One of the more curious figures from Greek mythology is a fellow named Procrustes.
Procrustes ran a little Bed & Breakfast on the road between Athens and Eleusis. When travelers made their way past his lair, he would invite them in for a pleasant meal and rest for the night. He had a special bed, he explained, one that they would surely want to try out—an iron bed that somehow matched exactly the length of every person who lay on it.
What Procrustes declined to mention was the unusual method by which this “one size fits all” miracle bed worked. As soon as he had his guest where he wanted him, he would bring out his tools and get to work. Those who were too short, he would stretch on the rack to make them longer. Those who were too tall, he would cut down to size, amputating as much of their feet and legs as was required to achieve the perfect length. In the end, everyone fit the bed the Procrustes. He made sure of it.
Iron Beds and Worldviews
I think of Procrustes as the ultimate “reductionist.” He may have been blunt about it, but no one can argue he wasn't skilled at making things fit a preconceived shape.
And in one way or another, the terrible things Procrustes did to his guests, all reductionist worldviews do to human experience. You see, when reality is viewed as reducible to "one essential thing", and when one is committed to making sure everything is made to fit that reality, it takes some stretching here and whittling down there. Especially when it comes to the richness of human experience.
For instance, the eastern pantheist reduces reality down to one essential thing. "Everything is God," the pantheist explains. "Nothing exists but God."
And when some unenlightened Christian or Jew or Muslim scratches his fool head and says, “You know, it sure doesn’t seem like everything is God. I mean, what about DVD players and automobile transmissions and this very earth you and I are standing on?” the subtle eastern philosopher will respond, “Ah, but all that is illusion, you see. Material reality may seem to exist, but it really doesn't. Beneath what appears to be, everything is God.”
The materialist does the exact reverse. He also reduces reality down to one essential thing, but rather than everything being “God,” for the materialist everything is “matter.”
And when some unenlightened Christian or Jew or Muslim furrows his ignorant brow and says, “But it sure doesn’t seem like everything is matter. I mean, what about morality? What about the mind? Human consciousness? Are these material things?" the subtle materialist philosopher will assure the poor deluded believer that he is simply mistaken. "Ah, but all that is illusion, you see. Although morality, mind, consciousness may not seem to be material things, they are."
"Beneath what appears to be, everything is reducible to matter."
Consciousness is an Illusion
So far the materialist has taught us that a number of things we believed were real, aren't.
We believe there is objective meaning and purpose to life. "False," says the materialist, "that's an illusion." We believe human beings possess intrinsic value and dignity. "Nope. Another illusion." We hold it to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal and endowed with the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. "Pure illusion." We believe that right and wrong are real. That morality isn't something relative from person to person or society to society and that it isn't merely an evolved aid to survival and reproduction. "Sorry, but that's another illusion."
And now we learn that mind and consciousness are also illusion.
Mind, we're told, is "matter and matter only". What you and I experience as happiness or pain, what we perceive as thoughts, desires, intentions, memories, beliefs---even what we perceive to be the color yellow or the sound of music---these are all illusions, tricks our brains play on us.
What actually exists is a series of entirely physical events taking place in a lump of biological tissue in your skull. What exists are electrochemical processes.
The Non-Miraculous Miracle of Water to Wine
Of course, while these philosophers and scientists are sure this is the case, they admit continually that they have no idea how consciousness could arise from biological tissue. Not a clue.
"The emergence of consciousness, " writes Geoffrey Madell, "is a mystery, and one to which materialism signally fails to provide an answer". It's not that materialism "has a hard time explaining" the emergence of consciousness. It "signally fails" to explain. It cannot explain.
Jaegwon Kim asks, "How can a series of physical events, little particles jostling against one another, electric current rushing to and fro….blossom into a conscious experience?"
Colin McGinn expresses utter dumbfoundedness at the idea:
How can mere matter originate consciousness? How did evolution convert the water of biological tissue into the wine of consciousness? Consciousness seems like a radical novelty in the universe...so how did it contrive to spring into being from what preceded it?.... It strikes us as miraculous, eerie, even faintly comic."
These are good questions. After all, common sense would agree with philosopher J.P. Moreland who said, "Start with matter and tweak it physically and all you get is tweaked matter."
This all seems intuitively evident.
Materialism Almost Certainly False
Recently, well-known atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel has come out with a book in which he argues that what seems intuitively evident to us, is evident.
Professor Nagel argues that it's not enough for naturalist philosophers and scientists to merely continue forcefully asserting that human consciousness can be explained as a product of biological evolution and assuring us this must be the case. Insisting that it is the case.
No. Consciousness---especially the subjective experience of being consciousness of ourselves as individual persons with our own memories and fears and intentions and desires---this is such a fundamental characteristic of who we are as human beings. And it stands out so conspicuously as distinct from matter. It cannot, therefore, be merely asserted. It must be explained how it could possibly have evolved in a universe in which nothing exists but material substances.
Consciousness is the most conspicuous obstacle to a comprehensive naturalism that relies only on the resources of physical science. The existence of consciousness seems to imply that the physical description of the universe, in spite of its richness and explanatory power, is only part of the truth... If we take this problem seriously, and follow out its implications, it threatens to unravel the entire naturalistic world picture."
But at least he's willing to face the reality that consciousness amounts to a fact that cannot be explained in terms of a worldview that reduces everything to physical particles and insists that nothing else exists. In essence, he's agreeing with us that "we" are the recalcitrant fact that demonstrates the falseness of the materialist worldview. Thus the title of his book: Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False,
The Religion of Naturalism
One would think that at some point the sheer weight of the implications of holding to a consistent materialist worldview would lead the atheist to take another look.
After all, while Procrustes only amputated the feet of his guests, the consistent materialist amputates our souls in order to make you and me fit the iron bed of his materialist worldview.
For the really committed atheist, this isn't an issue. For him, the naturalist-materialist worldview is something that is accepted by faith. It isn't something science has "demonstrated" to be true. It's isn't something science could ever "demonstrate" to be true. It's something that is believed.
And because it's believed, the committed atheist also believes that there must be some "natural explanation" for the emergence of human consciousness.
What we need to do is wait patiently for science to discover this natural explanation. And even if the idea that consciousness evolved from matter sounds insane to you, and goes against the grain of everything that seems intuitively true, you must at all costs resist the temptation to depart from a materialist explanation. You must never allow yourself to even wonder if consciousness might not be evidence of the existence of something beyond physical reality.
Listening recently to a lecture on consciousness by atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett, I marveled at the impressive strength of his faith commitment to materialism as a worldview.
After admitting that he has no idea how consciousness could have naturally evolved (and insisting that no one else does, either), he went on to insist that those who seek explanations other than natural explanations "haven't even begun the work" of trying to figure out this whole issue of consciousness.
In other words, if it's not a materialist answer, it's not an answer at all.
And then there are the other ninety-eight percent of people on earth who have not undergone the rigorous training required to think in consistent materialist terms and believe it.
These know intuitively that they are more than matter. They know there is something else in the equation. And even though they may doubt the existence of God, or say there is no God at all, when you draw out for them this inescapable implication of the materialist worldview---that their own sense of self is an illusion---it will not sit easy with them. It will cause them to think about what they believe.
Here are some questions I asked a materialist friend a few months back.
How do you know that the explanation of consciousness is a "natural" explanation? Is it possible that consciousness is an evidence that naturalism isn’t true---that there's more to this universe than particles in motion? Is it possible that, to quote Shakespeare, "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy?" Is it possible that our world is a richer world than you think it is? What if the truth is that God’s existence and our creation in God’s image and likeness is what accounts for human consciousness? Wouldn’t you want to know that, if that was in fact the truth? After all, what is your real goal, to find the truth, or to find natural explanations for everything?
Got a smile out of him with that last one.