Materialism and Science

My last post, Does It All Really Come down to Economics?, discussed materialism. Specifically, it looked at the way that Marxist social theory assumes — for analysis purposes — that the only valid worldview is one that describes the only material world. By “material world,” we’re not just describing rocks and sticks and mountains, or the forces of gravity.

9-pounder gun
Pre-democratic voting machine

We’re looking at such ideas as Mao’s “all power comes from the barrel of a gun” which implies the invalidity, for instance, of the foundational idea of American Democracy (quoted from the Declaration of Independence)

“…Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

Mao’s suggestion is that guns are more powerful than votes — directly opposing the American value that a gun’s true purpose in the hands of citizens is to maintain the validity of the government. [We can argue how that works in practice, but that’s the idea.]

Materialism, writ large, implies that “might makes right.” It implies that things are only what they seem, and that there is no greater meaning. On the other hand, I would argue that one of the purposes of culture — any culture — is to allow people (as social animals) to work together so that the world is more than Tennyson’s “Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw.

Yet pure materialism, as way of viewing the world, isn’t only used in social theory. Similar assumptions are made in any “hard science.” However, the materialist worldview that we associate with science wasn’t a philosophical choice; it was a practical one.

Scientific materialism is a necessary assumption as scientists attempt to reduce experimental data to a value-free “material world.” Assuming materialism reduces the number of variables — a necessary part of experimental design in any scientific research.

What Is Science?

Science is a tool for research.

Science isn’t about developing a new iPhone or computer chip. Admittedly, science has made these amazing things possible through the field of engineering. But that’s not’s science’s purpose.

Western culture’s “science” (from the Latin scientia: knowledge — but going all the way back to Proto-Indo-European’s skey- “cut, separate, discern”) is a broad term for the way that we expand humanity’s knowledge of the world around us. Science is not necessarily “high tech,” although the boundary might seem blurry — in the popular mind, the two are intertwined.

The purpose of science is growing human understanding of the world. In our everyday cultural perception, science is wedded to technology. In truth, science is a technology — a technology of the mind.

At its root, science, however, is a method of inquiry. In doing scientific research, a person performs experiments and then shares the information through peer review. Science is a method, a tool made of pure thought. It is defined by its purpose, not by the physical setting or the laboratory tools used.

The scientific method is a way for people to seek the truth. It is in the same category of mental tools as the dialectic, in that it is a way for people to collaborate in order to increase knowledge for society as a whole.

Living in the Material World

Though we can chase a wholly material worldview, it’s not likely that we’ll succeed in creating one. It has been shown by anthropologists (partly in response to Marxist, materialist analysis) that truly value-free analysis of the world is impossible. It is impossible for us to make sense of the world except through culture.

Let me put it another way: culture’s a feature, not a bug that gets in the way of “proper” scientific analysis. Science can allow us to see past our own biases in limited circumstances (more or less laboratory conditions). But to imagine that science is separate from culture, and somehow more pure, is to fail to recognize that science — like every other tool from the digging stick to the iPod — is a product of culture, not a priori of it.


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