The Fallacy of Materialistic Determinism

The Fallacy of Materialistic Determinism

By Bojidar Marinov

Materialistic determinism sounds like a big word. But it is a simple concept, although it has a very strong influence on our modern philosophy and social sciences. All it means is that the moral, cultural, intellectual, vocational choices of man are determined by material factors. Men are not what they are because of their commitment to ideas and faith; they are what they are because something material outside or inside of them makes them be what they are. This is the essence of materialistic determinism. Matter determines.

The crudest and most primitive (“primitive” as in “savage, uncivilized”) form of materialism, of course, is racism. It has existed in different forms among the savage tribes, mainly those who have adopted thoroughly animistic view of the world and nature. The idea that their own tribe is exceptional because it came from a specific ancestor – ironically, very often an animal ancestor – was common among many Native American tribes. The Indian caste system was based on the materialistic assumptions that man was determined by his genes. Even in the modern world, and even among those today who claim to be “Christians,” this philosophical materialism of racism can sometimes find favorable soil. The belief that genes produce culture, or ethics, or art, or anything else, has had and still has a hold on the mind of the fallen man.

The Enlightenment was heavily motivated by philosophical materialism. While the main thinkers of the Enlightenment rejected the materialistic explanations of the universe – most of them were Deists – the majority of those who followed them were materialistic in practice if not in official ideology. Environmental materialism was the norm at the time; the majority of the scientists and scholars – including Voltaire – believed that the culture of men and nations was determined by their geographical and climate conditions.

And of course, the modern form of materialism – and materialistic determinism – which shaped the world in the last one century was Marxism. It has based its argument on a sophisticated form of materialism: the materialism of the economic and social existence. In his early papers, while preparing to write his most important work, Das Kapital, Marx declared that his foundation was materialism:

It is not the consciousness of men that determine[s] their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determine[s] their consciousness.

The very essence of Marx’s view of society followed that materialistic model: society had a base, which was materialistic, the mode of production. The mode of production in its turn was determined by the form of property which had a huge role to play in the Marxist view. And the form of property was determined by the tools of production. At the very base, it was the blind, mindless, impersonal tools of production that determined everything in society. As the tools developed, they needed a new organization of labor, which in turn required a new form of property, which changed the mode of production. On top of that base, there was the superstructure: culture, family, education law, political ideologies, art, literature, science, etc. These all were determined by the social existence of man. Different economic modes of production determined different ideas of politics, art, family, etc. And, remember, it all started from the tools of production. Sophisticated materialism, but [it is] materialism nevertheless. And it was so attractive to the masses; the same masses that centuries before it, would believe that they were what they were because they had originated from an animal, now accepted Marxism’s explanation that they are what they are because of their bank account or their paycheck or because of the price of the house they lived in.

Materialism is a trap. And many fall in it.

Charles Murray is most certainly not a Marxist. In fact, he is a fairly conservative author, with some very good contributions to the conservative thinking in the US. I should probably say, neo-conservative, since he differs from the true paleo-conservative thinkers in a few significant areas. And the think-tank he is working for, The American Enterprise Institute, is rather neo-conservative too in its orientation. But one must admit, they have done quite a job in defending free markets, individual liberty, and limited government. The conclusions and the policy recommendations they have given have always been opposed to socialism and any other form of big government.

And yet, even Charles Murray is not immune to the temptation to resort to philosophical materialism when he tries to explain the world, society, culture, or the issues of the day.

In a recent article, “The New American Divide,” Murray worries about what he calls “the problem of cultural inequality.” People are divided in classes in America, he says, and these classes are divided economically and geographically. There are people who are rich and getting richer. And there are people who are poor. The rich separate themselves in their own neighborhoods; the poor remain in their lower-middle-class, blue-collar workers’ neighborhoods. This separation causes sharp cultural separation, he says, and he uses statistical data to prove it. He uses five statistical points to prove that there is such a divide: marriage (percentage of people who are legally married), single parenthood (percentage of children born out of wedlock), industriousness (percentage of males out of the labor force), crime rate, and religiosity (measured inversely by the percentage of people who profess to be secular). Murray discovers serious differences which make him conclude that these are two sharply different cultures.

This divide is what worries him. He says that just a generation ago there wasn’t such a divide, that there was this unified culture called “the American way of life,” which is now being lost. There is no such thing as a unified “American way of life” now. The two cultures, which he symbolically calls Belmont (the rich) and Fishtown (the poor) are moving apart from each other in everything. Murray says:

Taken separately, the differences in lifestyle that now separate Belmont from Fishtown are not sinister, but those quirks of the upper-middle class that I mentioned—the yogurt and muesli and the rest—are part of a mosaic of distinctive practices that have developed in Belmont. These have to do with the food Belmonters eat, their drinking habits, the ages at which they marry and have children, the books they read (and their number), the television shows and movies they watch (and the hours spent on them), the humor they enjoy, the way they take care of their bodies, the way they decorate their homes, their leisure activities, their work environments and their child-raising practices. Together, they have engendered cultural separation.

And of course, here comes that most awful of all differences, the median income. In the 1960s, the average income in Belmont was $84,000 (today’s purchasing power). Today it is $163,000. The gap is widening, Murray says, and this creates a problem for America.

Even at just a first glance, though, Murray’s concerns seem to be a little out of place. Even the statistical averages – and he uses only statistical averages, not concrete data – don’t show such a sharp difference. Some people in Belmont do live like the people in Fishtown; and some people in Fishtown live like the people in Belmont. Provided, of course, that we take “the yogurt and the muesli and the rest” as our standard for “different cultures.” Statistical differences are not always clear, and they can be misinterpreted; or they can be based on a peculiar choice of “cultural distinctives” that the study has adopted as a base. There were differences between rich and poor in the past, although not the same as today. In the not so distant past, the differences were in the number of TVs a home had (Murray assumes that all had TVs in their homes) or in the toys the children played with, or in the brand of cigarettes that Dad smoked. Before that the differences were in the type of car a family had – or whether it had a car. Or whether the family lived in the slums or had its own house. Etc., etc. These differences have always been around, they only change with every generation. In fact, it is safe to say that the toys for the rich in one generation become commonplace for the poor in the next generation – provided, of course, that a society continues encouraging innovation and private enterprise. The rich only had cars; then everyone had a car (or several, today). The rich only had TVs; then everyone had a TV (and several flatscreens today). The rich only played golf; everyone plays golf today (unless they like other sports). “The yogurt and the muesli and the rest” will tomorrow enter Fishtown – if they haven’t entered it already. (Our local Walmart has been increasing its section of “organic foods” for the last several years; and there are no “superZIPs” around.)

Not to mention the fact that in between Belmont and Fishtown there are thousands of neighborhoods and ZIPs that are only a small notch apart from each other in the social ladder that Murray describes. I live in such a neighborhood, called Copperfield. It is not Belmont, certainly, but it isn’t Fishtown either. And the vast majority of Americans do live in such neighborhoods as mine. The gap between Belmont and Fishtown, after all, is filled with millions of Americans who live in Copperfields; so there is no gap at all.

And there are many other objections that can be brought up against Murray’s description of the “cultural divide.” It’s either not a divide at all, or it is just normal, as it has always been around.

But there is a greater problem with Murray’s thesis. And it is not in his conclusions but in his premises. Murray’s presuppositions are thoroughly materialistic. He sees the “cultural divide” between Fishtown and Belmont as engendered by the difference in the incomes. In this, he is not different from Marx, or any other modern materialistic determinist: Murray believes that the social status of a person determines their cultural choice. This is Marx’s thesis as well. Marx, having based his entire philosophy on the concept of “economic class,” has never been able to define what that “economic class” might be. The concept, the way Marx wanted it, presupposed a lack of social mobility for the individuals. But the reality – especially in the days of free-market capitalism in Britain and the US, and even on the Continent, in the 19th century – was that people who were born as part of the “working class” always had the opportunity to apply their skills to the market in a way that would raise them to the position of being “capitalists.” Some capitalists went bankrupt and became wage-earners. In order to define “class” and defend his thesis of the “class war” and “exploitation,” Marx needed to explain that social mobility away. He never found a way.

Murray is smarter than Marx. He still bases his analysis on the materialistic presupposition that social status determines cultural choice but he also explain how a person gets to end up in Belmont or in Fishtown:

To be assigned to Belmont, the people in the statistical nationwide databases on which I am drawing must have at least a bachelor’s degree and work as a manager, physician, attorney, engineer, architect, scientist, college professor or content producer in the media. To be assigned to Fishtown, they must have no academic degree higher than a high-school diploma. If they work, it must be in a blue-collar job, a low-skill service job such as cashier, or a low-skill white-collar job such as mail clerk or receptionist.

People are “assigned,” and then choose their culture. Your cultural choice is determined by your degree. College education assigns you to Belmont; and thus, assigns you to have “upper class” cultural choices: traditional family, industriousness, less proneness to crime, and more religiosity. Culture is defined by education; or, put it another way, education is the solution to the cultural problems. The more education, the better people are, more faithful to their spouses, more honest, hard working, and religious. It’s that easy.

Except that the Soviet Union had an abundance of university graduates, and the culture was a complete failure.

Of course, Murray is not so foolish to believe that college education in itself determines the cultural choice. That would be too simplistic. His article is written only in the context of his whole work so far. In 1994 he co-authored a book with the Harvard psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein: The Bell Curve. The subtitle of the book declared the thesis of the book: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. At the end of the day, Herrnstein and Murray concluded, it is the IQ that separates people into different social and economic classes. And by separating them into these different classes, it separates them into different cultures. The authors claimed that IQ determines – at least there is a “statistical correlation” – such cultural choices and characteristics like the age at which people marry, or whether they divorce, or whether they are religious or not, or how many children they have, or whether they have illegitimate children, or commit crimes, etc. Culture and cultural choices are defined by intelligence, the authors claim; there is statistical evidence for it.

Throughout the whole book, though, Herrnstein and Murray did not explain how some people get to have higher intelligence and some people get to have lower intelligence. Obviously, people are “assigned” to their intelligence level: in the Introduction, the authors claim that intelligence remains fairly constant throughout the life of an individual. It is not a matter of choice; it is something you either have or not have. Since it is not a matter of will and commitment, then it must be the result of some material causes in man. But what are these causes? The authors don’t say. They only vaguely mumble in a few places that apparently intelligence has something to do with genes and inheritance; but they are not positive. (This statement was what made the book very controversial in the mid-1990s, not the overall philosophical commitment to materialistic determinism, which is the greater flaw of the book.) The authors don’t know what intelligence really is but they refuse to accept that it has to do with the self-conscious choice and commitment of a person. It must be materially determined. And whatever it is, they can detect it through IQ tests, SAT/ACT scores, etc. In fact, since so few people in the last century were tested directly for IQ, the authors rely heavily on SAT/ACT scores to determine IQ. And then, of course, IQ produces college degrees. And then, college degrees determine cultural choices.

There is one problem, though.

There is a group in the society, small enough to be very distinct from the other groups, but large enough to create statistical problems for Murray’s thesis, which completely destroys his case. Murray avoids even mentioning that group. That group wasn’t that large back in the 1990s, and yet it was fairly well represented in all the states, and statistics about it were already available. In 2012, when Murray writes his article, this group is everywhere, and the top colleges in this country – the same colleges that are an important part of Murray’s study – compete to get children from that group.


No matter what genetic, educational, cultural, geographic background homeschoolers come from, they consistently score way above their peers from public and private schools when it comes to SAT, ACT, admission tests in colleges and universities, or any other “intelligence” tests out there. By Murray’s standards, this will mean a heavy concentration of intelligence in the significant minority of homeschoolers. Since people can not produce intelligence by choice and commitment – this is Murray’s materialistic thesis – then he must conclude that homeschooling is the cultural choice of parents who are already very intelligent and transfer their intelligence to their children.

But this is not the case. All statistics show that the test results of homeschooled children have zero correlation to (that is, they do not depend on) the intelligence, social status, educational background, genetic stock, or any other material or inherited factor of the parents. Homeschoolers are just more intelligent than the others but there is no identifiable reason why, if one is looking for some material factor. The son of a farmer and the son of a lawyer perform equally well – very well, way above their peers – and no one knows why. The children of “lower class” families compete against children of college professors and CEOs, and do very well, sometimes even better. As if the IQ of the nation has been concentrated in those only who have decided to homeschool their children.

Murray’s materialistic determinism fails here. That’s why he never mentions homeschoolers in his studies. They do not fit the mold of materialistic determinism.

What’s the truth? Murray has it upside down when it comes to understanding the factors that determine culture. It is not the college degrees, or not even the mysterious IQ that make people decide whether to be more faithful to their spouses, or be more religious, or commit less crimes, or eat muesli and yogurt. It’s the other way around: The religious, moral, and cultural commitment of a person determines whether they will apply their mind, skills, and efforts to useful work, and whether they will be faithful to their family, their employer, or whether they will save money and move to a better neighborhood, etc. The material, economic, and social status of a man as well as his intellectual skills, they all depend on his self-discipline and his self-conscious decision to have a long-term commitment. Self-restraint and industriousness are what make a man well off. The homeschoolers who always score high at SAT/ACT are not genetically superior; they are morally committed to excellence; and that’s why they demonstrate excellent results.

“Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Pr. 4:23). The heart of a man is the source of all his cultural and moral and intellectual choices. Murray has based his studies on a philosophy hostile to the Bible. That’s why, at the end of the article, his solutions are simply bare  moralism, an appeal to the denizens of Belmont to adopt some undefined “civic virtues,” while he condescendingly claims that “doing that in Fishtown requires support from outside.” At the end, his solution denigrates the poor to a condition of dependents. It won’t work. It is the same conclusion as would have come from a leftist liberal, even if Murray tries to dress it in the garb of voluntarism. Materialistic determinism inevitably leads to the wrong conclusions.

What America needs is not another moralistic appeal to undefined “civic virtues.” What it needs is something which will appeal to the source of the springs of life. That something is the faith upon which America was founded in the first place: Christianity. Only a resurgence of Christianity – a culturally active, comprehensive Christianity, applied to every area of life and action – will help cure the problems Murray has noticed. Without such appeal to the heart, no change in the behavior in Belmont, and no amount of outside help to Fishtown would achieve anything. Materialistic determinism, whether conservative or liberal, is a fallacy, and it will always produce the wrong practical results.


Bojidar Marinov. A Reformed missionary to his native Bulgaria for over 10 years, Bojidar preaches and teaches doctrines of the Reformation and a comprehensive Biblical worldview. Having founded Bulgarian Reformation Ministries in 2001, he and his team have translated over 30,000 pages of Christian literature about the application of the Law of God in every area of man’s life and society, and published those translations online for free. He has been active in the formation of the Libertarian movement in Bulgaria, a co-founder of the Bulgarian Society for Individual Liberty and its first chairman. If you would like Bojidar to speak to your church, homeschool group or other organization, contact him through his website:

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