Few ideas are as insidious as the reductionistic materialism touted by some of the New Atheists. Atheism and materialism need not walk down the same garden path, but the idea that we are determined by the thoughtless playing out of particle physics can only be achieved by sweeping the vast majority of human experience off the table to attempt a sterile analysis that applies, it seems, only in a vacuum. I often ponder this dilemma since those who think through the implications seriously soon find themselves locked out of the room. Materialists want nothing to do with those who challenge a system that is a little too neat, while ardent believers in religion have trouble letting go of what are obviously the mythological underpinnings of belief structures. The rest of us, trying to be intellectually honest, know that strange things happen and that materialism’s strong arm is powerless to uphold a system that is simplistic.
Indeed, scientists have moved away from utility as the sole criterion for explaining the universe. Beauty, or elegance, is frequently considered to be key to a Grand Unified Theory. It may be a gut-level reaction, but it speaks to something deeply human; we need to make sense of our world. We can do that, however, only if we’re willing to be honest. I’m not sure we can be honest without acknowledging that our minds range far beyond the sum of all the electro-chemical activity within an individual brain. If they didn’t, religion, for one, just couldn’t survive. Beauty, as a qualifier, is said to be in the eye of the beholder. Philosophers, however, maintain that aesthetics, the study of beauty, constitutes a branch of philosophy that requires hard thinking and specialized training. Beauty is a driving force for many aspects of life. Otherwise we wouldn’t hire architects to design since buildings on university campuses. A pile of bricks sufficiently mortared will do.
The issue is trenchant because a generation is growing up with this idea firmly in place. Scientific studies, if scientists are to be believed, demonstrate that a strict materialism erodes empathy, the sense that what others experience matters. The logical conclusion to a reductionistic world is a kind of cold solipsism where the only spark of consciousness that matters is the one that takes place inside this head. All the rest are just formulas and equations. And yet, don’t even materialists enjoy a good novel, movie, or fine meal? The world is a complex place, and we haven’t even taken the first adult steps to begin exploring the rest of the universe with the five basic senses we acknowledge. Even down here, however, there is much that reductionistic materialism can’t explain. I wouldn’t stick a god in that gap, but a dose of humble wonder, I suggest, wouldn’t hurt.