This is the introduction to at least 25 posts regarding why I believe physicalism is a false belief about reality. But, first a look at why the question of physicalism vs. transcendence is so crucial for each person and our culture. The physicalist belief system demands values, priorities and choices very different from one based on transcendence. As individuals and a culture we exhibit signs of unhealthy cognitive dissonance when we try to accommodate two conflicting belief systems.
The Fork in the Road
Physicalism, the belief that matter and physical forces are all there is, is a fork in the road. The alternatives are many and varied but involve “something more,” something beyond, something many call transcendence.
The fork in the road applies to you, me and every individual alive. It also applies to communities, societies and cultures. Believing that you are here as a completely random accident based on fixed laws that emerged from nowhere from the moment when time and space came into existence 13.8 billion years ago results in very different choices than believing you and all that there is was brought into being for a purpose.
But, do we live consistently with one view versus the other? Are we as individuals and society trying to take both roads? Physicalism and transcendence both cannot be true. But, can we live as if they are?
Our Western culture continues to reflect the ideas and values of Christendom from which it emerged. It also reflects the Greek and Roman ideas that were incorporated into Christendom as it emerged from more ancient times. These cultures were all built on transcendence despite extensive differences. The specifics of Christendom’s transcendence include the idea of a Creator-Sustainer-Redeemer who not only created the universe and the creatures in it, but loves them deeply and has exhibited the ultimate in sacrificial love in order to restore creation and rescue it from the ills obvious to all. British historian Tom Holland in his highly regarded book Dominion has documented the continuing influence of Christendom on our culture today even as it continues to embrace more and more the ideas and values of physicalism.
There is much evidence that we as individuals and combined as a culture live in a state of cognitive dissonance. Physicalism is the dominant view of reality presented by our dominant cultural drivers. Leaders in business, government, education, science, media all publicly at least subscribe to the physicalists ideals. The dominance becomes less apparent as one moves “down” the cultural hierarchy into the rural areas removed in distance and culture from our major urban centers. The differences between these two extremes takes various forms but one is our political discourse. The root cause of the deep animosity exhibited in our political divide is not often identified as this dissonance between physicalism and transcendence. It was suggested above that public support by cultural leaders for physicalism may not be reflected in private beliefs and actions. A slight majority of professional scientists, for example, profess a belief in God, a Higher Power or some form of spiritual reality — transcendence. For the average American, that belief ranges up to about 90%. We are taught one story in schools, on major news channels, and by actions of political and business leaders. But, deep inside most know the story is far from the complete truth. As a result, we find ourselves conflicted with issues that arise involving the law, justice, human experience and free will. Two quick examples will demonstrate this dissonance.
Crime and Responsibility
Can those committing crimes be exonerated based on the “duress” caused by their social conditions? That is a question that the Seattle City Council is considering. Persons charged with misdemeanor crimes could be acquitted by claiming their poverty, mental illness or addiction created duress that caused the crime. Seattle media is respectful of the idea while the Wall Street Journal editorial opinion scoffed that this represents a “new theory of crime.”
This issue raises fundamental questions about morality and responsibility. Within the physicalist framework there can be no possibility of universal moral law, nor can there be any meaning to personal responsibility. Right and wrong is determined by natural selection and that is ultimately determined by what is in the best interests of the “selfish gene.” Because human behavior is the result of random particles operating according to the laws of physics set at the time of the Big Bang, the idea of personal responsibility is not rational. Within this view of reality, the notion of justice is based on what is in the best interests of the community. Seattle City Council members supporting the proposed new law believe that their fellow citizens would be best served by excusing anyone of minor crimes if they are poor, have a mental illness or suffer from some addiction. To those holding to an idea of right and wrong and personal responsibility, this idea undermines the very foundations of justice and a workable community.
Are we to define what it means to be a person, a human being and a person with a specific gender based on the assumption of evolution or is there a transcendent basis for determining these things? This question is getting a bit more urgent as we hurtle toward “the singularity” as it sometimes called, when the machines we create outdo the humans who created them. What constitutes a human being? How do we define a “person?” What rights belong to such a designation?
A transcendent view of human existence says that there is meaning to being a human being. Personhood is unique to creatures in whom a divine spark or “image” is placed. While part of creation, humans are separate from it in some very important ways. Physicalism, through its partner exclusive evolutionism, says that there is nothing special about being a human and we can describe what it means to be human any way we choose. This has profound implications for our food choices, for example. “Speciesism” is the idea that to treat a slug or cow with any less dignity than a human being is immoral. Just because we may have evolved slightly bigger brains with a few more neurons does not give us the right to treat other evolved, especially sentient beings, any differently than we would treat our own. The vegan movement and animal agriculture activism is one example of the physicalist/evolutionist perspective at work.
The same can be said about transgender issues. Since there was no purpose or design in creating male and female genders, the reassignment of these has no moral implications whatsoever. Gender dysphoria no longer is an aberration or illness, it is simply a choice for what works best for each human being in their own judgment. Society in turn must accommodate those choices on the basis of compassion and equality.
To those with an understanding of humans as created beings with distinctions including gender which point to a divine intention aimed at human flourishing, such a view is harmful and counterproductive. Human flourishing is harmed, not aided, when decisions are made individually or culturally, against the divine moral order and plan.
Similarly, the transcendent view of humans as distinct from animals in possessing souls, allows for a relationship between humans and animals different from those believing in speciesism. Human flourishing in the transcendent view included care for creation but also for moral use of creation for the benefit of humans. Even writing that traditional belief down causes a sense of conflict knowing that the abuse of creation is considered humankind’s greatest “sin” even among those who long ago gave up the idea of sin.
A Call for Integrity
Even exploring these two simple examples shows the complexity of the dissonance. Isn’t compassion for those seeking to find peace and happiness by changing their sex a Christian virtue? Doesn’t slaughtering caged animals by the millions for human consumption cause discomfort for even those who believe eating meat is a good and God-given blessing?
Such is the nature of the dissonance with which we live individually and corporately. But, integrity matters, and that includes the integrity needed to resolve the dissonance. Integrity here doesn’t mean right and wrong or even refer to ethics. The etymology of integrity shows that it comes from the Latin integritatem. It is related to “integer,” a whole number. It refers to “soundness, wholeness, completeness.” In that sense it is the opposite of the dissonance we’ve been talking about.
Physicalism as a belief system that translates into personal and corporate values, choices and actions requires a full blown nihilism. By “full blown” I mean the recognition that no universal moral standards can exist but that choices of right and wrong are first of all aimed at the survival of the selfish gene. Within the wholeness of this nihilism there can be no possible meaning as those most honest about the implications of physicalism and its natural consequence of nihilism have pointed out. There can be no real sense of responsibility as physicalism requires determinism. While there is considerable discussion about quantum behavior and the cloud of possibilities quantum physics describes and the restoration of free will in this understanding, that has not changed the commitment to absolute determinism in most of today’s defenders of physicalism.
One example is Brian Greene’s Until the End of Time. Greene holds to absolute determinism claiming that our sense of free will is merely a deceptive “sensation.” But, he tries to recover personal responsibility:
“Responsibility has a role, too. Even though my particles, and hence my behaviors, are under the full jurisdiction of physical law, ‘I’ am in a very literal if unfamiliar way responsible for my actions…as my particle arrangement learns and thinks and synthesizes and interacts and responds, it imprints my individuality and stamps my responsibility on every action I take.”
Perhaps committed physicalists can read that and agree that it answers the question of responsibility. For the rest, it seems that Greene is trying to make one plus one equal three. If my particles are simply obeying natural law then how could I possibly be held accountable for the results of those laws carried out through my random particles?
Perhaps the most famous advocate for a full blown physicalism is evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Author Nancy Pearcey in Saving Leonardo relates Dawkins’ reference to Basil Fawlty of British comedy series Fawlty Towers beating his car with a tree branch when it won’t start. But Dawkins asks: “Why don’t we laugh at a judge who punishes a criminal? . . . Doesn’t a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility?”
However, even Dawkins exhibits the dissonance we have highlighted here. Pearcey relates the story of a young man questioning Dawkins at a book tour event in London:
“A young man asked him: ‘If humans are machines, and it is inappropriate to blame or praise them for their actions, then should we be giving you credit for the book you are promoting?’ Dawkins clearly was taken aback and responded: ‘I can’t bring myself to do that — I actually do respond in an emotional way and I blame people; I give people credit.’ The young man responded: ‘But don’t you see that as an inconsistency in your views?’ Dawkins’ response was stunning: ‘I sort of do, yes. But it is an inconsistency that we sort of have to live with — otherwise life would be intolerable.’”
Adopting a belief system that is intolerable is a symptom of our age. Brian Greene says as much in the preface to Until the End of Time when he quotes Jean-Paul Sartre as commenting that life loses its meaning “when you have lost the illusion of being eternal.” Greene then does his best in this remarkable book to not only explain why physicalism is the absolute truth but how, if we try hard enough, we can overcome the nihilism it entails and even find some meaning in a completely pointless, accidental and random universe that is moving to a slow, cold death.
The consequences of fully adopting the physicalist belief system are immense. If morality is left to personal choice and government edict then natural selection must take precedence. That this view contributed to the master race theory that devastated the last century seems to be either of little concern to the belief system’s advocates or an inconvenient truth they would rather ignore. Justice, too, is radically altered by the elimination of personal responsibility. Seattle’s potential change to the laws defining crime would be seen as a natural, understandable and positive direction. The concept of crime itself would have to disappear. If physicalism is true, then the destructive results of living without any possible meaning or purpose and choosing our own versions of right and wrong without accountability should and will play out as the laws of nature demand.
A Crusade Against Dissonance
I oppose belief in physicalism. The above argument may suggest my primary concern is how that belief system determines our values, priorities and actions. But that is not my primary reason. If physicalism is true, then the destructive results of living without any possible meaning or purpose and choosing our own versions of right and wrong without accountability should and will play out as the laws of nature demand. But, physicalism is not true, of that I am fully convinced. Yet, because that is the belief system that is widely promoted by scientists, philosophers, scientists speaking as philosophers, educators and journalists, choices made individually and corporate in our culture are based on false premises. If the physicalist belief system is harmful to individual people and societies as I believe it is, the harm is multiplied by the false basis.
A commenter on Medium to my articles on the topic of physicalism suggested that I was on a crusade against physicalism. Perhaps, but what is most important to me is the fact we are continually told that if you do not accept the belief system of physicalism, you are a science-denier. There are many reasons why most reject physicalism even while accepting and appreciating the contributions of science. This creates the dissonance that is part of the tension and discord in our communities and culture. As psychologists know cognitive dissonance in human experience can be harmful: “Cognitive dissonance causes feelings of unease and tension, and people attempt to relieve this discomfort in different ways. Examples include “explaining things away” or rejecting new information that conflicts with their existing beliefs.”
If it causes tension and unease in people, what does culture-wide dissonance do? My crusade then, if there is one, is to expose the false teaching that physicalism represents and in doing so help resolve the dissonance. Resolving this may well mean not a return to traditional Christian beliefs, but perhaps something related but new, a syncretistic and more universal spirituality that is thoroughly transcendent. Perhaps Richard Rohr’s TheUniversal Christ points the way to the future of belief.
Leading scientists such as the late Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sean Carroll, Brian Cox, Richard Dawkins and a great many others are assuming the mantle of philosophy and from that esteemed podium are the prophets, priests and evangelists of the quasi-religion of physicalism. Our education system tolerates no alternative view other than physicalism and the exclusive claims of evolution despite widespread and increasing scientific discomfort with the claims. This is the distortion the current legal understanding of separation of church and state requires. Our science journalists and major media channels rarely allow any exposure to data, reports, discoveries or discussion that question the tenets of physicalist belief. If they do, ardent defenders of physicalism rally to call for the dismissal of the offending editors.
Students who have been raised in homes where faith is important have a difficult time responding to the challenges to their beliefs from educators insistent on holding to the accepted beliefs of physicalism. It’s ironic in that many, if not most, privately hold to beliefs they insist their students reject. The idea that science and religion are in conflict is assumed despite efforts by noted scientists, philosophers and religious leaders to show that no such conflict exists. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s excellent book The Universe in a Single Atom is one example from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective. From a traditional Christian perspective, Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, wrote The Language of God, after his successful leadership of the Human Genome Project. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga demonstrates with precise logic in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies that the conflict is not between religious belief and science, but rather with science and the physicalist belief system.
The Case Against Physicalism
Now that my motivation is clear, we can turn to the reasons to reject the belief system of physicalism. I’m not a professional in any of the major academic disciplines that typically address questions of physicalism such as philosophy, physics, biology, psychology or theology. I see that as an advantage, not a disadvantage. Truth and the search for it does not submit to the neat categories we have created. It appears difficult sometimes for those searching in the deep weeds of one discipline or another to rise to the 30,000 foot level to see how the pieces fit together. My reasons for rejecting physicalism then range across the entire spectrum of human knowledge and inquiry. They arise from more than fifty years searching for the truth. As I write this introduction I have found 25 reasons why I find physicalism to be an inadequate explanation of truth and reality. Likely there will be more.