Thursday, November 09, 2006

Materialism, naturalism, and atheism

On the blog for The Christian Cadre, contributor BK has written a post, Dawkins' Dilemma, in which BK refers to a post by Pastor Dustin S. Segers on Segers' blog Grace in the Triad, which asks, how a materialist atheist like Richard Dawkins can view the god of the Old Testament as a monster. From where does Dawkins derive his standards?

Now, I am no expert on Dawkins; but while I know that he is a self-declared atheist, I do not know that he has declared himself to be a materialist. Actually from BK's quoting of Segers, I can say that Dawkins doesn't quite fit the bill.

BK quotes Segers for the following two syllogisms:

Syllogism One:

1. Material things are extended in space.
2. Objective moral laws are not extended in space.
3. Therefore, objective moral laws are non-material.
4. Materialism posits that non-material entities do not exist.
5. Therefore, objective moral laws do not exist.

and

Syllogism Two:

1. Objective moral laws are universal entities that apply to all people, places, and times.
2. Materialism holds that only particular entities have ontological existence.
3. No material thing is a universal entity.
4. Objective moral laws are not material things.
5. Therefore, objective moral laws do not exist.

I can positively say that Dawkins does not adhere to the materialism implicitly defined by these two syllogisms.

On p. 127 of The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins writes:

DNA gets the best of both worlds. DNA molecules themselves, as physical entities, are like dewdrops. Under the right conditions they come into existence at a great rate, but no one of them has existed for long, and all will be destroyed within a few months. They are not durable like rocks. But the patterns that they bear in their sequences are as durable as the hardest rocks. They have what it takes to exist for millions of years, and that is why they are still here today. The essential difference from dewdrops is that new dewdrops are not begotten by old dewdrops. Dewdrops doubtless resemble other dewdrops, but they don't specifically resemble their own 'parent' dewdrops. Unlike DNA molecules, they don't form lineages, and therefore can't pass on messages. Dewdrops come into existence by spontaneous generation, DNA messages by replication.

That is, while DNA molecules are material, genes = DNA patterns are not, though each concrete instance needs to exist in a material form. Genes therefore violate premise 2 of Segers' Syllogism Two. DNA molecules are particular entities; but DNA patterns are not.

Therefore, Dawkins is not a materialist, at least not according to Segers' definition.


Materialism should be distinguished from naturalism, according to which no supernatural consciousness is actively operating in the universe. Dawkins uses the word meme in analogy to gene, where a meme is a thought pattern, not some assembly of neurons - two persons can share a meme, but they don't share neurons. A meme can be something like 'you shall not cause suffering', which most people accept. Such memes, while not material, can still be completely natural, because they need not be impressed by direct operation by any supernatural, conscious entity, and they can be 'inherited' by social interaction.


Now, the Sixth Commandment (Deuteronomy 5:17) says "You shall not kill". Assume this to be an objective moral law. Then, according to Segers, it "appl[ies] to all people, places, and times". In 1 Samuel 15:1-3 we have this interesting passage:

1Sa 15:1 And Samuel said unto Saul, Jehovah sent me to anoint thee to be king over his people, over Israel: now therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the words of Jehovah.

1Sa 15:2 Thus saith Jehovah of hosts, I have marked that which Amalek did to Israel, how he set himself against him in the way, when he came up out of Egypt.

1Sa 15:3 Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.

It is the prophet Samuel telling King Saul to slay — that is, kill — all the Amalekites, "both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass." It is even a divine commandment, Samuel is passing on the words of Yahweh, though not an absolute moral law, because it is specifically addressed to Saul. As reason for this commandment is given that Yahweh "ha[s] marked that which Amalek did to Israel".

But if the Sixth Commandment, "You shall not kill", with Segers' words, "appl[ies] to all people, places, and times", then it applies to Saul and can not be circumvented with any excuse, not even revenge.

That is, even (some) theists allow for exceptions to supposedly objective moral laws, so what's the whole point of such laws? Once you allow for a supernatural, conscious entity to intervene with human affairs, you allow for any specific commandment to preempt the supposedly objective moral laws.

Objective moral laws, if such exist, allow for no exceptions, not even exceptions imposed by the lawgiver. Note that Saul doesn't completely follow the instructions in that he doesn't kill the Amalekite king Agag and also keeps the best of the animals. Samuel then kills Agag; but even that doesn't finish off the Amalekites. They pop up again from time to time.

Possibly God has here been caught by his own laws; the Amalekites cannot be killed because of the Sixth Commandment? No matter how much God tries to finish off the Amalekites, not even he can do it.


See also:
The sad, but true story of the Amalekites
Reconstructing a murder case

11 comments:

Dusman said...

Hi Freez,

You said in response to my article on your blog quoting Dawkins,

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
"On p. 127 of The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins writes:

DNA gets the best of both worlds. DNA molecules themselves, as physical entities, are like dewdrops. Under the right conditions they come into existence at a great rate, but no one of them has existed for long, and all will be destroyed within a few months. They are not durable like rocks. But the patterns that they bear in their sequences are as durable as the hardest rocks. They have what it takes to exist for millions of years, and that is why they are still here today. The essential difference from dewdrops is that new dewdrops are not begotten by old dewdrops. Dewdrops doubtless resemble other dewdrops, but they don't specifically resemble their own 'parent' dewdrops. Unlike DNA molecules, they don't form lineages, and therefore can't pass on messages. Dewdrops come into existence by spontaneous generation, DNA messages by replication.

That is, while DNA molecules are material, genes = DNA patterns are not, though each concrete instance needs to exist in a material form. Genes therefore violate premise 2 of Segers' Syllogism Two. DNA molecules are particular entities; but DNA patterns are not.

Therefore, Dawkins is not a materialist, at least not according to Segers' definition."
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

1. Your quote of Dawkins above does nothing to mitigate against philosphical materialism per se nor premise 2 of the aforemenionted syllogism. Since you say that Dawkins makes a distinction between DNA molecules and the collective pattern of those molecules via genes, then this does nothing whatsoever to undermine a physicalistic understanding of the universe because individual, particular, entities being viewed as a collective, patterned whole does not automatically cause one to assume a Platonic view of the universe. It just shows that the materialist can recognize an individual particular having ontological existence as well as a collective group of said particulars having ontological existence.

2. If Dawkins et. al. aren't materialists, then we simply can refute their Platonism in the same way that Aristotle's did. Then we've come back full circle to refuting materialism once again and none of the "Brights" can show us a non-arbitrary, epistemological justification for providing an objective moral standard.

3. As far as "memes" go, this quote from Sarfati and Matthews is sufficient to show the absurdity of such a concept,

" Memes

Dawkins said on PBS 6, ‘The Mind’s Big Bang’:

The only kind of evolutionary change we’re likely to see very much of is not genetic information at all, it’s cultural evolution. And if we put a Darwinian spin on that, then we’re going to be talking about the differential survival of memes, as opposed to genes. [PBS 6]

Dawkins proposed the meme idea long ago in his book The Selfish Gene, and psychologist Sue Blackmore of the University of West of England has been one of his recent champions. She said on PBS 6:

Memes are ideas, habits, skills, gestures, stories, songs—anything which we pass from person to person by imitation. We copy them … . just as the competition between genes shapes all of biological evolution, so it’s the competition between memes that shapes our minds and cultures.

Nowadays I would say that memetic evolution is going faster and faster, and it has almost entirely taken over from biological evolution … .

The more educated you are, the less children you have. That is memes fighting against genes. [PBS 6]

Now memes have apparently found a new home, the internet, and it has actually enslaved us, we are told.

Blackmore even believes that the idea of the ‘self’ is an illusion produced by competing memes in the brain. But under her own system, we must ask her, ‘Who is (or rather, what are) actually proposing this idea?’!

But it becomes ridiculous when things such as the internet, birth control, any invention, insulin, are called ‘memes.’ A term that describes everything really describes nothing. All that she’s done is apply the same label to just about anything, but this adds nothing to our knowledge.

It’s no wonder that the evolutionist Jerry Coyne called Blackmore’s book ‘a work not of science, but of extreme advocacy.’ He says that memes are ‘but a flashy new wrapping around a parcel of old and conventional ideas.’ Coyne also believes that evolutionary psychology is non-science (and nonsense). Coyne is no creationist sympathizer but an ardent—but ineffective—opponent of creation.9

The Discovery Institute critique of the PBS series points out that, if the likes of Eugenie Scott were truly concerned about non-science being taught in the science classroom, she would oppose evolutionary psychology and memetic evolution as well, and certainly not support the use of this PBS series in science classrooms.10 No, what she’s opposed to are challenges to her materialistic faith." (http://www.answersingenesis.org/home/area/re2/chapter12.asp)

4. The Amalekites were justifiably exterminated and God ordering Saul to do so didn't violate the 6th commandment, a law that was given to direct fellow Israelite-to-Israelite conduct and not nation-to-nation conduct in wartime. Murder, as intentioned in the apodictic law of Exodus 20 has to do with the unjustified taking of the life of another person. The extermination of the Amalekites was not unjustified, but was called for by God (see Miller's historical background essay here: http://www.christian-thinktank.com/rbutcher1.html).

As you already know, there are several laws in the Old Covenant that command the killing of idolators, rebellious teenagers, etc. So your point is moot on the face of it since (1) the extermination of these people was justified per God's order/law, (2) isn't a biblical definition of murder per the OT Levitical law (assuming a biblical worldview of course), and (3) doesn't apply to syllogism two since it wasn't intended for the Christian theist but the philosophical materialist.

Thanks for interacting and posting a link to your blog article and take care.

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