The Blog of Jack Holloway

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Materialism, the Universality of Faith, and the Worth of a Worldview, Part I

There is a widely-held misconception in our culture that Christianity and science are in opposition. On one end of this dichotomy is the anti-intellectualism of fundamentalist Christianity that sees science as a threat to a Bible-based understanding of creation.

On the other end, subject to much less critique, are the materialists with the understanding that reality is limited to the physical world that we perceive, rejecting any and all talk of a metaphysical realm and so operating with the mindset that science is incompatible with religion.

The latter of these two is often seen as more science- and fact-based and so, more reasonable. Materialists are the sophisticated ones, chin-up and aristocratic in their analysis of petty religious tendencies. My purpose here is to pull the rug out from under this Enlightenment arrogance by exposing their dependence on faith. With faith as the common requirement for materialism and Christianity established, the issue becomes which worldview is more worthy of one’s faith. It will be shown that Christianity meets this criterion far better than materialism, as it takes seriously personal experience and speaks to the needs of that experience, while materialism simply reduces that experience to the illusory work of nature. 

Materialism, or what Steve Wilkens and Mark Sanford call scientific naturalism, "holds that all that exists is physical and can be reduced to its elemental material composition."(1) Advocates of this position have to take for granted, flippantly dismiss, or attempt to explain away consciousness. Daniel Dennett, in his monumental work Consciousness Explained, suggests that consciousness is simply a product of brain states, and could be given to a machine if the proper scientific advancement is reached.(2) 

The major problem with this, and the particular aspect of consciousness that materialists have to ignore, is that Dennett cannot prove that the material world exists beyond his consciousness. Sure, in the reality he experiences, maybe he can explain consciousness as a by-product of evolution, but he would have to provide evidence that the natural world he perceives actually exists outside of his consciousness. That, he most definitely cannot do.(3) As Keith Ward wonders, "What is the point of being a materialist when we are not sure exactly what matter is?"(4)

Ward makes another excellent point against Dennett’s proposal: "Nobody can observe anyone else’s conscious states, and we cannot really be sure that anyone else has any conscious states at all."(5) Thus, to say that we can give consciousness to a machine because consciousness is purely mechanical, would be impossible to prove, since one cannot actually make claims about any consciousness other than one’s own. 

Furthermore, inherent within materialism is the flaw of starting with the perceived world and moving to the perceiver when determining what reality is. It would be silly for me to say, "The shirt I’m wearing is blue; thus, I am able to perceive the blueness of my shirt." The only reason I can speak of the color of my shirt is that I perceive it. In order to make judgments about the color of my shirt, I have to trust what I perceive (which, in this case, would be mistaken, because of what we have come to learn about our perception of color). Similarly, I think it is mistaken to start with the material world and say that our consciousness is merely a product of it. The only way we can observe the material world is through our consciousness, and we cannot actually prove that it actually exists beyond that conscious state.

For these reasons, I see materialism and Christian theism on a level playing field, because their respective claims about what is beyond consciousness require the same amount of faith. We Christian theists believe in a God who transcends our consciousness. Materialists believe that the material world we perceive makes up reality, and that nothing is beyond it. Can either of these be proven? No. I propose, then, a question: Which belief system is more worthy of our faith? I contend that materialism is bankrupt in addressing this question, and that Christian theism is much more sufficient. 

I have shown that in order to be a materialist, one must accept the world that one perceives as reliable—as truly real. Furthermore, one must believe that nothing is beyond one’s consciousness. These actions, whether materialists like it or not, are actions of faith. By taking these steps, they trust their perceived reality and that nothing goes beyond it—and they do so without any proof. This is faith. But why should we have such faith? Why is it reasonable to believe that there is nothing beyond the reality that we observe? Not only does it lack reason, but it is counter-intuitive. We naturally reach beyond our perceived reality. Why should we believe that there is nothing beyond what we perceive when we have an inherent inclination to try and transcend our perception? As Norman Geisler and Winfried Corduan state, "humans are incurably religious . . . by nature a person has an irresistible urge to transcend himself."(6)

This is not the only area in which materialism is counter-intuitive. We experience free will, love, morality, emotion, etc. In materialism, all of these are reduced to nature at work. They are illusions. I find this claim to be ridiculous. Because our subjective consciousness is how we experience reality,(7) we shouldn’t make claims about reality that run completely counter to how we experience it. As Lesslie Newbigin says of free will, "All arguments designed to show that free will is an illusion break down into absurdity . . . [for nothing should be accepted] which simply denies our daily experience."(8) Ward also finds it strange that materialism would accept a belief system that "ignores the all-pervading evidence of personal experience."(9)

Can we honestly say that the choices we will to make, the people we love, the love we receive, the morals we cannot help but adhere to, and the emotions we feel, are all the mere work of nature? We’re just pawns in the game of evolution? Not only does this leave life bereft of meaning, it destroys everything we experience to be true. Charles Pearce once said, “A belief that can’t make any difference on how you act when acting counts is a belief that is devoid of meaning.(10) Materialism is meaningless because it does not ring true in our experience, and it has nothing to contribute to our lives practically.

Continue to part 2 here

(1) Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sanford, "Scientific Naturalism," in Hidden Worldviews (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 100.
(2) Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (New York: Back Bay Books, 1991).
(3) Dennett (ibid., 455) asks, "why should consciousness be the only thing that can’t be explained?" The answer to this is simply because we cannot go beyond our consciousness to observe and explain it. Any ‘explanation’ would require faith, because we cannot know if whatever explanation we ascribe to it is actually true.
(4) Keith Ward, Why There Almost Certainly Is a God (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2008), 15.
(5) Ibid., 16.
(6) Norman Geisler and Winfried Corduan, quoted in Kenneth Boa and Robert Bowman, Faith Has Its Reasons, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 86.
(7) So, Descartes: “I next considered attentively what I was; and I saw that while I could pretend that I had no body, that there was no world, and no place for me to be in, I could not pretend that I was not; on the contrary, from the mere fact that I thought of doubting the truth of other things it evidently and certainly followed that I existed.” Quoted in Dennett, 30.
(8) Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1989), 69.
(9) Keith Ward, More than Matter? (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011), 133.
(10) Charles Pearce, quoted by Gregory A. Boyd, "The History and Hope of Open Theism" (lecture, Open Theology & the Church conference, St. Paul, MN, April 4, 2013). This was probably a paraphrase.

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