The Icon of Materialism

Why Scientism's Cherished Progress Narrative Fails

Contemporary academic culture is sick with a dogma masquerading as dispassionate scientific inquiry, a dogma called scientism. If a man murders another man, or pens a beautiful poem, or steps into the path of a bullet to save a stranger, scientism insists the action can be explained by reference to some purely physical cause such as genetic predisposition. Scientism has no place for explanations that rest on the divine, or for the idea of human decisions as the free choices of free moral agents.

The dogma is so pervasive that it can seem unassailable. But it's actually quite vulnerable, since it rests on a story of progress that collapses under scrutiny. Rather than summarizing this story, I want to relate an incident in which a proponent of scientism, Steve Matheson, employs the story in the heat of battle, in a clash with intelligent design proponent Stephen Meyer.

Meyer, a former geologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the history and philosophy of science, employs a design argument that begins with his noting that the historical sciences reason using the principle of causal adequacy—looking for causes, active in the present, with the demonstrated ability to leave behind the set of clues in question. The influential nineteenth-century geologist Charles Lyell summarized the principle in the title of his most famous book: Principles of Geology: Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth's Surface, by Reference to Causes Now in Operation.

Historical scientists proceed like a detective at a crime scene. They begin by identifying one or more causes "now in operation" capable of producing the clues under investigation. Then they accumulate additional clues in order to narrow the field. The idea is that, if, after patient study, they can narrow the field to only one type of cause with the demonstrated ability to explain the various threads of the mystery, they can pinpoint that cause as the best explanation. So, for instance, careful study of a large Arizona crater and of various natural processes has convinced geologists that an ancient meteor left the crater.

This mode of reasoning, common to the historical sciences, has been described by philosophers of science as inference to the best explanation (IBE), and Meyer argues that IBE points decisively to the work of a creative intelligence in the biological realm.

Here's the argument in a nutshell: one clue we find in the present is information in living things, such as the sophisticated digital information encoded in DNA. How did this information first arise? A long, broad, and intensive exploration has uncovered only one type of cause with the demonstrated power to generate information: creative intelligence. Therefore, the IBE mode of reasoning, common across a host of historical sciences, points to intelligent design as the best explanation for the origin of biological information.

The Materialists' Grand Narrative

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Now return to the debate I mentioned between Meyer and evolutionary biologist Steve Matheson. In the forum, Matheson actually agreed with Meyer's argument up to a point. "You said that we reason backwards from what we know works, which is that intelligence makes codes," he said. "I'll agree with that. . . . We reason back and say, therefore, this is the one explanation we know that can do this. I buy that. I get it. It's obvious."

But Matheson wasn't conceding defeat. His next move was to point to something he believed would neutralize Meyer's tidy argument. "Everywhere I look, and every time I look," Matheson said, "if I wait long enough, there is a natural and even materialistic explanation to things." This strong historical trend, he insisted, decisively counseled against Meyer's design inference.

In essence, Matheson took the lower-level historical pattern of information always leading back to mind, and trumped it with what he sees as a higher-level historical pattern—materialism's manifest destiny, if you will.

That alleged pattern is scientism's grand progress narrative, given formal structure by the nineteenth-century French philosopher August Comte. Comte asserted that science has evolved through three stages. In the first, or theological stage, the mysterious doings of the gods were invoked to explain natural phenomena like floods and plagues. Then came the metaphysical stage, in which natural phenomena were explained by reference to abstract entities such as the forms of Plato or the final causes of Aristotle. Finally, in the third and mature stage—our stage—natural phenomena are explained strictly by reference to natural laws or material processes.

Comte and Matheson were both echoing the same grand narrative. In common parlance it runs something like this: Humans used to attribute practically every mysterious force in nature to the doings of the gods. They stuffed a god into any and every gap in their knowledge of the natural world, shrugged, and moved on. Since then, the number of gaps has been shrinking without pause, filled with purely material explanations for everything from lightning bolts to romantic attraction. The moral of this grand story: always hold out for the purely material explanation, even when the evidence seems to point in the other direction. Materialism, in other words, is our manifest destiny; get used to it colonizing every cause in the cosmos.

Arguments & Counter-Arguments

Like almost any compelling fiction, the story has at least some facts to support it. For instance, the great astronomer and physicist Sir Isaac Newton recognized that planets perturb each other through their mutual gravitational tugs, and yet they somehow have long persisted in their orderly paths. In grappling with this mystery, he surmised that maybe God occasionally tweaks the planets' orbits in order to keep the solar system running smoothly.

Although Newton also suggested other possibilities, such as the providential involvement of comets, his notion of an occasional "reformation" of the solar system is regularly singled out from among his complex and ambivalent musings on the subject and held up as an unabashed "God in the gap" hypothesis. What happened to that hypothesis? Later discoveries greatly reduced the problem of planetary instability and with it, the need for Newton's planetary "reformation" conjecture. The story is an arresting example in support of scientism's grand narrative

But there are arresting counter-examples. Indeed, while the grand narrative is regularly employed with great confidence to trump intelligent design, it is spectacularly contradicted by major developments in the physical and life sciences.

For instance, through much of the nineteenth century, the scientific consensus was that microscopic life was relatively simple, little more than microscopic sacks of Jell-O. The scientific community also accepted the idea of spontaneous generation—that creatures sprang to life spontaneously out of things like dew and rotting meat. Taken together, these pieces of conventional scientific wisdom suggested that the origin of the first living cell deep in the past was hardly worthy of the term mystery—a material explanation seemed obvious.

But in 1861 Louis Pasteur conducted a series of experiments that discredited the notion of spontaneous generation. And in the next century, scientists began amassing evidence of just how complex even the simplest cell is. Today we know that cells are microminiaturized factories of astonishing sophistication and that, even more to the point, such sophistication is essential for them to be able to survive and reproduce. Matheson himself conceded in his debate with Meyer that no adequate material explanation has been found for the origin of the cell.

In sum: We have come to learn that spontaneous generation was a fantasy. We have discovered that even the simplest cells are highly sophisticated and information-rich organisms. And the only cause we have ever witnessed actually producing novel information is intelligent design. Thus, modern scientific observations have collapsed a long-standing material explanation for the origin of life and simultaneously strengthened the competing design explanation. This development runs directly counter to scientism's grand narrative.

A common rejoinder is that inferring design in such cases amounts to "giving up on science," and that science should always hold out for a purely material explanation. But this is mere question begging. What if the first living cell really were the work of intelligent design? Being open to that possibility and following the evidence isn't giving up on science but on scientism, a dogma resting on a progress narrative flatly contradicted by the historical record.

Evidence from Cosmology

Cosmology and physics provide another counter-example to the grand narrative. In Darwin's time, conventional scientific wisdom held that the universe was eternal. Given this, it was broadly assumed that there could hardly be any mystery about its origin: it simply had always existed. But developments in physics and astronomy have overturned the notion of an eternal cosmos, and scientists are now in broad agreement that our universe had a beginning. What many thought had never happened and so required no explanation—the origin of the universe—suddenly cried out for an explanation.

Near the same time that scientists were realizing this, there was a growing awareness of what is now widely known in cosmology as the fine-tuning problem. This is the curious fact that the various laws and constants of nature appear finely calibrated to allow for life in the universe—calibrated to such a precise degree that even committed materialists have abandoned blunt appeals to chance. To explain away this problem, the disciples of scientism have now resorted to saying that there must be countless other universes, with our universe simply being one of the lucky ones with the right configuration to allow for intelligent life to evolve.

Not every physicist has played along. Several, including some Nobel laureates, have assessed the growing body of evidence for fine-tuning and pointed to intelligent design as the most reasonable explanation. Physicist and Nobel laureate Charles Townes put it this way:

Intelligent design, as one sees it from a scientific point of view, seems to be quite real. This is a very special universe: it's remarkable that it came out just this way. If the laws of physics weren't just the way they are, we couldn't be here at all. The sun couldn't be there, the laws of gravity and nuclear laws and magnetic theory, quantum mechanics, and so on have to be just the way they are for us to be here.

Scientism's grand progress narrative holds that as we learn more and more about the world, purely natural or material explanations will inevitably arise and grow stronger, while design arguments will inevitably collapse under the weight of new discoveries. But the opposite has happened in cosmology and origin-of-life studies. Despite this, the disciples of scientism go right on recycling their grand narrative as if it were the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Touched-Up & Recycled Icons

There's a parallel to this tendency on another level of the debate. In his 2002 book Icons of Evolution, biologist and Darwin skeptic Jonathan Wells chronicled how various cherished articles of pro-Darwinian evidence are obsessively recycled despite their having been widely discredited. The fudged embryo drawings of nineteenth-century evolutionist Ernst Haeckel, for example, continue to crop up in support of Darwinian evolution, despite having been dismissed long ago even by mainstream evolutionary biologists. Why do these discredited icons keep cropping up? Because they're striking and easily understood. As long as the student keeps his eye on the show and doesn't peek behind the curtain, he's likely to go away impressed. Wells argues that, in this way, the icons of evolution play a crucial role in selling Darwinian materialism to each new generation.

As important as those icons are, there stands behind them a more basic icon, one we might call the Icon of Materialism. This is scientism's grand narrative about materialistic explanations sweeping aside one design argument after another in an unbroken and inevitable march. It's a story as fudged, as touched up, as Haeckel's embryos, since it airbrushes into oblivion important counter-examples, such as the ones noted above.

Certainly, researchers continue to gain new insights into how material forces cause various things in nature, but the insight that we live in a world with various underlying laws and constants that we can profitably investigate has long been non-controversial. Moreover, the idea was encouraged by the belief that nature is the rational and orderly work of a divine mind, a belief that spurred Christian theists such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler to go looking for the underlying order of nature and, in the process, to launch the scientific revolution.

A Christian Invention

This is another important historical thread that flatly contradicts Comte's notion of the three stages of history. The theological, and specifically theistic, commitments of the early men of science were crucial to the birth of modern science. Dennis Danielson's The Book of the Cosmos tells the story well, as does The Soul of Science, The Privileged Planet, and more recently, Rodney Stark's The Victory of Reason. It is now well-established among historians of science that modern science is largely a Christian invention, and one substantially based on theological ideas. In this we have perhaps the most obvious contradiction to scientism's cherished progress narrative, since on their telling, Comte's "theological stage" of science is supposed to be the most primitive and useless.

Many later scientists abandoned science's fertile theological heritage, opting to restrict themselves to purely material explanations and insisting that science should trade only in hypotheses consistent with materialism. They sought "to create," in the approving words of Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin, "an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive," even to the point of tolerating "unsubstantiated just-so stories" if necessary. (Yes—those are Lewontin's own words.)

The cosmic-sized case in point is their invoking untold billions of unseen, undetectable universes to argue that ours is just a rare lucky one among all these untold universes, one with a life-sustaining combination of physical laws and constants. Never mind that the idea is un-falsifiable, and never mind that such a multiverse would itself require exquisite fine-tuning in order to generate even one life-sustaining universe.

Thus, this mother of all just-so stories is not only unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable, it merely moves the fine tuning problem back a step, out of sight and out of mind. And yet it's tolerated and even embraced because, as Lewontin further explains, "we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door."

Some Straw Men

The same dogmatic thinking may help explain how some nakedly misleading arguments against intelligent design continue to circulate among the proponents of scientism. So, for instance, intelligent design is dismissed as an argument from ignorance when it's actually based on people's uniform experience of designed systems and the cause-and-effect structure of the universe. Or opponents note intelligent design's openness to a cosmic designer acting directly at discrete moments in natural history, and they assert from this that intelligent design somehow entails the doctrine of occasionalism.

Occasionalism is the idea that God alone is the efficient cause of every event in the natural world, no matter how small, and that created substances are never efficient causes. This characterization of intelligent design is a curious one. If believing the designer can and has acted directly in the natural world means one is an occasionalist, then Thomas Aquinas and every church father was an occasionalist. They weren't, of course, since being open to the idea of God acting directly at certain moments in natural history in no way implies that he acts directly at every moment and with respect to every natural event.

At other times, opponents of intelligent design attack almost the opposite straw man, warning that design proponents view the cosmic designer as wholly removed from nature except when he comes down to tinker with an imperfect creation. Theologian and philosopher Jay Richards deftly underscores the fuzzy thinking behind this and other arguments:

To claim—along with Newton, Thomas, Augustine and every orthodox Christian from time immemorial—that God sometimes acts directly in nature to effect certain outcomes, implies nothing about what God is doing at every other time. It does not imply, as is sometimes claimed, that God is merely another member of the universe. God can act directly in nature, while still upholding and transcending it.

None of these straw-man attacks hold together under close inspection, and none of them alter the reality that scientism's grand narrative of a manifest destiny is a manifest charade. Its failure presents a golden opportunity to beckon both science and the broader culture out of the flatland of materialism and back toward a richer, and more reasonable, understanding of reality. • 

Jonathan Witt is a senior fellow and writer in residence at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He and his wife Amanda have three children, whom they home school.

more on science from the online archives

28.2—March/April 2015

The Icon of Materialism

Why Scientism's Cherished Progress Narrative Fails by Jonathan Witt

29.4—July/August 2016

Naked Truth

on Noticing That Modern Science Has Rendered Atheism Irrational by Harry Biltz

17.6—July/August 2004

Reality & Reluctant Science

Old Science Confronts a Formidable Challenge in the Scientific ID Movement by Jay W. Richards

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