Tag Archives: materialism


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.

An Impersonal God?

Last week we pursued the question of whether it makes sense to think of the mind that gives the world its intelligible order as impersonal. Can we reasonably think of that mind as a primitive urge, a logical necessity, or the goal of evolution? We ended that post by observing the counterintuitive nature of belief in an impersonal god. How can we believe that the universal mind that gives the world its intelligible order and that produced human beings does not itself possess the qualities that make human beings personal: self-consciousness, reason, freedom, and the ability to relate to other persons?

Today I want to make a bit more explicit our intuitive belief that the mind that produced the world is much greater and better than we are. Let’s remember our earlier argument for the irreducibility of the intelligible aspect of nature and for a universal mind that is the explanation for that intelligibility. We argued from our own experience of ourselves as free causes and originators of information that mind is a better explanation for the intelligible order in nature than chance is. The decision for a universal mind was prompted by our intuition that information always originates from the free act of an intelligent agent. And free acts always involve self-awareness and are always enacted to achieve ends. Hence the assertion that the universal mind is impersonal contradicts the original reason for rejecting materialism and accepting the irreducible reality of mind. To deny that the power that forms the world into an intelligible order is free, reasonable, self-aware, and able to relate to others is to retreat from our first decision point and to fall back into materialism and chance.

To think of the universal mind as impersonal is to confuse mind with ideas or concepts. Indeed, ideas and concepts are not intelligent and free. They are objects the mind creates and thinks. My previous argument for the irreducible nature of the intelligibility in the world did not contend that the intelligible order is itself personal. It contended, rather, that the universal, intelligible order is the product an active, universal mind. And the mind responsible for creating the intelligible order of the universe must be free, reasonable, and self-aware to a degree far beyond human beings. If that “mind” were impersonal, it could not produce anything; instead, it would itself need to be produced. And we would simply be mistaken in using the word “mind” to designate the impersonal order that evolved by chance.

To think of god as impersonal sees God as in some way embedded in or limited by matter, perhaps, in analogy to the way we are embodied. Our bodies carry on many of their organic functions independent of our will or even our awareness. Many of our feelings and urges arise in us involuntarily. But again, refer to my original argument for the universal mind. The universal mind must be responsible for the entire intelligible order or the argument fails. But asserting that the universal mind is embodied in matter denies that that mind is responsible for all the intelligible order; for it could not be responsible for itself, its own embodiment, or the laws that govern that relationship. We would have to face again the prospect of materialism and chance as the explanation for everything, that is, underneath the intelligible aspects of nature rests a non-intelligible cause working by blind processes to produce all natural phenomena.

The intuitive assumption that drives our argument is an ancient one clearly articulated by Aristotle and used in theology by Thomas Aquinas: actuality is prior in being to potentiality. It is intuitive because we experience it in ourselves and in our observations of the world: Only actual, living minds produce information. A cause imposes its (actual) likeness on the effect to make it actual. Order produces order. True chaos never changes. The intuition that actuality is prior to potentiality makes it impossible to believe that the amazing intelligible order in the universe arose from absolute disorder by chance. The mind that orders the world must itself be purely actual, possessing maximum order.

The most reasonable conclusion available to us at this point—given our assumption that a universal mind is the cause of the totality of the intelligible order of nature—is that God is pure, active mind completely independent of matter. But if God is pure, active mind, God must be maximally free, self-aware, rational, and able to relate; that is, personal to the highest degree.

A Time for Decision: Is Christianity True? (Part 11)

For the past three weeks we have been standing before first decision point on path from nonbelief to Christian faith. We must decide whether mind or matter is the ultimate reality that explains the existence and nature of everything else. Belief in God presupposes the background belief that mind is at least as fundamental as matter, and atheism presupposes that matter alone is fundamental and explains everything else. If it could be shown that matter is the final explanation for mind and all mind-like features of the universe, belief in God would be defeated. If, on the other hand, mind could be shown to be at least as ultimate as matter, atheism would be defeated.

I argued from three different experiences that it is eminently reasonable to belief that mind is as necessary to explain the world of our experience as matter is. We examined our experience of the intelligibility of the external order of nature. In our analysis we found no way to reduce the intelligible order of nature to pure, unordered matter, and we rejected chance as the explanation for that order. Afterward, we considered our experience of ourselves as initiating causes and creators of information. We argued from this experience that it is reasonable to believe that an active universal mind gives the world its intelligible order. Finally, we argued that our experience of other minds “strengthens our conviction that our minds are irreducible to matter. Hence our experience of active minds/persons other than our own reinforces the idea that a primordial, active mind orders the world.”

We could dwell here forever endlessly debating the many issues involved in the choice between mind and matter as the ultimate reality: How could mind emerge from pure matter? How can immaterial mind exercise causality on a material world? But now it is time to decide. I am convinced that further discussions would not settled the issue definitively. There is no hope that further investigation would bring forward indubitable proof one way or another and remove the necessity for a fallible decision. The best we can hope for is a decision based on reasonable and responsible judgments. And I believe the three arguments we have considered make reasonable our belief that mind is at least as ultimate as matter and make responsible our decision to act on that belief.

Since there are no definitive arguments for either side, some would argue that a stance of agnosticism and indecision is the most rational position. This argument contends that agnosticism’s subjective uncertainty and indecision corresponds to the objective situation of our lack of absolute knowledge whereas a decision to build one’s life and worldview on either alternative goes beyond the evidence. And cultivating certainty and plunging into action beyond the reach of the evidence is abandoning reason in favor of irrational impulse.

I don’t think I need to enter an extended discussion of agnosticism at this point, but I’d like to make two points in response to the argument in the previous paragraph. First, one cannot be agnostic about everything. In the argument above the agnostic makes the judgment that both the evidence for and the evidence against materialism are inadequate to justify knowledge claims and decisive actions. Now either this agnostic judgment is fallible or infallible. If the agnostic judgment rises to the level of genuine knowledge, the agnostic must abandon agnosticism at least on this issue. If the judgment in question is fallible, the agnostic loses the right to criticize atheism or theism for going beyond the evidence; for the agnostic also acts on the basis of fallible judgments. Second, some decisions are so fundamental to the act of living that they cannot be avoided or postponed. Perhaps, I need never form a definitive judgment about whether or not intelligent life exists somewhere in the Milky Way galaxy. I can think of no practical difference my opinion on the subject would make. But we cannot avoid the decision between atheism and belief in God. If we live at all or do anything at all, we must live and act on one belief or another. For these beliefs define the origin and destiny and the meaning and purpose of human life. And these limits determine everything in between, defining the distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, and the worthwhile and the useless. The rationality of every human act or decision not to act will be judged by its consistency with these ideas. In the case of agnosticism, refusing to decide is to decide to act as if we could live without acting, a huge self-deception.

But I have argued that the decision to reject materialism in favor of belief is quite rational. Once we make this decision–especially since we see that further discussion would not change the necessity of making a fallible decision–we need not look back in doubt. We can move forward to build our thoughts on the foundation of reasonable judgments and responsible decisions made at the first decision point. We can now presuppose the existence of a universal mind that manifests itself in the intelligible order of the world. This forward-looking boldness will characterize each of the decision point decisions we make on the way to Christian faith. These points are watershed moments where one must take risks to move forward into decisive action. We are being prepared for the most demanding decision of all, the move into faith in Jesus Christ.

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?

The Miracle of Atheism: Turning Matter into Mind

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.