Scientific materialism is arrogant and laughable (or vacuous)

Scientific materialism, more accurately called metaphysical naturalism, “is a philosophical worldview, which holds that there is nothing but natural elements, principles, and relations of the kind studied by the natural sciences.” (Quoted from Wikipedia.)

I will henceforth use materialism as a shorthand for scientific materialism, i.e. metaphysical naturalism.

In other words, materialists hold that the world is the elements, principles, and relations posited by science. By “the world,” I mean everything that exists. Elements may include things such as electrons and stars. Principles may include laws such as the law of gravity. Relations may include, for example, the relation of gravitational attraction between the Earth and the Moon.

Different materialists differ about what elements, principles and relations are real and constitute the world. For example, some materialists say that the only elements that really exist are the smallest elements, such as subatomic particles. Other materialists say that macroscopic objects, such as chairs and giraffes, also exist.

Here is a dilemma for materialists. Are the elements, principles, and relations which constitute the world, those of today’s science, or those of a hypothetical future science?

If you think the world is the elements, principles, and relations of today’s science, then you think our current understanding of the universe is very close to finalized. That’s arrogant to assume. I find it laughable to assume that.

The history of science has been characterized by periodic “revolutions,” where established theories are found to be wrong in some cases or are otherwise overturned. If not arrogance, why assume that revolutions in fundamental science are basically in the rear-view mirror for humans today?

Fundamental science is not even one coherent idea today. Physicists use conflicting paradigms which they have trouble reconciling with each other: in particular, quantum physics and relativity. If you think today’s science describes reality, what is today’s science? What are the elements and relations that exist in the universe according to physics? What principles apply to them? To the best of my understanding, physicists don’t agree to any one theory answering these questions over all scenarios.

Suppose, on the other hand, that you’re a materialist and you think the world is the elements, principles, and relations of some hypothetical completed science of the future.

How far in the future do you suppose the theoretical fundamentals of science will be completed? It’s arrogant to assume that science will be completed soon. It’s arrogant to assume that a completed science would fundamentally resemble the science of today. For example, perhaps a completed science would be well beyond human intelligence to comprehend even in its fundamentals or the basic underpinnings of its fundamentals.

I don’t assume that there is such a thing as a completed science. It’s possible that there is an actually infinite amount of theory required to completely explain the world, and that this infinite theory can’t be compressed into any kind of finite representation.

A direct philosophical interpretation of Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem says that an actually infinite set of axioms is required to entail all truths about the natural numbers, and that these infinite axioms can’t be compressed into any kind of finite representation. The set of statements which are true of the natural numbers is a complete and consistent set of statements including the axioms of Peano arithmetic, and therefore by Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem, this set cannot be effectively generated, i.e. it is not recursively enumerable. By the same reasoning, the same is true of any set of axioms sufficient to prove all true statements about natural numbers.

To simplify the language, you can’t write a computer program that would (in theory, if it could run forever) list out all the statements that are true about natural numbers. Nor can a program list out a set of true statements (axioms) about natural numbers which is sufficient to prove (logically entail) all statements true of natural numbers.

To simplify further, Gödel’s first incompleteness theorem as interpreted says that you will never get a complete description of the fundamentals of math, unless you have infinite time.

This interpretation rests on the assumption that we can coherently speak of the set of all true statements about natural numbers (in some formal language such as the language of Peano arithmetic). In short the assumption is that statements about natural numbers are all objectively true or false.

What if science is infinite in the way this interpretation says math is? What if a completed science would be infinitely complex in its fundamentals and not possible to finitely describe? If so, then a completed science would certainly never be comprehensible, even in its fundamentals, to a being such as a human. In this scenario, only an infinite being of godlike intelligence could fully comprehend a completed science.

To me it’s arrogant and laughable to reject the possibility that a completed science would be very different from today’s science, beyond human comprehension, and even infinitely complicated. On the other hand, if materialists accept this possibility, then they admit that in no meaningful sense do they comprehend what their view says about the world. In that case their view says nothing and is vacuous.

Thus, in all the possibilities I have envisioned, scientific materialism is arrogant and laughable, or else vacuous and devoid of content.

What exactly is the substance of my accusation? I’ve said that philosophy may be inherently arrogant. If all philosophy is arrogant, then it’s not interesting to say that scientific materialism is arrogant, because scientific materialism is a philosophical hypothesis.

The substance of my accusation is that scientific materialism is arrogant specifically in its neglect of the possible greatness of the gap between human understanding of physical reality and a completed understanding of physical reality. Scientific materialists whose views are non-vacuous are assuming there is not a significant possibility that a correct and complete understanding of the fundamental principles of physical reality would be beyond the comprehension of humans and would bear little resemblance to the theories of today’s physics. I describe the unwarranted assumption — that we are close to understanding the physical world — as an example of intellectual arrogance.

To put the point differently, I am observing that scientific materialists who endorse contentful versions of scientific materialism must assume that certain possibilities do not exist or are not significantly likely. A reasonable person can reject that assumption of contentful scientific materialism.

I’m interested in pointing out that scientific materialism can be doubted, because I want to clear space for other metaphysical views to compete with scientific materialism. This is necessary for me, because of my intellectual history in American academia, where scientific materialism is the prevailing metaphysical view. In my background, scientific materialism has been held in elevated prestige compared to other views, well beyond what it deserves in my opinion, so that I feel the desire to mock it with justified accusations.

Let me know what you think. Is there a form of scientific materialism against which my accusations are unsuccessful?

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