This post is a response to Lyle Duell’s May 9th, 2018 blog “The end of Materialism” (https://lyleduell.me/2018/05/09/the-end-of-materialism/).
My son gave me a book called The Great Conversation, by Norman Melchert, a textbook reviewing philosophy from early Greek times to the present. In the textbook, the author really starts with philosophers from around 600 BC with group known as the Sophists. The Sophists view came out of investigations into truth and the deep meanings of life. The Sophists decided that there is no Truth, and therefore the only thing that matters is to get your opinion out to the world. The Sophists argue there was no “truth” that everything was relative. Their goal was to win the argument by presenting the best rhetorical defense of their position.
Sophists taught that there is no Truth, that truth is relative to each person. To get their truth heard, sophists needed to make the most persuasive argument. Sophists taught their students to argue both sides of a debate so they could practice their rhetorical skills and learn about relative truth. Sophists became big in politics and the life of Athens because of their ability to argue and present their ideas.
Socrates came along and showed the Sophists were wrong. Socrates showed that there was Truth and people could use reason to find that Truth. Socrates would ask questions about a subject, digging deeper and deeper, removing the facades until all that was left was the underlying truth. This technique would force people to confront their assumptions and show them the fallacies of their opinions. Society put Socrates to death because of they didn’t want to confront their assumptions. Society did not want to hear that their opinions were wrong.
The pursuit of Truth became the main focus of philosophers, and continues to this day. Plato, a student of Socrates thought that Truth was the basis of everything and that the physical world was just a shadow of that Truth. Aristotle, a student of Plato, believed that Truth was determined through logic and reason. With the use of the Socratic method of questioning everything, the search for truth behind the shadows, and application of logic and reason, philosophers have used these tools to continue the search for Truth.
The study of knowledge and reason (epistemology) has evolved over time. By the late 16th century, philosophy was fragmenting into a lot of different directions. The 17th century philosopher Reneé Descartes, decided that he should not base his understanding of the universe and Truth on writings of the past. Instead, he thought he should start with a blank sheet of paper and prove morals, reason, knowledge, and truth. He use mathematics, logic, and deductive reasoning to dig out truth. He remove all assumptions but one, summed up in the seemingly simple statement: “I think, therefore I am.”
Since that time, scientists and philosophers have gotten the idea into their head that they know so much more than, say, Socrates or Descartes. They have come full circle and are back at the Sophists/relativist phase again. The problem is, they have dragged all of society along with them and society is now a bunch of relativists. Relativism and the scientific materialism it engendered makes people think that that their opinions and ideas are just as valid as anyone else’s opinions and ideas. That view is much better for the ego, allowing you to think that your ideas are valid. If relativism is not valid then the person has to do actual work, like thinking and research. It’s much easier to just assume your idea is valid instead of doing the actual work.
Relativism is a disease of the mind. Aristotle thought so little of them that he refused to even bother to refute a relativist. He claimed that the relativist view was so easy to prove wrong as to almost not be worth the effort. Consider the case of the brain surgeon. Are the opinions of all of the people equally valid? Would you want anyone who can formulate a good argument to grab a bone saw and start to work on your brain? Would you want just anyone who thought they knew to run a nuclear reactor, pilot a jet plane, or even cook your food?
Clearly there are people who have skills and expertise in the various subjects. These people are authorities on the subject. If there are authorities on things like rocket science and brain surgery, then why do people think that there is no authority on the investigation of truth or the understanding of morals?
How do we counter society’s dive into the relativist chasm? How do we show people that relativism and the nihilistic materialism that it spawns is wrong and hurtful? We can try to use reason, but using reason to study reason is like looking into a dark, dirty mirror – we only see distortions, grime, and do not see the entire picture. Logic can help clean the mirror a bit, and the scientific method can do some more cleaning, but we are limited by what we can hold in our brains.
I order to fight society’s intellectual decline, I decided to take up the challenge that Descartes once tried. I wanted to start with a clean sheet of paper and see where it got me. I needed to start with a basic assumption, and I did not want to start with the assumption of “I think, therefore I am.” I started with the base assumption, or axiom, that there is a universe and it exists.
From that one axiom, we can make an observation about that universe—there are objects in the universe. We can do things with the objects, such as put them in groups. We can count the objects and measure their height, width, or depth. We can take some objects out of a group. From this simple manipulation of objects, we can create addition and subtraction. From there, we can manipulate groups of groups and create multiplication and division. In fact, from this simple beginning of manipulating groups and measurements we can create all of mathematics, from the simplest addition table to the most complex abstract algebra and calculus.
Once we can perform mathematics on objects, we can observe that objects interact. Investigating that interaction leads to physics. All of physics is just the study of the interaction of objects, from the smallest atom to the largest galaxy, these are just objects interacting. We can investigate specific objects—chemicals—and create the science of chemistry. We can see that some chemicals have special properties and call these properties “organic” and create a specialized chemistry of organic chemistry. Investigating these chemicals further finds that some reproduce themselves and that investigation is known as biology. In fact, all of mathematics and physical sciences come from the simple initial axiom of “there is a universe and it exists.” Unfortunately, there is nothing in all of these studies and investigations that helps us refute relativism.
As I dug into the ramifications of this basic assumption, I came across two problems. First, why is there a universe? Second, why is there consciousness? Some would argue evolution would lead to consciousness, but there are both major problems with evolution and even more problems with the idea of consciousness being selected by evolution. This set of problems is not something that could be solved by the physical sciences. This set of problems requires going outside of the universe to solve. That means there is either some divine answer or not.
Using both logic and the scientific method I have found that the only possible answer to the second set of problems is God. I found that the only explanation for life, the universe, and everything (to quote Douglas Adams) is a divine Creator. Once you get rid of relativism and actually search for Truth the answers keep coming back to that one conclusion. People may not like that answer, but that does not make the answer any less valid.
Of course, once you have that answer, the next question is – what is the nature of God. Various religions have tried to answer that question. For me, God is the one of the Christian Bible. The problem with investigating the nature of God is that it is entirely subjective. Your relationship with the Creator is intimate and personal. No one has the same relationship or experience as anyone else. Therefore, the only way to answer this question is through personal search.
Since God is infinite, the search for the full answer to that question will take a lifetime and will never finish. The search entails learning about our relationship with God and therefore our relationship with each other. Each step brings new insight and even more questions. Unfortunately, society today is used to quick, sound-bite sized answers. Most people in our society are not equipped to deal with this search, so they either become shallow Christians or atheists.
Since the final search for truth is subjective, the only way to approach it is via reason. Which brings us full circle to your article—reason gets abused and distorted into supporting the desired outcome, not searching for Truth. Reason gets used as a means to support relativism, not to search for the Truth. Subversion of reason is how institutions, religious people, ceremony, and other trappings of “religion” can come between God and His people. Your book, “From Jesus to Religion: How Forms of Mediation have Subverted the Christian Faith,” is showing the world the results of letting ego direct reason and distort the search for Truth.
Your insightful comments and writings has helped me a lot, and I thank you deeply for that.