Famous educator Mortimer Adler once said, "The world is content with words, few are those who search into the meaning of things."
Well, focus your mind for a moment on the words of atheist philosopher of mind John Searle quoted above---this idea that our universe "consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, unfree, non-rational, brute physical particles." This is what Searle believes. Either implicitly or explicitly, this is what nearly every atheist you will ever read or meet believes. Let their meaning sink in:
No God. No spirits of any kind. No souls. Nothing exists but physical particles.
This is the worldview we call "naturalism," or "materialism." It's sometimes referred to as "physicalism." But whatever we call it (a rose is a rose by whatever name---again, it's not words but the meaning of things that counts) this is the worldview we've been critiquing in these lessons.
Our method has been to examine naturalism from the inside, to climb inside and look around, to think about the implications that would follow if naturalism really was true, and to ask essentially the same question professor Searle is asking: How can the naturalist "square" the human person with what he tells us about the nature of the world in which we live? How can he account for us and explain us? How can he make us "fit in" without first eliminating everything that makes us us?
There is exactly one overriding question in contemporary philosophy… How do we fit in?… How can we square this self-conception of ourselves as mindful, meaning-creating, free, rational, etc., agents with a universe that consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, unfree, non-rational, brute physical particles?"
When Searle describes this question as the "overriding question of contemporary philosophy", I take him to mean that this question is a very difficult question for him personally.
Our argument of course is that we do not "fit" into a naturalist scheme, that the atheist cannot "account for" us, or "explain" us, or "square" us with his materialist conception of the universe. No matter how hard he works to reduce everything about us to "brute physical particles", the image of God within us just sits there like an anvil in the throat of naturalism. It won't go down.
We've seen this with respect to the question of meaning in life, human worth and dignity, human rights, morality, consciousness and free will. If there is no God, each of these is an illusion. After all, none of these can be explained in terms of "a universe that consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, unfree, non-rational, brute physical particles." None of them can be accounted for.
In this lesson and the next, I want to look at the issue of knowledge and argue that as a worldview naturalism reduces to absurdity. If materialism were true we could know nothing at all, including the fact that materialism is true. In this way, materialism refutes itself.
How so? Think with me through the following five steps.
1. If our universe consists "entirely" of physical particles, material substances, then you and I as a part of this universe also consist "entirely" of material substances.
And of course atheists insist that this is the case. Paul Churchland writes:
“The important point about the standard evolutionary story is that the human species and all of its features are the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process. If this is the correct account of our origin, then there seems neither need nor room to fit any nonphysical substances or properties into our theoretical accounts of ourselves. We are creatures of matter.” (emphasis added)
Our minds seem to us to be the exact opposite of matter. We talk about "mind over matter". Without thinking about it, I say to my grandson what parents and teachers from the beginning of time have said to their children and students, "Johnny, use your brain!" And when I speak this way, I'm assuming a distinction between "Johnny" and his "brain". In fact, his brain is something Johnny can "use" if only he will slow down and think. It's intuitive to conceive of mind as something immaterial.
And it's because of the things our minds can do. We take in sensory data, sort out these impressions, organize them and abstract from them "concepts", "ideas". We reason inductively and deductively. We have the ability to develop unbelievably complex lines of thought. We remember, we intend, we wonder, we believe, we twist ideas into humor. These do not seem to be material in nature.
But if nothing exists but material substances, then all of this must be reducible to material processes in the brain, electrochemical processes. Thoughts must be material "things", or at minimum functions of material things. What we call "reasoning" must be a physical process.
Believing this to be the case, atheist philosopher Pierre Jean Georges Cabanis said that the brain produces thoughts and ideas in much the same way that the stomach and bowels "produce digestion" or the liver "filters bile". Charles Darwin described thoughts as "excretions" of the brain.
What? Does thinking arise from the brain like mist from a pond? Are thoughts to the brain like the characters we see on the screen of a computer monitor to the code that lies behind them? Is thinking like sweating? Like the process of digestion? Do our brains "excrete" thoughts?
Sounds insane, but it follows naturally---inescapably, in fact. Once you've said that nothing exists but matter and material reality, what else could thoughts be?
3. If naturalism is true, and our thoughts and ideas are reducible to physical processes within the brain, then our thoughts and ideas must be determined by those processes.
Remember that the physical universe is conceived by materialists as a closed system of physical causes and physical effects. It is deterministic by nature. But if we and our minds and even our thoughts are a part of this closed system of physical causes and physical effects, then our thoughts are as determined as the direction the wind blows at any moment, or a shadow is cast by the sun.
Atheist Sam Harris agrees and doesn't even blink when he says that...
Human thought and behavior are determined by prior states of the universe and its laws.... We are driven by chance and necessity, just as a marionette is set dancing on its strings." (emphasis added)
The brain is a physical system whose operation is governed solely by the laws of chemistry and physics. What does this mean? It means that all of your thoughts and hopes and dreams and feelings are produced by chemical reactions going on in your head." (emphasis added)
Clearly some amazing chemical reactions at work here!
4. But if all this is the case and everything you and I think is produced and determined by physical processes taking place in our brains, why should we trust our thoughts to be "true" or anything we have in our heads to be properly describable as "knowledge"?
We certainly don't use the word "true" to describe the excretions of an adrenal gland. We don't think of the results of any deterministic physical process as being "true". They simply are.
And if thinking is an entirely physical action in which our very thoughts are determined by electrochemical processes in the brain, the firing of neurons, central nervous system activity and what not, why would we think of the "conclusions" of this process as "true"? Why should we think of what winds up being excreted by our brains as constituting "knowledge"?
Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland puts the question like this:
If mind emerged from matter without the direction of a superior Intelligence…why should we trust the deliverances of the mind as being rational and true, especially in the mind’s more theoretical activities? No one would trust the printout of a computer if he knew that it was programmed by random forces or by non-rational laws without a mind being behind it.
Now, think with me... If materialism is true, and the ideas you have right now in your mind that (a) all men are mortal and that (b) Socrates is a man are ideas produced by chemical reactions in your brain and determined "solely by the laws of chemistry and physics", how is that this "ought" to lead to a third chemical reaction producing the thought that (c) Socrates is mortal?
How do the chemicals know that it's "logical" to perform the next reaction? I thought these reactions were determined "solely by the laws of chemistry and physics." Suddenly the laws of logic determine the next move? How does "logic" suddenly dictate what the next chemical reaction will be?
The truth is that the materialist cannot even account for the existence of something like an abstract, universal and unchanging law in a universe he has already said "consists entirely of mindless, meaningless, unfree, non-rational, brute physical particles." And if he can't account for even the existence of the laws of logic, how can he use them to make his case against the existence of God?
The Elimination of Knowledge
In the end, the materialist worldview reduces---logically---to absurdity.
If materialism is true, our thoughts reduce to mere excretions of brain. Everything we think determined by chemical reactions in our heads. Some people simply have to believe that God exists and others that there is no god. And even if we wanted to debate there are no universal and unchanging laws of logic by which we could debate. It's all chemistry and physics.
If materialism were true, this would be the end of the story—and not merely the story of the debate about God's existence, but the story of all human knowledge.
In the end, the materialist eliminates the validity of his own thoughts and with that he eliminates the possibility of knowledge. If materialism were true, the materialist could know nothing at all, including the idea that materialism is true. In other words, the materialist worldview refutes itself.
So how do atheists deal with these questions and challenges? In our next lesson...
It does no good for the atheist to say, "Well, however it works, it seems to work because it's quite obvious that we possess accurate knowledge of many things." After all, maybe it "works" because materialism isn't true. Maybe the mind is more than matter and our thoughts more than the product of chemical reactions in our brains. Maybe that's why we can have "knowledge" of "truth".
It does not make sense to talk about knowledge and truth within a materialist worldview.
No, Sam Harris can say that everything we think is "determined by prior states of the universe and its laws", but if he were to introduce his book on free will by saying, "Oh, by the way, everything I've written in this book---every word, every phrase, every sentence---was determined by prior states of the universe and its laws", who would bother to read it?
Comides and Tooby can tell us our thoughts are "produced by chemical reactions" going on in our brains and that the entire process is "governed solely by the laws of chemistry and physics", but if they really believed this, it's hard to understand why they would go to the trouble to write down their thoughts and attempt to convince others of their "truth"?
5. Finally, to make his case for a materialist worldview and against the existence of God, the materialist must use the laws of logic. But in a universe in which nothing exists but matter, he cannot even account for the existence of such laws, much less their authority.
When we speak of the “laws of logic,” what are we talking about? We're simply talking about the laws that govern sound reasoning, the rules that distinguish good reasoning from bad reasoning.
Here's the classic example: (a) All men are mortal; (b) Socrates is a man; therefore (c) Socrates is mortal. Now, when you read these words you immediately think, "OK, that sounds right. Provided that all men really are mortal, and Socrates really is a man, the conclusion is reasonable. It makes sense. It follows logically that Socrates must be mortal. I buy it."
Now, imagine I propose the following argument: (A) all men are mortal; (b) Socrates is a man; therefore (c) Barak Obama is a Muslim. Unless you are very, very deeply disappointed with the man, your brow probably furrowed and you thought, "Hold on. There's something wrong with that argument."
You see, there's a certain "oughtness" to right reasoning. If the premises of an argument are "true" and the conclusion follows logically from the premises, you and I "ought" to accept the conclusion as also being "true". The conclusion follows "necessarily" from the premises. And notice that this "necessity" is a logical necessity, not a physical necessity. The laws of logic are not laws that describe physical realities, like the laws of thermodynamics or gravity. They're laws of thought. The moves we make from premises (a) and (b) to conclusion (c) are logical moves, not physical moves.