This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 2 (2021).
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In books that I’ve referred to as scientific materialist manifestos, proponents of that philosophy attempt to offer a satisfying “story of everything” that excludes any sort of immaterial entities or powers that transcend the physical stuff of the cosmos. The authors, who are typically highly credentialed scientists, seek to persuade their readers that materialism need not be discarded on account of any lingering lacunae in its explanatory repertoire, but time and again, the perceptive reader is left dissatisfied by the speculative hand-waving and promissory notes. In previous articles, I demonstrated how this is the case concerning the origin of life problem and the justification of objective value, meaning, and purpose in human life.1
Regardless, many scientific materialists doggedly press on in their defense of their favored paradigm, convinced that future scientific discoveries, perhaps even another sort of scientific revolution, will satisfactorily mitigate — if not eliminate — these formidable challenges. However, it is one thing to have an insufficient materialist explanation for various phenomena, but it is quite another to be forced to admit that one’s worldview definitively rules out the existence of things that seem to be obvious and essential facets of our lived experience. The situation gets worse for scientific materialists: they must deny authentic human free will, which is requisite not only for objective morality but also for higher rationality, something that is indispensable to the scientific enterprise itself.
CONSISTENT MATERIALISM, WEAK CONSOLATIONS
In his book, Until the End of Time, theoretical physicist Brian Greene intrepidly follows his reductionist materialism to its logical conclusion concerning the question of autonomous human agency. Based upon our first-person experience, he says, we think we are in the driver’s seat of our lives, making innumerable free choices every day, but this is an illusion. If (as the materialist insists) we are nothing more than the physical stuff of our biology, then everything about us, including every thought and behavior, is the result of our molecules obeying the blind and unyielding laws of nature. Greene writes, “We are no more than playthings knocked to and fro by the dispassionate rules of the cosmos.”2 Why, then, do we have the overwhelming sense that we really are free agents with legitimate causal powers? “Our choices seem free,” Greene explains, “because we do not witness nature’s laws acting in their most fundamental guise; our senses do not reveal the operation of nature’s laws in the world of particles” (emphasis in original). Greene goes on to explain that “our senses and our reasoning focus on everyday human scales and actions: we think about the future, compare courses of action, and weigh possibilities. As a result, when our particles do act, it seems to us that their collective behaviors emerge from our autonomous choices.” Despite this “powerful sense of free will,” all “our thoughts and behaviors” are indeed “fully governed by physical law.”3 In other words, our innate sense of personal freedom is a psychological mirage.
In The Big Picture, theoretical physicist Sean Carroll agrees with Greene by insisting that freedom is not part of the real world: “There is no direct evidence for it, and it violates everything we know about the laws of nature. In order for libertarian freedom to exist, it would have to be possible for human beings to overcome the laws of physics just by thinking.”4 Carroll rightly concludes that, if the materialist view of the world is true and the laws of nature are universally applicable, free will has no place in the cosmic scheme of things. Even our thoughts are the outcome of particles doing their neurochemical dance.
Both Greene and Carroll acknowledge that the denial of human free will raises crucial questions about moral and legal responsibility. If we do what we do only because of the law-governed processes that occur in our brains, what sense does it make to hold someone accountable for something? If they could not have done otherwise, how do we justify inflicting consequences for broken manmade rules? Isn’t the justice system one big farce if jurors do not freely deliberate and freely choose to convict or acquit? In response to such questions, Carroll resorts to what he calls “poetic naturalism” — the view that we can describe the world from two different perspectives: the scientific account, which rules out genuine free will, and the human account, which is satisfied with the mere fact that people seem to make choices as they move through life. “Poetic naturalists…accept the reality of human volition, and therefore have no difficulty in attributing responsibility or blame….We attribute reality to our ability to make choices because thinking that way provides the best description we know of for the human-scale world.”5 In other words, we pretend. Based upon the simple fact that human beings do things, it’s okay to view them as moral agents, even if their actions are never the result of a truly free choice. This nonsensical (and intellectually insulting) suggestion does nothing to mitigate the monumental problem of morality in the context of scientific materialism. To say that someone is morally accountable for any behavior, there must be the assumption that they had a real choice in the matter.
Greene’s answer is equally inadequate. For him, human freedom is not defined by having the ability to will one thing or another and then freely do it. He writes:
Human freedom is about being released from the bondage of an impoverished range of response that has long constrained the behavior of the animate world. This notion of freedom does not require free will. Your lifesaving act, while duly appreciated, arose from the action of physical law and hence was not freely willed. But the fact that your particles were able to jump from the bench, and later, to reflect on their action and to be moved by their reflection, is utterly astonishing. The particles clustered into a rock cannot do anything remotely like this. And it is these capabilities manifesting as the wondrous sweep of thought, feeling, and behavior that captures the essence of being human — the essence of human freedom.6
According to Greene, feeling free combined with our status as animated organisms who do things and have thoughts about the things we do is enough to justify our common sense attitudes and statements about human freedom and moral duty. Like Carroll, Greene is suggesting that we live our lives on a contented plane of make-believe about moral responsibility despite the contrasting facts available on the scientific plane — that we live with incoherence.
NO FREEDOM, NO RATIONALITY, NO SCIENCE
Another catastrophic problem for the scientific materialist is that if there is no genuine freedom, there is no such thing as the higher rationality required for competent scientific investigation. When we mentally deliberate, we must be free to direct the process and choose reasons-based conclusions. If we are presented with a set of facts about which we wish to draw a logical inference, we must be able to make free choices during the process of mental deliberation, considering all sorts of information along the way and reconciling that information with what we already know to be true. This step-by-step exercise includes making unfettered judgments about the observations in question and drawing appropriate connections to known facts using rules of good reasoning. However, if the materialist account is true, our brain activity is entirely beyond our conscious control, and the free agency necessary for rational processes does not exist; all mental activities are determined by chemical activity. Thus, concludes philosopher J. P. Moreland, we could not be said to be reasoning at all.7
What, then, of science? In his book, Beyond Matter: Why Science Needs Metaphysics, philosopher Roger Trigg pinpoints a great difficulty: “Science assumes as a basis for its own existence the presence of a human rationality that rises above the linkages between cause and effect. The production of science cannot itself be part of a normal causal process….The practice of science depends on weighing arguments to see how strong the evidence is and even to decide what is to count as evidence or what is irrelevant to the matter in hand.”8 Thus, it is quite difficult to see how a materialist conception of human reason could explain science. In scientific investigation, we must be free to make decisions as we proceed down the pathway of discovery and free to choose a conclusion based upon a belief about where the available evidence is leading.
No Apprehension of Objective, Immaterial Math and Logic
In addition to free mental deliberation, something else that needs to be explained is the human mind’s ability to transcend the sensory world and access the objective, immaterial truths of mathematics and logic, which are integral to scientific thought. How is it, if we are merely material creatures, that we could ever see that a proposition of logic or mathematics is inevitably true? Atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel asks, “What is the faculty that enables us to escape from the world of appearance presented by our prereflective innate dispositions, into the world of objective reality?”9 We seem to grasp abstractions such as mathematical and logical truths in a different way than we do truths gleaned through sensory experience:
We reject a contradiction just because we see that it is impossible, and we accept a logical entailment just because we see that it is necessarily true. In ordinary perception, we are like mechanisms governed by a (roughly) truth-preserving algorithm. But when we reason, we are like a mechanism that can see that the algorithm it follows is truth-preserving. Something has happened that has gotten our minds into immediate contact with the rational order of the world, or at least with the basic elements of that order, which can in turn be used to reach a great deal more. That enables us to possess concepts that display the compatibility or incompatibility of particular beliefs with general hypotheses.10 (emphasis added)
Indeed, logic and mathematics are immaterial, and do not participate in the material cause-and-effect world. If our minds are merely physical, there can be no explanation for how they could ever come to know such things. Moreland says, “Even if one tries to specify a causal or quasi-causal relation in which [abstract objects] stand to epistemic subjects, that specification will go far beyond the resources of naturalism.”11
A More Satisfying Explanation
It seems right to conclude that consistent scientific materialism, by insisting that human beings are nothing more than their material constitution and therefore have no free will, run into intractable problems. Not only must consistent materialists give up anything akin to objective and binding moral values and duties, they also cannot account for things that are essential to the scientific enterprise: higher rational deliberation and our mental ability to grasp and apply abstract truths to sensory observations. However, the existence of an immaterial soul or mind — an agent somehow integrated with, and interacting with, a material body — does not suffer from these limitations. This is the classical Christian view of human persons, and it is still respectably defended in contemporary academic philosophy. Since the soul hypothesis and a materialist understanding of human persons are empirically equivalent hypotheses with respect to the neuroscientific data, there is no reason, other than a philosophical precommitment, to prefer the latter, and excellent reasons to prefer the former.12 On yet another score, the scientific materialist manifesto fails to provide good explanations for things we simply cannot do without.
Melissa Cain Travis, PhD, serves as an Affiliate Faculty at the Lee Strobel Center for Evangelism and Applied Apologetics at Colorado Christian University. She is the author of Science and the Mind of the Maker: What the Conversation Between Faith and Science Reveals About God (Harvest House, 2018). www.melissacaintravis.com
- Melissa Cain Travis, “Scientific Materialist Manifesto: The Pursuit of Meaning in a Godless Universe,” Christian Research Journal 43, 2 (2020):30–34; “Facing the Abyss: Scientific Materialism and the Origin of Life Problem,” Christian Research Journal 43, 3 (2020):18–23.
- Brian Greene, Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2020), 147.
- Greene, Until the End of Time, 150. What Greene means by “free will” is libertarian freedom. For purposes of this article, I put aside the debate about whether compatibilism is a coherent concept of freedom (for the record, I would say no).
- Sean Carroll, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (New York: Dutton, 2016), 381.
- Carroll, The Big Picture, 383.
- Greene, Until the End of Time, 152.
- See J. P. Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei (London: SCM Press, 2009), 74.
- Roger Trigg, Beyond Matter: Why Science Needs Metaphysics (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2015), 64–65.
- Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 78–79.
- Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, 80.
- Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, 78.
- For explanation on why neuroscience is largely irrelevant to this debate, see chapter one of J. P. Moreland’s The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It Matters (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014).