Category Archives: materialism

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.