Catholic Apologetics

The philosophy (or religion) of atheism seemingly grows in popularity every year, especially among the young; millennials are being referred to as the “Godless Generation” and statistics bear this out[1].  The adherents of atheism overwhelming assert that theirs is the position of “reason” in opposition to what they characterize as the “blind faith” of religious believers (i.e., any theists), a mindset evangelized with great vigor and substantial success especially by the so-called “New Atheists”: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens (now deceased).

 

How does the worth of this assertion comport with reality?  In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the materialism that atheism is built upon is little less than the absolute pinnacle of irrationality.  As we will see, its direct corollaries include the impossibility of all abstract concepts, true knowledge, and reason itself.  (Free will goes down the drain as well, though that is generally somewhat more palatable to some materialists.)

 

[Later, we will see that at least some variant of philosophical Realism (as originally conceived by the classical Greek philosophers and completed in Scholasticism) is necessary to make sense of reality and human experience[2], and that the existence of God is knowable with certainty by induction from simple first principles[3].  In addition, most of the divine attributes (as recognized by Christianity) including God’s omniscience, omnipotence, perfection in all attributes, and singularity are directly derivable via reason as well (in spite of the ignorance displayed by the New Atheists on such topics).]

 

Materialism

 

Materialism is the belief that all that exists is either matter or an attribute of matter[4].  Materialism is not atheism, though the two are closely related – they are so closely related that the former almost always comes along for the ride with the latter as a simple assumption, in many cases seemingly unbeknownst to the adherent. 

 

(Though he holds the notion that something other than matter might exist in the deepest contempt, one will not find the word materialism or matteror any other form of either  in the extensive index of Dawkins’ magnum opus The God Delusion, though this notion underlies all his arguments – and in fact he has only a single and very naïve argument against the existence of God, which we shall examine later.  Could this be because assuming what he attempts to prove makes Dr. Dawkins’ challenge much easier, or is it just because he himself is not cognizant of the implicit philosophical underpinning of his polemics?  It seems to be some of both, quite honestly.)

 

Materialism is indeed a philosophical position, if not a philosophy in itself, and it is indeed an unspoken assumption among atheist pleaders as has been widely recognized.  This now somewhat infamous quote from Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin lays bare their hand:

 

"Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so storiesbecause we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.  It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door[5] (emphasis mine)."

 

Perhaps, indeed, claims that flout common sense sometimes have merit – they can (for example, man in his natural state is surprised to discover that the Earth he stands on rotates, but it does).  However, are “unsubstantiated just-so stories” really the realm of science?  Is “refusing” to allow God’s Foot in the door a matter of science?  Hardly.  Rather, Lewontin, as he says plainly, asserts that what he calls “science” is all there is just because he wants it to be that way.[6] 

 

Closely related to materialism is scientism, which we can define as the belief that only scientific knowledge is valid.  The problem with scientism is that its postulate is itself outside of science; it is a statement about science.  Since scientism says that only scientific knowledge is valid and itself is not scientific knowledge, it is self-refuting, or, at best, a philosophy accepted a priori.

 

Science, by a definition most scientists would heartily endorse, is the study of the natural world; by definition what is outside of the natural world is outside of science.  Materialism, being a philosophical tenet, is, like scientism, outside of science by definition.  Conflating “science” with materialism is at the root of this silly, artificial “conflict” between “science” and religion asserted by the new atheism. 

 

Science, however, like all human intellectual activity, does rest upon some philosophical groundwork for everyone; the problem is that for materialists, more often than not their philosophy is assumed rather than chosen, ingrained rather than accepted rationally, and this explains why they can be unaware of how it filters their thought processes and conclusions (as they genuinely often do seem to be).

 

Unlike materialist fundamentalists, serious religious believers take nothing on blind faith.  Theism is not only provable via reason alone (the use of intellect leads us to it), it is the only worldview that comports with reality - these naked assertions will be justified shortly.  As for faith, the other means of knowledge, those who understand it know that it is anything but blind.[7]

 

Conceptual Reality

 

Before we talk about the mind and how materialism’s incompatibility with what we know about it renders the latter incoherent, we must establish just a bit of groundwork.

 

The notion of abstract concept[8] is key to any understanding of the mind.  As an example, what is sphericity?  We can answer this question easily: it is a property of spheres, which are three-dimensional shapes for which every point on the boundary is equidistant from the center. 

 

The concept of sphericity certainly exists apart from any actual, physical spheres - any instantiation of sphere, so to speak.  This is self-evident, yet this simple fact is at the heart of the falsification of materialism:

 

1.   Materialism says that only matter exists

2.   Abstract concepts are not matter

3.   Abstract concepts definitely exist

4.   Materialism is false

 

There are those, of course, those who insist that universals really do not exist[9], so we will explore this question in a bit more depth.  Greatly outnumbering those who take the position that forms do not exist seem to be those who are both materialists yet do speak and behave as if forms are real (because this is natural, because it is almost impossible not to do so, and because people generally at least implicitly understand that all rational knowledge depends on universals).

 

Nominalists assert that abstractions do not really exist – only individuals’ approximations or conceptions of them are real.  But note that immediately the nominalist is appealing to universals: to suggest that some particular can be compared to some standard or ideal shows that the latter exists.  If we examine 1,000 imperfect circles together with 1,000 individuals who all (somehow, quite implausibly) cannot grasp the concept of circle, we can still judge these circles and conceptions of circularity by the measure of true circularity.  If even one Mind understands circularity, it exists.

 

(Note that if the nominalists were correct, communication between intellective beings would seem to be impossible: How could two individuals who could never hold in their minds the same concept, or proposition, possibly actually communicate about them?)

 

Abstractions, such as geometric truths, mathematical truths (the constant pi to take one simple example) and much more are clearly objective, immaterial, and universal in nature.  All three properties are both critical and irrefutable.  The value of pi cannot possibly be subjective - dependent in any way upon who is thinking about it.  To be sure, a given person's understanding of pi may fall short of its actual nature, but its nature certainly exists all the same: It is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter.  This abstraction exists apart from time and space, has no matter, and is not dependent upon matter (the concept exists no matter how many physical circles do).  We do not invent mathematical reality - we discover it.  Nor are they contingent upon anything, but necessary.  Two and two must make four, always and everywhere[10].

 

It is self-evident that forms exist; we could not even speak of sphericity if the concept of a sphere did not exist – if it can be the object of our intellect, it exists.  So we have established, for serious thinkers interested in objective truth, that forms exist, and in so doing we have already debunked materialism.

 

(Please note that I’m not being coy here.  To be sure, the savvy materialist will object that he acknowledges that abstract concepts exist.  This is part of the point: People who subscribe to materialist philosophy quite often do not, in practice, think & behave as the ramifications of their philosophy logically dictate.) 

 

(Also note that I am glossing-over distinctions between variations of materialism – physicalism and eliminative materialism mainly.)

 

The Mind Itself

 

It seems already that materialism is clearly incoherent.  Apart from that, however, is it possible that the human mind is material – entirely explicable by matter and its interactions?  If so, thoughts themselves are material things.  Is this a defensible position (much less one that should be simply assumed)?  Philosopher Edward Feser notes that, “the suggestion that human reason can be accounted for in purely materialistic terms has, historically speaking, been regarded as a logical absurdity, a demonstrable falsehood… those who confidentially assert that the human mind is destined to succumb to materialistic explanation manifest thereby, not any genuine understanding of either the human mind or of science, but merely their own cluelessness”.[11]  We will see shortly why this is indeed the case.

 

Materialists attempt to explain thoughts entirely (the problem here is the entirely) as patterns neurons firing, which is what occurs (all that occurs) in the brain.  This model leads immediately to a number of insurmountable problems.

 

How can universals (abstractions or forms) exist in such a “mind”?  How could it be possible for matter – which is finite in time & space – to “hold” conceptions that have no such boundaries?  How can circularity – which encompasses all circular objects, meaning an infinite number of them – be entirely contained by a pattern of neurons which is naught but gooey matter?

 

Past the clear absurdity of physical thoughts, there is the problem of communication, as noted above:  A pattern of neurons firing between even two brains will never be identical, and if they are not, two such minds could never really communicate about any abstraction. 

 

Yet, we can, in fact, talk about pi with another individual, because more than one individual can understand pi in exactly the same way.  We know universals exist because we can hold them in our minds, and we know that universals cannot be reduced to matter.

 

For such reasons, the notion of a material mind has been seen as preposterous since antiquity. Thoughts are absolutely and completely immaterial; they have nothing whatever in common with matter in any form. (Note that the materialist who asserts that the mind, and/or thoughts, “emerges” from grey matter has already given away the game as he is now speaking of something immaterial (and something he admits he does not understand and cannot define in any way) despite himself.)  As Thomas Crean put it, to assert that thought is matter or is caused by manner is “as if one were to say that the number two could be heated by a Bunsen burner.”[12] 

 

Philosopher Peter Geach once observed, “When we hear of some new attempt to explain reasoning or language or choice naturalistically, we ought to react as if we were told that someone had squared the circle or proved the square root of two to be rational.  Only the mildest curiosity is in order - how well has the fallacy been concealed?"[13]

 

In fact, over 1,500 years ago, St. Augustine saw this same truth clearly.  Speaking of a simple mathematical reality true for an infinite set of numbers, he wrote, “How, then, do we recognize that this fact, which we recognize throughout all numbers, is unchangeable, sure, and certain? No one is aware of all numbers with any bodily sense, for they are innumerable. How, then, do we know that this holds good throughout them all? By what idea or image do we see so sure a truth so confidently throughout innumerable instances, unless we do it by an inner light, unknown to the bodily sense? By these and many other such proofs those to whom God has given the gift of reasoning and who are not darkened by obstinacy, must admit that the law and truth of number do not concern the bodily sense, that they are unalterably sure, and are perceived in common by all who reason (emphasis mine).”[14] 

 

Things get still worse for the materialist – much worse.  Neural events are entirely unrelated by logic – for what is logic in such a view of the mind to begin with?  Neural states are simply successions of physical events.  We see, then, that the materialist, if he is consistent, cannot claim that he actually knows that 2 + 2 = 4, not to mention the assertion that materialism is true.  Indeed, there simply can be no such thing as rationality – a progression of thoughts guided by logic, true knowledge, or certainty - in this model. And these are the people who pretend to school us regarding reason.

 

As particle physicist Dr. Stephen Barr says, “The very theory which says that theories are neurons firing is itself naught but neurons firing [according to their model].”[15]  Circularity arises again and again in materialist attempts to explain the mind.  What the materialist is really trying to do is to get rid of the mind entirely, but he cannot do this without making reference to intellective powers in his very assertions.  He sweeps the mind under the rug again and again as he simultaneously pulls the rug away; he is chasing his tail in a circle of madness. 

 

Free Will

 

It is apparent that free will cannot exist in the materialist model of the mind because physical processes are either completely deterministic (as in classical physics) or contain an element of randomness (per quantum mechanics)[16].  Either way, there is, quite obviously and directly, no room for anything but matter and the laws that govern it in a philosophy that proclaims that only matter exists.  As is typical with materialists, there is a lot of sophism spun on this topic, since the absence of free will has unpalatable implications (such as the futility of trying to convert others to materialistic atheism), but at bottom that’s that.

 

As has been noted (by a staunch materialist), for those that have a “prior commitment” to materialism, this a priori assumption causes evidence that doesn’t fit their square hole to be discarded.  Yet the facts aren’t discarded, whether they know it or not: materialists, even the most committed and polemical among them (such as our friend Dr. Dawkins), speak and behave with the assumption that objective facts exists and that people can know them, that human beings have free will, and that objective morality exists.[17]

 

The Mind As A Computer?

 

Could the mind be analogous to a physical computer, with the brain as “hardware” and thoughts as “software”?  This is a popular model today; however, as a professional software engineer with over 20 years’ professional experience and nearly double that coding in some capacity, I would say that this assertion is as untenable and ridiculous as it seems at first blush.  That such thinking is ubiquitous today can be explained by some combination of mystery, wishful thinking, and, especially, naturalistic bias (conscious or not).

 

Computers are machines, and thereby entirely deterministic, exactly like any other machine (this would be disputed by no one), though they are more complex than most (and it is this complexity which masks the logical fallacy of the “thinking machine”). 

 

If computers “think”, or are capable of thinking, then so do electric pencil sharpeners, which perform actions based on input in exactly analogous fashion.  Thinking in the sense of a true intellect involves understanding, not the rote performance of actions, which is what computers do; this is all they do (every software developer understands this). 

 

To understand is the bread & butter of intellect.  What computers do is manipulate symbols, but the proof that they do not understand these symbols is the sense we mean by understand is that every aspect of them (all properties and allowable operations on them) must be defined (by the software).  Any computer program is an example of a formal system, which, by definition, requires no understanding, because all aspects of its existence have already been completely specified.  Any aspect that is not directly specified (by a programmer – an intellect) simply does not exist for the machine.

 

In other words, a machine needs to have its tasks specified for it completely and entirely by something that thinks, precisely because it cannot. Only when the formal system has been entirely specified is intellect no longer necessary – an intellect has then done its job, so that the computer can do what it has been programmed to do.

 

(Materialists assert otherwise; they insist that because we can’t really define words like understand in what they call “scientific” terms, these should simply vacate the lexicon posthaste.  This is, again, another example of the general silliness of materialism, and beyond our scope here.)

 

Though no one disputes the fact that computers as we know them now are not self-aware, materialists whimsically hold out hope (or, more accurately, take as an assumption) that this will one day change.  Because they do not understand the mind nor possess any idea how it could “emerge” from the matter of the brain, yet believe that it must have done so due to their [blind] allegiance to materialism, they generally believe that the same magical process is possible for a machine.  There simply isn’t a shred of evidence that this is possible, and the thinking man, who understands intellect, sees that it is nonsensical.

 

Materialists will scoff that we cannot know that a machine will never become self-aware (even as they, of course, profess that only empirical knowledge is valid), but, actually, we can.  In the 1960s, philosopher John Lucas of Oxford University used a proof formulated by the famous logician Kurt Godel to demonstrate that the human mind cannot be reduced to any sort of formal system, which means any kind of analog or digital computer.  The argument, which is simple but very powerful, is beyond the scope of this article; the reader is directed to Dr. Stephen Barr’s Modern Physics And Ancient Faith.

 

It is also worth noting that the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (to which all involved in the formulation of the theory subscribed) requires the so-called “observer” (i.e., a mind) to be something outside the physical universe

 

Darwinism

 

Sir Francis Crick once famously asserted, “You are nothing but a pack of neurons[18]”, the irony that he was laying quite bare the reductio ad absurdum of materialism entirely lost on him.  Yet, by no means is this an aberrant view among secularists today; quite the contrary, it is the prevailing view.

 

Crick was, of course, a committed Darwinist[19], meaning that for him (since he was a materialist) not only is the mind substantially equivalent to the brain (meaning it is matter or magically “emerges” from matter via some hopeful mechanism that is left unspecified) but it was created by natural selection – by a sort of unconscious teleology[20] working with the raw material of genetic mutation.

 

This hypothesis has some rather interesting implications for the mind (as materialists imagine it to exist).  There is absolute no reason to think that a “mind” evolved in such a fashion would have any capacity to discern truth from error, at least in any matter not directly related to physical survival (even beyond the fact that, as we have seen, this is really a nonsensical task for a material mind anyway).

 

This problem was not lost on Darwin himself, who wrote, privately, “With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy (emphasis mine).”[21].

 

It’s unfortunate that Darwin was unable (or unwilling) to see that this “problem” was nothing more than his making.  However, again, we as human beings know intrinsically that we are able to grasp abstractions, reason objectively, and direct our actions.  And materialists, regardless of what enticing talking points their pundits are fond of, know these things as well, and behave as if they are true – if they did not, for starters, they would not be attempting to convert anyone to materialistic atheism.[22]

 

Further, how would the “blind watchmaker” of natural selection be able to imbibe a material mind with the ability to contemplate abstractions unbound by time or space?  Again, two and two will make four, objectively, everywhere and always; how does this “fit” into a pattern of neurons (even if they had been arranged by the Intelligence materialism denies) and how or why would our “watchmaker” have created minds that can comprehend such things?

 

 

Perhaps the preeminent quality that distinguishes a mind from anything material is what philosophers call intentionality – the ability to deliberately direct action (thought itself is action).  Whatever else matter may “have” or be capable of, it cannot, in and of itself, actively direct it or anything else.  To be sure, matter exhibits a type of purpose, yet this is an unchangeable property of it.[23]  Hydrogen and oxygen atoms[24] will react to form water, as this is intrinsic to their nature, but no one sane[25] would assert that they could choose to do something else.  And so it goes with all matter - yet not, virtually by definition, with minds.

 

As Dr. Feser says, “But the human mind manifests final causality more obviously than anything else.  It intends or plans actions and outcomes that do not yet exist and may never exist, but remain directed toward those actions and outcomes all the same… the mind is characterized by what philosophers call ‘intentionality’: it is directed toward or represents things beyond itself.”[26]

 

What are our brains, then?  In the Catholic model of reality, based on Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics, a human being is soul and body as one entity; a person is an instantiation of the form of human being.[27]  It is thus unsurprising that our minds and our brains are closely related – that thoughts are correlated with brain activity, etc.

 

Modern materialists believe they are at the pinnacle of what they regard as science, eschewing ancient superstitions, yet the ancients – Aristotle for starters – refuted these very same assertions long ago.

 

Materialistic atheism is incoherent because it leads directly to postulates regarding the human mind that we know cannot be true.  The assertion that all human beings are essentially aware of these things is bolstered by the fact that the most ardent and militant materialists do not behave as if their cherished proposition is true – rather, they contradict it in their professional and personal lives by acting as if other people can understand universal concepts, can know truth from falsehood (at least in some capacity), and have control over their beliefs and actions.  Indeed, the new atheists and the innumerable protégés they have spawned evangelize with the sort of effervescent alacrity usually reserved for schoolgirls.  It is a sad and silly spectacle indeed.

 


[1] A 2015 Pew Research Center survey (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/) shows the atheist portion of the population nearly doubling between 2007 & 2014; the more general “Unaffiliated” category went from 16.1 to 22.8%.

[2] The author owes this entire line of reasoning to: Edward Feser, The Last Superstition (St. Augustine’s Press, 2008)

[3] This is Catholic dogma, defined at Vatican I.

[4] I like this particular definition, taken from: Thomas Crean, O.P., God Is No Delusion (Family Publications, 2007), pp 19.  No honest materialist would have any issue with it.

[5] New York Times Review of Books, Jan 9th, 1997, also cited in Feser.

[6] And a holy pursuit true science is. Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, in the monumental work taken from her visions, quotes our blessed Lord as naming love of “science” one of the (very few) holy loves.

[7] As the Baltimore Catechism says, “Faith is the act of the intellect, prompted by the will, by which we believe the truth of all that God has revealed on the basis of the authority of the one who has revealed it.”  Faith is a theological virtue; it is infused into the soul directly by God by virtue of that very assent of the will.

[8] For the philosophically educated, we are speaking of Aristotelian forms.

[9] This is the philosophical position of nominalism.

[10] This is an example of a proposition in the philosophical sense.

[11] Edward Feser, The Last Superstition (St. Augustine’s Press, 2008), pp 194-195

[12] Thomas Crean, O.P., God Is No Delusion (Family Publications, 2007), p28

[13] As cited by Edward Feser, The Last Superstition (St. Augustine’s Press, 2008), pp 194

[14] Augustine of Hippo, The Problem of Free Choice, Book Two

[15] Stephen Barr, Modern Physics And Ancient Faith (University of Notre Dame, 2003), pp 196

[16] See, for example, Stephen Barr, Modern Physics And Ancient Faith (University of Notre Dame, 2003), pp 184-187

[17] Dawkins’ anti-religion tome of screed is filled with the worst kind of invective for those he despises, including deriding religious instruction of children as “child abuse” – this from a man who defends pedophilia.

[18] Ibid, pp 195

[19] Though he also, balking at the seeming impossibility of naturalistic biogenesis, postulated that life was “seeded” on Earth by aliens.

[20] Feser, in his afore-referenced work, does a masterful job exposing the fact that there is real teleology inherent in natural selection that must somewhere be attributable to a Mind.

[21] As quoted in John Lennox, God’s Undertaker (Lion Hudson, 2009), pp 57

[22] “Raising of consciousness” as our self-fancied prophet Dr. Dawkins puts it, with a straight face.

[23] Such final causality of matter must be, as we will see later, imposed upon it by a Mind of some sort.

[24] Both elements actually exist only in the form of molecules.

[25] Such qualifications are necessary when one delves into the realm of “modern” philosophy.

[26] The Last Superstition (St. Augustine’s Press, 2008), pp 194

[27] This is in contrast to the dualism of Descartes which introduces issues of its own; Descartes was a modern that abandoned final causality.