“Seeing is believing.” This is the mantra of Physicalism*—the belief that only physical things exist. If it isn’t physical (and therefore explainable by science), it isn’t real. This defines out of existence an awful lot of things, such as God, souls, the afterlife, moral values, beauty and truth.
So why do so many people say “Seeing is believing”? Mostly because we inherited Physicalism from the Enlightenment, and so now most just assume it to be true without much thought. It has been drilled into our cultural psyche day in and day out for several centuries. The only problem is that it is wrong. In the next few weeks I’ll summarize three reasons everyone should believe in things unseen, and therefore reject Physicalism.
The Dominance of Physicalism
We bump into Physicalism in countless ways every day:
- Our neighbor buys a new boat and says, “You only go around once, so the one who dies with the most toys wins.”
- Our son comes home and tells us his high school science teacher said, “The Universe is all there is, was or ever will be” (quoting Carl Sagan).
- During the Easter season we are talking with our co-worker about the Resurrection and she won’t listen to any of the evidences, saying, “There is no way someone raises from the dead. Miracles can’t happen. Even if scientists can’t explain it now, some day they will.”
- We watch a documentary about how people are being frozen at death (Cryogenics), so that when a cure for their disease is found they can be unfrozen and cured. (Or we watch the great Mel Gibson movie Forever Young).
- Your sixth-grade daughter comes home and tells you all about the Values Clarification test she took today: “If twelve people are in an airplane that is going to crash, but there are only nine parachutes, who should get one? On board are a physician, an attorney, a postal worker . . .”
- A wealthy alumnus of your university makes a large gift to build a new library, which will carry his name. He passes away before the library is completed. In her speech dedicating the library the university President says, “Mr. Jones will live on through the influence this library will have on generations of students.”
- Your doctor immediately concludes that the cause of your depression must be an imbalance of brain chemistry, and so prescribes medication. You know that is sometimes a case of depression, but wonder why he didn’t even consider possible non-chemical causes.
- You turn on the news channel and hear the “talking heads” again coming unglued because of the most recent political or natural threat to our future. You are also concerned, but have a hard time understanding their level of hysteria.
- Your son comes home after his first year of college and explains to you that you should not worry about abortion or embryonic stem cell research, because until a certain level of functioning develops the matter is not yet a human person. In fact, that level of functioning doesn’t develop until one year of age, and so you shouldn’t worry about infanticide either.
- As you talk more he explains that your concerns over destroyed eggs in the process of fertility treatments, human cloning and euthanasia are all based on your outdated belief in people having “souls.” He explains the idea of a soul is just superstitious “hocus pocus” people believe until they understand science.
- In the grocery checkout line you see a magazine cover story about how scientists have been able to locate emotions such as love and desire in a certain part of the brain.
- You read an article in a newspaper quoting a professor at a seminary who says there is no soul and so is working on redefining spirituality in purely biological terms.
Defining Physicalism in Seven Categories
Each of these examples illustrate how Physicalism leads to beliefs about everything else (my thanks to Jim Sire and Paul Cox for these categories and definitions):
- God— There is no God.
- The World/Reality—Matter exists eternally and is all there is.
- Humanity— People are complex “machines”; personality (intellect, emotion and will) is an interrelation of chemical and physical properties we do not yet fully understand.
- Death— Death is the extinction of personality and individuality. When matter is disorganized there is no person. The totality of what you are is gone.
- Salvation— Since there is no soul (see “Humanity” above) and no afterlife (see “Death” above), there is no need of salvation. Salvation is redefined as attaining “the good life.”
- Ethics— Ethical values are man-made. There is no transcendent realm, so there are no objective values.
- History— History is a linear stream of events linked by cause and effect but without an overarching purpose.
As you can see, these seven fundamental beliefs, springing from Physicalism, undergird every other belief a person has, and consequently how a person makes decisions and lives life. Beliefs have consequences!
Critiquing Physicalism—Calling It Like It Is!
Yet Physicalism is wrong. There are at least three reasons to reject Physicalism and believe in things unseen. As Christians we are called to love God with our minds and “always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (I Peter 3:15). So we must be prepared to help others think more critically about Physicalism and reject this belief.
We must help them see that “The Emperor has no clothes”–that Physicalism is false and therefore not what a thinking person should believe. Once a person realizes the bankruptcy of Physicalism it is harder to maintain an a priori (literally “before looking”) rejection of ideas such as God’s existence, the reality of souls, the need of salvation, moral absolutes, and so on.
In the next three weeks I’ll offer three separate arguments against Physicalism–three reasons everyone should believe in things they can’t see. Each will require some mental effort, but I promise you it will be worth the effort to think through these issues.
I believe these arguments will strengthen your belief in the unseen realm and help you identify and reject the constant bombardment of Physicalist assumptions in our media and classrooms. I believe they will also help you engage in meaningful and helpful discussions with peers, coworkers and neighbors who have knowingly or unknowingly bought into Physicalism and are now reaping the disastrous consequences of this Worldview.
Until next week, grace and peace.
*Sometimes Physicalism is referred to as “Naturalism.”
For further reading, I suggest James Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue, Chapter 4, “The Silence of Finite Space: Naturalism”
Almost on a daily basis, I hear individuals in conversation equate "mind" and "brain" in some fashion. Sometimes I catch myself doing this, forgetting that there is more to being human than my brain, or even my body and assorted organs! At the very least these kinds of often subtle equivocations promote views that are not holistic. Could you comment on this?
Thol, you are absolutely right! In fact, I hope to do a series of blogs on this very topic in the future. But for now let me just say that Physicalists who have tried to completely reduce mental events (having a thought, for instance) to brain events have consistently failed to be able to do so. It appears to most, including most Physicalists, that mental events are irreducible. So some have gone to property dualism (as opposed to substance dualism), which holds that mental events are different from brain events, but are ontologically grounded in brain events (such as smoke is to fire: smoke is not the same thing as fire, but it is grounded in/exists because of/arises out of fire). but this has run into a number of problems as well, including how to explain mental causation–unlike smoke, it seems mental states (e.g. the desire for intimacy) causes physical states (courting behaviors). Physicalists really struggle with this. Some "bite the bullet" and say things like "No one has ever had a thought in his or her life." But most continue to try to ways to make sense of the data of consciousness without admitting the mind is ontologically separate from the brain.
It is a great area for Christian scholars to engage and have a redemptive influence by helping to elucidate a robust understanding of substance dualism (I’d add more specifically I take Thomistic substance dualism to be more promising, as it solves many of the problems raised against Cartesian substance dualism).
I’d suggest taking a look at some of the books I list in my bibliography in the Anthropology section, as they contain much more on this. And see the section on Anthropology in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.
I appreciate your engagement and questions!
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