Phi Beta Cons

How to Recognize a Materialist

At The Corner, John Derbyshire says he will not let anyone use the word ”materialist,” either positively or negatively, ”unless that person can demonstrate to me that he has at least attempted to understand modern theories—which are (a) incomplete and (b) mathematically extremely sophisticated—about the nature of matter,” or read Roger Penrose’s Road to Reality.  But I say there is the “know it when I see it” school of thought, as, for example, in this 1997 statement on human cloning from the International Academy of Humanism, which includes such luminaries as Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Isiaih Berlin, W.V. Quine, and Kurt Vonnegut:

What moral issues would human cloning raise?  Some world religions teach that human beings are fundamentally different from other mammals–that humans have been imbued by a deity with immortal souls, giving them a value that cannot be compared to that of other living things.  Human nature is held to be unique and sacred.  Scientific advances which pose a perceived risk of altering this “nature’ are angrily opposed …. [But] as far as the scientific enterprise can determine … [h]uman capabilities appear to differ in degree, not in kind, from those found among the higher animals.  Humanity’s rich repertoire of thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and hopes seem to arise from electrochemical brain processes, not from an immaterial soul that operates in ways no instrument can discover …. Views of human nature rooted in humanity’s tribal past ought not to be our primary criterion for making moral decisions about cloning …. The potential benefits of cloning may be so immense that it would be a tragedy if ancient theological scruples should lead to a Luddite rejection of cloning.

I’d say the writers of this statement are “materialists.”  And, as Leon Kass wrote in the April issue of Commentary, in which he cited the above quotation, “No one should underestimate the growing cultural power of scientific materialism and reductivism.”   Don’t know if Kass has familiarized himself with the mathematical theories.    


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