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The Table Video

Keith Ward

No Empiricist Is a Materialist

Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Oxford / Fellow of the British Academy / Priest of the Church of England
July 24, 2013

Keith Ward sat down with the Biola University Center for Christian Thought in San Diego, California in July of 2013. In this clip, Ward discusses the incompatibility of empiricism and materialism.


I think no Empiricist is going to be a Materialist. If you’re an Empiricist you start from ideas, sensations, visual, oral. If you’re a Materialist you argue those away and say they’ve got to be reduced to physical things but you don’t experience it all. You don’t experience atoms, you don’t experience electrons, so I think Materialism is the opposite of Empiricism. So I think Empiricism should lead you to some sort of idealism, and the fact that it doesn’t these days just shows that people are hypnotized by science.

So people actually have a conflicting view, a very paradoxical view. On the one hand all knowledge begins with experience, then people say, “Yeah, that’s true.” On the other hand, science tells you the truth about the world. People say, “Yes, that’s true.” But they don’t see that these two views are in total conflict. Empiricism doesn’t tell you [laughs] that we live in an 11-dimensional, hyper-spacial world [laughs], right? Science does. Apparently. So Materialism is a very sophisticated, highly technical, theoretical postulate.

Empiricism leaves you, you know, Hume was an not a theist, Berkeley was obviously, but you don’t have to be a th Empiricism could just leave you. You could be an Empiricist and just not push it, just say you’ve got ideas, even God, you know. AJ Ayer, the great Empiricist in England, or the well-known Empiricist anyway in England, who taught me, incidentally, would not have told you about God because he thought he didn’t experience God, or he thought nobody did. So you could be an Empiricist and not a theist, Okay, that’s the thing, but you couldn’t be a Materialist either.

I think we’re in a very funny cultural situation in our world, where people think science is giving us the goods, it must be true, but most people don’t know what science is saying anymore, they don’t realize how very weird a lot of science is, how far from common sense and from Empiricism. So there is a split, but it’s not quite the one between religion and Empiricist Materialist science, that’s not where the split comes.

It’s a split between thinking science is the only thing that tells you the truth and thinking no, experience is what really tells you the truth, though science helps to understand some of the complexities of underlies purely physical phenomena. So we’re sort of all living in a false-consciousness world, we don’t realize what science is saying anymore. You know, how many people know about quantum theory? Very few.

And mostly you can ignore this, I mean if you’re a biologist, you would ignore quantum theory, mostly, not totally in molecular biology, but you don’t really have to get into it. So I’m suggesting that actually fundamental state-of-the-art science is much more weird, [upbeat music] we should find then instead if anybody thinks they understand quantum theory they’re lying [laughs]. So it is kind of weird, and it’s a long way from Empiricism, so I actually agree with Richard Berkely, who I thought was a rather good philosopher, who said that his view was entirely commonsensical.

As an Empiricist, so you’d say, as an Empiricist I, how do I know I’m free? Because I know that when I try to raise my arm, I raise it, and when I don’t try I don’t, and I know that that matters, that’s, I experience that as a matter of fact. What would it take to show that it wasn’t true? Well, it would take a very dogmatic belief in [laughs] science as the total explanation of everything. Anyway, that’s how I see it. [soft piano music]