Why I’m not a materialist anymore

Introduction

A few years ago, I wrote an article called “Why I’m not Catholic anymore”, detailing the reasons I had left Catholic faith. I stopped practicing this religion about 5 years ago for several reasons which I detailed in 2011 in this article on my Neowin blog (which is now dead of course). Many discoveries since then, however, have changed my position. I can no longer stand on the fence, and naturalism, although a convenient position to hold in this day and age, is just too absurd on too many levels.

There’s not one single reason but several, all pointing towards the same direction, and together making a case where a leap of faith remains necessary yet is the obvious and natural thing to do. I’ll articulate my thoughts around 4 points.

1. The historical evidence for Jesus and the Resurrection

It’s incredible how powerful certain popular myths are. Even some of the most erudite people I’ve talked to, for instance, thought that the flat earth theory was a common belief in the Middle-Ages, which is plain wrong; people knew the earth was round since the Classical Age. Similarly, many people (even among Christians) assume that History has little to say about Jesus and that the whole thing could very well have been a myth.

Yet summary research on Wikipedia tells us the Christ Myth Theory has been effectively refuted, that Jesus’ baptism and crucifixion are firmly established historical events, that central figures of the New Testament such as Pontius Pilate and Paul of Tarsus have undeniably existed and match the description made of them in the New Testament, etc. Current-day NT scholarship includes leading figures such as E. P. Sanders, Craig S. Keener and N. T. Wright, for whom the historical Jesus is not very different from the ones revered by Christians. Reading Keener’s The Historical Jesus of the Gospels was a real eye-opener in that regard.

It seems clear that History puts us in front of a Galilean Jew who died on the cross, whose tomb was then found empty, which many people, believers and non-believers alike, reported to have seen alive in bodily form after his death, some of whom went on to announce his resurrection all around the pagan world, often at the cost of their lives. The resurrection of Jesus may escape historical certainty, but it certainly seems to be the best explanation of the data we have.

2. The arguments for the existence of God

Even as an agnostic, I’ve still always leaned towards theism more than atheism. The main arguments for God’s existence, i.e. why is there something rather than nothing, what is the origin of the universe, why does the physical world obey abstract laws and mathematics, how come these laws are precisely those that allow life to appear, have never been really refuted and are still defended by some of the world’s best philosophers today, such as William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga. It also turns out that there aren’t any good arguments against the existence of God, except for the problem of Evil; but I feel the resurrection of Jesus is precisely a very good answer to the problem of Evil, i.e. Evil exists, but God does care about it and it won’t have the last word.

3. The existence of souls

While I was an agnostic, I’ve read quite a bit on neuroscience, including a book called “The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size” by Tor Norretranders. We now know that consciousness, i.e. subjective experience, is the result of an incredible work of filtering and synthesis done by the brain on several levels which give the impression of one coherent, synchronous reality. Furthermore, conscious choices would be determined by the brain several hundred milliseconds in advance before we make any conscious “decision”. Advances like these seem to support the idea that we don’t need souls to explain anything, and that consciousness and free will are indeed, like naturalism implies, just useful illusions.

That said, it’s been increasingly clear to me that on a fundamental level, an objective description of a physical process can never express, much less explain, subjectivity itself. I have no problem admitting that the content of experience may be scientifically described; but it is an epistemological impossibility to jump from there to postulating that there’s a subject having these experiences, as you can only ever study it as an object. Indeed, the only reason we think other human beings have subjective experiences is because we know, individually, that we are subjects, and we assume other human beings must also be; but technically nothing prevents us from believing we are the only subject of experience and everyone else is just an advanced biochemical robot, which only acts as if seeing and feeling but doesn’t really have any subjective experience. Such a robot would be objectively indistinguishable, down to the neurological level, from what we conceive as a human being.

It follows that either we’re more than physical objects, or our own subjectivity is an illusion. But the latter is contrary to our immediate experience. Therefore we are souls, i.e. some immaterial principle, and naturalism is false.

4. The absurdity of naturalism

The fourth point is that a naturalistic worldview, i.e. one that poses that only particles exist, has profound and highly repugnant consequences such as: consciousness, free will and the mind are illusions (as detailed above); human life is without hope nor objective meaning; humanity as a whole is probably totally insignificant in regards to all of reality. We may affirm such things, but no one lives as if they were true. In a sense, naturalism condemns us to live in either ignorance or hypocrisy. I’m not saying atheists can’t have ethics or meaningful lives, only that they can’t ask the question of objective meaning. If a naturalistic ethics is possible, it must suffer the same ontological reduction as subjectivity and free will, i.e. it’s a useful illusion at best.

Watching a recent debate between Alex Rosenberg and William Lane Craig on the existence of God has been very fruitful, not only in revisiting the arguments for and against God’s existence, but also on what a naturalistic worldview entails. Rosenberg maintained (as he does in his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality), among other patently absurd propositions, that we don’t really think about other things, since in a materialistic perspective there’s no such thing as an aboutness to things, there are just things, i.e. material objects.

Atheists should spend less time talking about Pastafarianism and read books like this that explain what their belief (or non-belief as some like to put it) entails; I’m not sure many would follow Rosenberg all the way down that rabbit hole.

Conclusion

I do not claim to have solved every question in my mind; Christianity is in itself full of questions and not simply a set of ready-made answers as some seem to think. I don’t know what life after death will be like, I don’t even really know what Christ meant when he said “take your cross every day and follow me”. All I know now, as a recent convert, is that I should take this stuff seriously and try to figure out what to do about it.

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