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Part Two: The Self-Destruction of Impersonalism.

          From the title, one might expect to read of the 40 “hardest” challenges to the Bible: the sort of book where one explains Cain’s wife and the genealogies of Jesus.  Yet, rather than consider isolated “problems” Poythress confronts the basic worldview which confronts the Bible: impersonalism.

          Any thorough, consistent worldview must come to grips with the fact that human beings are personal.  Yes, theists must answer the question of “If God is real, then why he is invisible?”[1]

          But, materialist must answer the question of person:  the materialist must say that he does not actually exist as a person. His thoughts are solely the result of physical processes — just like water boiling or freezing. Indeed, the experience of the thought is ultimately an illusion.

          Now this leads to all sort of nonsense: If my thoughts are merely complex mechanical processes, then the thoughts are compelled. My thinking that the world is merely material/impersonal is compelled by materialism.  I cannot “know” the truth of the process, because I have no choice in the process. My knowledge of materialism is as compelled by physics as it water freezing or boiling.

          If that is true then nothing is true or false, good or evil: these are and are not (although I could not know that – I actually can only point to other physical processes responding to previous physical processes – and even that may not be a real pointing, because  it is only a physical process itself: just like the turtles holding up the world, there are only previous physical processes all the way down – which itself cannot be known to be true: it’s like a hall of mirrors, except that there is not “real” object reflected in the mirrors, here there is only mirrors).

          The materialist – or as Poythress calls him, an impersonalist (he actually uses the word “impersonalism”, (30) must answer the question of why he has a mind, why he can think. The impersonalist must explain why he would hate one who would injury his family – and why he has love for his family.  The impersonalist must give an account for the fact of persons at all.

          Now the proposition that person arises from matter in motion is nonsense.[2]  This is usually obscured by philosophical jargon and complex arguments. But in the end, the fact of the passion and the arguments undercuts the entire proposition. I find it far more sensible to start with the fact that you and I are persons, and answer the question of God’s invisibility; than to start with plasma (the almost gas stuff, not the blood stuff) and end up with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

          Poythress notes this trouble in the discussion of religious gullibility. While he will go on to express some admiration for skepticism of religious claims (see part two), he notes the trouble with such materialist rejection of God.
He notes the greatest strength of the materialist/impersonalist mindset does not derive from the strength of the argument, but rather from its commonality in the culture, “This kind of materialist explanation of religious belief has a considerable plausibility in our time because materialism itself is widespread and lends its support. In addition … materialism carries with it some of the prestige of natural science” (220).

          However, as noted above, skeptical materialism ends up as eating its tail, “When this principle is followed consistently, it leads to the conclusion that beliefs in general must be debunked. And that includes the belief in materials, belief in evolution, and belief in brain structures. The debunker ends up with no grounds on which to stand to do his debunking” (220).


[1] It is a trick question: it is sort of like “Do you still engage in illegal activities?” The trouble comes from combining two (or more) questions into one sentence: Have you ever engaged in an illegal activity? If you have, do you still do so?  Lawyers would object that he question assumes facts not in evidence. Debate coaches would call it the fallacy of many questions.

 

The question about God being invisible first assumes as true the proposition; Everything which is real is visible (or otherwise subject to physical measurement). Let us ask that question first: Is everything real/true subject to physical measurement? The answer is “No.” The very act of thinking about the question is a thing not subject to physical measurement.

 

Even if it is true that every thought must correlate to brain activity (that is itself a problematic proposition), it does not further mean that every thought is brain activity. The thought, the subjective reflection is not physical.  A player runs all the bases and comes Home in a baseball game. The player touching home plate corresponds to a score, but touching the home plate is not the score. You get a point for touching home plate, but the point is not the act of touching home plate.

 

Interestingly the most certainly “real” knowledge we possess is knowledge of things which are not physical.  You may misperceive the physical world (poor light, hallucination, et cetera). You may have a mistaken or confused thought about some aspect of the external world. But, you can never be confused as to the fact of your own perception or thought. The mental state may not correspond correctly (another rabbit trail) to the physical world, but the fact of the thought is certain to you.

 

The question asked of God corresponds to a non-physical reality: true or false. Neither the truth nor falsity are physical, although both are real.

 

God is by nature incorporeal – as our all our thoughts, emotions, hopes – as is truth, beauty, goodness, faith, hope & love. Such is made of that which is most certain and most real.  In short, it’s a trick question.

[2] Poythress notes, “Materialists conveniently ignore the evidence that does not fit, just as the person who consults fortune tellers ignores the cases where the alleged fortune does not pan out” (229).