Materialism and the Problem of Evidence for Theism

I am currently reading an excellent book entitled The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul.  While it may sound like a bit of a technical read, it's actually quite engaging and easy to follow.  The author, a neuroscientist working at the University of Montreal, catalogs the various efforts to reduce the mind to simply being the activity of the brain.  This includes our belief in the supernatural, our sense of God, etc.

As the author goes through the book, he repeatedly addresses the question of why materialism (the belief that there is nothing beyond the physical realm, including no mind, no soul and no God) is so dogmatic in only accepting certain kinds of evidence and rejecting others.  If you've ever talked to an atheist who holds the materialist worldview (and the vast majority of them do), you'll likely encounter them telling you that what you have to offer "simply isn't evidence".  It can be quite frustrating when your atheist friend won't even acknowledge that your evidence is, in fact, evidence (it's one thing to say that the evidence doesn't convince them...it's a very different thing to deny that the evidence for God exists in the first place).

As a way of explaining this phenomenon, Beauregard and O'Leary have offered some thoughts on why materialists MUST do this if they are to properly defend their worldview of materialism.  Below are a couple of very revealing quotes from "The Spiritual Brain" that help illustrate this point:

"You can only retain your faith in materialism by assuming - on faith - that any contrary evidence you read about must be wrong."

This succinct statement establishes the idea that the reason contrary evidence is rejected is because materialism would collapse if contrary evidence were taken into consideration.  Another way of stating this is through what philosopher Karl Popper called 'Promissory Materialism'.  Responding to a quote by atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, the authors have this to say:


"Regarding the nature of the universe itself, twentieth-century British analytical philosopher Bertrand Russell famously concluded:

"Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his feliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins - all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

"In that case, a spiritual nature for the human is impossible in principle.  We must shun nonmaterialist explanations of human nature because they cannot possibly be right.  An important consequence follows: even if materialist science does not offer satisfactory explanations now, we must stick with its unsatisfactory insights, in the hope that better ones will arrive someday.

"Philosopher of science Karl Popper has called this line of thinking 'promissory materialism.'  In other words, if we adopt it, we are accepting a promissory note on the future of materialism.  Promissory materialism has been immensely influential in the sciences because any doubt about materialism - no matter what the state of the evidence - can be labeled 'unscientific' in principle."

What does this passage say?  It says that materialism starts with a presumption about the state of reality (as addressed in Bertrand Russell's dire quote).  Then, it proceeds to filter everything through this presumption, rejecting anything that doesn't fit this worldview.  In this way, materialism is able to retain the illusion that it has not been seriously challenged because it rejects everything that disagrees with its own view of the world!

Imagine for a minute a trial in which only one side was able to give its arguments to the jury.  It may seem that the case being presented is a compelling one, but because the other side is not allowed to offer its case we'll never know if the case is strong or not.  And in fact, because the competing case is being offered when it comes to materialism (though with materialists often plugging their ears to avoid listening to such competing evidence), its weakness is becoming very plain.

In fact, recent history is littered with many attempts to explain things like man's belief in God through materialistic means.  In each of these cases, the media was quite excited and pronounced yet one more bit of evidence that God isn't real.  Some of these failed explanations are:

1. Belief in God because of a "God Program" in our genetic structures
2. Belief in God because of a "God Module" in our brains
3. Experience of the supernatural due to temporal lobe epilepsy
3. Belief in God due to magnetic waves influencing our brain's temporal lobes.

All of these have been postulated and either debunked or at least not proven to be true.  Of course, the media doesn't give significant attention to the refutations of these ideas.  And this gets back to the basic point above.  Materialism, in order to survive, must accept only information that agrees with its worldview.  To accept competing data is to invite disaster, thus the media tends to ignore any data that disagrees with the materialist viewpoint.  As the book's authors put it:

"The culture of popular science is one of unidirectional skepticism - that is, the skepticism runs only in one direction.  It is skeptical of any idea that sprituality corresponds to something outside ourselves, but surprisingly gullible about any reductionist explanation for it."

Materialism is a fatally flawed worldview.  And as such, the only way it can survive is to maintain that the things with which it agrees are valid and evidential, while anything that would undermine its worldview MUST be rejected on the basis that it's "not evidence".

As Christians, we should never be restrictive in this way.  Instead, as seekers after ultimate truth, we should be open to all the evidence regardless of where it leads us.  Only by doing so will we be able to have confidence that our views are in accord with the facts.

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