This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!
-Polonius (Hamlet Act 1, scene 3)
So much of our experience is written off, ignored, or flatly denied these days. I don’t believe this is a new phenomenon, in fact that is doubtful. Certainly it has a pretension that may be unique. At no period in history was the philosophy of atheism so widespread and accepted as it is today. And with numbers come credibility, even if none is deserved.
One of the most powerful arguments against materialism (the idea that there is nothing which exists which is not material; matter and energy) is experience. And in order to uphold materialist atheism, one must necessarily deny the reality of conscious experience. Of course, it requires consciousness to make the statement that consciousness is not real, so it is a self-defeating argument. I’ve heard it said that consciousness is an illusion, but this begs the question, what exactly is being fooled? The illusion argument attempts to hide the necessity of consciousness behind a cloud of mystery, rather than clarifying anything as certain.
To be sure, consciousness is one of the most studied and least understood subjects man has ever attempted to dissect. Most materialists will insist that emotional experience is just a chemical reaction. It’s a breathtaking understatement to say this leaves out so much! For instance, why do we get choked up when we look at honest depictions of empathy or courage or joy? Go ahead and watch the 50 seconds below.
Reunification of one collection of matter with another, right? No, not by any contortion of the mind can you write this down to just material existence. If you wanted to be callous and inhuman, perhaps you could say that the two people involved had material contact with each other to produce these reactions. After being gifted that much of the argument, you’d still have to find a way to explain why such a video is so powerful and moving to so many others. Let’s think about this for a second, what is it about the pattern of light coming from computer screens that impress this video so profoundly upon we viewers? What wizardry would we need to design to show that one mix of colors and sounds will produce material responses we refer to as heartwarming and that another mix will generate disgust?
Isn’t that really just absurd? The girl and her father are spiritual beings that were given material bodies to interact. They are not just chemicals bonded together with no design, no purpose, no real consciousness, and no moral obligations. If you assert that they are just material beings and nothing more, you have also reduced them to having no intrinsic value.
Most of the time, the arguments Christians make for the existence of God are based upon design, causality, and morality. Yet, the world is overflowing with evidence of a spiritual reality based solely upon the experiences we have in life. (Perhaps that is too general to bring one to Jesus Christ, and so some other things must be brought in as well.)
But consider for a moment how frequently people make references to non-material existence. Even the atheist Richard Dawkins demands fairness in debates, appealing to a general principle that is neither material nor scientifically rigorous. And in those debates between theists and atheists, numerous ideas are thrown are which defy material existence.
Depression and euphoria have both been linked to chemical causes. Can we really say, however, that the experience itself is just matter and that the mind is only neurons firing in the brain? It seems that this would reduce all thought to determinism or some sort of statistical encounter. To abuse Descartes; I don’t exist because I think, but I can be sure that I think and that brings up a host of questions regarding the nature of our existence and the tie between consciousness and the physical coil.
What about popular culture? Is the spiritual reality not everywhere in people’s consumption of media? Enormous subcultures have built up around symphonic rock/metal which thrives on lyrics appealing to the emotional experience. I bring up this example for a reason. It seems to me that the rise of this form of entertainment in particular appeals to a specific need in the human soul that has been categorically ruled out by the modern intellectual elite.
The tenor of most of the West’s education has been set into a worldview that seriously conflicts with the natural passions of the human soul. Atheists are a minority in America, and yet their brand of philosophy essentially runs the school system, often denying the barest hint of religion to be exposed to students. When the soul experiences the immaterial and is told by authority that such things are not real, confusion is sure to follow. You mix this with the physical changes that kids undergo in high school and you’ll have a serious breakdown in mental well-being as it was traditionally defined. Cultural changes were inevitable, and we can discuss those another time.
Here, the point is that, despite the insistence of the prevailing intellectual hierarchy, and without the influence of the Christian culture and philosophy, most people find their way into accepting some type of spirituality as being necessary and real. The example of non-Christian music that is keenly focused on the non-material existence is really quite illuminating as to the strength of the spiritual core. Dawkins may insist that these are remnants of a previous era where religion was necessary to form societies, and that man has now progressed beyond such fairy-tale gobbledygook. That opinion is just a remnant of Eden, the prejudice against God that continues in man’s heart. As Ravi Zacharias says, post-modernism is really the first question in the Bible “Has God really said…?”
The questions most important in the hearts of men have gone unanswered, unaddressed by materialistic atheists throughout the ages and today’s fire-and-brimstone brand of new atheists are no different. Before we are to write off all things to simple chemical reactions, we ought first address whether chemical reactions could conceivably produce the sort of experiences we find to be common and authentic.
Man is not the result of time plus matter plus chance, because if you add all of that up, you still lack consciousness. Take a look at Anthony Flew’s book, if only for the Preface. Consciousness and the reality of experience has been fundamentally ignored by the new atheists, as though they know nothing of the debate. The closest they come to talking about it is to say that at some point in evolutionary history, man “achieved consciousness,” as if that is scientifically rigorous rather than fanciful. In truth, they know that to undermine the existence of immaterial consciousness is also to raze the rest of their arguments to ashes; for what case can be made when there’s neither consciousness to make it nor to hear it?
Getting back to the Shakespeare quote, the real concern is not to be honest with other people. Yes, that does reflect the right attitude. First, we have to become honest with God. Only then can we face who we really are. I know I don’t have the power to be true to myself without the assistance given to me by Christ. How could I ever present myself honestly to others, then? It’s easy to tell people ‘yes I’m doing fine’ when they ask. It’s hard, even in private, to turn to God and say, ‘I’m not who you made me to be. Please help me change into the design you have in store.’ At the heart of everything, there is a conflict where man wants to replace God with himself. That conflict makes a lot more sense of our conscious experiences, than to deny the spiritual nature of man as fictitious.