You are a human animal
You are a very special breed
For you are the only animal
Who can think, who can reason, who can read."
Of course it's true in part. You and I are a "very special breed." After all, we possess the astonishing ability to think, to reason, to read and to comprehend what we read---and this is true whether we believe in God and our creation in the image and likeness of God or hold the universe to consist entirely of brute physical particles and nothing more. We both reason. We both assume the essential reliability of human reasoning to bring us to true knowledge of ourselves and the world around us. And we both desire to be rational in our thinking about the existence of God and the nature of our world.
Hear that again, because this will surprise most atheists, who like to present themselves as the very champions of rationality and to portray us religious folk as preferring to simply "believe" what others tell us and so cling to our medieval delusions. We both desire to be rational.
The only difference between us is that while we who believe in God hold a worldview that can account for our ability to seek and find truth through the use of reason, the atheist does not.
You see, as much as the atheist desires to be rational, he holds a view of the world that continually forces him in the direction of irrationalism---by reducing his thoughts and even the process of reasoning to chemical reactions taking place in a brain "governed solely by the laws of physics and chemistry."
He wants to apply the laws of logic and seek knowledge and truth, but he holds a view of the world that cannot even account for the existence of abstract, universal and unchanging laws of thought.
In short, as we learned in our last lesson, when thinking is conceived as something the brain "excretes", knowledge becomes something...well, something "eliminated."
So how do materialists deal with this problem?
Well, most don't. For most, thinking, reasoning, drawing logical conclusions---these are activities so natural to them as human beings created in the image of the infinite personal thinking God that it doesn't cross their minds that this is something they would need to account for in terms of their materialist worldview. Not at all. Even as atheists very naturally make moral judgments ("this is right, that's wrong") without troubling themselves with the fact that as materialists they can't even account for the existence of moral law as anything more than illusion, so with reasoning.
But for those who have thought about the problem, how do they deal with it?
Baboons with a Surplus of Neurons
According to philosopher of mind John Searle, somehow in the course of our evolution we human animals wound up with mental abilities far beyond what is needed to survive and reproduce. We can do the basics, but we can also compose oboe concertos scored for full orchestra, send people to the moon and develop complex theories about the history and meaning of Bulgarian folk dance.
Basically, we are, he says, "baboons with a surplus of neurons."
And while he admits that conceiving of ourselves in this way could cast doubt on the reliability of our thinking (do you think?), in the end all we can do is trust our minds, at least provisionally, so that we can go on doing science and so test the limits of our mental abilities by the results we get.
This is what we might refer to as the “well, our minds seem to work okay” answer to the problem.
But notice, the fact that our reasoning processes "work" and lead to knowledge says nothing for the naturalist case. After all, maybe our reasoning processes "work" precisely because naturalism isn’t true and our minds are more than the materialist says they are. Maybe the naturalist's ability to think, to reason, to read, and to come to knowledge "works" precisely because he's the image and likeness of a personal thinking God and his mind reflects the mind of his Creator.
Remember, as when we talked in earlier lessons about meaning and morality and human worth and unalienable rights and consciousness and free will, we're not arguing that atheists don't think or reason or come to truth. Of course they do. The evidence that they do is everywhere.
What we're arguing is that they cannot account for this on the basis of their worldview.
Materialists need to answer the problem posed by British evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane rather than merely assuming that a materialist explanation exists.
If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true… and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.
That's the challenge that needs to be dealt with. And the fact that materialists do think and reason and are successful in coming to knowledge is no answer to the challenge. Actually, it's the reverse. It's evidence that their mental processes are not "determined wholly by the motions of atoms in their brains." It's evidence that their minds are not reducible to chemical reactions "governed solely by the laws of chemistry and physics." It's evidence that materialism isn't true.
The Argument from Natural Selection
A more sophisticated way of stating the "well, our minds seem to work okay" position is to argue that in the process of evolution, random genetic mutations brought about our ability to think and natural selection rewarded creatures that could think rationally. In other words, our minds evolved the ability to reason to correct conclusions through trial and error.
Those, for instance, who reasoned correctly and wisely invested in Apple are surviving and happily passing along their brilliant genes while those who reasoned incorrectly and sold Apple, thinking it was a runaway train, and put their money into gold and silver mining stocks, are not even certain they want to survive, much less actively transmit their idiot blood line.
This is the path Stephen Hawking takes:
Provided the universe has evolved in a regular way, we might expect that the reasoning abilities that natural selection has given us would be valid…and so would not lead us to the wrong conclusions."
But this doesn't answer the challenge we're making to materialism.
You see, if thoughts and ideas are reducible to deterministic physical processes taking place in our brains such the brain "excretes" thoughts much like the liver filters bile or the stomach digests food, then the theory of evolution is also something Charles Darwin’s brain “excreted.” And to borrow Haldane's wording to describe the situation, "If Darwin's theory of evolution was determined wholly by the motions of atoms in his brain, he has no reason to suppose that his theory of evolution is true... and no reason for supposing his brain to be composed of atoms."
In other words, when Hawking appeals to the theory of evolution to explain our ability to think and reason and draw accurate conclusions, he's appealing to a theory that is itself the result of deterministic physical processes. So how is this an answer to the question of how knowledge is possible when everything we think is determined by chemistry and physics?
As Philip Johnson puts it, the argument is a hall of mirrors.
Escape into Pragmatism and Irrationalism
A naturalist wrestling with these ideas and realizing that he cannot account for how knowledge is possible within his worldview can always take the pragmatic position and say, "OK, so I can't account for how knowledge is possible. Who cares?" But this has its own problems, not least being that the one saying this doesn't believe it and can't live with it.
Take a moment to read this classic passage from C.S. Lewis's classic work Miracles.
Some naturalists whom I have met attempt to escape by saying that there is no ground for believing our thoughts to be valid and that this doesn’t worry them in the least. “We find that they work,” it is said, “and we admit that we cannot argue from this that they give us a true account of any external reality. But we don’t mind. We are not interested in truth. Our habits of thought seem to enable humanity to keep alive and that is all we care about.”.... [But] unless the Naturalists put forward naturalism as a true theory, we have of course no dispute with them. You can argue with a man who says “Rice is unwholesome,” but you neither can nor need argue with a man who says, “Rice is unwholesome, but I’m not saying this is true.” I feel also that the surrender of the claim to truth has all the air of an expedient adopted at the last moment. If the Naturalists do not claim to know any truths, ought they not to have warned us rather earlier of the fact? For really from the books they’ve written, in which the behavior of the remotest nebula, the shyest photon and the most prehistoric man are described, one would have got the idea that they we claiming to give a true account of real things. The fact surely is that they nearly always are claiming to do so. The claim is surrendered only when the question discussed in this chapter is pressed; and when the crisis is over the claim is tacitly resumed.
They will begin the discussion as champions of rationalism. “We must be rational, and this is why we cannot accept all this superstitious nonsense about God and Christ and people rising from the dead. We must have a rational foundation for our knowledge that is scientific and based on the laws of logic and the rules of evidence.” But as soon as you show them that on the basis of their worldview, they cannot account for even the existence of the laws of logic and have no grounds for trusting their chemically-produced thoughts, they will switch from rationalism to irrationalism and say, “But of course, ultimately, this is a chance universe and no one can know anything for sure.”
Here’s how philosopher Greg Bahnsen describes the atheist’s dilemma:
The unbeliever wants to be rational, but holds an irrational view of the universe. He denies the possibility of true knowledge even while he pursues knowledge and tells us we don’t know what we’re talking about. He says in essence, “Nobody knows for sure but I’m sure you’re wrong!” The unbeliever wants to be rational enough to say we are wrong and irrational enough to say, “I don’t have to give you a foundation for my knowledge."
None of this matters. I still know that you are wrong and that naturalism is true.”
Skepticism or God's Existence
What are the materialist's real options? Well, he can admit that the naturalist worldview destroys and eliminates the very possibility of knowledge and therefore cannot be true.
He can turn from naturalism and consider a worldview that actually accounts for (a) the existence of abstract, universal and unchanging laws of thought and (b) minds that are more than machines governed by the laws of chemistry and physics, free to think, and therefore (c) the possibility of knowledge. Or he can retreat into utter skepticism and admit that there really is no reason for him to even continue thinking. Much less debating with you about God's existence.
Ultimately, naturalism reduces to complete skepticism. If the atheist were consistent with what he says is true about the nature of the world, he would abandon reason.
Ironically, what this means is that to even argue against God’s existence the atheist must first presuppose God’s existence---in the sense that if he wants to use the weapons of ideas, reason, logic, and knowledge to attack belief in God’s existence, he must first borrow them from a worldview that can account for them, like the Christian theistic worldview.
These weapons simply cannot be forged in the factory of naturalism.