In the previous post, I argued that the first decision point in the discussion between atheism and belief in God is the choice between matter and mind as most fundamental explanation for our world. Is the beginning and end of all things “spirit or matter, life or death, intelligible or unintelligible, mind or machine?” I ended that post with the question of whether or not we could make a rational judgment about this issue. Today I want to begin a line of reasoning that I believe enables us to reject materialism for rational reasons, not just because of our emotional reaction to its deification of death.
In this post we will consider a common experience central to the argument between atheism and belief. We experience ourselves and the external world in two ways, as mind and matter, that is, as something intelligible and something merely sensible. We can think the intelligible as an idea, a concept, or a set of relationships. The intelligible aspect of things enters our minds as information. But we experience the sensible as merely there, a brute fact offering resistance but not yielding information. Both are such primitive experiences that we can’t readily explain one in terms of the other.
To move us forward, let’s assume that the atheist option is correct, that matter is the one primordial reality, and see where this hypothesis leads us. If atheistic materialism is true everything we experience can be reduced to matter. Everything real is wholly material, and everything that we experience as mind or idea is but an “appearance” of matter, even the mind, ideas, and thoughts of the atheist who makes this argument. By definition pure matter cannot possess any intelligible properties. But can we actually perform this reduction of mind to matter?
To pursue this argument we need a clear concept of matter. But it would be a huge mistake to assume that our common sense notions give us an adequate concept of matter. Let’s use a human artifact as our example of how the reduction of mind and intelligible ideas to matter might work. From the street in front of my house I can see the entire front of the structure. When I look at it I think the idea of a house. My house is not matter alone. Its matter is structured by an idea. The idea of a house contains many components we might consider practical or emotional, such as beauty, comfortable, convenience, and familiarity. But the idea of a house is also a complicated design plan that one can diagram as a set of blueprints and understand with the mind. The design plan differentiates the house from other physical objects, from a car or an elephant.
My house is composed of smaller units arranged according to its design plan. Let’s remove one of those units and consider it in isolation from the other units. A single brick is not a house. Nor is pile of bricks a house. You need a design plan and a builder in addition to materials to create a house. But neither is a single brick pure matter, for there is a difference between a brick and unmixed, unmolded, and unbaked clay. Not just any pile of earth can be made into a brick. Hence a brick, too, is an idea, a design plan, an inner order that makes its components a brick and not one of many other things.
Let’s go further. The brick also is composed of units arranged in an order, according to the idea of a brick. The units are composed mostly of Silicon and aluminum oxides that possess properties that enable them to form tiny, thin, flat sheets, which gives wet clay that slick feel. A Silicon tetraoxide (SiO4) molecule is also composed of units, one Silicon atom and four oxygen atoms. A single Silicon or a single Oxygen atom or an aggregate of these atoms is not a Silicon tetraoxide molecule any more than a brick is a house. And apart from the design plan that makes these atoms a Silicon tetraoxide molecule, they do not possess the properties of Silicon tetraoxide.
A Silicon atom, too, is composed of units arranged in a stable and intelligible order. It contains 14 protons, 14 neutrons, and 14 electrons. Its inner structure is surprisingly complex, and a list of its known properties would fill several pages. In experiencing and understanding a Silicon atom, just like our knowledge and experience of a house or a brick, we do not experience matter alone. We know a Silicon atom as an order, an intelligible structure, that is, as an idea.
Let’s keep going! A proton by itself is not a Silicon atom, and it does not possess the properties of a Silicon atom but a completely different set of properties. Like a house, a brick, a Silicon tetraoxide molecule, and a Silicon atom, a proton is not pure matter. It too has an inner structure and is composed of units. A proton is composed of 2 up quarks and 1 down quark held together by three gluon fields. Quarks and gluons also possess properties that differ from those of the protons for which they are the components. How far toward the infinitely small modern physics can pursue the structure and properties of the physical world I do not know. But one thing is clear: Matter, considered as primordial, unordered, unintelligible, undifferentiated yet real stuff—a concept necessary for atheism to make sense— can never be known or experienced except as an abstraction from the ordered and intelligible world we know.
From our common sense experience of the world, we tend to think that the existence and nature of matter is the most obvious of all things. And the immediate plausibility of atheist/materialist’s argument depends on this naïve presumption. But the existence of matter is not obvious at all. Matter is a theoretical idea postulated to account for the difference between mere ideas and the physical objects that embody those ideas in space and time. Matter is not knowable in itself, that is, apart from an internally structured physical object. The physical order we experience daily in ourselves and the external world is built up not from purely material components but by things with internal order, used as components for other orders, and those are used for still others, and so on for many levels.
Nevertheless, let’s continue to assume the materialist hypothesis. This hypothesis asserts that all the intelligible order in the universe, everything that ever was and ever will be, from quarks and gluons to human brains, came into existence not by the ordering power of mind but by some other means. What other means could account for the vast number of levels of intelligible order in nature? Apart from mind, what could you add to amorphous, unordered, and undifferentiated matter to cause it to become ordered? If matter is all there is and matter is unordered by definition, why wouldn’t matter simply remain unordered forever? Chance, you say? I agree that chance is the only option other than active mind for creating new order. But chance won’t work to order pure matter, because chance applies only in our already ordered world. Chance makes sense only where there is differentiation and processes are already under way. Chance makes sense only where you have two or more lines of causality that can intersect in a way unpredictable from within either line. But with pure matter there is no causal process because causal processes assume a difference between cause and effect; and in pure matter all is one and the same. Without difference nothing happens, and if nothing happens, nothing can happen by chance either. If, nevertheless, the atheist/materialists insist that something did happen to order matter, they are asserting an absurdity, a miracle, which hardly places them a superior rational position to theists who insist that the operation of a mind is the explanation for the intelligible order of our world.
As I stand before that first decision point, completely surrounded by intelligible structures, layer within layer, knowing matter only as an abstraction, I feel justified in rejecting the materialist alternative and choosing the alternative that asserts that mind and intelligibility are fundamental aspects of reality.
Next week: we will examine our experience of ourselves as causes, free and creative initiators of change. We know that pure matter cannot order itself, but we know mind can order matter because we do it every day.