Chapter 2: Scientific Materialism

The Cosmic Adventure: Science, Religion and the Quest for Purpose
by John F. Haught

Chapter 2: Scientific Materialism

Scientists tell us that our universe came to be in an explosion of unimaginable proportions fifteen to twenty billion years ago. Since this "Big Bang" galaxies, stars and planets have gradually congealed out of the gases released by that unique and momentous cosmic event. A continual expansion outward into space of these heavenly bodies has covered distances measurable only in light years unfathomable by our feeble imaginations. About five billion years ago our planet Earth spun out into orbit around the sun, an insignificant star in one of billions of galaxies each containing possibly billions of other suns and their satellites. Since its birth the Earth’s surface has gradually cooled and has become covered with large bodies of water and land. Two or three billion years ago primitive forms of life appeared that eventually evolved into plants, protozoa, reptiles, birds, mammals and finally humans.

A.I. Oparin gives us a way to picture the expanses of time required for the eventual evolution of life and man. Imagine the chronicle of evolution on our (roughly five billion years old) planet as represented in ten large volumes of five hundred pages each. Each page would stand for a million years. Any discussion of the fossilized remains of animals and plants would not take place until the very last volume. We may conjecture that very primitive forms of life began to appear in the seventh or eighth volume. But we have no fossil record of these hypothetical forebears of our biosphere. The first half of the tenth Volume would deal with the development of plants and amphibious animals. But it would not be until sixty or seventy pages from the end of this final five hundred page book that we would read about reptiles reaching the height of their development. Around page 465 birds and beasts become the dominant characters in our story. And the history of human beings has to be told in the last page or two of the final volume!1

Is this evolutionary process a purposeful one? Is this a teleological universe? Is it seeking out some end? Is it in the process of realizing some value or aim? May it be portrayed as the unfolding of a meaningful story in which we each play a significant part? Or are such narrative portrayals without any foundation in reality itself? Are they sheer projections as Klemke and many others suspect?

I shall argue in this book that such a "narrative" interpretation of nature, one that discerns a sort of story-line in nature, can only be called a projection if nature itself is dualistically segregated from those events that we call mental. I shall agree with Whitehead that we must understand mental occurrences as an intrinsic aspect of nature. And once we do so we need no longer envisage our own myths, hopes and intuitions of ultimate meaning as extra-natural occurrences. Rather they may be seen as the straining of the cosmos itself, at this "hominized" phase in its evolution, for a further unraveling of the evolutionary chronicle.

It is not clear to everyone, however, that our own mentality is itself a blossoming forth of nature itself. As we saw in the previous chapter the spirit of dualistic mythology continues to pressure us into the assumption that acts of consciousness or subjectivity are not part of the continuum of occurrences that constitute the world of nature. And as a result of this vestigial dualism, nature, the world studied by the sciences, is denuded of anything mental -- and therefore of the possibility of sustaining any universal meaning. Meaning, which requires expression through the narrative mode of consciousness, appears to dualistic thinking as the concoction of our alienated subjectivity. And our subjectivity, in turn, is then burdened with the task of having to be the radical creator of all stories, rather than being, at least in part, the recipient, vehicle or reader of a universal story. Because stories now appear to be anchorless, flowing as they do from the caprice of a groundless subjectivity, it is little wonder that they provide us with no solid sustenance in our own search for meaning. Unless our stories have a cosmic dimension to them, I doubt whether they can move us deeply or provide the solid ground we need to stand on in order to live with conviction and hope.

Few people would deny that from the very beginnings of consciousness, we humans have been characterized by an ability to conceive purposes and to establish goals for our lives. Furthermore, from very early on, consciousness was itself shaped by myths, one of whose central functions was to spell out a meaningful destiny for people. These myths linked human purpose to an intuited cosmic intelligence. Throughout most of human history, up until three hundred years ago, almost all peoples in all parts of our planet took for granted the intelligibility and purposefulness of the world around them. It was simply assumed that some sort of underlying "presence," "sacred" intelligence, "nous" (mind), "Logos" (reason) (or Brahman, Tao, Torah, Dharma) influences the natural world. We are told by historians and anthropologists that people usually felt "at home" in such a world. A personalized or intelligent cosmos was an apt domicile for the individual minds that mirrored the cosmic intelligence.2

However, in the last three hundred years it has become possible for us to think of the universe as bereft of any cosmic mind. Such a stark view would not have been conceivable on such a wide scale until after the seventeenth century. Along with dualistic mythology several developments in scientific thought since the seventeenth century have contributed to the exorcism of mind from nature: first, there is the cosmography of classical (Newtonian) physics picturing our world as composed of inanimate, unconscious bits of "matter" needing only the brute laws of inertia to explain their action; second, the Darwinian theory of evolution with its emphasis on chance, waste and the apparent "impersonality" of natural selection; third, the laws of thermodynamics (and particularly the second law) with the allied cosmological interpretation that our universe is running out of energy available to sustain life, evolution and human consciousness; fourth, the geological and astronomical disclosure of enormous tracts of apparently lifeless space and matter in the universe; fifth, the recent suggestions that life may be reducible to an inanimate chemical basis; and, finally, perhaps most shocking of all, the suspicion that mind may be explained exhaustively in terms of mindless brain chemistry.

Such developments as these have made scientifically-minded people wonder whether it is still possible to speak intelligently of any cosmic intelligence that gives over-arching purpose to the universe. Can we not now explain all the so-called "miracles" of life and mind (and even social behavior) in terms of chemical and genetic composition? When it seems unlikely that life transcends the chains of atoms and molecules that compose it, how can we speak seriously of a "cosmic purpose" or "ultimate meaning" that transcends the universe? Or when it seems unscientific to skim "mind" off of its cerebral underpinnings, why would it be any more likely that we could distinguish a transcendent cosmic intelligence from the physical cosmos itself, or refer to an ultimate environment distinguishable from an immediate one?

Scientific Materialism

We are left, therefore, with three parallel sets of questions:

1. Is life reducible to atoms and molecules?

2. Is mind reducible to brain, which in turn is composed of atoms and molecules?

3. Is the universe as a whole reducible to mindless matter?

Scientific materialism is the philosophy of nature which answers "yes" to all three questions. As defined by one of its contemporary defenders, Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson, scientific materialism is ". . . . the view that all phenomena in the universe, including the human mind, have a material basis, are subject to the same physical laws, and can be most deeply understood by scientific analysis."13 Scientific analysis of their "material basis" is the exclusive key to unlocking the mysteries of life, mind and the universe as a whole. This material basis may not necessarily be the crude "brickyard" variety that one finds in eighteenth and nineteenth century science. It may be partially informed by the relativity theory and quantum physics of the twentieth century. Yet it shares with the mechanism of the past the view that any non-material, extraneous causation is ruled out in the constitution of the universe. Obviously any teleological interpretation is thereby excluded in principle. Scientific materialism holds that any true and meaningful knowledge that we may gain about life, mind and the universe can be gotten only through the analytical methods of science. Everything else is sheer speculation if not wishful thinking. Oparin’s ten-volume history of the world is a chronicle of the reshuffling of atoms and molecules rather than the story of a world’s struggle toward the realization of value or purpose.

Scientific materialists look upon life and mind as "epiphenomena," that is, as secondary and derivative rather than "really real" in themselves. The only real "phenomena" are the "physical" components that make up all things. Even those organisms that act as though they are "alive" or as though they are "thinking" are purely material. Aliveness and thought have no intrinsic reality themselves. They owe their flimsy and precarious "existence" to the combinations of atoms, molecules and cells that make up living and thinking organisms. Living and thinking are simply ways in which pure "matter" acts in certain complex combinations. The fundamental components of living and thinking entities, however, are themselves inanimate and unconscious. Reality, in the fundamental sense, is utterly void of life and mind. And if that is so, then it is also without purpose.

Since the appearance in evolution of life and mind depends upon the proper combinations and interrelations of physical and chemical components, it seems that their "existence" or their "reality" is very thin indeed. We all know by now that if the atomic combinations break down, or if the proper chemical reactions fail to take place, the cell will die or the brain (in which thought seems to dwell) will fail to function, and "mind" will be impaired or it may vanish altogether. It is quite understandable, therefore, that scientific materialists would hold firmly to their doctrine that life and mind are reducible to the entities and processes studied by physics and chemistry. Life and mind are in themselves too elusive, too "epiphenomenal" to be grasped apart from their physiological basis. Therefore, it is tempting to reduce them to this basis, to deny that they have any reality in themselves.

Scientific materialism, almost three centuries old, is still the reigning philosophy of nature. It has been seriously challenged by developments in recent physics, but biology and brain science remain heavily oriented toward a materialist interpretation of life and mind. Popular scientific literature like that of Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Jacob Bronowski, Robert Jastrow, or Stephen Jay Gould is steeped in the premises and preoccupations of scientific materialism. Most popular scientific journals have the same bent. And the major universities of the Western world harbor many influential thinkers who can only be classified as materialists. For many of these thinkers the Democritean summation of reality as nothing more than "atoms and the void" is still an adequate rendition of the fundamental nature of things. For others a more elaborate and contemporary version of the physical world qualifies their naturalistic outlook. But even in the latter case the designation "scientific materialism" seems to be appropriate. So because of the academic credibility that still remarkably adheres to scientific materialism I have chosen to devote much of the present book to a critique of it. Though I think it has been intelligently criticized before, its tenacity in classrooms and bookstores everywhere warrants yet another attempt at exploring its plausibility. I hope not only to add something to the fine critiques that have already been offered, but also to marshal them in a novel and instructive manner.

There are two distinguishable aspects of scientific materialism’s challenge to teleology that I would like to address respectively in each of the following two chapters. The first is the assumption by materialism that physical reality is mindless stuff. The second is the analytical obsession with the ideal of explaining phenomena (such as life and mind) solely in terms of their constituent elements. In the following chapter I shall provide a Whiteheadian critique of the view of matter presupposed by scientific materialism. And in Chapter 4 I shall utilize Polanyi’s thought in order to expose the logical inadequacy of a reductionist interpretation of life and mind.


1. Oparin’s image is summarized by Richard H. Overman, Evolution and the Christian Doctrine of Creation (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1967), pp. 129-30.

2. Cf. Needleman, pp. 18-20.

3. Edward 0. Wilson, On Human Nature (New York: Bantam Books, 1979), p. 230.