For 30 years or longer I have been trying to figure out what makes skepticism, indifference and atheism plausible and belief in God difficult for some people. I am sure there are many reasons and the relative strength of each varies from person to person. But one stands out to me. The external, physical/material world seems so real to us that we have a hard time imagining anything real that is not also external and material. This sentiment is expressed by a saying making the rounds on Facebook: “I worship nature. Don’t laugh. At least I can prove it exists.” I laughed anyway.
During his early adulthood, under the instruction of the Manicheans, Augustine of Hippo also experienced this difficulty:
When I wanted to think of my God, I knew of no way of doing so except as a physical mass. Nor did I think anything existed which was not material. That was the principle and almost sole cause of my inevitable error. ..If I had been able to conceive of spiritual substance, at once all their imagined inventions would have collapsed and my mind would have rejected them. But I could not [Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, (Oxford 1991), pp. 85, 89].
And speaking of the philosophers of his day, who focused on external appearances, Augustine says,
They can foresee a future eclipse of the Sun but do not perceive their own eclipse in the present. For they do not in a religious spirit investigate the source of the intelligence with which they research into these matters (Confessions, trans. Chadwick, p. 74)
Baron Holbach, author of The System of Nature (1770) and patron of Paris’s atheist and freethinking community, attempted to explain the whole world and every event within it in material terms. His fundamental assumption seems to be that the true nature of things is revealed only in empirical experience. Empirical experience works by physical contact between our bodies and other bodies. We know things only in their external relationships to us and other things. Reality consists exclusively of external bodies set in relation to other external bodies. Holbach then interprets all our internal experience, which we do not experience empirically through the senses, in keeping with his external view of knowledge. We know that our minds, ideas and concepts possess no reality beyond the physical forces that bring them about. God is a creation of the human imagination, which itself is a product of the motions of matter.
As you can see, Holbach falls into an error similar to the one Augustine complained the Manicheans made, that is, that reality can be known truly only as external bodies and the images that represent them. Augustine saw through this error when he realized that we have internal access to reality as well as external access. Limiting knowledge of reality to how things appear from an external viewpoint severely limits and greatly distorts our understanding of the world. Holbach, the Manicheans and the nature worshiper mentioned above forget that the internal power by which we know the external world also knows itself and all its contents. And the mind knows itself and its contents not by physical contact with external surfaces but by knowing itself directly. Inside the world of the mind, nothing is external and material. Nothing takes up space or weighs anything. Nothing breaks down into smaller material bits.
In Augustine’s view, the Manicheans, and by extension Holbach and all metaphysical materialists, should have given priority to the knowledge gained by our mind’s experience of itself. Privileging an external point of view makes an inferior, indirect and obscure access to reality the judge of a superior, clear and direct access. It dismisses our sense of certainty that our minds are real and possess freedom and causal power over our bodies in favor of an analogy drawn from our external observation of the interaction of assumedly mindless bodies. It rejects our internal experience of immaterial ideas, logical laws, concepts and relations and forces them into the pattern we derive from external observation, that is, they must be material bodies externally related to each other, despite our invincible inclination to believe otherwise.
What a difference there is between the two systems (Atheism and Christian Theism)! Christian theism asserts that the appearance of humanity and all that goes with it—mind, reason, freedom, self-consciousness, moral intuition, and all that is made possible by them—reveals the true nature of the ultimate reality behind all appearances better than the externality, unintelligibility, inertness, and mindlessness of matter. And this truth comes to light in our experience within ourselves of ourselves and in fellowship with other human beings. The idea of matter is derived from sense experience’s discovery of opacity and obscurity in its vision of the world in contrast to the clarity of ideas and the self-identity and self-transparency of the mind in its act of thinking and self-reflection. Atheism (at least the most common contemporary forms) views the mindless externality of matter as disclosing the true nature of what we wrongly think we know on the uniquely human level: mind, qualities, freedom, consciousness, self-consciousness, reason, intelligibility and moral intuition.
Here is a stark choice. Both views make knowledge claims. One must choose. But the irony is that in choosing materialism I give revelatory priority to something I know externally, obscurely and indirectly over what I know directly and clearly by virtue of the process of thinking. I assert that the ultimate and underlying reality from which thinking, ideas and concepts derive is itself unthinking, obscure and unthinkable. Don’t miss this: ironically, if not in complete self-contradiction, materialism is a theory that conceives and thinks of thinking and concepts as secondary qualities derivative of matter, which is the complete absence of mind and intelligibility! According to their theory, the very power (mind) and its instruments (ideas and concepts) by which materialists formulate, defend and explain the philosophy of materialism, need to be resolved into their (material) components in order to get a clear idea of what they really are. What an absurdity! Mind and the idea of ideas are obscure and complex whereas the idea of matter is simple and clear? Of course the idea of matter is simple and clear but the idea of matter is in the mind. But matter itself is defined by being external to the mind and obscure to the eye of the mind. So, in the theory of materialism I am basing my understanding of all reality on something that can be known only as unknowable and obscure. Surely there is some kind of incoherence here!
But everything changes if with Augustine we give priority to internal experience. The way we know our minds and their contents becomes the model for our knowledge of the external world. We experience the world not only as external, material and obscure but also as internal, ideal and transparent. Through our senses we receive into our minds information (not simply dumb physical impacts) embodied in the world. This information becomes internal to our minds; only then do we possess knowledge of the “external” world. Assuming that this information truly exists in the world apart from the work of our minds, we can ask from where it came. Or, since we know from our internal experience the creative and shaping power of mind and ideas, we can ask about the nature of the Mind that thinks and creates the world I experience as intelligible but not as the product of my or any human mind.
The apostle Paul was not making idle conversation with the Athenians when he quoted the Cretan philosopher Epimenides: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” Unlike the young Augustine, Holbach and today’s nature worshiper, Paul looked around at the world and saw in everything the marks of the divine Mind, and he felt surrounded, indwelt and empowered by the Spirit of the living God. Our task, Paul says is to “seek him and perhaps find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27). And it helps to begin your search in the right place.