The materialist has a neat enough worldviewâa closed-system of sorts. The physical world is observable, and only the observable need be explainable.
We are made of stuff, and stuff is the cause of all we are and have and feel and do; from sexual hormones to memory pathways, synapses in the brain; or the assertion that 'love' is no more (and no less) than a chemical reaction.
We are pieces and players in a complex, intimate, intricate, whirring machine of life. All the atomic bomb power of the core of a star, and the subatomic incremental growth in the formation of a flowerâit's all matter, it's all material.
Piece by piece we trace our form, our movement, our being and purpose to bits of stuff; things, and bits of things. I am (however many million or billion) bits of matter and electricity. A tapestry. A combination of small things together to be bigger things. Simple things combining to be complex things.
In the materialist universe we have all the parts, now we get to watch what they do.
And somehow all those bits of stuff got around to organising themselves into battalions of objects, swathes of nouns, categories of substance. Hierarchies, tribes, cultures. The stuff functioned at a higher and higher level, even to the point of making things who made theories about things.
Some of the stuff, when you combined it all in a certain way had more value than other combinations. Some minerals held more inherent capital, and some of the breathing beings even emanated a 'dignity'. Not a dignity of beauty necessarily, but some silent nobility that made it very important to keep the bits of stuff that made blood inside the bits of stuff that made them.
It was one thing to disassemble a certain group of bits, but altogether more serious to dismantle another set.
Which is probably where the materialist runs into trouble. For all the explanatory power of this closed-set of observation (the triumph of modernist science!), when it comes to questions of a non-physical mind the picture blurs slightly out of focus.
What can matter say for the consciousness of man?
Are his creative pursuits, complex philosophies, expressions of music, art, beauty, virtue of kindness and self sacrifice, are his very wrestles with his own ontology and mortality just a glitch in the machine? Are our minds simply deterministic light shows playing out a precise set of random collisions, put in motion by natural laws and pre-existent matter?
What does the materialist have to say of morality? The precision of the law court, weighing motives and actions, taking into consideration the value of human life. The millisecond of a gunshot that merits decades of exile.
Or at a more basic level, the compass I have in my very bones that doesn't seem to contribute to evolutionary 'progress' or come from the milieu of my childhood, but just prompts and guides me towards some sense of 'right'. What is right? What is good? What is true? Is any one electron more ethical than another?
Or purpose, the goal of all these collisions, the result of all these accidents. What is the definition of progress? Where is the finish line for all these agonisingly real moments of existence? When we get down to it, for all the explanatory power of molecular biology, we cannot ascertain the 'ought' from the 'is'.
Making sense of it all
At the end of it all, the materialist can only explain these things by trying to stand on his own shouldersâan argument that uses the aching philosophical intelligence of the human soul to explain why he need not question anything or expect explanation. And at the moment this theory makes 'sense' to the mind, the question resets as to why we are so maddeningly driven in a pursuit of sense to begin with.
It is very rare to find a functional materialistâone whose beliefs translate consistently from the armchair to the wheelchair, from the funeral service to the wedding ceremony. Or in their sense of self, the quietly held, unarticulated belief he is more than the sum of his parts, that his raison d'Ãªtre is more than that of the soil he stands on, it has to be.
For the one who limits their reality to the physical universe there is a simplicity of explanation, but it is at the cost of those invisible realities that are closest to the heart of who and what we are. The price of all this 'clarity' is the rejection of things most fundamental to us, more than that, most precious, even sacred.
It is the theist who can admit they stand on another's shoulders, who is not afraid of the ghost in the machine. The theist takes the materialistic demand to only consider what 'is', but widens it to allow consideration for things we know to truly exists, without arbitrarily limiting that category to visible or material things. Even when starting from within the system, we encounter deep realities that demand an explanation beyond the system.
As David Bentley Hart articulates it, 'an absolutely convinced atheist, it often seems to me, is simply someone who has failed to notice something very obviousâor, rather, failed to notice a great many very obvious things'.
Sam Manchester is currently a theology student with an inescapable sociology degree behind him. In an attempt to reconcile the two, he reflects and writes about their coalescence in everyday life.
Sam's archive of articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-manchester.html