Material Goods

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.

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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.

Theory of Everything

Over the weekend my wife pointed out an interesting story on MSNBC pointing out that superstitious beliefs are becoming more common. While reason may dictate that as it becomes more obvious that reason explains everything the supernatural will fade from the human explanatory repertoire. Instead, scientists are using reason to explain why this does not appear to be happening. Many neuroscientists suggest that something in the brain predisposes us to believe, while other scientists suggest it may be in the DNA. For whatever reason, we are inclined to believe in outside agency.

The article is an introduction to the book Paranormal America by Christopher Bader and Carson Mencken. I’ve read some of Bader’s work before and it is admirable for its balance. He tends not to judge the phenomena but raises the question why people believe what is, frankly, often unbelievable. What stands out in such discussions is that religion is often classed separately from the “paranormal.” Paranormal is generally anything outside the accepted bounds of science. Supernatural, apparently, is anything that makes blatant claims to be outside the reach of science. With recriminations frequently flying both directions, I suggest maybe a reworking of definitions might be in order. Science, by definition, can explain all phenomena that exist. Supernatural, by definition, cannot be quantified. Too many mutually exclusive truths.

For many decades many scientists have been seeking a grand unified theory, something that explains everything. This they hope to do without recourse to the supernatural. When they arrive at this theory or formula, predictably, those who believe God is bigger than all this will claim that God is simply outside the system. Perhaps the net needs to be widened. We know that we humans do not possess the keenness of senses that our animal friends have. Various creatures see, heard, smell, taste and touch with such exquisite sensitivity that we can only be jealous. Some can sense magnetic fields, while some flowers follow the sun without the benefit of any eyes. We, in our presumption, think we see and measure all that is to be seen and measured. Hamlet would disagree. I can’t wait to read Bader and Mencken’s book, but I’m inclined to think that even when a grand unified theory arises there will still be room for philosophers, and maybe even theologians.