argument against materialism from moral accountability

[Rough sketch]

Imagine that Sally (S) robs a bank (call this event R) in 1975 (t1) and is caught. However, due to various complications with the prosecution, she is not put on trial until 2011 (t2). During this time, via natural processes the atoms that compose her body have been completely replaced with other ones. Now for the argument.

1. S is morally accountable for R’s occurrence at t1, even at t2.
2. Substances are the only things that can cause events.
3. Only the thing that caused an event can be morally accountable for that event.
4. If materialism is true then S at t1 is not an identical substance to S at t2.
5. From (2), (3) and (4), if materialism is true then Sally is not morally accountable for R at t2.
6. From (1) and (5), materialism is false.

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12 thoughts on “argument against materialism from moral accountability

  1. Hello you cheeky otter. I don’t want to be ‘that’ atheist and pop up out of unlikely foxholes at irritating moments with “I DISAGREE SO THERE!” – but one or two things came to mind, so I thought I’d flesh ’em out.

    I think I understand your argument, but I’d have to point out that materialism also accounts for the propagation of information in a system. As far as I’m aware, it’s a neurological myth that all the cells in your body are replaced every seven years. Other cells certainly are, but I was under the understanding that neurons continue from birth till death. That’s a bit irrelevant really, but I just thought I’d mention it. I appreciate this isn’t particularly crucial to the actual logic of the argument.

    The point is, even if that myth was true, the patterns of ‘sentience’ if you like that compose Sally have persisted through time even if the neurons and ultimately the exact atoms, subatomic particles and material constituents haven’t. As far as subatomic physics is concerned, it’s more accurate to say you’re a wave moving through space at this moment in time than a solid object anyway.

    So, I’d have to argue that 4 holds as a logical step, since the sentient-footprint, if you like, that composes Sally has persistent through both time and space over the course of those 36 years.

    It also occurs to me that disproving the moral accountability of materialism doesn’t actually provide any weight whatsoever to dualism, it just disproves materialism. Nonetheless, I understand where you’re coming from here.

    Hope you’re well man,

    a

  2. Haha hey man, glad to see you, don’t worry about being “that” atheist I like hearing what you have to say, and the above reflection is an important one.

    First of all let me say a word about how things stand if the myth is in fact not a myth. On this scenario, the account you have given of what Sally is, is that Sally is a “sentient-footprint”, or a successive flow of information, or something of the like. But it seems like whatever Sally is on this scenario, Sally isn’t a substance. And so (2) and (3) count against her ever being morally accountable, let alone accountable at t2.

    But suppose that, as you say, the myth truly is a myth. Presumably then a materialist can claim that Sally is a particular composite of neurons. I guess I’d be curious to see just how much of the matter composing Sally’s brain does change over time and whether what remains is really enough to undergird a robust sense of moral accountability. But perhaps it IS enough (our intuitions might be rather fuzzy on that point anyway).

    I’ve recently discussed an argument with a friend which aims to show that if material objects are composite objects, then they cannot strictly survive the loss of any of their parts. I think he might be right and if so that argument would bolster the conclusion I’m “getting at” with my own argument. But until I produce such an argument I’ll concede that the materialist may not have a problem here. I’ll reflect on it and post it at a later date if it does indeed seem sound.

    Oh and I agree that the argument I’ve offered here does not necessarily establish the truth of dualism. I merely put the post under the category of “materialism and dualism” because I wasn’t sure how else to classify it. Philosophy of mind was tempting, but this argument is more to do with that human agents are, rather than what minds are.

  3. This is a stupid argument Martin with an easy rebuttal. If a materialist needs Sally’s old body from the past the obvious solution would be time travel. Sooner or later scientists will find a way to travel back in time and when that happens those particles in 1975 that composed Sally at the time are going to get their just dessert. SIMPLE
    Haha……. Seriously, though, sidestepping whether or not this argument is effective or not, I’m curious as to whether or not materialism is as great a threat to the Christian worldview as many Christian philosophers and apologists make it to be. While I wouldn’t necessary put myself firmly on the side of Christian philosophers like Glenn Peoples, I certainly think that the whole dualism/philosophy of the mind debate has more to do with our ignorance as to how our physical world works than a genuine philosophical problem. Correct me if I’m mistaken, but as science continues to uncover the workings of the physical world including the mind the arguments for dualism become increasingly less appealing.

  4. I should say, my putting this argument “out there” is not my endorsement of the necessity of dualism for Christian theism. Although I think there seems to be some sort of immaterial component of man at least presupposed in parts of the Bible, I don’t take dualism as a requirement for orthodoxy, and I’m very open to alternate readings of those passages (and at any rate, I’m not sure how committed I am to mere presuppositions of Biblical authors in my theology of Scripture, but that’s for another day.) I have no strong views on the matter, and I’ve never found dualism intuitively obvious either. I posted this simply because it seems a reasonable/interesting enough argument =)

    As for the comment about the progress of neuroscience and the regressive attraction of dualism, I’m not sure. Certainly I think that materialism about human persons is bolstered by the increased understanding of the brain’s relation to the conscious mind. After all, materialism wouldn’t have much going for it if there was no link to be found. But dualism is still a live contender in philosophy of mind (even if it’s not the majority position), and I take it from that fact that there is more to be said on the matter (that dualism is not as obviously rendered obsolete by scientific findings than is tempting to believe). At any rate perhaps there are reasons outside of philosophy of mind to believe in dualism (maybe considerations to do with free will or realism about human persons.) Then again, perhaps not.

    EDIT: As a side note I started listening to Glenn People’s podcast on “The Search for the Soul” today =)

  5. I would pretty much agree with most of what you said. I’m certainly not suggesting that dualism needs to be thrown out with the march of science, but rather my position is that while there may be a role for the immaterial or soul in the workings of our reality that role may not be as signifigant as traditional dualists would have us believe.
    I’m also curious what you mean when you say, “(and at any rate, I’m not sure how committed I am to mere presuppositions of Biblical authors in my theology of Scripture,” Such a statement makes me wonder…………………………………………………………………………………………………………
    P.S.
    It’s funny you mentioned that since I’ve recently started listening to a podcast too. William Lane Craig’s podcasts on the traditional arguments for God’s existence. So far very informative

  6. Interesting argument, though, in my opinion, premise 1 is false. Suppose that Sally sustained a serious brain injury in the year 1990, and, as a result, her personality changed dramatically and was nothing like what it was in 1975 – her friends and family no longer recognized her as being the same person. In this scenario, I would be inclined to believe that Sally is no longer morally accountable for what she did in 1975. What do you think?

  7. @ Rolo –

    I think your position is reasonable and I’m not sure I’m in any disagreement =)

    As for what I meant by that comment about Scripture, I need to do some thinking about it, but essentially I think there could be a distinction between “what Scripture teaches” and “what a Biblical author affirms or presupposes as true”. I came across this sort of approach by reading John H. Walton excellent commentary on Genesis. I think Ben Witherington has also shared similar thoughts.

    I think it’s a meaningful distinction because it’s plausible that true things can be taught via affirmations that are false, even though the teacher believes them to be true. For instance, imagine that, contrary to scientific consensus, evolution is false. Now imagine that I use a picture of the evolutionary process of progressive complexity to illustrate how my life has gotten progressively better. Even if the person I’m talking to knows that evolution is false, they can still properly discern the actual point I’m getting at, and believe that what I’m teaching (my life has continued to improve) is true. Having such a distinction when we come to Scripture might make the interpretive task more difficult, but not impossible or entirely arbitrary imo.

    This is what Walton says on the matter:

    “We must try to assess the focus of the revelation. There may be a difference between what Israelites believed and what the text is communicating. Though we can at times discern the former, it may not impact the latter. Thus, for example, when Genesis 7:11 speaks of “the windows of heaven” (NRSV), we may conclude that the Israelites believed there were windows in heaven, but we need not conclude that the Bible is teaching that there are such windows. It is not the focus of revelation.” (Genesis NIV Application Commentary, pg43)

  8. @ philosopher145 –

    Hey there! Thanks for your comment.

    You’re arguing that the first premise is false, that in fact S isn’t morally accountable for R at t2, or at least, might not be.

    If Sally actually does suffer from the proposed accident and its consequences in 1990, is she still morally accountable for R at 2011? Well, I’m not particularly sure either way. But I don’t think it matters to my argument whether she is or not. Let’s assume that you’re right, that Sally, after this traumatic state of affairs, is no longer morally accountable for R. Presumably then there’s some sort of ethical principle such that a person who committed an action at some point while she was prone to exemplifying psychological states within a certain range, cannot be held accountable for that action if she comes to exemplify a range of drastically different psychological states through no fault of her own. Call the conditions under which this principle is envoked C.

    Could I not simply modify the argument to account for C? E.g.

    1. C is not applicable to S [no such accident, or anything similar happens to Sally].
    2. From (1), S is morally accountable for R’s occurrence at t1, even at t2.
    3. Substances are the only things that can cause events.
    4. Only the thing that caused an event can be morally accountable for that event.
    5. If materialism is true then S at t1 is not an identical substance to S at t2.
    6. From (3), (4) and (5), if materialism is true then Sally is not morally accountable for R at t2.
    7. From (2) and (6), materialism is false.

    Of course there might be all sorts of exempting conditions like C. But I imagine the argument could survive all of them when properly modified, and still get the conclusion through.

  9. I think that the premises that would be most challenged are 4 and 5. Here’s why. First, what “thing” caused the event. A materialist might say that the thing that caused the event was a structural psychology that is responsible. Secondly, even if that fails (and there are thought experiments that can challenge it like clones), there is still a causal path from t1 to t2 that preserves the moral culpability. The interruption of this path, say through a split into a clone, might present challenges to what counts as a causal pathway, but in the simple case, it appears that there is a straight forward one such that moral culpability can be preserved.

    As for 5, again, one needs to ask what is at question here in terms of substance. Are the atoms themselves responsible? Materialists would deny this. Instead, it’s the structure that supervenes on the atoms that is of importance. And since there is a causal path way between this structure at t1 and t2, there is a moral link between the structure at t1 and t2.

    Thus, this comes down to what is it that we are talking about when we are discussing substances. Materialists will deny that it is these specific atoms that are responsible, so right there your arguments fall apart as it pushes materialists into a position that they would not adopt.

  10. “Could I not simply modify the argument to account for C? E.g.
    1. C is not applicable to S [no such accident, or anything similar happens to Sally].

    Of course there might be all sorts of exempting conditions like C. But I imagine the argument could survive all of them when properly modified, and still get the conclusion through.”

    Agreed. Thanks for the response.

  11. @ James Claims –

    Thanks for your intelligent response! Sorry for being so late to get to you.

    I suppose for clarity I should change “substance” to “concrete object.” But I think you’re right that a materialist can simply say that Sally in 2011 is a numerically identical concrete object to Sally in 1975 if Sally is a mereological sum of different parts. As such I think you’re right that the argument as it stands here is not sufficient to show that materialism is false. I’d need to supplement it with an argument that mereological essentialism is true (that objects do not strictly survive the loss of their parts).

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