Materialism’s Sacrificium Intellectus or Atheism’s Leap of Faith

Last week we pursued the hypothesis of materialism from the starting point of our experience of the world through the senses. We experience the external world as structured in intelligible ways we can understand through common sense and natural science. But we also experience it as external, as brute facts offering only resistance to penetration by mind or body. But as we examined physical objects we discovered that we can break them apart to experience their internal order as intelligible. We ended up unable to discover pure matter by way of the senses. Every object we thought might be pure matter ended up being internally structured and therefore at least partially intelligible, that is, partly an idea. Matter, we concluded, is the abstract idea of an unintelligible, unordered, and yet real, stuff we can never experience apart from its connection with intelligible structure.

Today I want us to begin our examination of materialism at another point. We experience ourselves as creators and causes, as initiators of movement and change. We possess a first person consciousness of ourselves as actors, as free. We are able freely to create information and through our bodies shape the material world according to this information. In other words, we experience ourselves not only as passive readers of information encoded in physical objects, human made or natural, but also as active minds and wills and creative powers.

Of course, some materialists deny that we really are active minds that can initiate change and create information. We are merely part of the material process of cause and effect. But those materialists who deny freedom always base their denial on their theory, as one of its implications. They never deny that it seems to our own consciousness that we are free and creative. In my view, denying what seems self-evident to consciousness because of one’s commitment to materialist theory strains credulity and calls into question the denier’s commitment to rationality. What can you say to someone who denies what we and they cannot help but believing? I view this denial as on the level with someone who denies the existence of the external world. For our experience of freedom is as primitive and irreducible as the experience we gain from the senses. You cannot verify one by the other or reduce one to the other.

Materialists, too, must begin with trust. They must trust the senses to tell them the truth about the existence and nature of matter. Such primitive experiences cannot be verified by more basic experiences, for there are none. But in order to be a rationally responsible adherent of any theory about the external world, including materialism, you have to believe you have a mind capable of taking the data from the senses and constructing a true theory. It seems to me, then, that affirming the truth of materialism requires also affirming the irreducible reality of free and creative minds; these two affirmations are clearly incompatible.

What does it mean to say that mind and intelligibility are real? Most people have no trouble believing something is real when they can experience it with one of the five senses. More precisely, we believe things are real if there are any possible circumstances under which they can be experienced, even if those means are not yet available to us. Even more generally, we consider something real if it possesses causal power, that is, if there are any possible circumstances under which it can effect change in something else or be changed or resist being changed by something else. We cannot know a “thing” that possesses no causal power, and we do not consider it real. When we think of it this way, we can see that our minds, our ideas, and the ideas that structure nature are real. We experience their causal power. Our minds create information, which can, then, in combination with physical power, create new things in the external world. New ideas arising from our own creativity or from other minds or from natural objects inform our minds, that is, they cause change in our minds. Hence, if to be real means to possess causal power, our minds, their ideas and the ideas that give the world its intelligibility are certainly real…just as real as stuff that creates change in our senses.

I think I am on solid ground, then, when I assume that our experience of ourselves as free causes of movement and change and free creators of new information tells us the truth. Not only do we experience in our own being a mind capable of abstracting and thinking the information that structures the external world, we experience directly our minds as active and creative. Just as I experience my feelings of pain or pleasure or fear as self-evident and undeniable, I also experience myself as a free cause with the same certainty. We make a difference between the automatic unconscious processes that go on in within our bodies and our deliberate choices and acts. We know the difference between being knocked to the ground by the impact of a physical object and our deliberate act of sitting down. There is a qualitative difference between the two.

In the previous post I showed that we cannot imagine a rational way to account for the intelligible order’s genesis from pure, amorphous, undifferentiated matter. For the reasons I mentioned in that earlier post, chance can’t do the job. Other than active mind the only option is the sheer absurdity of asserting that it happened, somehow, anyway. But why choose the absurdity of spontaneous generation when we experience our own minds as free causes able to initiate change and create information and place it into a physical medium? We know this can happen because we actually do it! Hence we have a simple and rational explanation for the intelligible structure that permeates nature: Active mind is at least equally primordial with matter. We do not need to resort to an arbitrary leap of faith made necessary by commitment to the metaphysical theory of reductive materialism.

Now we have a second rational reason to reject the materialist option and its sacrificium intellectus. We can take the road that affirms the irreducible and primordial nature of mind, intelligibility, life, and spirit.

Next Week: What do we make of our experience of other minds? Are other minds real? How and where do minds meet?


3 thoughts on “Materialism’s Sacrificium Intellectus or Atheism’s Leap of Faith

  1. nokareon

    Dear Dr. Highfield,

    Well put all around. I found it especially interesting that you pointed out that the sword the Materialist seeks to use can cut both ways. Materialism may be at odds with our everyday experience of being causal agents, but that can just as easily mean that Materialism is false as that our experience of causal agency is illusory. But now to some thoughts as a devil’s advocate, since that is how I learn best.

    I saw two ways that the Materialist might object at this point. First, I could see the Materialist expressing incredulity that an immaterial, disembodied mind could have causal effect upon the material world. The Materialist might thus demand an account for how the immaterial could causally affect the material in these two areas: 1) How God, as a disembodied mind, could intervene in the material world or even create the material world, and 2) How a person’s soul could affect changes upon their brain or body. For example, the philosopher Austin Dacey challenges any dualist to give an account of how the soul can causally affect the brain/body in order to even consider dualism a live option. This is one area where a Materialist may find grounds to deny the mind as distinct from the brain or find Emergentism a better account and solution to the problem.

    Second, the Materialist may attempt to analyze the decision-making process behind our everyday actions in the following way so as to make it support determinism rather than free agent-causation. Suppose I ate a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich for lunch, and I tell my Materialist friend that “I freely and indeterministically chose to eat a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich for lunch as an act of agent-causation.” My Materialist friend may then ask me, “But *why* did you eat that for lunch?” “Because I was hungry,” I reply. “See?” my Materialist friend then says, “The real reason you did that was because your body was telling your brain that it needed food! It wasn’t a free act of agent-causation at all, but just another example of how our brain’s decision-making process is determined by the state of our body.” But then suppose I reply, “That may be true, but why did I specifically eat a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich and not an arugula salad or something?” The Materialist might then say, “Well, it may be that your body was then telling your brain that it needed more iron and protein intake, thus making you choose an option filled with red meat.” In this way, it seems to me that a Materialist could analyze any given act that we think is an act of agent-causation and, by showing the underlying reasons for that action in one’s decision-making process, hold that the action was actually an effect of those reasons and conditions rather than being causally active itself.

    I am curious to get your feedback on both of these, and I look forward to reading more as it comes!

    Thomas Yee


    1. ifaqtheology Post author

      Let’s take the first objection. Actually, I think this one is easily taken care of. It asks the defender of the reality of mind to surrender without a fight at its strongest point. To my argument that our experience of ourselves as free causes and creators of information is of a qualitatively kind irreducible to the physical/material, cause/effect/chance world, it demands that I support what my direct experience tells me by showing how the two can interact. And I suppose if I can’t show how the two can affect each other, I have to deny my direct experience. This reminds me of the old statement of the unfaithful spouse caught in the act, “Are you gonna believe me or your lying eyes?” Now, the quest for a mediating reality or concept between mind and body goes all the way back to Plato and beyond. Plato and the Platonists’ emanationist understanding of reality is one answer. Gnosticism is another. But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If I have an obligation to show how mind can exercise causality over matter, the materialist must show (not merely assert) how matter can generate mind. On this level we are at a stalemate. Where I think I have the advantage is that both I and the materialist experience ourselves as seemingly free causes. And at this point I am willing to accept the irreducible reality of both matter and mind, whereas the materialist cannot do this. Perhaps I can say a word about the second objection later. But it seems to suffer the same defects: it asks me to deny a direct experience in view its analysis. In other words, just because my holistic experience can be in thought broken down into phases and parts, I must give up my experience. I consider such thinking sophistic and deceptive. Again “Are you gonna believe me or your lying eyes?” Thanks for reading and responding!


      1. ifaqtheology Post author

        About emergentism: When I put emergentism in its broadest context I see it as working on the same problem as emanationism but from the opposite end. Emanantionism attempts to explain the downward flow of the many from the One, mind, soul and matter from the Hypertranscendence of the One. Emergentism attempts to explain the upward movement from matter to mind. Both pass through intermediate states. And both fail to satisfy! Emergentism seems to me to have a difficult time distinguishing itself from reductionism. What other way of explaining the emergence of the higher from the lower is there other than seeking for properties in the lower level that explain the properties in the higher? Is there an emergent impulse in matter? Are the higher levels merely possibilities of matter while chance is the engine that drives it? But what really strikes me is that we can speculate about emergence of higher from lower only because we already possess the properties of the highest level. It is by exercising the higher properties that we can speculate about how those properties are related to the lower levels. Because we exist at that higher level we can exercise “top down” causality on the lower levels in a way that uses but is not determined by the properties and laws operative on the lower levels. But what if there is a still higher level? Is there a Super mind that exercises “top down” causality on all lower levels allowing and calling forth our minds out of the lower levels? So, emergentism seems to possess no distinct method of causality. The theory will then tend toward reductistic explanations (“bottom up” explanations) or toward “top down” causality. And we are back where we started: we have to choose between mind or matter as the final explanation of the order of nature.


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