptions without invoking gut feelings, conscious experience, etc…not that many of them admit or even realize that.) However, I take the other fork at that point, and say: Sure, but the distinction is real anyway, just mystical and so what? I think that’s something (like “qualities”) that our minds can appreciate, because they are not just programs running on machines.

    Second, what makes you think that our brain/mind can be described or explained formally? Just because we see tangles of fibers and activity that vaguely resembles “computation” doesn’t mean that is formally what’s going on. The brain is not a crisp, defined system, but a sloppy, not fully describable one, for many reasons. Not only that, but with a post in a blog like ” A universe of Qualia”, you should realize that “qualia” by definition cannot be characterized structurally. They are irreducible “essences” that differ from each other in no way that is describable (not to be confused with perhaps connected to in some way) by points, numbers, locations, arrangements, etc. Nausea, itch, sensation of red, green, blue, etc. (and I don’t care about whether my version is like yours; it is irrelevant to the basic point, pace idiot Chance the gardener “philosopher” Wittgenstein.) They are the essence of experience, and what makes us more than modal representations. Re-read my argument above for why we would have no chance of ending up in a dependably orderly world, given the greater number available of chaotic possibilities and futures (Bayesian extrapolation from the given circumstances.)

    Finally, thanks to Steve Esser for appreciating the phoniness of the hokey two-party system of stifling and narrow-minded debate between “scientific rationalism” and traditional religion, which leaves out the best of fine philosophical inquiry (in the same vein as does the hokey two-party political system and the choices and solutions it and the mainstream media offer us.)

  18. andy.s says:

    Don’t know about you Sean, but I’d pop the blue pill in a second, even though I’m an atheist.

    I don’t much care for the materialist version of the after life. i.e., once you die, your consciousness is completely obliterated, forever. That sucks.

    On the other hand, with the theistic universe, you are born with an immaterial, indestructible soul and get to be best buddies with the Guy who’s got all the answers.

  19. Greg says:

    I was once having a discussion with a religious person on my doorstep who asked me, if I don’t believe in God, what do I think happens to me when I die? “Nothing—I just die,” I said, to which he responded, “And you’re okay with that?” Well, let’s say that I’m not okay with it, that I really would like to have an afterlife. Does my wanting Heaven to exist mean that it actually does? Of course not. I’m all for optimism, but if God exists, he does so whether or not I think it would nice, and if he doesn’t, no amount of wishing on my part will change that. I’ve always found it odd that some people choose their religion based on how nice of a story it tells.

  20. Reginald Selkirk says:

    I’d like to be the first to pre-order the book you’re going to write on the topic of religion.

    Here’s an idea: why don’t you co-write that book with Sean Carroll the evo-devo guy?

  21. Qubit says:

    How Does God self create from nothing? How does the universe self create from nothing? I think that whatever we think the Universe is or God, has got nothing to do with what it really is!

    If nothing exist, then I am the only person who will really see what I write here and one day I will not know I wote this.

  22. Eric says:

    Your argument seems to be based on a fallacy of false dichotomy.
    You can either have materialism or have a vengeful God who “judges
    us from on high” and allows suffering in the world. Even if your
    analysis was right and that was the only possible God compatible
    with our world, one can be an atheist and yet not a materialist.

    If materialists were to feel regretful about their beliefs, it would be
    unbecoming of their logical character to find comfort through that move.

  23. Sean says:

    I think that complaints of a false dichotomy, or that I should have included a different-colored pill for every possible nuanced philosophical stance one could imagine taking, are missing the point a bit here. I wasn’t talking about which such stance is right or wrong, or what would be the best of all possible worlds in which to live. I was just imagining a choice between my own world view (which is shared by many atheists) and that of a typical, traditional religious believer, and suggesting that I am “fortunate enough” that the one I believe in is also the one I would prefer to have be true. Nothing that I said implies that those are the only possible views.

  24. senderista says:


    Yeah, Shintoism is truly a “religion of peace” – about as much as Islam is. Just ask the Ainu/Chinese/Koreans.

  25. Aggie says:

    “Cultivating a degree of “non-attachment” seems better.”

    John, I completely agree with you. That is the plan. My hope is that I become comfortable with the idea of death before I die. Unfortunately this is rather difficult as it goes completely against what we as humans have evolved to feel. But as Garrett said, the “serotonin levels seem to rise and stabilize as one gets older” so it probably wont be a problem in the not so near future. Maybe my hope was that if god did actually exist I would work this out in time to save my immortal soul. I don’t know – so much thinking and still no idea what is going on! 🙂