It’s Immaterial

Common phrases and sentences often assume false ideas. A wise person will interrogate herself and language in general to sniff these out. Here is one statement worth looking at:

It’s (or that’s) immaterial.

This sentence is uttered to mean:

It is irrelevant or it is not pertinent to the issue at hand.

The statement A may be used correctly in one sense. Consider a red herring fallacy. Someone offers a scientific criticism of Darwinism, which depends on no ideas that are uniquely religious or specifically Christian. The Darwinist replies, “But the Bible is an ancient and superstitious book.” The reply: “That is immaterial to the issue at hand. In fact, it is a red herring.” In this case, the sentence is true inasmuch as it means, it is irrelevant or it is not pertinent to the issue at hand. However, we should say more.

It’s (or that’s) immaterial assumes the metaphysic of materialism: a worldview that denies the existence of any immaterial or spiritual reality. If there is no such thing as the immaterial realm, then any reference to minds or souls or immaterial principles (of logic or morality) or to God or angels or demons is wrongheaded, since these things do not exist.

Or the “It’s immaterial” may mean something epistemological, such as:

Even if there is an immaterial realm, it has no bearing on rational     explanations of the world of matter. Beliefs about the immaterial are never items of knowledge.

This view is called methodological naturalism, since it claims to remain neutral on the metaphysics of naturalism or any other worldview. This view begs the question of whether explanations can rationally invoke immaterial causes. I have written against this idea in chapter 13 of Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith.

If this discussion explains the use of the phrase and its conceptual roots (even though not everyone who uses it holds to a materialist worldview), then we are prepared to unpack its implications.

Materialism is the common worldview in the hard sciences and in American education at all levels. Like all worldviews, materialism requires philosophical justification to be a matter of knowledge (justified and true belief). For many reasons, materialism lacks such support. But beyond that, materialism colors our language, whether or not we are materialists. As such it is a hidden persuader. I could cite and explain other examples of language bearing strange gifts. Consider one. The brain is commonly referred to for matters of thinking and experience when the brain (as a material organ) has little or nothing to do with it. That requires another essay, however.

Those who are not materialists should watch their mouths (and their immaterial minds). Perhaps we need to wash out our mouths with philosophical soap. Zip the lip if it is wrong.

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

3 thoughts

  1. I really appreciate this post. It is fascinating how words and phrases can have actual meanings that can be quite different than one would expect given how they’re used in common speech. I think of “creature” – something created. Don’t believe in creation? Probably best not call anything a creature! Or “weird”…. Stuart Hackett once said, “I am often described as a weird person…I don’t know that I’m weird in an absolute sense—I mean I’m not a werewolf or a vampire or anything like that. I’m just highly individualistic.” I’m adding “it’s immaterial” to the list!

    1. “Immaterial” in this case is probably not related to materialism but rather a derivative of the phrase “it does not matter” which fails to challenge the ontological status of the thing in question. It just questions its significance.

      Philosophy has such nicer ways of saying that something “does not follow” such as saying so in Latin: “that’s non sequitur!” The popular use of the word “immaterial” in this way likely comes from the legal profession. There is a “material breach of contract” and an “immaterial breach.” There are disclosures that a CFO must make public because they are “material to earnings” and those that are “immaterial to earnings” that he does not have to disclose.

      If “immaterial” is a reference to what matters and what does not matter, is it still a hidden persuader? Maybe a better question is whether or not I used a hidden persuader in my preceding paragraph to convince you all that women cannot be CFOs, because I used a male pronoun. Was it not the Women’s Studies Departments that started these silly word games?

      Perhaps I need to wait for your forthcoming article, but why would you claim that the brain has little or nothing to do with thinking?

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