Monthly Archives: November 2018

Why Does God Feel So Absent (Part Three)?

Physical Objects as Ideas

In our experience of the world in common sense and scientific study we seek to understand physical things. We name them, categorize them, enumerate their properties, experience their effects, and perceive their holistic integrity and stability. In considering a physical object, such as an atom or a living cell, we know the difference between its unordered components and the thing itself. In the thing, components are so ordered, integrated and coordinated that they constitute one thing, which possesses its own properties, functions and actions. What makes a natural physical object the particular object it is rather than an aggregate of unordered components or some other physical object?

Natural objects are much more complex and highly integrated than human-made objects. We understand the objects we make better than natural objects not only because they are simpler but because they existed as ideas or design plans in our minds before we gave them actual existence as physical objects. Natural physical objects are living or nonliving. Some nonliving physical objects are aggregates: sand stone, blocks of coal, piles of sand or gravel. The nature of an aggregate is revealed in that by dividing it you do not destroy its properties. Break a block of sand stone into pieces and you do not change its properties. Nonliving things possess their unique properties and inherent integrity only at the molecular or atomic level. Break them apart and they no longer exist.  We can gain some knowledge of molecules and atoms by breaking them apart to discover their components and internal relations. But the problem with this approach is that we have to destroy the thing to discover the cause of its integrity! Our understanding of the original thing is an abstraction, memory or model. It’s not the thing itself. We cannot experience a physical thing in its integrity except externally. But that is not the same as experiencing the cause of its integrity, that is, its idea, which can be experienced only from within. Yet physics, chemistry and every other empirical science makes no sense unless it aims at this ideal, that is, to possess the entirety of a thing’s cause as an idea in the mind—a goal that it can never achieve.

The smallest living thing is much more complex than the most complex human made machine. Yet living things achieve much greater integrity, harmony, and unity than human made things. Billions of components are integrated into the whole organism to the degree that each stands in constant communion with all the others and participates in the life of the whole. We can observe the properties and behavior of living things in their natural state and environment or we can attempt to discover how all the components, systems and subsystems relate to each other and the whole organism. We quest for the entire “blueprint” for the organism. Unfortunately, the quest to think the blueprint leads us to destroy the integrity and the life of the organism. And we never really get inside the thing to experience the cause of its unity and life in the act. But unless we imagine that there is such a cause, it would make no sense to search for it.

These reflections lead me to conclude that our quest for knowledge of the physical world makes no sense if the world is purely material, if everything is at bottom only bits of matter related in space. This quest for knowledge assumes that there is a real intelligible aspect to the world and every thing in it, living and nonliving. Only the assumption that our minds can think the blueprint and cause of a physical thing can explain our drive to understand it, that is, that the thing could in principle exist in our minds as an idea.

Hence our quest to understand nature assumes that the ideas of physical things exist and exercise causal force in things before we set out to discover them. When we direct our minds to them we find them thinkable and available to be united to our minds. Our minds can think them even though we did not invent them. What is the explanation for this amazing fit between our minds and the ideas that cause natural things to be what they are? From where did the ideas of things come? How did these blueprints come to be actual physical things?

Other Minds

In our interactions with human beings we encounter other minds. We can understand their thoughts and, since we are embodied in the same way, we can empathize with their feelings.  Other minds are not my creations and they are not material any more than my mind is. Yet other minds are not simply ideas either. Other minds affect us in ways bodies and ideas don’t, as active, free and creative, as bearing a likeness to our own minds. The same idea can exist in an infinite number of minds. There exists, then, a community of intelligent minds that share the same mental space, an extra human intelligible world, where they can meet.

The existence of other minds confirms for us the reality, creativity and freedom of our own minds, and underlines what I concluded previously: that reality is not synonymous with materiality, and knowing is not synonymous with empirical experience of external surfaces. By reflecting on how other minds and ours work we become convinced that information can be produced and thought only by minds. But non-human nature is teeming with ideas and loaded with information, which enters our minds through our experience of the world. As I indicated above, the ideal of scientific knowledge is to think the whole world and reproduce its blueprint in our minds.

What is the explanation for this state of affairs? Nonmaterial minds exist and live in a physical world ordered by ideas. Our minds can create ideas or discover them in nature. We can share ideas we create or discover with other minds. The multilayered intelligibility of the world can be in part discovered by experience. In my view the most plausible explanation for the deep-down and far-wide intelligibility of the world is the creative activity of a universal and all-inclusive Mind. The human mind, far from being a by-product of the chaotic movements of unintelligible matter is actually the place where the true nature of reality finally shows itself most clearly in its basic form—creative mind!

And it is this Mind to which Epimenides and Paul referred when they said that “In him we live and move and have our being.” Paul says God made the world in such a way that we could “seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:28). And in this series I’ve tried to show that it really matters where you begin your search.






Why Does God Feel So Absent (Part Two)

Why can’t we feel what Paul and the Athenians felt: that “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28)? In Part One of this series I argued that modern natural science beginning with Galileo and Bacon teaches us to view the entire world of nature as bits of matter related in space. Nature has no soul, no nonmaterial aspect, and no internal goal. No wonder we cannot feel that we live and move and have our being surrounded and indwelt by God’s presence and activity! Instead we live and move and have our being inside a giant material machine! And if God is anywhere at all, God is outside the machine in another dimension. We’ve been taught a model of reality that makes us blind to God’s activity and presence; we’re all deists now! Or atheists or materialists.

In my view a wholly materialist understanding of nature will lead eventually to metaphysical materialism and atheism. That is to say, if we exclude formal and final causality, we will not be able to imagine divine causality and activity. If we cannot imagine created, nonmaterial causes acting within the world, we will not be able to imagine how God is present and active in the world.

Sense Experience and Materialism

A common argument for atheistic materialism begins with sense experience, which supposedly reveals the nature of reality for our immediate inspection. Through our senses we perceive the world as consisting of external, opaque and impenetrable physical objects.  Our senses are activated by our body’s physical contact with external bodies. Using this common experience of the world as an analogy, the materialist constructs a model of reality in which purely material bits (atoms) are accidentally related to each other to form the order we experience in the world. Matter itself possesses no order. The materialist perspective assumes that since we can destroy the ordered physical things we meet in everyday experience but cannot destroy the material substance of which they are composed, the material substance must be the only reality that endures throughout all change. The order itself is nothing and can be wholly reduced to spatial relationships of material bits. Everything other than unordered matter, including our minds and all intelligible properties, is simply a pattern in collected bits of matter. And the existence of the particular sets of spatial arrangements of matter that constitute the present order of nature can be explained as the result of pure chance. The world merely falls into place. It is not put or held in place.

A Different Beginning Point

But what if we begin our thinking about reality at a different point, not with perception of the external world through the senses, but with the mind’s perception of itself and its experience of its contents and powers? After all, we know our minds better than we know any other thing. Indeed, our minds are the only things we know from the inside. We are our minds! We experience our minds as intelligent, creative, unified, transparent and internal. In contrast, matter is defined by its impenetrability, externality, lack of order and unintelligibility. It is spatial, mindless and massive. The materialist model of reality as bits matter in spatial relationship is derived from an external view of things. But why rely on an external view of reality when we have an internal view! We have an internal perspective on ourselves completely inaccessable to an external point of view. Why not assume that other things do as well? Hence we are not being irrational or arbitrary when we make inner experience of our minds and their contents the beginning point for constructing a model of reality that includes minds, ideas and purposes.

From Inside Out

Let’s see what the world looks like when we begin with an internal view of the mind. Here is the path we will follow: (1) We will move from the mind and its inner world to our bodies; then (2) we reflect on our experience of the physical world not merely as external surfaces but as intelligible and information rich; then (3) we will ask about the significance of our encounter other minds like our own; and (4) finally we raise the question of an all-inclusive and universally operative mind in whom the whole world lives and moves and has its being.

Inside the Mind

Internal experience teaches us that our minds are real, free, creative, nonmaterial powers. Hence we know that reality is not synonymous with materiality, and knowing is not synonymous with empirical experience of external surfaces.

Mind In and Over Body

We find also that our minds have causal power over our bodies. We can move them as we will and through them move and reshape the external physical world to resemble the images we have created in our minds. Our own experience of our bodies demonstrates the power of mind to impose its internal order, its ideas, on the physical world. But what about the natural physical objects we encounter? Is the order they display the product of a mind?

Part 3 coming tomorrow


Why Does God Feel So Absent (Part One)?

Something has been bothering me for years, and I am obsessed with getting clear on it: why does living in modern culture rob us of a sense of God’s presence? When Paul spoke to the Athenians he could assume that they shared his vivid sense of a divine presence in human life and in nature. He was sure that they would agree with the sixth-century B.C. philosopher Epimenides whom he quoted: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). For the Athenians and nearly all the ancients it seemed obvious that nature was moved and ordered and directed by the divine spirit and mind. Why isn’t it obvious for us? Perhaps there are many reasons, but I want to focus on one: the impact of the model of reality generated by early modern science.

Modern science began in the early seventeenth century with Francis Bacon’s and Galileo’s rejection of Aristotle’s philosophy of science, especially their exclusion of formal and final causality from the study of nature. A formal cause is the design plan or blue print that makes a thing what it is as opposed to something else. It is the unifying center of a thing that integrates all its components into one whole. It is the foundation of its properties. Clearly a design plan is not a physical thing and does not exercise causality in a physical way. It can be comprehended only obscurely, as imperfect image. For these reasons, Bacon and Galileo excluded it from their new empirical/mathematical science.

A final cause is the reason for which a thing is made. It is the aim at which its entire development and activity is aimed. Like a formal cause, a final cause is not a physical thing and cannot exercise physical causality. It exists only in the mind of the maker of the thing. Bacon and Galileo saw no way of studying final causes empirically. How can you study the mind that made a natural object or the inner striving of the thing toward a goal? Those things, if they are factors at all, are hidden from the practitioner of empirical science who always views things from an external point of view.

Bacon and Galileo redesigned natural science so that it deals only with empirically observable phenomena, which it comprehends exclusively in mathematical terms. In other words, the task of natural science is to figure out the mathematical relationships of things that are capable of activating one of our five senses. What sorts of things activate our senses? The impacts of material objects! Hence, for Bacon and Galileo, natural science envisions reality as bits of matter related in space in ways that can be understood truly only in mathematical terms!

Natural science and the technology it has made possible have been decisive in forming modern culture. Modern science’s way of explaining empirical phenomena and the model of reality that has guided its investigations have so shaped our understanding of nature that we unthinkingly assume that it describes the way things truly are: everything in nature really is just bits of matter related in space. There is no formal causality operative in nature and no final causality that directs it toward a goal. Hence we cannot immediately experience nature as the result of design and in movement toward an end. And this is why we cannot feel what Paul assumed the Athenians felt, that “in him we live and move and have our being.”

In my view one of the most urgent needs of modern culture is to rediscover formal and final causality in nature and ourselves. I am not a professional philosopher or a scientist, but I want to do something to help people see the world through a different lens. What follows is not highly systematic. But I hope it can nevertheless cause us to question the materialistic model that robs us of the feeling of living in the flow of the divine life and thought as it manifests itself in the forms and flow of nature.

To Be Continued: Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.