A.J. DiCintio
Epistemology, materialists, and morality
By A.J. DiCintio
September 25, 2009

Let's begin by defining epistemology simply as the branch of philosophy that asks this essential question about knowledge: "How do you know that?"

That job taken care of, we can turn to the topic of materialists and morality.

It's apparently no big deal to materialists (many of whom proclaim themselves intellectuals of one sort or another), but most of them aren't interested in asking and then answering the epistemological question regarding their moral assertions.

To complicate matters, this problem doesn't represent just an academic exercise; for materialists disproportionately favor the liberal side of the American political spectrum and therefore exhibit a ravenous appetite for enacting their moral beliefs into law.

Moreover, like all other political elitists who have ever existed, liberals attempt to satiate that appetite exclusively at the level of government most remote from the Constitution's "We the People."

So, since materialists are loath to take on this important issue, let's ask some questions ourselves:

How do materialists explain the difference between the source and, therefore, the validity, of their morality and that, say, of Moses, who claimed he received the Ten Commandments from God?

Or of Jefferson, who argued it is "self-evident" that the "Creator" has endowed humans with the good things called "unalienable Rights," among which are the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and self-government?

How, indeed, do materialists explain the difference, given that their view of existence requires them to regard the tablet held up by the ancient Israelite as the work of a wily political Moses; a pathological prankster Moses; a drugged-out hallucinatory Moses; or a voice-in-his-head schizophrenic Moses?

How do materialists avoid being denounced as hypocrites who have merely eliminated the middleman to play God themselves?

How do they prove their moral system isn't actually a metaphysical construction in which politics becomes a religion and politicians its gods?

(Regarding the appropriateness of the word "religion," note, for example, that ACLU materialists not only are devoted to making metaphysical assertions about rights (divining new ones by the bushel full every day) but also are governed by a hierarchy that, from high priests at the top, works its way down to pastors of local congregations that hold services replete with the passing of collection plates to further the cause, including by funneling money to a missionary effort.)

Interestingly, there are a few materialists who have tried to answer the questions.

Carefully leaving God out of it, they claim to have shown that morality exists in the physical world independent of human imagination. Therefore, they argue, humans don't invent or hallucinate morality but discover it.

But how scientific are such assertions?

Let's examine the one made by scientist and humanist Jacob Bronowski, who tried to reconcile the humanities with science by pointing out that science at times accepts truths based upon "faith," for example, when it employs the Doppler Shift to establish the fact that other galaxies are either moving away from or toward ours — even though scientists cannot record the position of hydrogen's wave length at its source in those galaxies.

But the Doppler Shift is entirely consistent and predictable in every instance in which scientists are able to observe and measure it.

Yet Bronowski has not a word to say about how that kind of predictability applies to a humanistic assertion such as the following:

"A murderer serving a life sentence not only has a right to an organ transplant but also enjoys the right equally with other citizens."

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, has also taken on the problem (NY Times, "A Grand Bargain Over Evolution") by turning to Harvard's evolutionary psychologist and "contented atheist" Steven Pinker.

He quotes Pinker as follows:

"There may be a sense in which some moral statements aren't just . . . artifacts of a particular brain wiring but are part of the reality of the universe, even if you can't touch them and weigh them.. . [These realities are] . . . independent of our existence. I mean, they're out there and in some sense — it's very difficult to grasp — but we discover them, we don't hallucinate them."

Let's think about this "science."

Pinker surely will say that on an insignificant planet orbiting a quite ordinary star on the edge of one among billions of galaxies, a fortuitous meeting of some common chemical compounds gave rise to proteins which eventually evolved into a sentient species that in numerous instances displays not just Wright's "reciprocal altruism" but what Wright calls a "moral sense."

And bingo! From that observation, he concludes (without a bit of empirical evidence) that morality exists as part of the physical universe.

Talk about the need for epistemology!

Moreover, Pinker seems oblivious of the fact that his that wild speculation evokes this question:

Does an amoral reality also exist as part of the physical universe?

After all, the sentient species called Homo sapiens doesn't just exhibit moral behavior; it is capable of horrendous depravity, which it has displayed with frightening regularity every single day of every single year for millennia.

Why, according to Pinker's thinking, shouldn't there be some physical thing that impels humans to evil.

In sum, Pinker is asserting that God (The Good) and the Devil (Evil) actually exist — but as a form of matter or energy whose nature we can't even imagine but which was and still is part of the chemistry that gave rise to life on earth.

So, God and Satan exist as physical realities that permeate the entire universe. Next thing, we'll be hearing there is a purpose in nature.

Well, unlike a semi-conscious reveler who, unable to rise from his organic bed amid the mud and cowpies of a Woodstock meadow, feebly gesticulates as he croaks, "That's deep, man," scientists and common sense folks recognize such notions for what they are: a lame attempt to pass metaphysics off as science.

So, what are we to do in the face of materialists who refuse to explain how their ideas about morality are based in physical reality as well as those who, with the worst kind of doublespeak and gobbledygook, ascribe them to matter, energy, and forces boomed by the Big Bang?

Here's one suggestion:

In the first case, we can remain calmly persistent in asking the epistemological question.

In the second, we can never cease pleading that materialists put their science on the table, a table we will be joyously happy to provide.

© A.J. DiCintio


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)

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A.J. DiCintio

A.J. DiCintio posts regularly at RenewAmerica and YourNews.com. He first exercised his polemical skills arguing with friends on the street corners of the working class neighborhood where he grew up. Retired from teaching, he now applies those skills, somewhat honed and polished by experience, to social/political affairs.


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