Materialism (Vers. 2.0, Part 7)

“Believe in me
Once seemed a good line
Now belief in Jesus
Is faith more sublime….

Don’t be afraid
Just treasure his word
Singing his praises
I know that I’ll be heard
He’s gonna take you by the hand
He’s gonna make you feel so good
Open up your eyes!
And then you’ll see all that you should….”

~Roxy Music, “Psalm” from Stranded (LP, 1973)


This will be the final installment of this series. I hope I can tie up the remaining loose ends.

It is difficult for those of us trained as we were to keep in mind: most people, professional intellectuals included, believe their most basic first premises for emotional, not rational reasons.

This applies especially to the foundations of worldviews.

As a general rule this is as true of the “scientifically-minded” as it is of Christians, as much as the former might disbelieve or disdain the fact. As we’ll see very shortly.

Continuing with the dialogue that developed last week in Part 6:

Okay, Mr. Believer, our skeptic might have retorted. Very well, but there’s something you can’t deny, and that’s the accumulated findings of the past 500 years of natural science. You want to credit Christianity for setting out foundations for science, such as nature’s being ordered and intelligible, but you reject science’s conclusions.

Natural science — astronomy, physics, biology, psychology — has destroyed our Christian illusion of “specialness.” The first two removed Earth from the center of the universe. The third removed our origins from the domain of the specially created: we are a species of primate, and got here through a natural process. Psychology came to recognize our “free will” as essentially an illusion. Environment shapes us, for better or for worse. Within this environment are our institutions and our education and our prejudices, including Christian ones, which we can now reshape.

The Russellian hope was that we could make a better world according to our highest ideals of justice and peace. Maybe we’ve fallen and skinned our knees a few times. No one ever said building a new civilization would be easy, or that it wouldn’t take generations of effort.

So where is this supernatural ghost in the sky you assert as your starting point, who you think saves us from ourselves?

At that point our skeptic will brashly conclude with an air of triumph and a grand sweep of his arms:

After all, now we have some idea of the immense size and age of the universe. We know we live on an insignificant planet orbiting an insignificant star. That star is one of millions of stars, in an insignificant spot near the edge of an ordinary spiral galaxy, one of billions of those. We know we’re a tiny speck of dust in a big, vast universe! Maybe we’ll find other intelligent species out there. If we do and if we can someday communicate with them, it will be through mathematics and science, not philosophy and religion.

There’s a lot running around in that.

At first blush, our skeptic misses the point: without the first premise of a Creator, part of whose essence is Logos, who created us in His image, with a rationality able to grasp the creation’s inherent rationality, there is no reason for believing said Creation — the universe — to be fundamentally intelligible to our insignificantly small and finite minds.

Which is why nothing akin to Western science developed in cultures untouched by the Christian worldview. Other cultures developed crafts indicating a grasp that there are patterns or regularities in nature. They developed and lived by worldviews, because that is what human beings do. But they did not develop science in the Western sense, which indeed was, within limits, self-correcting and constantly improving itself.

Nothing in contemporary astrophysics, moreover, rules out the possibility — or likelihood — that “the heavens declare His glory” (Psalms 19:1).

Perhaps all our big and vast universe requires is a big and vast God!

As for whether or not the Earth is special, perhaps our skeptic should read first this book and then this one. He probably will not, but he should.

But let’s set aside all the theological disquisition for the time being. We can do this because there are objections to materialism that have nothing to do with anyone’s theology. Ultimately, the intellectual problems with materialism stem from its inadequacies to scientific facts, and to some of our experiences having to do with language and with understanding.

First, the science. The way our skeptic concluded his statement got me thinking. I’ve long been fascinated not merely with the findings of those who are using high-resolution telescopes to peer ever further into the depths of space in search of extrasolar planets (exoplanets, of which astronomers have now catalogued over 4,000), but with the curious urgency of finding Earthlike planets in so-called Goldilocks zones around other stars.

Such worlds would have atmospheric pressures and temperatures where liquid water could exist — and so be able, at least in principle, to support life as we know it — possible homes of extraterrestrial (ET) civilizations.

Just recently, a number of astronomers were in a tizzy over “Tabby’s star,” KIC 8642852 (nicknamed for astronomer Tabitha Boyajian who had been studying it along with numerous “citizen scientists”).

KIC 8642852 is roughly 1,470 light years away, which means that anything we see going on in its vicinity actually occurred in the late 500s. The star’s brightness was observed to have dimmed irregularly by up to 22%, far more than the very slight dimming that would be caused by an exoplanet moving across its face (the way many have been detected).

Some of the “citizen scientists,” and even a few of Professor Boyajian’s peers, floated the idea that the star’s anomalous drops in brightness could be explained if ETs had constructed a massive mega-structure in space, perhaps orbiting the star, and that its bulk was blocking light from the star.

An intelligent race able to pull off such a feat would have to be centuries ahead of us technologically.

That would imply they had solved the problems threatening to overwhelm our civilization: environmental issues, political and cultural meltdown, the ever-present threat of nuclear war!

Maybe they’d even figured out how to build a global society that didn’t become a controlled society and a technocratic de facto dictatorship in the process!

The discovery of such a civilization would breathe new hope and life into our fading Third Stage modernity!

High-powered equipment has been trained on “Tabby’s star” for some time now.

Nothing out of the ordinary.

No detectable signals of possible intelligent origin, that is.

It is possible to answer that beings at that level of advancement might be using communications and information transmission systems our technology is too primitive to detect.

The situation would be analogous to a group of Native Americans previously untouched by our civilization (assuming there could be such) watching one of our cities from a distance and trying to see, e.g., the kinds of smoke signals they use to communicate across long distances. They would be assuming we use methods similar to theirs. They would know nothing of our actual technology, of course.

Their keenest eyes might see pollution, perhaps indicative of something curious. But they’d see nothing intelligible.

Would they be safe in concluding that whatever those structures were, no one akin to themselves lived there?

It’s an interesting analogy. We can’t conclude anything from it, however.

The best analyses we now have of KIC 8642852 suggest the presence of a large and unusually massive cloud of dust in close proximity to the star, perhaps in an extended orbit. This would explain its aperiodic darkening.

Maybe a planet once existed there and somehow got smashed. Maybe more than one.

The point is, E.T. has yet to call.

And the bottom line: there is no hard evidence that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe.

Yes, evolutionary theory — both at the stellar and at biological levels —strongly suggests that such life should exist. Perhaps on billions of other worlds. There should be races of sentient beings millions of years in advance of us!

Unless, of course, they fail to cross the Great Barrier, posited by expositors of the infamous Fermi Paradox (I’ve discussed it here, in light of the trajectories of the civilizations we know of).

There is no empirical evidence one way or the other. There is no empirical evidence of anyone out there.

This is the bottom line.

A gold mine, perhaps, for imaginative science fiction, but that’s all.

If this changes, rest assured, I will pay attention! As all of us should.

But until then, I repeat: there is no evidence.

Why do I belabor this? Because I often encounter folks — our skeptic above might be an example — who love to cite science when it supports their worldview and sometimes a political-economic ideology, but ignore actual findings (or lack of them) when they do not.

What this represents, I submit, is a strong and fundamentally emotional desire on the part of many scientists, nearly all of whom are de facto materialists, for us not to be utterly alone in this vast universe they posit as godless and uncreated.

If we are entirely alone in a universe godless and uncreated, it would be bizarre. Our planet, teeming as it is with life, would be an inexplicable anomaly!

Does this render materialism dubious? You tell me.

If we can believe contemporary physics, “material reality” is quite different from what we experience. Its fundamental properties are best described by mathematics. This is not new. Galileo said, centuries ago, that “the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.” Interesting phraseology even today. Unless we are out-and-out Platonists mathematics suggests thought, which, in turn, presupposes: a Thinker.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) would say we are pushing at the limits of language. In a sense, he was right. But limits to language and understanding do not limit reality. In the last analysis, God’s Trinitarian nature as both one God in “three persons” (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are mysteries, as is how Christ could have been both one hundred percent God and one hundred percent man, how creation was accomplished, when it was accomplished, how human free will operates, and possibly how consciousness itself works.

Mysteries are states of affairs our three-dimensional brains existing in linear time were not designed to be able to grasp.

Positivism / scientism dislikes and distrusts mysteries. Materialists believed they had explained “the mental.” Rorty, who admired Wittgenstein, believed the problems of consciousness were artifacts of our insistence on “mentalist” language.

But some recent philosophers of mind — Colin McGinn (1950 –         ) is an example — have noted that consciousness remains fundamentally mysterious despite over a century of hard, sustained, patient, technical, analytic, multi-disciplinary investigations.

There is nothing in the brain, observes McGinn, to suggest that as a physical entity it is able, somehow, to generate subjective conscious awareness of the rich phenomenal world we inhabit — of what David Chalmers compared to a “movie” completely surrounding us all, playing in three-dimensions, through which we move as the central character for all of our lives, negotiating plot points and panoramas of sights, sounds, aromas, etc., beyond anything James Cameron could have come with in Avatar.

Chalmers began with the idea of trying to make materialism work, but throughout his career has been willing to face, honestly, considerations that throw it into doubt. In the above talk, he is clearly casting about for an alternative.

Colin McGinn concludes that our minds just aren’t structured so as to fathom their own nature. His explanation is evolutionary. Understanding consciousness at a deep level would confer on us no advantage in the struggle for existence.

But if materialism is false, the utter mysteriousness of consciousness makes perfect sense! Consciousness is the proverbial square peg that cannot be forced-fitted into the round hole materialism provides.

Language use and understanding, too, confound materialism. What am I doing when I understand a word, or sentence, or the proposition the sentence might be intended to express?

Suppose I, as an English speaker, am standing on a street corner in Budapest, Hungary, with a companion, and we are listening to two native Hungarian speakers a few feet away. We don’t understand a word they are saying, of course, because we don’t know Hungarian — we can’t discern its patterns. We hear vocal sound, but can’t discern meanings. We have no understanding.

The speakers understand each other perfectly, of course. Isn’t that interesting?

Were we to speak in English, and the Hungarians hear us, our situations would be reversed (assuming no grasp of English by the Hungarian interlocutors).

What is this understanding, this discerning of meanings?

I am aware of the volumes upon volumes of philosophical literature on this, especially since Wittgenstein’s day.

What was that line from Macbeth about tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?

No, I am not saying that the legions of academic philosophers who authored that literature are idiots. But surely it is possible that they have allowed themselves, collectively, to be misled. Even the best remaining living philosophers, such as Berkeley’s John Searle (1932 –       ) whose work debunking the idea that understanding is a matter of programming seems to me definitive, continue to be wedded to some form of materialism about mind and consciousness.

For roughly a hundred years now philosophers have wrestled with the idea and been — in my humble opinion — unsuccessful in fitting understanding and meanings (which presuppose consciousness) into the “material world.”

A square peg just won’t fit into a round hole!

The “materiality” of spoken language is nothing more than what I hear when I hear spoken Hungarian: a sequence of sounds coming out of persons’ mouths, nothing more! (The written language is similar: marks on paper or in cyberspace or wherever!)

Likewise with English — a different pattern or sequence of sounds. The only difference is that I can understand those!

But a speaker of Hungarian who does not understand a word of English will hear nothing but sound when I speak!

Understanding a language, spoken or written, is something the mind adds. It is a phenomenon of consciousness, that mental square peg still resisting that material round hole.

Materialism can’t explain conscious self-awareness and understanding period. The “hard problem of consciousness” (David Chalmers’s colorful phrase) will remain not just “hard” but intractable because the problem is not solvable given the round hole most philosophy of mind offers it. It is an indication, when all is said and done, of the fundamental irrationality of continuing trying to explain “how a material organ, the brain, generates conscious awareness,” including understanding language and concept.

I would argue further, that unless we want to lapse into a problematic dualism, this militates in favor of the idea that the world “outside our minds” is inherently “mental” in the sense implied above with our reference to the capacity of mathematics to explain it at its most fundamental level.

But this suggestion of panpsychism (which Chalmers toys with at one point in his talk referenced above) as an appropriate ontology for the world of space and time, consisting of systems each of a type or kind, with each type or kind having its own level of awareness of its proximate environment, is an idea for another time.

The point is: none of this has anything to do with anyone’s theology. We can dispute the idea that consciousness, meanings, understandings, can be fitted into the materialist’s world, without ever mentioning God.

There is much more in our world, and our lives, however, that indirectly points towards such a worldview.

From the successes science has enjoyed it does not follow that this world, the world of space, time, and causality where science and technology operate, exhausts reality.

This should be evident, further, in that science tells us what is, not what should be, or what we ought to do.

Our “material” circumstances and our responses to them (painful or pleasureful) can guide us prudentially, in a means versus ends sense, but they cannot tell us that a given end is a moral one.

Science and its applications can tell us what an abortion is and how to perform one, that it “solves the problem” of an unwanted pregnancy. This cannot tell us whether abortions ought to be performed.

Science can describe, clinically, in whatever vivid detail is desired, a mass murder or genocide. It cannot isolate the specific material component of the event that compels us to describe it as evil.

According to wildly accepted geological findings, mass extinctions have occurred on our planet several times in the past. Were these evil?

To state that cultures evolve morality as survival mechanisms is to imply that moralities could be invented differently, in ways that write murdered “others” out of given moral communities.

This was done in societies guided by one of the variations on the materialist worldview. It had been done before, of course, in societies guided by other worldviews. Only the Christian worldview, of course, asserts that all persons were created in God’s image and have intrinsic value. The early Enlightenment implicitly accepted this with its idea of universal human rights.

Our argument is that materialism gradually undermined this outlook and, by the twentieth century, has left us back where we started. The retribalization of the West (identity politics) confirms this.

But had we an ethics with a foundation other than stipulations hanging in mid-air, we would all react to the aborting of over 63 million unborn babies with the same horror as we do Nazis murdering Jews.

All of this takes us far afield from the fundamental questions a Christian worldview invites humanity to consider. Questions to which a discussion such as this invariably must return.

Who was — is! — Jesus Christ? Was He God made into man, as Scripture says?

What was His mission?

What are you going to do about it? Are you going to face the fundamental questions about the human condition head on, or continue dodging them going down rabbit trails?

If you’re a Christian, you are not out of the woods. Are you living the life Christ commands you to live? If not (and I would argue, none of us truly are), what are you going to do about it?

It is time to begin summing up this series.

Whatever our worldview — Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or materialist — it might be a good idea to talk to one another as best we can, however difficult it might be to converse across these incommensurable divides.

Communications technologies, especially social media, products of the West that have spread worldwide, have brought different worldviews into the same meeting place as never before: cyberspace, which transcends location. There is also the fact that some of us are able to travel anywhere and experience the cultural embodiments of other worldviews firsthand.

We should encourage respectful interfaith dialogue as never before.

Christians, in my humble opinion, should not aim at setting up some kind of theocracy. That type of system has never worked, and never will.

We should build — or rebuild — our communities from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Our dialogue should be conducted respectfully and with an eye to seeing what is similar in the beliefs of others, and not being so eager to focus on what is different. It should set out, that is, to find common ground, starting with the undeniable fact that we are all human, we all have the capacity to suffer or feel joy, and we all could use more companionship — and the sense that someone cares.

And to look to the future rather than dwelling on errors of a past no one can change.

The world needs people both able and willing to communicate, especially with divisive and destructive personalities everywhere. We can then show how the world looks from the Christian standpoint, present what we believe is true in Christianity, why we believe it, and what it does for us (it gives us peace, it gives us hope, and it places our caring on a solid moral footing).

This, we must add, goes along with acting as Jesus Christ would have as act, in accordance with His words during the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere. It includes setting examples in our personal lives. Not cursing, not lashing out in anger at others, not getting drunk in public (or in private!), not reading or viewing pornography, not cheating on a spouse, not being dishonest with bosses or coworkers or employees or the government, not erecting false idols such as money (the so-called prosperity gospel!) or putting ever-fallible political figures on pedestals.

We need to show others what the Christian worldview looks like when lived, and not just talked about. Talk, as the saying goes, is cheap. The supply is so much greater than the demand.

This will mean taking a public stand on issues that matter, and working to ensure not just, e.g., that there are no abortions but also that unplanned pregnancies are minimized by reducing the conditions for such.

What the Christian worldview says about sexuality might be a place to start. As well as what it says about males and females, husbands and wives, parents and children, families generally. There is responsibility all the way around.

Christians should take an active and personal interest in public health, and health education. This includes mental health. That mental illness stands at an all-time high in materialist civilization must be significant!

If public schools are hostile to Christianity, then Christians need to start more of their own schools. There now exists a library of books arguing this point and advising how to do it.

And Christians should be interested in whether impoverished peoples both at home and abroad have food to eat, whatever the latter’s beliefs. And that they have opportunities to learn the practices that will enable them to feed themselves.

Fortunately, thousands of Christian missionaries all around the world are already doing these things, sometimes placing themselves at risk!

We need to become missionaries in our own secular cities as well.

Will we get everything right? Of course not. No one ever does. What is important is that we will be taking action, not simply sitting in our church pews and home offices.

Words without deeds, after all, are idle chatter.

Having attended to such matters, the most constructive thing we can then do is to step aside and trust God to do His work.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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1 Response to Materialism (Vers. 2.0, Part 7)

  1. dwp2018 says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your seven part series on Materialism. Your expertise on the subject matter and intellectual endeavors were a welcome oasis to the dullardry that often fills my email. However, Parts 6 and 7 reached conclusions that such an educated mind should not succumb to. No educated individual should accept a supernatural deity created our gift of consciousness as the most likely explanation as to its existence. Just because the natural mechanisms and physics of the human brain’s neural network have not been identified does not mean that a mystical force is behind it. The priming nature of a Christian upbringing is the only explanation for an educated mind to reach such a conclusion. In a neutral or desocialized mind of an educated individual the answer to the mystery of consciousness should never be supernatural.

    To address a couple of specific issues. One on the plurality of various religions across the globe. The question was raised as to the legitimacy of Christianity vs (insert other religious view) but never fully answered. The train of thought dissipated rather than answering whether one religion is more likelier than the other to exist. The idea that all non-believers of Christianity should be burned and tortured for eternity is beneath modern human morality. Much of Part 6 discussed the morality of a secular world vs a religious one. The discussion can certainly pertain to social and political discussions, but as to the existence of a Christian deity, it is irrelevant. Just because Christianity may lead to a better society the odds of its truthfulness does not change.

    Dylan Page

    It is the responsibility of all educated minds to approach the nature of reality and the universe through neutral unbiased observation.

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