A friend brought this recent blog post by New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman to my attention. Since it intersects with several areas of interest to me, I thought it would be fun to write some commentary on it.
Dr. Ehrman makes four basic points in his post:
- He is a metaphysical materialist. He believes that everything that exists is material in nature.
- Materialism faces some “enormous conceptual problems.”
- Even so, that’s no reason for him to abandon materialism, because every belief-system has its mysteries. Every belief-system has conceptual problems that seem to defy explanation, but it doesn’t follow that it’s unreasonable to hold on to that belief-system.
- Moreover, while every belief-system has its mysteries, it can still be the case that some belief-systems are more reasonable than others.
Let’s consider each point in turn.
After some throat-clearing about not trying to “impose” one’s views on others, Dr. Ehrman writes:
Anyway, as probably fewer members know, I have been more-or-less a complete materialist for about twenty years. I do not believe there is such a thing as a non-material, supernatural realm. There’s the material realm, and that’s it, all the way down.
I used to think that we are (I am) made up of two things: a body and a mind/soul/spirit/whatever you want to call it. I don’t think that anymore.
But for now, I think I am made up of one thing. Matter. I’ve got (by my count) one body, eleven organ systems, 79 organs, roughly 37 trillion (count them!) cells, and god knows how many molecules. And nothing else. If some of those cells die – well they die all the time. If enough of them die in one place at one time, it could be a problem. If one of the organs goes kaput, it could be a very big problem. If one of the vital organs goes, as we used to say in high school, it’s cookies.
So Ehrman is clearly rejecting any version of dualism in favor of a clear-eyed, straight-talking, unabashed materialism. Everything that exists is entirely material in nature, including you and me. There is no soul distinct from the body. There is no mind distinct from the brain.
As I’ll explain shortly, I think this materialist position is demonstrably false, but I have to give Ehrman credit for being so direct and explicit about his position. No mincing words here! No side-stepping or fencing-sitting. I’ve encountered many unbelievers who are eager to criticize other people’s views without ever committing to any specific position themselves. They’re very eager to declare what they don’t believe (and why they don’t believe it) but very reluctant to tell us what they do believe (and why they believe it).
Bart Ehrman is not one of those unbelievers. Kudos to him for nailing his materialist colors firmly to the mast!
2. Problems for Materialism
Dr. Ehrman’s candidness doesn’t end there. Not only is he a materialist, he’s a materialist who openly acknowledges that materialism faces some formidable philosophical problems.
This materialist view creates enormous conceptual problems that I wrestle with all the time. If I am just matter, nothing else: how do I have any consciousness? How do I *think*? How do I appear to make independent judgments and decisions? How do I seem to be able to do something? Who is doing it if there is no me within the body, no separate functioning will inside the brain? How can molecules have a will?
How indeed? Ehrman admits that he just doesn’t know. He doesn’t have any good answers to these questions about how a purely material being can have conscious experiences, make rational judgments, and exercise free choices. He knows that there are some very smart philosophers who do think they have answers, but they offer different answers, and he doesn’t understand any of them well enough to defend them. Fair enough!
But Ehrman doesn’t think that gives him any good reason to abandon his materialism. In the first place, simply tacking on a spiritual realm with souls, or God, doesn’t better explain anything. Secondly, the mere fact that we can’t explain how something works isn’t a reason to think there isn’t or couldn’t be a perfectly adequate explanation.
I don’t know how 99.99% of reality works. Let’s get basic here. I don’t know how my microwave works. When I realize I actually don’t have a clue about how it works (except in the most basic lay-person’s way) I do NOT therefore conclude any of the following (these are some of the options) (a) The microwave does not work; (b) It can’t work; (c) Some supernatural power must make it work; (c) There is a God. I don’t conclude these things because there is in fact a material explanation for why/how my microwave works. I just don’t know what it is. Other people do know. What if no one knew? It would still work, even if we didn’t understand how.
Some people won’t accept that that’s the same thing as saying that we don’t understand what humans are. For them, say, “consciousness” is different from microwaves; “free will” is different; “thinking” is different. That’s not the same as asking how a physical process works. But I’m saying it *is* the same. And I’ll add that I think *everything* is different from everything else: there isn’t one category (human interiority) that differs from the rest of the universe and everything else is the same. I don’t buy that. The excitation of molecules under the influence of microwaves is different from photosynthesis; animal ambulation is different from plants growing; inventing tools is different from walking; self-reflection is different from feeling pain. It’s all different. You can’t take *one* thing and say “that’s different!” Yes, it is different. So is everything else.
“Yeah, but what it means to be human is *really* different.” I used to think so as well. I don’t any longer.
In other words, while consciousness and free will are admittedly very different from microwaves, there’s no reason in principle why all three (and everything else in the world) couldn’t be explained in purely materialist terms.
Dr. Ehrman is certainly correct that materialism faces some serious difficulties in explaining apparently non-material phenomena like thoughts, experiences, and choices. But if anything he underestimates the problems faced by materialism.
First, Ehrman fails to recognize that there is a categorical difference between material properties and mental properties. Put simply, brains and neurons are very different kinds of things than minds and thoughts. The former have physical properties, are located and extended in space, and can be studied empirically. But minds and thoughts have radically different properties, entirely unlike physical properties such as mass and acceleration. It’s a category error to inquire about the weight or size of a thought or an experience.
Moreover, consciousness is irreducibly subjective in nature. It represents a first-person perspective, in contrast to the third-person perspective of scientific knowledge. To see the point, imagine that you’re currently experiencing an acute pain. That experience has certain features that distinguish it from other experiences (e.g., different kinds of pain, or experiences that aren’t painful at all). But those distinguishing features aren’t captured by any physical or material properties. Even if we could acquire an exhaustive physical description of your brain, right down to the last physical particle, that would tell us nothing about the experience you’re having.
Furthermore, you have private and direct access to your experiences in a way that doesn’t apply to physical entities like your brain. The physical properties of your brain could be studied by anyone at any time, at least in principle. Physical properties are publicly accessible in a way that mental properties are not. I have a unique kind of access to my mind and its contents that I don’t have to my brain and its contents. Indeed, I can access my thoughts directly in a way that doesn’t apply to my neurons!
All these observations underscore that mental properties and events are categorically different than material properties and events, and thus it seems impossible in principle to account for the former solely in terms of the latter. We can at least see in principle that there could be a purely material explanation for how a microwave oven works, for how a plant grows, and even for how gorillas could have evolved from single-celled organisms (despite the astronomical odds against it). But that’s not the case for mind, consciousness, and reason. We’re not talking about a difference of degree here, but rather a difference of kind.
That’s not the worst of it. There are many other daunting philosophical problems for materialists:
- The problem of the unity of consciousness. How could a material object like the brain, extended across space and composed of billions of discrete physical parts, serve as the basis for the unity of our conscious experience?
- The problem of personal identity over time. If the matter of my brain is entirely replaced over time, how can I be the same person as that cute little boy in photos from the 70s?
- The problem of intentionality. My thoughts have the property of intentionality or ‘aboutness’. They’re about things beyond themselves; they’re directed towards those things. But no purely material structure as such has intentionality or ‘aboutness’. Physical structures (like words on a page) only have ‘aboutness’ derivatively, in virtue of the prior operation of a mind. Consequently, thoughts, beliefs, and other intentional mental states cannot be explained in purely material terms. (Don’t take my word for it; hard-nosed materialist Alex Rosenberg will tell you the same.)
- The problem of epiphenomenalism and one-way causation. If consciousness and mind are simply emergent phenomena, arising out of an entirely material substrate, they can have no causal power over that material substrate. Given a materialist account of mind, there can be at most brain-to-mind (“bottom-up”) causation, but not mind-to-brain (“top-down”) causation. But in that case, the commonsense assumption that my physical actions are caused by my choices is quite mistaken. I may feel like I have rational, purposeful control over by actions, but if materialism is true, that feeling is entirely illusory.
- The problem of cognitive reliability. Put briefly: if human cognitive faculties are entirely the product of underlying unguided material processes, then there’s no reason to think that those faculties are reliably directed towards truth, because (1) truth isn’t a material property and (2) material processes don’t care about truth.
- The problem of knowledge and proper function. If a proper-function account of knowledge is correct (as I would argue, following Plantinga and others) then materialism implies that we have no knowledge, because there’s no room for the notion of proper function (at least, not in any literal sense) in a materialist worldview.
- The problem of normativity. On a materialist view, there are no objective norms. Put crudely: there’s simply no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way for matter to be configured in a materialist universe. It just is what it is, and does what it does. In that case, there are no objective moral norms and no objective rational norms. To put the point another way: the laws of morality and the laws of thought have a kind of normativity that isn’t reflected in the laws of physics, and thus the former cannot be explained in terms of the latter.
- The problem of necessary existence. Material entities exist contingently; for any material entity M, M might not have existed. Thus, if materialism is true, nothing exists necessarily, which is to say, there are no necessary beings. But there are some impressive arguments for the existence of a necessary being (see here for example) and thus against materialism. (For a related argument against naturalism, see this previous post.)
- The problem of propositions and the laws of logic. Propositions are the primary bearers of truth; that is to say, truths are just true propositions. But propositions cannot be material in nature (see here for the argument). Hence, if materialism were true, there would be no propositions, in which case there would be no truths, including the truth that everything is material in nature. In other words, if materialism were true, then materialism would not be true — and that looks like a pretty serious problem! Similarly, if materialism were true, there would be no laws of logic, because the laws of logic cannot be material in nature (again, see here for the argument). Hence, if materialism were true, there would be no logical arguments for materialism (or for anything else).
That isn’t an exhaustive list. I could go on, but the point is made. Dr. Ehrman doesn’t seem to appreciate how many things we take for granted are very difficult, if not altogether impossible to account for on a strictly materialist basis.
These problems don’t involve mere gaps in our scientific knowledge, gaps that could plausibly be filled by extending our understanding of physics and chemistry. Rather, they underscore the inherent limitations of material explanations based on what we already know about material entities and processes. Matter simply doesn’t have the right kind of properties to account for the phenomena surveyed above. Materialism represents a desperately impoverished ontology. It doesn’t have the metaphysical cash to pay the philosophical bills.
Dr. Ehrman’s response to the “enormous conceptual problems” of his materialist view is basically to shrug them off with a tu quoque defense. Sure, materialism has its mysteries — there are certain things that even very smart materialists find tough to explain — but that’s also true of every other position. The mere fact that we can’t explain how such-and-such is the case doesn’t imply that such-and-such isn’t the case or couldn’t be the case. Every worldview has its mysteries, and the mere presence of a mystery in one’s worldview isn’t a reason to abandon that worldview.
I actually agree with Ehrman about the last point. We all have to wrestle with mysteries, and a mystery as such doesn’t constitute a fatal flaw in a worldview. But as I’ve briefly argued, the problems for materialism run deep and wide, and ought to give any materialist serious pause. If there were strong positive reasons to embrace materialism, perhaps those could override the many conceptual problems it faces. But are there any such reasons? Are there compelling arguments for materialism?
In his post, Ehrman doesn’t give any arguments for materialism or indicate his reasons for thinking materialism to be true. My guess is that his atheism is more foundational than his materialism. He’s an atheist first and foremost — he believes there are good reasons to deny God’s existence — and he subsequently thinks (as many atheists do) that materialism is the most consistent and parsimonious atheistic worldview. Perhaps he also believes that the impressive advances in our scientific understanding of the world over the last several centuries provide strong evidence in favor of materialism, even though that would be quite a non sequitur. (The fact we can explain a great deal about how the material world operates gives us no reason at all to suppose that the material world exhausts reality.)
So the question of whether materialism’s menagerie of mysteries gives us grounds for rejecting the materialist paradigm hangs largely on whether there are any good reasons to accept that paradigm in the first place.
4. Not All Mysteries Are Equal
But let’s return to Dr. Ehrman’s tu quoque defense. He thinks it’s ironic that his materialism is accused (by Christians, presumably) of failing to explain some things, when Christians also believe things they can’t rationally explain. He offers three examples. The first concerns the eternality of God:
Thoughtful Christian believers (as opposed to those who don’t actually think much about it) realize that there are elements of faith that simply cannot be explained rationally. If they say everything had to have a beginning so God must have created it, they cannot explain where God came from. “Well, he was always there.” But you just said *everything* had to have a beginning. So God must too. “No, he’s different.” Why’s he different? “Because he’s God.” Right, but that means that everything does NOT have to have a beginning. And if you say that God is that thing, why can’t I say that something else is that thing (e.g., the potentiality of matter, space, and time). “Well, because you can’t explain it.” But either can you.
I don’t know of any serious Christian theologian or philosopher who has ever claimed that everything had to have a beginning. No respectable cosmological argument begins with that premise, because it would obviously contradict the conclusion, viz., that there must exist an eternal, uncaused, necessary being. There’s nothing conceptually problematic about the idea that there exists an eternal, uncaused, necessary being. Moreover, there’s nothing arbitrary or ad hoc about saying that God is eternal but the material universe is not. There are good philosophical and scientific arguments for thinking that the material universe is temporally finite. But cosmological arguments are designed to show that there has to be an eternal, uncaused, necessary being — and that can’t be the material universe. It seems that Ehrman doesn’t grasp how cosmological arguments work.
As for the believer’s alleged inability to explain why God doesn’t have a beginning, that’s like asking someone to explain why the number seven doesn’t have a color. It’s not in the nature of a number to have a color. Likewise, it’s not in the nature of God to have a beginning. You might as well ask why God doesn’t breathe or take daily vitamins.
Thoughtful believers will say, “Well, it’s just what I believe. It’s a mystery.” OK, why is your mystery obvious and acceptable but mine completely unreasonable?
Well, because these aren’t comparable “mysteries” at all. The claim that (a) the material universe had a beginning but (b) God did not have a beginning isn’t mysterious in the sense that there’s some apparent conflict between (a) and (b) that we can’t explain. The same cannot be said for the claim that (a) all reality is material in nature but (b) human consciousness, reason, and volition are all real. So Ehrman’s first countershot turns out to be a misfire.
Or take the Trinity. It’s a mystery. Or the nature of Christ as 100% divine and 100% human (completely both? Not 50%? No, 100%). Doesn’t make sense, right? Right! It’s a mystery.
Here, it must be said, Ehrman is on firmer ground — at least initially. Christian theologians have often conceded that the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are “mysterious” and defy rational comprehension. I’ve argued at length that these two Christian doctrines are paradoxical and that one has to appeal to mystery at some point in defense of them.
So are these Christian mysteries on a par with the materialist’s? When it comes to tolerating mysteries, are Christians on an equal footing with materialists like Ehrman, epistemically speaking?
I don’t think so. Not all mysteries are equal. Not all mysteries can be rationally justified. I’ve defended in some detail a revelational epistemology according to which Christians can be rational and warranted in believing the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, despite the logical puzzles they present (see here, here, and here). However, that kind of epistemology just isn’t available to the materialist. The materialist would need an account of knowledge and rationality that not only comports with the truth of materialism (i.e., doesn’t presuppose any non-material entities or processes) but also explains how belief in materialism can be strongly warranted — strongly enough to override the “enormous conceptual problems” of materialism.
That’s a vain hope on multiple fronts. In the first place, I would argue that materialists have to be strict empiricists, but as Hume and his followers have argued no metaphysical theses can be rationally justified on a strictly empiricist basis — including the metaphysical thesis that everything is material in nature. But beyond that, many of the problems I surveyed above are concerned with how materialists can account for the preconditions of human knowledge: consciousness, personal identity, intentionality, epistemic norms, and so on.
In other words, the problem for the materialist isn’t merely the challenge of developing an epistemology according to which it can be reasonable to believe in materialism, despite its mysteries. No, the problem runs far deeper: materialism torpedoes the project of epistemology from the very outset.
One final remark. Dr. Ehrman might object that I’m begging the question by appealing to a “revelational epistemology” in defense of the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation. You can’t simply assume that Christianity is true in order to defend Christian beliefs. But in a sense, that’s perfectly legitimate. We’re engaging here in a comparison and critique of two competing belief-systems: materialism and Christian theism. It’s entirely fair to ask whether the “mysteries” within each worldview can be rationally accommodated on the basis of the metaphysical and epistemological resources available to that worldview.
In that respect, materialism and Christian theism aren’t on a par at all. As I’ve argued in my own work, if Christianity is true, then Christian beliefs can be rationally warranted (including beliefs in mysterious or paradoxical doctrines, if certain epistemic conditions are met). But if materialism is true, then materialist beliefs like Dr. Ehrman’s cannot be rationally warranted, for the simple reason that there are no rationally warranted beliefs of any kind! If only matter exists, there are no believers, no beliefs, and no rational norms. And if that’s not a compelling reason to reject materialism, I’m not sure what would be.